I learned an amazing (Turkish) word last week: beleş.
I don’t speak Turkish, but generally, it means someone who loves free stuff, or maybe just free stuff? My cousins and I LOVE beleş. Luckily, our trip to Turkey last week included lots of it.
It was my first time out of the country and staying in one place for nearly 10 months is probably a record for me. (Wanderlust is real, and it’s spectacular.) My travel included bus, cab, plane, shuttle, and a tiny bit of aimless walking – all without a word of English. It traversed three countries, two continents and included borrowing a cell phone from two (very kind) strangers.
In the cab to the airport (Thank you for the word airport, Google translate.) I felt like I imagine Brother Orange and that dude from Buzzfeed felt at their first meeting: lots of awkward smiles, a few thumbs up, and lots of head nodding, pointing and “no problem.”
Landing in Nevsehir was exciting and I had to control myself from breaking into a jog to get outside the airport. But then I didn’t see anyone I knew, so I borrowed a cell phone from the friendliest-looking person by pointing to the Turkish phrase my cousin Bianca sent me. It said something to the effect of, “please let my silly cousin who knows no Turkish call me and say she’s alive.” Whatever it said, it worked. I ended up in a shuttle that was probably going to the right town, but when it got down to just me and the driver, I got nervous that all the rock formations and towns looked the same. Again, I pointed to the screen shot of the, “my cousin won’t steal your cell phone if you let her borrow it” phrase and gave him the most winning smile I could muster after hours of travel. Seconds later, my two amazing, smiling cousins came barreling into the street: I made it.
Before arriving in Kapadokya/Cappadocia, I knew only that there would be hot air balloons and rocks. It turns out, there’s a lot more to it. Our first day, we took a tour to see lots of these rocks, including some of the carved formations that used to be houses and churches and little communities. (For the right price, you can even stay in one of the cave hotels.) We climbed up into rock buildings, down into a beautiful valley with fresco painted monasteries, and even checked out an old, underground city that has been converted to a museum. (How the bathroom worked down there is still a mystery.)
More importantly, the day was filled with hugs, laughter, and lots of catching up with my cousins. You may recall Bianca lives in Turkey on a Fulbright. (She just renewed, so we’ll be country neighbors next year too!) She visited my village a few months ago and loved finding the cultural similarities. I did the same thing in Turkey. “Oh look, we eat that kind of bread!” “We have those tiny apricot-like fruits!” “That word means neighbor too!” She was an amazing, Turkish-speaking, tea-swilling host. Her sister Bethany (spoiler: also my cousin), flew out from America the week before. She was a silly song singing, dessert-seeking, fellow Turkey enthusiast.
We also went to Pigeon Valley, one of the coolest parts of the tour. Hundreds of pigeons just hang out, like it’s the bird version of Sandals. We actually learned from a local friend that pigeons are considered sacred and people carve into rocks to give them places to build nests, out of the reach of would-be predators. They go so far as to treat the rock below these cuts with egg whites and other substances to make the wall slippery. Apparently their droppings are a great fertilizer for the grapes, so thank you for the wine, pigeons.
After the tour, we wandered around Uchisar, trying to find the best place to watch the sunset. It was easy to get distracted along the way. Bianca’s sing song Turkish befriended everyone we passed. We didn’t mind most of the time though because it led to beleş.
We paused our meandering when a neat, old car caught our eye. The top was down, so I suggested we climb inside for a photo. Thankfully, we took a quick glance around first, because the owner called down to us from the roof of the hotel across the street to say hello. He sent someone down to take the photo for us, then invited us up for the first of many cups of tea during our Turkey trip.
We explained we were chasing the sunset and he took us to the top terrace, where we had a perfect view in every direction. Tea led to homemade wine, and two other wandering tourists, a couple from China, joined us. Wine led to a tour of a stunning hotel that I’ll never be able to afford, followed by a delicious, traditional (free) dinner. That guy that called down to say hello? He was the owner of the hotel.
It was a hilarious evening mixing up languages (“Did you say I’m macho, or a mushroom?”) and cultures, with Bianca at the helm, switching between Chinese, Turkish, and English. We could barely extract ourselves from the hospitality by midnight. I may have been asleep before I got to my top bunk.
The alarms started at 4:30 a.m. the next day: our hot air balloon wake-up call.
I hate waking up early. I’ll never be good at it. I love sleeping, but we were all really excited about the balloons. The combi picked us up at 5 a.m. and we were sipping coffee and snacking on cookies patiently by 5:30 a.m. We sadly watched all the glorious pre-dawn light fill the valley from the ground because our balloon was delayed, but when we finally took off at 6:30 a.m., it was incredible. We went as high as 1,000 meters (I think), saw the Fairy Chimneys in Love Valley and took an obnoxious amount of pictures from every angle. (Sorry, not sorry.)
Nothing I can say can do it justice, so here a few thousand words in picture form.
Sidenote: There were four selfie sticks on our ride. FOUR. (Full disclosure: one of them was Bianca’s, but still!)
The rest of the day included a much needed nap, followed by a self-guided tour of another neighboring town. I was overwhelmed every day by the kindness of everyone we met. The hotel owner (while perhaps entranced by more than just Bianca’s Turkish) was no fluke. Everyone we met was kind and everyone offered us all the tea we could drink. We made a friend that afternoon who ended up helping us tour the area, just for fun because he had some free time and he was a fellow teacher. We met up again for dinner at the best kebab place around and topped it off with delicious Turkish pastries and cakes. (More beleş.) Our original plan had been to go to a special “Turkish Night” dinner with belly dancing and a whirling dervish performance. We watched those on Youtube instead.
Our last day was another relaxed morning of strolling. We visited our favorite souvenir shop where we had put aside piles of goodies the day before. The owner insisted on tea while we added to the pile (including a few extra things he threw in for free), before finally taking our leave.
The final silly cuzzy requirement was a recreation of an old photo from our kiddie days. (Our Turkish hosts found this hilarious.)
Then it was off to the airport and back to Istanbul, where Bethany had a flight to America and I had an overnight bus through Greece and back to Macedonia. Shoutout to Turkish Airlines who gave us all the extra cakes from the snack cart.
It was a short visit in Istanbul, but I immediately loved it. It had great energy. We had a Pocahantas sing-a-long waiting for the mini bus. The food was delicious. We played at a playground. Our hosts were as charming as they come. (I introduced them to ajvar like a good Macedonian volunteer. #thirdgoal)
We had a Turkish breakfast to start our last day in Turkey and I’m not saying it was a competition, but we definitely won. Then we walked along the sea, took a ferry from the Asian side to the European side, and checked out the spice bazaar and had a quick visit in the Blue Mosque. It was special to be there just before the call to prayer on the first day of Ramadan.
I’ve never navigated easier public transportation and my tram to metro to bus station trip was a breeze. I even had time for a bit of last-minute shopping. I was a on a quest for harem-style pants (but not the ones that look like you’re wearing a saggy adult diaper). I was certain I finally found them at a shop at the bus station, and with a handful of Turkish phrases and Macedonian (English = raise price for tourist), I even negotiated a better price. He said no problem for his neighbor from Macedonia. (The pants aren’t actually what I thought they were, but it was still a personal victory.)
Then came the overnight bus to Skopje and a two-hour wait at the station before my bus home. I thought I was pretty incognito, but my Kindle must have given me away. A young woman from China walked right up and asked if I could help her exchange money. After all the kindness I’d received all week in my travels, I was happy to pay it forward to a visitor in my country. I changed the money for her, helped her buy her ticket, and taught her how to say “thank you.” (Which for the record is way easier than the Turkish word for thank you, which took me all week to learn: teşekkür ederim.)
It was interesting to see the cultural overlap between Macedonia and Turkey and beyond expectations to spend time with my cousins. They are both such vibrant adventurers. It was a perfect first Peace Corps travel adventure.