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Destination God: The Aegean Part 1

I met Umar at the twin towers of Donald Trump in the heart of Istanbul. With Lebanon dithering I felt a sense of something or someone preventing my progress. All the signs were good in London; I had worked hard and made myself enough cash to post a deposit into my mother’s account in preparation for my winter vocation in Catalonia. The remainder of my budget went on a flight and a little bit of pocket money for Turkey; I wasn’t expecting to spend much out there. London though, always gives the impression that it wants to suck you dry; every reason to make an impromptu flight.

Turkey is a good middle point; from here I could progress to Lebanon, even Cyprus to see family although I am not popular there at all, or travel overland to Greece though as things go I took the boat instead and hopped an island along the way; another fulfilled ambition. Istanbul was in a state of tension with the upcoming beginning of Ramadan when, during these long hot summers, the Muslims prepare themselves for a gruelling fasting regime. It seems the occasion for an uprising; the reasons are many as my Turkish friends inform me.

This wasn’t the Turkey I knew when I passed by here last summer on a bicycle; industrious, happy, and above all very friendly and generous. These are natural qualities that no matter what comes, the Muslim and the Turk will always offer. But the Turk is not necessarily a Muslim, especially in the western side and amongst the big industrial cities. Now they believe in free travel to their Western partners, unprejudiced education, and free love. Unfortunately for me I had grown out of these sentiments long ago and wonder whether I have jumped in time to encounter something of a male menopause. I become more and more religious in my outlook because in religion I see the salvation of nature, the reclamation of Creation and the wilderness of the mind; I am more liberated now than I have ever been in all my life. Simply put, it is the renunciation of a Western value system. If only these progressive types could read my philosophy, but my high English is going to take a lot more than a progressive Muslim who speaks good English to understand it; it is more suited to the academic circles of Harvard and Oxford. It is not even Greek, and I am genetically turned in that direction too, although the Turks know me as a Spaniard, a Catalonian, even a Barce, because football speaks volumes here. So, when one day I gave Umar leave to not have to wait on me so much I took myself towards Taksim Square; I wanted to know what all the fuss was about.

A guitar strapped to my back, a sure sign of foreign genes, a short bushy beard, a remnant of my religious vocation last year when I passed through on my bicycle only this time no bike, I enjoyed the thought of walking around and steadfastly avoiding all the Western-style shops and faster food outlets; the police were looking distinctly nervous. I paraded in front of them looking them in the eye like I was some officer in command giving an inspection. People surrounded the main roads on all four corners, reinforcements at every adjacent street. This protest was for real, the chants going up and cars beeping their horns. I watched and watched, still with guitar strapped to my back waiting to see if anybody was going to charge. That was my first experience of the uprising.

Taking myself away I sought a nice peaceful spot where I could play my guitar and be heard. As it goes I walked all day and found nothing; Istanbul is just so congested, so built up that there is not a moment’s peace anywhere other than indoors, or so it seemed. It is not often I trudge back without playing my guitar, but I longed for the flat that Umar lived in. A couple of things surfaced in my mind: where can I find burek, and I must get to the botanical gardens in Ashetehir, that jewel of Istanbul that looked after me for a week last year when carrying seeds from their compatriots at the botanical institute of Barcelona.

Then I was a traveller with a destination, now I was looking for direction. I and Umar played a little guitar together; an idea surfaced in my mind that I could hang around a bit longer, who knows, and find myself a wife. My week in Istanbul turned out to be a shallow affair, mainly for my desire to keep a distance and prepare myself for some mountain retreat or farm away from the heat and the cars. Umar had brought me to Taksim Square a couple of more times, this time with Ramadan on the way. People lined the main shopping thoroughfare eating after sunset and prayers with the bullish police looking on, water canon at the ready. The chants rang out.

Simit Sat Onurunla yasa,

‘Sell donuts , live with pride.’

Kaskini cikar'copunu birak. Dellikanli kim bakalim goruruz. Kaskini cikar'copunu birak.

Dellikanli kim bakalim goruruz.

‘Take off your helmet, leave your sticks. After that you will discover who are the brave ones.’

This was irony at its best; I doubt whether the police had been fasting, and how much more to blast away the protestors just when they are doing the religious thing – gathering for a communal meal side by side sharing food and giving away sweets to strangers. I had heard from Umar before that there had been scuffles between the progressive types and the religious types; that is the complexity of religious thought for you when it comes to Islam. Umar tells me that their president wants to build on top of the one saving grace of a green park; more buildings, more industry and commercial enterprise, yet the religious types Umar informs me are the non-thinking people who do as they are told and are rather passive at it. Can it be true that I understand the mind of a Muslim better than a Muslim himself or herself? The religious types have their mosques, grand buildings that invite one to quiet solitude from the noise outside. Yet the religious types much of the time have little appreciation of nature other than a place to dump their rubbish. ‘God will clear up the mess’, I have heard it said. I know this from my experience of travelling through many Muslim countries last year on my bike where truly the religious who live as paupers see the environment as a litter bin, although let’s not take away their need to grow food on the other side of the river.

Islam here is so contradictory that it must be considered also as a political system for progressive types to enforce environmental claims as well as preventing the corruption of economics and favouritism that any international platform is guilty of in collusion with élites. Yes, like every other human system in the world Islam is prone to elitism and disproportionate wealth. Those religious types who don’t make a fuss, well they have what they want – peace and the right to praise God. As for the Umar’s and other progressive university-led attitudes, they are fighting for the capitalism of the world and really don’t understand the role of religion. What a mess!

I went to the botanical gardens and spent all day wandering around. Somehow it didn’t have the magic as before when, after cycling five to six thousand kilometres, was subject to the effect of natural endorphins; I was at peak fitness then. And this time it was a little later in the year so the florescence was different. It is still a fantastic place, entrance via the subways that tunnel beneath the busy highways above. The gardeners were fasting, a good reason to not welcome me this time from their shady corner. After the end of the day I was spotted by another, hooray! The atmosphere was seduced though. I met up with Murat; a little sourness hung in the air between us. It seems I was too honest about his Western-style antics last year when I got blatantly ripped off in front of him buying two beers; it was the peanuts that were extortionate and we never requested them. That was Taksim Square also, and these progressive Muslims wonder why the rich are buying up green land when they allow this sort of consumerism to go on? I cleared the air with him and showed him what I had actually written in my travel log last year; obviously he hadn’t read it, we departed from each other on good spirits this time though.

Rather than head back to the flat I decided to go down to Sultanahmet, navigating the metro and tram system in light of the closures due to the protests. The market was wonderful; for 5 lira I painted an impression of a tulip using a unique system of paint suspended in water. The paper is only then applied to the water to be subsequently rolled off with the print firmly impressed. The tulip, of course, is the icon of a by-gone age in Istanbul when during the Ottoman campaign flowers were a sign of peace and providence.

That night I had listened to some free live music; I just can’t play Turkish music, the saz is not a guitar. The scale of a guitar is Greek, Pythagorean even, but Turkisk is more like Indian music without any frets. Anyhow, something extraordinary happened that day, a continuation of my dawn awakening that morning. I wandered the main area between the mosques and spotted the ever-present stray dogs; their ears are tagged here. An Alsatian was rummaging around some bins, although it looked rather picky. I caught its attention and, with the skill of one who has developed a deep empathy with dogs, drew it into subservience towards me. After it cowered it remained my friend for the rest of the night and followed me around. I succoured some kebab off-cuts for it and it promptly disappeared. I decided I would not go back to Umar’s that night and besides, he was at his father’s place. Instead, I sought a place to sleep. As I sat down, a tramp stretchered on a bench to my left heavily clothed as if winter were just around the corner, one of the other stray dogs looked at me and set up an invitation of barks for the rest to follow suit. I was surrounded now by about seven or eight dogs. The Alsatian came along and shut everybody up; it had introduced me to its clan. I now had seven or eight dogs following me around the city square all night. Wherever I slept they followed suit; I was a leader of a gang. I said my farewells the following morning and found a chair outside a hostel. A couple of night revellers were still up; the girl offered me to join her. Maybe it was the guitar still strapped to my back, but not really; she dressed like a snake about to shed its skin for a new coat. My music here was for Muslims, not for tourists who rarely give you any money; I’d rather play for nothing.

Fond memories of Istanbul continued with Aysberk, a friend from last year, joining up and the three of us going out together. Umar showed me how to play taula, or backgammon. I was trying to show him the value of experimentation and the art of losing. His technical mind does not allow for any religiosity; he may well become a brilliant computer hacker in his time. They took me to their university and I saw the students performing TV personalities for a competition on the college green; one of the most beautifully-sited campuses you can imagine overlooking the Bosphorous, green and arboreal. Umar was as usual very helpful, ensuring I got the right buses.

I left Istanbul to travel down to Balikesir where, on my travels across the Mediterranean last year, had met some more friendly Muslims, this time maturing school girls who fed me and kept in touch. By the time I got to Balikesir there had been a distinct change of tone from them, as if they didn’t want to see me again. It is the sort of stuff that went on in London and it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that the same disease had followed me over. Not to be outdone I headed straight for the park informing Bilge of my every movement. I met a couple of soldiers who, friendly as can be, asked me to play some music. They bought me drinks and got a little gathering around me, but no sign of the teenagers I met last year. As Muslims go they asked that basic question, ‘What are you doing here?’ I told them I was on my way to Lebanon but my ecological vocation over there had also suffered the same fate, the same disease. As I say, London likes to keep one sucked in, especially against the threat of migration. But as God’s blessings go I mentioned I needed a place to stay and make some environmental work. I got ‘lucky’, they pointed out that in Menemen near Izmir there is an eco-farm. Other than the asshole who took the law into his own hand, I hung about in the park ‘til late at night so I could get the 4am train. There wasn’t much else to see or do in Balikesir.

The train pulled in to the station but I jumped off one stop too early. Soon enough somebody gave me a lift down to the main bus terminal. The taxi office tried to charge me 22 lira but a quick phone call to ImeceEvi, the place of my destination, soon had the man pointing me towards the buses where it cost me 2 lira. The driver dropped me off at the bottom of the mountain, ImeceEvi was at the top. I walked with guitar in hand and a modest-sized backpack. After a few hours the heat was getting to me, but fortunately I found a watering hole for animals; it was gorgeous, streams of warm water surfaced and flowed with cold water coming up to meet it. No sooner had I finished dressing myself was I accompanied by streams of goats; the now familiar sound of a goat herder in their wake.

Emin was very friendly, a rotund man but with legs of an antelope. He couldn’t speak a word of English and we were resolved to using his mobile phone to communicate with a university professor who used to be his commander. Ali was also very helpful, though as things go I never got to meet him in the end. Between the three of us I understood that Emin would feed me, so we galloped off to his tiny shack atop a plateau. He pulled me through the spiny brush that not even the goat would eat, locating the paths known from years of plying these fields. In baking clear blue skies we eventually arrived to his fenced-in enclosure. He gave me a tour of the tor, there to discover an ancient structure that could only have been Greek formerly. It was ruined and a few stones on the ground had the words written ‘Akropol..’; this place was historic. I promised to come back but I had to move to get to ImeceEvi before sunset. I trudged on, no cars stopping to give me a ride. Then, just as I approached the main turn-off for the small village it was located near, a car pulled up. It turned out to be Reyhan, the resident who’s partner owns the plot. She told me I was very lucky. In the back was Suria, the little four-year old girl who’s over-maturity sometimes exceeds my own. Ocan the driver turned out to be gay, but he was the car driver and these people were valued by the eco-farm as the only means to going to the local town and back to do the shopping. I would later find out that he was also a prominent member of the Green movement telling me that these whole protests in Turkey start with ecological issues and later develop into economic and political affairs.

Reyhan would be very friendly with me, if anything too close, and I wondered at her free-loving attitude. I maintained my distance with a good heart telling her she was my soul sister; she is a Hindu. I later discovered that she had just married earlier in the year. It was a good introduction to the community, a mix of volunteers and friends of the owners who came from all parts of the globe. In the morning I had a good look around; the place was idyllic, children, young adults, parents, frequent visitations from the neighbours who were Kurdish charcoal makers, ducks, geese, chickens, cats, and dogs. And there was Cadifé the donkey locked up in his stable. Houses were built of stone, straw, and mud. With mountain-top views and rivers down below I could not have asked for more.

Internet was kept to a minimum and I quickly got into the routine of things. The area worked in principle but it was obviously a juggling act to keep everyone occupied and content at the same time. I believe Ishmael was fully aware of everyone’s sentiments and in retrospect, delivered the workload with enough enthusiasm and diversity as one could achieve. I remember after about two weeks how some of the volunteers complained about proceedings, but this should be expected from people who are firmly rooted in urban lifestyles. My only advice was that committing oneself to an eco-settlement was an act of sacrifice and people had to leave certain values behind if they were to be happy. Encroaching urban mentalities was probably the opposite of what Ishmael and Reyhan were trying to achieve, and it was a skill at least to make the whole group bond. For this Ishmael would organise introduction sessions for new volunteers who could talk about their own countries; I, for one, spent much time discussing Catalonia and some of its traditions. When the issues of environmentalism came up some people wanted to liken it to the plight of the Kurds who are fighting for their independence from Turkey. With Catalonia I could only express an intellectual affront against the government that, despite its distinct culture and language, was very much a part of Spain. We ended my session with castillas, an attempt at building human towers.

The food was made by everybody; people took turns. With a turnover of frequent volunteers there was always enough diversity here too. After three days though my health fluctuated; maybe it was the stress of getting up before sunrise everyday and swinging myself in a hammock whilst the rest of the camp slept. Some days I gained three or four hours of solitude, the only real time to be alone. Occasionally I would bring Cadifé the donkey with me to the top of the hill to eat at fresh pasture. I would spot the odd wild pig but without tree cover one could see how erosion could set in and denude the landscape of soil. For instance, where Emin was located there remained old mill stones for making olive oil. When I asked his brothers where were the trees the simple answer was that goats, wild horses and wild cattle finished them off. One could imagine very easily how the evacuation of the local village (Turgutlar Köyü) took away any real maintenance of the vegetation; for instance down in Çukurköy flush arable land was well irrigated by the copious springs of water falling down the mountain. Ishmael says he has a quota of use, but he nowhere near uses it for efficient growing of organic food; just some corn, tomatoes, peppers, a few gourds and a few other bits including a good selection of fruit trees, but I wasn’t there for the wheat harvest.

These issues continually came to the table as to why the things that were advertised on the website were not fully functioning here. To be honest, there was enough permaculture to get on with, only that I think the expectation of the volunteers could never see the full picture. Urskha pointed out that people were not happy. Why, for instance, were they spending hours hand sieving the wheat grain from the chaff? Again, I could only give my own personal reasons that sitting around a table makes for good sociability in sharing tasks, and that this was not a waste of human labour if human labour was available. Yes, with machines, people may feel that they could be achieving much more, but these are urban mentalities. Ishmael caught the drift of the behind-the-scenes talk and frequently broke up the program with trips to the waterfalls and long walks. On one occasion we foraged for walnuts, milked the goats, picked fresh fruit and herbs, and had an ecological introduction to the landscape that only an informed permaculturist could have. The longest serving volunteers like Urskha would go into town and help with the shopping. But when I addressed Reyhan as to why there isn’t a day off in the week, bearing in mind that volunteers pay up to 30 lira a day to stay here in order to cover costs, she told me that it is only for long-time volunteers. I thought this hard, especially with the hot days and no rain ‘til September. I told her this was not even religious. Considering also that this couple were Hindus in belief, Suria was born in India, the response soon came back that every new moon and full moon would be a day off; this sounded good. It obviously didn’t suit everyone’s needs and Nazifé and her child Irmak soon left the kitchen precincts for not feeling appreciated enough. Even Çan complained that the supposed eco technologies of strawbale and earth construction were not forthcoming as promised. In fact what Ishmael was working on was a mandala, a place for yoga and meditation. When I arrived they were laying the floor made from straw, sand and clay collected from the pond. Again, it was a good, new experience for me even though it was hard work, but complaints would go up as to why Reyhan and Ishmael would suddenly interfere and say the process was wrong, that we should have been doing it faster. I tasted my first sample of this meddling act in the kitchen when I tried to prepare breakfast, something Urskha alluded to as too stressful, that maybe I couldn’t appreciate at first and which has always been ongoing. To say that laying the earth floor wasn’t fast enough was a ruse; we had progressed really well with the volunteers including Joachim and Chardash enjoying being left alone with their own responsibilities. But I later discovered that a government official was due to inspect the appropriateness of bringing up a child in this environment. What Reyhan needed doing was repairs to her house, and this turns out, I believe, to be the real motive for speeding up the building program. The earth walls were disintegrating and we had to make a lime-straw render to fill the holes. For me it was a fulfilling experience but for others there were accusations that we were just working on their own personal whims and that the volunteers preferred doing something more communally orientated. My only advice to Çan was that he needed to find his own space, to make his own responsibilities. Surely this is what community is about, that if one has something to offer then they naturally assume leadership in those skills or projects. This tempted Çan to stay with Sylvie a bit longer when he contrived to build a shower unit better than the makeshift one that was already there. Unfortunately he left before he could see it flower, the final touches being made by myself and Urskha. The runoff went into the vegetable patch.

Ishmael, as I say, was not deaf to volunteer needs. After the complaints that he wasn’t growing enough he quickly responded and went down to the market to buy seedlings for the market garden. I spiced up his mind with a workshop on cob building, making a variety of samples with Çan from my own expertise on the subject. This got everyone excited at the prospect of building a bread oven sculptured into some form. Obviously my laptop photos helped with this, and before long everyone was expecting to build a cob oven; it didn’t happen because Ishmael could not fit it in with his own needs and considered it a waste of time if its location was not right or that it would produce unnecessary amounts of food. The enthusiasm was used up elsewhere but I must say that, despite Ishmael’s skill in juggling all these sentiments, by the time I left the volunteer base had dwindled to a couple of adults. It happens, if one is not content they move on; that is how it should be.

I myself did not pay to stay; I worked too hard. But I certainly took time off when it was needed and would occasionally see the goat herder on the mountain. The trips to the waterfalls were wonderful, with rock diving, bathing, lots of melon, and shade. We tried to get more efficient and make Cadifé’s life more decent, but we soon learnt that the giant flies ate into her leaving her in a bloody mess. We understood then why Ishmael only put her out during the night. We tried loading up bags of sand from the river bed on her back, but the saddle had deteriorated and the string was rotten also. In fact, Cadifé was completely unfit for the attempt; thank God the string broke. It was left to the neighbours in their deforestation program to pick up the bags on the way up with the trucks loaded with oak wood. Mind you, the fresh growth sprouting up looks sustainable in the least.

There is a lot more that could be said about this place; where were the sticky fly traps for example? Why were we collecting loads of dung if we can’t find an immediate use for it? Even though the dogs and cats caught fleas and gladly spread them around human ankles, this was all a part of human living in the countryside. Seeing ducks compete with Jeze the pup, the cats with the dog, the dog with Cadifé, the geese in the distance moving around between the crops picking it clean of pests, all this is idyllic living and requires a change of attitude. My situation was different it must be said; I have a slight detestation of urban life and am looking to replicate something of this ecology in Spain. I am used to shifting tonnes of rock by myself with my bare hands; I know hard work. That is why I could get up every morning after only 4 hours sleep because I slept well with an ample supply of food; my health suffered from over-eating maybe? I milked the goats after taking a quick lesson from Emin the goat herder, and transferring this new responsibility to ImeceEvi. I learned to move the goats up and down the hill, and then imparting this experience to other volunteers. It was fun.

I left with impromptu though, deciding to forsake Reyhan’s offer of going to Istanbul to join in the Sufi celebrations. Ishmael and Reyhan really wanted me to stay with offers of free building courses happening in the immediate future. I have to be honest though, I did not want to spend my birthday here. All the signs were good; it was the 7th and I would spend the 8th with Emin. My ankles were suffering from the dog fleas, the first figs were ripening on the trees; it was an indication to travel, and it was the end of Ramadan. I wasn’t feeling any good either but ever since that day I left I have been in tip-top condition which suggests I made the right decision and that I should always put my own health first. They asked me back and I promised to look at their olive trees in the winter. They offered permanent work opportunities because they liked my attitude. This, of course, would be a part sacrifice of my lifestyle in Catalonia, since there I am an olive farmer. In retrospect it would look like a fleeting visit, but nevertheless I will come back and do it all again. I always give a bit more, for instance with the Kurdish neighbours on top of the hill I regularly played music to them; I would even consider a Kurdish wife if she were a virgin. That I am not a Muslim is the main stumbling block, but Catalonia to many of these ethnic groups is quite appetising to escape to.


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