Here is another one from the archive of hand written notebooks. It is also a chapter in a new book I am working on about traveling in the Middle East.
The Lycian Way II (The Cost of Being Alive)
Patara, Turkey March 2013
Everything is free… Nothing is free… Aye… there’s the rub; the fine line which fractures humanity. The question arises every single day. Why do we have to pay money for food and shelter? The spiritual traditions tend to teach the opposite…love your neighbor; practice compassion, the golden rule. For me, at least, the spiritual traditions are but metaphors to describe an instinct that is real and present in all humans. Indeed, to push the concept into the realm of the radical, I would even suggest that the instinct is not just a human instinct but rather a fundamental force in the formula of the whole darn universe. The prophets call it kindness or love. Scientists call it entropy… the opposite of energy. The truth is; humans and all living things have a communal or social instinct.
No doubt, we have an individual instinct too. The other side of the equation. The energy that opposes the entropy. The two forces counter-balance one another and free will comes forth from the center. Unfortunately, these days, civilization is way out of balance. The controlling economic system penalizes the social instinct and rewards the selfish instinct. As such, finding that middle path in between love of self and love of others can be rather difficult. In other words, it’s not always easy to “be nice.”
As the cold rain pours and the harsh wind blows outside, we are warm and cozy inside with candle lighting and amazing food. Ms. B and I are in the common room of a guest house on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. We are the only guests so we have the place to ourselves. But then, an angry young woman comes forth from the storm to interrupt our private romantic dinner. I am correct in my guess about her nationality. She is American. She is mad because she had arranged a free place to stay in the nearby village of Alinca but found the house closed, locked and empty upon arrival. Furthermore, the Turkish cell phone she bought for the trek is not functioning so she can’t call her friend back in Fethiye to find out why the house is locked and nobody’s home. The blowing wind and rain is a nightmare outside so she can’t set up her tent. She desperately needs a place to stay.
“No worries,” I tell her, “they have plenty of room here. It’s only 40 lira (20 bucks) with dinner and breakfast and the food is really amazing.”
“But I don’t have any money with me,” she says. “I was planning to stay everywhere for free.”
“You have no money at all?” I say in disbelief. I do not doubt that she wants to stay for free. Super low budget backpackers with tents and camp stoves are common characters on this lonely planet. Indeed, I’ve been such a character myself in the past. But low budget is not no budget. You can always hope that generous people will put you up in a pinch but you can’t count on it. A wise wanderer will usually carry a small stash of cash for emergencies.
“I spent the last of it at lunch in Kabak,” she says. “I was planning to get more at the money machine in the next town. I was supposed to have a free place to stay here.”
I’ve seen the map and I seriously doubt there is a money machine in the next small village. Indeed, it is highly unlikely that the young lady will come across banking facilities in the next several days along this trail. By my assessment, she’s in a bit of a spot and my generous nature or communal instinct considers helping her out. What’s the big deal? I could lend her or give her 20 bucks so she could stay and eat here. But something inside me says no. I don’t trust her. I have a sneaky suspicion that she’s trust funded with a hidden stash of cash.
The woman from the guesthouse comes out to the common room to welcome the new arrival.
The new arrival doesn’t want to be welcomed. “I need to use your telephone!” she demands. “I’m supposed to stay at ________’s house, but they are not there.” Her words are shouted and enunciated with individual emphasis. I don’t think she means to be rude but she sounds like an arrogant aristocrat talking down to the hired help. I am embarrassed to be from the same country as her. The guesthouse woman speaks no English but seems to understand the request. She smiles politely and disappears into the main house.
Left alone with us again, the young lady tells us her story… her whole story… Her name is S. She’s from New York; she lives in Spain, has a boyfriend in Barcelona but had to leave the country for 60 days because of immigration reasons. She came to Turkey because it is cheap but she doesn’t like it here for a variety of reasons. Istanbul was too expensive so now she is killing time and saving money by travelling around inside the country. She is going “to do” the whole Lycian Way but she doesn’t like to walk very much so she won’t hike it all. She will take rides and public transport whenever possible. She has detailed plans for shortcuts and free places to stay. She talks loud, she talks fast and she talks continuously. It’s probably not nice to say, but the more she talks, the less inclined I feel to offer her my assistance. She doesn’t seem to want it or need it anyway. She’s not asking for help. She’s demanding the free place to stay she was promised.
After a while, the guesthouse lady returns with a telephone. She has managed to reach the missing neighbors where S. is supposed to be staying. They are not home because they got stuck in another town because of the storm. They won’t be able to return until the storm passes. Probably tomorrow morning. The phone is passed to S. so she can talk to them herself. They tell S. to stay where she is. S. again claims she has no money and insists that she was promised a “free” place to stay. I consider offering to help again with some money but I don’t. Eventually, the matter is worked out. A side door is open at the neighbors and S. can go in that way even though no one is there. After all is said and done, she gets her free place to stay. She gives us her card before departing and tells us we should read her blog. She doesn’t even say thank you to the guesthouse lady before storming off into the storm. Ms. B. and I are left alone again to enjoy our romantic candle lit dinner in peace.
We are not so lucky as to get “free” accommodation. We have to pay our 40 lira each for the nice cabin and fantastic food at Bayam’s Pension. The price is not unfair. Indeed, by international standards, twenty bucks for a room and two great (incredible!) meals is exceptional value. No doubt you can get similar service for cheaper in some Third World countries but you would pay a hell of a lot more in the States or Europe. When it comes to the basic cost of being alive, the Lycian Way is the Middle Path of the planet.
The following morning, the storm has passed. After an incredibly delicious multi-course breakfast, we set out walking again on the trail from Alinca to Gey. I can honestly say, if there is a nicer all day walk anywhere on the planet, I have not yet seen it. As a matter of fact, I have a hard time imagining how a nicer walk could even be possible. It begins with a long series of switchbacks that wend slowly towards the sea. We don’t quite reach the bottom and a beach or shoreline before heading upwards again but there are a series of promontories that jut outwards to provide spectacular vistas of the endless Mediterranean blue. The climb upwards on the other side of the bay is not nearly as difficult or challenging as some of the previous days’ climbs and we are now more accustomed to walking with packs so we make it up to the next plateau with relative ease. Then, after a short jaunt through a lovely forest, we find ourselves at a spot that might well be described as heaven on earth.
Superlatives, superlatives, superlatives; yeah, I know, I have a tendency to toss them about haphazardly with each and every new world wonder I come across. And Ms. B. and I no doubt have seen our fair share of amazing places in our various wanders around the planet. Nevertheless, this hilltop overlooking the Mediterranean where we stop to have our picnic lunch on our fourth day on the Lycian Way will probably always remain in my mind as a metaphorical heaven. There is a giant olive tree in the very center that overlooks the scene like the tree of life. There is stone wall terracing and fields of green that descend slowly towards the deep blue sea. A few herds of goats amble about in the distance but there is no sign of any other humans. We lay our blanket out on a particularly picturesque spot in the grass beside a stone wall and retrieve our lunch from our backpacks. That’s right; this is the life. We then proceed to have an afternoon we will both always remember.
Our walk continues after lunch and the way is fairly easy compared to the previous days. No more rolling hills or steep ascents, the trail follows the edge of a high cliff with frequent remarkable views out towards the sea. In the late afternoon, we pass through an open field and cut through a small forest to emerge onto a dirt/gravel road. The road leads us into the small village of Gey. There are no real “restaurants” in the village, but one friendly family offers tea and snacks on the front porch of their small shop. We stop there for a rest. While we are sipping our tea, the lady of the shop uses charades and broken English to inform us that we are “welcome” to stay in the spare room above the shop if we want. We decline the offer, however, because the guide book mentions that “good accommodation” can be found just outside of town on a cliff overlooking the sea.
As it turns out, “good accommodation” is a guide book euphemism for “luxury accommodation.” It takes us about a half hour to locate it by walking on confusing four wheel drive tracks outside the village. And when we do find it, we are rather surprised. There are tall metal gates on the outside and two big barking unfriendly dogs on the inside. Undaunted, we ring the buzzer and wait. The woman who restrains the dogs and opens the gate for us is very friendly but she is somewhat aristocratic in her mannerisms. Her English is heavily accented but fluent and she expresses surprise at seeing us because we have no reservation.
“I can prepare a room for you if you like,” she says, “but my chef is off this week so I’m not so sure about meals. I will have to cook myself.”
“We don’t want to put you out,” I say, “we can go back to the village. But just out of curiosity, how much does it cost to stay here?”
“Really, it’s no trouble at all,” she says. “You are most welcome. I do know how to cook. I have to cook for myself anyway. I am just not as talented as my superb chef. Normal price here is 200 lira per person but since you are only guests and there is no chef, I will let you have the room for only 150. Come on inside. Let me show you around.” It is unclear whether the price she proposes is 150 lira per person or 150 lira total for the two of us, but we follow her inside to have a look around.
The first thing she shows us is the yoga studio. It’s a glass walled little building on a hill with sea views. The interior is warm and cozy with rugs, yoga mats and pillows. It would definitely be a great place to start the day with some morning yoga. Next she shows us the stairway/path that leads down the hill to the dock on the Mediterranean. “Most of our visitors come by boat in the warm season,” she says, “while others come by four-wheel drive as part of a jeep tour. Only a very few are hikers along the Lycian Way like you folks.” Finally, she takes us inside and up the stairs to show us the room… Oh my… It looks more like a movie set for a James Bond hotel room than like a place that normal people would stay. There are big windows with spectacular views towards the Mediterranean. There is a fancy marble sink and a great big marble bathtub. Is that a hot tub big enough for two? There is fur, fur and more fur; fur rugs on the floor and fur blankets on the beds. I am flabberghasted… speechless. It is definitely “good value” for the price we were offered even if it is 150 lira (75 bucks) per person. And we can indeed afford to stay here. It’s over our daily budget but I had a good work season and can therefore splurge a little if we want. But the truth is; ostentatious luxury kind of makes my skin crawl. It is, perhaps, a deep seeded flaw in my character, but I am just not comfortable in the world of the wealthy. I much prefer simplicity. Fortunately, the love of my life, the wonderful Ms. B. is well aware of my character.
“It’s a very nice place you have here,” says Ms. B. politely. “but it’s not quite what we are looking for right now. With all this comfort, we would have a hard time continuing our hike.”
“I understand,” says our hostess graciously. She probably didn’t really want us to stay anyway. “There is a basic pension back in the village called Bayam’s. It is not very fancy but it is decent and very reasonably priced.”
“Ok,” we say. “Thank you. We will try there.”
She leads us back to the gate and lets us out. It takes us a half hour or so to walk back to the village. We find Bayam’s Pension just before nightfall. There are several other hikers staying there but we get our own small room. As before at the other Bayam’s, the cost is 40 lira per person and that price includes two meals. Dinner is served shortly after we arrive and it is delicious. An incredible feast after a full day of walking is the perfect way to end the day.
The following morning we awake to find out that the weather has taken a nasty turn again. A cold rain falls and a harsh wind blows. We could, of course, continue onwards like super trekkers, unafraid to challenge the elements. But, then again, we have no time schedule so there is no real reason why we have to. We consider the issue as we eat our breakfast. It turns out to be one of the best multi-course breakfasts we have ever been served anywhere on the whole planet earth. My God, My Buddha, My Allah…so damn good. Yummm… Last night’s dinner was amazing and this morning’s breakfast is incredible. I can’t help but wonder what they are serving tonight for dinner. “What do you think Ms. B.? No hurry, no worry, right?”
“I think it is a good day for a scrabble tournament,” she says.
We play nine games of scrabble throughout the day. Ms. B. wins five and I win four. I like to let her win sometimes to help build her confidence. In between games and during breaks in the rain, we amble about the village and meet a few locals. It’s an Alevi Shite Muslim village with warm and welcoming inhabitants. There’s a small shop where we buy supplies in case we decide to camp tomorrow. I’ve been carrying the tent and sleeping bags the whole walk. I sure hope we get to use them at least once. We go back to the Pension in the mid-afternoon and discover that they are serving lunch. Only dinner and breakfast are included in the 40 lira bed and board price because most hikers continue after only one night. Nevertheless, the family of the house is sitting down to their midday meal and we are invited to join them. It’s feels a bit like Thanksgiving as we tuck ourselves into another feast.
What can I say about the food at Bayam’s Pension in particular and all along the Lycian Way in general? Is it, perhaps, some of the best food on the whole darn planet? It is all fresh from the surrounding ecosystem. It doesn’t travel far from earth or sea to plate. There is fish from the Mediterranean; Goats and Sheep from the countryside; Milk, cheese and yogurt from the dairy up the hill; chicken and eggs from the back yard and, of course, home made bread and garden vegetables dipped in the ever-present olive oil. I could go on and on; so many great flavors in so many great combinations. Perhaps the challenge of hiking stimulates my appetite and thereby enhances the flavor of the food. Or maybe the fresh Mediterranean air massages my taste buds into deeper awareness. Or maybe the nice Muslim families just know how to make culinary magic with ancient recipes and fresh new ingredients. I do not know the objective reason behind the experience; I only know my subjective experience. For me, at least, every single meal I have along the Lycian Way is absolutely world class… except one. And that is the one meal that I prepare for myself.
The sun returns the following morning so we leave Bayam’s after breakfast and continue hiking onwards. How far will we go today? Where will we stay? This is the question we consider as the trail leads us along a cliff side with long distance views of deep blue sea. I, of course, want to go as far as possible and sleep in a tent. Ms. B. is there to counsel for some ease and relaxation. “No need to hurry,” she says. “Let’s just see where we end up. If we find a perfect camping spot, we can stop at any time because we are prepared. But if a good day’s walk finishes at another lovely little pension with more amazing food, we will just have to accept fate.”
What a day of walking it turns out to be. Rolling hills and deep blue sea. The pathway meanders from bay to bay. There are pine forests and olive groves; terraced hillsides and small villages. There are goats and sheep and chickens and humans. The people seem to be thriving as a part of an ecosystem. There are isolated shipwreck beaches and steep cliffs for differing perspectives of Mediterranean shorelines. And there are uphill climbs and long slow descents to remind the body about the goodness of vigorous exercise.
We reach the village of Gavuragili in the mid-afternoon and find another reasonably priced Pension. 40 lira per person includes two substantial meals. But it’s still fairly early and we can’t even see the sea from here. There’s supposed to be “good accommodation” further on and we do have provisions for camping if necessary so we decide to keep going. We pass through the village to the other side and then begin descending on a long winding dirt road towards the sea. After several switchbacks downward, we reach the “good accommodation,” perched nicely in the nook of the hillside. There is a big metal gate and a sign indicating that the place is closed because the owners are away on vacation in Europe. It looks a bit luxurious for my taste anyway though the view is quite impressive. We meet a nice young man named Mohammed outside the main gate and he explains that he is the caretaker of the place.
“I am not permitted to open the main house for guests while they are away,” he says, “but if you are in need of a place, you can have my room.”
“You’re room?” we question,
“Yes,” he says, “my room. It is good accommodation. There is even small kitchen to make meals. No worry about me. There is sleep space in office too. I will stay there.”
“But we don’t want to take your room.”
“It is no problem,” he says, “you are most welcome. I will clean for you first. You will be most comfortable.”
“No, really,” I say, “we have a tent and provisions. We are looking for a good place to camp. Maybe a spot with a view. With some water nearby perhaps.”
“Oh,” says Mohammed with a wide smile, “you are looking for Paradise. I show you that too. Come follow me.”
So we follow Mohammed away from the comfortable guesthouse and down a steep pathway towards the sea. It takes almost a half hour of stumbling and watching our step to reach the bottom, but when we get there… Wow. Mohammed does not disappoint. The vision ahead of us is like from a dream… a fairytale… an ancient legend.
A tiny plateau juts out into the sea like a closed fist raised to the horizon. A clump of trees and shrubs on the knuckles shelters a nook in the palm from the wind and elements. A cut pathway leads downward from this perfect camp spot to a very useable rocky beach. As the late evening sun splashes the horizon with gold I can’t help but think that we have found a place where the ancient gods played games with chosen mortals. “That is camp spot,” says Mohammed, as he points out the plateau up ahead.
Like a good guide, Mohammed shows us to a nearby spring to fill our water bottles before leading us to the camp spot. He then tells us that we are perfectly free to camp there and no one will bother us. We may see fishermen in the morning bringing boats to the beach but campers here are fairly common and the fishermen tend to shy away from them. “If you have any problems, I am just up the hill,” he says, “and there are more helpful neighbors if you follow the pathway going up the other side of the bay.”
After Mohammed leaves us, Ms. B. and I set up our camp. There is a good flat spot for the tent and a ring of rocks for a fire place. We gather wood for the fire ring and arrange our sleeping mats and bags inside the tent. As the sun falls towards the horizon, the temperature cools so we start the fire. I’m going to need that fire to warm up after I take my plunge because, that’s right, I am going to take the plunge. I will be diving into the waves of the Mediterranean to celebrate the setting sun.
“What do you say Ms. B.? Are you ready for a sunset swim?”
A full moon climbs up one horizon. A full sun slides down the other. Try to find the focus point where moon meets sun… Now leap… Splash. Sometimes the best things in life really are free. How good is this life? Pretty gosh darn good.