Sunday, April 29, 2012

reaching snow

We hadn't planned a thing. We bought plane tickets, packed only the essentials (which included sketching gear, binoculars and a scope), laced our hiking boots and took off. There was an old Lonely Planet guide which nested back and forth between our bags, providing us with some slightly outdated information on lodging. Upon arriving in Trabzon, the Kaçkar mountains, like phantoms lining the horizon opposite the blue line of the sea, seduced us. We rented a car and drove toward their whiteness, hoping perhaps, to catch a glimpse of a resident black grouse.

There was rumour of a village named Sivrikaya, which stood on the edge of an alpine plain. Each time we asked someone on our journey where this mythical Sivrikaya was, they would reluctantly shake their head and shrug their shoulders. Bilmiyorum, was the constant response. Apparently this unknown village was known outside Turkey for its proximity to the habitat of the famed Caucasian black grouse. There was a man named Mustafa, who could take you to see them.

One night, not knowing where to go but up, we headed to Ayder, which our Lonely Planet promised a bed to sleep in. Little did we know the town was entirely touristic, and being off-season, empty. Lodging under 100 lira was difficult to find, but eventually an old insistent lady in a floral headscarf offered us an unheated room with a low ceiling for 70. Fortunately she gave us a little plug-in electric heater she called a soba, which helped keep the mountain cold at the door.

Mounds of old snow lay about the green hills, and it reminded me a bit of childhood trips to Switzerland, though a lot more ramshackle and disorganised. The air was crisp, and held notes of wagtails, crossbills, and crows. I layered on two pairs of socks, bundled up in a yak wool sweater and coat, readying myself for a hike in the snow. Crunching uphill, we passed three wooden signs with crude illustrations of wolves, bears and lynxes, with instructions in Turkish of what I assume were the proper means of dealing with an encounter of each. I made a mental note of the shape of each carnivore's footprint pattern, just in case.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Clinging improbably to the side of Melá mountain in Trabzon province at a height of 1200 metres, is the stoic face of Sümela Monastery, a Greek Orthodox monastery dating back to the Byzantine era. Founded in 386 CE, Sümela was abandoned during the 1923 population exchange between Turkey and Greece, and converted into a museum. I have long been mystified by images of Sümela— it seemed mythical; this long, stone structure embracing a menacing cliff above a dark, storybook forest, so out of place.

I don't know how long the hike up through the forest was. I remember its steepness, the dampness, the smell of earth and impending rain, and the flashes of blue from a spying jay. We stopped part way up to sketch, sitting cross-legged on the ground, occasionally graced by the curious stares of passersby.

The depth of the valley from the monastery was intoxicating— the rushing river below reduced to a pale trickle— the pines, dark spots in a field of many greens. Ravens slipping in and out of view like shadows, lifting into the graying sky, then plunging into the green. I did not expect that behind the impressiveness of Sümela's straight face stood several humbler structures— little stone kitchens, chapels, as well as rooms for monks and visitors, huddled around a central church, which was carved into a cave in the rock— every surface painted with biblical stories.

Monday, April 23, 2012

the blue of the black sea

Watching the light change while strolling along one of Trabzon's many jetties, in search of the very confusing Caspian gull. That black dot in the water above is the peeking fin of a hungry porpoise.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

road trip

I've just returned from wandering around northeastern Turkey for the past week, from spotting seabirds on the shores of the Black Sea, to hiking in the snow, watching for bears and wolves. I took little more than a few changes of clothes, a toothbrush, some sketching gear and my camera. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

the rain continued to fall

The morning looked promising— clouds seemed steady on the horizon with plenty of blue above, the Bosphorus was calm, and the IDO website told us our ferry would leave Kabataş for the islands at 10:50. Bacon, eggs and coffee, a quick shower, a packed bag of sketching materials and tamales, and we were out the door. With 10:50 just minutes away, we rushed to the pier only to discover that the ferry was leaving at noon. This was confirmed by a kindly old poğaça vendor, who explained that it was the weekend, in spite of IDO's promise. We decided to retreat to a nearby çaybahçe for some çay.

We claimed our seats on the lower right side of the ferry, next to some enthusiastic North Africans (I want to say Libyans), who would give the roving gulls a thumbs up every time one caught a morsel of simit tossed from their hands. Songs were sung, and peals of Arabic were thrown with the crumbs at the gluttonous birds. Somewhere in the Marmara, the sky turned from blue to grey, and what I initially took for sea spray, turned out to be coming from above.

We set foot on Büyükada in a downpour, walked about ten metres across the street to Mado, and sat down for a coffee and some pudding. While we hoped for a break in the rain, we pulled out our sketchbooks and pencils, and began to search for faces to draw. I was taken by the curve of the nose of a most confusing older gentleman in a green sweater, who quickly approached us, and demanded our menus. It soon became clear by the way he was barking orders at the staff that he was the owner, and I tried to explain in broken Turkish that we hadn't ordered yet. With a huff and some incomprehensible muttering, he set the menus back down on the table and disappeared. The second our waiter ran off to bring us our coffee and pudding, the man reappeared and with a satisfying grunt, took our menus.

I followed his shuffling with my eyes and pencil, trying to capture that nose and his determined expression, and it was just a matter of time before he realised what I was up to, and was looming over my shoulder.

Bu ben değilim! Ouf— şişman!

Apparently I had drawn him fat, and he pretended to be slightly offended, hiding a grin under his white moustache. He disappeared to the corner of the café, and minutes later, a smiling waiter delivered us some tea, compliments of the owner.

The rain did not let up, and we remained in Mado for nearly three hours, drawing and sipping tea until we decided it was time to buy a crappy umbrella from across the street and try to explore a bit. We made it to the awning of a fading Ottoman house, pulled out the tamales and made the picnic I had dreamed of a standing one, watching the horse buggies clop-clop by.

The rain continued all the way to Istanbul.

Sunday, April 8, 2012


It was the perfect day for sketching— the sky was a deep cerulean, the sun was warm, and the little çaybahçe across the street from Dolmabahçe Palace had a wide array of empty tables near its free-range fat chickens. As I was about to make my move to order some kahve from the guy in the window, a stern foreigner cut in front of me. I threw up my hands in a gesture of disbelief, then had an idea.

I could draw a revenge portrait.

Pedro was in favour of this idea, and so we selected a table uncomfortably near the rude line-cutter. Giggling, we pulled out our sketchbooks and various utensils, and set to work with a glare. It wasn't long before we were discovered by our victim, whose girlfriend was eyeing us. After attempting to dissuade us with futile stares, the line-cutter shifted his body, pointing his back at us. Several minutes later, his girlfriend boldly confronted us on her way to the bathroom.

"Did you draw any others?" She asked.
"No, only him."
"This is a revenge drawing— you see, he cut in line in front of us."

Inspecting our sketches, she pointed out that Pedro's portrait looked more accurate, and that mine was marked with more anger. I explained in laughter that it was an exaggeration.

"Don't show it to him!"

Sunday, April 1, 2012