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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

If I were a letter in the alphabet and wanted to feel popular, I would probably be the letter K in the Turkish language.  That or Y.  Both those letters happen to be in the name of the town that was our next destination after Istanbul.  How we chose Ayvalik is fairly random.  We knew we wanted to spent time in Turkey somewhere in addition to Istanbul.  Antalya sounded attractive, being on the Mediterranean Coast, but a long way from Istanbul.  Ayvalik, on the Aegean Coast, and about five hours by ferry and bus from Istanbul, looked more doable, so that became our next target.

Getting to Ayvalik meant getting a taxi to take us to the ferry to cross the Maramara Sea to the town of Bandirma.  There, we could get a taxi to go to the bus station to catch a bus to Ayvalik, which was three or four hours away.  However, as we've found out more than once, there are the plans you make, and then there is reality.
The ferry to Bandirma didn't leave until 12:30, so we didn't have to worry about an early up and at 'em as we've had a few times on the trip.  We got to the feribot port in plenty of time, and grabbed a bite to eat after getting our tickets.  We had two sets of two tickets in separate rows.  Annie and Marley were seated next to a Turkish woman who spoke little, if any English, but thanks to written notes and hand gestures and a little help from a Turkish-English translation app they managed to have a conversation about our trip.

The ferry ride was fast and smooth, just like I like my soft serve ice cream. (What?)  It took about two and a half hours to cross from Istanbul to Bandirma, arriving there at around 3pm.  Supposedly the bus to Ayvalik left at 4pm, so we ideally had almost an hour to make it to the bus station.  Our confidence in that happening faded somewhat when a cab driver at the feribot port who didn't speak much English shook his head when I mentioned the bus to Ayvalik which gave me the idea that it had already left.

Turns out that was indeed the case when we got to the bus station and went up to the ticket counter.  The clerk, who spoke virtually no English, conveyed to us the message that the bus had left an hour earlier.  You would think they might want to coordinate the bus and ferry schedules a little better to have more ferry customers buy tickets for their buses, but I guess not.  Our next option was to catch a bus to Balikesir, which left in about 90 minutes and then catch a bus from there to Ayvalik.

That process went fairly smoothly, and we actually got to Balikesir a little earlier than expected, which allowed us to catch an earlier bus to Ayvalik.  It still took almost three hours before we made it to our destination, thanks in part to the number of what seemed to be random stops to let a passenger or two off around five or six times along the way.

Tara, our host in Ayvalik was very gracious on our arrival, sending a taxi driver to the bus station to take us on the ten minute drive to what would be our home for at least the next week. Tara, the same age as Annie and me,  is a native of the U.S. but has lived and worked in Turkey for around 20 years, and loves the place and fits in very well.

One of the attractions about the place we booked with Tara in Ayvalik was the fact that it had cats. We left/abandoned six cats several litter boxes back home in Cincinnati and it's always been a treat for us whenever we've encountered some cats or dogs during our trip.

We were all thrilled at the presence of the felines in our latest home away from home.  Ben and Marley were especially fond of having some furriness to keep them company and they both made blog entries expressing that.
My favorite was one named Daddy-O.  That happens to be what Annie and the kids call me frequently, but that's not why I liked him.  Despite having three legs, an oozing sore on his one remaining front leg, various scars and an overall disheveled appearance, he had a great purr, and was very friendly.
Daddy-O and the other cats seemed pretty happy to have some company and the feeling was definitely mutual.

Adding to our mutual contentment was the village of Ayvalik itself.  We had read where it was a popular vacation destination for people from Istanbul and Ankara and Izmir in southwestern Turkey.  That conveyed images of gelato stands and shops selling trinkets and t-shirts, and maybe miniature turkeys with a fez sporting the red flag with a white C and star that make up the Turkish flag.

Turns out, Ayvalik is nothing like that at all.  Our house, which shares a wall with that of the owner, Tara, is on a hillside in the old part of town.  The house is near the top of the hill, giving a nice view of the harbor and marina. On clear days, the Greek island of Lesvos is visible to the west and provides some beautiful sunsets.
The climb up and down the cobblestone street wasn't too bad, and helped burn off some of the delicious bread and bagel-like simits we were enjoying.  
One of my favorite things to do first thing in the morning was to get up, take a stroll down the cobblestone street, and find a bakery.  A freshly-baked loaf of bread cost the equivalent of a US quarter, and timed right, the purchased bread would still be warm enough to melt butter when sliced open back at the house.

As we returned to the house after eating dinner out one night, we were strolling down an alley when a woman standing outside her shop heard Marley speaking English.  She spoke to us, asked us where we were from and struck up a conversation.  Her name was Asu, (USA backwards, which we got a kick out of) and cooked food out of a tiny little restaurant that had two tables inside and two or three outside basically in the narrow.  She offered to cook us some food sometime during our stay, an offer we promised we would take her up on.

Getting to know Asu, enjoying spending time with Tara and the cats, and immersing ourselves in the Ayvalik life prompted us to stay past our initial plan of one week.  The village is beyond charming, and is safe and very friendly, especially if you throw out the occasional tessekur edemir for thank you and merhaba for hello.

Each Thursday, a massive market springs up in the narrow streets of Ayvalik.  Our first Thursday there was our third morning, and I got up and hit the streets, confident I would go back to the same bakery for the third straight day.  However, about five blocks from our house, I turned left to head to the street where I thought I would easily be able to get to the bakery, I ran right into part of the market.
It's a series of stalls and tables and tarps offering up all kinds of clothing, shoes, food, you name it-you can buy it.   All I wanted to buy that morning was some bread and with all the vendors in place obscuring the familiar guideposts that I needed to navigate, I had no idea where the baker was.

I managed to wander the streets and find my freshly-baked bread and take it back to the house.  Later that day, we returned to the market after meeting some fellow world travelers who we met through Facebook.  Pete and Dalene, who are from Canada,  have a slightly different game plan than us.  They have been on the road for three years now, going from one house-sitting job to another.

After sharing some travel tales and picking up some great information from them, we dove into the market.  They were nearing the end of a three-month house-sitting assignment in a town about an hour away, and had been to the Thursday market in Ayvalik before, so they knew the lay of the land.  We especially enjoyed the wide variety of all kinds of fresh fruits and vegetables.

It's an engineering marvel that the vendors can somehow come into the skinny streets and set up the vast amount of merchandise that they bring to sell each Thursday.  And then they tear it all down each time. 

A major allure of Ayvalik is the location on the waters of the Aegean Sea.  There are no modern hotels or resorts, and no building taller than four or five stories.  It's probably a little more touristy during the high season months of the summer, but we really enjoyed the feel of a walk along the waterfront and seeing the small fishing boats docked there.

Enjoying the company of the cats, we did our best to make sure they were rewarded for their friendship.  Being so close to the water, Ayvalik has an abundance of fish shops, and every other day or so, we would make a quick stop to get something yummy for the cats.

There were no major supermarkets within easy walking distance of our house, but there are several small shops offering a variety of drinks, snacks, beer, some wine-pretty much the normal choices found at a convenience store in the States.  One thing I had trouble finding is butter.

Butter was a key ingredient to enjoying the freshly-baked bread, and one morning I set out with Ben in search of butter.  Marley had burned through our initial supply by making popcorn in a pan the night before.  I figured it couldn't be THAT hard to find butter at 9:30 in the morning.  Oh yes it can!  I walked past the bakery on my way into town, knowing that with the market not operating, I would be able to find it again on my way back to the house.

Part of the difficulty was that I neglected to look up the Turkish word for butter before setting out on our mission.  Several times when I asked about "butter" I was pointed to water.  Thanks, no I'm good there.  We must have checked into a half-dozen stores or more and still had no butter.  What do these people do if there's a waffle outbreak?  I couldn't even find a tub of margarine.  You would think I was looking for a kilo of saffron in a platinum-coated diamond-encrusted urn or something.

Finally I decided that since the bakery was located on something of a busy square, maybe there would be a store there selling the exotic delicacy of butter.  Sure enough, when we turned the corner, two doors down from the bakery was a store, and inside:  BUTTER!!  My hands trembling with anticipation like when Indiana Jones finds the Lost Ark, I managed to give the clerk the right amount of Lira and still have enough to by some bread, returning home with my bounty after a 45-minute mission.

A few days later, needing butter again, I returned to the same store only to find they didn't have the same foil-covered slabs of butter.  I hadn't looked up the word for butter (it's tereyagi in case you need that bit of knowledge) because I didn't think I would need it.  I bought something similar, stopped for bread and discovered when I got back to the house that I was in proud possession of cream cheese.  At least Marley likes that on her toast, so it wasn't a total loss.  It wasn't like I came back with a tub of vegetables.  I did manage later in the day to find a market that had some of the basics, including butter that came in the form of the rock formation from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Ayvalik is a truly ancient city, and not too far away are ruins dating back centuries.  The ones that get the most attention and visitors are found at Ephesus, which was about three and a half hours away from our cozy cottage.  Located only about 45 minutes away, are some ruins at Bergama, so we arranged for a taxi driver that Tara uses a lot to take us there one morning.

Hakkan showed up at our house to find something of a groggy group.  I was tired after spending a couple of nights staying up with Daddy-O.  His condition was deteriorating and his breathing was getting pretty labored and he wasn't purring like he did when we first arrived.

He still seemed to enjoy our company, and would occasionally sprint (as much as a three-legged cat could) into the house and plop down on some cushions on the floor.  Sometimes he would try to get up on the couch and snuggle up against one of us, as he is doing next to my leg in the photo above.  He reminded me very much of Bill the Cat from Bloom County, and I was really hoping at some point he would give me a good "ACK!!" but that never happened.

It felt good to be with Daddy-O through the night for a couple of nights, and he would wake up from time to time and seemed comforted when I would let him know I was there.  He made it through both nights and his breathing even got a little better and his purr would return now and then.  I still expected to just find him not breathing at some point, but he was still of this earth when we left with Hakkan for our trip to Bergama.  Tara had a cleaning woman coming to her house, so we felt better leaving knowing at least someone was going to be around Daddy-O who we put back outside on the patio we shared with Taras' house.

The drive to Bergama was easy, with the roads in pretty good shape along the way.  The main attraction is the Akropoli at the top of the hill over looking the city, but there are other remnants of the ancient and powerful society on the way there.  The first stop was at the Red Basilica, or what was left of it.

One structure that's still fairly intact is a tall rotunda that has an opening in the top, allowing a round shaft of sunlight to illuminate the interior.  Some parts of the basilica facade are on display there, with a description detailing what makes the carvings unique.

A half hour or so was all we needed there, so we made the short drive up the hill to check out the Akropoli.  Just getting out of the cab there literally took our breath away.  Not because of any stunning view, but because the wind was howling!  Once we managed to get our balance and get to a place where we could anchor ourselves against the wind, the view was, well, breath-taking.

It was easy to see why this spot was chosen, it's the classic king-of-the-hill move.  The view goes on for miles in every direction, and when the massive structures were in full bloom, the structure must have been imposing and intimidating for any would-be attackers.
There are informational signs at various points throughout the ruins describing how they were built and how they looked when they were first erected.  The signs also provided us something to hold on to as we got buffeted by the strong winds.  One of the signs said that there was no definitive knowledge of how the ruins were destroyed.  An earthquake is mentioned as a possibility, but my immediate thought as I clutched the sign to keep from being blown to Ankara was maybe they were taken down by high winds.  But I'm no expert on that.
We hadn't felt winds like this since the remnants of Hurricane Ike hit Cincinnati a few years ago.  We managed to not get blown away and return safely to Hakkan, who drove us back to Ayvalik and our house and the handful of cats who shared it with us.

Our original plan was to stay in Ayvalik for a week.  Two factors extended that amount of time.  One was how much we were enjoying our life in the village.  For the first time on our trip, we were really getting to know a place and its' people.  Tara was proving to be a great host, helping us with her fluent Turkish to negotiate some transactions that would have been difficult for us gringos to do.  We were enjoying regular stops at Asu's cozy cafe, where she would cook Turkish food for Annie and me and Ben, and serve up some home made tomato soup for Marley.
One of the local dishes in Turkey is a pasta called manti.  We first heard about it in Istanbul, but didn't get the chance to try it there.  We bought some pre-packaged manti at the market in Ayvalik and as we walked by Asus' place that afternoon, she offered to cook it up for us later that day.  Her home-made manti is only available on Wednesdays, but the sauce she made for the bagged manti we bought was delicious.  The key ingredient seems to be a garlic yogurt that combined quite nicely with the tomatoes she dished up.  The following Wednesday, we had a first-hand taste of the difference in the packaged manti and the home made kind.  The dish that Asu served up was some of the best food we had on the entire trip.

One grim reality that was unfolding was the condition of Daddy-O.  Despite our constant care and attention, he wasn't getting any better.  Most of the time he would just lie on the cushions on the floor, or hang out in the back terrace area.  We kept a close watch on him, making sure that he was still breathing.  About once a day, he would make a major move, sometimes hurrying into the house on his three legs, and collapse onto the cushions.  It was almost as if he knew he didn't have many moves left and he was making the most of them.

Tara said she had never had to put a cat down, and asked us about the unfortunate experience we've had doing that with cats we've had over the years.  We told her that it's never an easy thing to do, but it is better than watching an animal you love suffer.  Daddy-O was quickly getting to the point where he had no quality of life, and it was difficult to watch him basically sleep all day.  Plus, the life had gone out of his eyes, we even thought he might have lost his sight.

So the decision was made one morning to take him to a veterinarian.  After I got the chance to give Daddy-O one final scratching around his ears, Tara and Annie and the kids gingerly picked up our failing feline and took him in.  

As we expected the veterinarian decided to do the humane thing and put Daddy-O down. Annie and the kids and Tara brought him back to Tara's house where we had a brief tearful burial ceremony.  Tara picked a spot where her turtles like to crawl around, and get fed and watered every day.

The loss we felt with the death of Daddy-O was more than made up by the friendship we gained from Tara and her collection of cats.  Plus, she's living proof that it is possible to herd cats! 

A second possibly sad development that was developing involved Asu.  We walked by her cafe almost everyday, and one day, it was locked up.  As we at lunch at a cafe around the corner, Tara managed to talk with some of the locals and find out that Asu was sick.  We had about five days left in Ayvalik and really wanted to at least have the chance to say goodbye and hopefully another tasty meal.

The next three days as we walked through town, we would glance at Asu's spot and there was no sign of her.  Finally, on our second-to-last day there, I spotted the man who helped her out at her place.  He didn't speak much English, but let me know that Asu was fine and she was at her cafe.  I went over, gave her a hug and she said she was over her illness and ready to cook for us again.  

But instead of sitting on some plastic chairs in the alley sipping beer out of paper cups because we were a few hundred meters from the mosque, she would be serving up food and drinks at a new place near the water.  She gave me the directions to her cafe and that night, we all happily walked over to the Komshu Cafe and Pub.  

It was a massive improvement over her previous spot, which had two tables jammed into a small interior space and some chairs and a couple of tables outside.  Her new cafe and pub had a half dozen tables, plus four barstools at the bar.  The interior was freshly painted, with new tile floors and a TV over the door.  You could tell how proud she was of her new surroundings.  She wasn't up to full speed in the new spot, so we just had Ayvalik Tost and french fries, with promises from her to fire up some manti for lunch the following day, our final day in Ayvalik.

The thought of leaving Ayvalik stirred up in all of us the strongest emotions we had felt since that day back in late fall when we got on a plane and launched our trip.  We had gotten very attached to so many different people and places in Ayvalik.  The various people we bought bread and eggs and beer and wine from.  The guy near Asu's first cafe who made frequent trips around the village on foot, delivering orders of the very popular Chai, or tea.  

Asu became a true friend during our stay there, and at the end of another delicious meal on our final day in Ayvalik, Annie cried as we said our goodbyes.  

She also teared up as we packed up and left Taras' cottage after 15 days there.  We were all sad to leave the cats and the cottage behind, but the holes in our hearts were filled somewhat by the love we acquired for a very special place that we hadn't even heard of a few weeks earlier.

Ayvalik is for us, the epitome of what we want this experience to be about.  It's great to see magnificent works of nature, like the 12 Apostles along Great Ocean Road in Australia, or Milford Sound in New Zealand, or the beauty of the mountain village of Sapa in northern Vietnam.  And we've all gotten chills seeing amazing man-made sights, like the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal.  And we'll all remember those experiences for the rest of our lives.  But what we really want for this trip is to live like locals.  To go to the small markets and restaurants, meet people like Asu and get to know them.  Even if it's a guy in a Bengals shirt.
Ayvalik really gave us a sense of what it's like to live in a different part of the world.  And for the first time, we now all have the same "favorite spot" on the trip.

Ayvalik really taught us a lesson:  that sometimes seeing less is living more.  Hopefully we are good students and we put that lesson to work in our lives over the next few weeks and months.


  1. Nice post, I see that the adventure continues, btw the next time you need butter in Ayvalik I know a reliable dairy at the corner of Ataturk and Ataturk.

  2. I miss you guys!! :-) Keep writing. Your stories are beautiful and inspiring.