Saturday 12 July 2014

Into the Past

            Intanbul was barely awake when we were introduced to the smooth little machine that constitutes the “Crowded House” tours. Since we were amongst the first to be picked up we had a city tour thrown in for free. The bus driver looped his way skilfully by the many small winding streets, stopping at small inns and hotels crowded around the Hagia Sofia to give Mr Greenpants the time to go and look for guests booked on the tour. At one point, the driver started up the bus and I was sure he had given up on Mr Greenpants who just wasn’t coming down the street with yet more guests. But we merely looped around an elaborate set of streets that involved going in the wrong direction on a one-way street only to bring us back to where we started.
            Still, no Mr Greenpants in sight.
            Just as I was starting to wonder if he would ever appear again, he came triumphantly tramping down the road, another couple from “down under” in tow. This excursion is a great favourite with Aussies and Kiwis, as the tour operators so affectionately call the visitors who come all the way from the end of the globe to visit a place where their ancestors fell, a century ago, next year.
           As we were threading our way through the city, soon yellow taxis joined us in this quest to get people to places they want to go. Then more and more pedestrians joined the fray and, by 7am we picked up the last couple. They were from New Zealand and looked rather chipper for a couple well past their middle years, who had just flown thirty-four hours to enjoy a three day stay in Istanbul that simply had to include a get-away to Gallipoli.
            When you leave Istanbul, by whichever means, you can’t help but marvel at how far and wide the city spreads. It took the better part of an hour before we left the greater Istanbul area and it took a whole lot longer before buildings started to give away to fields and fields to marshy areas where rice is cultivated. But before we came to the fields of sunflowers with round faces seeking the sun, we made a pitstop at a large roadside place that, very likely, caters mainly to the countless buses ferrying Aussies, Kiwis, and the odd Canaducks, to Gallipoli.
            There we were given a breakfast that was less fancy than it was satisfying but that certainly did the trick. Meanwhile, our bus was also pampered, not just with a full gas tank but by a man wielding a yellow brush that first spouted soap and then water. By the time we left, we were all feeling a whole lot more ready for what lay ahead.
After we drove close by the border with Greece, or Yunanistan as the Turks and Persians call it, Th and I soon admired the beautiful stretch of blue water that appeared to the north of us. Not an eager map reader, I had no clue where I was so I didn’t know we had entered the peninsula. Stubborn by nature, I almost got in a fight with my husband about the location of the North Pole. Unbeknownst to me, it was the Aegean, which is why it was where it was. 
           The Aegean will do that to a person. When Odysseus sailed away from Troy, he strayed from the sea into the clouds and it took him years to get home. It is a place that entangles and it will come between a husband and wife.
In Eceabat, we stopped at the “Crowded House” headquarters, a hotel and restaurant right by the ferry and across from a giant statue showing soldiers at war. We were told to put our luggage in a room behind the desk and were then ushered to another plain but satisfying meal. All part of this excellent tour package. Those of us who were going on the ferry to make the crossing to Çennakale, were handed from Mr Greenpants to Zuzu, a comely lass with half her head shaven, a thick braid on top of her head fashioned from the abundance of left-over hair, a mouth shaped like a smiling crescent and round cheeks with high cheekbones in a perfectly shaped oval head.
            A natural beauty, and fun.
            She showed none of the nervousness of Mr Greenpants as she ushered us through the gates of the ferry. She even paid the fare for us. We had nothing to do but to follow her directions. A regular mother hen shepherding her charges, she bid us welcome once we landed on the Asian side and then she herded us into a large van, with seats that were a relief after the hard-back chairs in the other bus that had me twist my legs in impossible configurations just to take the load off my back a bit.
            The Dardanelles looked even more enchanting from here than they did from the other side. Our company in the bus was small and different from the trip into Eceabat. We didn't know one another but Zuzu took care of that. There was a driver with handsomely greying hair that she introduced as one of the best and there was a set of three rather adventurous men. They all were somewhere in their low forties and clearly determined to live life outside the main track. One a teacher from Ireland, away from it all. Another one, Pieter. A Dutchman who didn’t want to get trapped in an ordinary life so he dedicated himself to being a personal guide to travellers. It makes him enough of a living but it keeps him happy and moving. Free.
            And then there was Joe, an Australian man, who eventually told us his recently deceased father wanted him to do just this. Get away, travel on the cheap, and make a movie about it. Zuzu took special care of him as he wasn’t part of the usual package. This included, dropping him off at the local campsite on our way to the Troy site.
            His smile was easy, his eyes looked as far away as the country he came from. We left him to set up his tent.
Meanwhile, we went on to the site and learned all about Troy I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, and possibly VIII.  Zuzu was a diligent and entertaining teacher. She kept the tramp through the old ruins fun while she told us the many legends and tales, not just of those who lived and suffered here but also of those who came here later to unearth history. Such tales are invariably connected to ancient sites and add to their mystery.
            Meet Heinrich Schlieman, the nineteenth-century German business man with a love of the Iliad. Near the end of his century, he went and dug at what he believed was the site of Homer’s Troy. Since he went to work before archeology was a profession, he wasn’t always as diligent as we now expect archeologists to be when approaching possible sites. He dug too fast and too deep and so destroyed a lot of the actual site of the Fall of Troy. The battle depicted in the movie Troy. The horse of this movie was donated to Çanakale and graces its waterfront. If I guessed right, Zuzu was happy the horse was the only thing the movie producers donated to the region. She was none too happy with Hollywood's choice of stars.
            But never mind that, let’s just hear what she had to say about how Schlieman circulated the rumour that he found Priam’s treasure, including a stash of Helen’s jewels. He dismissed his team for the day and later said that he and his gorgeous young Athenean wife had done this in order to steal the treasure. It is not at all clear that this really came to pass because he, himself, eventually admitted he circulated the rumour in order to heighten interest in the site. There is, however, a picture of his wife draped in Helen’s jewels on Wikepedia, and the alleged treasure is now on display at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.
            Zuzu likes to believe the treasure is still buried somewhere at her site.
Robberies at digs are not uncommon, she told us. Then she went on to show some of the care present day archeologists take covering up the sites they unearth, storing the artifacts they find in secure places.
            After our two-hour tour of the site, we stopped at the campsite again where we could order coffee, tea, ice-cream, and buy souvenirs to our hearts’ content. Joe was already sitting at a table. We went and sat at the table next to his. 
Settled at the campsite now, he told us about his father and then we learned that his film equipment had broken down. He had now decided to write about his trip and the open notebook in front of him certainly added evidence as to his intent.
            He looked past us with windswept eyes and I got the distinct feeling he was planning to stay on for quite a while. When I asked Zuzu the next day, if she would see Joe again, she said: “I sure hope so.”
On the Dardenelles, or Hellespont, as it was known, tales of love and passion flourish. It is here that Leander swam across to the European side every night to find his love Hero, who lit a lamp to guide him. One night the lamp was blown out by a fierce wind, Leander drowned, and Hero threw herself from her tower. It is here too that Lord Byron swam the course in honour of Leander and Hero. And it is here that, yearly, Lord Byron swims are organized.
            That night, sitting at a seaside restaurant, we saw a few dolphins swim by in pairs. Large triangle, small triangle, side by side. The next morning the water was full of dolphins again but by the time we crossed, the water was still as if in honour of the guided tour we were about to embark upon.
Gallipoli saw its share of blood during World War I. Allied blood and Turkish blood. We crossed from the Dardanelles to the Agean and back again, with a bus full of Australians and New-Zealanders. This peninsula is preserved as an enormous monument to what occurred there in 1915, when the hills were depleted of trees and people were fighting hand to hand.
            It was hard to picture the dying and rotting corpses of the soldiers who had fallen in between the lines of defence. It came as a relief to hear from our very knowledgeable guide how, at times, fighting would be halted so that enemy sides could help one another out. Once they did so to bury their dead. At times they would throw food at one another over enemy lines with Ottoman soldiers throwing back the cans of spam the other side sent them.
            On this side of the Dardanelles reality and legend are not any clearer than they are on the other side. There is the story of Simpson and his donkey, who dragged many wounded fellow soldiers to safety before he finally fell. And there is the statue of a Turkish soldier carrying the body of an enemy soldier to safety. 
War is a waste. That much was clear. And such tales of heroism help us stomach it.
        A young man in our company had dragged his mother and sister all the way form Australia because he wanted to find the grave of his great-grandfather. He did and, from then on, at every site, he stood looking into the past, his eyes thoughtful and his ears open for every thing the guide told us. And this guide did not stop talking from the moment we left until we got back three hours later.
            The tour ended with a visit to the epic statue of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. He was, back then, an eager young officer in the Ottoman army, who made his mark. This proved to be an important marker in the becoming of Modern Turkey.
      By the end of the day we were back in the bus to Istanbul. It would be my last trip back into the city before leaving for good.


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