National Geographic Accident

When I was a Freshman or Sophomore in high school, some time around 1993, I had to write a project concerning something anthropological, I reckon, although I don't remember for what class. History? English? "Social Studies"? Was Social Studies a class in high school? I can't remember any of this. In fact I don't remember much of high school at all, even though I was the most sober straight-A kid ever... for the most part. What I do remember is a mix of greasy gross cheese bread with a burp of ketchup at the midmorning break for breakfast, women's chorus at the ungodly hour of 7 a.m. before school started, rabid note passing, foggy bits of the GHS LitMag meetings, and somehow--repeatedly--losing my key to the house.

But this isn't about any of that. It's about west African cultures, yellow magazines and serendipity. When I was a Freshman or Sophomore in high school, I wrote a report on the Dogon peoples of Mali. Most--if not all--of my research came at the last minute from an article I found in National Geographic, October 1990 edition. The little I'd remembered about the Dogon from this article had to do with their treatment of women: a "crazy" young girl living with her ankles shackled; and menstruating women cast away during their periods to a house adorned with vile depictions of females with huge genitals. This took up only sentences in the hefty article, and maybe didn't even make it into my school report. But it makes sense that I remember the woman parts, because of the tenuous space in womanhood that I was pubescing into, first with a deteriorating mother and then motherless among men. If I did write about the tribe's women in my report it marks the beginning of the slew of women-issue essays that I would write well into my university years.

More than the article, however, I remember my dad and brother teasing me about doing a report on a wacky culture. It was gentle teasing, the kind that might actually make you laugh, in retrospect at least. (I probably cracked only half a smile at the time.) It was the kind of teasing that occurs when there is nothing else to say. The same way that little boys and girls may flirt by hitting or making fun of each other to feel close for a moment in each others' presence. Teasing as an alternative to uncomfortable silence, which sometimes pervades whole households.

But this isn't about that either. It's about serendipity. Defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as "an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident." Horace Walpole first coined the term serendipity in a letter of January 28, 1754, where he discusses a discovery, which '"is of that kind which [he] call[s] Serendipity, a very expressive word." Walpole formed the word on an old name for Sri Lanka, Serendip. He explained that this name was part of the title of "a silly fairy tale, called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses traveled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of...."' (

I can't say that I remembered that report was on the Dogon culture or that the info came out of a NatGeo mag. And I certainly wouldn't have known which year the article appeared. Memory is a fickle flimsy thing after all.

A week ago, the forgotten facts resurfaced. I was sitting in an office, waiting for Serkan while he filled out some work forms. A waiting room of sorts with a view to the Ankara skyline, the noisy streets below and Turkish conversations out of my reach on the couch across from me. I started browsing the collection of National Geographics, scanning their spines from new to old, from Turkish to English. The discomfort of waiting, not understanding my surroundings, trying to look cool and absorbed, brought me easily to Elizabeth Bishop's poem In the Waiting Room--though her little girl was 8 and I am 31. (Someday when I retell this 'story' I'll have been less than 10 years old too.)

Only about 10 NGs were in English. I wondered, in the quiet space of the thoughts beneath thoughts: What was happening in the the world while Mom was dying? And wouldn't it be crazy if I found the article I used for that report? I wouldn't be able to wait to tell Dad. He'll remember this article too and we'll share a moment. I picked out one with rainbow fishes under the sea on the cover and put it back. I skipped over the one with a Cappadocia article in it, even though we had just visited there. Then I took the collection's oldest National Geographic off the shelf and sat down with it. The feature articles were about global warming ("Under the Sun--Is Our World Warming?") and an amazing civilization of climbers with an impressive funeral culture ("Mali's Dogon People").

I read the Dogon article straight through in a two-steps-forward-one-step-back fashion, jumping ahead at the beginning of each new paragraph to see if something in it seemed familiar. Had I read this before? Is this the fodder of that decade-old report? What are the chances of that? This article here in Turkey? I'm so close, I could go there! To Mali. To the Bandigara Cliffs. Back in time.

Ercan, Serkan's friend, asks me what I am reading so intently; is it in English? I tell him the story, maybe my voice even cracks. So much bundled inside these 27 pages, more than the article itself or its rediscovery. Briefly a parallel universe unfolded itself, unpacking distance and space and time. But what makes a discovery serendipitous anyway? Can my second encounter with the Dogon still be considered a happy accident if at some very hidden level I thought I might actually reunite with the article? Before last week, the story had meant nothing to me, not even a blip on the old radar. Now I'm not sure what the connections and reconnections mean, if anything, but I write about them anyway.

A soon to be relevant poem about falling...

...about stumbling suddenly into personhood, specifically into womanhood.
By Elizabeth Bishop, one of my favorites.

In the Waiting Room
by Elizabeth Bishop

In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist's appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist's waiting room.
It was winter. It got dark
early. The waiting room
was full of grown-up people,
arctics and overcoats,
lamps and magazines.
My aunt was inside
what seemed like a long time
and while I waited I read
the National Geographic
(I could read) and carefully
studied the photographs:
the inside of a volcano,
black, and full of ashes;
then it was spilling over
in rivulets of fire.
Osa and Martin Johnson
dressed in riding breeches,
laced boots, and pith helmets.
A dead man slung on a pole
--"Long Pig," the caption said.
Babies with pointed heads
wound round and round with string;
black, naked women with necks
wound round and round with wire
like the necks of light bulbs.
Their breasts were horrifying.
I read it right straight through.
I was too shy to stop.
And then I looked at the cover:
the yellow margins, the date.
Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain
--Aunt Consuelo's voice--
not very loud or long.
I wasn't at all surprised;
even then I knew she was
a foolish, timid woman.
I might have been embarrassed,
but wasn't. What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I--we--were falling, falling,
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
February, 1918.

I said to myself: three days
and you'll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world.
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
I gave a sidelong glance
--I couldn't look any higher--
at shadowy gray knees,
trousers and skirts and boots
and different pairs of hands
lying under the lamps.
I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.

Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?
What similarities--
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts--
held us all together
or made us all just one?
How--I didn't know any
word for it--how "unlikely". . .
How had I come to be here,
like them, and overhear
a cry of pain that could have
got loud and worse but hadn't?

The waiting room was bright
and too hot. It was sliding
beneath a big black wave,
another, and another.

Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.


Ankara to Samsun from the air conditioned bus...

A bull mounts a heifer while the shepherds in yellow slickers drive them slick toward the storm, and bolts touch the ground green pasture from granite sky. Lightning flashes at quickening intervals. Maybe there is thunder, which I don’t hear behind my ears corked by earphones and the chorus of sax, piano and percussion akin to big band; behind the Turkish news blaring on the drop down TVs—thick white all-cap captions on red rectangular backdrops like skinny Turkish flags censoring the suit of the newscaster right where his nipples would be; and behind the hum of the bus on the wet asphalt.

Sometimes the lightening pinks or blues the dusk, stayed stuck behind the storm or else it breaks through and zigs horizontal, aligned with the horizon. The bus totters toward Samsun, where Serkan's parents live. I'd been nervous up to this point, but now I'm calm and sleepy, able at least to offer some chocolate-covered cotton candy truffles, bought from the 30-minute, 75-kurus bathroom break at the gas station-slash-tea garden in the middle of nowhere.

By the time the bus reaches the next town, it's night and rain. Rivers flood the streets and the downpour paints the bus windows, sheets of water distorting everything wavy outside. Thunder roars out the maw of sky, ending in a sound like tin trash bins dropping clunk clack clack to the cement.

Aladağlar Red Mountains

We escaped to the Red Mountains (Aladağlar) for a few days of backpacking from Ankara, the capital, busy yet efficient city. It's the first time I've been trekking since Chile, and it was so nice to be back to it! The mountains are exposed and not forested at all, so the morning sun would already start to bake us in the tent by 7 a.m. Even so, the nights were cool enough for me to wear a wool hat and hiking during the day still proved much cooler than in the city.

Our first night out, we watched the stars deepen and wondered which planets those brightest stars were. When suddenly: A faraway flash in the sky. No clouds.

Serkan: Lightning?
Me: but there's no thunder.
S: It might rain on us.
Me: Maybe somebody is taking pictures. There's a tent down in the valley.
S: Yeah, it's god. As a witness to our love because the moon's not out to see us. God says, What a beautiful couple, Let me snap some photos of them.
laughs herself into a ball.

No rain or thunder that night, just distant gray lightning.

Capadoccia Roundup

Everywhere we go Serkan seems to hook us up somehow. Everyone is so talkative, not to me so much, because I don't understand anything. Though, that is becoming less and less true. Every once in a while, I bust out with a moment of utter understanding. I'm just unable to respond in Turkish. It's nice, however, to have those moments of clarity, to feel like a little kid again, extremely proud of oneself for accomplishing a new feat.

Our first day in Cappadocia, we went out for a walk to photograph some of the manmade structures in the rock around Ürgüp. One place was so elaborate, it even had a built in dining area complete with a table and benches. All of these houses and rooms are vacant now, which leaves them open to mountains of litter, urinating men and nighttime beer guzzling, which evidently ends, ceremonially, by breaking the brown bottles.

In the evening we walked toward a UNESCO world heritage site to check it out and said hello to the night guard there. It was already dusk, and it didn't look like we'd be allowed to loiter, but Serkan asked if it would be alright if we went in. Not only were we able to pass. The night guard proceeded to give us a tour of everything, even the buildings that were closed up for restoration. He took us into the old church (eventually converted into a mosque), the hamam (bath house), stables, wine cellars, all over. Serkan did his best to translate all the details for me, but the night guide went into about a 30-minute story on the Greek dude/martyr who used to sleep in the stable to be closer to the animals. If it was good enough for the animals, it was good enough for him. I did not get the 30-minute version of that story.

The next day we took a bus to Uçisar, known as Pigeon Valley, because most of the rock formations in this area are replete with nesting nooks for the pigeons (aka doves, famous hippie symbols of peace and love). We can only take the bus so far and then have to walk a few kilometers into town. We'd walked less than five minutes before an old man in an old blue pick-up picked us up. We weren't even hitchhiking. He just asked if we wanted a ride. We hopped in, and he told us how he is one of the area's most prominent carpenters, an expert in stone masonry. Then he pointed out the houses, which he had built, many of them more than a decade older than me.

The following day, the same thing happened on our way back from visiting the gigantic, multi-level underground city in Kaymakli. As we walked toward the main road to wait for the bus, a man in a fancy van asked us if we were going to Nevşehir--which we were to catch the next bus back to our temporary home in Ürgüp. He took us to the bus stop in Nevşehir, and before he dropped us off, he gifted us a handful of Napolean cherries and the most delicious apricot I have ever tasted.

We also visited the Göreme Open Air Museum, where we must have ducked into about 20 cave churches with Byzantine frescoes. Lovely, cool respites from the heat outside. On the way down the hill, back into the town of Göreme, we passed by a sign that said Fairy Chimney Valley or something like that. It was hot out and neither one of us was really feeling the whole walk-in-the-heat thing, but we figured we should check it out, just for a few minutes. As in life, one path led to another, until we were mini-trekking through the valley on the way to a different town altogether. A couple hours later, on our approach to the tiny village of Çavuşin, we were actually outrunning dark clouds, violent dusty winds and miniature twisters. The next bus wouldn't arrive for another hour, but we were able to hire a driver for only 15 lira back to Ürgüp. The downpour started once we jumped in the car. Whew.


We arrived to Ürgüp around 6 a.m. on the overnight bus. The sun rose during our approach to town, splashing pink hues over the stone alleys, while the morning’s blue hot air balloons ascended. When we stepped off the bus to find a place to stay, the sky was already lighting up the apparent ghost town in the yellow phase of early morning. We walked up the street and up the stairs toward a mini plaza raised above the streets around it. All the tables and chairs were out, left to sit alone throughout the night, though none of the cafes or shops were open. Nobody in the streets. We sat down at one of the tables wishing for tea and joked how in Chile we would never see so many tables and chairs, even fridges cooling iced teas and water left out in plain sight overnight. In most places the furniture would be stolen or vandalized. Of course there’s a lot of vandalism in Turkey as well, mostly of national treasures, like the landscape and buildings carved into the rock in Cappadocia. It’s the same lack of respect for natural and/or ancient wonders we see everywhere. There’s really no escaping it, an education lack, but it’s another story.

Cappadocia may very well be one of my favorite places. After writing that though, it’s impossible to make such sweeping statements. In any case, Cappadocia is magic, it is lunar. It’s bizarre. The landscape created by volcano eruptions around 30 million years ago, covering the area with ash that eventually hardened. The rock, known as tuff is extremely malleable by weather and by people. Over time the rock has disintegrated creating spiky valleys known as fairy chimneys. They say the early inhabitants of Cappadocia called myriad towers “fairy chimneys” because they believed them to be the chimneys of fairies, who lived underground. What’s more amazing than the shape of the land, though, is the fact that people carved homes into the rock. Not just homes, there are entire underground cities that go down seven or so levels. Old homes were connected to escape routes and tunnels below the Earth. Today you can stay in renovated cave hostels, with rooms etched out from the rock or chill out in underground bars. There is a definite Flinstone feel; even a few eponymous businesses to boot.


I keep having the same dream: Everyone around me is speaking Turkish, and I don't understand. The feeling is distinct and has its own evolution, depending on the time of day, who we are with, etc. Sometimes I try really hard to follow the conversation, and I can, relying mostly on gestures or place names or other familiar sounding words I hear: kayak, Patagonia, California. Other times I check out completely, submarining into my own world, which can be small or colorful or huge or sleepy, depending on the time of day, who we are with, etc.

But the real question is: If I can't speak Turkish in real life, what language are they speaking in my dream? Does my subconscious know Turkish? Or is it just some nonsense filler to help me feel that slight disunderstanding discomfort while I sleep? Maybe all I have to do is relax and start speaking in tongues. More likely I need to study more.

Adventures in driving, etc.

A couple of Serkan's friends went to Nepal for a month or so, and they let us borrow their car while we are here. It's a good thing because we are staying in a little mountain hut sans electricity. However, it's been a long time since I've driven. And I don't think I've ever driven a diesel. It's a huge heavy mother of a car, a '79 Mercedes. 30 years old. It would be awesome to say that it's older than me... but alas, that is no longer true. My first attempts to drive it out of the driveway resulted in several stalls, mostly because I couldn't get the gears in reverse. Hoo boy. Now I'm a regular pro with the super hippie mobile, though. I only tried to go the wrong way down a one way street off of one of those damned roundabouts once... and that was on the first day of driving. Now I'm three days in and doing much much better. Just don't test me on my parallel parking skills... or my navigation... or my Turkçe for that matter.

It's almost too hot during the day to climb, but there are a few places in the shade, plus a cave, where we climbed this morning. I totally bit it though and fell in the worst amateur way possible: upside down. Hoo boy. This is starting to sound like my super blonde blog entry...

Gateway to Dawn

The moon has been following us from it's newness on into its waxing. As a witness to our love, Serkan will say, and we'll laugh, because it's true. It feels like our moon, even though every one across the Earth is seeing the same phase of the moon, at slightly differing hours, taking time zones into account. But not everybody is seeing the moon. Either they don't look or, in Patagonia for example, clouds cloak the moon or it's too damn cold to frollick around outside all day in a bikini. I can't remember the last time I was so aware of what shape the moon was in, every day, every night. We're outdoors all the time and the sky always near cloudless clear. In the afternoon I point it out: there she is. At night risen higher in the sky, it lights our night walks to the beach or to the Chimera natural fires always aflame in the mountains outside Olympus.

I am sitting crosslegged in the matins on a huge deck of a climber's bungalow in Geyibayiri, outside Antalya. (It sounds like Gateway to me... though that's not exactly right. The canyon is wide, but in some places you can see both sides of it simultaneously and view how, one day long ago, the cliffs fit together. There are hundreds of climbing routes only a stone's throw away and no other houses for acres. The bungalow sits among olive trees, citrus and green plums. Pomegranate trees blossom red blooms for springtime. In a few more months, during the climbing season, climbers will take pomegranate breaks.

The moon is already hidden in rotation, so that the stars actually pop. They all seem to be moving and sending their thousands-year old messages, which only the crickets can decode. But they decipher it all in cricket language, and I don't speak cricket. As the night softens into dawn, an owl scatters its coos across the valley. Somewhere a river rushes and the limestone cliffs blush with the coming sun. The crickets give way to noisy birdsong and flies like aeroplanes have already begun to jet around my head.

The Greek gods knew where to kick it.

We arrived to Olympus on my birthday. Home of Zeus. Ancient city ruins, rocky beaches with calm waters to swim in, climbing routes galore (even for beginners like me), pine forests, orange and pomegranate trees, all kinds of fruit trees, really. It's a beautiful place, all the buildings made of wood. The hostel-slash-restaurants-bars all call themselves treehouses. Before I arrived I imagined that they would be little abodes up in the pine trees, you know, like real treehouses. It's not exactly that, just some rustic rooms among the trees and limestone walls that jut up from the sea level land. Still lovely, blending in well with the landscape.

The bday was pretty low-key, mostly traveling to get here from Fetihye. Once we arrived, we showered and headed for the beach. It was already getting a bit chilly, so I didn't swim, but we walked the rocky shore and bought beers and watched the shadow of the sunset on the water. Dinner included at the hostel, another walk through town to buy some wine. Also I tried my first bubble pipe, apple flavored and relaxing.

Today we met up with a big group of Serkan's friends. Good listening to Turkish time for me. It always makes me nervous, though I wish upon wish it didn´t. But today, we drove to a nearby, less ship-crowded beach called Adrasan where we swam and sunned ourselves with breaks beneath the straw beach umbrellas. After lunch we drove back to Olympus and walked a quick five minutes into a narrow canyon to climb. At sundown we walked through the ruins of the ancient city to the Olympus beach and watched the stars come out. So nice to see the big dipper again. You don't get the big dipper in the southern hem, just the Southern Cross. Equally cool, but one feels closer to home than the other.


Related Posts with Thumbnails