Bodrum, Turkey - Discovering Turkish Sunflower Honey and the Treasures of the Dardanelles
"You're going where?!?! Dude, have you ever seen Midnight Express"? I must have heard this reaction to my November travel plans 30 times in the weeks leading up to my site visit. Friends and customers reacted to my work trip with a mixed cocktail of awe, wonder, and direct concern. I am not a fan of using the phrase "My friends made me feel like...". In truth, at my core, I don't really subscribe to the notion that anyone can make another person feel anything. Your own personal choice, in my humble opinion, plays a gargantuan role in how you feel at any given moment. However, the repetition of these inquiries was giving me a measure of pause.
Izmir, Turkey usually takes a backseat to vacation destinations like Hawaii (one of my other hive sites), Paris, or Thailand. Still, this was a work trip, and I have hives churning out honey in the Dardanelles region (not in Rome). And what were these people worried about - referencing Midnight Express'? Billy Hayes, the subject of that movie (and book, originally) was smuggling bricks of Hash out of Turkey - and he got caught. The idea of even being in the same room as heroin makes my skin crawl, let alone taping bundles of a narcotic to my chest, spiriting it through and past customs agents in three countries (you have to cross through Germany). I prefer my transcontinental adventures a bit more watered down by comparison. This was a trip to set eyes on my investment - to meet my site manager face to face - to see the hives I leased in action - to orient myself to the growing location of the sunflower fields start their growing cycle. Only by seeing how much acreage I have to work with can I determine how many hives I need to contract for the following season. And if last season was any indication (our Turkish Sunflower and Limoncello sold like gangbusters) I was going to need to have access to a considerable number of flowers.
After eight hours I touched down in Frankfurt, Germany for what I feel is nothing more than a test of my metal in order to deal with a seven hour layover (uuggghh) before heading to Turkey. Once I landed, and paid for the customary visitor's travel VISA immediately after disembarking the plane, I am met by my site manager, Erdogan. After introductions, we spirit into the heart of Izmir where Erdogan has procured an AirBnB for the evening. A quick shower to washaway the airport transitory funk and we head across the street for the first actual meal away from an airport I've had in about 24 hours.
Erdogan is charming. He is later in his 50s, happily married and a father of a precocious 8 year old. He has been managing hive lots and honey packaging for many years. He was in grocery management prior to honey. I fill him in on my travels and how I got started. He is inquisitive. We both are building our respective businesses and it is clear by the end of dinner we have much to learn from one another.
The next day starts early, 5:00 AM. After another shower (I am all about cleanliness), we hit the road out of Izmir for a long drive north to the hives. It will take about 5 - 6 hours to get to the region where the Aegean Sea meets the Sea of Marmara. Without going overboard on the details, I spend half of the trip marveling about how similar Turkey is to California - right down to the mist and fog that hangs over Los Angeles in the early morning hours. Erdogan fills me in on how large the olive trade is here. Apparently, Turkey grows a very high quality olive. So high quality in fact that the Italians import it. Erdogan mentions that it is an area that he is making forays into. Bees are not his only love.
After about three hours on what I think was highway 142, Erdogan realizes we will be passing a port town that is home to a long lost friend of his he has not seen since his days in the Turkish Navy, some 25 years ago. It just so happens that this is exactly the type of trip that lends itself to making detours on a whim. Mohamed lives in a smallish town on the edge of the Aegean Sea (my memory is terrible but perhaps Edremit). They catch up on the past two decades (as much as anyone can ) over an hour long lunch with a goofy American in tow. Mohamed now owns a boutique shoe store that offers all manor of American tennis shoe to the locals. As we walk through town, it is clear he has been here a while. He is greeted no less than a dozen times on our short walk from his shop to the restaurant we pick - you would think he's the mayor. While I keep it largely to myself, I am really tickled Erdogan felt comfortable enough with me to take a break and stop in to see this old friend. I travel often for work and am gripped with this same desire on the regular. The only thing that stops me (occasionally) is a nagging feeling that I may be putting the friend out who I wish to visit - perhaps I am catching them at a bad time - or their desire to see me is nowhere near my level of nostalgia. Erdogan is not plagued with this. He reaches out and finds his friend. They are happy to reconnect and more than willing to let me share in the joy of their reunion. My fingers are crossed hoping these two friends will not drift apart for another 25 years.
Once back on the road, we pass the city of Canakkale, but more on that town later. Another few hours pass and we enter an inlet. From an elevated position you can see both the Aegean and the Sea of Marmara. Both sides of this inlet are flanked by sunflower and lavender fiends. It is late November and neither flower is in bloom but no matter. We are taking this time to examine the site. The fields are much larger than I originally realized and it becomes obvious that I can put up twice as many hives for the next season - and I do. Buckthorn grows on the southern slope - outstanding. I ask Erdogan to set up some hives to collect that pollen type as well. It will take about another 18 months before this production flow will arrive stateside but you need the set the wheel in motion at some point. It may turn slowly, but it does turn. They do things differently in Turkey (actually, in most of Europe as well). Honey harvesters utilize lavender water as a means of managing Veroa mites - using a pharmaceutical is unheard of. The food source here is sacred and not polluted or tampered with at the harvesting level. While the honey I grow stateside is a high quality, clean product, every year, I grow increasingly concerned about the environment my bees need to prosper in. I can not control what strange chemicals could just appear in the soil one day. Not to worry - I won't get political. Just know that this is one businessman beekeeper who is keenly aware that loose environmental policies will, ultimately, impact you at the dinner table. That is the very reason why I set up hives in places that care about food quality over convenience.
Now comes the drive to Bodrum -South - completely in the opposite direction to what we have been traveling all day. Still, this is just the first full day of the adventure. This evening, we are going to hang our hats in the city of Canakkale (told you we were coming back). Erdogan is getting used to me falling asleep in the car (can't help it - I am jet lagged). Canakkale is just a bit south on the West coast. It's a harbor town and it has all the charm that most harbor towns have - massive harbor, near overflowing with luxury yachts (clearly owned by folks who made their fortune in something other than specialty honey - or at least, have been in that business longer than I have been in honey) and a steady traffic surge of boardwalk romances.
Erdogan really is the finest host. While I invited myself to his country, he took it upon himself to be my tour guide. My visit meant time away from both his family AND running the day to day operations of his business. He at one point mentions that taking care of me and being my guide is a what is 'expected of him' in his culture. While it may be 'expected' of him in Turkey, I am left with a constant buzzing in my head to be on my best behavior and to avoid any action that would strain his time. He is a good man and he is showing me a corner of the world I otherwise would not have seen.
After a seaside dinner we crash at another AirBnB in some nondescript side street. Once morning breaks we have breakfast at a seaside bistro. There is plenty of eggs... and tea (Erdogan always has three). We feed ourselves at the breakwaters of the site of the Gallipoli Campaign and I feel like a dumb American for knowing so little about World War I. Then we hit the road, on the long seven hour drive to Bodrum. We encounter a massive rainbow right after a heavy rain and we are compelled to stop just to photograph it. An hour later, we stop at on of Erdogan's favorite stopovers he uses while traversing the country for work. It is a open air café situated alongside a mountain lake run by a Turkish woman with excellent command of English and her husband/companion. We meet an U.S. military veteran and his wife/girlfriend who fell in love with Turkey while he was stationed her and never left. I forgot to mention. Turkey has a warm affection for wild street dogs throughout the entire country. You find them EVERYWHERE and this café' is no exception. The people feed them on the regular so while they are all largely homeless, they never go hungry. If memory serves, the café dog was a spunky little dachshund (or a midsize) who wanted all my attention. He got it.
Once we got to Bodrum, we head to Erdogan's seaside home and I meet his wife and daughter. After the pleasantries, we head to dinner. Erdogan deposits me at my AirBnB afterwards and I prepare for my first day alone.
I wake early, 6:00 ish, to sprint out the door, buy a breakfast croissant, and catch the ferry to Kos, Greece. It is Sunday and while shops are open, it becomes obvious very quickly that I am visiting during the low season. Most of my day is spent hiking around town and trying to get a grip on how I should divvy up my hive lease allotment. Do I double down on sunflower? Or do I split my investment and start allocating hives to what over the past two years seems to be a growing sector of demand - lavender. The choice ends up being pretty easy - but it will take nearly two years for it to become a reality. I get so caught up with this conversation in my head, I am barely paying attention when an older couple befriends me while they're buying brandy at a local liquor store. Only later does it become apparent to me how relaxed my attention was when they ask me to shuttle a package of alcohol across the channel for them. In case you're wondering, the Turkish government only allows each person returning from Greece to bring back 2 bottles of alcohol per person - and my new friends purchased 6. It is only half way across the channel that I realize I have agreed to voluntarily transport a package of unknown contents across borders for people I do not know.
I checked the package. If was just liquor. Problem averted. I will expend no further energy on planning an escape from a Turkish prison.
Better than a trip to Disneyland.