In Mt. Ilgaz National Park, I wandered around the steep mountains and was dwarfed by the towering pines. I smelled smells that reminded me of brown sugar or lilacs or wet socks. It impressed me that I could walk along the side of what I thought was a small mountain, only to have it open up and become a new mountain, a new horizon, a new eco-system, a new world.
Atop one part of a mountain, the pine trees separated to surround a meadow or a bald spot. I lay naked beneath the sun and wrote here during the daytime. I had to wear all my clothes at night while meditating; it felt as if the earth was thrusting me into dark space to hover beside the stars. In the mountaintop amphitheatre, I made confident and playful sounds with the flute my Aunt Maureen had given me.
But, spending so much time alone, was I meeting my objectives for getting to know Turkey? My objectives were:
to travel around the country and see amazing things;
to experience things one would experience living in a Turkish community;
to learn something I couldn' t learn elsewhere;
and to feel comfortable and enjoy myself.
On my third evening in the national park, a Turkish family invited me to eat with them. That was good, because I was pretty much out of food.
They gave me barbecued swirls of meat from a sheep's ribs, grilled quarters of an onion, tomatoes, and long green peppers, in a thick pita.
The father of the family - who'd earned $1500/month as an engineer, and $1000/month in retirement, which seemed good to me - talked about money. He led us in a long discussion with the theme, "Why do Americans equate Islam with terrorism?" Our limited conversational skills made it difficult for me to defend my countrymen. I felt uncomfortable.
The next day, I descended the mountain. I bought food and, braving summer heat that made me sweat whenever I carried my bags, I went to hitchhike east.
A twenty-five-year-old named Ur picked me up. This small, nervous boy seemed effeminently gay. He quickly asked and answered many questions, helping me improve my Turkish. After several minutes, he asked if I had any money, because he didn't and needed gas. I said I wasn't going to give him any money, and began to feel uncomfortable. Why had he decided to take a roadtrip if he didn't have any money? He should've been hitchhiking.
He sang to himself, had a long phone conversation with a friend, and occasionally drove a hundred miles per hour. I thought to myself: It wasn't big and mean people who were the scariest to get rides from, it was the psychologically unstable ones. I was relieved once I got out of Ur's car.
I knew from experience that it took time to feel comfortable in most cultures. I was elated when Alek, a Georgian trucker, picked me up and we immediately spoke Russian. Old, familiar Russian. Alek used every swear word in the first minute. Soon, we were comfortably talking, sounding like tough mafia bosses disgusted by every sentence. Moy rodnoy yazik.
Alek told me that, twenty years ago, Turkey had been much poorer than it was now. I, in fact, was surprised by how rich Turkey seemed. Everyone had cars, many of them big and new. The country was experiencing a golden age. The northern Black Sea coast was overflowing with development: a busy coastal highway, tall apartment buildings, freshly painted houses scattered all over the mountainous land rising inland.
Alek continued in Russian, saying his country was not doing so well. "We lived well in the U.S.S.R.! We had money. We had everything. They gave us jobs and homes. Now, we look for jobs. In the past, if you didn't have a home, you'd find a job and they'd give you a home. Now, if you don't have money, they kick you out of your home!"
I was eager to visit Georgia. But, not now. I got out of Alek's truck after dusk, in a rather unpopulated part of the Black Sea coast. The land rose steeply beside the highway, to an impenetrable forest interrupted by some houses. I found that, between the highway and the rising land, the land dropped to an Eden-like ditch full of plants. I felt satisfied to make that my home for the night.
Still in Turkey, I went to visit the Sumela Monastery. It was inland from the Black Sea. The road to it climbed beside a foamy tumbling river that ricocheted like a pinball around steep mountains dense with plants and covered in mist. Wow! A stone monastery, built seven hundred years ago by Christians but recently abandoned, clung for its life to the underside of a cliff. A stone aqueduct carried water to the monastery. Inside, square or cylindrical rooms wore triangular tops and came together to form a tiny castle. Jesus and the saints, wearing red shirts and gold halos, had been painted all over a church. The overhanging cliff kept them dry.
Escaping the tourists who obsessively photographed themselves, I camped somewhere on Sumela's mountain. I wanted to be alone with a writer who obsessively wrote about himself. Ha ha!
Later, a Turkish family drove me back to the Black Sea. The eleven-year-old daughter asked to have her picture taken with me. Sure. I loved having my picture taken! The father stuck his fist in the air and yelled, "Yeah. Freedom!" when I said I wasn't married. I was happy to get that response, because Turkey was a place where people rarely understood why you'd want to be alone. I was happy to be accepted, though I bathed myself in the sea and showered pouring mountain water over my head.
A man who wore tight black and was muscular like Van Damme picked me up next. Introducing himself as "Tarkan", he performed a little dance in his seat. He spoke Turkish words as if spitting out pieces of food from his teeth, and perhaps that was why his teeth were mere triangles. He liked speaking to me, saying we were all "insanlar" (human beings). He didn't have patience for me to use my dictionary while we talked.
He especially spat his words while warning me about the Kurdish areas of Turkey. He often said, "Pe Ka Ka" - which I would later learn was the name of a Kurdish terrorist organization. He said he wasn't a Kurd but a "kurt" (wolf), and proudly shaped his hand into a canine head.
Thanks to people like Tarkan, I made it to the last town before Georgia. Hopa. Wandering around a mountainside at dusk, I befriended a friendly guy named Murat. This forty-five-year-old bachelor had been a seaman for twenty-two years. He spoke English. And he let me camp in his yard.
He lived with his eighty-five-year-old mother: Fatma. She wore a shawl and had a good sense of humor and liked to laugh. This strong woman maintained a garden on her mountainside, but it was tough for her to walk the one hundred and two steps down to town. During the two days I stayed in her yard, she made lentil soup, spicy plates of enormous green beans, and feta cheese pasta for me and her son.
Twenty-year-old Hakan lived next door. This bushy brown-haired kid with black beard patches led me in search of a bookstore. We passed through the narrow, old streets of Hopa. Mens' barbershops and dirt and hotels and kebab shops and men playing backgammon surrounded us. I liked it here. We found a book I wanted: one starring the classic Turkish kids' book characters, Karagoz (Black Eyes) and Hacivat.
We returned to Murat's, where a thin man named Turgay was visiting us. This friendly guy was Murat's best friend. In Turkish, he and I spoke about light subjects and made jokes. But, he wanted me to know one thing: it was not true that Turkey had attempted a genocide of the Armenians.
Murat, himself, liked to talk about conspiracy theories and the state of the world. He said I didn't have to worry about Kurdish terrorists, because they were financed by the U.S.A.
He claimed the C.I.A. took Islamic mercenaries from North Africa and sent them to Guam. After a few years, they went to Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria. They performed terrorist attacks and cut off people's heads, so the U.S. could say, "Muslims are bad." But, Islam was a religion of peace.
Murat knew, from trips to U.S. port cities, that Americans were good people. I agreed but said that, even though U.S. soldiers were good people, that didn't excuse them for going to war. Murat said three thousand American soldiers had escaped to Canada, after going to Iraq and seeing what was being done there.
He said the problem was politics. I said people had to stop doing the politicans' bidding. He said the problem was television. Everywhere, the news showed the same propaganda.
Our conversation returned to Turkey. Murat said Turks were different from Arabs.
He told the story of the Canakkale War, as written by an English historian. During World War I, Turkey was fighting the British, French, Australians, Kiwis, everyone. And three thousand Turks held off a much bigger opposing navy from crossing the Dardanelles Strait. An English general asked of the Turkish army: "Kim nasil insanlar?" (Who are these people?)
Murat, Hakan, Turgay, and I sat on a mountainside, drinking tea and eating Fatma's baklava. I felt good here. Although I'd be going to Georgia the next day, I was excited to come back soon and continue my three months in Turkey.
Thanks to Mustafa & Ozgur; Yusuf & Hakan; Tayfun; Ur; Alek; Ahmed; Ahmed; Suad & Butul; Mecid Altirdas; Sonur, Gul, Yara, & Efe; Tarkan; Onur & Fulya; and Egrem for rides!