If you value your bowels, stay away from all food items in the southern coastal region of Turkey. In particular, a remote little town called Olympos. Trust me…. no, trust my bowels.
When you’re traveling to a country that you know very little about, it’s always a good idea to do some research before you arrive. Take these tried and true google searches that I’ve made good use of: “What shouldn’t I bring up at the dinner table?” “What animals/insects/acts of God are most likely to kill me in some horrific manner?” “What is the most effective way to die a slow, painful, and embarrassing death?” Yes, I did the research, I read the travel books and forums. And yes, I even remember pausing to make a note aloud to Noel that we shouldn’t eat the food if we ended up in Olympos. But did I remember this when, 5 or 6 months down the road I was ravenously grinning at my heaping plate of free food and marveling to anyone in hearing distance about the large portion of much needed fiber I was about to consume in the form of a salad mountain??? …Oh that fateful salad.
It would seem like a rookie mistake to eat uncooked vegetables in a place like southern Turkey, wouldn’t it? But just let me explain the situation we were dealing with. Noel and I were on day 5 of our nine day tour around Turkey. For days, we’d been bussed around, dropped off, picked up, bussed a bit more, dropped off, waiting around, picked up, and bussed around some more, until we no longer felt like humans, more like a parcel, or a germ, or gum on the bottom of a shoe. The day getting to Olympos was the worst in this regard. We had been in Pamukkale walking through the magic waters that added seven years of life to our feet, apparently. The plan was to take an overnight bus from Pamukkale to Olympos, but the bus ticket man (please refer to my blog about sexual harassment to meet this gem) convinced us to stay at a hotel and take the early bus the next day. So it went early bus to bus station. Bus to Antalya. Bus to Turunçova. Another bus to a random stop at the top of a mountain. An anxious hour waiting, not knowing if there really would be another bus, or if we’d have to call a taxi, then finally another bus to the bottom of the mountain. We had long passed any form of town or food store, there was only hostel after hostel after hostel until ours – almost the last one. Despite the absolute beauty and wonders we had seen out our numerous bus windows along the way, we were tired, frustrated, and irritable. So when the words, “free dinner” reached our ears, you can imagine how we might dive right in.
There really was no other option. There were no stores around, no real restaurants, only bars at other hostels, and no town close enough to search for food. Not that looking for another option even crossed our minds, did I mention the dinner was free? When you’re traveling on a budget FREE is the magic word. And here it wasn’t just ‘free’ rolls that you stuff in your pocket as you leave the restaurant, or ‘free’ packets of jam and butter you can snatch from the ‘complimentary’ breakfast table… This was vat after vat of steaming hot dishes of rice and chicken and stew, followed by a fresh supple salad (…. oh that fateful salad). There were dinner rolls with butter and dessert even! We were eating like kings!! Kings who were unknowingly being poisoned by their wives. Well, they say you win some, you lose some. I won a free meal. I lost…. well, the entire contents of my bowels throughout the next five days, and probably 5 or 6 pounds.
So regardless of whether I forgot of just didn’t care about the warning, I took bite after bite and enjoyed every free second of it. And was none the wiser for a good day and a half. There were a few unpleasant rumblies in my tumbly the next day as we explored the overgrown ruins between our hostel and the Mediterranean Sea. But nothing to cause worry… no, that wouldn’t hit until the smack middle of our eleven hour, no toilet, overnight bus ride to Göreme. And boy did it hit! Like a ton of bricks in the lower gut. The discomfort and nausea were almost more than I could stand and I was about one stomach cramp away from waddling up to the front of the bus yelling “jou-jou!” (which we had, ironically, learned the day before and meant the squirts, the runs, diarrhea, etc…). Fortunately for me and all my fellow passengers, we stopped at a rest stop. Noel and I each paid our Lev to get into the loo and I did what I could not possibly have waited any longer to do… I won’t go into details, your imagination is probably doing a fine job anyway. I felt much better, washed my hands, and headed out the exit gate. I made it two steps and stopped dead in my tracks. With panic on my face I called to Noel a few steps in front of me, “Noel… do you have any more money?!” I had spent my last coin on that entrance fee, but thank the Lord Almighty and Noel, she gave me another coin, I handed it over to the guy with an, “oops?” look on my face and a knowing look on his. Round two.
We were both out of coins then and our bus was getting ready to leave so I sent out some fervent prayers, took a deep breath and settled back into my seat for the end of our bus ride.
Of course, being an overnight bus means you arrive in the morning, unable to check in, unable to shower, only able to set your bag against some wall and take off again. In our case it was on a day tour of Northern Cappadocia. Somehow I was spared the torments of my illness during that tour, but as soon as we got back to our hostel (which was a cave!) that fateful salad made itself known again. It was in this hostel’s bathrooms that I learned what “pebble-dashed” really meant. Noel and I had made some new friends that we were supposed to have a backgammon tournament with, but I went into our cave to have a quick nap and didn’t wake until the next morning with a fever. Fun! At least I get say the sentence, “I had a fever in a cave, once” and not be lying. Not many people can claim that.
Our itinerary had us doing a tour of Southern Cappadocia that next day, but we were able to move it back a day. However, we still had a sunrise hot air balloon ride planned…. leave it to my body to lure me into a false sense of security then BAM! hit me when we’re several hundred feet off the ground in a dangling basket with 16 other people.
Picture it: sunrise over Cappadocia, undoubtedly one of the most stunning places on Earth, sun glinting off the eerie rock formations below, casting irregular shadows across the land. Passengers oooing and aaaahing as other balloons slip past, climbing, descending, the roar and hot rush of air as the pilot takes us up…. and Stephanie, doubled over in pain, plotting her escape over the side of the basket, trying to decide which is worse: soiling her pants, vomiting over the side, or death. Thankfully I had some medication in my bag so I took a few of those and after about 20 minutes of cowering in a corner or leaning dangerously far over the side of the basket, I was A-OK again. Okay enough to sip champagne with the crew and passengers when we landed. Okay enough to chat with people, laugh and make jokes. Even okay enough to be suddenly hoisted into the air by one of the crew and thrown onto the deflating balloon. AWESOME.
The rest of the day was spent in bed, counting cracks in the wall of the bathroom, walking to a pharmacy, and eating lentil soup and bread – the only thing that my stomach would accept. The meds from the pharmacy started working pretty quickly and trips to the loo became less and less frequent. We made it on our Southern tour of Cappadocia and caught our overnight bus back to Istanbul with out incident. I did use several Lev on every available bathroom stop on our trip back, but there were no urgent matters.
When we arrived back in Istanbul, I was at least 5 pounds lighter, and looking pale and malnourished enough for Yeliz and Okan to be so concerned that they cooked me a homemade meal. They’re staff members at the hostel Chill Out Cengo, and had taken Noel and I in like family. But all in all, I’d say our 9 days were a success in that we got to see all the glorious wonders that we set out to see and learned a valuable lesson: don’t eat anything in Olympos, Turkey… especially not the salad…. oh, that fateful salad.