The Highlands of Peru and Reverse Sensory Shock

Like many frequent travelers, I stopped regularly experiencing “culture shock,” or reverse culture shock, a long time ago.

That’s why, on of my recent returns to New York City, it was unusual that I felt noticeably more disoriented and challenged than before I had left. This city is never easy, but everything about it seemed harder than ever to parse and absorb and digest and cope with. Inside, my Manhattan apartment was a sensory deprivation box. Outside, crowds were overwhelming. When crossing a street in Midtown, or navigating a sidewalk, the pedestrian flow came at me in a bewildering onslaught. The subway was intolerably claustrophobic. I felt hemmed in by other people’s proximity, assaulted by the discrete sights, sounds, shape of their presence. I interrogated friends: Is something going on? Isn’t New York more crowded than usual? I questioned myself: Why do we live this way, crammed together in a suffocating mass?

I had to admit that it wasn’t New York, it was me: I was undergoing a kind of reverse culture shock— or more accurately, sensory shock. Just prior to this episode, we had spent a week in highland Peru. It was a short but intense period. We were in the Andean altiplanos, in some of the highest-altitude regions and settlements in the world, where the distances are strikingly vast and apparently empty. You can look across a valley or field and see what seems like nothing, for miles. After a while, on a hillside in the distance, you notice some specks of white. Are they flowers? Alpacas? Sheep? Houses? Rocks? The distances are so vast, austere, and featureless, that scale or depth is no help, and it takes effort and the rallying of all your senses to form a guess. Driving through passes in the highlands, you often don’t see a single person for hours. Or, think again: straining your eyes, you may spot a small figure engulfed in the vastness of the landscape.

After acculturating and sensitizing yourself to this environment, you come to know it’s not empty. It’s full of life and spirit. Condors ascend miles out of the blue depths of the Colca Canyon and you squint and strain your eyes to see their form take shape out of the stark blue sky. Vicuña flicker in and out of vision against the craggy background. You are led to a sacred place where the apu is said to live. From a distance, it looks like a pile of pebbles, or a small hill, but as you move closer, it becomes a massive volcanic formation towering high above. Climbing inside, you find an intimate plateau carpeted with soft greenery and tiny orange flowers. From that vantage, soft white llamas extend and blur into the soft white clouds in the horizon.

In the process of opening your senses to perceive all that lives in the stark landscape, the landscape comes into you, and opens you.

Returning from this context, back to the city, was jarring. The close quarters of small apartments and restaurants felt stifling and sensorily deprived. Crowds and commerce were overwhelming and abrasive. My senses, adapted as they were to the Peruvian highlands, were a liability here. It took some time to recalibrate to the urban environment, and I did, but the question has remained in my mind.

Why do we live this way?

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Pedestrian Walkways of New York

My delighted obsession with the pedestrian walkways of New York actually got its start far away from the Big Apple.

When I lived in Turkey’s big city, Istanbul, a sore point was the constant encroachment of construction onto places where I had to walk. Construction sites would spill over onto the sidewalk, sparks flying, pushing me into the street to squeeze anxiously alongside the hot, greasy, unpredictable tide of cars and taxis and motorbikes.

Each time this happened, it was a small reminder that—although the point of a city is human habitation—this city, this place, was in some ways not made for or meant for people. The needs and feelings of actual human inhabitants was not the point here; we were just an inconvenient annoyance hindering other purposes.

This is why I am so fixated on the pedestrian walkways of New York. In as dense and valuable place as Manhattan, there is also a constant rhythm of deconstruction, construction, development. But here, when the construction overflows onto sidewalks, they build elaborate tunnels of wood planking, fencing, and other barriers that protect pedestrians from both onslaughts of construction and cars. These “pedestrian walkways” are scrupulously labeled and marked with arrows guiding you along the designated path, scooping you into their dark forest-green plywood corridors and depositing you safely on the other side.

Some of the walkways are so thoroughly encompassing, insulated, winding, and mysterious that I like to imagine I will walk in and come out somewhere else, like Narnia or Middle Earth.

It is a nice fantasy because, even if you do not end up in another world, you’re not too disappointed: on the other side, you’re still in New York City, a kind of magical place that does its best to hold a genuine regard for the people who live here.

Routine Life as Adventure

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There are always flowers for those who want to see them.

–Henri Matisse

On a recent weekday, I was feeling too anxious and antsy to work, so I got up from my desk to take a cathartic walk. My walking led me into a secluded, wooded city park. I thought I was alone, but sensed movement. I look backward and spot a small, petite, furry brown creature transversing the trail. Then, another one emerges. The little mammals seem unaware or unperturbed by my presence. They waddle across the path, sniff the air non-committally, and then amble, disappearing, into the brush. Were they groundhogs? Beavers heading to the East River? Wombats escaped from the Bronx Zoo? Were they half-baked Pikachus that got loose while Nintendo was still working out the kinks on PókemonGO? The true identity of the small brown creatures is yet to be conclusively determined.

On a Friday night, I rolled into a party 2 hours late and breathlessly spilled to my date, “I spent all evening following the news of the coup in Turkey and making sure my friends were all alive. When I had had enough of that, I headed to Brooklyn. But when I got to Brooklyn I put the wrong address into Google Maps, so I ended up at a construction site. I wandered around the construction site for 15 minutes until I realized my mistake. Then I made it here.” The party host then handed me a mug with a hot liquid, which was either a revolting drink or a flavorful soup, and it occurred to me that priming and perception have a lot to do with taste.

The Saturday after that, at a beach in South Jersey, I collapsed, again breathless, onto my towel. Where were you? my friends asked. “I was on an adventure,” I announced. I explained that I had swum far away from the shore, away from most of the other swimmers on the clothing-optional beach. Then I floated onto my back and closed my eyes. When I opened them, I didn’t know where I was and didn’t see anyone around–the shore nearest to me was an empty strand. I put it together that I had floated out of the clothing-optional area, into and then past the clothed beach, and into some closed-off section of the beach. In order not to get in trouble–possibly excommunicated?–from the beach, I needed to swim against the current, back into the clothing-optional section, without landing on the clothed beach or being sighted by clothed swimmers. Thus ensued a desperate, existential swim against the inexorable Atlantic tide, with each stroke seeming to send me reeling further away from my destination–my destination being the bright white sign announcing “Beyond This Point You May Encounter Nude Bathers.” But I reached this sign made it back to tell the tale.

For most of my 20s, I have moved to a different city every year, traveling extensively and having the typically adventurous adventures that I have been writing about over the past 6 years: being tear-gassed, fleeing police, sneaking into castles and abandoned hotels, climbing a mountain on the border of Russia and seeing the moon closer and brighter than you’ve ever seen it. Now that I have been living in the same city for almost two years, and I don’t have immediate plans to move abroad, I have begun to worry that my life is going to become routine, quotidian, banal–in short, I will stop having adventures.

Looking back on my past 2 weeks, though, it occurs that adventure might be more of an attitude, or choice, or state of mind, than an external reality.

Growth comes from inside

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Once, there were two brothers who farmed a rice paddy. When they came of age, one brother announced, “I will now seek wisdom and enlightenment by traveling the world.” The otherbrother announced, “I will become wise while staying right here.” The traveling brother donned his pack, and left. 40 years later, the traveling brother returned, a halo of enlightenment surrounding his visage. “I have seen cities and villages, deserts and seas, affluence and destitution,” he proclaimed, “and I am enlightened.” The other brother turned, and a halo of enlightenment was also illuminating his visage. “I have never left this plot of land. I have watched the sun rise and set over the same hills, the plants sprout and wither in the same earth, the waters rise and fall in the same river. I am enlightened.”

I heard this parable in high school. I have never again heard it anywhere since, and the exact words have long since escaped me–but yet, as I have beaten my own paths through cities and villages, deserts and seas, mountains and steppes, the message and question have stayed with me. What is the source of growth and wisdom? Is it something we go into the world and seek through a variety of experience–or is the potential to grow a power that we had inside of us all along?

No Hay Camino

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Caminante no hay Camino

Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino y nada más;
Caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.
Al andar se hace el camino,
y al volver la vista atrás
se ve la senda que nunca
se ha de volver a pisar.
Caminante no hay camino
sino estelas en la mar.

Poem by Antonio Machado. Referenced in the novel Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi.

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Purple sunset shells

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On the beaches of Vancouver were scattered hundreds of iridescent, opalescent purple shells. From a distance, they looked like shards of the sky deposited by the purplish sunset. Close up, you could see the delicate violet gradations and subtle shades.

They attracted me, so I picked them up and collected some in my pocket, and took them back to the room where I was staying. I envisioned handing them out to the friends and family I’d see the next day.

But, when I looked at them the next day, they were dull and chalky. Taken out of their environment, they lost their luster.

In the end, I returned them back to the beach, where they could once again soak up the color of the sunset.

Jodhpur and Astonished Bewilderment

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Jodhpur, a city in the state of Rajasthan, was a highlight of my 1.5-month-long trip to India. Jodhpur and its people delighted and astonished me, right up until the final hour before departing. This is about that final hour.

The morning of my departure from Jodhpur, I was rushing to grab my luggage from my hotel in an effort to catch a bus to the next town. I was taking a familiar route through the “Blue City” and passing through familiar streets. But this time, something caught my eye. Or rather, the absence of “something” caught my eye. Real estate and living space were valuable in this historical, touristy part of the city; where there weren’t commercial and residential buildings, there were temples and shrines galore. Yet here was a space, a gap in the urban sprawl, with no low rises or spires piercing upward.

Even more puzzling, stone steps beckoned up to this negative space, as if to a pedestal–but evidently with nothing on display. So, somewhat automatically and unconsciously, I ascended the stone steps, not expecting anything at all. And I gasped out loud.

Beneath my feet opened up a yawning, massive trench, so deep that its darkened bottom could not be discerned from my vantage point, its vastness so shocking that I experienced vertigo. The sound of flowing water, which I had not even registered before, rushed into my ears. Streams poured out from innumerable spouts–some animal-shaped, some seeming to seep from the rock itself–trickling down along dozens of dizzying stories of exquisitely carved tiered levels and stairs and collecting into a pool at the bottom of the trench. This pool sat at the base of a massive, monumental stone archway several stories tall. The stone at the bottom of the structure was dark with discoloration, giving the impression that the watery opening in the earth continued into infinite blackness.

I once described being “surprised” in Thailand, but surprise connotes that you have at least a minimal level of expectation of events to come, which are then contradicted by reality. Here, I could not say I experienced surprise–bewilderment would be more accurate, as I had no reference point for what I was looking at, no expectation for what it could be. Taking in the entire monumental sight of it, in that moment, the only corresponding image my mind could muster was to a Legend of Zelda video game I played as a child–which says something about the mysterious and mystical aura of the place. There was no signage, was no one around to inquire, and my guidebook had made no mention of this massive architectural trench.

Of course, I did not give up, but began exploring, walking along the edge and descending as far down as I could go without being fearful of falling in. My exploration revealed some clues. An old sign requested visitors to “remove shoes,” suggesting religious significance. Yet the place was in a state of abandonment, the grounds were too gravely and dirty to possibly walk on barefoot (even by local standards). At the same time, the water and the structure were not actively dilapidated or polluted with refuse–this fact being quite remarkable as all other negative spaces in the city were filled in with makeshift landfills.

My exploration yielded few answers, just more extreme bewilderment–and twinges of fear, as the deeper I descended into the trench, the more I felt that the inexorably flowing water and vertiginous depths were drawing me down into their subterranean maws. I climbed out and eventually caught my bus, leaving Jodhpur without solving the bewildering architectural mystery. In fact, I did not find what I had seen until long after leaving India and returning to the U.S., when I spotted an article in one of my social media newsfeeds.

Of course, many readers will have known, without my exhaustive narrative, that I had stumbled onto a bawdi, a “stepwell.” They have a long history in India serving dual purposes as water storage and sites of worship, but today they are neglected and under-appreciated in all their functions, even tourism. As photographer Victoria Lautman said, “They could be next to a shopping mall or at a popular tourist spot, and you wouldn’t know about them.”

It is truly unfortunate that stepwells are undervalued by locals, that they are falling into neglect and disrepair, that many visitors leave Jodhpur and India without experiencing the awesomeness of a stepwell. But the one small upside is that, for now, stepwells are capable of truly astonishing and bewildering those who are fortunate to stumble onto them.

The Mountains or the Sea

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A common question formula, especially in Beginner English lessons, is “Where would you rather live: in the mountains, or by the sea?” The assumption is that these are opposing choices, and selecting one reveals something elemental about you.

I’ve lived for a time by the sea before, but this month has been the first and longest stint I’ve lived in the mountains. Being here has made me challenge the assumption behind that dichotomous question. The mountains and the sea appear different, on their surface, but experientially, have remarkable similarities.

This month, I’ve been in Northeast India–a mountainous Himalayan region thrust between Bangladesh, Nepal, Burma, and China–staying in a village about 4,700 feet above sea level. Just as by the sea, here in the mountains, the landscape is vast and your gaze extends as far as it can reach, with the far distances eliding into pastel watercolor versions of their nearer selves.

Like the seaside, the mountain landscape seems still and unmoving, but really it changes imperceptibly, moment by moment, as clouds shift, the sun moves across the wide sky, small figures in distant villages conduct their daily business, and bluish smoke rises from kitchens at suppertime.

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Like the seaside, adverse weather is truly extreme. When it rains, it drenches. Relentless rains pour down in buckets all night. While leading a class at one point, the rain on the metal roofing was so loud that it was impossible to hear my own voice, let alone make it heard to the students. When it’s not raining, it is wet. In the distance you see a cloud, and a minute later, your world is enveloped in a shroud of condensation: you are inside the cloud. Living inside a cloud takes some getting used to, such as not being able to see past five feet in front of you, and the reality that your clothes simply never dry after being washed.

On the seaside, it seemed to be an assumption that some things would have to be rebuilt anew each year after the onslaught of winter monsoons. Here also, recovering and rebuilding from rains is a near-constant effort. The Himalayas are young mountains made of still-loose sediments. Consequently, roads routinely collapse from the sodden weight of water and mud, a phenomenon called “sinking roads.” Landslides have been known to down whole houses, or schools. Just as power outages were to be expected in my former town on the seaside, electricity here is categorized as “regularly irregular.”

Like the seaside, mountains elicit that fundamental sense of reflection, insignificance, and awareness of one’s own small place in the wide world.

There are, of course, meaningful differences between my experiences on the sea and in the mountains, but sometimes expected unity is more interesting than expected difference. Or, as they say here in India, there is unity in diversity.

So maybe it is time to rewrite that question based on anthropological findings; from now on, I will ask my English students, “Would you rather live in a desert, or in a rainforest?”

Leaving

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Note: I wrote this two weeks ago.

Leaving always puts me in a philosophical mood. By now I’ve lived in, and left, three cities in the past three years. In the days before I leave, I try to do and see everything and everyone. But it’s not enough to see everything once–I must see everything and everyone in all their possible aspects. My friends for kahvaltı. My friends for drinks on the Bosphorus. My friends for meze at a meyhane. The Bosphorus in the morning when it sparkles like a precious gem. The Bosphorus at dusk when it swallows the light and becomes iridescent. The Bosphorus at night when it’s a mass of rippling blackness. Galata Tower from its base in Karaköy, and from a distance across the water on the Fatih waterfront, and from a rooftop patio. The next door kitten when it’s awake and playful, and later when it’s curled up asleep with its mother.

Then the problem becomes prolonging that moment, that moment you know is finite but which has to satiate you for who knows how long. I’m on the ferry, transversing the water that divides East and West, while the sun sets. I’m arrayed with friends around a cafe table, friends who are about to scatter to different points on the globe, who knows when we will be reunited. I’m in the Hagia Sophia, communing with the light that filters through its profoundly sacred and beautiful space. How do I “make the most” of those moments, other than being there? Am I appreciating the moment enough? Will I miss an important aspect? Will I regret something?

It all becomes impossible and untenable, both in that moment and existentially. There isn’t time in life, much less in the one week before leaving, to see everything you love, in all its aspects, for a truly satisfying amount of time. That’s the human condition, and leaving reminds me of that.

Photo: my final visit to Hagia Sophia.

St. Mary of the Mongols: The Last Byzantine Church (Yabangee)

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Nowadays Istanbul is known for its mosques, but prior to 1453, Constantinople was a completely Christian city replete with churches. Many of them exist to this day: Hagia Sofia and Chora Church are the most renowned examples, but there is also Hagia Irene, Küçük Aya Sofya, Fethiye Mosque… In all there are some 40 Byzantine-era church structures still standing throughout the city.

However, no matter which one you visit, one feature in particular strikes the visitor: they all either have minarets, or a ticket box, or both. Astonishingly, of the dozens of extant Byzantine churches in Istanbul, only one of them has never been converted into a mosque or museum and has been in continuous service as a place of Christian worship since before the conquest of Istanbul. This is Church of St. Mary of the Mongols, a.k.a. Kanlı Kilesesi, a.k.a. Meryem Ana Greek Orthodox Church…

Read more at Yabangee: St. Mary of the Mongols: The Last Byzantine Church.

Socially-Conscious Turkish Souvenirs at Nahıl Gift Shop (Yabangee)

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There comes a time for all of us when we have to purchase Turkish souvenirs for curious kith and kin back home. To get them their fix of evil eyes and olive oil soaps, I used to have to trek out to the Grand Bazaar or Galata. Besides these places being crowded and hectic, I always felt a tinge of guilt and unease with the racks of identical knick-knacks. Where are these products made? What kind of working conditions are they supporting? In an era of globalization, I think many of us, not just me, wonder whether our nazarlık were actually made in Turkey or were assembled in a far-off factory.

That’s why I was so glad to find Nahıl Gift Shop…

Read more at Yabangee: Socially-Conscious Turkish Souvenirs at Nahıl Gift Shop.

Cats of Istanbul

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One of the most remarked upon features of Istanbul is not the soaring minarets, the shimmering Bosphorus, or the fresh simit. It is the cats. Istanbul has a massive endemic population of street cats–probably over 150,000–and the constant fawning attention lavished on them by tourists and visitors always touched a nerve with me. Why come from almost halfway around the world and take pictures of a commonplace domestic creature you can find almost anywhere else?

Then there are the local attitudes. It’s an ordinary sight to see locals serving out cat food, cans of tuna, or bags of cheese (cats like cheese, I have learned) to hungry felines. The government also pitches in–throughout my neighborhood there are little two-story cat-houses painted forest green and stamped with the name and symbol of the Beyoğlu Municipality. Residents make offerings of water and kibble to these shrines of cathood. Why expend these scarce personal and governmental resources on animals when there are so many needy humans who need them?

However, as with rakı and ayran, my aversion to the cats has softened over time. I came to realize one great value of street cats: as therapy animals. A couple years back, some law schools in the US began offering therapy dogs to help law students relax. In the same way, I believe pervasive street animals help city-dwellers here recover from the various urban indignities that can be inflicted on us at any moment. As one of many examples: the other day I was running, as I do, near the waterfront. A group of bullies in a white van drove by and sprayed water on me. I was very upset but I quickly found a street cat, who purred and cuddled in my lap for ten minutes until I felt better.

The other therapeutic effect of a street cat is to remind you to slow down. No matter how much of a hurry you’re in, if you see an adorable kitten, then there’s just nothing else to do but stop and pet it, your schedule be damned. The other day, I met an affectionate kitten in Eyüp cemetery, near the Pierre Loti lookout. It curled up in my lap and fell asleep purring, so I sat for two hours with it while Turkish children came to my side and admired the sleepy kitten.

In fact, upon further consideration there is something appealing about the traditional Turkish model of pet ownership. Keeping a housepet, as far as I can tell, is a relatively new custom in Turkey mainly practiced by “westernized” individuals. In traditional towns, you are more likely to see an animal being “kept” by an entire apartment, a block, or a street. Members of the building or the block will all contribute to the animals’ care by putting out clean water, food, and fresh bedding at regular intervals for the dog or cat. This model still allows for the benefits of owning a pet–companionship, pest control, security, disposal of uneaten food–but it distributes the cost among the group and allows the animal itself to live freely, not imprisoned in a house all day at the whims of its owner, and without being a burden to the owner (requiring pet-sitting during trips, etc.)

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Of course, it’s not a perfect model–animal rights advocates wouldn’t be happy about the rates of mortality and sickness among the street animals. But overall, Istanbul residents take care of their strays, and the government pitches in by providing vaccination/tagging for dogs. If we take this model seriously, then a street animal is really a public good, and if I am to draw personal benefit (therapeutic relief) from the shared resource (in this case, cats) then I really should contribute to its upkeep by providing water and cans of tuna fish.

So I’ve come around to the locals’ way of seeing and providing for street cats. As for the tourists’ obsession, the photos in this post show I have reluctantly come around to it. In the end, I am glad that I can depend on finding an affectionate feline when I need one.

Freewheeling Reports: Kızkalesi

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Kizkalesi combines together two things I love: castles and beaches.

Castles are obviously awesome. I have been drawn to castles ever since I lived in Alanya, a little Mediterranean resort town with a massive Selcuk fortress built on its hillside. Apart from the obvious appeals, castles might even have old graffiti scratched into its walls by ancient soldiers.

Beaches are awesome too, but their awesomeness is less obvious, because beaches are, in the first place, boring. At most there are only a half dozen different activities you can actually do at a beach. What I’ve realized is that the boredom is their virtue: when you’re stuck on a beach you have nothing else to do except nap, swim, read–all the simple, relaxing activities that are so hard to fit in within “real” (non-vacation) life. This summer, whenever I get behind on my reading, I go to the beach where cleaning, the internet, and other distractions can’t reach me.

Kızkalesi merges these two awesome things–beaches and castles–into one quaint package. Kızkalesi, meaning “Maiden’s Castle,” is a resort beach town in southeastern Turkey, near Mersin. It was surprisingly hard to reach–the closest airport is four or so hours away in Adana. Practically all of the people around me were Turkish families with young children, and this observation was borne out by a number of my friends who said they fondly remember Kızkalesi vacations from their childhood. Consequently, the beach atmosphere is laid-back and wholesome, full of kids, dads, and moms playing with water noodles and beach balls.

However, the Mediterranean coast has many lovely little beach towns. This particular one famous throughout the country for its eponymous Crusader castle (from around 900 CE), which seems to float atop the water on an island 1000 feet offshore. In the summer, the Mediterranean waters are calm and clear, so swimming right up to it is a breeze–one woman told me she swam the distance twice a day for exercise. Once there, you can pull yourself up onto the pebbly shore, wander into the castle and climb atop its walls. There are the gorgeous views and charming white-stone architecture, and even an inscription in Armenian from when an Armenian kingdom ruled the area. But the most remarkable things inside are the extant in-situ floor tiles and mosaics, including Roman (or Greek?) text and zoomorphic imagery.

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Interestingly, a local guide told me that the floating Maiden’s Castle has an identical legendary origin storyas the floating Maiden’s Tower in Istanbul (to whit, a king, a princess, a snake bite, etc.). In fact, the more likely backstory is more crass. These castles were built to defend the coastal towns against piracy, and apparently in antiquity, seafarers called such defensive bulwarks “maiden” castles if they had never been breached by pirates.

As if one castle is not enough, on the eastern border of the beach lies another, even more expansive and imposing castle, nicknamed simply Korykos after the city’s original name . In ancient times, a pier used to connect the sea fortress to the land one, and some remnants of that pier are still visible. The land castle is in a more ruined state than Maiden’s Castle, which (for me) adds to the fun; crumbling and overgrown with trees, but still very much intact, and little visited by the beach-going tourists, Korykos has a post-apocalyptic feel. And as Merlin & Rebecca point out in their post, this castle was partly constructed out of spolia from an old Roman town. It’s fun to look out for the unexpected characters, iconography, and temple columns built haphazardly into the walls, not to mention crosses from the chapels.

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There are supposedly a couple of underground caves near the town of Kızkalesi that are worth seeing. I can’t speak for the awesomeness of those. However, I can attest that Kızkalesi definitely delivers on two awesome things: beaches and castles.

Previous Freewheeling Reports, so-called after a homework assignment from one of my Turkish professors.

Photo above: Kızkalesi viewed from Korykos. Photos middle: interior of Kızkalesi. Photo below: Spolia inside Korykos.