The early morning Muslim call to prayer in Sirince, a tiny town high in the hills outside Ephesus, seemed to come from just outside our window. The slender tower of the local Mosque was actually across the square, but someone must have turned up the volume on the loudspeakers wired to its whitewashed walls. The song that woke Ado and me at 6:00 a.m. sounded a bit like a wobbly Tarzan yell to my foreign ear, only longer and much more beautiful. In pajamas, the two of us snuck out of our tiny room at the Selanik Pansion, which had a carved four-poster bed, Turkish rugs and rough towels that had been twisted to form graceful white swans. This for $65 a night, including breakfast. In the grey, pre-dawn light, we climbed a cobblestone street into hills strewn with peach, olive, and quince trees, our only company the stray cats that darted constantly across our path. We were startled by loud braying and spotted a small donkey covered in fig branches. An old gardener had cut back several lush trees and was wrapping the leafy branches around the little animal’s body with a rope. When he finished, all that poked out was the donkey’s soft black nose, tail, and miniature, dirty white hooves. I was sorry I had not grabbed the camera.
That afternoon, we visited Pamukkale (which means “Cotton Castle”), the number one tourist destination in the Anatolia region of Turkey. Pamukkale is home to an otherworldly mountain of gleaming white calcium, studded with terraced travertine pools overflowing with milky, ice blue water. Legend has it the water here can cure almost anything – a skinned knee, PMS, even sun damage, so I jumped right in, wanting to get the maximum bang for my 20 Turkish lira entrance buck. If you’re lucky, there are a handful of times in your life when you are lifted on invisible wings to a different plane of existence – a place where time travel, God, and even Peace On Earth all feel so ridiculously possible and within easy reach. I felt that magic the moment I stepped into those glistening travertine pools, my toes sinking into the soft, chalky white sediment. Three tiny micro light aircraft soared above the alabaster hill in a perfect balance of past and future. We pointed them out to Griffin, who asked what “micro” means. “It means tiny or small,” Ethan explained. “You were a micro baby when you were born.” Griff, a runty newborn who weighed just 5 ½ pounds, was the result of our third in-vitro fertilization attempt and our doctors were pessimistic that he would make it through the first trimester. Now, watching my tall, skinny, strong child splash in the warm, healing water, it felt like a big zipper in my mind – one that usually stays shut, closing off any possibility of transcending the everyday physical world – was peeling open. A warm, glowing wave of assurance flooded through me that everything I needed to live a meaningful, good life was right there in front of me – I didn’t need to go looking for it at all. I thought about my job, getting fired, my need to achieve, to be recognized, respected, liked, and useful, and saw in a flash that none of it really mattered when weighed against the here and now. I closed my eyes, shutting out yellow sun, blue sky and snowy white travertines, and mentally reached out my hand, trying to hold onto this powerful, omniscient realization. But the harder I tried, the faster it faded and I was left feeling like I had tried to catch a butterfly.
Along the upper rim of the travertines, looking down into the vast valley where crop fires send up plumes of smoke, are the ruins of Hierapolis, a Roman spa retreat originally built in 190 BC. My step-dad Rich had just set up his tripod to snap a photo when a gun-carrying guard hurried over, quickly bringing reality back into focus. Speaking brusque Turkish none of us understood, but body language that left no doubt about his meaning, he told Rich to put away his tripod. Take all the pictures you want, I think he was saying, but don’t set up anything that even remotely looks like it could fire a rocket propelled grenade. Our last stop was the Antique Pool that used to be the center of ancient city life. It was closing when we got there, but we waded in the warm mineral rich water and watched a few Turkish couples smooch and swim among fluted marble columns toppled by an earthquake in the 7th century. I closed my eyes again, this time to imagine what a girl’s spa weekend would have been like here when the Toga was in style. It was an easy leap, with the sun setting magnificently to the west just as a full moon rose in the east. Back in the Roman heyday at the Travertines, that had to be either a really good omen or a sign to sacrifice a virgin.