Friday, April 19, 2013

Wish you were here

Last week I decided to visit Luís, a friend I met one month ago on an EVS on-arrival training in Şile. Monique was supposed to join me, but the day before decided to party in Ankara instead. On my facebook wall I posted a link to the page of the association I was going to. To my luck, that attracted the attention of Solmaz, an Iranian girl who stayed in our place in Ankara some time ago. She'd just quit her job in Istanbul and wanted to get out of the city for some time. I honestly didn't expect that she would make up her mind in such a short time, but to my big surprise she announced to me "I booked my bus tickets to Ankara, I'll be there Sunday morning so we can hitchhike together." I haven't spoken with her a lot when she stayed with us, but she turnes out to be a great travel mate and I admire how much she treats this trip as a challenge and wants to experience something different than her almost 24/7 job that she quit.

We arrive in the village quite late and even though the only thing Solmaz and I feel like doing is collapsing into the beds, Bob, Luís's very friendly coordinator keeps us awake with a discussion, telling about the village and the project. I don't know how Solmaz and I, being dead tired, could focus so much on the conversation After a long session of music-playing we finally get our deserved sleep.

In the morning we can see how beautiful the surrounding is. The village is bigger than I expected it to be, and is surrounded by green hills. Only the gloomy sky doesn't really let us appreciate the charm of the place. Despite the terrible weather, none of us feels like staying at home. Solmaz and I want to met the villagers, so together with Luís we go to look for some people. When we pass a local café, two kids rush out to greet us. They're Samet, Semih and Sıla, the kids Luís plays with every evening. They were doing their Maths homework inside, but as soon as we come in, they push their multiplications aside and bring the board for playing tavla. Solmaz and I would like to teach Luís how to play this game we both enjoy, but as soon as we realize the kids are making up their own rules and adding their own twist to the existing ones, we pass this idea and just try to follow new rules of the children. While Luís is trying to teach Samet how to play checkers, Sıla, Sami, Solmaz and I play football outside. The kids not only feel comfortable with just met strangers, but are also very polite and respectful. When they address us, we can see they know the difference between speaking with a friend and speaking with a person who's older than them. I was surprised to be addressed "Ewelina abla" for the first time in my life by a Turkish child. So far the only kids I've interacted more with in Turkey were the kids I work with. I love them, but something strikes me about their behavior when I realize how much they behave like spoiled brats, demanding attention here and now, often taking things for granted and rarely saying "please" or "thank you," unless told so.

Samet, Semih and Sıla invite us to their family house. Their mother, Gülten, is milking the cows. We feed the calves and visit their sheep barn in a distant part of the village. The kids introduce us to their the grandfather - very friendly, elderly man with a permanent smile on his face, who invites us for çay in the café. He's happy to see new visitors and, upon hearing us communicate in English, asks us: "do you all speak the same language in your countries?" "No, we all speak different languages, Farsi, Portuguese and Polish."

In the evening we eat together. The food prepared by Gülten is so delicious that barely anyone speaks binging on home-made, pilaf, yoghurt with biber, ceci beans, cheese and black olives. After the feast, our discussion can barely end. Despite our Turkish being far from perfection, we manage to understand quite a lot. Gülten is curious about everything. She inquires about marriages, funerals, families, jobs, schooling systems in our countries... She recalls her mutinous past - she got married when she was 17 years old and before that she eloped with her boyfriend when her family wanted her to marry a man of their preference. "How did your relatives react?" we are curious. I'm expecting an answer involving something about her parents renouncing her - but none of that. Surprisingly, they were very tolerant and both her and her husband, Sefer, had to bear no consequences. For such a closed community, somehow also their lack of knowledge of outer world, their attitudes seem very progressive and liberal to me.

In the evening we go to the café owned by Sefer. As I expected, only men are sitting inside, but the arrival of Solmaz and me goes down well among them. We receive no hostile glances sizing us up and down. Instead, they become very curious upon the arrival of three new yababncı. They want to know where we come from, which currency we're using there, which work we do. Where have you been in Turkey? We study the map together. They can't believe when I point to Silopi, tiny spot just on the Iraqi border, almost 1800 km from their dwelling place. They show us how to start fire with stones and awash with çay, which here costs only 25 kuruş for a small glass.


One day we meet Zeynep and İsa, a couple that Agrida usually gets their eggs and milk from. Zeynep takes us to the pastures where her herd of goats are feeding. The last days were blasted with pouring rain and the way to the fields is a never-ending knee-deep puddle. That's one of the situations that our rain boots were really made for. Brooding in the deep mud, we realize we haven't seen anyone else in Cazgirler wearing similar footwear. The villagers, who spend a lot of time outside in a surrounding full of mud and shit and thus would actually need them the most, manage with regular walking shoes. When our rain boots get sucked into the mud, Zeynep walks 200 meters ahead of us in flimsy sandals. She takes us to her goat barn, there's a separate one for the adult goats and one for the babies. When she lets both of them out for the feeding, the small goats hurry to their mothers and the entire yard looks like a scene of an orgy; with the little ones greedily drinking milk. We also get some milk and eggs from Zeynep. Bob gave Luís some money, although he was sure Zeynep and İsa wouldn't accept it. They take it, but instead of 12 eggs they give us 20 and say "bir zaman para veriyorsunuz, bir zaman para yok. Arkadaşlarımsınız (one time you give us money, one time no money. You're our friends!)!" 


"Do you like Cazgirler?" Gülten asks us during another dinner at hers. "Yes, I'm very used to nature and there's not so much of it in Ankara," I answer for myself. The opinions of Solmaz and Luís are the same. But Gülten doesn't share our admiration for the village. Most of the population is elderly, she can't make friends among people her age. Her kids are also the only ones living in Cazgirler and commute with a school bus to school in a different village 10 km away. Sometimes boredom bothers her. She'd rather move to a bigger settlement. In Turkish there's a saying "taş yerinde ağırdır" - stone is heavy at its place - and it perfectly describes the situation of Gülten and Sefer. In the countryside the land makes their money; they can plant vegetables, breed animals, sell their products. In a city, because of lack of education, she and her husband are useless.


I want to spend more time in this village. Our initial plan was to stay in Cazgirler for two days and then hitchhike to Mersin to meet another volunteer, Silvia from Italy, at a nomadic event. Already in the first evening Bob convinced us to stay for Wednesday too, so that we can go to Bayramiç for the pazar together. On Wednesday Solmaz and I decide to stay for the whole week. The cold days took a toll on my health and I don't feel like doing a hitch that would most likely take more than one day, sleeping in strange places and amusing the drivers sneezing and coughing all over. Part of me feels I've quite quickly sunk my roots here and don't want to leave, having learned so much and made connections with local people. I also think my short time in the village is spent in more meaningful way than my weeks in my organization in Ankara, where only once in a blue moon I'm able to do something with the kids and where I usually come just to have a free meal and speak about gibberish in the office for three hours.


We visit Gülten's house almost every day and stay there from early afternoon until late night. The kids are also very eager to spend time with us, entreat us to come with them anywhere they're going. Café, cows, goats. Sometimes we have to make up excuses like "we have to discuss our EVS and work on some other things" just to politely get rid of them for a while. And even if we hide somewhere in the woods, the following day we hear "you went to the forest? We saw you going there." We also laugh that after spending so much time with the kids, we start pronouncing English words adopted to Turkish with a Turkish pronunciation. Café, camera, coca-cola. One day we make yoghurt and cheese together. Bob asked us for the recipe and photos, so Gülten answers our questions and writes down instructions that are too complicated for us, non-native-speakers, to translate. She learned how to make milk after getting married - her marriage gifts were mainly jewelery, which she and her husband didn't need and sold to buy cows and goats that served more useful purpose than adornments. After hours spent in the kitchen, she teaches me how to crochet and shows some of the patterns that she made. Together with Sıla, Samet and Luís we sneak into a mosque; Luís and Samet even manage to climb to the top of the minaret. Samet disappears for a while and comes back, saying "hoca çok kızıyor (the teacher is very angry)". Later, we learn from Gülten that only men can pray in the main part of the mosque.


The local people won me over with her honesty and openness. I was surprised how curious about our lives they were and how much they treated us like people who are equal to them, even though our social backgrounds are miles away. Everyone we met welcomed us with a smile and no prejudgments. How many times I cursed my first trip during my EVS in December (Konya, Afyon, Denizli) and every day of it swore I was coming back to Ankara mainly because local people too often considered my pale skin and foreign accent as a certainty of the fact I must be filthy rich or assumed without even getting to know me that I'm going to big-note myself because of coming from (in their opinion) much wealthier country than their own. Here any differences seemed to disappear. Can you imagine that in this village, where we definitely stood out as non-locals, I haven't heard the word "yabancı" even a single time? The local people are very curious of foreigners; we bring some change into their everyday life; we aren't a source of money, but new friends approached with smile and curiosity. They crave for people from outside and yearn for our companionship in whatever they do. Tomorrow we're milking the goats, are you coming? They appreciated our efforts to speak Turkish and also tried to say something in English, even if it was just single words. It was also wonderful to learn about their lives, as they're very outspoken and opinionable. If they shared something, I could feel it was honest and coming from their heart; done just for the sake of being with another person. And also - the arrival of two girls in Luís's place didn't bring about any gossiping among the villagers. Funny, especially when you think that for our neighbors in Ankara the girls living there already prostitutes only because sometimes our male friends come home at night.


This post is dedicated to the memory of Taylor Booth, the creator of the Rural Couchsurfing project, my friend and inspiration, who died in the beginning of March, hit by truck while hitchhiking at night in Chad. Taylor, I'm happy I could see you in Ankara at the end of the last year. I miss you and I think to myself, if only I could revive you, Cazgirler is the kind of place where I'd like to meet you next time... 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

I hate people

I have to admit it, I'm usually a very bad travel mate. I really mean it, so don't travel with me unless you're totally crazy. In recent months my conclusions after even not really prolonged times of traveling with someone are mainly connected with... how much I hate people (many thanks to these ones who didn't make me think this way). I was blowing my top traveling with people who couldn't hold up their end, making me responsible for planning the route, looking at the map, speaking with the drivers, paying attention to where we have to get off the car or change the direction. People who have to be hammered in the most evident things. People who are dependent and incessantly have to be babysat.

But there's also one more reason. I cherish freedom and creating my own happiness too much. I'm too independent to spend 24 hours a day in a bigger companionship than just myself. I prefer marching to the beat of my own drum rather than puzzling over the needs of other people or adjusting to their plans. When somebody's chivvying me along, I delight in lingering in a place reasons they'll never grasp. Many of my fondest travel memories were made while traveling on my own. So far all of my hitches in Turkey were done alone. Sometimes it worked to my advantage, sometimes I wished I were with someone to make me feel more secure.

Last week my housemate Monique and I were thinking about going out somewhere out for the weekend. "She'd make a good travel partner," I thought. Well-traveled, also in countries where nothing is comfortable, nothing is organized and nothing can be expected, she didn't seem to be a person who would nag if she had to lumber a long ride in a dirty truck or cry because nothing is stopping for 30 minutes. We sent some couchsurfing requests and the first reply came from Safranbolu - a UNESCO-listed town I visited just for less than one hour on my way to Ankara last year, but which I yearned to see again.

After Turkish classes and a short visit in our organization, we caught a bus to Yaşamkent, from where we planned to start our hitchhiking. To our surprise, the first ride materialized even before reaching the spot. While speaking a mixture of English and Turkish, a man standing next to us said "excuse me for interrupting, but that's actually the best way to get to know the city (I was describing my unfortunate attempt to hitchhike to Eskişehir, which, after taking the wrong bus, ended somewhere near Batıkent)." He turned out to be a retired army officer and we spoke with him until getting off the bus, after which he said he would take us to a good place to hitchhike from... and it was already on the outer beltway of Ankara. The first driver who stopped didn't inspire out trust, so we rejected the ride, after which he persistently stayed in our lay-by and even got out of the car... to try to get to know us a little closer. Not the best place for advances; we shooed him away and waited for the next car... which was driven by a Turkish-German owner of a casino in İstanbul and his not any less frightening father. One of the positive sides of traveling with someone is the feeling that you're safer than being in the situation on your own, and that was definitely one of these moments. The mafia guys ignored our request to leave us in the exit direction Safranbolu and dropped us on a gas station, from where we had to find a way to get to the opposite side of the highway, jumping over fences and stumbling upon bones of some unidentified giant mammals.

It was not so much time left until the dusk, so we wanted to catch any ride, which this time was a truck. The driver dropped us at the crossroads Karabük-Samsun, after which another truck took us to our final destination.
On the way back we were nigh of getting into some trouble with the police. Their car was parked close to a place we hitchhiked from, and while trying to score a ride, one of the policemen was staring us, as we were up to no good. After a while he started walking our way, so we only hoped that any car would stop and save us from a chat with the authorities. As if on our beck and call, a truck stopped, and we could gasp with relief (already in Ankara, Monique found this article. Who knows, maybe for these policemen we were also workers looking for a job).

Running away from the police turned out not to be so easy. What we escaped in Karabük, reached us in Gerede. "Where are you going?" the policeman asked us in English. "Ankara'ya," we replied. "Come with me." We looked at each other, not knowing if this was getting into some trouble or actually getting some help. He left us in Gerede, right where the old road to Ankara started. I took this road two months ago on the way back from Istanbul and wanted Monique to see how beautiful it was. Although snow was gone long ago, the verdant hills weren't any less charming than Alps-like scenery.

About Safranbolu itself, words fall short to describe how beautiful it is. I could only say it's my best discovery in the west of Turkey. The town is like a white island in the middle of verdant ocean. After almost four months of living in the capital and visiting mainly bigger cities, my craving for nature was fulfilled.

Many thanks to our hosts, Hakan and Emre, for taking their time to show us their town - and to Monique, who made my un-lonely travels enjoyable again.


The first of Safranbolu

Çay in a mosque

I want a garden like that!

So communist-like

The old road to Ankara

The place above in wintertime

Our driver told us this awkward statue represented a melon. I though it was a fig...

Ankara'da tekrar hoşgeldiniz!