In the short duration that I have spent on this planet, I have been through a lot. My experiences as a military brat have given me some unusual opportunities to see the world in a different way. For the four years I lived overseas, I was able to live through some amazing and awful things. A chance to learn about new cultures, to see historical landmarks with a rich history. However, such wonderful memories came with a price. It is dangerous to be a military brat living overseas, and most of my middle school and high school career was littered with instances of bomb threats, shootings, and other threats carried out by terrorists. You could say that I have been through both heaven and hell to get to where I am now.
In fact, I have been to Heaven and Hell. Before we went on lockdown, before we went on Delta, before the evacuation happened, the first two weeks spent living in Turkey were exciting. My family took full advantage of the history and culture that surrounded us. We visited the mosques, bridges, and temples from thousands of years ago. From empires that no longer existed. Their dusty remains sat in regal loneliness surrounded by apartment buildings. There was so much to see and do, we had no idea what we should even start with.
The adventure began early in the morning, aboard a shuttle. The hot June day had already climbed into temperatures around one hundred degrees, not including the suffocating humidity. Yet my sisters and I were dressed in long pants and sleeves that covered our shoulders. It was not necessary for all women to cover their hair, but if we wanted to visit the mosques or more traditional areas, it was important and respectful to dress modestly.
We traveled through Mersin and Tarsus. Tarsus has been around for a long time. Saint Paul, one of Jesus’s disciples, came from Tarsus, and we were able to visit his childhood home. However, the point of interest is not that. It is Heaven and Hell, which was one of our final stops. Splotchy greens and browns filled the rocky, mountainous area. Two faded orange signs pointed in opposite directions. One said, “Cennet Çöküğü” and the other said “Cehennem Çukuru.” Or, in English, “The Chasm of Heaven” and “The Pit of Hell.”
We decided to go to Hell first.
And surprisingly, Hell was super easy to get to. It was about a five minute walk up a slanted hill. At the top of that baby hill (Korea’s hills were much more laborsome), another orange sign read: “Cehennem Çukuru.” We had arrived at Hell.
Hell was a monstrous pit, a deep, round crater in the earth, covered in green trees. I peered over the side. Even though I could see the bottom, sunlight did not manage to reach it, plunging it in an eternal darkness.
“Limestone,” our tour guide, Rose, explained to us. Well, her name in Turkish meant rose, so that’s what she preferred to be called. “It is incredibly difficult to build steps or anything into the limestone, and it was impossible to rescue anyone who was unlucky enough to fall in.”
If you fell in, they would never be able to get you back out. I peered back into Hell, wondering how many people had been swallowed up by its innocent appearance.
We left Hell behind and went to Heaven. It was a bit of irony, in my opinion, that you had to ascend a hill to reach Hell, but you had to descend almost five hundred stairs to reach Heaven. The start of the walk was rather easy. The stone stairs curved and snaked through the foliage until it vanished beneath the overlooking mountain. Underneath it, there was nothing but darkness.
The farther down we went, the more difficult the path became. The round and uneven stones were covered in slick mud and water. Sticky clay threatened to steal our shoes from us. Every time I thought I had a secure footing, I would end up slipping in the mud and crashing to the ground. My family decided to start a sort of assembly line. My dad and older brother took the lead, and then once they knew the spot was safe, they would carefully lead my sisters and mom down to the next spot. It took teamwork to stop ourselves from falling from grace.
An old, stone building sat huddled underneath the weeds.
“It’s an old church,” Rose explained to us, tapping the ground in front of her to make sure she wouldn’t fall. “During the Roman and Ottoman persecution against Christians, they would practice secretly in here.”
I thought about it, overwhelmed with emotions. It must have been terrifying, worshipping in secret like that. They must have been scared out of their minds, yet they continued to follow through with their beliefs, even if it meant a horrible death. At the same time, I felt proud of their perseverance, refusing to give up even in the midst of choking fear. It was inspiring to me, at the moment. How would I have been able to predict, at fourteen-years-old, that not even a year later, I would be in a similar situation? This would have been some great foreshadowing for my future circumstances, where my family and community would celebrate Easter Mass in an underground hospital bunker while terrorists threatened to blow us up for our beliefs.
We continued making our way down. We slipped, we fell, we had to catch each other and support each other. Until finally, we reached the bottom of the cliff.
A low, hanging ceiling, covered in spiky rocks, which dripped with water. The droplets hit the ground, with a gentle, singsongy pinging sound, like music. I could hear the sound of rushing water. A river or waterfall must have been nearby, but I couldn’t see it. The intense heat was gone and replaced by a comforting cool sensation. It was peaceful down there, and our voices echoed quietly against the wall. I looked outside of the cave, at the lonely church squatting in the weeds. The sunlight peeked through the cracks, shining brightly with a warm glow. There was something overwhelmingly beautiful about Heaven. It was much more of a challenge, but somehow, that made sense. Why would it be easy to get to heaven?
It was time to move on. It was even harder going up, as my energy had been completely spent. We were covered in mud, sweaty, and exhausted by the time we reached the surface again. The rest of the day was spent at the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, a crystal clear body of water made up of deep blues, light greens, and sparkling turquoises. Not even a week later, Tarsus would be rattled by a severe earthquake that could even be felt in Adana. It would pummel the beautiful remains of history and destroy homes. Not even a month later, we would shift onto Charlie and the base would go on lockdown. “Don’t worry,” everyone would promise me. “This happens all the time. We’ll be back to normal in a week or two.” But there was no way to predict that lockdown would last for more than a week. We had no idea it would last for almost the entire assignment. Almost a year later, we would go onto Delta for an entire month, until we would finally evacuate, leaving behind a beautiful place we once called home. Filled with friends, leaning palm trees, delicious food, beautiful architecture. Sadness, loneliness, fear, and pain. It was heaven. It was hell.
And it was time to move on.