Cactus Café, Olympos, Turkey.
Dive bar and second, second home. Evran the owner is a sweet-natured delightful man in the way that only a seasoned bar owner can be. A slight sense of amusement surrounds all he does, a twinkling laugh in his eyes that tells you to relax, because nothing is all that serious. He’s seen it all here, and if he hasn’t it sure as hell happened in front of him somewhere else.
A benevolent King, mingling with the crowds and hopping in and out of the bar with no sense of self-importance. In his way he reminds me of men I’ve worked for in South Africa – professional night owls and problem solvers. Unlike those men however, Evran doesn’t feel the need to regain his youth through the elixir of tequila or the flesh of the young. He is married, and not once since I’ve met him have I felt threatened or desired – only cared for, and often enjoyed as a source of amusement due to my Turkish awfulness. I’ve never seen him treat any other women or girl differently. We have shared a special drink together on the cushioned platforms outside the bar, sinking into bean bags and discussing our lives, our homes and our hearts. A moment of connectedness and peace amidst the crazy dancing that ruled our post-shift lives. The stars sprinkled throughout the sky that night were alien to me – the northern diamond dust unfamiliar. Yet as I relaxed, I felt as if I had grown up there – lived a life that did not belong to me while at the same time being wholly mine.
Murathan and Sadik, the bartenders, would greet me every night with a smile and an expression that declared they were ready to be confused.
No matter how loud the music or busy the bar, they always had time to stop and listen to whichever new Turkish word or phrase I was about to haplessly murder that day. With pony-tails and cuffed pants they were the noble hippies that called Café Cactus their home, along with another staff member I only ever new as Olympos’ answer to Elton John. From his shoulder length curls to his perfectly circular sunglasses and tie-dyed shirts, the existence of this man simply made my day.
Along with the men of that beautiful place came the stunning ladies. The sweet princesses that held sway over the lords yet had hearts of buttery gold. Katya and Neslihan were so different but similar in the best ways, and brought a gentleness to the chaotic nights. Katya, small and blonde and confusing to all Turkish men as her looks belied only her Russian heritage, not her Turkish upbringing or skill with language. Neslihan, impassioned with politics and theatre and compassionate to the struggles of a lone South African traveller, dark hair and eyes shining with burnished bronze hues. They provided the comfort of femininity, the ease of conversation (even through extreme language barriers with Nes) and the softness of hugs and home.
I felt comfortable there, in that bar with its dusty wooden floorboards beaten into submission every night.
The marauding feet of the partiers, the lords and ladies stomping and twirling in joyous annihilation of concern and regret. It was without pretense, the movements and the passions expressed on that stage. The band plays with childlike excitement – fronted by fellow South African, Thandi, on vocals and backed by guitars, bass, drums and a sexy sweet saxophone sound, they pull the crowd out of their inhibitions time after time. They were the Barons of the bar, with a presence that yelled to be noticed even when off stage. Even those of us who had heard the same music (as the line-up never changes) every single night after night could not help but find our chairs replaced by boogy. From Turkish Reggae and Avicci and to songs about my homeland, I danced and sang Give Me Hope Jo’anna until the sun rose each morning. It was a welcome taste of home, to have Thandi as my counsel. After 13 years in Turkey he was fluent in the language and in love – married to a local woman, he was a unending resource for advice and swear words, as well providing a welcome respite from confusion by chatting away to me in English. Though his Afrikaans (a native South African language) was not great, it provided me with with great amusement – to rattle off to him in ‘Die Taal’. He understood every word, and I met the complaints of my Turkish friends surrounding their lack of comprehension with a slightly vengeful grin.
I was adopted into that realm, into the slightly surreal world of a hippy bar with it’s subtle nuances contrasting sharply with it’s encompassing “In Your Face” atmosphere. I was not a tourist there, but an honourary local. Drinking for free and sharing private jokes while we watched the travellers mingle with locals; feeling more at home there than with my own family in Turkey and holding my farewell within its walls. It is a very special place, and the people make it so. To King Evran and the courtiers of Cactus Café, Thank you.
I will never forget you.
**All images courtesy of Cactus Café website and Facebook page. If you’re looking for somwhere to stay (tented acccomodation) or party (definite recommendation) in Olympos, Turkey, give them a shout. And no, they have no idea I’m writing this… shhhh.