Turkey

The weather is here. Wish you were beautiful.
—Henny Youngman

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Warning! This post is huge. I’ve got time on my hands.

Sometimes it’s easy to find a place for the night, sometimes hard. As the sun sinks and evening comes, I evaluate my prospects with increasing scrutiny. Rule of thumb: when in doubt, press on. Down the road may prove to be less doubtful. It has worked so far, unless I count the time in France I nearly froze before finding shelter at ten PM, three hours after sunset.

So, as I left Istanbul one late afternoon and headed east, I wasn’t too concerned that the map showed fifteen miles of dense urban streets before the suburbs and eventual countryside. Surely I would either reach camping territory or find lodging.

When I took shelter from a rain shower in a gas station, I still had two hours of daylight left. The gas jockeys had a comfy employee lounge, with a kitchen, tea samovar, bathroom, and a little room with rugs for prayer time. The shower turned into the biggest storm Istanbul has had in a decade: hail piled up in the gutters and, as I found out later, there was flooding downtown; cars submerged, streets washed out and food stalls floating. By the time the rain stopped it was dark. The boys offered to let me stay there, and I should have accepted. But I had found cheap accommodations the night before, and they told me that there were hotels in the direction I was headed. I was still in Istanbul proper but, traffic notwithstanding, I don’t mind riding at night with an effective lighting system.
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Ahmed says,”No problem!”

I found the hotels, $200 a night Hiltons and such. I’d rather ride all night, I said to myself, and pressed on. Navigation was difficult, progress was slow. I spent some time under awnings and bridges as the rain came and went. The neighborhoods changed character, and soon my surroundings resembled the bombed-out projects in the worst sections of the Bronx. Streets were confusing, potholed and poorly lit. By now it was midnight. A bunch of young toughs tried to flag me down; the next bunch tried to block my way. One grabbed a handful of my shirt, and I almost went down. Whatever they had in mind, it definitely wasn’t friendly. I must admit to feeling some anxiety on the next few uphills.

A half-hour later the slums gave way to the outskirts—industry, car dealerships, strip malls and truck stops. At a gas station I was advised that the next hotels were twenty miles away, and another storm was coming in from the sea.

When in doubt, push on. At 1:00AM I saw a guy standing outside a sporting goods store—hunting, fishing, canoes and such. No English, but I made sign language for sleeping, tent. It started to rain. He got it, and motioned me to follow him. He led me to a big, steel-framed canvas storage tent, unlocked a padlock and lifted a flap. It was full of retail detritus: racks, mannequins, old life vests and paddles, boxes of disorganized junk. My bike just fit in. He shrugged and tied the flap.

I found an old camp cot and dusted it off, chuckling at my good fortune as I got into my sleeping bag and listened to the rain on the roof. I was exhausted and hungry, but warm and dry and thankful.

Then, just as the storm was starting to pick up, I heard a shout outside the tent. There was Atilla, my host, with an elegant tray of food on china dishes, great spicy soup, stuffed grape leaves, French bread, cake, yoghurt, and a glass of water. I thanked him in amazement. He just closed his eyes, put his hand on his heart, bowed his head and left. After my ordeal, exhausted as I was, it was overwhelming. I got all choked up.

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Atilla and I had tea next morning.

The storm shook that tent but I stayed dry. I woke to bright sunshine, steam rising from the wet streets, and the call to prayer from a nearby mosque. I didn’t go. Next door was a gas station where I cleaned up. When I emerged from the bathroom the gas attendant, Mustafa, held out a glass of hot tea on a saucer, with two sugar cubes and a little spoon. “Hello!” he said, “Where you from?” They turned out to be his only English phrases.

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Mustafa and crew

In the days since, the generosity and hospitality showed by Atilla and Mustafa has proved to be the norm in Turkey. I stayed in a couple of small beach resort towns, where the accommodations (including a generous breakfast) were so inexpensive I couldn’t be bothered camping. Waiters, clerks and strangers behaved as if my satisfaction was their highest priority. Between towns were mountains with short but steep passes, and surprisingly green forests, farmland and apricot orchards. Food joints at the top of mountain passes offered grilled meat, corn on the cob, hot tea and cold beer.

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Chai?

Kandira, away from the coast, was a farming and trading center with extensive markets but no tourism and just one pricey downtown hotel. I asked a cabbie, “Otel?” (Some Turkish is easy.) He pointed toward the downtown hotel but I made sign language for “too expensive”. He understood, bid me to wait, and fetched two men with cell phones. They made calls while the cabbie made gestures of reassurance and a young man kept repeating, “No problem, no problem.”

Soon, judging from their expressions, the solution emerged, although it couldn’t be communicated to me. A teenager was dispatched to guide me to an address. On a side street a set of stairs led to a second-story balcony with a few men sitting outside drinking tea (they do that a lot here).

Luckily, a man named Erol had some English. He explained that it was a “Pensionne”. I first ran into these in Belgium. They are dormitory-and-cafeteria style accommodations for out-of-town workers, usually rented by the week and often paid for by employers. This one is run by a school district and intended for teachers. Some retired bachelor teachers, including Erol, live there permanently. It appeared to be run by middle-aged Moslem women. With Erol’s help they fixed me up with a five-bed dorm room, all to myself, with wi-fi and breakfast, for about $9.00. Erol brought me to dinner at a bohemian place, an apartment where the rooms were furnished as lounges and food came from the tiny kitchen with no menu; you got whatever was ready next from the teenaged waitress. We were served, in a hot pan, something like a pizza with everything, but without the crust. A basket of good bread was provided, with which we scooped the hot, spicy, cheesey stuff; it was quite delicious. Young people, Erol’s former students, popped in a couple of times for a warm, two-kiss greeting and a short visit. After a smoke on the back porch with the young owner, we were halfway down the stairs before we remembered to go back up and pay.

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Erol, Ismail, Turan

After breakfast with Erol and his policeman friend Ismail, it was another day’s ride from the next beach resort town. At lunch beneath a roadside oak tree a farmer took a break from his work, walked straight over to me and shook hands. Then he sat down three feet away and quietly joined me, as natural as can be. Although he refused bread and cheese and cookies, his face lit up at the strawberries and he had a few. Through sign language we learned a bit about each other’s lives.

You can say a lot with sign language. It’s important to speak in your own language as you do it, to convey meaning with tone of voice. Nodding or shaking the head are universal. Pointer fingers held together parallel; married? If the answer is single, a pointer finger indicates “one” as the thumb points to the chest. Divorce is like married, then quickly point in two different directions. Hold your hand at various heights, palm down, say “Children?” and you will be understood. Make the gesture nearer to the ground for grandchildren. (At this point, with gentlemen, the phones come out with photos of the grandchildren. But not with simple farmers, peasants or Gypsies.) Numbers are easy, and with a few gestures I am often asked my age. Make a shoveling or hammering motion, then rub the tips of the fingers together for the familiar “money” gesture, and that means, “What is your job?”

Which reminds me. For most of my life when asked my profession I have struggled for an answer. Not content with my livelihood for long, and changing careers so many times, I would often respond with an awkward list or a joke or a half-truth like writer or musician. This year I have started responding, “Christmas trees!” I wasn’t always proud of it, wishing for a more dignified profession. But in recent years I have come to understand that I enjoy it, I am good at it, and there’s nothing undignified about it; it’s honest work. I have become proud of it after all. And I receive a positive reaction from everyone, even in Moslem Turkey, where it takes some explaining.

Also, after finding that I’m an American, many people ask where in America I am from. I’m very proud to be a Vermonter, but answering, “Vermont” just gets puzzled looks in most places. Answering, “New York City” gets an instant reaction, oohs and aahs. And since I’ve lived there for two years over the last twenty-four years (a month at a time), and I love New York and my friends there so much, that’s my short answer. Much more than a half-truth.

But where was I? Between Kandira and the next beach town, Karasu. The hilly farmlands with orchards, hayfields, and patches of woods; the villages, tractor traffic, old cemeteries, streams and roadside springs; and most of all the hilltop vistas with tall pointed minarets marking the village mosques, all reminded me of my beloved New England’s green hills and church steeples. At times on these hilltops I could hear the call to prayer from several village mosques; first one starts, then another, then a third. Many times, bicycling Vermont’s back roads at midday, I have been treated to a similar symphony, of church bells tolling the noon hour.

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In the late afternoon a shady farm road beckoned me, and I followed it through a patch of woods to an apricot orchard. A sunny meadow and a cool breeze lulled me into lingering. Karasu, with beach hotels and restaurants and tea houses, was only a few downhill miles away. But I stayed, playing mandolin until sunset, and pitched my tent. I enjoyed a fine dinner (if I may compliment my own cooking) and read yesterday’s New York Times on my phone.

Distant thunder. Wind. I added four stakes and guy lines to the tent and got back inside just in time. What a downpour! The storm passed right over my camp, with lightning and thunder so close it scared me. Wind shook the walls of the tent, and the rain was so hard that when I put my palm on the wall, it felt like I was slapping five with an angry Thor. My gear and I stayed dry, though, even through a couple of encores. It rained on and off through the night. In the morning, sunny skies. By nine the tent was dry and packed, and I was on the road.

My morning cleanup at a gas station was again followed by complimentary tea from the attendants. Are there friendlier people anywhere on earth? In the villages, men gathered at shaded tables to drink tea don’t just wave, they wave me in, serve me tea and cookies, and ask for a mandolin tune (all sign language except for “Hey-low!” and “Where you from?” and “No problem!”). Farmers, construction crews, schoolchildren—they all stop, shout greetings, and wave their hats until I’m out of sight. More than half of the cars, and all of trucks and busses, toot friendly toots, wave, shout, and give thumbs up. Fruit vendors, after my strawberries are weighed and paid for, slip a few more into the bag, and maybe an apricot or two, with a smile and a twinkle. A Turkish lira, $.54, buys a pound of fresh strawberries, and I’m never far from a roadside stand.
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Even at this Internet cafe, a teenage boy greeted me with, “Hallo! Where you from?” Within a few seconds, friendship established, he brought me a tea.

I carry a pack of cigarettes with me, Marlboros or Lucky Strikes, and some hard candies, in my handlebar bag. The Gypsies always shout when I go by their camps, and I like to stop for a minute. They crowd around me, men, women and children. Here in Turkey they really are camps, tents and tarps and very few permanent structures, none by western standards. I don’t have to offer: the kids come up with their hands out, and within a few minutes after shaking hands, the men make smoking-cigarette sign language.

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I want to understand these people, but it’s hard. Their habit of remaining dirty, even filthy, when often there is a hose or a river nearby, and their open dishonesty (an oxymoron?) and shamelessness, puzzle and fascinate me. Grown men will reach into my handlebar bag to grab something, then smile sheepishly when I slap their hand away. As I leave, they say in English, “Wait! Stop! Money! Give me money!” not in desperation but with smiles, as if to say, “Come on, man, I’m your pal!”

I often see a teen or two who is clearly different from the rest, with clean clothes and a more civilized demeanor, always hanging back but staring intently, as if trying to communicate. I wonder, will they escape their siblings’ fate? Do they suffer for their “rebellion”? Are they ashamed of their living conditions, their families, their kinsmen?

As elsewhere, the local people despise the Gypsies, although I see them putting coins in their cups as they go from table to table at cafés, wordlessly begging. Only the women beg this way, often with a baby in her arms or a toddler in tow, and an imploring, desperate face. Gypsy kids from five to ten find places to beg, performing services like returning your cart in supermarket parking lots, or lifting the lid on trash cans for you. One tiny girl in Istanbul would press the signal button for pedestrians at a crosswalk with an upturned palm and a heartbreaking smile. In cities the Gypsy women and teens do their recycling, waiting as merchants empty boxes, then breaking them down and piling them high on hand carts. I never see the men outside the camps, where they disassemble appliances, autos and computers for recycling, and squat on their haunches under shade in groups.

You can count on another post from Turkey, since I have another week here. I feel very relaxed and contented here, but at the same time eager to make progress toward my goals.

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This two-week detour to Turkey is somewhat like a “vacation” from my expedition. I’m resting up for the challenges ahead. Soon I’ll have my Russian passport. Then I’ll be slogging across flat, agricultural European Russia, crossing the Ural mountains, and pushing eastward for two months through Siberian forests. Happily, my knee pain has mostly disappeared in the last week, sunburn is under control, and my mind is at ease. I miss my friends and offspring, and the English language, but not much else. From my position as the luckiest man in the world, I can only hope, sincerely, that you all slay all your dragons and enjoy the victory. Peace and love.

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