In November 2012 I went on a trip with a few guys I know to the region of Cappadocia in central Turkey. Istanbul is one of the most vibrant, interesting, beautiful cities, a true east meets west and where I’ve returned over and over, and this was my first adventure into the depths beyond.
Our journey began at Büyük Otogar, meaning “Main Bus Terminal,” a large chaos in that ‘make your own rules’ chaos that persists in warm climates it would seem. Following a 10-hour red eye bus ride to another bus ride and friendly locals inviting us to tea and breakfast, a welcoming custom that will stun any New Yorker, we eventually arrived to the region of Cappadocia and the town of Göreme. In a sand like valley with rugged cliffs and shades of gold and red in the earth blinding bright against a clear blue sky, we had arrived. Where are we I thought, this faraway land? We strolled through the town full of artisanal shops selling rugs and nargiles before settling in at the ShoeString Cave House Hostel.
The place is magical and the rooms are carved into the mountain. In the courtyard there are beautiful trees and flowers and on the roof a large terrace and a pool closed for the impending winter. Though the sun shined hotly, even in November.
Tonight, we were sleeping in a cave, no not our Cave House hostel, 3,500 year old caves lived in by early Christians. These camouflage cave dwellings with hidden churches cover the entire region, some cities are entirely underground and others existed within tall sediment deposits from a volcanic eruption otherwise known as “fairy chimneys.”
I partially thought these friends of mine must be crazy to decide to spend the night in one of these caves, but I was crazy enough to be traveling with them and figured why the heck not. We arrived to our chosen cave before nightfall so we could gather kindle for the fireplace/oven the Christians had left us. The cave itself was just a little bit of a climb off the ground, still visible to the main road and with three — perhaps two and a half walls. In the distance was a horse farm and beyond us a hiking valley, part of Göreme National Park which we had traversed a few days earlier.
As the sun went down, so did the temperature and so the kindle would be necessary to build a fire and stay warm, or at least not totally freeze through the night. Golden light filled the field next to us and while the menfolk played the role of gatherers I guarded our abode for the night and our belongings — and kept an eye on the lone cow and goat that seemed to be joining us too.
Crackle, pop the fire started burning and we each climbed into our sleeping bags. The outside pitch black. Strange noises of animal cries and then of silence. I, suddenly overrun with a fear of this strange locale and unrecognizable where no one could know to search for me if I was swept away. Eventually, my mind relaxed and I fell into a light sleep.
Swoosh. Loud swoosh sounds filled the cave, something alien, first in my dreams but then in the light morning glow it continued. Cold and shivering from the stiffness of my bones within my sleeping bag I maneuvered slowly to sitting. In the distance as far as I could see, giant flames swooshed to lift up hot air balloons. Hundreds of them in various colors and patterns. The fire caused the balloon to expand on its side until it had enough power to lift itself upright and into the sky. Outside our cave was a small trail to a plateau. We all marched up to the hilltop to witness the sky fill with these balloons. This incredible mysterious irreality, it was breathtaking and surreal.