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Published: November 1st 2011
If you ever find yourself in Sivas, you will have found yourself in the middle of nowhere – or, at least, the middle of Turkey. The city is rich with history and hidden treasures, but it’s often overlooked by tourists who use it only as a base camp for expeditions slightly to the left of the middle of nowhere. My first two days there, I did exactly that.
The first day-trip took me to the tiny town of Divriği, almost 200 kilometers southeast of Sivas. Part of the UNESCO World Heritage List, Divriği is mentioned in all the guidebooks, but it’s far enough off the beaten path to grant any foreign tourist who visits instant celebrity status, which meant that I spent more time posing for pictures than taking them. The town’s main attraction is the 780-year old Great Mosque and its adjoining Darüşşifa (mental hospital). Although the interior of these buildings is worth a look, the real “must-see” are three elaborately carved stone portals that preside over the entranceways. Crowded with a plethora of exquisite geometric patterns, stars, medallions, textures and intricate Arabic inscriptions, some say these doorways put the belief of God into them. It’s probably one of
the most impressive manmade things I’ve ever seen, and it’s well worth the detour.
There were six hours between bus services to Sivas and the town didn’t have much more to it that the mosque. So, after lunch, I went to the park to lie in the sun and read. When I awoke from a catnap, I found the town filled with its youth. A gaggle of girls gawked at me from a safe distance. Finally, one of them summoned the courage to approach me. Eyes downcast and holding a cup before her like she was making an offering to a god, she shyly asked, “Cola?” I didn’t want the questionably fluorescent beverage, but I didn’t want to hurt her feelings either, so I accepted. The soft drink was warm and sickly-sweet, but I did my best to feign enjoyment. And the floodgate opened. Teenagers suddenly surrounded me, stumbling over a few English phrases, “Hello. How are you? My name is? You are from?”
After an elaborate pantomime, the original brave soul got a message across, “You’re alone. Come be our friend.” So, I went to be their friend. We sat high above the town, in the ruins
of an 800-year old castle, eating sunflower seeds. If there ever was a World Championship for sunflower seed eating, I have no doubt that the Turks would bring home all of the medals. Their technique is unparalleled and impressive to watch. Like chipmunks on crack, they worked their way through an entire bag of seeds in minutes, leaving the shells like carcasses at their feet. I think they were genuinely sad when it was time to say goodbye.
The next day, I traveled 98 kilometers from the city center to visit the “Fish Doctors” of Balıklı Kaplıca. For the life of me, I can’t find the name – neither common nor scientific – of the little fish that call the 35°C spring water home, but they are quite amazing creatures. Fish don’t normally live in water above 30°C, but these little buggers thrive here, possibly due to their daily diet of psoriasis-infected skin. The magical healing powers of the area’s mineral water were discovered in the early 1900s and, since then, people afflicted with any number of maladies have sought comfort from the doctor fish. Today, the brochure proudly claims that the water’s high selenium content will cure your
“rheumatic diseases and neurological disorders, orthopedic and gynecological problems.” I had none of these, but I was assured that the fish would gladly attach themselves to any body part offered to them.
When the first mouth found my leg, I flinched with the memory of my childhood fear of the monsters in Gramma’s lake. I swallowed my panic and lowered myself deeper into the steaming water. As more tiny mouths found their way to my legs, I almost jumped out again – it tickled in a major way. Stifling my laughter, I slowly submerged myself. The tickling sensation soon passed and it started to feel good. It was like a massage from tiny vacuum cleaners. Still, I couldn’t look down. I didn’t want to see the black, leech-like bodies touching me.
Finally, when I relaxed enough to get over my heebie-jeebies, I looked down to see my skin squirming with dozens of fish. The littlest ones were even wriggling their way through my toes. Surprisingly, I didn’t mind at all. In fact, I was really enjoying the experience. The only thing I didn’t like was the big fish. Four times the size of any of his comrades, he
cruised the pool like a king. I’d feel his fat, slippery body slithering against mine – his powerful mouth greedily gobbling up my dead skin cells – and I’d shudder and look away.
The buzzer announced closing time, but I couldn’t bring myself to get out. The little fishes and I had developed a very mutualistic relationship, and I was reluctant to terminate it before we had received its full benefit. I was obviously still covered in imperfections, and they were obviously still hungry. But, life wouldn’t be very interesting if we always got what we want, so I reluctantly left the pool and my fishy friends behind.
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