30 June, 2010

Arhavi to Trabzon

Arhavi is a rather pleasant city. Population 16,000, it's packed neatly (like most eastern Karadeniz cities) into a few parallel streets on a narrow shelf of flat land. In the meydan (square) there's a broad paved area, with the mosque to its left and a cafe-gözlemeci to the right. Here i sat with my couchsurfing host and four of his friends.

In the square, dancers circled a tulum player. Later, the group broke up, and someone backed a station wagon up to the curb. From a massive speaker filling the trunk, recorded tulum wailed out - accompanied by a heavy electronic beat: Karadeniz folk music, 2010. The dancers regathered. They were mostly young people, late teens - and the group reminded me of my own community at the Bangor contradance. It's so good to see young people carrying on traditional forms, even as the music evolves!

Arhavi was spent regrouping and preparing for the next jump, which came all too soon. A thank you to Yener, who was a great host the night and the following day - and makes a mean sandwich with sucuk, pickles, carrots, and other things i'd never have imagined combining.

Main street in Arhavi. Erzurum has palm trees too...


A three hour bus ride to the west, Trabzon is the biggest city in this corner of Turkiye. Pity, i saw mostly the back of my eyelids: tucked into a tiny hotel room for a paltry fifteen lira i snatched a few hours of sleep before a morning flight to Istanbul.

There's a break in these posts as i welcome my 71-year old father to Turkiye for a week. Hopefully it is a chance to rediscover the wonder of a foreign place through another's eyes: in 71 years, he's never left North America. Then, in ten days i'll bid Turkiye fond farewell. I have a rule to include myself in these posts more as a narrator than a subject, a vehicle for readers to experience the place for themselves. So as i return to familiar territory, there will be fewer entries.

29 June, 2010

Hopa 2: hidden roads

I woke in what seemed more like a living room than a hotel room. Three of last night's companions were sprawled on couches; a glass-fronted cabinet displayed a brass demlik and tea set, and above that i saw a bağlama hanging beside the mirror. Outside the open balcony door, Hopa went noisily about its morning business. When at last my chance roommates rubbed the sleep from their eyes, we made our way to a restaurant courtyard and drank tea and more tea and nescafe and… more tea. I watched as my friends played a few heated games of tavla (the Turkish name for backgammon, a national pastime i have yet to learn to play). Later, over at Huseyin's barber shop we read newspapers and Sinan, always the errand boy, fetched pide (Turkish pizza) for everyone. I've eaten a good share of pide in Turkiye but this was the best - topped with a mixture of vegetables, sucuk, and diced meat, and in the center, an over-easy egg.

The morning in Hopa passed in a sort of limbo, for the moment no longer a traveler, just one of the guys. At first i had no idea why i was hanging around, but new friend Fevzi found out i was interested in seeing the local agricultural villages - and this guy knows his way around. With Niyazi and Mehmet we piled into the car, cleaned up the party spot, and then turned onto a rough dirt road.

The landscape along Turkiye's eastern Black Sea coast is hardly visible from the lone highway that snakes along the shoreline. The hills climb too steeply away from the sea to notice the houses tucked among the trees. But from the main route, nondescript, easy-to-miss turn-offs turn into dirt roads climbing high into the hills. At times cresting the outer rank of hills, at others just inside them, old Russian roads parallel the coast highway with spectacular views into hidden valleys: a landscape of precipitously sloping tea fields, tiny vegetable polycultures in every flat place. The sky was choked with grey, low clouds wisping over the hill-tops.

Camelia sinensis - once unheard of in this region - is probably the most-consumed liquid in Turkiye after water. Die-hard Turks drink a few glasses after nearly every meal, and even i've become so accustomed to the custom that a meal seems to be incomplete without it. Legend has it that Ataturk, familiar with the Karadeniz climate and searching for ways to build the new Republic's economy, hit on tea as the perfect crop. True or otherwise, tea is king here. No other crop would be appropriate for such slopes. The result is a landscape ribbed along the contours like bright viridian corduroy fabric with rows of shrubs.

I want to close this post with deepest gratitude to Kazim Koyuncu's family and friends, and to Fevzi, a willing chauffer thanks to whom i saw more than i could have hoped.

Hopa: Chance company

There was really no need to worry. Crossing back to Turkiye was even easier than entering Georgia. Just walk, show your passport a couple of times. Done.

Standing in line at passport control, a motorcyclist with long, curly black locks tied into a ponytail started up a conversation. Where are you headed? How will you get there? His name was Yusuf, a street musician from Istanbul, and he offered me a ride as far as Hopa.

Just outside Hopa we pulled off the road. At a seaside shack people were milling about drinking and tending low fires. Yusuf said he was stopping to see his friends for a while, and invited me to join in. Next thing i knew someone handed me grilled chicken in bread. A glass of wine. "This," Yusuf said, motioning to seven or eight young men around two improvised grills, "is - everybody." One by one i learned their names and the reason for this gathering.


During the semester, my roommate Oğuz was taking a Turkish folkdance class. For a solid week i heard "Ella ella, metsz ella", a Karadeniz tune from folk-rocker Kazim Koyuncu. I even half-learned the dance steps. Now, i found myself surrounded by Kazim's family and friends. On the fifth anniversary of his death they gathered in memory. And it was a party fitting for his memory.

One by one i learned their names: Başar was a friend, a general surgeon working near Ararat. Niyazi was Kazim's younger brother. There was Evrim, Sinan, Kazim's elder brother Huseyin, and so many others. The names mingled in a swirl of campfire smoke and cigarettes. About the time i was sipping the raki someone forced into my hand Başar pulled out a bağlama and Niyazi and Yusuf traded the guitar around. Perhaps forty people gathered as the music began, folk tunes popular in socialist circles (here as in America). Someone brought out a tulum - the Black Sea goatskin bagpipe - and soon a circle of dancers formed. Then the rain hit, and thirty or so people crammed into a tiny shack, drunk, laughing, singing at the top of their lungs.

28 June, 2010


I passed a second day in Batumi replacing long-dead sneakers and buying a new camera. The change of perspective was dramatic. At last walking was not exhausting, and where i'd been mildly depressed and ready to give up on traveling for days, it was as though i had a new reason to be here. Taking pictures is my lifeline, the camera a travel companion by proxy.

Then i took the night train as planned. On #621 to Tbilisi, i happened to share a cabin with two other mid-twenties guys BOTH also named David. Er, Dahto, as they say it here. Two cabins away, four American students traveled with a Georgian friend they met studying Arabic in Lebanon. One of them happened to be from the North Shore of Massachusetts.


We arrive in Tbilisi at 07:20. Central Station is a concrete massif with curving, modernist lines - the very incarnation of Soviet architecture. Tbilisi in general surprised me; the city's air more eastern european than middle-eastern, and everywhere architectural and socioeconomic evidence of the communist era lingers. Outside the station, the lot is a tangle of taxis, vans, handcarts. Past a recess in the ground haphazardly covered with corrugated metal, i wander into the largest farmers' market i have ever seen.

The morning is cool, the street choked with people. Stalls line both sides;
women tie bundles of herbs, and the air smells of dill and basil and parsley and cilantro. An old man is shelling beans that look like the Dragon Langerie variety. A dour-faced woman tends a stand selling the local walnut-and-honey confection (i only know the turkish name, cevizli sucuk). Two men are stuffing cucumbers into the trunk of a taxi until it can no longer close. Traffic leaving the station moves at a single-lane crawl between the vendors, dodging handcarts overloaded with produce. I bite into a fruit that looks rather like an apple - only to discover it's much closer to a peach. I ask locals for the name, to no avail.

Inside Tbilisi's Metro i descend the longest escalator i've ever seen through a turqoise tunnel deep into earth. Despite an attendant's directions in broken English,  i barely know where i am going, and there are no maps in the metro. All the signs are cyrillic. I have to rely on the announcer to even guess if it's the right station. (If you go to Tbilisi, ride the metro - you will not soon forget it, and it's about twenty cents U.S. - but know the cyrillic alpabet.)

We'll skip the boring and disoriented bit. At last in the old city, i dropped my pack off with the good folks at Rover Hostel (wishing i had the time to spend a night there). Then it was off to find the famous suflur baths. These natural springs were the nucleus from which Tbilisi rose, and Russian authors praised the Tbilisi baths for centuries. Having spent months in Turkiye without visiting a bath, i decided not to pass these up. The naturally warm water reached to my neck as i stepped in, and the aroma of sulfur filled the air. Half an hour's soak and a scrub massage indeed seemed to work wonders on weary feet and a lingering cold, but the flavor of sulfur lingered in my nostrils long after.

Baths, check. Nearby you will find Tbilisi's botanic park, tucked into a ravine - hard to find as the narrow street to the entrance is torn apart and choked with construction. On the same street is the city's one and only mosque, an unassuming brick building with a single minaret. The mosque is so well hidden, in fact, that a nearby bath decorated in blue tiles - Iranian style, i think? - is easily mistaken for the mosque.

I took off my shoes and stepped inside, cool and carpeted like all mosques. Though this is only the fourth or fifth time i have been inside one, i have come to feel more comfortable in mosques than churches. Despite the ornate walls and ceilings, the room bare of furnishings invites inner silence. In this case, the single room holds two mithrabs. With only one mosque in the city, Shia and Sunni Muslims share a single place of worship.

While Tbilisi has only one mosque, it has a surfeit of churches. In Georgia, the cross is everywhere, even the national flag adorned with five red crosses on a field of white. Throughout the old city steeples rise, and one towers gold and shining above the rest. At the mosque, i met only two Pakistani men, but the road to Sameba Cathedral was crowded with commerce. Roadside shops and stands sold candles, crucifixes, and other icons. Beggars flanked the gates.

Inside the Cathedral shafts of sunlight reached down from the windows dizzyingly high above. It seemed not so much a place of worship as an object of veneration. People lit candles, made the sign of the cross, touched the images, kissed them even. Try as i might i could not find the sacred stillness here, drowned out by a clamor of saints. Sameba Cathedral is a beautiful piece of architecture; a monument of culture, and perhaps to some a gateway to the divine.

Sometimes things just don't go the way you planned....

Passing the night uncomfortably stretched across three seats in a minibus with three sleeping drivers, my pack sandwiched in the aisle gap between two seats, i woke warily far too many times. At last day broke. We waited, and waited some more. Old women with bags of baked goods wandered the station lot, in search of customers. Besides the idle taxi men, there were few customers to be found at five AM. I bought a packet of five - cookies? - something like a very dry gingerbread with powdered sugar topping, and a generous taxi man bought me a cup of tea from an old woman with a thermos. The tea had a very funky flavor.

At eight, two hours late, the bus finally left for Batumi. Luckily enough, two members of the Georgian state archery team were in the seats behind me, returning from the European archery grand prix - and one of them was an English teacher. Still, even with someone to talk to i felt frustrated, disappointed - and exhausted. The Georgian landscape slipped past in half-dreams until Kutaisi, when i finally awoke.

As the present ramble nears a close, i ruminate - what will i miss about travel in the developing world? Van drivers who pass in the face of oncoming traffic, stretching the three-vehicle width of two lane roads. I'll miss the feeling of brakes rapidly applied to avoid slamming into a cow. Yes, on the main road from Tbilisi to Batumi, there are plenty of cows to avoid.

In Kobuleti, 25 km north of Batumi, i spent a couple hours on the beach. Then, late afternoon, i caught another van. The botanic garden in Batumi is, unfortunately, located in Makhindjauri, 7km north of the city center, and i was too tired to explore further. To make things more interesting, for some strange reason the messages from my Batumi CS host (and other recent contacts) had disappeared from my inbox, and when at last i could borrow a Georgian cellphone, my host's number was unreachable. I had three options - spend another fifty lari for a room; try my luck with the chummy shoe salesman (can i crash with you, bro?); or make a run for the border, and hope i could contact CS host #2 in Arhavi.

Oh, Batumi - fascinating, dynamic, subtropical, sexy - there is so much left in you to discover, to explore. And despite how tired i am, somehow i don't feel like another spin on your human roulette wheel. I make for the border.

A few Georgian phrases

In Batumi, bilinguals who speak fluent Turkish aren't too hard to come by, and in Tbilisi the universal English proficiency average (a handful of common phrases) keeps communication functional. Still, i felt perhaps more linguistically isolated after three days in Georgia than i had during a week in Iraq. Nothing like yet another alphabet staring back at you to make you feel like a truly lazy and isolationist American. These scripts, these font families, all so… foreign. Thanks to a Macedonian friend, i had two pages of Georgian words and phrases, with English transliterations:

Hello = Gamarjoba

Thank you = modloba

What is your name? = Shen ra kvia?

Nice to meet you = Sosmonovia tqveni gacnoba

Mirza, the chummy, Turkish-speaking shoe salesman added another, indispensible phrase: Me kartuli yarvits. I don't speak Georgian.


It strikes me, encountering my fourth foreign language of the month, that there's a critical mass necessary to acquire new words. As you come to know a language, word by word its unique sonority and texture become apparent. Perhaps you can't read lips or hear snippets of conversation in noisy surroundings, but when someone tells you a new word, it will stick. Levani and i traded a slew of words - for example body parts. Arm, leg, knee, ear, nose, mouth. I remember none of them; the Georgian circuits in my brain haven't been constructed yet. But as words in any given language accumulate, it takes fewer hearings to learn new ones.

The Americans i met aboard night train #621 added one other comic observation: gamarjoba is a flexible word whose sonority gives no clue to its context. Unlike shalom, merhaba, or any of the other greetings i know, it can be used as a euphemism for almost anything - for example, "He smokes a lot of gamarjoba." Would you like some gamarjoba with that?

27 June, 2010

Khinkhale, limonata, and other taste adventures

At this point it's worth breaking the narrative to comment on a few things that don't fit neatly into it. Food and drink, for example. In Georgia, kebab seems far away. Here the national food is khinkhale, which is like a cross between meat ravioli a giant mushroom. The first time i ate it with knife and fork; when i dined with Levani i learned the proper way to eat it - with two hands. The meat inside is like a spiced, onion-saturated meatball, and one need be careful of the hot, oily cooking liquid, a little of which may go everywhere with the initial bite. But they're indeed tasty. One khinkhale is half a lari, and two or three was enough to fill me up, making a decent meal (with another course and a drink) quite affordable at around 7 lari.

The other ubiquitous menu item is khachapuri, a Georgian answer to quesadillas. Hot, cheese-filled flatbread, available with bean; again, affordable and filling. Georgian pizza, laden with bologna, mushrooms, tomatoes, peppers, and mayonnaise - but no tomato sauce - was also delicious. Another dish - a side, consisting of onions, tiny pickles, and the same manner of meat as in khinkhale, but swimming in tomato sauce - was one of the best things i've tasted abroad.

In the beverage department, Georgia offers a unique entry worth writing home about. Locals call it lemonade - but it's actually soda, available in pear and… tarragon? Yep. I didn't try the tarragon soda (now i feel a bit cowardly for that), partly because i was hooked on pear soda before i arrived in Batumi. Offered by both the major breweries, Kazbegi and Natakhtari (whose beers mingle with Russian entries in convenience store coolers), i would say the Natakhtari lemonade is better stuff.

One matter i skipped in an earlier post pertains not to earthly nourishment, but to psychospiritual food. As i walked to the bus stop with an older man, eager to converse in English, he pointed out local landmarks. In his sixties, my companion remembered the communist era all too well. There was no work, he said, gesturing approvingly at the construction around us. As we walked by a church, he told me that the communists had closed the churches, or turned them into movie-houses. If religion was the opiate of the masses, they perhaps reasoned, cinema must be the masses' methadone?