I was going through some folders in my computer and found this story I wrote as my travel narrative for my non-fiction writing class on Semester at Sea last fall. Not my best work, but it's still fun. :)
Please Feed the Cats
“Princes Islands?” Rachael asked the teller sitting in the bright orange ticket booth. Without even looking up from his Turkish newspaper he pointed to his left where we were able to see six more identical orange ticket booths for ferries to different locations. None of these ferries we found out actually went to the Princes Islands. We felt hopelessly lost and slightly panicked knowing that the ferry to the Princess Islands left at 9:00 and it was now nearly 8:55.
Finally, with a stroke of luck we were pointed around a gray cinderblock building by an old man selling roasted chestnuts from a cart. Around that building, we came upon a chain link fence with a plain gray concrete building sitting at the end. Rachael asked the teller sitting inside of the window the same question we had asked all of the tellers before him, “Princes Islands?” This time we were given a nod of affirmation. We were so excited we nearly dropped our 4 lira as we handed it to him, receiving a token in return. Following 6 crates of fruit, a bed frame and an armoire, we were able to cross a thin wooden plank onto the threshold of our transport.
After an hour of cruising through the Sea of Marmora we finally reached our destination, Heybeliada Island. Called Heybeli for short, it’s the second largest of the Princes Islands. When we walked off of the dock, the island was eerily peaceful and the air was unusually clean. In fact, stepping off of the dock was in a way like stepping back in time. The main street was lined with bakeries and small shops. A little old Turkish lady dressed in a floral skirt with a knitted shawl and a scarf tied on her head wandered a few feet in front of us, while dozens of stray cats darted by on the street next to us. Horse drawn carriages sat parked on the side of the street waiting for someone to come along requiring their services, and a group of men sat next to the water in folding chairs, chatting, with their fishing poles perched between their legs waiting for the moment an unsuspecting fish will nibble on their bait.
At the end of the main street we stumbled upon a market. Everything from cabbages to night gowns to coloring books were laid out on short tables. Behind the tables, little old ladies sat and chatted while men cut up and packaged produce. As we walked by one fruit stand, the man behind the table noticed us and grabbed a tangerine, broke it in half and handed to us with a bright smile on his face. When he saw my camera, he motioned his friends over and asked if he could have a picture with us. I reluctantly handed my camera over to one of his equally grinning friends and posed. Five pictures and one freshly opened pomegranate later we were on our way again.
We found ourselves walking up a rather large hill. Our only motivation to keep going was the knowledge of a spectacular view at the top, or at least that’s what Lonely Planet said. Lonely Planet got it right the view was amazing, but what grabbed our attention was the unexpected Greek orthodox monastery that sat at the apex. We approached the monastery’s gate with the hope of entering. It was locked, and the sign posted next to it was unhelpful, my Greek and Turkish being quite rusty. We called “Hello?” a few times, then stood and peered through the cast iron gate hoping someone would come to answer our call. When no one came Rachael briefly considered climbing over the 10-foot stone fence before deciding that with her 5ft frame that was nearly impossible. Then we thought maybe there was another way in at another part of the fence. We had just started to search when we saw three men walk up the road. They approached the gate, called out, and immediately a hunched old Greek man appeared to open the gate for them. That was our chance and we literally jumped at it, I’m pretty sure startling the old man in the process. “ Can we go inside?” I said with the sweetest face possible. The man pointed at the unreadable Turkish/ Greek sign and then said something in Greek. Rachael gave me a look of utter confusion, and then decided to give it a try, “Can we go inside?” The man shrugged and said something else in Greek. Then we heard possibly the only 4 English words the man knew, “Where are you from?” “America,” we quickly replied. Maybe he felt sorry for us, or maybe he was entertained at the site of two obviously confused American girls, but he opened the gate to let us in then motioned for us to follow.
He led us up a gravel path into the main building. Inside of the door was a large entrance hall with a wing to either side. The ping-pong table I saw sitting in the middle of the right wing was quite surprising. I hadn’t expected the building to be in use. Suddenly I got the feeling I was intruding. I feared that I would walk in on a group of monks as they were holding mass. I quickly stashed my camera away as my body tensed up. I really didn’t want to come across a group of praying monks.
The old man led us through the entrance hall, through a courtyard and into the chapel. There were no monks inside, good. I relaxed slightly. He led us up to the front were there was an ornate golden screen set up. He pointed to some paintings and mumbled a few words in Greek, then motioned for us to follow him again. He led us back into the main building but motioned for us to be quiet everyone was sleeping. We tiptoed through the entrance hall and into the left wing. He opened a door and showed us into a classroom that was filled with old fashioned desks. He had given up trying to explain anything to us so, we had no idea what the classroom was used for. We stood there admiring the classroom feeling confused for what felt like several minutes. Finally the old man motioned as if he were taking a picture then pointed to us. So it was OK to take pictures.
We wandered around the monastery and it’s grounds for another 10 minutes, following expectantly behind the old Greek man before he lead us back to the gate. He insisted on showing us the way back to town and although we already knew the way, we didn’t argue. He had such a sweet disposition; we didn’t want to disappoint him. As we parted, he insisted that we visit Greece one day. We promised that we would then waved goodbye and started back down the hill, traversing a path between large amounts of brush and scraggly pine trees.
As we walked down the gravel road back into town we were again given a spectacular view. The white houses of town flowed back from a palm tree spangled coastline, and the aquamarine water glistened as it approached Buyukada, the largest of the Princes Islands. It was at that moment, that for the first time in all of my travels I felt at home. This place had some sort of magic about it, unlike any other place on earth, and I wanted to absorb it.
Walking back through the market I gave our new friend a huge grin, nearly surpassing his as he handed us another tangerine. Leaving the rainbow colors of produce behind we walked back onto the main street of town, stopping to stroke the horses along the way. It was approaching 1:00 and as our hunger increased we were drawn into a small shop where a man created an odd sandwich out of some sort of meat, which he said was chicken, but we knew better, and soggy French fries.
We found a small cast iron table on the waterfront and sat to begin our feast on the strange sandwiches. Nearly immediately after we sat down we were surrounded by cats. We had seen stray cats all day wandering around the island and it seemed that they had all congregated here on the waterfront at that moment. An old man, seeing our amusement at the situation came over and told us that the islands’ cats are well fed during the summer tourist season but in the winter they starve. As the cats looked up with sad eyes that cried “feed me” I was won over. I took a few bites of the sandwich then tore the rest into small pieces for the cats to eat. They immediately descended upon the greasy wrapper, licking it clean within minutes.
That afternoon as we bought our ferry tokens I reluctantly handed the teller my two lira. We waited on benches for the ferry to come, piling on more layers of clothing as we sat to defend ourselves against the encroaching fall chill. When the ferry arrived we followed a group of school girls across the thin wooden plank onto out transport. I sat down on a cold wooden bench and looked out the window one last time at this beautiful, magical island. It wasn’t goodbye though. I know that I’ll be back one day. Maybe on vacation, or even to retire, and when I do come, I’ll be sure to feed the cats.