Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Kurdish excellence

19-21.05 -  Ankara - Gölbaşı - Silopi

There's no place where the Turks wouldn't put a massive portrait of Atatürk.

The highway near AŞTİ, the main bus station in Ankara, was the spot where Ale and I started our journey. Like any big city, getting out was tricky, so we followed advice of a man working at a nearby gas station, who told us to talk a dolmuş to Gölbaşı, where we would have a better chance of getting a ride. Here again we offered ourselves to the mercy of the road. Ale asked around, I tried to score us a ride sticking out my thumb. A truck stopped immediately but when the driver saw I wasn't hitchhiking on my own he tried to sidestep the awkward situation saying that Turkish law forbids more than two people in a truck. That discouraged me for a while from stopping these cars, but then I thought that any driver who really wants to help won't refuse - regardless of the number of people. Especially in Turkey, where I guess there are no more laws of the road that are still being obeyed.

It was worth it to dig my heels in - I didn't have to wait too long for another truck to stop. The driver didn't try to hedge when he saw Ale approach the car and with his arms wide open invited us to come inside. We couldn't have imagined a better introduction to our trip. We hoped to reach Adana by evening, but when we learned that our driver was on his way to Erbil in Iraq, a place we also included in our itinerary, we jumped at the opportunity.

Hüseyin turned out to be a Kurd living in Silopi, a village close to the border with Iraq. He brimmed over with pride talking about his origin and heritage and emphasized multiple times "Kurdish people good, good," but also touched up on sensitive subjects I won't mention here not to offend anybody or give one-sided judgments. But most of all, he was a friend from the very beginning, always smiling, telling us about his family and places we passed, teaching us rudimentary Kurdish or sharing food with us. In my three-year hitchhiking experience I've had many excellent drivers, but this one was top-notch, feeling bound to treat his guests in the best possible manner.

Tuz Gölü - Salt Lake on the way to Aksaray

Just like Turkish flags, mosques are in places where you'd never expect them. At first I didn't notice the room on the right was a mosque, went there and thought "why the hell would anybody need a carpet in a toilet?!"

Dinner on the roadside

He had been driving for almost twelve hours before we reached the gas station where we would get a well-earned sleep inside the truck. I've shared many long rides in the dark with truck drivers but never felt comfortable enough to sleep in the car during the nighttime break. However, the unconditional trust that Hüseyin has inspired in us proved us that we could spend the night without worry. It was probably the best sleep I've ever had on the road, undisturbed by annoying noises or discomforts caused by too hard surface to sleep on. That's not the end of indulgence. When we woke up before dawn, a warm shower awaited us - hard to believe that such commodity was available at a very modest gas station surrounded by wheat fields where local people labored to harvest the crop and herded goats. We had delicious simit - ring-shaped bread topped with sesame - for breakfast and hit the road again, chasing the rising sun.

The more east we went, the more barren the landscape became. High, snow-capped mountains one would see in French Alps were a distant memory, now replaced by low hills and wide expanses of flat fields. Another thing that changed was the weather - from warm, pleasant sunshine to sultriness that was difficult to put up with. Approaching Silopi, a never-ending line of trucks caught our attention. They have to wait up to five days to cross the border into Iraq. The truck drivers sleep in their cars the entire time they wait. For couple of days the road becomes their home - men eat, chat and play board games there. To avoid meandering between the trucks, Hüseyin took a shortcut that allegedly only he knew, passing through fields that seemed to be somebody's property. On our way to the village where he lives right now, we passed another village where he was born and spent his childhood.

The best driver we could ask for.

Fence separating Turkey and Syria

They make photocopies...

...the way your grandparents used to do it.

Once we crossed the threshold of Hüseyin's house, we became engulfed with children - not only his, but also his brothers'. The eyes of these little urchins, who were a spitting image of their parents, lit up in excitement when they saw us - in this tiny village it was exactly their family that had the honor of hosting "tourists" from Europe. They grabbed our hands, waved their arms and kept rambling on and on about random things paying absolutely no attention to our level of Turkish. Having just couple of Turkish phrases under my belt, I couldn't speak much but still got basic messages across without words - sign language and drawings did the job. My camera became their favorite toy once they noticed how cool things they can do with it. First they only posed for photos, the girls acting like top models, boys making doofy faces, but soon they all entreated me to let them stay behind the camera lens and pointed it in all directions, taking photos and making videos like crazy.
I should get myself a shirt like this.
Soon we became their showpiece to impress the entire village. The kids walked on air while we passed one house after another and cried "tourists, tourists" to encourage their friends to join the showy parade. Our rarity as foreigners was like a magnet that attracted attention of Kurdish children. One girl from Hüseyin's family would never let go of Ale's arm - he walked couple of meters in front of me, each one of us with our separate crowd of admirers. My hands could hardly bear the bounty when girls gifted me with huge clusters of flowers, wheat seeds or immature fruits. One of them poked me, shouting something in excitement. She clenched a box inside which her most treasured possession - a little chick - was hidden, and urged me to stroke its soft feathers. The girls also sang some Kurdish songs to me and I sang a Danish song I really like - "Papirsklip" - to them. A girl who seemed to be in her early teens and spoke little English apparently also wanted to hear something more on top. "Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez!" she begged me, but fulfilling this expectation was out of my league.  
I thought about this situation and recalled memories of my friends who traveled a lot in rural areas of Bangladesh and India. For a joke, they used fake names in hotels where nobody checked their IDs and later felt like celebrities being recognized by local kids: "Is it true that your name is Pamela and you're a supermodel?" The thing happening to us at that moment didn't diverge too much from the way my friends were treated by locals. In our countries we're just men in the street; for these boys and girls who've probably never traveled outside Turkey we were larger than life.
As if that weren't enough, the evening was marked by more fun and frolics. Ale and I were drained of energy after two long days on the road; the keen and curious kids had energy in bucketloads. My eyes were squinty but despite my fatigue I didn't have the heart to tell them "no" when they asked for more attention. Unfortunately I didn't manage to do the girls' hand-clapping game reasonably fast without messing up. It was way past midnight when, massively exhausted, we all collapsed into our beds.
The heart-warming hospitality of Hüseyin's family was beyond anything we could ask for and experience. They introduced us to all relatives living in nearby houses - too extended to memorize the relations. Hüseyin took Ale and me for a short walk in Silopi, showing us some excellent viewpoints. His sister-in-law dressed me in her finest clothes that Kurdish women usually wear for major celebrations and completed this outfit with head scarf that Hüseyin's wife gave to me as a gift. We had some additional gifts as well - one of the boys got Ale's marathon shirt, Hüseyin's only daughter got my earrings and the entire family shared some Polish gingerbread cookies.
Kurdish madam
The culinary skills of Hüseyin's wife left me at a loss for words. Each meal with the family was one of these moments when I could eat past the point of being full just because the food tasted so good. Like in Morocco, the basis was bread, dipped in different kinds of food - home-made yogurt, baked eggplant with garlic and onion, scrambled eggs with pul biber paste, chili peppers or salty cheese. Everything was served on a huge plate set in the middle of the room. In spite of massive sizes of every meal, we all made short work of it. Some of us used silverware but I preferred to give my inner child another shot and ate with my hands, just like I did in Africa.
What seemed to be an ordinary ride in the very beginning, ended with quickly developing a deep love for the Kurdish people. Sometimes I felt really envious of Ale's knowledge of Turkish and wished I could have this priceless discovery tool to communicate and exchange thoughts with our hosts, who showed us some major cornerstones of Kurdish way of living. However, they hoped next time we would visit them, I would also be able to speak Turkish - and I am so looking forward to this moment!

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