Thursday, October 16 Goreme Birthday Day
This is the type of post that should be written three or four days hence after I have had a chance to actually digest the number of experiences that came my way. First it was my 55th birthday and while I didn’t think of it all day, I was aware that I was celebrating it on pilgrimage in Turkey unlike past birthdays that were celebrated with family and friends. I wouldn’t want it to be this way every year and I was thankful for the growing number of birthday wishes that showed up in Facebook and email as the day went on. I am ten hours ahead of my West Coast community and pretty much on cue birthday wishes started flowing in about the time dinner started for me here in Turkey.
It was an almost dizzying day of visual and jaw-dropping sights. I spontaneously blurted out loud on numerous occasions, “You’ve got to be kidding me,” as I came upon another natural wonder or stood in awe at the sacred feel of ancient churches that were created by chipping away at massive rock formations. There are Gothic style churches in America that are made of stone that are truly a marvel to look at. But, to walk into a church that is in the center of a rock cone (a really big cone!) literally made my knees go weak. I marveled at the similar design that we have become used to. An altar up front for various rituals, carved shelves for the placement of holy icons, and frescoes of the Biblical narrative that display the faith in story form on the walls and ceilings.
My favorite of the day was the Pancarlik Church in the valley of the same name. There were equally impressive rock churches near Goreme that had much larger crowds, tour buses parked in larger lots, and attendants in the most fragile churches making sure we didn’t take pictures or touch the frescoes on the walls. But, I think part of the attraction of the Pancarlik Church was that there wasn’t the usual build up to it with signs and arrows pointing to it and buildings that signified we were at something important.
I found the Pancarlik Church on a dirt road that was suggested by my biking friend, Jon, at Middle Earth Adventures. I spent about an hour on that road, during which time only three vehicles passed me—a tractor, a car with a trunk full of furniture, and truck with supplies. I almost rode by the sign to the church. I had just stopped at another ancient rock church site, but the doors built into the rock were locked. Pancarlik Church was a little off the main road and I wasn’t sure I wanted to ride down the hill and have to come back up it again. But, I said to myself, “I may be in Turkey only once and even if there isn’t much to see I will have discovered that.”
I rode the kilometer down the hill and as I reached the end a older man was tinkering away at his old moped. As I arrived he greeted me and told me that walking the paths to the church and the monastery would be five Turkish lira. He had a small hut with a wood fire going that he stayed in that reminded me of some of the simple abodes from the movieThe Hobbit. I made way down to the church and as I entered I just started shaking my head and saying, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” Here was this church nearly a thousand years old being monitored by an kind old man. No one else was there. It appeared that I might be the only visitor all day.
Much of the frescoes were still intact, but slowly being chipped away by time and gravity. What struck me the most about it was this sense of how people long ago knew how to shape a space in a way that directed the energy in such a way that made it feel holy or sacred. The energy was palpable and I found myself having to remind myself to breathe. Being that I am part of the priestly class, so to speak, I chose to walk all the way up to the front and stand behind the rock altar, an act I had not seen by other visitors in the other churches, as if that was off limits to them. As I left the site and paid my five lira I touched my hand to my heart and the old man just smiled. He got it. He knows. We shook hands with the more intimate double handshake that is often reserved for friends.
I cannot write about all of the experiences today. I more pictures today than I did at that Vatican six weeks ago. I strolled through one open air museum , as they are called, and was struck by how the villages built into the rock resembled a Turkish version of Colorado’s Mesa Verde. I had to allow myself to accept tea from a gas station attendant as I shifted from Istanbul to the smaller villages again. In Istanbul, at least in the touristy Old Town, the offer of tea is the beginning of trying to seal a carpet deal or a major purchase of cashmere or satin. And I enjoyed some glorious views of the valley from that dirt road with the fall colors starting to show, rock chimneys set up like chess pieces across the terrain, and canyons ripping through the center of it all.
I celebrated my birthday at the end with food. I enjoyed a particular Cappadocian custom called pottery kebab. I had a lamb version of it. A small piece of pottery is used to cook what essentially ends up being a stew. The ingredients are stuffed into the pottery, sealed off at the top and then cooked over wood heat. When it is served, it is accompanied by a small hammer. I was invited to give a few sharp taps to the neck of the pottery which causes the pottery to break. The top is then removed and I am able to dish the entrée out in servings. It was quite tasty and what I remember most was how tender everything was. I ended the evening with a latte and deep-fried ice cream just to put the finishing touches on my 55th birthday.
I am very much at home with myself which is a mixed blessing. I am glad that that is the gift that emerged from this pilgrimage. I am also aware that I still have between 200-250 miles still to go and my body and mind are really starting to relax. That is usually a good thing, but a couple of unexpected challenges are going to force me to dig a little more deeply. While I tossing and turning on the bus from Istanbul to Goreme, we had gained nearly 4,000 feet in altitude. I noticed yesterday in the casual riding that I was doing that my chest felt tight and my legs mushy. My body has not yet adjusted to the sudden gain in altitude.
The bigger concern, however, is that this early fall weather is predicted to provide a hint of winter over the weekend. The average highs for this time of year here are in the high 60’s. Saturday and Sunday are supposed to have lows near freezing and highs in the low 50’s with three days of rain beginning tomorrow (Friday). If I hadn’t bought my ticket from Konya to home, I could wait this out, but right now I only have about one day of give in my schedule. Not sure yet what this will mean, but I will take it a day at a time and make decisions as I go.
My mind and my soul are feeling very much at home with who I am and with who my tribe is. It’s been an amazing pilgrimage in that way. Finally being able to separate my livelihood from my passion has lifted the angst that I have carried in my bones for years. I now just need to figure out how to drag this old body back home!