Circus, circus! – Of Juggling in the Dust and Stilting through the Chaos
5th November 2018
Good morning (probably not anymore by the time this gets out – save it for an appropriate opportunity if you like), dear readers!
It’s been a while this time, mainly because living the stories still takes slight priority over telling them, and this recent gem of an experience has only just passed: I am talking about my stay with social circus project Sirkhane, organised and managed by the Her Yerde Sanat [Turkish: Art Anywhere] Foundation.
For five long (and simultaneously very, very short) weeks, I have been working as a volunteer in Mardin, South-East Turkey, to try and make the lives of refugee kids, orphans and often traumatised youngsters somewhat more inspired, bright and fun-filled. I might not end up telling this story in as much detail as some of the other ones on here, simply because I would end up writing a book, but I will try and convey an impression of the day to day life at a social circus school and capture some of the most outstanding, surprising, shocking and beautiful moments for you.
First steps – my arrival on the 15th of September 2018 and the first steps around town
Arriving in Mardin came a bit as a culture shock in itself, despite having already spent nearly a month in Turkey by the time I made it to the small town at the edge of the desert. I suddenly became even more aware of my womanhood, my status as an outsider, my lack of knowledge in terms of language and culture, and I tread those cobbled streets very carefully, timidly for the first few weeks.
Depending on your background, I can hardly tell your first thoughts about an old Turkish town not far from the Syrian border but let me tell you, it isn’t all that different from an Western-European location at first glance. Women walk openly on the streets, hardly veiled, often wearing T-Shirts and Jeans, shopping with friends, driving cars, talking, laughing. Mardin is open, influenced by generations of NGO workers and international volunteers, some people quite fluent in English, everyone readily offering sweet chai, directions and local goods to lure a lost foreigner.
The centuries old streets and buildings resemble their mediterranean counterparts and along with the sometimes pushy hospitality towards a girl travelling alone – nobody on the minibus into the old town of Mardin would believe me, the only foreigner present, when I declared that I knew where I was going, shoving their phones in my face, translation apps open, trying to get me to follow them off the bus – it was mainly the details that made for a difference in atmosphere.
All volunteers with Sirkhane were first given an information pack, detailing the schedules of each day, the roles and responsibilities in the volunteers’ accommodation and the general rules to follow when working for the organisation. We were representing Sirkhane at all times, in all situations, we were told, and that included the terrace of our guest house as much as the shops on a day off and of course the centres providing activities for the kids.
The dress code wasn’t strict, but common sense and our lovely volunteer coordinator dictated that we didn’t want to reveal too much as the neighbours could easily see into the outside area of our guest house and start gossiping.
We were told cautionary tales of the odd time when someone had stormed the property or the night when a woman that had been too open with the locals had nearly been dragged into a car. It was the way these things caught you off guard that got to me the most. Just when we had forgotten about the last such incident, something ever so small would come along and remind us to remain aware of the differences: a cancelled performance due to the colours of a parachute used for games; a conversation with an open-minded, well-travelled young Turkish woman who stared at me in utter disbelief when I once told her that yes, virgins could indeed use tampons; fending off the less than subtle advances of a pushy jewelry vendor when getting a souvenir for my best friend; the subtle concern for hitchhiking friends.
It was only during the last week that I discovered how much my status as an outsider influenced my perception. My feelings changed somewhat when I made friends with two gorgeous Turkish volunteers who helped to introduce me to the local culture and with whom I experienced moments and insights I never would have gotten alone.
But back to square one: the guest house was busy when I first arrived, mainly with volunteers living within a handful of days as a festival had just come to an end and most were off to new destinations. With the centres closed for four days, I had time to settle in, explore the training facilities and bond with my colleagues from France, Italy, Morocco, Turkey, Belgium, Argentina,…
First classes – teaching and being schooled
When the centres opened, I was assigned to a place some 20 minute drive from Mardin, called Istasyon, which provided a pair of aerial silks and a trapeze, allowing me to teach aerials to kids spanning an age range from roughly 5 to 15, divided into four sub-groups, each with their own set of needs and challenges.
On the way to the centre, I asked a Turkish colleague for some essential words I deemed important for physical work with the children: up, down, listen, watch, stop, left, right, leg, arm,… and with the luck of a newbie, the first day went pretty well. I was given a small group of children, mostly between 12 and 15, physically capable and excited about the aerial disciplines. I gave each of them a number and surprisingly, they mostly waited their turn, happily stumbling their way through their first aerial silks moves. If something was uncomfortable or someone let themselves drop onto the crash mat, one of my eager students would happily exclaim “Teacher, hospital! Hospital!” which exhausted an estimated one third of her English vocabulary.
In comparison to the stories of chaos, screaming, shouting, hair pulling and fighting I had heard from other new volunteers, I was rather pleased with day one, but I came to understand those stories soon enough….
Before the lessons that, during the week, only started in the afternoon, I was invited to overcome one of my own circus-related fears: Walking on peg-stilts! Now for those of you unfamiliar with different types of stilts, there are two main ones: drywall or dura stilts as well as peg stilts. While drywall stilts are designed for standing still and, for example, painting walls, peg stilts are a lot more dynamic. It is not possible to stand in one spot without toppling over, one has to continuously keep putting one foot in front of (or next to if treading on the spot) the other to stay balanced. I cannot objectively say which is easier but I had previously tried drywall stilts at circus school and had to be saved from falling backwards – the one thing to never, ever do on stilts – by one of my teachers, so I didn’t exactly have high hopes.
If you’ve ever seen me learn anything new, especially something that doesn’t involve using my hands for safety (such as skateboarding, walking globe, stilting,… but also other potentially scary activities including height or new sensations), you will probably know that I am a huge wuss and will happily panic through the early learning process until my body runs out of neurotransmitters allowing me to actively panic, at which point I usually start calming down and enjoying the activity even more. Thankfully, the German stilts teachers Wolfgang and Leo from Die Stelzer had seen it all before and patiently waited for me to relax and, unexpectedly, make some progress on those long wooden instruments of doom (or was it fun?)
Obviously, the circus heroes, Sirkhane’s older and more advanced students who often teach their younger friends and put on small shows during festivals or on special occasions, completely stole the show!
Not my circus…oh, wait a minute – the difficult days
Needless to say that not all days were pure teacher’s or student’s bliss.
Less than two weeks into my stay, something rather startling happened. I have been teaching kids professionally for over 2.5 years in rock climbing and circus and have never had any kid get injured beyond some scrapes or bruises, a knocked knee, wrist or ego. That in itself is probably quite lucky, and statistically speaking, it was bound to change at some point, however I don’t think that you can ever be fully ready for an accident. I had a grand total of four students that day, most of whom had already gathered a fair bit of experience on the trapeze, which was rigged quite low above a thick crash mat. Under my supervision, two young girls were attempting a partner move that was a lot more fun than it was difficult, giggling and swinging excitedly, when one of the two suddenly fell from below the trapeze, probably around 20cm onto the crash mat. It looked quite unspectacular when the girl rolled herself out of the way and to the side of the mat, clutching her arm. It was only her inconsolable wailing that alerted me to something that went beyond a small injury, and many hours of concern for the girl and self-doubt as a teacher came and went before I learned that luckily, after her throwing up and being brought into hospital, she was diagnosed with a small hairline fracture that wouldn’t require more than some thorough resting. Needless to say that after the incident, I became a little more sensitive to one of the girl’s joyful exclamations of “Teacher, hospital!”…
In the evening, one of the new arrivals in our volunteer house finally managed to pull me out of my funk and made me forget all about my feelings of failure as a teacher and I cannot speak highly enough of the four outstanding individuals that came from the Viktor Kee Foundation to assist us during the circus festival in Mardin! Pao, an extraordinary, colourful and loving human, single-handedly made me dance in the kitchen to an old Die Arzte song – a band I hadn’t listened to in well over a decade. Turns out, after this day, it was exactly what I needed!
The Viktor Kee Foundation volunteers each brought something unique to the table and reminded me of a motley crew of circus superheroes: There was Deni, the high-functioning pediatrician come juggler with some of the biggest hearts I’ve ever had the pleasure to encounter and Pao, the swing-dancing, multi-talented and polyglott socialite. Félipe, the hardy looking endurance cyclist, runner, professional juggler and daredevil had the biggest smile if and when he decided to crack one, but he could just as easily be grumpy and intimidating when the situation demanded it, or catch the kids if they decided to escape. And then there was Alvaro, the Chilean record holder for 11 ball juggling, who couldn’t be in a bad mood if he tried and kept everything running smoothly.
Their support during the circus festival couldn’t have come at a better time – the opening of the week long celebrations was set on the same date as my birthday… but more about how that went down that another time!
Share the love
In the meantime, let me share some of my new friends’ awesome projects here as I feel that they are more than deserving of the space. In no particular order, here we go:
Nez du monde – citizens and (clowns-) noses of the world, Belgian clown duo Amandine and Quentin are bringing laughs wherever they go. These two brave soldiers of love and fun are travelling without any money, hitchhiking and performing for free or in exchange for a meal. Host them if you can and you will get more than you give!
Circologia – This inclusive movement and circus project enables anyone to learn the basics of partner acrobatics and juggling with gorgeous Pao and other volunteers in Mexico. Much love!
Les Manijes: Manon & Poté – These fun travelling actors and musicians create absurd, bizarre, hilarious, shocking, yummy theatre, play music in the streets and make awesome dinner. It’s a package deal – what’s not to like? I’ll never forget your smiles, voices, harmonies, guys!
Juan Félipe Santamaria – Kunstradfahrer, cyclist, runner, juggler, Colombian. Eat, sleep, cycle. Awesome Instagram. More awesome human. ’nuff said.
Berna – Photographer. Fierce in words and shots.
Stay tuned for tales of the circus festival, birthday bliss in the desert, unexpected presents, coffee readings, hamam days and girls’ days out.