Thursday, May 31, 2012

The longest all-nighter ever

15-18.05 - Bydgoszcz - Ankara

Destination: Ankara. Purpose: to meet Ale, my couchsurfer from Chamonix and tour south-eastern Turkey together. I'd never imagine such a good beginning of a trip that was supposed to last almost three days. I started at my favorite exit out of Bydgoszcz (favorite because it's twenty minutes walking distance from home) and no sooner had I put my backpack on the ground, than a car pulled over. A fledgeling poet who gave me his book of poems and shared valuable information on getting published took me almost to the Polish - Czech border. This excellent ride filled me with optimism about what lay ahead of me, and so did every other ride I got. My timing was on target... until I reached Hungary...

They're jokers, these Czechs...

For me hitchhiking in May is inseparably liked with rapeseed fields popping up along the roads.

The last time I was in Hungary was more than two years ago. In my experience it's is one of few European countries where communication with local people is often close to impossible. You could explain that you don't speak Hungarian and they would still ramble on and on in their own language, wondering why you're still staring at them for prolonged period of time. That's why I was so happy to see a car with German license plates at a gas station in Györ. To my disappointment, the drivers were Hungarians who spoke very basic German, but somehow I managed to explain, using my Hungarian hitchhiking phrasebook and my most simplified German ever that I'm going to Szeged and would like to get dropped off at a big gas station along the highway. They seemed to have understood and I felt sure they knew how the place I wanted to go looked like.

I overreached myself. This "big gas station along the highway" was actually a tiny station on a local road east of Budapest from where most of the traffic was headed towards Debrecen and Romanian border. So was the only driver I managed to find there at 2 am. My initial plan to go through Serbia went to hell in a handbasket. Had it been a country where locals could easily get my point, I would have tried to get back to the mostly frequented road. Nevertheless, at this moment going to Debrecen and passing through Romania seemed more reasonable than being stranded in the darkest night in the middle of nowhere. I endured a long and jolting ride in a car that needed six hours to cover the distance of 200 km but at least could catch forty winks. It was ten o'clock when I finally got out in Biharkeresztes, almost on the Romanian border.

Driving on Romanian roads could qualify as the worst nightmare of a person who expects to get everywhere in rush. Passing through badly maintained sections dotted with potholes and gaps leaves you wistful for a real highway. The short span of road between Oradea and Cluj-Napoca, dragged without no end. You can never reach a reasonable speed because there are so many small villages along your way (one village ends and another one starts after five-ten meters!) that accelerating without risking any danger of causing an accident is impossible. Moreover, the roads are really badly marked and the most important signs informing about a highway don't appear some time before it starts, so that you can make up your mind, but at the very last moment, when you can barely notice the traffic distribution. My Hungarian driver muttered profanities under his breath struggling to find the fastest way without any help from his GPS that didn't have up-to-date maps of Romania. We lost around one hour trying to find the entrance to the highway in Cluj, feeling like we're driving through haze, and eventually had to return to a place outside the city limits where it started. I was lucky to have had a talkative companion in lumbering the lousiest roads I've ever encountered. My driver, who came from Eger close to Slovakian border, spoke a good mixture of Polish/Slovak/Czech and German as well. He'd traveled a lot in Poland and sometimes I felt ashamed that he knew so many places in my home country I've never been to. Once we entered Romania I noticed he was totally lost without his GPS. I had to correct him multiple times, even if a sign with directions was right above the crossroads. After around five situations like this he told me "ok, so from now you'll be my navigation." So I performed this function until he dropped me off in Bălăuşeri, a tiny town thirty km before Sighisoara.

Contributing to the cost of petrol when hitchhiking in Romania is very common. It's a remnant of Ceauşescu period when owning a car was considered a privilege and petrol was very scarce, thus drivers often picked up hitchhikers to get extra gas coupons from the government for giving rides to people. I didn't have to wait too long neither for the first ride hitched on the Romanian soil nor for being asked for money A truck driver who picked me up told me, around ten minutes into the ride, I'd have to pay him once we get to his destination - Bucharest. When I refused, stating that I hadn't known that you're expected to share the costs of fuel in Romania (false) and that I had no local currency (true), he only told me in this case he could take me no further than to Sighisoara. His explanations "I make very little money, something like 300 €/month," didn't satisfy me. If I had money to pay for transportation, I would pay for a comfortable bus, or splurge several hundred euros on a plane ticket; he was going this way anyhow. Moreover, the clothes he wore didn't indicate he was a poor person. Fortunately other Romanians I met on my way were happy they could help without making a profit. What surprised me the most was their good knowledge of foreign languages - only one driver spoke no other languages apart from Romanian, the others could communicate in English or German.

Souther Romania was another place where I happened to find myself at nighttime. Not exactly my fondest dream to be stranded in the middle of a poorly-lit expressway, written off if no car would notice me desperately waving my thumb. Fortunately some behaviors so common in the hitchhiking world in Poland are well-known in Romania as well. Every truck driver who gave me a ride had CB radio and asked other drivers to take me further, even without me asking for any help. This way I quickly circumvented Bucharest, never having to stick out my thumb, jumping from one car to another instead. On these desolate roads these cars seemed to have appeared at the very right moment and time just for me.

In Central Romania the roads got significantly better. I must have been deluded thinking that it would continue until the border with Bulgaria. Right there my driver got off the main road and entered a small, yet still paved road that suddenly turned into a mud bath. The surroundings were getting darker, there were no traces of human settlements, we had meandered among tiny streets so much that I wouldn't be able anymore to get back to the place where we got off the main road and I started thinking "where the hell is he taking me?" Fortunately his words "diesel, diesel!" were enough to make me tranquil again.

I hoped the situation would improve in Bulgaria, but local roads were even below the quality of Romanian roads. I hitched entire Bulgaria with one driver going all the way to Antakya in Turkey. Taking into consideration how much I wanted to reach Ankara by 18th, my patience was put to the test. I wished I had got a ride with a personal car but there was no way I'd voluntarily change a driver. I'd feel bad telling this friendly man who told me about the regions I was about to visit soon, fed me and was easy to talk to (he spoke some Bulgarian) "sorry, but your car is too slow and I'm in hurry, so I have to find a ride with something that goes faster than 50 km/h." I was beyond myself with joy when we finally reached my last border. Not only because the slow ride was over, but also because getting to Ankara by evening seemed doable.

After crossing the border, despite temperature reaching 30 °C, I put on my dark, baggy hoodie that hid anything that would draw attention to it, even in the most subtle of manners. I didn't want to run into any problems connected with being mistaken for a loose girl or a prostitute. Being a single female hitchhiker I've dealt with lecherous men, received requests for sex/"just touching"/"just looking," was offered money for engaging in casual sex or giving a kiss, got my face and boobs touched. All of these situations happened in Europe (Spaniards hold the inglorious record); I've never had any problems in the USA or Morocco. I abhor myself for every situation like this, especially when the hands go too far, but none of these situations would define hitchhiking for me and deter from doing it on my own. But in Europe it's not an unusual sight to see a woman traveling alone, whereas in Turkey a single woman traveling on their own is a very rare sight.

As soon as I was in Turkey, a female customs officer warned me to be very careful. Usually I don't like this kind of advice because they set my mind on thinking about the negative course of action. But she was right - the first driver that stopped was an asshole I'd never like to encounter again in my life. He told me he was going to escort a truck to Istanbul but had to wait for it for couple of minutes. At first glance the man seemed friendly but soon I had mixed feelings - the way he stared at me suggested he was up to something dodgy. I was already in the car, talking with this guy when I thought: "If he's going to escort a truck, he can't go very fast anyway because trucks have speed limits." It sounded like a good excuse to get out of the car. I told him I was in hurry and preferred to get another ride, was about to leave the car when he started grabbing my forearm really strong, giving me bedroom eyes, saying "çok güzel" and other cheesy compliments. When I was almost out of the car, he started speaking up in an aggressive manner and finally groped my ass. That does it! I felt a strong desire to slap him very hard across his face. However, he seemed really mad and to avenge his misdeeds would be to ask for more trouble - it would be foolish to let him do more harm to me for just touching my ass for five seconds.
Fortunately the next lift materialized quickly. It was a Bulgarian luxury bus headed to Istanbul, that kind of ride that doesn't feel like real hitchhiking to me because I never try to stop them. However, the events of a few minutes ago made me crave for a ride where I wouldn't have to stay alert all the time, aware of my surroundings and the driver's behavior. On the top of that, two days on the road have drained the energy out of me. I haven't had a proper sleep since leaving Poland and my body yearned for some rest.

I asked the driver to drop me off at a gas station before Istanbul, where two men who apparently were overly concerned about me trying to find a ride that they asked every person who passed them whether they were going to Ankara. Once more, I didn't have to wait too long... until my to-be driver offered some çay to couple of men and me. Turkish concept of time, or rather its lack, can be irritating sometimes. I'm not that kind of a person who lives my live staring at the watch every minute, but if I say "I'll do it in ten minutes," it will be ten minutes and not even one more. Turks, on the other hand, do their best to prolong every pleasant moment, barely ever stick to the clock and move at snail's pace. But the driver was going all way to my destination, so I cared less whether we'd arrive there at daytime or at night. This driver was a total opposite of the one from the border. It was Turkish hospitality incarnated. While we passed Istanbul at rush hours he pointed to more prominent buildings, trying to give some explanations that weren't always obvious to me but at least I knew what I should pay attention to. When we stopped at a gas station to fuel up and I noticed a shop selling pişmaniye, I wanted to show that I knew some Turkish food and exclaimed "Pişmaniye çok güzel!" One minute later he returned with a massive box of this mouth-watering sweet and other Turkish delights. He told me about industrial cities of İzmit and Gebze and his home town, Safranbolu listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, played traditional music from different regions of Turkey, let me use his phone so I could call Ale and make arrangements concerning my arrival in Ankara. I thought I'd get there before midnight when suddenly my driver changed his direction. He told me his friend from Karabük got a bus ticket for me and I would take a bus to Ankara. Moreover, they invited me for a dinner in Safranbolu, inundated with more food and beamed with pride emphasizing all qualities of their city to me. Their help was invaluable and I was happy this day ended on a good note.

Istanbul rush hours

Entering Asia. That meant I could scratch another dream off my bucket list - to hitchhike overland to another continent.

Let's say it's my new Turkish name.

Turkish buses - better than American Greyhound

I arrived in Ankara at 3 am and failed to find a cheap hotel where I could restore my fatigued body. Aimlessly wandering its streets, I heard some calls for the dawn prayer resonating from a mosque and decided to follow the sound. I stayed in the mosque until the metro started operating, hypnotized by melodious prayers and almost fighting with my body that demanded its dose of sleep. The fatigue and tiredness after sixty-eight hours of traveling disappeared almost instantly when I saw my bus stop and Ale waiting there for me. I was beside myself with anticipation for the hitchhiking trip we were to set off on. At home Ale told me "we'll think about it in the morning. Forget about time now." So I treated his words very seriously and forgot about the time until 6 pm. When I hitchhike, I love the oblivion of sleep, these nights when I have no place to rest my head, when dozing off for two hours on a flabby seat is a luxury because I don't want to be impolite and fall asleep for too long. But I also love the moment of coming back to the warm and cozy comfort of a proper bed...

Because I liked the sounds of prayers...

My first morning view of Ankara

I've never seen as many flags in all possible places as in Turkey.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Merhaba Türkiye!

Back in Poland, I had the longest continuous period of staying in my home town since leaving for the USA in June 2010 - all because of trying to complete my driving course as quickly as possible. One month and a half felt exceptionally long and I started feeling itchy, so when a friend of mine, Asia, told me about a short-term volunteering project in the south of Turkey, I didn't hesitate - it was an immediate "count me in!" My first flight after Keflavík - Oslo in June 2011, my furthest east since visiting Bulgarian seaside in 2004. Moreover, there was a purpose to this trip other than just wandering around - a good opportunity to see how it is to be a volunteer before taking part in a long-term project.

The project was carried out in Tarsus, one of the oldest cities in the world going back to at least 3000 BC, located on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. Notable as the birthplace of St. Paul, it's full of religious relics. But there were other things abut Tarsus that were up my alley. I really liked its quaint, old neighborhood with old stone and timber houses, but also more industrial parts which made my Moroccan memories revive. Certainly, Tarsus looks more European than cities in Morocco (still being very far from real Europeanness), but my associations were similar. Even our base for one week, Tarsus Belediyesi, was located on an industrial site. Garages, landfills and factories were our closest surrounding. We also went to a big park where our entire group became a major attraction for Turkish kids. There were two boys who followed us all the time, carrying weighing scales and packs of sunflower seeds. You'd think they'd wanted some money from us but they just enjoyed their time chatting with us (even if our Turkish was limited to "merhaba" and "teşekkürler" and their English - to "yes, yes, yes!"), working out on a playground that resembled an outdoor gym or posing for photos.

Views from a hill close to our base

Arabic suras wake me up fro my dream... Photo by Asia

Father of the Republic is everywhere.

German-speaking men from baklava and pomegranate juice stalls

Photo by Asia

The topic of our project was environmental issues in Bulgaria, Italy, Hungary, Poland, Spain and Turkey - countries the participants came from. We shot three movies, a task that took us less than we expected, so we had more time off to see nearby cities. Apart from activities during the day, we had cultural nights where representatives of each country introduced their food, drinks, dances, music, traditions and history to others.

Bulgarian home-made lutenica

My second favorite table after Turkey - Italy

Spanish corrida

Polish bounty...

No, I didn't hitchhike this one. Photo by Asia

Like in a Moroccan grand taxi... Photo by Asia

Our trips started with Adana. The fourth biggest Turkish city boasts the largest mosque in Turkey, Sabancı Merkez Camii. This most famous landmark of Adana is surrounded by fountains and gorgeous gardens in bloom but its interior is what you'll really remember.

It was my first time in a mosque ever. Before entering it's mandatory to take off your shoes. I didn't have to cover my hair like Muslim women but got a long skirt to cover my legs - you should expose as little flesh as possible in any case, both men and women. This mosque was also an exception from the rule that women come in using a different entrance than men.

Faithful Muslims pray five times a day. Instead of sticking to fixed hour, prayer times change from day to day and are determined by the position of the Sun. There's a clock in the Sabanci Mosque that indicates appropriate prayer times for each day. Since we arrived before prayer time, the mosque was very quiet, with only a few people saying their prayers. The beauty of the mosque made me go weak at knees. It's largely devoid of furniture, people sit on soft carpets covering the floor. The walls are decorated with elaborate ornaments in subdued colors and there are no statues or pictures of the prophet. Muslims believe that you should only worship the real God instead of staring at an object created by people. They strictly forbid any idol pictures that could distract worshipers during their prayer. Catholic churches aren't even remotely like this, dripping with gold, paintings and sculptures of Christ dying on the cross. The atmosphere there was also so much different than in a church. There were some small kids running around going completely insane, playing hide-and-seek and laughing all the time. I guess they were old enough to understand if an adult told them off for their bad behavior. But no one actually did. I can't even imagine old, grumpy ladies putting up with little brats behaving like this in a church.

Photo by Raya

Photo by Raya

A short visit to Mersin focused mainly on visiting a local market. Instead of seeing more of the city, our Turkish leaders took us to Kızkalesi, a little town with a wide beach sixty km from Mersin. There we were given three hours free time on the beach but since it's impossible for me to stay and fry in a place like this for so long, and since this town must have had something interesting about it, no matter how touristy it looked, I went exploring.

It was touristy, indeed... Even in the off-season I could hear some German in bars and restaurants. That's right, Germans bear the palm in terms of number of tourists coming to Turkey. Add Turks with German passports and you have the explanation why resorts on the Mediterranean Sea are besieged by thousands of members of this nation. It was funny to be taken for a German and not for a French/Spanish/Italian, like in Morocco. I couldn't stop giggling when, instead of "Bonjour Madame," a soft-spoken young guy I passed gave me an offer not to resist: "Guten Tag. Möchten Sie eine Tatto?"

Kızkalesi apparently aims to meet the needs of flocking tourists. The streets are lined with hotels; new ones are being built. However, they look look like gems in the middle of debris - fine-tuned, but surrounded by heaps of rubble or dense bushes and modest houses hidden amidst them.

I didn't intend to disturb anybody's privacy while I discovered the surrounding but unintentionally I entered a private property - no fences there; if there was one I would certainly not go any further. I was on my way out of the property when a man who noticed me invited me to drink çay with him and his little daughter. They showed me their garden, a hidden cave and took me to an apple orchard where I tasted the most flavorless apples in my life - they were immature and really sour. The little girl voraciously devoured them and I tried really hard not to show my frown. Surprisingly, you can see fruits like this on every market and they seem to have a wide appeal among locals. Turks really have a strange sense of taste.

The man who spoke quite good English was the owner of a restaurant near the beach. He also offered to take me to some nearby caves but because of lack of time, my need to be independent and maybe also because of cautiousness I refused. But going to his restaurant, which turned out to be located something like 200 meters from where my project mates were enjoying their sunbathing session, was acceptable. While we played backgammon (he apparently let me win every time), he inundated me with invitations to his hotel, campsite and whatever else he owned. "If you come here in the summer, I can offer you a very good deal, a room for fifty liras per/for night..." Are you crazy calling this a good deal?! I didn't feel like telling a long story about couchsurfing, so I told him I always camp in my tent.

When I was on my own again, I reached a minor road going uphill. Its beginning was also dotted with hotels but the higher I went, the more the touristic infrastructure got sparse and was replaced by modest houses and huts made of wood. That was something I looked for, it was finally a countryside and not European civilization anymore. The road winded through some fertile agricultural areas. I shared my vegetarian lunch with a woman working in the field who smiled at me and even tried to make a conversation, passed kids riding bikes, rolling on scooters and saying "hello" to yabanci. My personal favorite was a very humble hut in the middle of a field overgrown with weeds, with no front door and no more than two-three rooms inside and very loud, American rap blasting out from inside.

Kızkalesi castle - photo by Asia

For a week I felt like a traveler (or maybe a tourist?) I haven't been for a very long time: traveling with a big group instead of being on my own or with one travelmate, going where everybody wanted to go (most of the time) instead of following my footsteps, moving quickly to the next point on the list instead of leaving when I felt I was saturated enough with the place to go on, using public transportation most of the time instead of hitchhiking. Before leaving Asia had told me "you can either love or hate Turkey, but nothing in between." In my case it was love at first sight. I was burning with excitement at the very thought of hitchhiking all the way from Poland to Ankara in a matter of weeks.