Flying through back alleys of Istanbul, we had finally driven out of the city’s wild traffic. Milo and I missed the shuttle to our coach bus from Taksim, but we were in a cab, racing down backroads to beat the shuttle to the otogar (bus station). We had just spent the past two hours in the Asian part of the city, eating dinner at a restaurant that Meltem had brought us to.
We boarded the bus and found our seats, noticing that girls and guys sat separately. I fell asleep and woke up around two hours later to Milo telling me that we had finally driven out of the city’s seemingly endless lights. The rest of our ten hour ride Milo and I took turns dozing off then waking back up. At 5am the sun began to rise behind the mountainous landscape (which looked far more desert-like than I had seen in my past three months of travels).
We arrived in Burdur at 10am and our host, Öztürk had told us to wait in the station until we could be picked up at noon. For the next two hours, we waited in the basement of the otogar. Unsure of what time we’d be eating next, we grabbed döner, the only available food there. When noon time came I received a WhatsApp message from Öztürk telling us to meet him in the front. We grabbed our bags and walked outside, overjoyed to start the first work exchange of many that we had been planning for half a year. Our minds wandered through thoughts of the new people we’d meet, the new skills we’d learn, and the foreign cultures we’d be immersed in.
Outside the station we found a pickup truck and two men standing on either side. One man wore a straw hat and blue overalls while the other wore floral harem pants, had a huge manbun, and towered above us. I asked if the driver was Öztürk, but he introduced himself as Mehmet and the tall, harem-pants-wearing, manbun friend introduced himself as Hamza. Mehmet didn’t speak English, but Hamza did.
After stacking our bags in the middle seat, Milo and I crammed into the back of the truck. Hamza explained a little about the farm and his position there as we began driving. Originally he had discovered the farm through a friend and since he wrote, spoke, and understood both Turkish and English, Öztürk hired him to help communicate with the volunteers and manage online communications. He explained that the farm, Lisinia, was responsible for producing half of Turkey’s lavender. This fact stunned Milo and I and made us more excited for the experience. The farm was a project that Öztürk had spent the past ten years developing. In 2005, he purchased a plot of land with the intention of raising awareness for environmental change.
The farm was located just beside Lake Burdur, a body of water which had shrunk 1% per year for the past 27 years. The reason: global warming in combination with the hundreds of farmers around the area who used the water for their crops and animals. With this recent research, Öztürk changed the direction of the farm two years ago to begin growing lavender on plots of unfertile land. He chose lavender since it required no water to grow but was still very profitable. He used the plant as a profit maker as well as a symbol for the possibility of sustainability in the future without the need for excess water consumption.
After explaining all of this, Hamza asked us some questions about ourselves until we stopped at an autoshop. Without explanation, Milo and I were left confused as to why. We spent the next hour watching as Hamza, Mehmet, and several autoshop workers poured oil from small containers into a large container strapped into the back of the truck. We offered to help but they told us it was no problem so instead we watched from under some nearby shade.
When they had finished we were invited to join in drinking tea with a handful of autoshop workers. Within my first 24 hours in Turkey, the dozens of stories I had heard and read about inviting strangers to tea being such a large part of the culture was already confirmed. After tea, we hopped back in the car and asked Hamza more questions, finally getting an idea as to why they were collecting oil at the autoshop. The lavender extracting process required oil and although gasoline could be used, gasoline in Turkey was far more expensive. Oil it was.
We drove for a few minutes until we pulled into a large parking space in the city center and Hamza told us that we should buy anything we need for the week since the farm was 3km away from the nearest village. He led us to a grocery store where Milo grabbed sunscreen and both of us bought a few bags of chips just in case we got hungry on the farm. Afterwards Hamza led us to a favorite restaurant in the city center. We sat down as we learned more about the farm and the project. The lavender produced from Lisinia was used to make lavender oil, water, and as an ingredient to make an assortment of medicinal products. While we continued talking, Hamza ordered a variety of Turkish foods for us to try:
- burdur şiş (shish) – a special dish to Burdur with pita, peppers, and meat
- kıymalı kaşarlı pide – flatbread pizza with minced meat and onions on top
- a salad consisting of mostly onions and spices.
When we had finished, we paid and got back into the truck. For the next hour and a half Milo and I sat in the back trying to stay awake, unsure of why we repeatedly drove in and out of the city. When we finally left the city for the last time, Hamza explained that Mehmet had been searching for a specific sized container but obviously experienced difficulty in finding it.
Our sleepiness quickly faded as the environment changed, captivating us. We drove way out from Burdur and past several small villages. The call to prayer happened to be playing as we drove by one town. We weren’t in Europe or America anymore, that was for sure. Mountains rolled out in the distance for as far as the eye could see and the lake glimmered in the dimming sunlight. With the windows open, wind rushed through the car and blew through our hair. Milo and I looked at each other and smiled, silently agreeing that taking this year off was one of the greatest decisions we could have made.
I saw a Turkish flag waving in the distance then saw the wooden tee-pee structure it sat on and knew we had arrived at our home for the next two weeks.
Milo and I grabbed our bags, got out of the car, and followed Hamza up the stairs that led to the volunteer space of the property. It looked like a a large wooden cabin and we later learned that it was built in only 11 days by people from the neighboring village. A deck wrapped around the whole exterior as rooms lined the interior.
A kitchen was on the first story and a bathroom was in the basement. Several volunteers sat at the main table in the common area connected outside and we introduced ourselves to them one by one.
To give a better idea as to who we met during our stay at Lisinia and what their reasons were for working there, Milo and I have created a meet the farm section below and linked their names in this post to their bios. (Volunteers constantly changed so these are all of the people we met over our two weeks. Not everyone below worked at the same time.)
If you click on a volunteer’s name highlighted in the text below, please ensure that you’ve expanded the meet the farm sections first to properly jump to the person’s bio.
One volunteer showed us to our room which had just been his, but since he was leaving he grabbed his belongings and let us put ours down. Our room was nicely sized and slightly larger than the typical college dorms that most of our friends were posting photos of on Facebook. We faced the lake and had a great view of it from one of our two windows. The other window looked out over the orchards and hammock on the edge of the deck. We quickly realized that the room behind us was the kitchen as the smell of whatever was cooking for dinner wafted into our room. We opened the windows to let a nice breeze in as we made ourselves comfortable. Three wooden platforms occupied the space and outside, behind the main table was a tent filled with supplies. We grabbed two long cushions each to make mattresses for ourselves on top of the wooden platforms in our room. Then we used sheets to cover them. With our new room set up and our beds made, we ventured back outside to join the group.
Julia and Laura had made dinner: fresh fruits alongside rice with tomato curry sauce. We began talking with other volunteers as we enjoyed our first meal on the farm. After eating, we all sat, silent yet content as the largest full moon that Milo or I had ever seen slowly rose above the lake.
Moonlight bounced off the water, illuminating among the entirety as the lights of Burdur glowed dimmly in the background. It was then that Freddy broke the silence to explain the significance of the farm’s name: Lisinia, a word from a native tribe who once lived in Burdur, meaning the reflection of the moon over a body of water.
After some minutes of quiet, everyone hypnotized by the moon’s luminous glow, Ruby pulled out a pen and paper and made the roster for cooking and cleaning the following day. Each night, volunteers organized who would be cooking and cleaning for each meal and everyone worked in pairs. Milo and I offered to do dishes for dinner and after spending another hour getting to know other volunteers, everyone headed off to bed. Hamza told us to wake up at 8am for breakfast and be ready to work at 10am.
Our first day we woke up just as the sun was shining through our windows. I opened the wooden door and light poured through the crack.
We sat down at the main table and began eating. Pans of scrambled eggs, fruit salads, toasted bread, and jams lined the table. Everyone helped themselves and grabbed utensils from the bins that had been brought to the table. Of course, we also drank hot tea.
After eating we all got ready for work. Milo and I grabbed spare blue overalls with the farm’s logo on them and geared up for our first day, unsure of what we’d be doing. While waiting for the tractor to arrive we officially met Ruby, who explained some helpful tips about the farm. She told us that most days we’d be unsure of what we were doing and why were doing it. In the past (since this was her second time working on the farm), the owner Öztürk would come along with the volunteers and explain what they were doing and why. Although he could only explain in Turkish, Hamza was the staff member to translate. Another staff member, Ahmet, had only started learning English since working on the farm 6 months before but was still capable of holding a simple conversation or instructing volunteers of what to do.
When the tractor arrived, Ahmet screamed “Everyboooodddy!!!” (a saying that became very common over our stay) and the other volunteers who had gone back to their rooms returned to the main table. Along with the rest of the volunteers, Milo and I climbed into the back of the tractor bed. Another staff member, Mesut (who didn’t want his photo taken) drove the tractor outside of Lisinia’s gates, down the road, then up a hill and into the orchard. Riding in the back of the tractor became standard on the farm as we used it for transportation nearly every time we worked.
Grape vines lined us on both sides and when we reached the end of the vines the tractor stopped. One by one, each volunteer jumped off and then grabbed a crate, gloves, and cutters. Ahmet assigned pairs of people to each line.
As I cut the right side of the grapes off, Milo cut the left. Since we had agreed to work on a lavender farm we were initially confused as to why we were working with grapes but luckily Ruby was there to explain. The next few days (and for the past few weeks), volunteers had been cutting and collecting all the ripe grapes. After collecting all of the grapes, the farm intended to make molasses and we had arrived just in time for this. Work for the next few days consisted of collecting grapes, three hours in the morning and two in the evenings.
Milo struggled with overcoming his fear of bees, we once spotted a viper, and the work grew mundane but all we had to do was stop for a minute and look up and over the breathtaking valley that we were working in to make the experience worth it. One night a gust of wind blew through my hair as the sun had just set behind the mountain in front of us, sending a chill through my body. I stopped for a moment and looked at the Turkish flag from our home waving in the distance. Traditional Turkish music blared from Mesut’s tractor nearby and all of the volunteers were hard at work. Again, feelings of the work being mundane vanished.
The day before Ruby left, we hiked up the hill in front of Lisinia in between our morning and afternoon shifts. Milo was feeling tired so he took a nap but we were instead joined by one of the farm’s many dogs. We climbed up a rock face of the hill, jumping from one rock to the next until we had reached the pinnacle. We talked as we stared out at the mountains lining the whole valley. The lake stood still beneath us. After about an hour, we made our way back down the hill to get ready for work.
After three days of collecting grapes, Milo and I woke up mesmerized by the silhouetted figure doing yoga outside Lisinia’s gates. This day would be different.
We got dressed, ate breakfast, then Hamza came out and informed everyone that girls would be staying and working in the garage (usually this meant filling bottles of lavender water, moving piles of lavender, or working to make lavender into liquid) while all the guys would be riding in the tractor to the neighboring village. With no explanation as to why, the guys got ready and jumped on the tractor when it arrived. At this point the guys included Sefi, Chuku, Ryan, Milo, and I. Mesut and Hamza drove us to the town over as we sat in the back with the crates of grapes that we had spent the past few days picking.
We began backing into someone’s driveway right next to a mosque until someone from the residence came rushing out and talked with Mesut in Turkish. He pulled out of the driveway, parked nearby, then Hamza said we would have to wait to start. We jumped off the tractor and followed Mesut and Hamza to a coffee shop where tables of odd looking dominoes and boards sat out. Sefi took Chuku to go play on a playground nearby while Hamza taught Ryan, Milo, and I how to play this game. They called it OK, but it was similar to Rummy, the goal to match as many of the same color or number of dots on the dominoes. We played for about twenty minutes until it was time to go.
This time we pulled all the way back into the driveway, hopped off the tractor, and discovered a grape stomping tub. Another farm was finishing up smashing their grapes when we arrived, so we watched.
With a smile on his face, Hamza looked at Ryan and I and told us that we’d be next. Initially Milo and I thought he was kidding but I really didn’t want it to be a joke. Stomping grapes was on my bucket list and had been something I really wanted to experience in this year abroad.
It turned out Hamza wasn’t joking at all. Since Ryan and I both were wearing shorts, we washed our feet using a spout to the side of the tub. Then, since there was only one pair of boots, Ryan didn’t mind and let me use them. We hopped over the side of the tub and with the help of Milo and Sefi, filled potato bags with grapes then fastened them shut with some cord. The next thirty minutes we stomped on the grapes, the juice flowing beneath us, down the slanted tub, into a spout that flowed over a filter and then into a bucket.
The filter separated any grape residue from the juice. Grape stomping was surprisingly exhausting, but I was happy to do it.
After we had nearly flattened the potato bags, we stacked them in the machine on the far left of the tub. This machine acted as a press, so we loaded up all the bags we had stomped on then screwed the top as far as we could down to force the remaining juice out. Sefi remarked at how brilliant and simple this technique was since he had stomped grapes when he was younger but never had taken advantage of the efficiency that the potato bags and press provided.
While they got busy, I wandered around and smiled at the women behind us who were sorting through peas.
A man to the side was mixing a steaming pot of brown liquid over a raging fire.
Hamza explained that he was making molasses from the grapes. At this point, we finally grasped the full picture of what we were doing and why. We had spent the last few days collecting the farm’s remaining grapes and now were stomping them to juice. This juice would be brought back to our farm and using a similar process would be made into molasses there. While a small amount of this grape molasses would be saved for consumption, the rest was for the farm’s bees. It was important to make the molasses for the bees to keep them healthy since they were responsible for pollinating the lavender. Everything made sense, it was all a cycle, and for the first time, we really felt like we were working to make a difference on the farm.
Hamza began filling a large tub with all the grape juice we had been stomping and grabbed a glass for us to try it.
Ryan took the first sip and immediately smiled.
It tasted great and it was even better knowing that we had picked the very grapes we stomped to make it. While Sefi, Ryan, Milo, and I continued to switch off until all the grapes had been stomped, Chuku entertained himself nearby.
Before leaving, Hamza told us that the farm only stomped grapes into juice one day out of the year, explaining why we continued to switch off to stomp grapes for over three hours. Back on the tractor, everyone was happy with the day, even Chuku who had been given a free ice cream cone by the owner of a cafe shop that we stopped at.
Later on that evening, the men had one more hour of work so it was spent working alongside the women to help in the process of making lavender into oil and water. Although we hadn’t yet picked lavender, the garage was full of it and as the mid-afternoon’s sun blazed outside, rays of light were cast sideways over all of the stacks.
Milo and I grabbed huge piles to cram into a chamber that was soon to be heated. Ahmet helped shove the lavender down into the corridor and stood on top, ensuring to compress it as much as he could.
When it was packed, he shut the top and the extracting process began. No longer needing our help, Milo and I were moved outside to join the other volunteers in loading up the tractor with piles of dried lavender. Two volunteers, Amy and Caitlin, stomped the lavender on the tractor to pack as much down as possible while the rest of us continued to bring piles over to them.
We ended our shift by manually sorting through a huge pile of lavender, making sure to remove any other plants that had been mixed in.
At night, another absolutely unreal moonrise occurred and all the volunteers broke off into smaller groups in the darkness to observe it. Milo and I climbed up to the farm’s tee-pee structure, captured photos, then sat in a trance until midnight.
The next day on the farm, our work finally transitioned from grapes to lavender and the work became intense. Milo and I were also responsible for preparing our first meal on the farm. Since I had skyped with my sister the night before (the only day we had wifi) and mentioned this, she forwarded me a simple recipe to make tomato basil pasta since Milo and I were far from experienced cooks. The recipe was simple but called for some ingredients we didn’t have so we just threw in lots of spices and it came out well. No one complained, but since neither of us had ever prepared food for so many people before, we made just enough sauce for everyone but ourselves. We ate pasta with canned tomato sauce instead and laughed at our first attempt of what we’re sure would be many in the future.
Two other volunteers cleaned up from lunch when Hamza told us to be ready at half past noon. Shortly after, Mesut and his tractor came driving along. All the volunteers hopped in and geared up for the long ride. Supposedly, all of the fields of lavender nearby had already been harvested so we were going to go to more fields 15km away. In the tractor, that meant an hour ride through small and extremely rural villages that most people would never have a reason to see.
The ride was fantastic, and actually made Milo and I look forward to more days doing this work, that is, until we started the work. In addition the surroundings at these fields were absolutely beautiful, but again, what we had to do there was far from it.
Ahmet called for everybody and began explaining that we each had our own line of lavender that we were to follow, cutting and bagging the purple flowers.
Unfortunately the directions weren’t very clear and it became a disaster with everyone doing a little of everyone else’s row. In addition we worked five hours straight in the mid-day’s heat and only stopped for one extended break under some nearby shade. Some Turkish women who were actual farm workers had just finished their breaks and offered us their remaining hot tea and biscuits. Yes, even when doing labor intensive work in the heat of the day the Turks still drink tea, and so did we. Feeling a bit refreshed, we returned to work after our break but it was obvious the group’s morale was low. Milo and I were definitely no longer enjoying ourselves, and were struggling to make it to the end.
Don’t worry mom and dad, we made sure to drink lots of water. But this was the first day that Milo and I felt overworked and we weren’t excited to find out our reasonable schedule of three hours in the morning and two in the afternoon was to be replaced by five hours of these fields everyday. But of course, we only took this proposition with a grain of salt considering how frequent plans changed.
On the tractor ride home, we had no choice but to lie down on the lavender we had just spent the day collecting.
It was surprisingly comfy, and there was even a little room in the back with a cushion that Ifat had taken from the farm to sit on. Since she was pregnant, she wanted to do everything she could to make sure she didn’t hurt her baby. As the sun began to set, golden hues were cast over the cascading mountains that we had just spent the past five hours working under.
Julia put in her headphones and smiled, content with life as everyone else kept to themselves, dazing off into the distance as we bumped our way back home. While passing by one of the small towns, we listened as the call to prayer froze the passer-bys in time.
Instead of the moon what we got was dozens of bug bites and a difficult journey back down in the dark. The moon rose as soon as we sat down for dinner back at the camp.
Finally it was Tuesday and Milo and I were really looking forward to exploring Burdur on our one day off, especially after working so intensely the day before. Since there were too many volunteers to take the public bus, Hamza organized a private bus to pick us up. At 8:45am it arrived and we all boarded. I struggled to stay awake on the ride but once we arrived in town, we piled out to go eat breakfast at one of the staff’s favorite restaurants. Two waiters combined five tables to accommodate for all of us and shortly after omelettes, toast, tomato and cucumber salads, honey, jams, cheeses, and more came out from the kitchen and were placed along the long table. Content from eating, Milo and I walked out with the Israeli family to head into town just as two new volunteers had arrived.
We wandered streets for some time before arriving at the town’s bazaar and it was odd at first to get out and explore independently again after not doing so in over a week.
We walked to where the first tent began and then all the way around the covered marketplace in the center. Fruits and vegetables lined the outside while clothing, accessories, and more produce stands occupied the inside. Every women wore bright and intricate scarves (hijabs) to cover their heads.
The marketplace was really crowded but we found it strange that we didn’t get as many people staring at us as we’d expected since Burdur wasn’t a popular tourist destination whatsoever. The only other foreigners we came across were other volunteers who we happened to cross paths with. After seeing all the stands of the bazaar, Milo and I started walking down interesting looking streets until we stumbled upon the town’s museum and decided to check it out. Everything was in English and inside were lots of artifacts from thousands of years ago. Many ruins had been uncovered in the past century in Burdur and neighboring villages.
History’d-out, we left the museum and found a restaurant for lunch. Milo spoke German with the owner as I got the wifi key to call our next workaway host to confirm that we were definitely coming. After an hour of barely catching up on everything we had missed on the internet, it was nearing 4pm, the time we were supposed to meet the others to head back to the farm.
We walked a few blocks to a gas station, the agreed meeting point and waited about five minutes before being joined by Sefi, Ifat, and Chuku. Chuku laughed as his dad flipped him upside down again and again until he finally wanted him to stop. Within the next thirty minutes, all the other volunteers joined us sitting behind one of the town’s major intersections on the grass in front of a gas station. In a town of all Turks, a group of internationals sat congregated, waiting for our return ride to a lavender farm villages away. The bus was supposed to pick us up at 4pm but instead arrived at half past five. In this downtime, Milo and I moved over to the new volunteers, Aidan and Sabrina and had an opportunity to get to know them. I felt bad since they had been walking around the whole day with their large backpacks, something I had done too much of in the summer’s heat with Jonas. As we talked, sprinklers behind us started spritzing water onto us so we moved closer to the group to avoid an unexpected shower. When the bus finally arrived, we all hopped in and returned to the farm to get an early night’s rest before returning to the lavender fields again the next day.
When we woke up, working plans on the farm had suddenly changed, the first of many sudden changes that began to irritate volunteers over the next week. Instead of returning to the fields, we were to stay with Ahmet in the orchards, manually putting down watering system lines close to the trees.
Each volunteer grabbed a line to themself but without clear direction as to whose line was whose, chaos ensued. We took a break after only two hours since Ahmet was struggling to speak English to assign lines. Frustrated, everyone returned back to the farm for lunch.
In the evening, we took a different approach. Ahmet stood in front of the latest line being worked on so when someone else would finish, we’d all know what line to start. The system turned out to work way better, but still didn’t make the work enjoyable. At least we were able to grab ripe pears, apples, peaches, and plums straight from the trees to snack on while working as we wished.
Before dinner, Ahmet announced that it was his last day since he was joining the army and needed to return home to Istanbul before doing so. Although we had only known him for a week, it was still sad especially because his warming personality never failed to make the volunteers smile, even when doing unpleasant work. Ryan, Caitlin, Cici, Amy, Laura, Ahmet, Milo and I all headed down to the lake to swim since Ahmet had never set foot in the water during his six months of living there.
After dinner and when the other volunteers had retired for the night, Freddy, Laura, Milo, and I stayed up late with Ahmet to send him off on a good note. Laura presented a cake she had baked and we all talked until midnight while eating piece after piece. He left the next morning, and then everything on the farm changed…