Two years ago a guy named Hakan predicted my future.
We were in Goreme, Central Turkey, a region famous for its spindly rock structures that look straight out of The Lorax. For thousands of years, locals have lived in caves within these rock pillars – spaces that have been chiseled and remodeled into modern, eclectic, multi-bedroom homes.
Goreme is an incredibly popular tourist destination. Today, most of the cave homes have become boutique hotels and bed-and-breakfasts. Tourists are drawn to the bizarre landscape – described in brochures as a “fairyland” – and also to the hot air balloon tours that take place every morning at 5 AM.
Earlier that week I had taken a balloon tour myself – stood in a basket in the freezing pre-dawn watching that bizarre desert unfold below. I was sandwiched between an American family who spent the ride talking about their past vacations and a trio of Korean girls taking pictures, laughing.
I was traveling alone that summer and instead of draining my limited budget on accommodations I had decided to join the couchsurfing community- a sort of unbelievable space wherein strangers on the Internet offer up their homes as free accommodations to other strangers on the Internet, and because you are alone and broke and young and naive you actually do it.
Hakan was my host in Goreme. He had taken in hundreds of travelers, but I had a hard time believing his motives aligned with the couchsurfing community’s feel-good philosophy of cultural exchange. I think he mostly used it to meet women.
Hakan had a roommate, Atsuko, who worked as a Japanese translator for one of the balloon companies. She had come to Goreme on a vacation two years ago and simply decided she didn’t want to return home.
They lived in a cave house that was under construction, with a living room covered on two sides by a giant blue tarp that swelled and deflated like a lung. The plan was to finish the house and turn it into a high-end hotel, finally make some real cash. I liked this about Hakan and Atsuko: they were hustlers; they lived how they wanted.
I had thought that traveling alone around Turkey would reveal to me what I was supposed to be doing with my life, like a Magic 8 Ball meets a career aptitude test. Any day now I expected to wake up and shout “Yes! I do want to be a high school literature teacher!”
So far, there had been no time for epiphanies – I had to continuously secure food and lodging and once I did, someone always wanted to take me on a tour of the local caves. I found myself not on a spiritual quest but on International Cave Tour 2013. These were not caves with stalagmites and albino spiders. These were cave churches, with bits of paint left on the walls and a couple of dirt pits. The first two were interesting and the remaining four hundred were exactly the same.
I was broke and I was lonely. I spent my days hiking and eating apricots. A lot of apricots. I was growing increasingly bloated and beginning to feel like this trip was a huge mistake. I was tired of aimlessly walking around; I wanted purpose, I wanted something real to do.
The night Hakan read my fortune, he, Atsuko, and I were having dinner at a restaurant. Hakan said the manager “owed him a favor” and we went hoping to score some kind of discount.
We ate pottery kebaps, a local specialty served in sealed clay pots that had to be smashed open with the blunt end of a knife. The meat inside tasted like terra cotta.
After dinner, we ordered coffee. Turkish coffee is served in tiny, ornate cups about the size of a shot glass. It’s unfiltered, so the grounds settle at the bottom and if you’re not careful you’ll get them all over your teeth.
“Have you ever had your coffee grounds read?” Atsuko asked me.
“Um…no.” I said. “Is that…like, a thing?”
“Yes. It tells your future. Have Hakan do it. He’s very good.”
I glanced at Hakan.
On my second day in Goreme, Hakan and I climbed to the highest point in town to watch the sunset. I know it sounds romantic, but this was a pretty common thing to do – it’s not like Goreme had any nightlife.
We sat down on the cliff and dangled our feet over the edge. Hakan snuggled up and put his arm around my waist. I moved away. He tried again. I moved again.
“No thanks,” I said nervously. He dropped his arm without another word.
He didn’t try anything after that, but he also stopped being friendly. Don’t get me wrong, he was an exceptional host – he cooked great meals, helped me plan my itinerary, got me a discount on the balloon ride, and didn’t mind when I ate every single apricot in within a twenty-foot radius. But I wouldn’t describe us as “buddies.”
“Hakan?” I asked. “Would you?”
“Sure,” he said. “Hand me your cup.”
I slid my cup across the table. He turned the it over and let the grounds spill onto the saucer. His eyebrows shot up.
“Allah allah,” he whistled. “Your head is a mess.”
I laughed. Nervously. My head was totally a mess. Was it that obvious?
“You want many things, but it changes all the time. You are confused,” he said. He had a fairly thick accent and spoke in a rapid, high-pitched monotone, like he was reading something aloud to a class.
“You don’t think much about money or business. You just think about men.”
This was 100% true.
“That’s not true,” I protested, but he wasn’t listening. He studied the dregs in silence. Then he looked up.
“You should not take any drinks from a stranger.”
He turned the saucer towards me and used his pinkie to outline two brown blobs.
“This is a woman on some kind of chair, maybe a stool. And this figure is a man, leaning in to attack.”
My heart skipped a beat. This was the very scenario I had feared – my smiling face appearing on the news as another terrifying statistic. Single American female, kidnapped, raped, murdered. Tortured to death in warehouse somewhere in the Middle East. Cause of death: being too polite.
“How near in the future?” I gulped. “What kind of man? Does this mean tonight? Tomorrow? Next month?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head. “Just be careful. Use your brain.”
He poured the grounds back into the cup and looked at what remained.
“Okay. See here.” He motioned to two smudges on the inside rim of the cup. “You have a dolphin and a cobra.”
He outlined the shapes with his pinkie. They were elongated, murky. They did not look like dolphins or cobras to me.
“What do they mean?” I asked.
“Many things are out to hurt you. Many things are out to help you. But you will not know which is which.”
I thought about the men who would soon give me tea and cut off my head. “Oh god,” I whispered. The pottery kebap was heavy in my stomach.
“You can only follow your instinct and your head. Do not listen to your heart.” He pointed to a tiny smudge in between the dolphin and the cobra. “Here’s you. And here is the dolphin. It is leaping behind your back.”
“It’s leaping. Behind my back.”
“Yes. Leaping. It means many good things,” he said, “but you don’t see them.”
“You mean because they’ve passed?” I asked. I thought about the year before I graduated college – the friends I had, the awards I won, my perfect Medusa hair blowing in the wind.
“No. I mean they are behind you. You don’t see. You are looking forward at something you want that is running away from you. You don’t turn around to see the one who is waiting for you, full of love.”
Atsuko nodded, eyes wide, tipsy.
“Of course,” she said. “Of course. The dolphin is waiting.”
The candlelight illuminated her face, round and honest. I looked back and forth between the two of them, swallowed, said nothing. I was wrapped in a Turkish scarf and very far away from home, drinking wine with two indecipherable people, and truth seemed like something that waits in the dark for you to be quiet.
The dolphin is waiting.
I would have many more adventures that summer. Many did involve shady men who did not have my best interest at heart. I took Hakan’s advice. I accepted no drinks. By the time I left Tel Aviv, I didn’t want anything to do with strange men. They made me queasy.
I went home at the end of the summer.
I had taken this trip as a way of living out a deeply held and no longer valid 2belief that the most important parts of our personal development occur when we are alone and uncomfortable. I was interested, that summer, in disintegrating, in connecting with something beyond myself that would erase my own carefully constructed, liminal personhood.
Plus I had just read Wild.
So standing in the airport in Boston waiting for the flight that would take me to Phoenix, I felt like I had failed. I hadn’t decided what to do with my life. I hadn’t had any spiritual experiences. On the contrary, I was coming home with a terrible haircut (Salon Ashdod, “do whatever you want,” complete regret), 6-7 extra pounds on my stomach (apricots, kufte, alcohol), torn clothes, and no money.
They called my boarding zone. I texted my mom to let her know I was on my way.
And then I had it. My epiphany.
It wasn’t a single word from above whispering my professional destiny (MARRRRKETIIINGGG, LAAAAAAAW). It wasn’t even a concrete thought. It was just that all of a sudden I felt really stoked to go home.
Home – a place where people knew my name, spoke my language, could I.D. my body if ever I was served a fatal Moscow Mule. People who loved me, whom I loved, who would meet me for coffee and chat about anything – existential loneliness, fall fashion, cultural appropriation, scones.
Because I already had everything. Everything I could ever want. I had family, friends, a financial safety net, a healthy body – but also it was more, it was deeper, it was the unbelievable fact that I existed at all.
There. It was.
The dolphin is waiting.