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Trip To East: Part II

by Brian FELSEN & Elif SAVAS

Trip To East I

On Saturday the 22nd we decided to forego breakfast at the good old Turist Hotel, which would have been included had the cook showed up; we were offered a plate of cockroaches but politely declined. We went to the Tea Institute; although it was closed we saw the gardens and tea-fields (Turkey’s crop was condemned because of Chernobyl fallout in 1986, and since then, Turks have been drinking it by the gallon but have been somewhat less successful at selling the stuff internationally, of course further adding to their economic woes. Actually, Turkish coffee is rarely drunk here — Turks drink tea, and lots of it.) We then drove east through Laz country towards Ardesen and then south to ‚camlihemsin through Hemsin country. The Laz are a Caucasian people speaking a Georgian language, about 200,000 of which are in Northeast Turkey. Some of their men even have reddish hair and they’re less religious, although Muslim, and they’re supposed to be great businessmen.

There’s only about 15,000 Hemsinlis in NortheastTurkey, and they’re also Caucasian and of Armenian descent. Their women wear brightly-colored imported scarves, called pusi. We had breakfast on a patio in front of a Laz-owned market called the Hõzõr, 2 km south of Ardesen. We had arrived just after they had slaughtered one of their cows right in front of the patio, and it was hanging in front of our table as the Laz man was carving it up. He was wearing rubber pants, but not a rubber shirt, and he and the ground were very bloody. They were extremely friendly, and they talked with us for a long time as we ate; the man was gesticulating wildly with his knife as he spoke. While we ate, his wife was mating a cow and a bull nearby - she and her children tied the cow to a tree and the bull screwed the cow for a couple of brief seconds over the course of about 15 minutes. When the bull walked away, he was quite lethargic. The Laz explained that they bought the bull to eat but liked it so much they decided to keep it for a while and breed it. Come Ramadan, however, it’s meat. Our breakfast was homemade butter and cheese, along with store-bought bitter chestnut honey (spectacular) along with olives and a surprisingly fancy round bread rather than the usual baguette. We also drank Ayran (salty yogurt-water) that they were making as we spoke - their son, about 10, was shaking it up in a wooden vat dangled by chains from the ceiling. The Laz proved their famed business acumen by charging us 3.5 million (about $13) for the meal, very high by Turkish standards..

We drove to ‚camlihemsinin to see the Hemsinlis and also the yaylas on the way - yaylas are unpainted summer homes made by villagers high up in the mountains, away from the main roads, where they go to escape the unbearable heat below and to give their cattle some more green to graze. When we came back up the road, we stopped again at the Hozor market and Coskun bought some honey and they gave us free Ayran. The man continued cut up his cow and we talked with the women, who were surprised at our age - they thought we were all much younger, as they look far older than their age - and surprised that Elif spoke English (as well as the fact that Dilek only had one child and that Elif and I haven’t procreated yet - in fact, ?why haven’t you had children yet? was the most common question people asked Elif and I on the trip). We then went further east to Arhavi, where Coskun stopped to see if he could buy tea from the Caykur tea factory, the same stuff you can get in Istanbul (because Caykur is a government-owned monopoly), which irritated me a little, but it turned out extremely well: the factory head came to the gate to see who we were, and being a Laz, invited us in and gave us a thorough tour of the factory. We got to see all the machinery and even to stick our hands in the dried tea leaves, the same tea that Turks would later drink. Turns out that the ?tiny little tea leaves? In Tetley Tea are tiny because they suck - you want bigger leaves after processing. In any case, uncooked tea leaves look like regular deciduous tree leaves, and that tea that you get in tea bags - Lipton, for instance — is basically ground tea and dirt - which helps give your tea a nice dark red color!

We passed through Hopa, a depressing Georgian border town that mines copper. It has a huge Turkish military presence, and old Russian architecture that is both gorgeous and dilapidated. We passed through Artvin, a town that stretches forever on a steep mountain hill along a single windy street that completely lacks a town centrum. I thought we were going to head south to the Tortum valley to see some Georgian churches, but at 2PM, we suddenly stopped at a hotel, because Coskun thought it would be better to stop at a yuppie camping resort in the forest village of Kafkassr (nifty name!). We ate fish at their restaurant and we managed to get the one table that was actually a tree house tens of meters off the ground, and scary as hell. The waiters passed us our food in a basket that was on a pulley connecting the tree house with the restaurant, and we had to pull our food in. I drank raki, and we were fighting like mad, although we tried not to move too much as we argued, lest the shaky tree house break and plunge us to our deaths.. Elif and I were incensed not only that we were spending our day basically sitting in a tree, but that changes in itinerary were being pulled on us at the last minute. We discussed our future itinerary, and Dilek and Coskun were so scared about going further southeast from there, and they lied that we had never even discussed it, even though we had all decided to go at least as far as Dogubeyazit. Dilek took the position that it’s unfair for us to only see what Elif and I wanted to, but I pointed out that their only alternative was to sit in a tree. Elif then said that this whole trip was basically Dilek and Coskun joining us, which pleased her mom none too well. We went to bed early, things still unresolved, but I slept very poorly due to severe allergies.

Sunday the 23rd was one of the most interesting days I’ve ever had. Coskun wanted to go to Ardanus, a small town of 5000 people where a friend of his knew the mayor. Elif refused to have it, and when we passed by the turnoff, Coskun kept looking back like a child. We went down the Tortum Valley and saw the massive, domeless Georgian church of Dortkilise near the village of Tekkale. It had some delightful frescos but the road there was pure boulders, a ruin on Coskun’s car. We then saw …sk Vank - a more-intact Georgian church in the village center. It was pinkish, with great carvings on portals and on the columns. We picked up a 50rish man with a skullcap and a thick eastern accent (more "ch" sounds in his speech) and gave him a ride down toward Tortum. We found a great shortcut highway before Tortum running east to north of Norman. From Norman to Oltu was about the most beautiful road I’ve been on, though of course I ran out of film in my camera to shoot it. The rocks and mountains were rainbow-colored, with lots of red, even in parts like the American southwest. At Oltu we saw the 7th-century Georgian castle. Since it was a Sunday, we had to beg for a key from the local Zabita (the health/safety inspector). A boy of about 20 showed us around the castle; the sign there said it was 8th century BC Genoese; the boy said it was Armenian; the Rough Guide says 8th Century AD Georgian. The boy told a story of a Selcuk Turk who fought there with his head cut off and that he’s the one buried in the castle graveyard; two women reportedly turned to stone when they laughed at the man being headless. We didn’t go into the graveyard because the boy said we should really cover ourselves and wash before doing so, because the dead guy wouldn’t like it otherwise. Dilek said the dead guy would like it better if we didn’t. The boy asked if I had converted to Muslim yet (Elif’s converting from being Muslim wasn’t even an option).

From there we went to Bana to see a Georgian church there but missed the unmarked dirt-road turnoff. We asked directions from an old man with one eye wearing a woman’s sweatshirt. The old guy was selling cucumbers by the side of the road, and he insisted that we take him too, and he’d show us. Instead, he took us up a really shitty boulder road to see a pile of rubble that was not Bana. He said that villagers stole the church pieces to make houses hundreds of years ago and then abandoned it after an earthquake, and that the church graveyard’s skulls came up having bigger jawbones than we now have today. Although the trip was annoying and destructive to Coskun’s car, we returned the one-eyed Turkish cross-dresser to his roadside cucumber supermarket and bought a few cucumbers off him for his troubles.

Then Coskun decided that he really had to go to Ardanus after all, which was now 210 km out of the way. Dilek was stroking him, after he had such a horrible day seeing Turkey’s best landscape and monuments in the world’s largest open-air archeological museum. So back to Ardanus we went, just so Coskun could be well-treated by a mayor of a village of 5000. It seems to be a Turkish trait, to be impressed by authority - there’s an Aziz Nesin short story about townspeople building a statue, going all-out to impress a minor authority, then training each other to stand up straight and walk in line - and then the guy never shows up. On the way, we passed through Ardahan, which was awesome - a military and industrial town with Russian architecture, but the town was random: instead of a village growing into a city, the once-Russian city was now amusingly overrun by shepherds herding sheep right down the main street, with geese following in tow! (I have to mention this: right now on TRT - Turkish Radio Television - as I’m writing this - there’s a GAP project (southeast development) TV program educating villagers not to fuck their siblings or marry your cousins - it’s talking about genetics and showing retarded children and such. Very exciting stuff. The program ended just now with a boy and his girlfriend/cousin standing at a crossroads; the boy looks in his hand to see a pair of dice there; the dice then turn into the face of a retarded child; then the boy throws the dice away onto the ground (thus littering, which is something Turks can really understand) and they finally walk away from each other going in opposite directions down the crossroads as the music swells.

Our Rough Guide said that the hotels at Ardahan were overrun by natashas, so we decided to push on to savsat, where it said you could spend the night in the Sahara hotel. But the Sahara looked really seedy, as did every other hotel in town, and now it was 10PM. We asked at the gas station and they said that the Sahara was too dangerous, and that the Iviera hotel would be a far better bet. We went in the lobby, and it was straight out of a Hollywood movie. The guy behind the front desk played the pimp, wearing a satin black shirt with the top two buttons undone and wearing a very loose tie, complete with greasy black hair and smoking a cigarette. Seated on the torn-up couch was the fat madam with a mustache. Downstairs came a rather large whore in a white dress, looking like she had just finished something important and looking around to see if there was anything new. The reservations clerk asked us for our ID’s, and Elif said we were married. He smiled a little and said that of course we were, but wouldn’t it be much nicer if we just filled out the reservations book with me staying with Coskun and Elif with Dilek, and then later we could do what we wanted. I said, Elif, we have to leave, now. Elif turned to me and said ?stop being such a problem, I hate you when you get like this? and she said that we’d get killed if Coskun drove further this tired, this late, on mountain roads. I said that the odds of us getting killed if we drove further were only about 30 percent whereas if we stayed here they were closer to 90, and she started to ignore me. I asked her, louder and slower so her mother would understand, how much the hotel’s hourly rate per room was, but her mom and Coskun were totally unaware of what this place was - they just thought it was a regular disgusting hotel. Now I don’t mind touring a whorehouse, but this one not only looked unclean, but also dangerous. So I started practically yelling let’s go go go go go go go and finally Elif said let’s see the room. We went upstairs and it was like the Philadelphia Music Conference up there. Everyone was working; the whores were waiting in the volunteer suite with couches and floor mattresses and phones, and finally the owner, upstairs running the whole operation, saw that we really were a family and said ?you really shouldn’t stay here, the Johns (Mehmet’s?) would really like you and the doors don’t lock, and they might not take no for an answer? - and we couldn’t very well call the police if there was a problem, or the next day the headlines would read: ?Married judge in tryst with attorney ?friend? found in whorehouse with her daughter and son-in-law.? One whore apologized to Dilek, saying that they were just trying to make a living, and Dilek said that’s totally cool, she firmly supports them. And off we went. In the car Dilek and Coskun insisted the women were yabancis - ‘foreigners,’ (Georgians), but Elif pointed out that they know better Turkish than Dilek does and I pointed out that they were quite Turkish in appearance, not Russian. (If they had looked like the natasha I saw at the Best hotel near Trabzon, who knows, I might have stayed.) I tried to keep Coskun awake by teaching them the game "Ghost", but it doesn’t really work in Turkish - they just kept adding suffixes to get huge one-word constructions that translate into something like "Wouldn’t you really not be the one who would call himself an American worker."

So we arrived back at the turnoff to Ardanus and Artvin, and instead of going to Artvin where there are hotels, we go to Ardanus where there are more whorehouses. Coskun decides that now, Sunday night at 11, is the time to pay his mayor friend-of-a-friend an unannounced visit so he could really show us three what his influence as a judge can bring. We arrived and he left the car in the middle of the street in front of the Forest Works building, and just like he did in Samsun, he doesn’t come out for over an hour. We have no idea what’s up, and we shout out, "where are you?" and a man comes out to say Coskun is drinking tea inside and they’re still looking for the mayor. He also suggests we move the car. So I get behind the wheel and park it, and Dilek asked me why I didn’t drive if I could operate a stick-shift, since he had been driving on the left side of the road the whole time. I said I didn’t know I could and I didn’t want to strip the gears or kill the clutch on a new car. Me, Elif and Dilek move to a schoolyard and sit in a playground for another half hour. It’s well after midnight, I haven’t eaten all day except a candy bar, and I’m pissed off. I don’t suffer fools well to begin with; I gave Coskun the latitude that we were driving his car, that he has no intellectual interest in archeology or anything else other than football, that he was paying for well more than half of the things, and that there were cultural differences in his wanting to impress the mayor of a tiny whorehouse town — the main cultural difference being that he is a schmuck and I’m not - but at least I wanted to be treated nicely, with some consideration, not randomly abandoned in various places that I suddenly found myself in merely because he was behind the wheel, and not doing a very good job of driving at that. Elif is using every trick she knows to make her mother hate her boyfriend; I start saying that at least Coskun can provide for her and he doesn’t beat her - in my exhaustion, I’m really thinking that I want anyone, anything, to provide for her so I don’t have to be around any other person than my wife - and I offer the opinion that Coskun, like any man, will treat her how she teaches him to treat her - he’ll do whatever he can get away with. Finally, Coskun comes out. The mayor, of course named Hasan Bey, has been located but can’t be told that Coskun is here illegally with a woman who’s not his wife. Hasan Bey offers him a room in his house, and to us three he offers two rooms in the Teacher’s House - a ubiquitous boarding home in Turkey for traveling teachers. All he has to do now at 12:30 at night is to kick a man out of his room, which he's actually anxious to do to prove to us his extreme hospitality. Elif refuses and says she’ll sleep in the car if he tries to kick anyone out, so we three cram into the one vacant room there. We all get into the car and Coskun is following Hasan Bey’s deputy to the Teacher’s House and we pass a bakkal (grocery store) that has a light on. I scream, "Stop the car, NOW!" and Coskun doesn’t, saying we shouldn’t disturb the mayor’s deputy by making him wait. I am furious and open the door while the car is moving, which forces him to stop and I hop out leaving the door open. I buy a can of tuna fish and crackers, which taste like the best thing I’ve ever eaten. We arrive at the Teacher’s House, and Coskun leaves for the comfort of Hasan Bey’s house. Our room is hot as hell and stinks of the public toilet that’s right outside our door. The sheets and pillowcases haven’t been changed, merely hastily turned inside out, and are filthy. I now wish the mayor had kicked out the other guy, who turns out to be a drunk who keeps leering at my wife. I put a T-shirt around the pillow and sleep...

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