Cappadocia: Caves, Bellydancers and (Narcolepsy)

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So, let me tell you about how I went to Cappadocia and got wheelchaired back to my hotel room muttering about how Germans and bellydancers got me in this state.

This actually happened a while ago, right before the beginning of Fall semester. Erasmus Student Network is an association that assists European students abroad. Events and trips are organized by student members of each branch. I must give them their due praise, as they successfully managed to cram an itinerary that should have required a week to complete into a mere weekend, and for only about $140 per student! Of course, they didn’t pull off this magnificent feat without making more than a few errors or putting over a hundred students through the most uncomfortable road trip this side of The Last of Us, but yeah, Cappadocia.

Along with Ephesus, Cappadocia, or Kapadokya in the native tongue, is one of Turkey’s big tourist attractions outside of Istanbul, partly because of the “Fairy Chimneys”, natural rock formations that often form interesting shapes ranging from the lifelike to the phallic, and partly because the cliffs here are filled with old Christian churches carved into the rock from the foundation of the religion up to the Byzantine period. It also has its own culture and customs relatively distinct from what one would see in Istanbul. Naturally, when I saw the trip being offered and the low price tag, I jumped at the opportunity, trotting over to the ATM and waiting in line for about twenty minutes despite being told that it was okay, I could come back tomorrow (they sold out about twenty minutes after I bought my ticket and had to tell like fifty people no dice).

Of course, $140 doesn’t buy you a plane ticket, they chartered two buses for us. Kapadokya is just about in the center of the country, past Ankara and just about the last thing you see before you enter the real Middle East. Now, being American, I’m accustomed to the idea that our country and those approaching are size are the only ones where travelers are forced to endure Kerouac-like travel marathons and European nations are small enough to throw a rock across with a little practice. Somehow, the knowledge that Turkey is the size of Texas and Oklahoma combined and that I would be traversing half of the length of it didn’t really register until we’d been on the road for an hour and I realized that we still hadn’t left Istanbul. Guess those fifteen million people got to live somewhere. Some six hours later we made a pit stop outside of Ankara to be told to cheer up, we’re almost halfway there. Yay, six more hours on a bus without a working TV and with nothing but gas station snacks and a thermos full of (apple juice) to keep us alive! The seats weren’t all that comfortable either, and some took to lying on the floor to sleep, only to scream when someone with the same idea stepped on them. Me, I was lucky enough to sit next to a Dutch insomniac who wanted me to teach him how to swear like an American, as Dutch apparently have no class or wit to their profanity. He had a good teacher. Also, for some reason the ESN guy leading the trip passed off his executive powers to a German girl who immediately ordered him to strip to his boxers.

In Turkey, shag carpeting is organic.

So, eight hours later we crossed the rolling hills of the Anatolian plains which have a unique ability to look arcadian in the sun, like that stock background Windows XP offered, and as bleak as a town twenty miles north of Liverpool in harsher weather and finally, finally reached a landmark of interest, the Kaymakli underground city, where we met our guide, a Syrian immigrant who quite obviously spent most of his time catering to Turkish tourists. He bored all but the history students to tears with his long-winded lectures of Kaymakli’s role during the time of the “Great Iskender” (Alexander) and how the followers of “Saint Jesus” hid there in Roman times. According to him, Kaymakli was an ancient catacomb built by the Phyrgians (according to our guide) and used by many different groups throughout the ages as a place of refuge from invaders. However, I’ve spoken to two professors at UW whose interests center of the region and neither of them know much about the place, and I just realized why. Our guide was misinformed; he was describing Derinkuyu, a more well-known underground city also in Kapadokya which our ESN friends really should have taken us to instead. In any case, my camera died around this point, so I have nothing to show you.

Luckily, I had it charged for our next destination, the Ihlara Valley, where the first Christians took refuge from Roman persecution, and where the Byzantines established Christian holy sites centuries later. For some reason, every region of this country seems to go for overkill when it comes to their holy sites. In Konya, Edirne and Mardin there were often mosques within a couple blocks of each other, and here all ten miles of this valley were covered with churches carved into the rock. Many were very spartan, but some still had the original frescoes decorating their walls, in quite good condition. Unfortunately, I couldn’t enjoy this site much, because the gas station food I’d eaten twelve hours before had finally made its way through my intestinal gorges and forced me to make an extremely stressful hike through a mile of valley and up a 500 foot cliff to reach the W.C, which naturally only had squat toilets and no toilet paper. No-body knows the trouble I’ve seeeen, nobody knows my sor-row…

 "One of the many, many foothills of the Anatolian plains."

“One of the many, many foothills of the Anatolian plains.”

As evening came, we set off to a Turkish bath, or hamam. I was really looking forward to this event, as bathing is a very important part of Turkish culture. Indeed, cleanliness is in general an obsession with Turkish people (so long as they are not college students). I’ve seen tourists get screamed at by guards for forgetting to take their shoes off outside of mosques and I once had to apologize for entering a Turk’s apartment without doing so myself (“It’s okay…this time”) he said.

"The Ihlara Valley."

“The Ihlara Valley.”

 "Churches carved into valley."

“Churches carved into valley.”

"Entrance to church carved into cliff."

“Entrance to church carved into cliff.”

"Painting inside cave church."

“Painting inside cave church.”

Alas, I didn’t think it was all that great of an experience. Perhaps I think of bathing as a solitary activity, so I wasn’t all that comfortable with having to strip naked (sorry to disappoint the more amorous among you, but hamams are sex-segregated) in front of all my friends while getting slathered with facial cream and ushered into a crowded sauna, but I made the best of it. Locker room humor is present in every culture, it seems, so we sweat the time away telling homoerotic jokes and seeing who the biggest man was by seeing who could last the longest in the inferno. When people started complaining, I poured more water in the coals to get them to leave while the facial cream seeped down my chest. I won the contest, but only because the five of us that remained made a gentleman’s agreement to get out before we passed out. Following the sauna, we got to jump into the jacuzzi, which was quite relaxing until a Turk who didn’t read the rules about not hopping in without shorts decided to bathe Full Monty. Next to me, of course. I took the first opportunity to gracefully move to the other end of the tub, at which point this Finn who usually spoke as much as Oddjob piped up “Looking for a better view, Richard?”

Next were the massages. Turkish massages aren’t what you think. First, the masseuse looks like a NFL lineman and delivers back slaps instead of back rubs. Soap suds everywhere. He took one look at me and said “Too much Turkish kebab!” Speak for yourself, E. Honda. After whipping me around a bit, I got a bathrobe and hung out for a few minutes before dressing, and we waited for the girls to finish. “They always take longer”, I was told. Apparently, they had more fun. They described their time as some kind of Sapphic fantasy of naked dancing and laughing, a frolicking Bacchanalia contrasting sharply with our locker room culture. Naturally, I asked our Turkish guides where the co-ed bath was.

The next day we went to Göreme, home of the world-famous fairy chimneys. I could write about it, but I think pictures would do it more justice. All I will say about it is that it is a parkour paradise. Then again, the entire country is a haven for foolhardy daredevils who like breaking their legs to the Mirror’s Edge soundtrack. Also, at Göreme I saw my very first camel, probably shipped in from the Arab world for the benefit of tourists who think Turks know anything about riding those things. He didn’t like me.

Finally, we traveled to a nightclub in (Nevşehir, was it?) for a “culture night”. It began with a performance of a group of whirling dervishes, who I’ve been told were quite out of place; my Turkish friends find it somewhat hard to believe they’d be the opening act for what would ensue. This was followed by another group of dancers who showed us how Turkish men wooed their sevgili in olden times. The beloved was veiled and sat in a chair surrounded by handmaidens while the wooer would do what he could to impress her. Boy had to put in work; I never seen a woman throw so much jewelry in her courter’s face in my life. Then it was our turn. The Turks shanghaied a pretty German girl to be play sevgili and identified the most athletic man in the room to woo her. This was important, because one could imagine the horror I would find myself in had I been chosen and forced to duel a Turkish dancer in a test of acrobatics. Our Romeo was an excellent competitor; he won his beloved after executing a perfect cartwheel.

 "Fairy Chimneys."

“Fairy Chimneys.”

"The Camel."

“The Camel.”

Then they brought out the bellydancer. She was up in years, but still quite attractive; I heard a number of unclassy comments about how much of her paycheck went to augmentations. I can only say that the only person who knows for sure is this American girl from Michigan whose energy and bubbly amiable nature is matched only by her inability to process things like bellydancers who thrust their bosoms into her face. She apparently was less than comfortable with becoming the object of envy for every guy in the room. The bellydancer also invited a partner to join her, my hotel roomie (aka the One Black Guy In Central Anatolia) and directed him to shake his own moneymaker. He also did well-man made a few lira in tips, which the bellydancer stole when his back was turned.

The festivities went on for a couple of hours. Being caught up in the fray, I partied with a group of Germans to the point of total exhaustion. I mean, I hadn’t slept much since I left Istanbul, and at this point I was so tired that by the time we got back to the hotel I realized that I’d lost the mental ability to identify my hotel room and opted to take a break, figuring that I’d regain the energy to make the trip later.

I was found by a Iraq war veteran who, following the doctrine of No Man Left Behind (also I doubt she could drag my 220lb dead carcass anywhere) summoned help. She found an Irishman who was doing tricks on a wheelchair he’d somehow procured and stuffed me in it. Taking me back to my room, I apologized repeatedly and apparently delivered an impromptu rehash of my Study Abroad statement of purpose (“You were the politest and most articulate narcoleptic I’d ever met”, she said) as they put me to bed. I woke up the next morning wearing OBGICA’s shirt. I don’t know why. I also heard me and him may have tried to hit on these three girls from Cyprus either before or after I was wheelchaired to my room, but I don’t remember this at all, and in any case don’t know how much flirting I could’ve done when I was less coherent than a Delphic oracle. For all I know, I could’ve tried to get the digits by telling those girls they would have fertile crops after the rains. Narcolepsy is a heck of a ride, huh?

Craziest thing is, I didn’t have the worst night. One girl had severe stomach aches on the way back and everyone feared it was appendicitis. “I don’t want to go to the ER in Turkey!” she screamed. It didn’t get better for her. In the ambulance, one of her friends who went with her asked the EMT how long it would take to get to the hospital. Apparently English isn’t a big part of Med school in Turkey, as the EMT answered “Oh, don’t worry. We will be there in two years.” The girl on the stretcher reacted as if she’d just heard her stomach pains came after a night with a Facehugger.

Oddly enough, the next morning, after giving OBGICA his shirt back I was the only guy at breakfast who wasn’t exhausted. Seriously, everyone else felt like they’d just pulled an all-nighter with Hunter S. Thompson. Crazier yet were those who somehow manged to make it to the balloon ride and ATV-riding sessions that day. I would’ve loved to do both, but I ran out of dough. One girl from UW did, and had a wonderful time, off-roading around the Kapadokyan wilderness in issued helmets that looked oddly reminiscent of WWII stormtrooper headgear. Her selfies looked like a promo for Mad Max Meets Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS. I’d say more, but she’s still in Istanbul and I don’t want her to beat me.

The rest of the trip was uneventful, merely a long, long marathon from the Salt Lake (Tüz Gölu) back to Istanbul, and it was the first time I began to think things like “God, I can’t wait to get back to Istanbul…back home.” That’s strange for me to say now, considering how my recent travels around the country have made me realize how much I’ve learned to appreciate Turkey and loathe Istanbul-I’ll give you my many many reasons another time. But in any case that was perhaps the greatest (as in importance, cause it sure wasn’t fun) part of the trip, the realization that I could begin to think of Turkey as something other than this exotic destination on the side of the world. It had become the country where I lived, where I was still an outsider, but no longer a true foreigner, completely out of my comfort zone. I don’t think I was the only one. We were two buses full of half-dead, baggy-eyed, temple throbbing, musty sweat-coated foreigners pulling into Istanbul at 3AM, happy to kiss the ground in terra firma and sleep in our beds, in a city and society with which we were familiar. It was thousands of miles away from our family and country, but yet we were home.

Class began six hours later.

happy to kiss the ground in terra firma and sleep in our beds, in a city and society with which we were familiar. It was thousands of miles away from our family and country, but yet we were home.

Class began six hours later.