Having made new friends during my original trip to Turkey while I was in exile from Austria, I couldn't pass up the chance to visit again before my return to Washington. In January 2012 I stayed in Istanbul with the aunt and uncle of a friend of mine to wait out the end of my banishment. In contrast to my time in Romania and Bulgaria, my time in Turkey had been warm, comfortable, and well-fed; I had a chance to see Istanbul and a large part of the rest of my friend's family in a nearby village.
At the time, Bora, the uncle of said friend, was actually only visiting Istanbul; he worked far in the east of Turkey near a city called Giresun as the manager of an oil terminal. From there he made the money to support his family (including a son and a daughter) back in Istanbul. A few months prior to my second visit, I received news that Bora planned on quitting his job at the terminal and moving back to the village near Istanbul. I had been receiving invites to come back to Turkey since I had left in the first place, and when I realized that this would be my last chance to easily visit eastern Turkey, I quickly began searching for cheap plane tickets.
Thus on July 8th, 2013 I arrived at Trabzon Airport next to the shores of the Black Sea. I met my friend's aunt Günnar and her daughter Benan at the Atatürk Airport in Istanbul and we climbed into the next plane together for eastern Turkey. The sea was living up to its name, as the sun was already down and I could only see a huge swath of darkness beyond the shore. After some minor confusion of where to go after getting off of the plane, we found Bora in the parking lot. Günnar and Benan still needed to get their stuff from baggage claim (I have learned to travel light since my arrival in Europe), so I hopped into the front seat of the car next to Bora. It had been a year and a half since I had seen the family last and I was able to take some time to catch up with him.
The ride back to his house was about an hour. The chatting bounced back and forth between several languages; both Bora and Benan could speak English, Günnar could speak German, and I have yet to develop any abilities in Turkish. When I had arrived in Istanbul the year before, my German skills were barely above communicative. This had led to many conversations consisting of incomplete sentences and improvised sign language. This was first time I was able to directly talk with her. This quickly turned into a lingual circus and would be a constant source of entertainment throughout the week.
Bora, who had to work the next morning, stayed up with us until 2 or 3 o'clock drinking beer. I had arrived on the first night of Ramadan, and not knowing much about Islamic culture, Bora had to explain to me the local customs. After World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Allies went to task on carving up the Middle East in the most effective way to keep each country inherently neutralized — all the borders were chosen to include various ethnic groups within each country to keep them fighting internally. Thus no country in the Middle East would be able to unify and get its head on its shoulders, probably leading to the Balkanization that we're starting to see in that area today. Turkey, the center of the Ottoman Empire and benefactor of Kemal Atatürk
Thus the Turkish custom, despite being culturally Islamic, is rather lenient when it comes to alcohol; the people drink all the time. However, it's considered bad to drink alcohol during Ramadan. Thus Ramadan in Turkey appears to be some sort of equivalent to Lent: it's the one month out of the year where a person is actually supposed to take the religion seriously. Bora and the rest of the family aren't religious, so we took the opportunity to toast our beers to Ramadan.
After Bora went to bed I stayed up late enough for the morning's first light to come around, giving me my first image of the Black Sea right across the street from Bora's apartment. Even at 4:30 in the morning, the air was still hot and humid. I could hear the soft splash of waves against the shore and seagulls crying without the din of cars driving past and the wailing of imams from the minaret speakers of the manifold mosques. Thus satisfied, I went to bed.
I awoke near the crack of noon to find Bora long-gone and Günnar in the kitchen. Now I could see the Black Sea clearly from the balcony. The construction and advertisements were ugly as hell, but waters a new sea in which I had never swam in before called to me like Sirens.
However, first things first. It had been over a year and a half since I last had drank a Turkish coffee, and there was none to be found in the house. There wasn't really anything to eat, either (Günnar complained about the status Bora's bachelor pad), so it was decided that we would go shopping for food. On the final leg of the ride to the apartment from the airport Bora had pointed out a castle on top of a hill overlooking the sea, and I was told we could visit it on the way to shopping.
I was sold. It was about a 20 minute walk before we arrived at base of the hill which held up Tirebolu Castle.
I'm still not sure if I believe it, but Benan told me that the castle dates back to the 15th century B.C. It was clearly designed to be a lookout across the sea, which I planned to test out for myself.
We climbed the steep stairs up the side of the hill and entered the castle.
My immediate feelings were rather... mixed. First of all, as huge as the castle appeared from below, it was a rather short trip to explore the whole thing. In several corners there were old slabs of stone that looked like tombstones. Benan confirmed this suspicious and I gazed in wonder at the haphazard method they had been tossed into the corners of the castle along with garbage.
I also took the opportunity to climb around on the castle walls and snap off a few shots of the interior:
As well as the exterior:
Then I tried out just how much fun it would be to be a lookout-guard watching for approaching ships. I think with this picture you can imagine how mind-numbingly boring it would have been:
Looking out from the castle gave me a chance to get an idea of what it must of been like to live there centuries and millennia beforehand. The Black Sea touches Turkey, Georgia, Russia, The Ukraine, Romania, and Bulgaria, all of which must have been nearly impossible to travel to on foot, but which the sea would have allowed bustling cities flourishing with the business, trade, and economy of a variety of cultures. Even though the sea appeared open and endless from the lookout at the castle, I could still feel the nearness of the other nations and cultures across the water (as opposed to the Pacific Ocean where you just get a aquatic version of staring off into the endlessness of space).
Both Günnar and Bora told me that the Black Sea was known for its maelstroms and deep waters, which must have meant extreme danger for those mariners of older times — a huge world of adventure that is easy to overlook for those of us grown up with access to globes and world maps.
The castle appeared to be used as nothing more than a park. Cheap plastic chairs and tables could be found intermittently about and there was a group of boys playing backgammon at one of them. I managed to peak their curiosity (probably from my hat and walking on top of the walls) and I heard one of them ask, “Where are you from?”
They must have been joking with each other because they were shocked when I looked up at them and asked, “Where am I from? Where do you think?”
They laughed and discussed with each other shortly before one said, “Eng...land?” The accent was thick.
“Nah,” I said, “I'm American.” This was met by another round of laughter. I could see one of the boys churning in his head for a translated version of what he wanted to say, but being put on the spot, he just gave me a blank face and a shrug.
“Okay then,” I said, waving to them, “See you guys later!”
“Bye bye, cowboy.” Came the response as I began my descent down the stairs.
After rummaging something up for breakfast back at the apartment, drinking my first Turkish coffee since a year and a half, chugging several glasses of Turkish tea, and doing some morning relaxation exercises, I announced to Günnar that I wanted to go swimming. She said she would go with me and made a joke that she would be the only woman on the beach in a bikini.
“They are so superstitious here,” she laughed, “the women think that if they show their skin during Ramadan, that it will badly affect their journey to heaven.” Damn. I guess I couldn't look forward to checking out any hot Turkish girls in bikinis.
I changed into my swimsuit and we made our way across the street to the beach. There was garbage everywhere. In every corner and stuck in the sand were shredded pieces of plastic and bottles. Even the waves were lapping up garbage onto the beach. I grimaced and then shrugged it off; I had seen worse in Romania and Bulgaria and I wasn't about to let it ruin my Black Sea experience.
I lumped my towel, sandals, and T-shirt without ceremony onto the sand and trekked into the water. I couldn't believe my feet — the water was amazing! There wasn't even an initial cold-shock, I was simply able to walk into the water without experiencing a significant change in temperature. For one who has grown up in the Puget Sound area, this more or less sums up the image we have of paradise. Well, minus the garbage.
I splashed my way out into the water until I was in to my waist, upon which I dived headfirst into the sea and began swimming breaststroke along the sandy sea floor. Long ago Ant had taught me to open my eyes under water (no easy task when you learned how to swim in a chlorinated public swimming pool) and the effect now could be described as nothing other than soothing. The lightly salted water (Günnar and Bora told me several times how the Black Sea had a much lower salt content than the Mediterranean) combined with the contrast between the brilliant turquoise of the water itself and the soft tan of the sand below was enough to make my body melt in ecstasy. Swimming through the water was like swishing through silk.
I came up for air just long enough to plunge myself back down again, wide-eyed and grinning.
As I have yet to invest in an underwater camera, I unfortunately cannot provide a useful visual interpretation of what I experienced. You will have to do with the picture I took from the top of the castle walls that shows the contrast of the emerald seaweed with the water:
As per my training in my days misadventuring with Ant back in Washington, I swam directly for the massive rock in the water instead of open sandy area where everyone else was bobbing up and down in the quiet waves. Upon reaching the rock I splashed out of the water and began the climb. My feet were aching for a real barefoot experience and I was rewarded with the scratches of the rough rock on my soles. Throughout the week, I probably spent just as much of my time on this rock as I did swimming.
I climbed down to the other side of the rock and stood in awe at the view before me. It ended abruptly in a drop-off right across from the drop-off of another smaller rock. This created the effect of a turquoise channel between two dark brown boulders leading back to the shore. I climbed down the other side and stood at the edge, watching the waves lap up and splash over the rocks. I slowly scooted myself down. I had to be careful with the rocks under the water; the seaweed covering them was luscious and soft on my feet, but slippery enough to crack my head open if I wasn't careful. Standing at the very edge, I plunged headfirst into the channel.
The swim back to the shore was mythological. As the water was so easy on my eyes, breaking the surface for air and going back down again resulted in no discomfort and the density of the saltwater kept my otherwise sinking-like-a-rock body buoyant, making for easy and luxurious swimming. The water changed from brilliant turquoise to brilliant blue depending on its depth and proximity to the rocks. The rocks themselves were either deep brown from seaweed or their own hue, or emerald green from another variety of seaweed.
It would have been perfect if I didn't have a case of lurking-sea-monster syndrome. Through the week I noticed that if someone else happened to be swimming out near me, I never had any problems. However, if I was by myself under the water, my imagination would start to run wild and I would constantly look back toward the open-ended deep of the sea. Bora later told me that the Black Sea is quite safe in terms up dangerous animals; there are not so many poisonous fish and no sharks (minus some dogfish way down deep). However, it is known for becoming rather suddenly deep and I was told to watch out for riptides, thus I found myself this first day hastening my way through the mythological channel back to the garbage-littered shore.
After Bora came back from work and crashed out to make up for some of the sleep he didn't get the night before, we all loaded up into the car to go out for dinner. Fish, Bora had told me, was what we were going to be eating.
“Where are we going, then?” I had asked innocently.
“To the mountains.” Bora replied.
Ah, yes. Mountain fish. My favorite!
When I had been flying into Trabzon Airport, I had looked out the window to see the outline of the coast. It was already pitch black (the beginning of Ramadan is marked by a new moon) and thus the land was marked by house- and streetlights, but only on the very edge of the coast. This went on as far as I could see in both directions. Bora had told me that the highway along the beach ran all the way from Trabzon to Samsun, a good 300 km, and that the whole damn thing was lined with beach-side apartments and businesses. I had woken up the next day to find the construction of these houses to be so complete that the effect was that of a continuous apartment-complex wall which concealed not only the poor villages behind them, but from the view of the road, the mountains themselves. As the mountainous region begins immediately from the beach, this is a rather impressive feat.
This made driving inland even more awesome. Being a child of the wet forests of the Pacific Northwest, I can't help but consider landscape which isn't completely green or non-flat to be incomplete. I was in no way disappointed.
Almost immediately after we turned off the highway to begin the drive inland, I noticed a castle on the top of the mountain which was most near to the sea.
The castle overlooked the road we were driving on, which was right next to a creek running through the valley between the mountains. This castle must have been used to monitor the flow of people from inland. I subtracted the finely-paved roads and the cars from the valley in my imagination and began to get an idea of two completely separate cultures who must have lived here in the past: the sea-people and the mountain-people, living so close together yet so far away. A trip to the beach takes on a whole new meaning when it involves climbing over mountains just to be scrutinized by the local police along the way.
Even a few miles into the mountains revealed the ruins of another castle hanging off the mountainside. I would have dismissed it for a large rock if I didn't see the tower sticking out from its edge:
We also had to drive through a few mountain villages before getting to our destination. While it's not fair to call these places poor, “rich” sure-as-hell isn't the first word that comes to mind:
Even driving out to the middle of nowhere wasn't good enough to escape the call to prayer. Mosques are sprinkled throughout the mountains just like the houses and their microphones reached far and wide enough to never give you any peace:
If it wasn't noticeable by now, the last picture gives a good illustration on just how the houses are organized in the mountains. Having spent the majority of my time in Austria over the last two years, I've become accustomed to villages being defined as a small-but-dense grouping of houses centered around a church, with more or less nothing but fields and forests in between. It was explained to me that here, if three far-spread houses occupied the same mountain face, they considered themselves a village. I began to look closely at these “villages” as we drove by them and I realized that, for the most part, there were no driveways going up to the houses. I looked even more closely and noticed small footpaths going up through the trees into the mountains from the roads. Every time they needed something, these people literally had to walk up and down the damn mountain just to get to the road!
My new perspective on “going to the store” left me in awe.
On closer inspection I saw that most the houses had a square of property next to them that was a different green from the green of the mountain. These were everyone's individual gardens. I suppose the best way of dealing with the long walk/drive to the store is to grow your own food. Talk about being secluded:
We continued the drive up though the valleys and Bora finally turned into a driveway at a house right near the road. The house looked like all the other houses I had seen so far, except for the fact that there were pools of fish under it.
Mountain fish, indeed! Water flowed continuously into the pools from the stream next to the house and back out into the river again. Bora told me that the owner used his house as a restaurant and cooked up the fish fresh from under his house for his customers. Talk about eliminating the drive to work!
Standing next to the pools of fish, I looked down to see a crab hanging out on the lawn.
The owner of the house came out with his daughter to greet Bora, then the rest of us. We were led behind the house to a small covered area with two tables right next to the river, where bread, salads, and water had already been laid out. We hardly had time to sit down before the fish was brought out for us.
“I called them ahead of time.” Bora said, grinning at me.
The fish was delicious and I gobbled it down in my standard annihilistic fashion, between bites of Turkish bread and dates. When we were finished and the owner brought us some Turkish tea, Bora told me that the fish is usually much better, but the guy's wife was out of the house at the moment. Whatever, it was good enough for me.
After drinking some tea I decided to walk up the river and check out the bridge I had seen earlier.
I had seen these bridges all over the place during the drive through the mountains. Some looked rather new and others old enough to be crumbling to the foundations. This one in particular looked middle-aged. Following my standard of looking out for my safety above all other things, I immediately climbed on top of it. As I approached to do this, I noticed a pile of ash from an old fire right next to the wooden part of the bridge.
Hm, I thought, that seems really close to the bridge to be building a fire that big. Indeed, it turned out to be not such a good idea after all:
I made sure to place each of my steps directly above the steel beam in case the wood remnants decided to break. It's not noticeable from the picture, but the bridge didn't lead to a drive-able road, just to two footpaths up the mountain. I ran up one of them to check it out.
The path was lined with hazelnut trees. Bora had told me that this area of Turkey was famous for two things: tea and hazelnuts. Entire mountains were planted with one or the other and I was getting my first-hand view of that right now.
It was getting dark and I decided to come back down. I met Bora and Benan on the bridge and told them about the paths I had found.
“Yes, I know them.” Bora said, “I have walked up them before. There are two houses up there.”
What? So there are at least two families here that have to walk across a burned-out bridge and up small footpaths through hazelnut forests just to get home? Awesome!
We then went back to the restaurant and decided to head home for the night.
And thus the days progressed. Bora would go to sleep relatively early and I would stay up late on the computer, sucking down Turkish tea and beer until the morning light vanquished the darkness of the Black Sea and revealed the beach to me from the balcony. I would roll out of bed somewhere around noon, eat breakfast with my Turkish coffee and tea, change into my swimsuit, and go swimming. Bora would be back from work by the time I returned from the beach and we would find some place else to check out and have dinner. During the week we took a drive down the coastal highway to a city named Ordu to check out the view from the top of the mountain. Along the way we passed the construction of the new Giresun Airport. The airport was being built in the sea itself. Seriously. Rocks and dirt were being hauled in from where ever-the-fuck and runways were literally stretching along the sea:
Upon arrival into the city (which I had to ask and make sure we were there — the non-stop wall of apartment buildings made it hard to know where one city ended and the next one started) Bora informed me that there were two ways to scale the mountain: we could either just drive to the top or take the cable-lift. I didn't really consider this an option.
“Cable-lift.” I said without hesitation.
We bought our tickets, got in our personal cubicle, and began our ascent up the mountain. This provided a great view of the city. We were high enough to get an overview and low enough to see rooftop specifics.
For example, some people were setting up a bright orange tent on their roof. I'm not sure you could really classify that as camping, but whatever floats your boat:
Along the way I spotted a Burger King, an unfortunate cancer that has spread far and wide even to the remote outposts of eastern Anatolia. However, the seagulls weren't fooled by the fancy advertising and let their opinions be clearly known:
The angle of ascent became sharper as we approached the base of the mountain. As we we pulled our way up the mountainside, the congestion of the city melted away into individual houses placed in the forest. Many of these houses were right below the cable lift. I couldn't believe it — we could literally look into the yards and bedrooms of the people living below. The unfortunate souls living here had to deal with idiot tourists snapping pictures at them and peeking into their houses every fucking day.
Naturally, I also took part in this abominable practice:
Other than the view, the top of the mountain didn't have so much to offer. We took a few pictures and a walk around the street infested with tourist shops, snapping a few more pictures of the mountains on the other side.
Without much left to do, we took the cable-lift down and drove home to my awaiting beer and tea.
The rest of the days leading up to the weekend were more or less uneventful. Günnar and I poked around the villages behind the apartment-wall and I swam as much as possible. Around this time I began to get an economic idea of what was going on here — something was weird and I had finally put my finger on it. The whole area along the coastal highway had been shifted recently into high gear for tourism, but the population wasn't ready for it. The eternal presence of garbage everywhere, the weeds growing through every crack of newly-built infrastructure, the carelessness of the general organization of the streets and villages, the lack of availability of fresh food, and the sad quality of the roads and the buildings was in stark contrast to the amount of money that was clearly being poured into this place. A 300 km highway, an airport in the sea, a mile-high cable-lift, and an endless apartment-complex wall aren't things that fit into the “cheap” category. The current economic conditions of the area and the evident economic prosperity of the locals was not even within the proper order of magnitude to support the development going on here. When I finally took note of the unusually high amount of semi-trucks on the highway, everything suddenly clicked.
A bunch of dudes with big pocket books and the knowhow of forming relevant political connections must have had their eyes caught by this place roughly a decade prior (as that is about how old the highway is). As the entire system was evidently dependent on the existence of the highway, not only to allow free movement for the tourists but also to allow the necessary importation of building materials and foodstuffs, it must have been top priority. The problem with this, is that highways are really expensive, especially ones involving large tunnels through mountains. However, this is a problem which can be easily alleviated: as highways are public infrastructure, that means the bill gets shifted to the Turkish taxpayer. With the necessary political connections and proper usage of propaganda — woops! I mean “public relations” —, it doesn't take long before the local government proclaims the construction of a new highway in the best interest of the people. There isn't actually ever enough taxes to pay for such things, of course, which is why the standard method of selling the productivity of unborn
A similar technique is applicable to the building of airports.
With the highway and airport problems out of the way, and thus the major problem of transportation, the problems of creating housing and hotels for tourists and hiding the poor populace living in squalor are taken care of in one fell swoop by the construction of the apartment-complex wall. Sprinkle a few restaurants here and there to make up for the lack of availability of proper food (paying lip service to how good this will be for the local economy, of course), fancy up some beaches, build some carnival rides, and you have one good recipe of exponentially increasing the bank accounts of a few developers and politicians while keeping living standards of the local poor people, well, poor.
Not that the above description is founded on any actual research — call it an exercise in economic intuition.