The Road to Kars: How I Made it Back

Last May, when I quit my job to move to Kars, Turkey to live with nomadic beekeepers, there were three thoughts running through my mind:

1. I have no idea what I am doing.

2. I know no one.

3. I have two weeks. If I’m not safely learning and doing what I needed to do within those two weeks, I am going to head east and try to walk to China or head West and go home to find a farming job.

Number three never happened, the beekeepers found me. Number two changed fast, in small towns someone knows you (or of you) within minutes. And number one, well, it’s been 4.5 months since I was last in Kars, and on March 17th the first day of the Karsian spring, I returned to start the social venture called Balyolu.

When I last left Turkey, my head was spinning with thoughts and ideas for Balyolu. How the heck was I ever going to get the funding, the support, the team, the tourists, and the logistics cleared to do something like Balyolu?

Here, you will learn the answer. This post is the photo essay of what happened over those four months and how I made it back to try to do what I love as a career.

Sweet Home Colorado

Baykus' Welcome Home.

When I returned, I thought: I’m unemployed, and I am without a home, commitments (save my sweet cat Baykus and Mehmet), and I can identify the flavors of hundreds of different jars of Turkish honey, and  the main strategies behind honey smuggling in Asia Minor. What am I going to do?

Colorado is AGRI cultural (photo by mehm)

The first night I was home, I went straight from the airport to Master Beekeeping Classes, meeting my old friend and mentor Tom Theobald and the Boulder Beekeepers community. I thought to myself: why not start a honey road in Colorado? Why not start a tasting trail here that brings resources to small farmers in the area (like the incredible farming communities I love and grew up with) while educating young people about food, nutrition, biology, and more. I thought: We could raise awareness about bees here in CO where in the 1800’s people arrived by train every summer to taste the wildflower honey. What better place to start? So I applied for a Pepsi Refresh Grant, I presented my idea at the Colorado State Beekeepers Association Meeting, I drafted proposals, spoke with farmers, and networked around how to make it happen.

Here is the video I made.

But it didn’t make my heart beat the way Balyolu did. There is this deep history in Turkey around honey and beekeeping that is nearly unparalleled worldwide. The birthplace of the original Caucasian Bee, a honey that can take down armies, Mumijo, and such a deep history of living by the land, I actually couldn’t bring myself to start this idea anywhere but the home of my imagination – Turkey. I could feel a gravitation pull in my stomach around day 6 that was already luring me back to Turkey and only getting stronger by the hour.

So it had to be Balyolu I thought. But HOW? How would I do it? I tried getting myself to apply to grad school, but it didn’t make sense! It would be years before I could give Balyolu the time it needed to grow. No grad school. I started applying for grants and funding. But no one wants to support a small business that is not a certified non-profit. I looked at incubators, but almost all of them are around tech and the ones that aren’t (yea Unreasonable Institute!) are in the summer – prime honey season. All this time, friends were calling, skyping, texting, emailing, messaging from Kars asking about the Balyolu, and one in particular, Sertac Turhal offered to meet with me 1-2 times a week for 2-3 hours on Skype to build the Balyolu strategy. So we began. I tied myself to my computer, and Sertac and I talked, mapped, planned, dreamed, joked everything honey for Turkish evenings on end.

Honey Loot over Christmas!

We wrote business plans, budgets, letters upon letters to funders, foundations, and applications. I closely met with Balyolu Advisers, a group of incredible people including Cagan Sekercioglu, Tara Hopkins, Mona Diamond, close friends who knew where to point me or how to encourage me to continue. I realized fast that this was going to take a long time, that while living at my mom’s and eating sardines and crackers for every meal might work for a month or two, it wasn’t going to be sustainable. I started applying for part-time jobs, and a close friend from Ashoka offered me a remote part-time consulting position that would give me just enough in my pocket to buy a miles/combo ticket to and from Turkey. I booked my return flight January 1, 2012. When I wasn’t working, I was training. Skiing, back-country hiking, biking, walking, running, basketball – everything that would get me in fighting shape to go back to Turkey without a car and move for days and miles on end in between the villages.

Skiing in CO

There were small pieces of encouragement here and there, friends who didn’t think the idea was absolutely insane, strangers who already wanted to book a trip, mentors from the community who stepped up to talk with me late into the night about building social change through budding businesses. The Balyolu idea grew, bringing on new faces to our program. We connected with the Georgia Tech MBA program to have 5 business students come to Turkey and work with us on developing a piece of the business. We suggested marketing. With this group of students came Deniz Dugyu. Upon the first 5 minutes of talking with Deniz, somehow I knew she would be my business partner, my CFO, and my partner in crime. Deniz was a genius, but the kind of genius that laughs when she talks, gets to the point, and knows how to make things fly. Deniz joined Balyolu. At the same time, my close friend Burcu Uzer had just quit her position at the Smithsonian and was moving back to Turkey. Burcu is a tourism expert, and an active proponent of slow-food, agriculture, beekeeping, and marathons. Burcu came aboard. We needed a finance person. I called my cousin to join, and suddenly, it was no longer just me standing alone trying to figure out what to do. We were a team.

The Jay Walker.

Sertac and I had been planning for several months some big moves that would hopefully be our big break: the GSVC business plan competition, the MIT business plan competition, and Kickstarter. I had been working with a close friend and creative genius Claire Bangser, and as soon as we brought on our new team members, like a race horse before the starting line, we stomped our feet and swung our heads blowing hot steam out of our noses. We were ready to run. Claire was hard at work creating the video. Deniz took over GSVC and our business plan, Alex built our budget, Sertac networked with communities on the ground, Burcu headed up marketing, and I was sleepless and spinning at the middle running Kickstarter and making sure every piece fit (my very next post is all about Kickstarter so stay tuned to learn our lessons).

Ready to Run

In 30 days, I did not sleep, I did not eat, and I left the house only for very special occasions, like skiing my last day, or presenting about the Balyolu idea. Balyolu was both creeping its way through Kickstarter at a nail-biting rate, as well as progressing in the ranks at GSVC (the Global Social Venture Competition). When we reached around $20,000 (out of our goal of $35,000) on KS, we found out the Balyolu team would be representing Turkey/the Middle East/Asia Minor in London at the GSVC regional semi-finals. As we booked our first guests on the Balyolu, I cried.

Colorado Bliss

It started happening so fast, and I realized I would be leaving Colorado in a matter of days, in fact, well before the Kickstarter campaign was to end. All of our applications were catching up to us. I would soon be headed to the UN for the Commission on the Status of Women, to London for the competition, and back to Turkey to actually start the Balyolu for real. In my last days, I headed out into beautiful CO and took some of these photos, both to remind myself of the place I love, and to show my friends back in Kars that CO ain’t so different.

Rolling through my hood

Nibblin on the wood

Southwest say what!



It's Show Time

My next-door neighbor


Colorado Amca's

Cow-t west

On the fence

Snow Castles in Colorado

A skiing sunrise

Life in the Southwest

Rocky Mountain High

Cleaning the Barn Yard

Just your regular Cowgirl (photo by mehm)

The Shadows of a Star

Running the Buffaloes

My Brother Arthur

I tip my hat to you Colorado (photo by mehm)

Crazy on Longs Peak

Longs Peak Warnings! (photo by kate)

Chickens... unite!

Head on

Can't touch this...danananana.


On February 23rd, I boarded a plane to Miami with everything I would need to launch a business in Turkey – whistles to scare away dogs the size of bears, maple syrup, a bike pump. I was going to be one of 14+ bridesmaids at my cousin’s wedding, then heading to the UN, GSVC, and Turkey without even knowing if we had any backing whatsoever. We were at around $25,000 out of $35,000 and there was still three days to go. I told myself, we have done as much as we could do, stop checking Kickstarter every second and persevere no matter what happens. At 9:00 pm while attending my cousin’s wedding, I learned we made our Kickstarter goal and in fact, we had gone over by $6,000+. I cried, I danced, I threw up my hands in glory, and fortunately, I was at a wedding so about 200 people around me were doing the exact same thing and no one noticed that fireworks were exploding in every vein in my body.

That night for the first time in 30 days, I slept more than 3 hours.

The wedding! (photo by Lex' friend)

To the United Nations – and BEYOND!

The next stop was New York City, the United Nations, the Commission on the Status of Women. I was selected by SustainUS as a 25 and under woman leader to attend the event. There were some wonderful sessions around youth, employment, and entrepreneurship and some less than wonderful sessions about women, violence, and the status quo. the UN is a valuable forum for dialogue and I was very grateful for the experience, but also frustrated by bureaucracy, by the lengthy panels that say nothing, by the hoards of young people sitting in the halls, unable to go inside the actual sessions, looking at this model as the pillar of positive change worldwide. I constantly feel there is not a strong enough platform for young leaders, old leaders, PEOPLE!, to become involved in solving the problems we see around us. Sadly, the Commission did not lift my spirits. But it was an important contrast following on the wing-tails of Kickstarter. Because while Kickstarter is a shot of 30 days changemaking adrenaline, the UN is one part of the long haul. Before us there are options, there are tools, there are resources, and then there is our own will. The best thing you can give a person is access to choices and possibilities, and being there was an important lesson for me to know what are the avenues we as global citizens can take to make a positive difference in the world around us.

Flashing my card

UN Discussions

@ UN Commission on the Status of Women

@ The UN Commission on the Status of Women

GSVC & London – Next Stop – the Balyolu Business Plan

I took an overnight flight to London from NYC, landing March 2 at 7:00 am, giving me just enough time to take a shower and catch the team for our 9:00 am breakfast and practice session before running off to the London Business School. I should mention not only was this the first time that (most of) our team had thus far been in the same place at once, but this was the first time I was meeting Deniz face to face. I was overjoyed. We have been working all hours non-stop to write our 25+ page business plan and throw together our presentation – all-nighters on Skype, 100s of emails in a day, and now here we were.

We headed to LBS and for 8 hours we heard incredible 5 minute presentations from 14 leading young entrepreneurs from the UK to Pakistan. While Balyolu did not make it to the final top two, we did win audience favorite, voted by all who attended the presentation. We were happy, relieved, connected to an amazing group of young innovators and ready to start the next chapter of our work.

We had seen the way the citizen sector mobilizes change (Kickstarter), the Development sector (UN), higher education (GSVC is the largest STUDENT run business plan competition) and now, it was our turn, how do we, the hybrid private sector ignite change.

Are we nervous for GSVC? No way!

Drinking it all in before the big presentation (photo by deniz)

GSVC Team (photo by colleague)

The eyes of the streets.

Yep, and I saw Elif Safak!

Street food

From Istanbul to Kars, the home stretch

On March 7th at 4:00 am I arrived in Istanbul. Following my final red-eye flight, I stumbled into my haven and slept for two days. The next week was consumed with work, meetings, work, website, design, logo, patent, meetings, trademark, the Beyaz Show scare (for another post), meetings, meetings, meetings. There were a few wonderful moments where I get out of this pattern of meetings and onto the streets, back to the twisted underbelly of Istanbul where I spent the early years of my life and adulthood. The rocking of the golden fish-sandwich boats and the tentacles of their pungent smell devoured my balance and confidence and I was hushed into a queasy sleep underneath the Galata bridge – the Istanbul sun setting on my face. There was a chaotic hum of plastic gun pops and toy figurines marching across underground tunnels, their daily pilgrimage of crunching plastic and mechanical groans. Seagulls swooped to catch floating pieces of bread and the city consumed me in its swirling mayhem – a dervish of chaos. In the darkness of the night, I listened to Roma music on the rooftop of my old neighborhood mayhane and I meandered home along the Bosphorus at 2:00 am, ready to board my plane to Kars in 8 hours.




Serenity in the Chaos


March 8th!

What next?

So here I am.

One chapter of Balyolu is behind us. What exists ahead is still quite a mystery to me. And to keep things interesting, I have been named a National Geographic Young Explorer, awarded a small grant to document my life, research, and work around the Balyolu.

I look back at the three things I remember about my first steps in this adventure:

1. I had no idea what I was doing.

2. I knew no one.

3. I had two weeks.

Now. I have a vision, I have a team/community, and the next exciting moments of my life – however many I am allowed – to dedicate myself to this cause, this mission, and this story.

Thank you for your joining, my last photo is for you. My friend Juli jokes that cats don’t have owners, they have staff. Just like my princess cat Baykus who is now in the good hands of a close friend, I – this Cat – would be no where without you, without the support of my family who work for my dreams in ways that I can’t even begin to describe. Without the Balyolu team who do not write nearly as much as I do, so their voices are often much quieter, but their vision is here, it’s bold, and without them none of this would exist. Thank you all for your support, for making this real.

Let the adventure begin.

And we're back.

Behind every great cat ... (photo by melissa)

About Cat

Catherine de Medici Jaffee is a National Geographic Young Explorer, a Fulbright Scholar, a Luce Fellow, the Founder of Balyolu: the Honey Road, and a lunatic about honey culture in the Caucasus. Raised on a farm in the Colorado Rockies, Cat grew up loving animals, dirt, and altitude. Her dedication and passion for animals, agriculture, and women leaders has launched her across the world as a Luce and Fulbright scholar: to raise Aigamo ducks in Japan, to research yak trade caravans in Sikkim, and to study rural women’s migration in Turkey. In particular, Turkey - with its fish hung like laundry from windows, its 9,000 species of flowers, and its delicious honey - continues to lure Cat back to its borders. Cat’s love for Turkey, the mountains, agriculture, and women’s leadership blend together sweetly in her new venture Balyolu and her blog Inspired Beeing. You can most frequently find her jumping on a mountain, running from angry bees, cooking in villages, hitching on dirt roads, or joking with Turkcell about her internet woes. Cat is joined by her partner in crime Claire Bangser, artist, photographer, writer, and globe wanderer who believes in creative storytelling as a way to powerfully connect people across mental and physical borders. From working with small-scale women farmers in Mali, to documenting peoples' lives along a 2,000 mile bike tour in the US, she finds that every person (and bee) has an important story to tell and much wisdom to share (speaking of Wisdom, Claire just published her first book, Ride Somewhere Far. Check it out on our Link Roll). These days, you're most likely to find Claire upside down, yodeling from a mountaintop, making tragic mistakes in Turkish, or eating meat for Cat.

Posted on March 21, 2012, in Art, Business, Culture, Environment, Food, History, Hospitality, Inspired!, Pop Culture, The Bal and the Bees, Travel, Women, youth and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. What an amazing adventure! I wish you the best of luck and admire you for following your dream.

  2. Reblogged this on travelwyse.

  3. Well done Cat. You came a long way very quickly. Looking forward to the tour. Amazing accomplishment.

  4. Were you really thinking of walking to China at one point? Were you going to go north or south of the Caspian?

  5. I loved reading about The Pull, how you knew on some level what you had to do. Much admiration. Keep up the courage!

  6. Bilgenur Baloglu

    Such an encouraging story! I hope I can follow my Middle Asia ’emergency medicine in nature’ project, as you did follow your project that passionately! Thanks for sharing it.

  7. Elif Toker -Turnalar

    I stumbled on this blog when I saw you as a friend of Prof. Binnaz Toprak on LinkedIn.
    And boy am I glad I did. I’m loving reading your adventure. Purely because I’m a great believer in slow-food but perhaps also because I am drawn to Kars as my father is from Ardahan, though that is another story. Thank you for sharing, it is inspirational to say the least.

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