The Laz, and stuck up in a tree

Glass mug of fresh ayran as found in Maltepe, ...
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On Saturday the 22nd, we decided to forego breakfast at the good old Turist Hotel, which would have been included had the cook shown up; instead, we were offered a plate of cockroaches, but we politely declined. We went to the Rize Tea Institute, which it was closed, but we viewed the gardens and tea-fields. Turkey’s crop was condemned because of Chernobyl fallout in 1986, and since then, Turks have been drinking it by the gallon but have been somewhat less successful at selling the stuff overseas, further adding to its economic woes.

We then drove east through Laz country towards Arde?en and then south to Çamlihem?in through Hem?in country. The Laz are a Caucasian people who speak a Georgian language, and 200,000 of them live in Northeast Turkey. Many of them have reddish hair and are less religious Moslems, and they’re supposed to be great businessmen. The Hem?inlis in Northeast Turkey are also Caucasian and of Armenian descent, but there are only 15,000 of them. Their women wear brightly-colored imported scarves, called pu?i.

We ate breakfast on a patio in front of a Laz-owned market called the H?z?r, 2 km south of Arde?en. Our breakfast consisted of homemade butter and cheese, along with store-bought bitter chestnut honey (spectacular) along with olives and a surprisingly fancy round bread rather than the usual baguette. We also drank Ayran (salty yogurt-water) that they were making as we spoke – their son, about 10, was shaking it up in a wooden vat dangled by chains from the ceiling. The Laz proved their famed business acumen by charging us 3.5 million (about $13) for the meal, very high by Turkish standards.

We had arrived for breakfast just after they had slaughtered one of their cows right in front of the patio, and it was hanging in front of our table as the Laz man was carving it up. He was wearing rubber pants, but not a rubber shirt, and he and the ground were very bloody. They were extremely friendly, and they talked with us for a long time as we ate; the man was gesticulating wildly with his knife as he spoke. While we dined, we watched his wife and children tie a cow to a tree so that it could mate with a bull. The bull screwed the cow for a number of brief seconds over the course of about 15 minutes. When the bull walked away, he was quite lethargic. The Laz explained that they bought the bull to eat but liked it so much they decided to keep it for a while and breed it. Come Ramadan, however, it’s meat.

We drove to Çamlihem?in to see the Hem?inlis and also the yaylas on the way. Yaylas are unpainted summer homes made by villagers high up in the mountains, away from the main roads, where they go to escape the unbearable heat below and to give their cattle some more green to graze. When we came back up the road, we stopped again at the H?z?r market, where Co? bought some honey and they gave us free Ayran. The man continued to cut up his cow and we talked with the women, who were surprised at our age – they thought we were all much younger, as they look far older than their age – and were surprised that Elif spoke English (as well as the fact that Dilek only had one child and that Elif and I haven’t procreated yet – in fact, “Why haven’t you had children yet?” was the most common question people have asked Elif and I on this trip).

We then went further east to Arhavi, where Co? stopped to see if he could buy tea from the Çaykur tea factory. Becacuse Çaykur is a government-owned monopoly, this would be the same stuff you could get anywhere in Istanbul, which irritated me a little, but it turned out very well: the factory head came to the gate to see who we were, and being a Laz, invited us in and gave us a thorough tour of the factory. We got to see all of the machinery and even to stick our hands in the dried tea leaves, the same tea that Turks would later drink. Turns out that the “tiny little tea leaves” in Tetley Tea are tiny because they suck – you want bigger leaves after processing. In any case, uncooked tea leaves look like regular deciduous tree leaves, and that tea that you get in tea bags – Lipton, for instance – is basically ground tea and dirt – which helps give your tea a nice dark red color!

We passed through Hopa, a depressing Georgian border town which mines copper. It has a large Turkish military presence and features old Russian architecture which is both gorgeous and dilapidated. We then went through Artvin, a town which stretches forever on a steep mountain hill along a single windy street which completely lacks a town centrum. I thought that we were going to head south to the Tortum valley to see some Georgian churches, but at 2PM, we suddenly stopped at a hotel, because Co? thought it would be better to stop at a Yuppie camping resort in the forest village of Kafkasör (nifty name!). We ate fish at their restaurant, and we managed to get the one terrifying table situated in treehouse dozens of meters off the ground. The waiters passed us our food in a basket that was on a pulley connecting the treehouse with the restaurant, and we had to pull our food in.

As we drank rak?, we argued with each other, although we tried not to move too much as we fought, lest the shaky treehouse break and plunge us to our deaths. Elif and I were incensed not only that we were spending the rest of our day basically sitting in a tree, but that changes in itinerary were being pulled on us at the last minute. We discussed our future itinerary, and Dilek and Co? were so scared about going further southeast from there, and they lied that we had never even discussed it, even though we had all decided to go at least as far as Do?ubeyazit. Dilek took the position that it’s unfair for us to only see what Elif and I wanted to, but I pointed out that the only alternative they put forth was for us to sit in a tree. Elif then said that this whole trip was basically Dilek and Co? joining us, which led to more family fireworks. We went to bed early, our trip’s future still unresolved, and I stayed up all night fending off an oddly-severe allergy attack.

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