Did you ever notice how one thing sometimes leads to another and another, and before you know it, you can’t even recognize where you started from? That seems to be the standard here in Turkey. Like last week for instance. Joy and I went for a walk in the Cavusin area to visit some of the cave churches and houses that are very abundant in that area. Going for a “walk” around here is just another term for setting yourself up for an adventure. We expected to just walk through the ruins and get a little exercise and enjoy the spectacular scenery that is plentiful here in Cappadocia. Well, we did that, and them some.
Having climbed several hundred feet above the valley floor already, it did not take long for us to decide that this particular trail we had chosen was much too steep and dangerous for us to continue on. We turned around to settle on just climbing around the ruins concentrated near the trail head. As we turned and headed, as it so happened, back to the west, we were rewarded with an amazing sky that could not have been more beautiful if it had been created in a Hollywood film studio. The sun was dipping toward the horizon and was engulfed in a mysterious looking cloud, the only one in the sky. The cloud was shaded in the center and lightened toward the ragged edges. The effect with the sun trying to burn through this God given shroud, was to say the least, breathtaking. The sun’s rays pierced the cloud with laser like precision, projecting brilliant spokes of light toward the valley below. Neither of us uttered any sound as we stood there for what seemed like minutes watching this live ever changing portrait. With each passing second, the sun’s rays, penetrating the little cloud, seem to be pointing at the landscape below, highlighting first one rock formation and then another. It was like we were being given the Master’s grand tour of this magnificent place, making sure we did not miss a single thing. As the performance continued to unfold, we were again rendered speechless as we both realized that at center stage, just below the cloud in the foreground and only a few hundred yards from where we stood, was the ancient cave church of St. John the Baptist.
We spent the rest of the useable daylight exploring the nooks and crannies scattered throughout the old church and surrounding caves. Trying to describe the emotions and feelings of being among such ancient dwellings would be futile. I’m sure each person is affected differently, but I am also sure no one could stand among these ruins and not be in awe of the people who carved these shelters and lived their lives here. For me, it instilled a staggering feeling of smallness, and appreciation.
We followed the steep and dusty trail down the hill where the little jeep was parked. It is a small parking area, just the end of the road really, and there were no other vehicles nearby. At the bottom of the hill there are a couple of small outdoor cafes and on the other side of the road and up that hill a ways, a cave hotel. And anywhere there is a chance a tourist might show up, there is stuff to spend your money on, in the name of bringing something home to remember this place by. Like you really would need that. We entered an outdoor café in search of something cool to drink and found that, plus a bunch of souvenirs for Joy to consider. While she shopped, I sat quietly drinking my not so cold cola. As I looked around I noticed there was no one else there, except for the nice Turkish man who brought our drinks. It was very quiet and peaceful. Like most of the other outdoor cafes in Cappadocia, there was lots of shade. Even though the sun had gone down, the overhead cover provided by a huge walnut tree and an abundance of grapevines, projected the expected “Mediterranean” flavor. At times like this, I often find myself asking the question, “where the heck am I?” Before I could answer myself, my wandering thoughts were interrupted by the sound of voices. I looked up to see three people entering the café, two young men and a beautiful young lady. Honest to goodness, I really tried not to be so obvious with my glances as she gracefully glided past my table. She was a beauty. Coal black hair, with eyes to match, and a little bitty hint of a white lacy dress that surely was made just for her. She was wearing a beautiful smile that was a dead giveaway, this was a very happy young lady. One of the young men disappeared, while the girl made herself comfortable on a small cushioned bench not 10 feet from my table. The remaining young man quickly pulled out a camera and started taking photos of her. It is pretty common practice here to offer to take a photo of people together. So trying to be of help, I stood up and made the familiar gesture that translates into, “would you like for me to take your photo together?” The response is usually positive, they give you their camera, they smile, you take the photo, and everybody is happy. The young man declined flat out. I thought I had done something wrong or somehow offended him. The other man returned and they all sat down together on the bench. I figured I would either make them really mad or redeem myself, so I offered to take a photo of the three of them together. This was received a little better so I took the picture and handed the camera back, and that lead to some conversation. As it turns out, the young lady, Gul, which means rose, and one of the men, Alp, were just married 3 days earlier and were spending their honeymoon in Cappadocia with his best friend, Osman. He was the one who declined the photo op. I kinda scratched my head on that one, but after further talk learned more. Osman and Alp had met while serving in the Turkish military, which by the way is mandatory for all young men. They had become very close friends during their tour of duty. Alp now lives in western Turkey. He and his new bride wanted to take a wedding trip and figured they could visit his friend Osman at the same time. All I can say is they must be really close friends because on the night of their wedding Gul and Alp got on a bus and rode for 13 hours to get to Cappadocia to be with Osman. Now that is real friendship. Osman spoke fairly good English so we were able to understand each other. Gul and Alp had no understanding of English at all. So Osman did all the talking. I asked him how long the newlyweds would be visiting and he told me three more days. He told me he had been taking them to all the normal tourist sites and some places that only the locals know about. Being a resident of the village of Cavusin and the owner of a tourist shop, Osman new a lot of cool places. I asked him if they had taken a balloon trip over the valley yet and he said no, they had not and would not being doing that. He further explained that their traditional Turkish wedding had been very expensive costing nearly 40,000 Turkish Lira or a little over $30,000 dollars. They simply could not afford the cost of a balloon ride on their honeymoon. What a shame I thought to myself….that just ain’t right. I asked Osman to ask them if they would even care to take a balloon ride. He did and Alp’s face lit up like a kid at Christmas. Gul’s pretty little smile turned to a pitiful little frown. I asked what was wrong and Osman explained that she was afraid to fly. Now in the last twenty years of flying balloons I have encountered this perceived fear quite a number of times. And most of the time I have been successful reassuring folks that it would be fun and safe, and that it was OK to be nervous. I sat next to Gul and held her hand and began to talk to her, with Osman filling in the required message. Her beautiful smile began to return and before long she was nodding her head, yes! With that out of the way I exchanged phone numbers with Osman and told him I would do my best, without promising. I told him I would call if I could make it happen. He did not seem too hopeful, but grateful at the gesture. We said our goodbyes, wished them well and off they went.
We gathered up our “had to have souvenirs so we could remember this place” and left the café. As we walked to the jeep I noticed the heat of the day had given way to a dry cool breeze that was both refreshing and invigorating. We passed the pathway leading up to the cave hotel and curiosity got the best of us. We turned up the path and began to walk up the hill to the hotel and suddenly encountered a talking tree. It was right next to the drive and it was definitely talking, I could hear it very clearly. The only problem, of course, it was talking in Turkish, so I had no idea what it was saying. The tree was not huge but was very dense with dark green foliage that draped almost to the ground. On close inspection we could see three small ladders on the ground under the tree reaching up into the thick branches. Okay, so maybe it was the three people standing on the ladders that were doing all the talking. Honest mistake. We stepped closer in hopes of finding out why the three people were standing on ladders and talking in the middle of the tree.
We found out that it was in fact a mulberry tree and the three ladies were harvesting its bounty. One of the ladies offered us samples which we gladly accepted. The first thing I noticed was that the oblong berry was a bit hairy. Upon further inspection, I decided the only polite thing to do was to go ahead and taste and was pleasantly surprised by its sweet smooth flavor. The other surprise was that mulberry’s are very juicy and will stain anything it touches a deep rich purple. I tried to wipe my hands and only succeeded in staining my white handkerchief the same color as my hands.
We continued up the path to the cave hotel hoping we could take a peek inside. Apparently we were not the only ones who have had that idea, for a handwritten sign on the door read, “Cave Hotel Tours, 2 TL (Turkish Lira). I was thinking that was a fairly small price to pay to get to see the inside of the place, when a young boy of about 16 approached and asked in very broken English if we would like a tour. I replied in very shattered Turkish that we would be most grateful to do so. So we took the tour and as expected were fairly amazed at how quaint and cozy a cave can be. The “lobby” was decorated with beautiful Turkish rugs and various forms of pottery and other native artwork and antiques. The lighting was very subtle so as to maintain the idea that, “hey, you’re in a cave.” A very narrow, low and winding hallway (tunnel) led to six individual rooms. We were able to view two of the rooms that were not occupied at the time. As you might expect the rooms were sparsely furnished containing a small bed, a night stand and a couple of chairs. The most striking feature was the hand stitched linen bed covers, of course made by little ole ladies in Turkey. The white lace and “tattings” were of extremely good quality. At least that is what Joy informed me. They did look nice. All this for a mere $60-80 a night. We finished the tour and I gave the young man his money. As we were leaving, the owner met us outside and began to ask us the usual questions, where were we from, etc. I explained that we were there for the balloon season and not leaving until November. He immediately wanted to know which balloon company I worked for. When I told him I was flying for Alaaddin Balloons, it was like he had found a long lost relative. It’s a small world here in Turkey and everybody is either related or at least knows everybody else. Just so happens that the marketing guy for Alaaddin, Ufok, is also the owners close childhood friend. All of a sudden we went from potential customers to dang near royalty. The first thing he did was make his son, the young man who gave us the tour, give us our 4 Turkish lira back that we had paid for the tour. I tried to resist but he said his son was so embarrassed because he did not know “who we were” and would be deeply hurt if we didn’t take the money back. What could I do? Halim, the owner, then proceeded to tell us how the hotel was his boyhood home. He had actually grew up living in the cave house which belonged to his grandfather. When his grandfather died several years ago, Halim sold everything he had and borrowed money and managed to buy the place from the heirs. He turned it into a hotel and is now living his dream of keeping the place up for others to enjoy.
We visited a few more minutes until Halim began to apologize because he had to leave to take some of his guests to a “Turkish Night” experience in Avanos. He made a point to introduce us to those guests, because as fate would have it, out of the 15 balloon companies operating in the valley, they were scheduled to fly with my company, Alaaddin Balloons the very next morning! Even stranger, the couple was Turkish, but live in Australia, and were visiting Cappadocia on holiday. (Try to keep up here!)
We started to leave, but Halim insisted that we stay and spend some time sitting on the outside patio and enjoying the cool night air. We agreed, but before we made it over to the patio, Halim introduced us to two more of his guests that were staying at the cave hotel. Right after the introduction, Halim disappeared and we were left standing there with this couple that we had just met 30 seconds ago. Without knowing what else to say, I invited them to sit with us on the patio, next to the mulberry tree. And they accepted.
We made our way through the many flowers and plants that decorated the patio and sat down around a large table that was constructed almost totally of stone. It was oval, but with very irregular edges with streaks of rust and milky cream colors. Before anyone could even start to speak, the young man whom I had offended earlier by paying him money, showed up with four large wine glasses, a bottle of red wine, and a platter of sliced white creamy cheese. He carefully poured each of our glasses full of the wine, then in his most humble, polite, and almost begging voice asked us to please enjoy, on the house.
The other couple may have not been surprised by this kind gesture, but Joy and I were speechless. Let’s see, how did we get from drinking beer at the river, sitting in a Wal-Mart lawn chair, and swatting mosquitoes…..to sipping fine locally produced wine and the “locally” is a beautiful garden on the side of a mountain, next to an ancient cave house, across from St. John the Baptist‘s church….in Turkey? Go figure!
Our very new friends are Michel and Nicole who live in France. In fact, they live very close to the region where Joy’s ancestors were from in France. They were revisiting Cappadocia after being here almost 40 years earlier on their honeymoon. They are both school teachers, he just recently retired and she is retiring in September. They spoke good English, but with the extremely heavy French accent. It was entertaining just to listen. We talked about work and kids and travel and all the places they have been and all the places we have been. And believe it or not, some of those places, we had all visited. I was very proud when they explained that they had traveled all over the world, and their most favorite and pleasant experiences have been in the good ole United States of America. In particular, Glacier, Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, which just happen to also be some of our most favorite places in the world. It was truly an “international” moment. And when the glasses were empty, these people who we did not know 30 minutes earlier, were now our friends. We now have a place to stay, if and when we ever want to visit France. They have a place to stay, when they go visit Louisiana. And we have a date to meet up at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in 2011. How cool is that?
The wine was good, the company was great, the setting spectacular, but we said our goodbyes and once again we made our way toward the little jeep that would take us back to Avanos and our little stone house. Once in the jeep, I remembered the promise I made to Osman. It was after 9 pm, but I called Ufok just to check on the passenger load for the next day. Only 14 booked and room for 19, so I told him I had two guests that I would like to fly the next day. Ufok’s English is almost nonexistent but somehow we came to an understanding that I would have two guests flying in the very big balloon the next morning. At least that is what I understood and hoped to goodness, he did as well.
The next call was to Osman. I told him I had made reservations for his good friend Alp and his new wife Gul to fly the next morning. Could they be available? His answer was an immediate yes. I think. I heard a lot of talking going on in the background and of course couldn’t understand any of it, but to me, it sounded like “happy talk”. Osman was excited and began to thank me profusely. I tried to tell him it was my pleasure and I would certainly enjoy having them along. It would be much too embarrassing for me to repeat all the nice things he said to me. But I will tell you that, Joy and I received an invitation right then and there to have dinner with Osman and his friends the very next evening.
At 5 am we met our three new friends and had them follow us to the launch area. When we arrived the crew was just getting there also and immediately began to set up. At this time, I was still waiting for my Cameron 210 to be certified. Sancho would be flying the 350 with all the passengers and I was hoping there would be room for me to tag along, which had been the usual procedure in the past. As the balloon was being set up, Sancho came over to say good morning in his usual happy style. I introduced him to Gul, Alp, and Osman and explained their situation. Sancho smiled real big and said, “OK…since they are your friends, today you fly the balloon, start to finish. I will not touch anything.” He had let me fly the balloon on earlier trips for a few minutes and even got to do the landing a couple of times. But never start to finish. Now it was my turn to be extremely excited and more than a little nervous at the same time.
The inflation went well and we loaded up all the passengers. Gul and Alp climbed on board and joined the other 16 people who would fly that day. The large 350 basket is divided into 5 distinct and separate compartments. There is middle section for the four 15 gallon propane tanks and the pilot. On either side of the pilot’s compartment, the remainder is divided in two, on each side, making four passenger compartments. This is designed for safety mostly. With the passengers divided up, it is much easier to protect them in the case of a high wind landing. Sancho got in the compartment with three Spanish guests, I occupied the pilot’s spot, and the remaining folks were divided up into the other three sections.
I could tell Gul was still very nervous. Her happy smile from the day before was still missing. I attempted to reassure her as best I could as the big basket slowly broke free of gravity’s grip. The details of this flight are way too important to try to describe in these few lines. It is a story all it’s own and deserves much more time and space in an attempt to tell it like it really happened. For now, just know that all went well, and by the end of the flight, we had that big beautiful happy smile right back where it belonged.
We started out on a simple walk in the late afternoon in the high desert region of Cappadocia, Turkey. That in itself was enough to be thankful for. But, as one thing indeed led to another, and another, our lives were enriched by the people we met and the friendships we made along the way. It is a wonderful reminder for us that we should always happily embrace each step of this wonderful journey and the people we meet. The beautiful sunsets, the landscapes, and gardens all make it a worthwhile trip. But the people we meet is what really make this life an adventure.