A Town Slated for Destruction, A Wrestling Festival on a Mountain Plateau, and Card Games With a Turkish Bus Driver

Wrestling Festival VIP Tent with New Friends

I ended up leaving Saturday afternoon from Erzurum for Yusufeli, a late start to an amazing weekend.

Yusufeli is a town at the confluence of three rivers a couple hours north from Erzurum. It reminds me of a Colorado mountain town, with rafting and little hotels, and locals that love the outdoors. Except that this town is slated to be underwater as a result of a hydroelectric project, though the date of destruction is unknown. The construction of the dam and infrastructure for it is in full swing. Every form of electricity generation has its drawbacks. But Yusufeli is not just some random town, but a town with character and a unique feel.

However, instead of moping, residents of the town are very busy…by Turkish standards. They are very busy…constructing buildings. Why? Because the government is going to reimburse all residents and owners of Yusufeli, so constructing a building pays off exponentially. Rather wasteful and pointless in the scheme of things though.

Upon arriving at “Green Piece Camping”, I talked with the owner and his wife for awhile over tea. Their 17-year-old daughter was doing the work of putting passport numbers into the computer and playing Gangnam Style. Her Dad was watching TV – a Turkish guy in his 40’s playing guitar – and turned it up, telling us, “This is a very popular Turkish singer.”

I saw his daughter shake her head slightly, so I asked, “What do you think of this music?”

“I don’t like it.”

“What kind of music do you like?”

“Korean music.”

“Oooh! I like Korean music too! What bands do you like?”

She launched into 5 minutes without a breath of listing bands, singers, and dramas. She’s been taking Korean classes for the last 3 years and wants to study abroad there once she goes to college. Instant friend. Who knew that kpop would be my connection point with Turks?

Turkish Kpop Friend

I walked along the river, to the base of the cliff atop which castle was precariously built. There were kayakers along the river and beautiful gardens and grape vines. The sun set and beautiful stars came out. That night the other Americans with me went out drinking and got caught in an endless number of toasts with a group of Georgian men with booming voices.

The next morning, I headed back to Uzundere to meet Rahmi — Turkish bus driver with unlimited patience for bad Turkish — for a wrestling festival. The bus ride did not treat hangovers kindly. Rahmi took switch-backed dirt roads winding up into the mountains. These are the roads where you have to back down when you meet another car and wait for cows to cross the roads.

All of a sudden we came to a hillside covered in trees and parked cars, along with a crowd of several hundred people. There was a ring of grass around which there were two sides with men, one side with women and children and one side with a tent filled with VIPs and old men. We stood behind the men’s side and watched Turkish folk dancing.

Then the wrestling began. We were told that it was a shame we hadn’t been there the previous evening because the wrestling had started last night and lasted all through the night. Anyone who had slept, had slept outside.

By wrestling, I mean on fair grass with a crowd that cheers like I imagine a Texas high school football crowd cheers. All ages and weight-classes of boys and men wrestle. Though most of it is in the take-down as actual wrestling in the dirt seemed  rather painful. There was an ambulance on site, that left at least once. The favorite hold seemed to be to grab the top of the pants and the bottom of a leg and then throwing the other guy to the ground.

So about ten minutes into the wrestling, Rahmi tells us to follow him and he takes us to the blue VIP tent, where a mixture of adding chairs and kicking old (but not old enough) men out occurs so that we all have first and second row spots. Once we were settled, Rahmi left to go sit back in the sun, I guess cause he wasn’t a VIP. The men served tea, tiny peaches and mineral water to me. With the mixture of the Eastern accent and not having half their teeth, these adorable old men are completely incomprehensible. But that doesn’t mean they don’t try and it doesn’t mean we didn’t become friends. That’s the picture at the beginning of this post. Those are the guys who, every time another pair of wrestlers would enter the ring would tell me “two boys” in Eastern accented Turkish…at least 20 or 30 times. There was an MC who would announce everyone, interview people, and anything he felt like when active wrestling wasn’t occurring. The whole festival was being broadcast around the country, several news vans were present. During one of those breaks I wasn’t really listening and then I heard “…Amerika….” and I started paying attention. He said it again and then we were ushered up into the ring to have him say something about “Our honored American guests, who do not speak Turkish but only English…” and something about us not having hats or headscarves and everyone laughed. He had us introduce ourselves, said something else and we were ushered back into VIP tent to be re-surrounded by familiar friends.

Upon leaving, we ended up having more time then we thought, drinking tea and sitting next to a bus parking lot. We played frisbee and Rahmi and I taught each other card games. This teaching/learning process was really fun because it was centered around a few words, but mostly guess and check. You play a card and find out what happens. Usually games are simply variations of other games, but Rahmi taught me games that were nothing like anything I had played before. I taught him Speed and Egyptian Rat Slap. We had an amazingly good time for several hours.

Then the bus came, I sat in the only open seat between two men who effervesced cigarette smoke, and there were whispers of “kar” (snow) as the bus drove back to Erzurum.

I start teaching tomorrow, but the schedule was only finalized today. It seems students are not expected to show up, we shall see what my first 8am class brings.