Open Hearts In A Divided Country

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Thunder cracked overhead. Big, slow raindrops landed on my backpack as I hurried downhill to the bus station, trying to beat the storm. Once I boarded the overnight bus to Istanbul, I fought back tears as I realised how much this place had meant to me. 

This home I had found in a tiny lakeside village in Turkey, that had given me room to breathe and brought me back to life. I settled in for the long journey back to the capital – where I still had a few days of wonder and chaos ahead of me.      

My two-month journey took me from Izmir, a progressive city on the west coast, to Egirdir, my beloved home in the central lake district, and back to mesmerising Istanbul, with a few eye-opening adventures in between. Turkish landscapes are incredibly diverse, beautiful and historic, and nothing could have prepared me for my time there. My trip was loosely based on a few volunteering arrangements that provided accommodation and food in exchange for a few hours of work a day – which was invaluable for making friends, travel advice and becoming immersed in local cultures.   

After a long, cold winter on the Atlantic coast of northern Spain, I felt like both my body and spirit needed to be thawed out, and I got just the medicine I needed when I arrived in Izmir. I split my days between practicing English with two little boys, spending hours and hours playing ‘robot kitten’ or ‘pirate t-rex’ and exploring the colourful city on my own. In the afternoons I would stroll along the never-ending boardwalk that runs the length of the city, watching the inky water of the river splash against the walls as the sun set behind the mountains on the far side of the bay. Social life congregated there, and you could always find locals planted along the edges with their fishing lines, drinking strong Turkish tea and snacking on sunflower seeds. In the oppressive humidity, life there had a lazy buzz, vibrant but without urgency. In the town centre was the bazaar, with every knickknack you could ever hope to find, and to my delight in the central business district lots of brightly coloured art deco buildings.

Izmir Skyline.jpg

I felt myself slowly unwind as I spent every evening exploring the nooks of the city and met lots of kind-hearted people who were delighted to have travellers visit.  Often when I would ask for directions, I would find myself with temporary travel companions, who for some reason would stay with me across subway lines from one end of the city to the other. Slowly, after weeks of spending my evenings in the balmy heat, drinking limonata and enjoying the Turkish music that always seemed to be floating in the background, I felt myself unwind. 

Izmir is a modern, progressive city, which to me was reflected in the life of the family I was staying with. They lived in a modest but modern apartment in a trendy neighbourhood, close to the boardwalk. Both the man and woman were successful professionals, and as such could afford to send their boys to privileged schools where tennis and chess classes were the norm, even for three and six-year-olds. The boys I tutored were already fluent in English and German and were being given every tool possible to set them up for success. Education is not taken for granted in Turkey, it can not be, when only a small portion of the vast country have access to it. 

If you were only to visit Izmir, Istanbul and maybe some of the picturesque resort towns dotting the coast, you would be forgiven for thinking that Turkey is a modernised country, well on its way to joining the European Union. But it is important to understand a little about its history. Around the turn of the century, many Muslim Majority countries sought to modernise in order to keep up with the progress of the Industrial Revolution in Europe. Turkey’s founder, Kemal Ataturk, attempted to do just that, and united Turkey under a common language and history in 1923. However, the modernisation of most of those countries was rushed and didn’t accompany a huge cultural revolution like it did in Europe, creating a kind of superficial modernisation that was available to the wealthy and elite in the cities but barely touched the rural villages. The backlash is of course the return to ‘traditional’ Islamic values and support of one-party leaders that can be seen in many Muslim Majority countries today. The tension continues to grow between those on the progressive left who fight for democracy, and those who live outside that world and are still fighting for basic education and secure family life. 

I didn’t fully understand this until I left Izmir for my next destination, Egidir, a small town based on tourism and fishing, perched on an expansive lake in the central region of Isparta. I reached the family run Pension (hostel) where I would be working at one in the morning, after finding myself completely disoriented and having to use my three words of Turkish to ask some local teenagers if they could show me the way. When I finally woke up, I climbed the stairs to the top floor, to discover that the breakfast bar offered a 360 degree view of the breathtaking turquoise lake with mountains lining its far shores. 

Lake Egirdir.jpg

It was here, washing dishes and greeting travellers, both Turkish and foreign, that I learned to appreciate a different pace of life, and the freedom that comes from having nowhere to be, and nothing to do but to appreciate the moment you’re in and the people you’re with. Initially, I struggled with village life, affectionately naming the town ‘the fishbowl’ with my American friend who was volunteering at the same time as me. We settled into a nice routine of work in the morning, a walk around the town (fishbowl) in the afternoon, endless cups of Turkish tea, swims in the lake and afternoon naps in the corner lounge. We watched storms roll in over the lake, stunning sunsets, fishing boats pull in and out of the harbour blaring emotive Turkish music behind them, children playing in the village streets, old men hobbling to afternoon prayers, and drank more tea. 

Only myself, my American companion and the boss spoke English. Over the four weeks we made friends with some truly wonderful people, using only body language, facial expressions and good will. Together we worried, laughed, speculated, and ran a hotel, without having any common language. The bosses father, an old man with strong hands and twinkly eyes, would patiently teach us Turkish words and try to explain the local weather. The cook, a large round woman with crossed eyes had a laugh that came from her belly and a good nature that never faltered. The housekeeper had sharp eyes that were equally full of sadness and joy, full of love but tired from hard work. The manager, a young man of 27, was hardened by the Turkish Military and yet full of life, he loved to sing the Muslim call to prayer in Turkish and had a beautiful voice. 

I felt truly at peace, and as all the heaviness of the past year lifted, I wondered how I could feel so content with such a simple routine, and why I had been running around my whole life. The family I had come to know and love are truly kind and humble people, and I miss them all the time. This life, miles away from bustling Izmir, was mainly concerned with life on the lake, running a successful business, and family life. Priorities were different, and modernisation had never truly taken hold there. 

A month later, I sat eating dinner with one of my workmates, a rich meal of rice cooked with butter and spices, stewed zucchini with minced meat, and lashings of yoghurt. We had already shared a long goodbye hug, and he now sat irritatingly pulling faces at me while we ate. In half an hour, I had to leave to catch the bus to Istanbul, and it didn’t feel real. All my adventures of the previous month, ancient monuments, Mediterranean beaches, secluded gorges, wild horses on mountain plains, and afternoon naps by the lake flashed before me.

Although I still had the metropolis of Istanbul ahead of me, my time in Egirdir had changed me – and I knew I would be back.    

Story by Jessica Gauder

Jessica Gauder is from Perth, Western Australia. She is an intrepid explorer, curious about the world and all it’s corners. She is a student of Islam-West relations and is passionate about promoting appreciation, understanding and acceptance amongst cultures.

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