Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Shitty Christmas

Last Christmas was the first one in my life to be spent in a country where this holiday is not officially celebrated. Still, in Ankara the main streets were full of colorful lights and even now, almost a month after the celebrations, I still bump into forlorn Christmas trees. However, in conservative Konya any traces of this holiday were non-existent.

I honestly have no idea why I decided to stay in this city for so long. I couldn't say I didn't enjoy my time there; there were things about Konya that I really liked but still, the city had absolutely no power to melt my heart or fascinate me as much as eg. what starts with "K" and ends with "-stan" did. That's what I though after three days in Konya. After the unfortunate events of my last day there, I don't think I'll ever come back with a feeling of anticipation and excitement.

My to-be host for the last night told me he was away and his friend would host me. The moment I saw this guy and started speaking to him, I already had mixed feelings about him. My presentiment was soon confirmed - this guy took me to... his carpet shop. Goddamnit! Remembering numerous situations like this in Morocco, I could expect how the situation would go on.

I tried to make a conversation about anything that wouldn't be related to carpets, but this stand-offish guy would always give one-word replies, which soon effectively discouraged me from asking about anything. When I reluctantly inquired about his shop, he suddenly got the gift of a gab. For almost one hour he treated me to precise details about price, fabric the carpet was made of, who made it, how much time it took to make. Anything he talked about was related to carpets, money or some questionable business. I knew I would stay anywhere but this place for the night and started thinking of a way to escape.

I guess my appearance revealed that I wasn't a loaded person able to buy anything from him. Nevertheless, he was rambling on and on only about the carpets, maybe using very subtle ways of persuasion, but still using them. "These are the ones that backpackers buy. They're light, easy to carry." I replied him just in my mind "Hmm, I've never met a backpacker who would think 'the floor of my tent gets too dirty. I should probably get some good carpet to keep the dirt and dust away.'"

He showed me his couchsurfing profile, where he mentioned his carpet shop almost in every paragraph. In some of his references people wrote that they couldn't stay in the shop, because it was too cold (and it obviously was the case on an almost sub-zero day) but the host arranged a hotel for them. For me it was even more obvious no-no.

He told me the shop actually belonged to his friend who was supposed to host me. I asked him about the art gallery that his friend owned and had mentioned to me in his messages, and the new host replied "you know, this is also an art." At that point I was brimming over with anger. I took my backpack and told the guy I would be back in couple of hours. I never came back.

Entire day to flush down the toilet, I though. I found an internet café - it seemed amusing to spend a day like this in front of the computer - but I had a crying need for companionship, even if it was just people who were online on facebook.

I thought about mails that I've been behind with for ages. That was the right time for sending them. I thought about people who wouldn't bother if I disturb them in the middle of preparing Christmas dinner. I whined to friends about things I wish I had but couldn't have at that moment or for the next couple of months, I thanked the ones who cheered me up with their unexpected messages. Thinking about my housemates who went home for Christmas made me cry. I wished myself in France, but the likelihood of spending the evening with benevolent people seemed fairly remote, adding the sense of being cruelly lonely to my already depressed state. At that moment I would have given anything to spend just one hour in Lagnes.

I wasn't free of problems and the main problem was where to sleep tonight. Nur's parents weren't staying in Konya for the night. To the rescue came my friend Başak, who comes from this city. She called a civil organization helping women in difficult condition and said I'd have to go to the nearest police office and give them their phone number, so that they could arrange a place to stay for me in the woman shelter. It seemed easy but it was anything but.

I knew where the nearest police station was, went there and presented them the phone number. Trying to communicate with my very basic Turkish was challenging. Even using some explanatory phrases I had prepared before didn't do much good. The phone number I gave them turned to be an Istanbul number. All the people working there did to help me was to contact me with some institution in Konya which would help me find a place for the night. It turned out to have something to do with Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was some kind of a hotel used by their representatives, or at least that's how the English-speaking person on the phone described it to me.

The place I was taken to not even a little resembled the place I heard about on the phone. It looked pretty barren and hostile. The policemen brought me to a small room where they collected my personal data. From there, through a big windowpane, I could see another big room where some men were watching TV. I also noticed folding screens behind which there were mattresses and personal belongings of the men. Considering how miserably they looked and how basic their living conditions were, I needed no explanations to know they hadn't found themselves in this place by accident.

My place for the night was a small room adjacent to the one where the men stayed. Both of them were locked and whenever a staff member wanted to get in or get out, they had to remember to keep the door closed. I got a mattress, some blankets, water and some food. I had quite friendly chat with some of the workers. In my room I couldn't feel comfortable enough because of the light that was always on and constant surveillance through a camera. However, it was nobody's duty to make me feel comfortable.

I opened a box of treacly baklava that I intended to give as a gift to Nur's parents, hoping they could help me that night. My Christmas dessert. I tried to hold back the tears. Somehow I managed to fall asleep, only to be crudely woken up at 9 a.m by some woman who requested me to come to the office. I though I'd collect my stuff, get to the city exit and hitchhike to Afyon. Instead, a gehenna-like conversation started. There were five people there, among them a translator who, together with the main police officer, bombarded me with questions and shocked with their impertinence.

How long have you been in Konya? Where did you stay? With whom? Address, phone number. How did you end up here? What are you dong in Turkey? How long have you been in Turkey? Name, address, phone number. What do you do at work? How did you find that job? Where do you live in Ankara? How many foreigners are staying there? Where are they from? Do you have a work permit (I don't need one, I only need residence permit and that I'm going to have in January because it can't be issued in one day)? Do you know that if you work in Turkey with no work permit you are here illegally and may be subject to deportation? Are you a sex worker? Are you a spy? How much money do you have with you? Do you know that if you travel in Turkey with not enough money, you may be a subject to deportation? What's your plan for the future? Who are you staying there with? How long are you going to stay there? When are you coming back to Ankara?

If it hadn't been for my stiff upper lip, I would have been reduced to tears. Eventually I was told that I would be taken to the bus station, from where I could go to my next destination. I made sure I wasn't a criminal for them and that they wouldn't bother the people whose phone numbers and addresses they had collected.

The ticket was for free. The city limit was a minute's walk from the otogar. I was tempted to hitchhike, but on the other hand, I was feeling exhausted, stressed and in absolutely no mood to make any discussion with drivers, thus I thought I deserved a bus.

If there was anything I learned that day, it was: never get any close to the police in Western Turkey. They're not the friendly types from the south-east who would let you sleep in their place, feed you and joke with you without having to find out who you are and why you're not staying in some hotel.

Eventually I never found out what the place where I stayed for the night exactly was, but my host in Afyon told me they mainly handle cases or illegal immigrants and prostitutes there. If there was anything I learned that day, it was: never get any close to the police in Western Turkey. They're not the friendly types from the south-east who would let you sleep in their place, feed you and joke with you without having to find out who you are and why you're not staying in some hotel. Next time I would also plan my Christmas holidays ahead - this day with the ones you care about is too much to miss.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

My lonesome hitches in a country where girls don't hitch alone

21.11.2012. That's the day of my last European hitch. Almost one month passed before I stuck out my thumb again, which seems like a very long time, considering how difficult it is for me to survive two weeks without even the shortest hitchhiking trip. Since most of my yabanci friends left home for Christmas and locals had other things that kept them in the city, I hit the road on my own. Normally I would probably jump up at such opportunity without hesitation, but in Turkey, a country where hitchhiking alone as a girl is assumed by many as a foolhardy and where a lonely girl encounters plenty of situations which are not as dangerous as they are annoying, I anticipated the sole act of hitchhiking with eagerness and impatience but everything that comes along with it – was something I wished away.

In Europe hitchhiking as a single girl is fast and enjoyable. In Turkey, in most of the instances, it's only fast. In Europe the first questions a new driver asks you when you get into the car are "where are you going," "what is your final destination," usually followed by “really?! You're so brave/crazy.” In Turkey it's "what's your name," "how old are you," as if was a date. Of course, there are people who don't pick you up in hope of an affair and whose only aim is to bring you safely to your destination. On the way to Konya, I got a ride with a Palestinian man who told me in fluent English about his friend walking around the world, a truck driver who talked about me to his English-speaking daughter and let me chat with her for a while, and two teachers who were really helpful when I had to contact Nur, offering me to use their phone and taking to our meeting spot.

There are also excellent drivers who go above and beyond to help you and make you feel comfortable. On my way to Ankara last May I hitchhiked with a young guy whose English was as shaky English as my Turkish, with no hopes for more than standard preliminaries, but who did everything to make a long ride from the western suburbs of Istanbul to Ankara enjoyable - told about prominent buildings of Istanbul that we passed, shared delicious Turkish sweets, introduced to traditional Turkish music, invited for a late dinner in his town, Safranbolu, showed its historical center, stuffed my backpack to the limits with even more food, called Ale to tell him how my trip was going and when I would arrive in Ankara, arranged a bus ticket and made sure I was on time in the right place on the bus station.

However, when I look back at my trips, the positive experiences are just a dim memory overshadowed by tens of rides where the drivers asked me about boyfriends/behaved in too familiar manner with me/offered to bring me a few kilometers further under the condition that I have sex with them/lasciviously stared at me/even at my refusal insisted on me carrying on riding with them not because my stories are so fascinating and they are curious about my exploits, but because I'm çok güzel, even if my clothes look like a weathered dishrag, my ponytail is dirty as a cow's tail and my eyes are narrowed to slits because of only five hours of sleep last night. Most of all, by the ride where I had to escape from the car in the middle of the night because the driver who in the beginning seemed normal, at some point appeared blatantly drunk and was becoming verbally aggressive (speaking a language I could understand).

Sadly, these negative experiences also influence my split-second judgments of eventually benevolent strangers - if one negative experience follows another, I become suspicious of the motives of people giving me rides. There's no way of making eye contact, smiling or accepting compliments, which could be interpreted as an invitation to making further advances. Sometimes a lot of time has to pass before I'm certain the driver has no bad intentions.

Sometimes my drivers tell me about themselves - they might be well-behaving husbands or loving dads longing to see their families after a long day at work. Nevertheless, when they find themselves in a one-on-one situation with an Western girl, they're anything but models of gentleness; their unrestrained Turkish lust is coming to the fore. I think they're basketcases unable to be cured of their convictions that female visitors to Turkey who travel on their own, especially hitchhiking, must be women of easy virtue. It's really frustrating when my responses to their nosiness - always simple bilmiyorum (I don't understand) - seem to fall on deaf ears and a lewd driver still keeps on challenging me with uncomfortably questions, as if hoping my level of Turkish will improve from staggering to speaking like a native in just five minutes. They usually contain words like evli (married), (wife), erkek arkadaş (boyfriend) and in spite of understanding these key words, I never give then an answer, which is none of their business after all. Sometimes I'm happy not to understand everything - at least I don't have to bother about the bullcrap these flippant men are telling me. Could I understood them entirely, I probably would give them a piece of my mind - and in some cases I still try really hard to tame my fiercest rages and not talk back (I already picked up some Turkish cusswords), and only the thought that I would have no chance with much stronger man, should he become aggressive, dissuades me from doing so - there's no point to let myself get beaten up for a few lecherous words.

So far nothing that would effectively discourage me from hitchhiking on my own in Turkey has happened - and inshallah it says this way for ever. Over the course of almost four years I learned how to wear thick skin and stay alert in situations where I could be harmed. If I gave up hitchhiking, no matter now troublesome it might appear sometimes, for a comfortable yet totally dull travel by bus or train, the journey would lose everything that makes it an adventure. Hopefully for the next months a major part of the adventure won't be dealing with people who are just a fraction of my overly positive experience in Europe.