Tuesday, August 18, 2009

On Homer's 'Wine Dark Sea'

Bird Island, or Kuşadası in Turkish, with its Byzantine castle

Every few months, I am obliged to take a day trip to the neighboring country of Greece. The most efficient way to accomplish this from Selcuk is to take the ferry from our nearby port city of Kuşadası (pronounced koo-sha-da-suh) to Vathy, the largest town on the island of Samos. In terms of culture and history, I’ve visited more compelling Greek islands such as Rhodes, south of Samos in the Dodecanese, the more famous group of 12 islands off Turkey's southwestern coast. Greece has a mind-boggling 6000 or so islands, only 227 of them inhabited (and only 17 of these larger than 100 square miles. Samos is #9 in size). But a day spent crossing a portion of the Aegean is a pleasant necessity I don’t mind at all.

A statue of Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, tops the hill above Kuşadası's harbor. The poor neighborhood of old houses just to the left of the statue has the most amazing view in town – it’s a wonder those houses are still there, considering the encroaching high-rises.

The most challenging part of the day is getting the 18 kilometers from Selcuk to Kuşadası’s harbor by 8 am. Fortunately, the local tour company from which I purchase my ticket collects me from our cousin Abdullah’s Boomerang Pansiyon http://www.boomerangguesthouse.com/, a quick walk across Ayasuluk Hill from our house.

Kuşadası is a port town at least three times the population of Selcuk. For me, it’s best seen from a distance. What was once a small coastal village has changed in the last 20 years to a bustling small city of high-rises and in-season throngs of cruise ship tourists and part-time foreign residents. It does not feel particularly Turkish to me, but rather anywhere Mediterranean that has been overbuilt and made anonymous in pursuit of daytime sun and nighttime partying.

Our small ferry in the foreground, with a midsize cruiser and an enormous Princess cruise dominating the harbor behind it.

My sense of scale is always challenged here in Kuşadası’s harbor. The cruise ships can be up to 14 stories tall, essentially 3-4 times higher than the castle on Bird Island and nearly as tall as that hill from which Ataturk’s image guards the scene. There can be many ships in harbor at any given time, though this morning there are only two.
Out on the Aegean, the scenery becomes a million shades of the color blue. On the left in the distance is the mountain range home of one of Turkey’s national parks. On the right is Samos Island. Just beyond this finger of land is Posidonio Point, one of the nearest points between Turkey and Greece at a distance of about a mile (1.6km). Because the two countries are so close here, this Mycale Strait has become a crossing for the many illegal immigrants who traverse Turkey’s porous borders from countries to the east and south, hoping to reach the European Union. Samos is home to the largest detention center in the Mediterranean region -- perhaps Europe -- for this reason. Unfortunately there have been many cases of shipwreck and drowning over the years as people try their luck in crossing the turbulent Aegean.

Halfway across the water once in Greek territory, our ferry boat hoists the Greek flag.

The crossing to Samos Island takes just under two hours because Vathy is on the island’s western side. Above, the mountains that dominate Vathy’s harbor come into view.

On this journey, I am joined by perhaps 50 other travelers, speaking numerous languages. Today I am surprised at the large number of Turkish holidaymakers on the ferry. This would not have been the case a few years ago. But as Turkey prospers and relations between the two countries relax, it seems easier for Turks to get an EU tourist visa, though it’s not always a simple process. A number of the European travelers are wearing the bright yellow wristbands that tour companies require as a means of group identification. Not my idea of the best way to see a country, especially Turkey, but it’s good to see any tourists in the area this summer of economic crises.

The town of Vathy from just outside the harbor.

On this day, there are no other ferries in Vathy’s harbor, not even the enormous inter-island Greek ferries that usually depart in the late afternoons. Only two Coast Guard ships are present, in the slowest season for Eastern Aegean tourism in my ten years here.

Our ferry, the Kuşadası Express

The buildings surrounding the town’s main square at the center of the photo above form the core of Vathy’s harbor. I meander 5 hours around town before taking the return ferry back home to Turkey. To me, the best part of the day is spent on the water, especially in the 38C/100F degree heat of August, although Vathy does have its charms. I’ll be posting separately about the town later this week, since as usual I took too many photos!

A view back along Vathy’s coastline

Above, one of Vathy’s older seaside neighborhoods, which retains more old houses than we have in Selcuk, though they are of a very similar architectural style.

As we make our way through immigration formalities in the afternoon, I am witness to a situation that makes me curious about a trip in my past. A 14 year old boy directly in line in front of me, holder of a Turkish passport, is dropped off by his parents, a Turkish father and a probably European mother, who only speak fluent Turkish to each other (unlike Abit and I, who speak a mix of Turkish and English, often in the same sentence).

Why this couple is sending their son to Turkey alone, I don’t know. Perhaps he has to get back to prepare for school or the parents are having some time to themselves on a Greek holiday. But the immigration official throws a small temper tantrum. “You are a minor – you cannot travel by yourself !” he claims in English. The boy, speaking perfect English as well, says he’s done it before; he says his father’s friend will meet him at the harbor in Kuşadası. The official is not persuaded. “Your parents must come back to the harbor immediately to explain themselves to me, or you are not getting on that boat”.

I watch long enough to see the mother return, only to have the official create a scene, harshly and loudly chastising her for being irresponsible. The boy does make the ferry, but has to remain in the captain’s quarters. It makes me wonder: I too traveled internationally at the age of 14 with a friend my age, as “unaccompanied minors”, from the US to Britain. That was obviously a much further distance. I don’t recall my parents having to get permission from the airlines or US/UK immigration. Perhaps they did?

By late afternoon, the water of the Aegean has changed from various hues of aqua and turquoise to a deep luminescent blue, becoming nearly purple as the sun further sets. It’s apparent why Homer described this sea as 'wine dark', even in the bright light of summer. A few houses are scattered along the rocky northern cliffs of the island, against the various greens of oregano, olive and cedar. This end of the island does not have sandy beaches; travelers looking for those must rent scooters or cars to head south.

At the northernmost point of Samos is a small island, above, about the same size as Kuşadası’s Bird Island, below. This Greek bit of land appears to have a small whitewashed church on top. Otherwise, the landscapes of the two countries look alike here.

This voyage has not been very rough. Trips at other times of the year have been so turbulent that I’ve felt the motion of the waves for more than a day once back on land. The Aegean is not pleasant water for those who are easily seasick. The twice daily ferry runs are reduced to one or two a week from October 1st through the end of March because the crossing can be unpredictable.

Back in Kuşadası, the new port center is a modern structure of glass and local limestone. It has a remarkably small immigration room for the lines of passengers waiting to get their visas stamped, and a very large Duty Free shop. Priorities are obvious. Once through customs, the only way out of the complex is through a two-story shopping mall, named Scala Nuova in a nod to the ancient Roman name for this harbor, complete with a Starbucks on the wharf. Its unobstructed view of Bird Island is perhaps the most valuable real estate in town. American coffee chains in the land that invented the coffeehouse…I resist the call of a venti latte and make my way slowly through the crowded streets, toward the more home-grown and less expensive pleasures of Selçuk.

No comments:

Post a Comment