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Sunday, 01 September 2013

Batman, Turkey

Written by Maria Estrella Aggabao
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It was the first day of July. It was the day I arrived in an old city in the southeastern region of Turkey.  Everyone had warned me back in Istanbul about it.  Don’t go in the summer especially in July and August they would tell me.  The city was called Batman.  I defied all those who told me no.  I was in Batman and I wouldn’t and couldn’t admit it. But, yes, that morning I set foot in the city, the weather was extreme. It was worse than any heat wave I had experienced. That morning, it hit 108 degrees fahrenheit.       

I arrived at the hotel at 6 a.m. from Istanbul, just a mere 2-hour flight. After showering and sleeping for a few hours, I descended for my first and main destination, HASANKEYF.   The town name itself was luminous and mysterious sounding. Though I was not an archaeology expert, I knew what beauty and splendor was and its resting places was in Hasankeyf,  an ancient town 30 minutes from Batman.  Soon the Turkish government would construct a dam in this area and transfer the ruins to another. I had to see the magnificence of this place in its original setting before I left Turkey.  

At 9 a.m. I headed out from my very comfortable hotel.  As my feet touched the first steps outside my hotel’s front door, I felt the enormous sun opening its arms in wide embrace and generously giving away its loving rays.  I wanted to be free from it, but the sun would only capture me again and again as I tried to hide. Perhaps I hadn’t noticed the temperature as much in the wee hours of the morning upon my arrival. Maybe I was still groggy having left for the airport that morning at 2 a.m. 

Batman was busy. It was an ambitious city which, at first glance, disguised itself as small town.  It jumped and danced around to its favorite song like the bustling boomtown that it was.  I looked at the locals strutting around in the middle of downtown as if it were any other ordinary day. In their perspective, of course, it was another ordinary day. To me, the guest, the solo traveler in their neck of the woods, it was more than extraordinary. I was star struck indeed looking at ordinary people. 

My eyes followed them around while I stood waiting to cross the street. The tea cafes were packed that morning as if the crowds of men were celebrating a holiday. The men sat comfortably outside the cafes under old, dusty terrace covers. They were already enjoying their cigarettes as they drank their morning tea, engaged in lively conversations. As I heard layers upon layers of conversations cohesively orchestrated, I wondered what they might have been so excited about this early in the morning. What were they so impassioned to talk about? The high clinking sound of their tea glasses as the men stirred their sugar mixed well with their deep voices.  

Workers headed to their jobs. The tempermental sun and its powerful rays were daily accessories in the same way that tea and sugar were to the culture.  It seemed almost every city or town I visited in Turkey, no matter how big or small, had a buzz. With no exception, Batman had a buzz.  

Slowly and awkwardly I followed the shaded path the tall buildings provided me. In this heat, a minute seemed like an hour.  I wondered if I had ever tolerated such discomfort. Miami or Cambodia, perhaps?  But Cambodia sounded like a pleasant walk in the park as I crowned Batman the new winner. 


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Luckily, across the street next to the Turkish style mini-mart, I spotted a dolmu?, a little van  that transported people back and forth to select destinations throughout the day. It was cheap too:  6 lira (about $3.00) to travel 30 minutes in an air conditioned vehicle. Istanbul had the same. On the back of the van in big letters were the words BATMAN – HASANKEYF.  I hurriedly crossed the street to the van thinking I would hop on and get some relief and go. As I peeked my head inside, I noticed a boy about 10 years old sitting in the first seat near the window. He was alone. I asked him if this was the van going to Hasankeyf and  he confirmed in Turkish that it was.  Like a salesman in training, he accompanied his response with a shy but pleasant smile. The boy jumped out of the van and stood outside soliciting potential passengers walking on the sidewalk. The dolmu? was a convenient form of transportation like a carpool service running almost constantly.  The problem was that you had to wait until all seats were filled before leaving for your destination. For passengers that meant waiting a few minutes or up to an hour depending on how long the driver wanted to wait at one spot for the vehicle to fill up.  

I went inside the air-conditioned mini-mart and bought myself a survival pack:  a bottle of water and an even bigger bottle of Ayran, a combination of yogurt, water, and salt. It’s a national Turkish drink said to help tolerate the heat.  I killed a lot of time in the mini-mart devoting my time looking through the Turkish-brand candy and snack section. The heat, though, seemed to have put a halt on my appetite. 

I glanced outside at some point and noticed the dolmu? started to fill up. Grandmothers in their long black dresses and stunning wrinkled faces piled into the bus with their grandchildren. Seats were filled with couples, old men, different generations of families, newborn babies, and then, me. Loads of bags with goods, vegetables, and fruits piled up in the back. I grabbed a seat in the rear. Sitting next to me was a well-dressed man in a pink polo shirt, white shorts, and sunglasses. He looked at his Iphone incessantly (Iphones are somewhat rare in Turkey because of its high price tag.) There was a middle-aged couple sitting to the far left of me. The woman’s hair was beautifully wrapped in a headscarf, her skin was glowing brown, and her eyes dark with black eyeliner.  She was chatting with her husband I assumed. His face, like most of the passengers, was shiny and sticky. He barely looked at her, but was nodding his head constantly to the sound of her voice. 

We were like passengers eagerly waiting for our plane’s take off. We sat side by side packed corner to corner. Our patience was truly being tested. The driver, however, dapper in his clean newly bleached- looking white shirt and salt and pepper hair, stood outside waiting patiently smoking one of his many Marlboro Classic cigarettes.  Apparently, one passenger was urging him to wait. His friend, his arkada? , would arrive shortly. Drivers followed their own time table and unless under major scrutiny would be the only one to decide to stay or go. Apparently, he took the passenger’s word for it. 

Soon after, I began to hear comments being thrown around by irritated passengers. Some had been waiting for more than 30 minutes. They wondered how much longer it would be for us to wait in this heat and how ridiculous it was that we were waiting this long in the first place. Most people spoke Kurdish which was the prevalent language in this part of the country. I, too, spewed out my own comments. Mine, however, were only in my head in English, just as potent nevertheless. In between my silent rants, I daydreamed about my comfy bed in my cool hotel and how I wished I were there at that moment. 

A minute or so went by when we saw a man carrying a large checkered tote bag running wildly towards the van. His shirt was wet on the back as was his floppy hair. He ran onto the bus and wiped off his forehead with a handkerchief relieved. 


 

The excitement turned high as if we strangers were going on a field trip to an amusement park. This “amusement park”, though, was built over 10,000 years ago. In the front seat next to the driver were 3 other passengers sitting shoulder to shoulder. Our driver turned on the gas, pumped up the air conditioner which seemed to be on the lowest possible setting. The air from the air conditioner barely touched me. I worried that I would have to breathe in hot air throughout the trip. The window to my right was open a crack. I couldn’t open it much more. I tapped the man in front of me to help give it a push, but he could not do much either. Off we went. 

 The Iphone man talked softly on his phone in Turkish. Some quickly fell asleep.  I tried to remain calm hoping I wouldn’t get claustrophic during the ride. 20 people were packed in the dolmu?. Some sat on stool-like chairs, some on people’s laps. Some remained standing. Some sat on wooden boxes covered with a thin pillow to help give relief to their cushy bottoms. Those box sitters sat directly facing the other passengers. There was one young boy on a box sitting directly in my view. He was traveling with his mother and baby brother. When I wasn’t looking out the window, I could see his innocent face. Sometimes he wrinkled his forehead and squinted his eyes when dust blew through the window into his eyes. Otherwsie, he sat there with a serious expression like a dutiful son enduring all the bumps on the road as his mother tenderly carried his baby brother. 

The wind blew gently though that tiny little window space and caressed my face. On numerous instances, I felt very slight traces of cool air from the air conditioner, along with dry air as we sped by other cars,  heat from the tires below my seat, mixing with my own body heat. I watched the colors-- mostly brown and green-- flash by. It was an open space of land. Incredible amounts of land and mountains. They were endless. At some point, I couldn’t tell the difference when one rugged mountain started and when one ended. It was as if a painter was using sand to build the mountains and the sand smoothly blended together. 

I asked the man next to me in my minimal Turkish to let me know when Hasankeyf was nearing.  I didn’t quite know what to expect after all. Would I see a sign that read “HOS GELDINIZ! WELCOME TO HASANKEYF!“ Not likely. What I did notice was that I started to feel the landscape changing. The land became more and more alive and vibrant as we drove on the long, dusty road.  Images would magically appear. I closed my eyes to squeeze in a one-minute nap and then opened them only to see a long stream of water. This water was the Tigris River.  I followed its path never taking my eyes off it. Its sharp, shapely, discolored beauty never aged one moment from the day it was created. The land and the mountains seemed to whisper to follow the water and I would find what I was looking for.

 The bus drove over a small bridge and to its right and left appeared ancient dwellings, caves, towers, and historic monuments. I lost my place. This was not Istanbul. This was not my hometown. I looked in wonder at these ancient works of art that blew away any skyscraper that marveled in any modern city and stunned any city dweller.  The view was even more majestic as I gazed through the tiny dolmu? window trying to capture every angle possible. How small we were, I thought, and how spectacular a gift the ancient people and Mother Earth left as a souvenir for us. 

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The van stopped and unloaded passengers. The Iphone man stopped talking on his phone for a minute and smiled at me and pointed. This was Hasankeyf.  I stood there and just looked around me. On that morning the first day of July of that year, my eyes saw a jewel. For a moment I did not feel that it was likely 110 degrees.  

Not 30 minutes ago I was walking, sitting, waiting, enduring so-called unbearable conditions and minor irritations. We deal with those moments on a daily basis most of our lives. Those minute and what some consider insignificant moments in the beginning of the journey are there to get you where you’re supposed to go. To live through them and arrive in the middle is all part of the journey.  And even on that extremely scorching July day, as soon as I arrived in that glorious place, I knew it was time to play and explore the even more extreme splendor. 

Maria Estrella Aggabao 2013 

© Maria Estrella Aggabao

 

Last modified on Sunday, 01 September 2013