Turkish Delights

So we’re already half-way through Ramadan! I know I’m beginning to sound like a stuck record (we need to find a new-age MP3 related term for that!) when I say this but time flieeees! 

The only other country I’ve experienced Ramadan in is Turkey.

Though Islam is the official religion there, it was very unlike any other Islamic country I’ve been to. We could even go into the Blue Mosque without having to cover out heads. They hand out scarves if you want to cover your head, but it’s not a requirement.

The only rule was that we not wear shoes inside the mosque and to not have your legs exposed (which our Turkish guide forgot! She wore shorts with leggings and had to take the scarf they give at the mosque to use as a sarong! ). They also had a sign asking us to not sit on the stairs outside while putting your shoes back on. As you can see… even this rule wasn’t followed. But no one really did anything.

I guess it’s because it is a mixture of two cultures with two religions leaving a very strong mark in the making of the country , so geographically as well as culturally, it is a lovely mix of Asia and Europe.  Basically, you can drink your wine wherever you want to!

If you visit any other middle-eastern country during Ramadan, you would know it’s Ramadan. You will not find anyone eating out during the day, restaurants will mostly be closed until iftar (when they break the fast) and in Dubai, you’ll find a lot of hoardings advertising Ramadan special offers and sales at every possible advertising space. Even our shopping bags have Ramadan Kareem printed on it.

In Turkey though, it is business as usual! People wear what they want to (though it was cold when we went, so no one was walking around in tank tops and hot pants or anything!), there are no reduced working hours and the restaurants are all open, you can eat out in the streets for all they care. In fact, you will not even realize it is Ramadan until  iftar. 

We were in the Grand Bazaar when the call for iftar happened.

All around us, shopkeepers shut down temporarily and set out make-shift tables right outside their shops, laid out food and had themselves a little picnic right there!

Walking past them, with the call for the prayer in the air mixing with the exotic smells and sights of the Grand bazaar made me feel like I was in another world, like an Alladin story or something! It all seemed so unreal! And wonderfully so!

My hotel room had a view of the Blue Mosque, and at night, as I lay in bed all curled up under the warm quilts, I could see the mosque lit up, shining in the cold night air, looking a larger than life, surrounded as it was by darkness all around, and …well… a little bit scary even.  But  lovely! :)

 

Turkey will always have very special memories for me. Not only was it one of my first trips with the gang, it’s also one of the most magical places I’ve been to!  And everyone should experience something like that at least once in life!

Advertisements

The Crazies at Cappadocia – Part 2 of 2

Read Part 1 here

We followed him blindly, and drunk as we were, there was nothing to stop us, no inhibition, no fear. Whatever fear we felt initially quickly dissipated as we followed him right into the stars. At least, that’s what it felt like.

We were high in the mountains and the stars looked close enough to touch.  It was breathtakingly beautiful.  We were walking on a narrow ledge, going in single file.  Every so often Crazy Ali would stop suddenly and say “Look! Look at the heavens! Look how the stars shine!”. But drunk as we were, we’d end up bumping into each other every time he stopped and then stumble and almost fall. And then, when we finally stopped, we would look at the skies and voice our amazement loudly – “Whoaaa!  Lookattheskkkkkky!” to the point that Crazy Ali got a little bugged with us and said ” Look at the sky… silently!”  :P

He was also a bit concerned about how we kept bumping and almost falling off into the deep darkness below, so he asked us to all hold hands and walk in a line behind him. Anu, the daintiest of us, had already slipped and fallen to the ground once, and she dissolved into tears at the prospect of following this strange man into God knows where (she didn’t drink and Nitin, her husband and she were the only sober people in the group).  Crazy Ali would hear none of it. He went up to her, gave her his hand, and said ” Come! Nothing will happen to you! You have Crazy Ali with you!”  Of course, having a guy named Crazy on your side isn’t much comfort, but Anu was too scared to do anything else other than take his hand.

We kept walking. It was so cold that my nose felt like it had turned into an icicle. Finally, the track widened, we must’ve descended down to a clearing of sorts,  we were in a small circular space and surrounded by trees.  Crazy Ali stopped and the guys went behind the trees to pee. When they got back, Crazy Ali bent down to take something from his backpack. We all looked at each other nervously, half expecting him to say something like ” We all go a little mad sometimes” (a la Psycho) and start after us with a scythe or something.

But when he turned around, he had candles with him. Big fat candles, one for each of us.  The walk wasn’t over yet. And we followed him again, through dark tunnels this time, and under prickly bushes and short trees that made long creepy shadows in the candle light.  We started ascending after a while, again along a narrow ledge. This time we could see the tops of trees and knew that we were again high up in the mountains, and if we fell, we would fall into the forest, in all likelihood, never to be seen again.

I lost track of time, and my hands had gone numb to the point that the hot wax melting onto my fingers had no effect on me whatsoever. Suddenly, to my right, ( on my left was valley of nothingness) I came across a small cave in the mountain.  All the wine and raki I’d drunk made me wanna pee badly.  So I stopped and asked the others to go ahead. I took my candle with me and went into the little cave. I’m sure if I was sober I’d not have been able to go into a lonely cave in the mountains by myself. But though the effect of the alcohol was wearing off slightly, I was still too intoxicated to worry about whatever fears of the natural or supernatural  would have kept me away otherwise.

After I was done, I walked out and ahead, a little faster this time, hoping to catch up with the others soon. I reached a bend in the path and after I took the turn, I found 3 of the guys – Subodh, Santosh and Sandeep, sitting down on the ledge, chatting away nonchalantly.  The others were nowhere to be seen, and the guys didn’t have their candles either.

I was suddenly very alert, and on the verge of panicking.

Subodh, where are the others?

Subodh looked at me placidly, blinking a few times.

He took them.

Took them?! What do you mean took them?!!! Took them where?! And where are your candles?!

Oh, he said we didn’t need the candles anymore.

I was worried now, for real. All this time everyone was half-joking about the mass-murderer thing, but now… it suddenly didn’t seem very funny anymore.  I realized I’d no idea where I was, no cell-phone or any other way of reaching anyone, and had no idea how to get back even if we managed to get away!

I had nothing on me for self-defense even! I tried to think if I could use anything I had on me as a weapon.

Subodh, what do we do?! What’s happening?

I guess he realized I was scared, cos as a way of reassurance he said “I have my pen knife!“.  It goes to show how far out of logical thinking  we were that I accepted this fact solemnly and offered my room-key to add to our sorry cache of “weapons”.

Suddenly, in the middle of this conversation, I heard someone yelling for us.

Sanjanaaaaaaa! Sanjanaaaa! Subodhhh!

It sounded like Veena, Subodh’s wife.

I called back “Veeeeenaaaaa! Where arrrrre youuuuuu?!”

Come onnnnn! she called out to us.

She didn’t sound scared, or like she was being held at knife-point. We walked ahead, following her voice and stopped outside a cave. A much deeper looking one this time.

We walked in, and up a few steps, following blindly into the darkness… and suddenly there was light all around. Warm, flickering, dancing light of a hundred candles lit the room we were in. Every nook and cranny had a candle with a flame dancing brightly on it. The others were all there, smiling at the look of amazement in our faces.

It was Crazy Ali’s secret church. One that was hidden deep in the mountains of Cappadocia.  One that no one knew how to get to other than him. He smiled at us kindly and said ” Crazy Ali! Crazy, not dangerous!”

We opened the bottles of wine we’d brought along with us and sat around as Crazy Ali recited his poetry to us. He has a strong, deep voice, and the cavernous room we were in made his voice echo and sound even more beautiful.It was the most surreal experience of my life. He read us several poems he’d written and at the end of each he’d sign off by saying Crazy Ali, with a strange wave as if he was writing his name in the air.

I don’t know how long we were there, but soon, we blew out the candles and were on our way back. Back down the ledge and through the tunnels, into the clearing and back to the top of the cliff. The driver was back, waiting for us, and Crazy Ali dropped us back at the hotel. He hugged us all goodbye and gave me one of his poems titled Come (back) to Cappadocia as a keepsake. I was so touched by his gesture, but had nothing to say that would even begin to express my feelings of wonderment and awe, to thank him, for everything.

There really is nothing more to say.  I could tell you about our hot-air balloon ride, and the other wonderful people we met, or the amazing places we went to in Istanbul.  But when I think about Turkey, Crazy Ali and The Walk he took us on comes out tops!

If ever you go to Turkey, do not miss out on Cappadocia. Maybe you’ll meet Crazy Ali, he could take you to his secret church. Don’t listen to the locals who talk about how dangerous the trail is. We talked to some the next day and they told us about how someone had fallen down and died just two days before while traversing the very path. And when we looked down the path we’d traversed in the morning from afar, we were as amazed as everyone else at having made it back safely!

It was a crazy thing to do, agreed. But what’s life without a little crazy anyway?

The Crazies at Cappadocia.

When we arrived in Cappadocia, it was around 5 deg C and way too early in the morning for first impressions. All I can remember is that the landscape was brown and beige all around and the language still as strange as it had been since we landed in Istanbul a couple of days ago.

12 hours of sitting in a bus trying to ignore a really bad Turkish movie ( I didn’t understand a word, but there was a lot of visual “comedy” that wasn’t the least bit funny!  I guess bad movie-making isn’t restricted to bollywood!) really took it out of me! Us, actually. There were 7 of us,  this was one of our earlier trips, before we had become  the group that we are now, before we all knew each other properly. This is the trip that made us us! Not that we knew it then. At that time, we were just hungry and tired. And we were freezing our asses off!

So when we found a man holding our placard up and waiting for us we all heaved a collective sigh of relief.  We’d had enough trouble getting to Cappadocia the previous evening in Istanbul cos no one at the bus station spoke English; our knowledge of the Turkish language began and ended with teşekkür ederim (thank you!) which obviously wasn’t of much help!

We loaded our luggage into the mini-van and set off to the cave hotel. Yup! We were staying at a cave hotel, or inn rather! Cappadocia is famous for it’s “fairy chimneys” and network of caves. The soft volcanic rock created from hardened volcanic ash has been hollowed out for homes for centuries and a lot of them have now been converted to inns that are fantastic to stay in! I don’t know why anyone would go to Cappadocia  and stay in a regular hotel!

We got to our inn, the driver hopped out, unloaded the luggage, we teşekkür ederim-ed him and he drove off. We went in through a small gate that led us a few steps down into what looked like an open terrace. You enter from the top  here, and  have t0 work your way downwards and underneath into the caves!

The sky was an icy blue and the cold wind made our cheeks red. The place was quiet, everyone was still asleep and there was very little activity. I felt like we were trespassing into the past, like we’d gone through some time warp and landed into a forgotten era. Everything looked so rustic and untouched by civilization! We had a view of the (now dormant) volcano in the distance and the hills and fairy chimneys all around.

There was another flight of stairs that led down  from the terrace to what seemed like an outdoor dining area, with neat wooden tables and chairs laid out. A brightly striped awning partially shaded the area.  The whole “building” was carved out of the mountain with bricks and stairs added to complete the structure.  It was fascinating! I saw an old lady downstairs, who glanced unconcernedly at us for a second and then shuffled away into the room that I  later found out was the kitchen.

We weren’t really sure what to do as there was no reception or anything. I was half-convinced we’d walked into a private home! Subodh (our “captain” who usually does all the bookings and arrangements) then called up the lady who’d confirmed our reservations- Jillian.

Apparently, we were early, she was expecting us only after noon, and she didn’t have the rooms ready for us yet. We’d get them only by 1pm. We we were all desperate for a hot shower and breakfast and needed a room badly. Finally Subodh talked it out with her and she said ” Okay, there are 7 of you? For now, I will give you ONE room, and seven towels! Is that ok?”

We were amused more than anything else, and agreed,  and all of us – 2 couples, 2 single guys and a girl (me) trooped into a lovely room built inside the cave and used the bathroom, one by one.  This took a while obviously, but thankfully there was hot water till the end. The whole place was cosy and well maintained, and apart from the fact that the walls were a million years old, the room was up-to-date with modern amenities like hot water, hair dryers etc. The guide had arrived meanwhile, and had to wait for us to get ready. He was grumbling about Indians and their obsession with bathing and by the time we were done, he wasn’t in the best of moods.

We breakfasted on fresh bread, fresh strawberry and apricot jam (the best I’ve ever eaten!) honey, butter and hard-boiled eggs that I cut into 4 slices length-wise and sprinkled with salt and pepper.  There was also this sweet thing made from peanuts…  little soft blocks that just crumble in your hands and are really delicious! We washed it down with several cups of excellent apple tea that’s specific to Turkey and is made from a very complex-looking apparatus that reminded me of chem lab!

Finally, after eating, we were ready to go, and the guide, who was  kind of an Indiana Jones (he was doing this part-time, he’s a trained archeologist!) finished his last cup of apple tea and we were off!

He took us to the Open Air Museum and showed us the labyrinth of caves that were used by the monks who had run away from the city to continue practicing Christianity in secret when the Czar had taken over Turkey and made it a muslim nation. (On an aside, the Hagia Sofia museum at Istanbul  is the only place in the world where you will find scriptures and paintings  from both the Islamic and Christian religions).  We had to crawl into caves and walk around dark tunnels, watching out for booby traps that made the whole thing more exciting , but we were soon tired of crawling into airless caves on our hands and knees. I, being the clumsy one, ended up with more scrapes than everyone else combined. I wonder how those monks did it back in the day!

We stopped for a late lunch at a restaurant that had these hilarious yet thought-provoking postcards stuck on their walls.  

Lunch was excellent, but they didn’t have Testi Kebab (has nothing to do with testicles, btw!) which I’d been hankering after ever since I saw the couple at another table order it while we were in Istanbul. After several glasses of wine we were feeling tired and happy and the cold didn’t affect us as much anymore.  We went to the local wine shop and stocked up on wine and also bought a bottle of the local alcohol called Raki.

When we got back to the hotel, we met Jillian officially, a very friendly and totally un-German-like German who showed us to our rooms.  The single guys and I were given a beautiful suite with one room up in the loft that you had to climb a ladder to get to! The guys agreed to sleep on the loft and gave me the master bedroom (yes yes, very nice of them and all that! :P) and so I got the lovely bedroom with a bed so huge that you could’ve fit 4 people on it! The suite also had a charming little living room with comfortable wooden chairs  surrounding a round coffee table. This is where we sat back and relaxed after our tiring day.  Of course, that just means that we drank all the alcohol in sight! :P

Raki is anise-flavoured and  tastes like sambucca. It needs to be mixed with water, which turns the clear liquid a milky white. The difference is that while sambucca contains 38% alcohol, this one has 45% and is so potent that the locals call it aslan sütü ( Lion’s milk) cos apparently you need to have the constitution of a lion to be able to down the stuff!And we all had 6 shots each! We finished the bottle.  Plus innumerable glasses of wine! We were reeling, but, I think it’s because it was so cold, we weren’t drunk to the point of incoherence.  Jillian joined us after a bit, I think she had a glass of wine with us too. Then she said ” You guys are so fun! There’s someone I’d like you all to meet. His name is Crazy Ali”.

I thought I’d heard wrong. Maybe I’d too much Raki? “Excuse me Jillain… did you say you wanted us to meet a guy called Crazy Ali ?!

Yes, you must! He will take you for a walk! You will like him! He will show you the stars!

Okayyy then! Either Jillian was drunk, or thought we were drunk!

We all made excuses – we were tired, we had a hot-air balloon ride we’d scheduled for 6am the next day (yes, 6 am! In retrospect, what the hell were we thinking!?),  we can see the stars from here, we had to crawl through caves today for heaven’s sake!

But she insisted. And as we got drunker, we also got more compliant!

Okay, we’ll meet this Crazy Ali. We’ll even go for The Walk with him. But we needed to be back early ok? We wanna sleep by 11!  Okay then!

Next thing I knew,we were in a mini-van with the driver, and I was holding onto two bottles of wine to give (as peace-offering?) to Crazy Ali, and rattling off into the darkness.

We reached… somewhere (give me a break, this was a drunken episode in a foreign country!) On the way over we were all wildly speculating on how crazy Crazy Ali actually could be and what could have given him the nickname. Someone starting talking about how he maybe he was John Kramer crazy, and wondering how many of us would make it back to the hotel alive. Or make it back at all!

With all these wild surmises (and a lot of help from the alcohol), I was curious and slightly freaked out about meeting Crazy Ali. The minivan finally came to a stop outside a store. An old man came out the store to greet us.  He looked around 60-65 yrs old and was fit as a fiddle (albeit an old one!). He was in a brown leather jacket and jeans and  wore a woolen scarf & brown flat cap to protect himself from the cold.

Hi, I’m Crazy Ali! he said as he shooks hands with us. He stopped when he came to me and said ” I like your hat!” I smiled nervously, thinking of John Kramer and whether I would be the first victim on account of my ‘nice hat’.

He was very jovial and loved to talk. He had a discussion in rapid Turkish with the driver for a couple of minutes and then turned to us and said ” Okay! We go now!”.

We all trooped into the minivan and set off again. After about half an hour, we stopped. We got out and looked around us. It was dark and we were at the edge of what looked like a cliff. We could see lights of the town in the far distance. We had no idea where we were.

“Look! Look at the sky!” Crazy Ali pointed.

It was beautiful. The stars… they’d never looked more clear, twinkling like diamonds in the dark, looking close enough to touch. And it was collld! The wind made our eyes water and my ears and nose were almost numb from the cold.

Suddenly, we heard the engine start up and by the time we turned around, we saw that the driver had left us. With Crazy Ali!

“Come, we walk now” he said and started off towards a slope. I could almost hear our seven scared hearts begin to thump faster. For a second, I almost considered running after the van. Then… the alcohol clouded my senses again and I went after the others, all obediently trooping behind Crazy Ali.

*To be contd*