Everything is a cloud. Even the dashboard in front of me sweats from the fog in the dolmuş (minibus). The white layer of fuzz on the windows tells of the cold moisture outside hitting the hot shaking glass of the car. My arms are clammy and I can feel stray pieces of hair, dust particles, and breadcrumbs sticking to my face. I can barely see the front of the car, let alone the cliff’s edge that hugs our wheels. Almost teetering over the edge, we slam to a halt, and the 25 people around me gasp in a series of stifled cries. The 17 day-old baby asleep on my lap wrinkles its nose.
I admit it. I am struck with total fear. And when I am afraid, I implement my one secret weapon: I fall asleep. While some people know kung fu, I know how to sleep on command. So I drop my head, and a rush of exhaustion overtakes me. The baby and I are synchronized drooling before you can say, “allah allah” (oh-my-god-what-is-this-dolmus-doing, in Turkish).
Our vehicle is bound towards Camili in the Macahel biosphere, one of the most protected environments in Turkey. The region straddles the Turkish Georgian border and like an inland island, it has been closed to the “outside world” for much of history. In 1921, this region became part of Turkey and the first access road was built in 1968. Even with the road, entering Macahel is difficult. Foreigners need military permission and the weather makes passage over the mountains into the Georgian valleys a brutal challenge. I can only imagine what winter is like when now at the beginning of August, the road is nearly impassable. While the weather only renders the road open for six months, the 12 villages of Macahel are year-round. Without any hospitals, formal shops, or grocery stores, the residents fall back on their centuries of practice in self-sustained living. And in the most urgent situations, when someone is sick in the wintertime, the village gathers together and hikes that person out, a process that takes three days.
During the summer months, two dolmuş enter the biosphere per day, and they deliver supplies for all of the villagers. Every corner of the car rattles with garlic cloves, boxes of bananas, medicine bottles, construction boards, tins full of benzene, and three times the capacity of people then the car can legally fit. My fellow passengers include several ancient toothless men that everyone refers to as the “Dedeler” (grandpas), two lost professors, a wrinkled ball of an old woman, many families, and a 17-day-old enfant that has been plopped on my lap for the duration of this journey. Because of the fragile infant cargo, we dare not open a window, the de-fogger, or air-conditioning.
Instead we slowly inch down the road, halting when the sharp cliff edge becomes too close. At each abrupt stop, the baby and I in unison open our eyes in fright, and then fall right back to sleep. At some point, our car begins dropping deep into a valley, leaving the tails of the omniscient clouds curling behind us. Nighttime darkness falls around us, and the smell of relief and famine rises from every corner of the car. It’s Ramazan, and the riders, like the driver, have been fasting since three in the morning. The baby on my lap is also hungry, wiggling and smacking it lips at me to say “feed me soon or I will cry.” I give it a blurry-eyed glare that says, “NOT OPEN FOR BUSINESS.” Luckily, the mother plucks him from my lap and I am able to shift my weight and breath again.
From the darkness, a small child runs to the car to retrieve bread, a new cell phone, and two boxes of medicine. An old man greets the car and hoists the tiny ancient woman from the van on to his back and scuttles towards their home. The 17-day-old baby leaves with its family, and one of the dedeler kisses it goodbye, loudly proclaiming it “delikanli” (crazy blooded). After many stops we finally cross a historic wooden bridge.
This time, I shut my eyes in relief. We are here. We have made it to Camili.
What, you might ask has brought me here in the first place? The answer is dark, thick, and bitter like a floral dark chocolate. Macahel has some of Turkey’s most coveted honey.
I am here to understand this honey, its ancient harvesting traditions, the rare and pure Kafkas bee genetics that are preserved in the biosphere, and the operations of the prestigious Macahel/TEMA queen rearing program.
After waiting a month for my military permission, and traveling two days to get here, my access has been granted. I am finally here in the Macahel.