It was the first day of August. After twenty-three straight hours of travel, the oppressive afternoon heat of the bustling seaside town of Antalya greeted me. There was still a forty-five minute taxi ride before my companion and I could kick back and relax in solitude, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t happy to be there. Excited by the prospect of spending a month in Turkey based in the town of Side (pronounced see-day, meaning pomegranate), I took in the unfamiliar landscape from the taxi window.
What I saw was vastly different from the farm in upstate New York, where I had come from. We are two single females under twenty-five. This was another world. Founded in the 7th century BC, Side was once an important slave trade center of Turkey. There was piracy going on and the rich merchants paid for monuments, all of which are still there in the ruins. Now Side is a popular holiday destination with luxury hotels, fabulous discos, and shops and bars, some even built into the ruins making the past and the present appear harmonious.
After a day of resting, stocking our kitchen and hitting the beach, we walked from our rented villa into town. What a feeling it was to walk around a corner and be greeted by the sight of an ancient theatre and the crumbling walls of what must have been a store-lined street. Not much was barred off, we were free to roam through the ruins of Old Side. We were literally walking on history. There were mosaics on the pathways, people were even sitting on some of the walls. We went past a building – the sign indicated it was a Byzantine hospital – youngsters were sitting in the second story windows, swinging their sandaled feet. We walked through a house, touched old pottery, ran fingers over ornate columns. Amazing stuff. An incredible place. I felt so in touch with the past, so overwhelmed by what I was seeing and experiencing. When you’re in a place like that, you feel like you’ve stepped back in time, back into an old, well-worn storybook.
Seeing from between a Camel’s Ears
Much to my delight, I had plenty of camel sightings around town, but I never expected to have the opportunity to actually ride one. As an avid horseback rider, I was curious about what it would be like to see the world from between a camel’s ears. The next day saw a return to the ruins for further exploration. We were snapping photos of camels when we got an offer to ride them, an offer I could not refuse. I was nearly bursting at the seams with excitement when I mounted. The camel was lying down. It didn’t move a muscle while I situated myself in the traditional camel saddle, surprisingly comfortable. There were no stirrups. A kind man gave them one Turkish command and they were up, hind legs first. A little boy, who had to be about eight, took the rope and led us around some of the ruins in the immediate vicinity. Their walk was so smooth, so comfortable that I never felt afraid or intimidated. I was too busy enjoying their rhythmic walk, which never seemed to speed up or slow down the entire time. I was too busy looking around at the history we were surrounded by while sitting tall on an amazing creature’s back. I was also amused by my camel, who seemed to be enjoying it as much as I was, moving her snake like neck around and peering at everything through big, brown eyes with very thick eyelashes. The boy didn’t say a word, he just led on. Once we were back, another command was spoken, my camel lay back down, and I reluctantly got off. We gave the boy a handsome tip along with his even smaller friend who had insisted on holding the lead rope for some pictures. They scurried off with smiles on their faces.
A Bargain Hunter’s Heaven
Every Saturday, there is a big market. It is a bargain hunter’s heaven underneath a huge, white tent situated right next to the massive mosque. As soon as you step in, all sorts of sights and smells immediately overwhelm you. People are selling everything imaginable, everything from produce to sweets to funny smelling spices. And then there are clothes, purses and traditional Turkish wear, like scarves and dresses. It’s also Hello Kitty heaven, quite the adventure, bartering is encouraged. I loved every second I spent under that tent, and I returned every Saturday I was in Side.
After a week of exploring all that the town had to offer, we decided it was time to book a few tours and see some more of the country. Throughout Side and nearby Manavgat, there are many tour companies that offer the same services. You can pick which one has the best price for the tour that you want. Our first tour was a three-day journey to Turkey’s Cappadocia region. It is a place filled with natural wonders, underground cities and fairy chimneys. The pictures in the tour books were enough to convince me we could not leave without seeing it.
Much of the tour was spent on a coach bus, but there was never a dull moment. On our particular bus, there were people from ten different countries. When brought together like that, it is impossible to come out of it without any friends. The beginning of the trip took us through the Taurus Mountains. The winding road was steep at points, littered with signs warning travelers of fallen rock zones. Sometimes, the height was dizzying, there is nothing to stop the bus from toppling over the edge in some places – not for the weak of heart (or stomach!), but it is breathtaking. At one point, we stopped at an overlook that is at the highest point any road goes in the mountains. My ears popped the entire way up and I could definitely feel the affects of the impressive altitude. At the lookout, just below in a little valley, was a group of nomadic people. They had tents pitched and were living there with their herd of black goats. My camera has such a good zoom that I could get a close look and felt a little guilty for spying on their quaint, basic lives.
After a very long, three and a half hour drive across flatlands where little was to be seen but the dried up earth, we reached a small town where there was an underground city. The town was quaint and the inhabitants were welcoming. This is where I really got a good glimpse into day-to-day Turkish life. The buildings that people still live in dated back to the 1500′s. There were sheepherders in the fields with their staffs. I felt like I had stepped back into Biblical times. The underground city housed 8,000 people at its peak. Hard to believe because of how cramped it was. They really were clever though, with ingenious ways of getting water in and out of their kitchens.
As we neared our destination, white, wrinkly hills and brown rock formations with houses and apartments carved into them replaced the parched flatlands. Never have I seen anything like it. Nobody could dream up a place like this. The sun set and we settled into our accommodation with a grand view, had a wonderful supper, and went to bed eagerly anticipating a full day of exploration.
If you look outside your window in the early morning haze, you will see dozens of hot air balloons floating leisurely over the wrinkled landscape. Breakfast on the top floor balcony was spent watching them take off and soar. The tour resumed promptly at 8:30. We went on a hike around some of the hills and in between a few interesting, all-natural rock formations. Some of them looked like ice cream cones, some took on the likeness of fish,, camels and other animals – a place for exercizing the imagination. After that, we stopped at an area where there were homes carved into the rock. We walked inside them. So much to explore. We were given a half hour free time to discover all the nooks and crannies and take in a view from an incredible height. I got to ride another camel, this time around the ancient homes.
Many of the stops along the way were at trade shops. We learned about pottery, glass making and carpet making. Each store served us Turkish tea - regular or apple. This is where I fell in love with their apple tea. Hot or cold, it’s a wonderful treat. We also visited a mosque, a museum and an old Christian church carved into rock with original paintings on the walls. I will be forever grateful to have seen Cappadocia with my own eyes. Sometimes, pictures aren’t enough. Sometimes, you just have to see it for yourself.
The following week, we took a similar tour to a place called Pamukkale. Pictures of the limestone terraces had piqued my interest, but upon arrival, I soon realized there was much more. Above the terraces, or "white castle", are the ruins of an ancient city called Hierapolis. The first thing we did with our free time was to walk up the hill to the large theatre. We were allowed free reign to walk inside, to a point. Railings blocked off the lower half, which included the stage and the inner hallways and tunnels. The upper half – seats and stairs – were free for exploration. I tried not to think about how many modern footprints there were in the place. I imagined the people of centuries past making their way to their seats to see a show in the city’s prime. Right there. Glorious.
To cool off, we went back down to check out the limestone terraces. To walk on the terraces, you had to take your shoes off. At some points, it was rough on my feet, but for the most part, the wrinkly limestone didn’t hurt too badly. The pools were refreshing to wade through. Some had hard bottoms, others had white sand, which felt fantastic. Looking around, it all bears a startling resemblance to snow, the view from so high up was lovely. There were lots of patchwork fields as far as the eye could see and, of course, the little town of Pamukkale at the foot of the terraces.
Not ready to exit just yet, we went back up to a little pool with a view, we took a long break there, dangling our feet in the water. The breeze blew through the few trees that provided shade. I thought about what it must have been like to live there when it was a big, pulsing metropolis, not old, weathered ruins shrouded in mystery.
We visited Salta Lake on the way back – Turkey’s deepest fresh water lake. The shores are white from calcium and magnesium, similar to that of the terraces of Pamukkale. No boats are allowed, no fishing, no swimming with the exception of one place. So the lake appeared untouched and pristine. Only the gentlest of waves lapped onto shore. The color was like the sea, greenish blue and clear because of the sun. We walked on the white sand beach and waded in just a little. I felt bad disturbing it, so I didn’t wet my toes too much.
Back in Side, we were able to do much more – a boat trip up the Manavgat River, riding horses on the beach, which has always been a lifelong dream of mine, enjoying more beach time. I bottled some of the Mediterranean so that I could dip my fingers in it during the thick of an Upstate New York snowstorm, and remember my time in a magical place far from home.
The sky is clear. It’s cooler now, at dusk as I write this on the balcony watching the sunset. Noises of car doors shutting, babies crying (which is universal, like laughter!), people speaking in unknown tongues, and the crunch of stone under foot flood my ears. I watch people finally emerging into a more comfortable summer night. A boat occasionally slips past my view of the sea. I take something different away every time I go somewhere beyond the comfortable, safe familiarities of the farm, the immediate towns, the city, the state.
I leave the country and get another passport stamp. It is measured in memories, people met, lives touched, and experiences that shape and mold me into someone I would never be had I not taken the gigantic step forward into the unknown. The stars are different here, brighter and full of promise. The moon hangs lower. I’m glad I’m here to see it.