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Karen's Perspective on Traveling Alone

Turkey: Summer 2001

I'm sending out the perhaps dreaded email describing my trip to Turkey. As you ask, "how was it?, I say "great" but it's hard to concisely describe some of the experiences I had. This way you can skim if you want and I won't even know, as opposed to your eyes glazing over in my view.

I went to Turkey with the International Women's Studies Institute, a non-profit that has been leading women's tours for the last 20 years. My friend Ellen Boneparth is the director and asked me to do promotion for the trip in exchange for getting to go (I paid airfare).

We had 5 staff and 18 participants, mostly women in their 50's and 60's with several academics among them. My friend and work partner Diane Ohllson (the real estate maven) also came and we were roommates.

Our main guide was Meli, an extremely knowledgeable and famous tour guide in Turkey who owns her own bus and is featured on the PBS specials with Rick Stevens (of Through the Back Door fame). She's been guiding mostly Americans through her beloved homeland for the last 35 years and is charming, very opinionated and a modern day Scheherazade when it comes to telling the classical myths and how they relate to Turkish culture and history.

Basic Info:
Turkey is called "Anatolia-land of the mother" by folks who live there when they're referring to the country in its entirety or to portions before 1924 when the Turkish state was established. They have a population of around 70 million with 17 million or so in Istanbul. The country has always been at the crossroads of Europe and what we learned in school as "Asia Minor." It's very Muslim and many women outside of the large Western cities wear scarves over their hair. Turkey is one of 8 countries in the world who export more food than they consume and the portions we traveled through in the bus were overwhelmingly agricultural with both men and women doing the hard work in the fields.

I have so many that it's hard to narrow but here's a try.

Turkish bath in Istanbul
I've stripped down to my birthday suit and enter a domed marble room with beautiful cut outs in the ceiling in the shapes of stars. The sunlight pours through as the attendant tells me to lie on the circular marble slab in the middle. The sound of water is everywhere as it pours out into huge basins. This bath was constructed in the 1500's by Sinan, the most famous architect of his time in Istanbul and its ageless elegance and comfort seeps into all my senses. I'm the only one here for about 30 minutes and the heat of the marble combined with an amazing loofa treatment, and soapy olive oil massage make for the start of a relaxed day. I think to myself that someone in Berkeley or North Oakland should open a Turkish bath.

Conversation with a woman nomad in her black tent
We careen through the Taurus mountains and pull over when Meli spots a black tent, one of several we see along the highway. We remove our shoes and take our seats on the carpets and couches of this nomad who is living the life of her ancestors with her flocks of goats and cows. She will remain another month to take care of her garden and cows, and work to make carpets, embroidered scarves and crocheted booties and hats. Her children will take the goats to the highlands in a truck and herd them there. She serves us tea (who doesn't in Turkey?), introduces us to a daughter and granddaughter and then shows us her shotgun that she scares off the wolves with.

çatal Höyük

For pagans/goddess worshippers, coming to çatal Höyük is like making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Jews or Mecca for Muslims. It's the holy of holies since this is the site of the oldest city on earth uncovered so far. Perhaps 10,000 people lived here all the way back to 7000 BCE. It's an active excavation site and we watch as a Polish team uncovers a skeleton of a woman from the 4th-8th century. This was a site of the worship of the Mother Goddess. In Ankara (the capital of Turkey) we've seen the Neolithic figurines from this site: the mother goddess giving birth seated on her throne of lions, the double goddess statues and the reconstruction of a room found with bull's heads and other religious/spiritual artifacts. We had planned a ritual but are not allowed to celebrate here because it's an excavation site. Instead, we find a clearing in the mountains and remember those women who lived and gave birth on this land so long ago.

This bizarre moonscape looking area was formed millions of years ago by nearby volcanoes. The enormous tufa stuctures have been formed by wind and erosion so that it feels like you're on the set of Jurassic Park (they filmed some here, plus a scene from Fantasia). I immediately feel at home here and love this stark and weird environment. Our guide is Yasar, a native who knows this area intimately. We visit caves (there are over 2500) where the early Christians hid and built churches. We also tour an underground city where maybe 1,000 people lived for months or years when marauders were overhead. We see where they made wine, raised animals and the huge millstones they placed in front of entrances if an enemy was in the area. We also visited with an older woman who has lived in a cave (with electricity, TV and 2 phones!) for most of her life. It's really quite cozy with separate rooms for the living room, kitchen and bedroom. We eat perhaps the best meal of the trip with a dessert of apricots mixed with walnuts dipped in honey on cream and a sprinkling of pistachios on top.

Since this is the end of the trip, I decide to stay for a couple of more days so I can really hike and get a sense of the landscape. Yasar agrees to be my guide and drops me off in a canyon where I go on a 7 mile hike, with these amazing formations on either side, some with gorgeous tiles affixed near the caves and every bit of arable land ripe with cherry and apricot trees, cherries, eggplant and cucumber. I don't see anyone for a stretch of about 5 miles and jump into the nearby river. Yasar and I have a little flirtation (I can't seem to meet Turkish lesbians).

I fly to Dalaman and then take the bus to Fethiye, a gorgeous coastal town with steep cliffs rising behind. This coastline sometimes reminds me of Big Sur, but the waters are gentle, with warm turquoise (Marco Polo used this word to describe their tiles, meaning color of the Turks) water. I completely unwind here, taking two all day boat trips where we swim, eat, laugh and hike. I also spend 2 days in Kas where I meet a young student from Oakland (the only American I've met touring) and a young Turkish woman engineer (the only Turkish woman I've met traveling alone). For 2 nights we hang out at a bar listening to a duet of the sous and flute after dinner. I go out at night in a sleeveless dress and never think about bringing another layer. The air is filled with jasmine and honeysuckle.

I want to remember this night and all the beautiful moments I've experienced over the last month: men walking hand in hand because they can be affectionate and nobody gives it a second glance. It would be a gay men's nightmare trying to figure out who's really queer but it adds a softness and sweetness to everyday male interactions; the gangs of children who run up to me to say "Hello, what is your name?" and then laugh hysterically when I mispronounce theirs; dancing with Diane Ohllson in a Kurdish bar in Istanbul with Kurdish men many years our junior; writing erotic poetry and then sharing it in a ritual near the water; singing "I Am Woman Hear Me Roar" to my tour group (on request) in a beautiful intimate amphitheater in Prienne, an ancient ruin.

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