14 March, 2010

Antalya - day 2

Our hostel, Sabah Pansiyon, was located on Hesapçi Sok in the heart of Kaleiçi. From there it was less than two hundred meters to the sea, and a park which overlooks the waterfront, across the bay to Konyaalti beach and snow-capped peaks rising just behind it. The tallest of those peaks, 13km away as the crow flies (see this nifty distance calculator), rises over 8,000 feet (2.5 km) above sea level. Yes, i mean to say a mountain far taller than Katahdin looms just behind the beach. Though just a dozen kilometers distant, on Friday morning, the peaks were almost completely obscured by haze. When they emerged clearer on Saturday, it was a spectacular view.

As my friends slept Friday morning, i enjoyed the company of Pen and Ben, an Australian couple fresh from trekking the Lycian way. Then i set off on my own, wandering past the soccer stadium where Antalyaspor plays; i wandered down a street where men were hard at work - operating heavy equipment, gutting buildings, rebuilding the sidewalk, wheeling barrows of cement by hand, shining shoes - and cutting hair. In a basement barber shop i had my beard trimmed, and in the bargain got ear hair singed off by a flaming alcohol-soaked swab. Interesting, to say the least. Just outside, a flower seller - pushing a baby stroller brimming with buckets of freesia - stopped for a shoeshine.

After a couple hours in the web cafe, i stepped back onto the darkened street. The Mediterranean breeze cooled a city that grows more vibrant with night. Aggressive sellers in the narrow streets of Kaleiçi covered their spices, and carried carpets and hand-carved serpentine stone indoors. Along the maze of streets small bars came to life. With friend Johanna, our little band of travelers visited a pub called the Secret Garden, and then dispersed to various clubs around the marina. I found a street seller grilling köfte at 1 AM.

Saturday. We left the hostel mid-morning and boarded a bus for Lara Plaajı (Lara Beach) twenty minutes' ride south of the center. The palms were hung with banners celebrating the CHP - Cumhuriyet Halk Partısı, the Kemalist, oldest established political party in Turkiye. Aboard the crowded bus, young men stood grasping the ceiling rail, arms around each other, laughing. It was another glimpse of the affectionate style of friendship so common here. Passengers disbarked as our distance from the center lengthened, and the young men found seats. They carried grocery bags full of long green peppers, onions, lemons. Then, on a corner, onions spilled and rolled all over the bus. Passengers once divided into Turks and tourists united in laughter, and helped each other round up the wayward vegetables.

We all disbarked at the beach. But the encounter didn't end when we left the bus. We met again at the changing rooms; a halting conversation began. Nerelesin? one asked.
     Amerika'dan.... i replied.
     Deniz! Güneş! Su! Kizlar! Çok gözel! the fellow said as we walked toward the water.

I haven't swum in the sea in years - and i've never been all that comfortable with open water - so i stood, hesitant, in the surf. Two new friends urged me on - and after a few minutes' coaxing i dove into a wave. Into the Mediterranean! Buoyed by wave after wave of surreal moments i had to continually remind myself i am here. In Turkiye. At the Mediterranean Sea. (I'll confess, the ancient human history of Anatolia and the Med - aside from the history of long-cultivated plants - had not seemed interesting to me. Until, that is, i saw this broad swath of blue, and thought how much human effort has sunk beneath its waves. It was there, in the rising and falling waves, that the ancient rise and fall of civilizations seemed more immediate.)

It was a perfect day at the beach. Children played with trucks and flew kites. A group of boys were playing soccer, and they let me join the game for a while. Older men fished. My traveling companions built a sand castle, and we lay in the sun. Soon the other Erasmus students were ready for lunch - but i wasn't ready to return to Kaleiçi. Nearby, nine young men sat in a circle with a guitar. The center of the circle was littered with Efe's bottles. I walked over, and soon i was sitting, singing and sipping beer with them. Y'know, if you really want to immerse yourself in a culture, learn the popular songs. Sing along on the beach. It helps learn a language and makes you an insider rather than a tourist.

As i sat with these guys (students from Akdeniz University), i couldn't help notice another circle of young men a hundred meters away, all looking at me. It was the guys from the bus. Turns out they were off-duty soldiers, out for a day of barbecue and sun. They too shared their Efe's, and sang some traditional music - followed by an impromptu traditional dance performance. I learned each of their names; where they were from. We talked as much as we could given my rudimentary Türkçe - for example, i formed my longest sentence to date explaining that where i come from, the sea water is much colder than the Akdeniz.

I parted ways with the soldiers midafternoon, but stayed there at the beach until sunset with a classmate who just happened to be in Lara for the weekend. When it grew dark, we stopped buy our return tickets - and found the sales agents from competing coach lines sitting on the walk between their offices, eating dinner together. Offseason in Lara is a slow time; time for those who live in the tourism industry to sit back - and worry. During the summer months, an influx of Russians swells the area, filling the hotels Antalya is famous for. But in March the only thing filling Antalya is the scent of orange trees here and there. A friendly restauranteur explained that he enjoyed Americans, Australians, and Brits for their outgoing personalities, but that they did not mix with the Russians much. Observing poor economic times, he wondered aloud if he would continue to work in Antalya, or move to Cyprus.

On the municipal bus back to Kaleiçi i asked my seatmate how i'd know when we had arrived at the nearest bust stop. He didn't know, but asked another rider - and then pulled a handful of pistachios and leblebi (dry-roasted chickpeas) from his pocket and offered me half. So we sat snacking in silence. The day's lesson was clear: there are many different ways to travel, and mine is not to follow the guidebook, or to check out the restaurants with the best reputation. Frankly, i find it boring. Going out on a limb to interact with locals, buying some fruit and crackers at the corner market and eating them by the sea? That's the way. This said, i rejoined my Erasmus friends for an excellent if pricey dinner at Vanilla - a delicious grilled goat cheese salad. Then headed for the bus station: two days in Antalya was delightful, but i needed to feel prepared for the week ahead, a thus raw and rainy Ankara beckoned.

The full photo album, including some pictures of naturalized flora along the shore, is on picasa.