Istanbul & Cappadocia
Her name was Olga, and I would meet her on my first morning in the Old Town neighborhood of Istanbul, a block from my intended destination, the Hagia Sophia. I’d eaten a wonderful breakfast at The Genius Hotel, was freshly showered, and had on a set of nice, clean clothes, which, admittedly, is not always the case these days.
As I walked the cobblestone street, my hotel still in sight, I would see Olga struggling in the road ahead, a duffle in one hand, dragging a huge suitcase in the other, one that was clearly overloaded and rolling uncooperatively. She appeared to be looking around for what I assumed was her hotel. Feeling happy and excited about the morning ahead, and fully engrossed in my newfound spirit of doing something rather than nothing, I stopped and offered her a hand. She accepted without word or hesitation, almost too quickly, in fact, and very soon I would discover why.
Olga’s suitcase was not only ungodly heavy, it was also unwieldy, with two of its four wheels missing. It was too awkward and heavy to carry by its handle, and with only two wheels, rolling it on rough cobblestone was like pushing an old-timey wooden wagon with square wheels.
Since Olga spoke no English, I had neither the benefit of meeting a fellow foreign traveler, or more importantly, asking her hotel name and just how far it might be. Instead, we just walked along, uphill, as I switched the suitcase to my other hand every fifty feet, then thirty, then fifteen. We would enter and cross the square between Hagia Sophia and The Blue Mosque, pass through a fenced security checkpoint, and continue on, all still uphill.
We would eventually approach a streetcar stop just as one pulled up, Olga indicating this was her destination, forced to leave quickly with no time for goodbyes – or thanks for that matter, but then, ehem, thanks is not why we lend a hand to those in need, is it? As the streetcar rolled away to destinations unknown, I waved blindly at a sea of windows through which I saw no sign of Olga waving back, me standing there in what, just fifteen minutes before, had been clean, dry, fresh clothes, now drenched in my sweat and the rain that had begun to fall. And in that moment I wanted to go back to my hotel, get online, buy a plane ticket, fly back to Athens, find that woman who had inspired me with her kindness to that homeless man and his daughters, giving him shoes and the girls food on that cold December day, and poke her right in the eyeball.
Merhaba, Ernie and Hads!
I hope this finds you both warm and well and curled in a ball on the back of a sun-drenched cushy chair alongside Grayson! My holiday season was wonderful, if not bittersweet, missing you, family and friends, though I never expected to feel slightly safer from Covid while traveling in planes, buses, and crowds of tourists than I would back in New England. Wear your masks, wash those paws, and be safe, please.
I’d finally caught up to real-time with my first Greece blog, and then immediately fell behind again, as it can be a bit of a challenge to sit inside and tap away at a keyboard when I can see things like the minarets of Hagia Sophia, one of the world’s most famous mosques (#15 on my Lonely Planet travel list), from my hotel bed. And by the time I get back from a day of hiking around, take a shower, grab some dinner and return to my room, the ol’ eyelids are usually at half mast.
I know. Blah-blah. You don’t care. But stick with this entry and maybe there’ll be some more eye candy in it for you both.
I mentioned above that I could see the minarets of Hagia Sophia, but each morning I would also be wakened at dawn by the call-to-prayer bellowing from its loudspeakers and echoing across town. Depending on my location, dawn’s call-to-prayer have been anywhere from 6:45AM to as early as 4:45 in my coming weeks of travel, with no escaping its audible grasp. Mosques used to have their own “muezzin” – as I’m sure you’re both aware – who would issue the call-to-prayer live, five times a day, but in time that was changed to a standardized recording used by all mosques. I like to believe it was to stop the creative freelancing, but it still doesn’t completely solve the problem of overlap, as echoes and distance across the city often create a jarring cacophony when that’s what wakes you from a peaceful night’s sleep, especially when it’s in a language you don’t understand and includes rolling, sometimes gutteral consonants.
I’d rented an economy, basement room at The Genius Hotel, but upon check-in, Savash – an extremely pleasant and very welcoming young Turk manning the desk with his friend Yaren – informed me by way of apology that they’d moved me to their best room on the top floor. It even had a private balcony, he said. Smiling appreciatively behind my mask, I told him I’d let it slide this time, and was tempted to add “just don’t let it happen again,” but felt I was already pushing my luck with the bilingual sarcasm.
My flight from Greece had gone off without a hitch, and customs and visa were a breeze. Getting my rental car was a bit of a bear, however, as everything I’m doing is “economy,” so the company wasn’t in the terminal. Our heavily accented exchanges by telephone were comical, and it took quite a while to get behind the wheel. I get rentals very infrequently, but I’d read a travel blog that said driving in Turkey – and Istanbul specifically – was pretty straightforward and easy. That writer lied. Of course it didn’t help that it was December, pitch black outside, rush hour, a Friday, and it was raining, so for most of my two-hour-one-hour ride I was blinking at headlights reflecting off glistening wet blacktop, windows, and mirrors, while trying to navigate some of the most insanely pretzeled off-ramps and onramps while using a juuuuuust-too-slow mobile phone GPS. As a result I would miss four turnoffs, with each attempt to double back met with bumper-to-bumper traffic. I was beginning to get nervous that The “Genius” Hotel might pull my reservation entirely.
But the staff at the Genius, from Savash to Amin, the hotel manager, could not have been more kind. Upon checkout Amin told me – knowing about my coming travels and my return to Istanbul very unlikely – that if I needed anything anywhere in Turkey, had questions or ran into any issues whatsoever, to call him directly. His kindness was sincere, as I would find all across this country, from Istanbul to Cappadocia. Far from the understandable concerns family and friends had about my visiting Turkey amidst uneasy U.S. relations and its own recent political turmoil, I had not been treated with this much welcome and kindness anywhere in my travels – and I’ve been treated well everywhere.
From Istanbul airport I would fly to Kayseri and jump in a shuttle on my way to Göreme to see the magical Fairy Chimneys of Cappadocia.
The Fairy Chimneys are the result of volcanic eruptions millions of years ago which rained ash upon the region. The ash transformed into “tuff,” a porous rock which in turn was covered by a layer of basalt. As thousands of years passed, erosion wore down the softer rock, and the result is the mind-blowing, sci-fi pillars that rise from the ground throughout the valley, some as high as 130 feet, with the harder basalt forming a mushroom cap on top.
During Roman reign, persecuted, fleeing Christians realized the porous rock could be excavated, building homes and churches in the chimneys and nearby valley mountains, as well as entire underground cities that housed and protected thousands.
Today, not only do these chimneys and caves still stand amidst the homes and businesses of Göreme, some hotels, homes and restaurants actively use them. Yet, somehow, this isn’t even the most amazing part of Cappadocia. Every single morning the sky above Göreme is filled with dozens of high-and-low-flying hot air balloons filled with tourists getting a bird’s eye view of the entire valley.
And that is what brought me here…
I would leave Turkey amazed by the landmarks and landscape, but equally so by the people themselves. So kind, friendly, and welcoming everywhere I went, exchanging helloes with every stranger I passed. In need of a PCR test to fly to my next destination, I would enter a pharmacy in the muddy-road town of Göreme, seeking directions in the unlikely event a clinic might be nearby. I was asked to wait as the pharmacist made a phone call, asked if now was okay, and when, quite surprised, I answered “of course,” he told me a hospital tech would be here within thirty minutes, and I could wait at the next door coffee shop if I’d like. Ten minutes later a car pulled up with two uniformed hospital employees, and two minutes after that I was PCR’d for $30 USD. None of them could have been more pleasant.