Want to know why we are here? Ask a village shepherd.

Living out here as Kars’ only resident American I face a long string of questions day in and day out that is more than enough to cause a personal existential crisis. Hourly, I am asked:

“Who are you?” “Why are you here?” “What is the purpose of your existence?”

Sometimes the questions beat around the bush, ending at a deep cesspool of assumptions. For example, the questions ask about my school, my experiences, my height. And after hearing that I went to a great university, I’m a Fulbright scholar, I’ve worked in Egypt, DC, Japan, and India, and that I am around 180 cm tall, the next logical conclusion is that I have to be a spy, because no one with this education would possibly pick a place like Kars to actually live. And with my size, I am perfectly equipped to hide all sorts of weapons inside my body – logically speaking of course (note, if you are the secret service inserting this post into Google translate, everything that was mentioned in the past sentence was complete sarcasm. I think it is in fact physically impossible to fit any kind of weapon in any of my organs, there are actually people all over the countryside who are far more intelligent than many college graduates that I have met, and considering that I am a terrible liar, I fall asleep upon instant contact with anything fuzzy, and my Turkish accent is out of a bad love film about lost foreigners, I really hope that any secret service human resources personnel would make a better hiring choice than yours truly). But really, I am flattered.

Every now and then, I get the chance to give my full answer and have someone listen and understand me, that me and my business partner are establishing Kars’ very first official and locally based tourism company that specializes in honey tasting tours, village tourism, and eco-tours. We take the profits from our trips to support women in starting organic beekeeping businesses, which both ensures that the quality of our honey is great and that our success is channeled towards supporting local rural livelihoods. We are planning to start a cosmetic line from our villages (like a Turkish Burtz Beeswax) in which we will also reinvest the profits towards supporting green infrastructure and rural livelihoods. This region is ready for a green socially minded company, and we want to be that company, working in partnership with other outstanding environmental leaders like KuzeyDoga and local municipalities. We are trying out our program as an experiment this summer, and using the proceeds to become entirely legal, certified, and locally run.

Most of the time, however, I think people prefer to let their imaginations run wild. A treasure hunter, a covert agent, a bee thief – the possibilities all make for incredible fiction prompts, all of which I hope to use for some creative writing assignment the minute I have some free time or retire.

But to my surprise, one day I had a very different conversation.

I was walking through the highlands of Kars for many hours, tracing the Balyolu route. I was sure I was very close to my destination but stopped to chat with a shepherd to make sure I was on the right path.  He offered me some cheese and bread and asked me the usual string of questions:

“who are you?” “why are you here?”

I began to answer, “well, so there is this tradition around wine tasting in other parts of the world, and I am working on this thing called honey tasting…” he cut me off.

“No. I want to know seriously, why are you right here.”

Oh man. “My Turkish really is not good enough for this,” I explained.

“Just try,” he coaxed.

Ok. I reached for our baggie of moldy green cheese (a choban specialty) and a chunk of bread and placed them at either end of our napkin table.

“Look,” I said. “Very few of us make it here, I said, pointing to the cheese. This is birth. In order to be born, your ancestors had to make it through years and years of evolution and with it, overcome major obstacles. Once you are born, only very few of us fully survive, with all of our limbs, with all of our capabilities, with our working brains, and our healthy hearts.”

Then I pointed to the bread, “here is death. Everyone dies, 100 percent guaranteed.”

“Why are we here? Because we survived incredible odds to procreate and then guaranteed we all die. That is known. But while the start and the finish are quite clear, it is the in-between areas that are much more intriguing.”

“So, instead, the question I love to ask myself is about the in-between. So you exist. What are you going to do about it?”

“For me, I think of myself as one of the luckiest souls on earth. I think I have a very small window to do something quite creative and extraordinary with my life. Our time is short and limited, we know that, and considering that I have made it to 25 with everything in place means that I have survived incredible odds (considering the amount of times I have stood next to smoking people at gas stations, I know these odds really are tremendous). I have an opportunity to create something unique, to let my dreams and passions drive me to build something that makes the world a little better for others after me. This I know for certain, and I get deep pleasure from being a creator, I can feel it surge in my blood.”

“This is why I love bees, this is why I love great stories, this is why I love nature, and plants, mold, and farms. I love the idea of life occupying a space that might have been once blank before, of a person creating solutions where once there were mostly problems, art from a white paper, a fortress of honey comb in an empty box. I love bees because, when I watch them, I see the universe being formed, I see the way creatures can work together to build something magnificent, I see a force much greater than anything I could ever imagine, piecing together the elements of the earth to create existence. It’s powerful.”

“So I am in Kars, here in one of Turkey’s oldest and most remote cities, to build something beautiful, because all around me, I see amazing potential.  I see the wild nature of my world in Colorado, but out here there are none of the literal fences or walls that we have all built up to separate ourselves. I see untouched land and natural agriculture, not the meat farms and hormones that have come to dominate the US culinary landscape. And I see an amazing history of bees and beekeeping, traditions that go back as far as the rich historic caves and civilizations here.”

“I feel like the last 25 years has prepared me to do just this; to create something from my imagination, to solve local problems, and to connect the remarkable existing pieces of this world to build something beautiful right here. This is the place where I am inspired, where I am challenged, where my brain and my emotions run wild and all I can think about are possibilities. It is crazy, I know. But no matter how hard I have tried, I couldn’t stop a year ago, and I am not about to stop anytime soon…”

I let my sentence poetically trail into the distance, proud of my answer, of my prosaic Turkish delivery, of walking for six hours, and of surviving life this far…

“How about you?” I asked.

“Me too,” he replied.

Then in all seriousness, he looked at me, and sighed.

“So where were you heading again?”

“I was walking from Kars to Gole, I have crossed this major stretch of mountains, I have been walking for 6 hours without stop. Can you tell me, is that village over there in Gole?” I asked eagerly.

“Vallah,” he replied, with a look of exhaustion. “It looks like you have made it right back to where you started. You made one big loop my friend.”

As soon as he said it, I could see he was right. I had in fact circled the entire mountain range instead of crossing it, and about a few hillsides away I would most likely find my little white pickup truck, waiting for me patiently in a pile of manure and mud. Inevitably, we would have to be dragged out by a tractor in the middle of some epic hailstorm. That is in fact how most of my days end out here.

I laughed. Now that I knew exactly where I was, the geography of the entire region opened up in my mind. I could see exactly where I had gotten lost, and where most of the side roads likely existed. The journey had been beautiful, and while I hadn’t ended where I had hoped, it would be a relief to get back in my mud-liberated car and drive home to a hot shower.

I left the shepherd with a bag of my remaining biscuits and scampered off down the mountainside back to my car, hooting at cows to help the shepherds herd their creatures all along my way. The sun would be setting soon and we all wanted to be off of the mountainsides before dark.

“Why are we here” is a loaded question that we can and should ponder while we are lost on ancient steppes (in a Paulo Coelhoesqueyen way) or from the comfort of a recliner, or the back of a smoky café… The answer will always change (a little or a lot), and the question askers are all around us (and if they aren’t, come to Kars, you will get your full share in no time).

But ultimately, we all need a shepherd to point us home (either the literal one holding an umbrella and a bag of moldy cheese or the metaphorical one that lives in your gut and goes by the name of instinct) because if we linger too long on the questions, the sun will set and we will remain lost in the dark.

*Note, this story is a combination of multiple conversations and interactions with farmers and shepherds. A special thanks to Arzu Orhankazi who has a strange knack for knowing the way, even when I feel pretty lost.

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 May 22, 2012, in Bees Keep People, Business, Culture, Environment, Food, History, Hospitality, Inspired!, Pop Culture, The Bal and the Bees, Travel, Women and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Another great post with great questions and answers!

  2. Wonderful, thoughtful post.

  3. Ah yes, humbled once again! Some of the best comments I hear about life are from people who have studied considerably less than we have and have seen far fewer places…I had to laugh at your google transate bit! What great cover ups we have though, you out there (bees of all things) and me over here (trash of all things). I do wonder what the real spies have for their cover-ups – they must be so jealous of ours!!

  4. obviously like your web-site but you have to test the spelling on quite a few of your posts.
    Many of them are rife with spelling problems and I in finding it very bothersome to inform the reality then again I will definitely come
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  1. Pingback: Feeling Good « My Pathetic Attempts At Love

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