Of harvest and blockades…
I have bought a Mavi boncuk to protect us from the evil eye. It’s a mother one with twenty baby boncuks dangling from her. I figure the more protection the better. By the time we reach the border I’ll be very glad to have them on my side.
Each time I’m on a long drive I’m reminded how much a country differs from what I’ve imagined. I’m talking about the ordinary parts of a country, the towns and scrappy villages where people go about their work and their lives absent the intrusion of outsiders, and how the ordinary can become exquisite when looked at with an eye willing to be charmed.
What I saw in hills southwest of Ankara:
Dense forests of lodge pole pines with ferns brushing the forest floor and purple crocus in the dappled sunlight. Mountain hamlets with houses built of wood slats. A plateau at 5000′ with juniper and dry bunch grass, while in the plains it’s tomato harvest time along with pale sage green pumpkins, bushels of onions and yolk yellow, speckled green and orange melons, round and football-shapped, with names like asan bey, altınbaş, dilimli and halac. Ivory pumpkin seeds dry on mats in the sun, the smashed pumpkin husks making neat orange lines in the fields, to be plowed back in as fertilizer.
Between Ankara and Cappadocia, the tan hills roll to the horizon and the sky is hazy with dust from gravel pits. Towns host hundreds of skyscrapers, with eerie black holes for windows, perhaps erected in expectation of EU entry and its anticipated prosperity, but for the time being empty. Then it’s back to fields with their great shiny slabs of freshly tilled chocolate brown earth, rumpled gullies shaded by willows and candlestick poplars, green leaves speckled russet and lemon gold by the coming Fall.
I have my moment of Zen in a nameless hamlet in the hills west of Kirikkale, where an old man steps outside his house. His white eyebrows, snipped to short white quills, waggle like crazy when he sees me there, appearing as if out of thin air because Brunhilde was parked out of sight. Strands and tufts of newly shorn fleece drying in front of his home had drawn me over to photograph.
He doesn’t hesitate one second, as if I’m a mirage which might vanish if he doesn’t act. I’m whisked behind the whitewashed walls, introduced to his wife who is scrubbing the living room walls. Dressed in flowered mauve headscarf and floor length indigo skirt, this small woman with her warm brown eyes and an aristocratic hawk nose beams up at me, taking my hand in both hers, then murmurs a long blessing from Allah for me.
Meanwhile her husband has snipped parsley, chives, and arugula, plucked some ripe tomatoes and cucumbers to slice, emptied the fridge of olives and feta, taken out bread, honeycomb like hammered bronze, cubes of sweetened nut paste, dry biscuits. On their tiny four burner gas cooktop boils a two-level pot, where tea will steep on the top while water to dilute it bubbles below. The kitchen floor is covered with clean pressed cardboard.
Already my host has carried a little plastic table and chairs into vegetable garden. He tours us through, pointing to eggplant and sweet peas and gourds. He keeps birds and rabbits away with a small slingshot. Picking up a handful of pebbles he tosses them on the ground and makes a motion of distress as he sweeps his arm around the tomato plants: a hail storm has battered his crops.
Now the tea is ready. A cloth is spread on the table, held down by a china bowl of white sugar cubes. We sit under a grape arbor, eating tangy fresh herbs, warm ripe tomatoes and sipping hot strong tea. As I leave, I pick up a handful of wool tufts. Despite being in the sun they’re still moist from its recent laundering. The wool smells sweet, like clean ground, good air, open fields.
Closer to the border
Through the hills we come upon a PKK roadblock where enough effort has been expended to shovel a dirt track around the concrete barriers. but not so much effort that the barriers themselves would be removed.
The PKK are active in eastern Turkey, the street fighting happening further south (but not much further), while in our part they are mainly active with spray guns.
We’re in sheep country and therefore dog of the day is the large and leonine Anatolian sheepdog.
One came down the hill next to the shade tree where we’d pulled off for lunch. He has ears trimmed like a fighting dog but moves slowly . No flock in sight. He lies down in a spot of shade of his own. Right then I lose my appetite for the sausage sandwich I took out the night before at a kebab café in Kahta. I toss pieces to the old fellow who wags his tail with each gulp. I imagine he’s too old to guard the sheep and now has to fend for himself. I’m his lucky day.
The further east we go the more covered are the women, now uniformly head to toe though in garb varying from full black chador to gay contrasts of yellow, red and green. And, too, the more there are Jendarma (military) checkpoints of concrete barriers manned by handsome clean shaven young Turks. In Turkey, all men of 20 years must do 15 months of service. I take to offering my box of cashews, almonds and raisins as soon as Bernard pulls to a stop, my theory being when you accept offered food you can’t make trouble. I’m proud to report Batistou has been a selfie subject; his disheveled bug-splattered face seems able to disarm any incipient tension.
We’re stopped six times but it’s quickly apparent these young soldiers just want a change in the monotony of checking little white mini-sub-micro compacts, a chance to look inside a foreign car and say a few words of English. The initial stern glare shifts quickly to a friendly smile when they see us smile.
On the day we head to the border of Turkey with Iran, our road is well and truly blocked by concrete barricades and boulders. This time they’re impossible to get through. We head back to the nearest town and after some tea and palaver are directed to a side road with lots of shaking of heads, slashing of arms and discouraging expressions. We set off cross-country on ever smaller and more rocky dirt tracks.
The adventure adds several hours to our drive, but shows us that in the hidden hills of Turkey people still live without electricity or running water, still heat and cook using cow dung, still live in rough stone houses. Still ride a horse to get a distance from home.