The Town of Bedrock
I only had one night in Istanbul. I arrived Wednesday morning, hopped across to Europe to buy spices and a new man purse at the Spice Bazaar, and back to pick up my last two packages from my friends-gifts from my aunt and an Asus netbook. I had a new requisite commodity, Internet, to survey for and seek out.
My friends Gavin and Nellie and I went out to lunch at a pide place with yard-long pides, and ate three, and caught up over drinks. I unfolded on the futon and got my first good night's sleep in a long while. In the morning I exploited my netbook, and in the afternoon met my friends for lunch at a fish place, and crossed the Bosphorus with them to attend one of the exhibits for the Istanbul Biennal art festival. Oh, modern art, how nebulous art thou!
Gavin had to work, so we shook hands farewell. I went with Nellie to a small place called Kop Cafe, on the street in Kadikoy with all the sports bars, for mezes and beers. My train left for Ankara at 8. I quickly packed my things and said goodbye and left, and felt as I did so that same grief that accompanies the completion of an entertaining, friendly novel. It was something I would have been quite content to continue indefinitely, which was now fatally over. Nothing lasts forever. A new chapter had to begin.
Heroes sanctify a wide plot when they rot. From Atatürk's corpse sprouted a national monument called Anıtkabir. Leave your baggage at the gate. A garden of plants from twenty-four countries and from the Anatolian regions. A lion road of twenty-four statues. A court ringed by a blocky stoa of stone I'm sure is native; and up 42 steps stands the Mausoleum, in a shape reminiscent of the Lincoln Memorial, but more square and sand-colored. Beside the doors, Atatürk's speeches—"How happy the one who says, I am a Turk, is"—are inscribed in gold leaf. Inside under gilded rafters, at the end of the ornamented hall, stands Mustafa Kemal's 40 ton tomb of red marble, and before it a wreath placed by President Obama.
The king is dead. Long live the king.
The Museum of Atatürk memorabilia contains: Lincolns and a Cadillac, photos, passports, swords, daggers, pistols, canes and a cane rifle, medals from kings and sultans and governments, cigarette cases, pipes, wallets, drinking sets, writing instruments, clothes and shoes, and a wax statue of the eagle-eyed founder. I was infected by foreign patriotism and love of Atatürk, and reminded of the Turkish love for kitsch by the dioramas, models, dramatic quotations—“Armies! Your first goal is the sea! Forward!”—and wax statuary—one has Father Turk standing amongst his collected clothing, and another in the final room before the library seats the President and his diligent work at his desk. (Let's also mention, to continue this abuse of punctuation with kitsch outside of Anıtkabir: Miniaturk in Istanbul, and the habit of Turkish couples for wearing matching outfits.)
The road goes to Cappadocia! Gold hills, blue mountains, and a fading sky of platinum horizons and blue depths. The bus drove out through grassy hills like dunes, and past a glittering plain which required lengthy study to distinguish as a desert and not a sea. It turned dark and I put down my new book and listened to new music. Cappadocia! That limestone wonderland at the edge of Arabia! When we pulled into Goreme, city of cave buildings and fairy chimneys, my goal was to find the Nomad Hostel. New places excite my thought process into an activity which generally resembles the following:
Okay, where do I start? Look at all these backpackers, waiting for a bus. Quit walking around in circles, you look like an idiot. It's only bus companies here, where's tourist information? Closed. God dammit. Hey, English speakers! I could ask them, but I'd look dumb. Come on, boy, you've been traveling nine months, harden up. It smells like snow here.
I'll ask this guy.—"Hi excuse me, do you know Nomad Hostel? Yeah, sure, Nomat Hotel. That way? Teshukular."—Man I really hope that guy knew what I was saying. Jesus Christ, Nomat Hotel. Probably close enough. Where the fuck am I?—A nearby house looked like the Flinstones'.—This is the weirdest place I've ever come into late at night. Hey, restaurants. Remember the priorities: bed then food.—"Hi, excuse me, Nomat Hotel? Teshukular."—Sending me down a dark alley. What the fuck is that?—This one was a collapsed sandstone structure built into the hill, like an arid Bag End.—Dude this place looks like Mos Eisley. This place looks more like Tatooine than that sandstone mosque on Crete.
Where the fuck am I? Did he say left or right? Look at all these pensions and cave hotels. This is some weird shit. Check out those poor people by the chemical fire. I should ask them. One of them is pounding on rocks. Oh no, white people! Bail!—I went up a hill and saw to my delight:—Hutt mansion! Wow, this is so like Tatooine. Look at all these rich Hutts. Fat as hell. I'm going to run into a womp rat or something. A bantha.—"Hi, Nomat Hotel? Back down that way?"—Oh sweet, look at these stairs! Look at these fucking stairs! This place is nuts!
Okay right or left? Dude, how do you get lost so quickly? World record holder. I'm a fucking idiot. How did I make it this far? I hate wandering around. This place kind of looks like... Morrowind? I can't place it. Hey Nomad! Nomad Tourism Office? Fuck! Well fuck this, I'm done wandering around. I'll just go to one of those Aussie dumps. Shoe-String or whatever.
Unknown to me at the time, the Nomad Hostel was right around the corner, but Shoe-String Hostel turned out to be a fine choice. I checked into a bed in the cave dormitory, which contains three chambers and a loft reached by climbing up rungs bedded in the cave wall, and ate pide and lentil soup at a place around the corner.
In the morning, I went out into the courtyard and selected from the hostel breakfast menu. I sought the highest caloric content and/or volume, and so awarded the Turkish breakfast, of egg, tomato, cucumber, cheese, bread, and honey and jam. I realized my mistake when two Japanese ladies were served their Menemem, egg scrambled with tomato and onion which came out of the kitchen still frying in a hot ceramic plate. Each woman made the, "Ooh," noise peculiar to their race in turn on being served the steaming dish.
I felt very sociable so invited over a Dutch girl named Laura who was sitting alone, and her South African friend Elena soon joined us. They were on their way to a convention about brainwaves and human communication, but more immediately planned to visit an underground city called Kaymakl? and a placed called Pigeon Valley, and invited me to come.
There are hundreds of underground strongholds carved out of the soft limestone of Cappadocia as refuges during times of invasion by any of those forces to pass through this middle of the road-Hittites, Assyrians, Cimmerians, Scythians, Medes, Greek adventurers, Roman legionaries, Parthian shooters, Arabs and Mongols, Turks and Kurds. Mustafa, our hired guide, a short Turk in a nice suit, showed us with his tiny flashlight their stables, their living quarters, the sooty roof of their kitchen, the black basalt rock used for smelting copper and grinding spices before it was used to make gunpowder, the mill-wheel doors they rolled across the entryways, the 130 meter well that looked up to fresh air and down to groundwater. Low passageways and stairways dropped us down to lower rooms, all with indentations to hold supplies or water or dead bodies, depending on need.
Imagine the stench, O Reader, of 3000 live bodies and all their gross acts and deposits! And a secret passage led to a city which held 10,000 across eight stories! All trace gone now of those residents, but the empty ruin of their sanctuary. The smooth walls hardened when exposed to air; the obsidian and granite and marble mixed into the soft limestone made the exterior Cappadocian rock like concrete. The place would last forever.
We took a bus back toward Pigeon Valley. There were too many people, and the driver had a few stand but waved them into a crouch when we passed a gendarme truck. Pigeon Valley is one of the unearthly Cappadocian wadis that resemble more alien landscapes than terrestrial formations. There under the rock fortress of Uçisar and its Hyborian city the narrow valley deepens towards Goreme. At the lip the gray and grainy limestone mushrooms out, and it rivets down in waves like Saharan sand dunes. From these embedded pillars, hillmen carved great estates and manses for pigeons, with small holes for the entrance and cubbyholes for nests and juvenile red patterns advertise vacancies, for the purpose of collecting the ensuing dung to fertilize the valley floor, where in autumn old ladies and small boys gather melons, and the pomegranates are almost ripe.
We followed a strange path about these groves and up the rocky hill and sometimes under it, until we came to a part where it had fallen away into a gorge with the heads of trees far below, and no way down. A path led up toward the plumed tops, and we followed it through a long, narrow cave and further up, since that valley was deep. At the top of the hill stood a Japanese man with a camera.
"Harro," he said to us as we were still staggering up the last slope. "Ex-cuse me, but do you know where is Pigeon Varrey?"
"Yes," said Laura. "It's up the valley that way." She pointed, and we gave him more detailed directions.
"Ooh," he said. "Okay. Sank you very much." We watched him walk off towards the pigeon district and was silent as we took a track back towards Uçisar. (We decided to just take a bus back.) I couldn't figure out what struck me as so odd about that scene-other than encountering a Japanese man at the top of a mushroom plateau under a rock castle in Cappadocia-but I realized it as we drank sodas at the House of Memories, before waiting for our bus in front of a mass grave for pottery: It's strange and somewhat sad to see a Japanese tourist alone, almost like seeing a sheep separated from its clan.
Sunset crimsons and gilds that rocky place, and I went with Elena and Laura to watch it from a spiny ridge on the east side of Goreme. Swallows clouded the colored sky. "It sounds like they're laughing," said Elena of the avian chatter. "'A swallow in the hand is worth ten in the air.' What does that even mean?"
I said something about how having something is better than its possibility, and Elena said, "Well yeah, but why do you want a swallow anyway? Do you eat them?"
I was reasonably interested in those girls' courses of study and learned through my inquiries about the Clean Language Theory.
According to its inventress, language has grown too complicated, with its tropes and ironies and artistic flourishes; miscommunication results. In order to be fully understood, and to fully understand others, we must undertake the following regressions: Eliminate from your speech the simile, metaphor, ironic, and anything implied; do not look people in the eye when waiting for a response, because that pressures them to speak immediately when they may wish to consider moronically their every tongue slip; when making to talk, look in someone's eyes to see if they are thinking, and if they are, wait until they are not. Madame Psyche is unclear on what these signs are, but seems adamant that there are long stretches of the day during which most people are not thinking at all.
Obviously we could reduce this theorem to a wicked stratagem by an idiot, desiring to impose her idiocy on the collective that we might not ignore her simplistic, delayed communications, and that she might never have to say again, "I don't get it." If only I could wield this universal tongue of man, and cease with these infernal metaphors and inferences, release this unwieldy lexicon! Verbum sapienti sat est!
In South Africa, communications is a simple thing, if you speak a few languages. That gray nation has fourteen official ones, though English, Afrikaans, and Zulu are chiefly spoken. Several strange names survive from the horn's furry colonial past. One arid town near Zimbabwe is called Otazhell, and some towns with Dutch names translate to things like Pregnant Chicken, Big Drink, and Well Without Water.
Another breakfast. I received my Menemem with eager satisfaction, and stirred the pot and doused it in chile pepper and salt. A few Nipponese sat at a table across the courtyard, goggling over their own dishes of Menemem with much more glee and energy than I could muster so early or over so little as a breakfast.
"I wish I was a Japanese tourist," I said enviously to the Brits with whom I broke my fast,—"going around taking pictures of myself being cute and amazed. They have a lot more fun than we do."
That day (Sunday) I had no fun at all and tripped for hours on significant technological hurdles. While I tried to blindly reset my camera's color sensitivity and to make a Windows Recovery Console of my USB stick with Turkish utilities, I grew very agitated with the whole idea of digital progress.
Why can't things just be simple!
Snoring woke me up, so I quickly dressed and walked up to the spinal ridge east of the town. A fleet of balloons sparked awake in the wadi below, and rose from angled graves. They bubbled up into the sky and dispersed on the currents to swoop down and bob among the sun-gilt dreamscape of columns crowned in golden hair-a grand armada of every color. One cruised close to my vantage point so I could see the faces of people packed into cubicles in its dangling carriage, and I did not envy them; my view was as superb. On the other horizons of that hill spectators stood diminished under the sailing craft. I tried to fit it in a camera, but it was too panoramic. It will never leave my memory.
I ate, played on my computer, and went for a long walk, running around on the ridges of limestone formations, free and unafraid. I took a long way back through the sandstone city. Veiled women sat cross-legged in front of their doors, and children played with sticks in the dirt, and chickens pecked at the refuse of melons harvested only to roast the seeds. How could I ever have thought I knew the world?
I sat back on a bench in the hostel common room in an electric glow that made me as inconspicuous as any invisibility draught. The sleepy Canadian staffer was talking with some sort of pilot from somewhere dirty in America. I listened to him talk about some Turkish belly dancer whom he met Istanbul, describing her body and imagining it nude with unhesitating candor. I was guilty of extreme satisfaction on hearing that he had lost the phone number of this Houri.
As the pillow-headed Canuck steered the conversation towards the pilot's wife and kids, I stopped eavesddropping, at least until I found out he did not pilot commercial planes, but hot-air balloons. He had flown over all the states in the Union except Alaska and Hawaii, as well as fourteen countries, and hoped to fly across the Himalayas, which only one of many attempts had succeeded in doing. He was working in Goreme at the moment, for Shoe-String Balloons, and had moved there specifically for the scenery.
"I still take pictures," he said. "All the tourists look at me funny when I take my camera out, and say, 'Don't you see this every day?' But I just tell them that it's still beautiful, and I want to remember the views."
Go there Reader—to somewhere fantastic! To read, to see a picture, is not enough.
The Goreme Open-Air Museum costs twenty lira. The cave chapels in their stalagmite palaces included friezes and older cave paintings, juvenile as those red marks of Pigeon Valley, and their patterns would be geometric if the artists could produce a straight line. Among the kindergarten art of the Chapel of St. Barbara was a monster in a turtle shell, with a broom for a tail and the head of a beetle, reaching two bony arms straight towards the sky.
In one of the refractories, a big group of Japanese tourists had seated themselves around the long table formed by an ovoid ditch carved in the rock, which creates benches along the perimeter an an eating surface in the middle. They all posed on one side while another Nihonjin tried to balance his timed camera on a rock. After watching one failed attempt, I offered to take one by pantomiming.
The photographer was politely grateful, and his subjects errupted with Japanese enthusiasm and thanks. The timer was still activated for the first photo-op, but we got it working the second time, and after much ego-boosting and private photography sessions, I had the room to myself, to look at the paintings and the dining table and climb around in the nooks.
Contrasting with that party's exuberance, I overheard a Texan aristocrat outside remark in his dialect, "It must have been a grave yard this morning. You see all those buses?" America: Why so serious? Why all the cynicism and sarcasm, of which I too am guilty? We should take lessons from the Japanese, who see the world through wider eyes. (Sorry but I couldn't help it.)
Now after all this strolling through caves and waiting for tour groups, I had a great deal of energy. One of the great cones I saw on the way down the hill appeared a good way to spend it. I stepped off the path and climbed up a gash in the side of the cone, until I was between its two peaks, where I savored a few photos. When I turned around, some Japanese were standing there taking pictures of me. I gave them a big thumbs up, and then hopped easily down the slope while they gasped in wonder at this white monkey.
I pushed my way out of the crowd of humanity that had disgorged from metal boxes before the gates of the Open Air Museum. Across the road, another rocky hill: a composite of several cones, like a natural Angkor Wot, with barely a suggestion of a path to its summit.
I find the best way to face a problem is by running at it. The way around difficulties, walls, and pitfalls, usually presents itself to one with open eyes and a little alacrity, who is better served by momentum than stasis. In the present case, I charged a dirt path and scaled the face of a sloping rock wall by digging my Tevas into a dry channel formed in the soft rock by the spring melt. I passed an arched nich surrounded by what looked like small altars, and went up another hill past a cave, and up another to perch for a while on a pinnacle overlooking the museum. I was one hundred feet high.
I dropped back down to enter the cave, and ran over the pile of rocks there. Those and the uneven ceiling suggested a cave-in, but the door on the opposite side of the chamber remained unblocked. Through it, I sped onto a goat path, and clung to the edge where it spurned deep gullies by sheer force of momentum, which carried me into another formation of fairy chimneys. One of these had a door, which I clambered through. Left the new cave bled back to deep, empty shadow. A few holes in the wall served more to blind than aid he who would know that dark. I turned right, out another door, and hopped down a crevice by moving side to side. I almost tripped up in the dirt, but leapt instead over a few scrubs to land safely in the grass beyond, with enough inertia left over to sail me down more switchbacks and out onto the asphalt.
That night, before the hostel served dinner, I climbed the stairs to the topmost level and sat in a chair next to the frosty pool. The hostel was shaped like half a funnel, with stairways and ramps and walkways and tunnels reaching to its three stories of rooms and dormitories, and from the top it looked like the Skywalker ranch, and the city looked like Bedrock.
Two Kiwis found me up there-a mate on an Oregonian's motor-sailer named Janna and a trauma expert named Jenny. Over beers I learned about a small island of a thousand inbred souls, where the single cop can be run off if he doesn't do his job right, about the lifeguard culture of Kiwis and Aussies, and about Kiwi slang. Brits are Poms, or Prisoners of Her Majesty, and white people are paheka, from a Maori term. Americans are seppies, from septic tank, from tank, from yank, from yankee. Brilliant.
Dinner came downstairs in the form of greasy lentil soup, fresh bread, grilled vegetables, and the best part of the chicken, as well as three glasses of wine. We sat with a Kiwi couple, Jonno and Steph, and talked about the Russians who pose half-nude for photos at Pammukale. Someone brought up Peter Jackson, who Jenny lived near and had done some job for, and whom she said was arrogant, doubly so since he lost a lot of weight and married such a weird wife.
This got us onto the subject of some fat woman Janna and Jenny had seen in a carpet shop. "She sat on a douve," said Janna, "and her fat spilled out over the side. Some boy I used to know called it- Well, nevermind, it's not appropriate."
She carried the story out to its conclusion, and then I asked, "But what was the word for the woman's fat?" Jonno also wanted to know, and we pressed her until she finally told us: "Gunt."