24-25th September, 2012
It seems Istanbul is in a mood with me as I cross the Bosphorous back over to the European side on the boat. “What are you still doing here?” she says with cloudy skies, a city shrouded in grey.
I’ve been in Istanbul a week longer than expected. The city is fabricated from a giant magnet, designed to keep hitchhikers from leaving. Some of this, admittedly, has something to do with a young man named Coşkun – pronounced “Joshkun” – whose full name means “Enthusiastic Diamond”, and who I will no doubt miss a great deal when I finally leave this crazy bustling city.
I wake one morning in Tanja, Dağlı and Danielle’s flat, where I’ve been staying for most of my time in the city. I sit in the wide, wooden-floored lounge and open my laptop on the futon, smiling at the sound of the vegetable seller on his megaphone down below. One day, my Turkish will be good enough to understand what he’s calling out.
An email from another traveller on the little used Hitchhikers group on Be Welcome:
I am in Istanbul right now and very very soon, I will start going East, towards Georgia, Armenia and then Iran.
Anyone would like to join, for part of the way?
Hoping to read your messages!
I reply right away, a flurry of excitement:
That’s exactly my plan! I am also in Istanbul now, hoping to leave in the next few days. Let’s meet up soon and discuss it over a çay?
I meet Emée later that day, at the cafe where she does her writing. It’s so perfect that she’s also a writer, also a hitchhiker, also on her way slowly East.
A few days later, we meet at Taxim Square with sizeable backpacks and a blonde Belarussian girl named Alla.
Alla, in my opinion, did it all wrong while she was in Istanbul. To start with, she made an Open Couch Request – a new option on the CS website, where you send your details to everyone in a city stating what you are looking for and wait for them to invite you. She also messaged the entire Istanbul group on the public forum, looking for people to hang out with in the city. The problem is this: in Turkey, there is kind of a ‘thing’ about Russian, Ukrainian and Belarussian women. Particularly blonde ones. She received hundreds of replies from men wanting to meet her and inviting her to stay with them. She had to move hosts two or three times because they wanted to sleep with her and she managed to unwittingly offend hosts and other people, because they made plans for her without asking. There are undoubtably hundreds of truly amazing Turkish hosts in Istanbul, but this is not the way to find them.
“You are no longer from Belarus”, I tell Alla as we begin our journey. “Let’s say you are from…”
“I am from Australia”, she says, and from then on, that’s what we tell our drivers.
We take the five minute ferryboat back over the Bosphorous to Asia and a dolmuş to the highway.
The first car stops. “Where are you from?” ask the two guys inside.
“England, France… Australia”, I tell them, pointing at each of us. We ride with them as far as the next big city. They offer to pay for us to take a bus all the way to Göreme, but we refuse politely – “we really like hitchhiking!” we tell them. Later, we will come to regret this decision, but for now our road is open.
Two different guys take us through Ankara and leave us at a gas station on the other side, where we stop for a çay break. A man woking in the market puts three apples in our bag when we buy bread from him, a gift.
The sun sinks fast and everything changes. We get a short lift with a suspiciously quiet man who seems uncomfortable about it. I think I know why.
Walking, walking, walking, walking… cars and trucks stop often, but not to offer a lift.
I poke my head inside the open door of a truck that ground to a halt in front of me. “Where are you going?” I ask in Turkish. “Here”, he tells me. “Oh.” I start to leave. “No sex?” he calls after me…
They apparently think we are three prostitutes soliciting for customers, and backpacks big enough to contain an entire kitchen are somehow not dissuading them from this impression.
We walk as far as a gas station somewhere close to Kirikale. The owner shakes his head gravely as I explain to him how we came to be there. “But now it is late”, I finish.
“Yes,” he nods slowly, “it is late.” He shows us to a small vine-covered outside area with a sofa and some cushions, just next to the car park. We can sleep here, he says. Awesome. We nominate Alla to sleep on the sofa, since she is bereft of a roll-mat and sleeping bag.
Emée and I begin making our beds on the concrete floor, but soon find ourselves the subject of some curiosity. An entire extended family from Diyarbakır are standing and staring at us, with a fair bit of giggling from the younger family members. Of course, we get chatting with them. They ask if we are married, and when we confess we’re not, they begin discussing which of their cousins we should marry. A photo-shoot ensues.
After waving goodbye to our Kurdish friends, another of the gas station employees comes over to speak with us. After a fair amount of miscommunication, I understand that he is offering us to sleep in the women’s prayer room, in a small separate building next to the gas station. “But, won’t women want to come and pray in there?” I ask him, wondering at the reaction from elderly village women, to three scruffy travellers sprawled out in their sacred space. But no, he says, it is too late now and they will only come in the morning, perhaps 8am.
We set our alarms for 7am and huddle down on the thick red carpet.
They feed us tea in the morning from a big urn outside the gas station. We’re on the road by 8am, but nobody is stopping. A man comes out from the restaurant – “Çay?” We only just got on the road! We decide if we are still here in half an hour, we’ll take a tea, but two guys stop after ten minutes and drive us to a better spot.
We get a long ride to Göreme with two very polite Turkish men who refer to themselves as tourists. We say no when they offer us chocolates and coke, but they buy it anyway, and tea of course. “Where are you from?” they ask us.
“England, France and Australia”, we say.
I am now ready to write this story. It’s a long story and it’s been a long time coming, so I will blog it in chapters, sifted from diary fragments and memories and a longer piece I am writing, which maybe, someday, I will publish.
It’s early September, a blazing Wednesday in Istanbul. I’ve just come back to the city after a month in Bulgaria spent with activists and hitch-hikers. Now I’m back on course again, heading East. Tomorrow I’ll leave Helene’s cozy flat in the trendy Taxim area and hitch-hike towards Georgia and Armenia, finally on my way to Iran.
One email halts all plans. You know it’s serious when your father’s wife, who hasn’t spoken to you in eight years, and who won’t allow you to meet their other children, emails you from his – your father’s – email account and tells you he is sick – very sick. “You need to prepare yourself”.
My passport is still at the Iranian consulate. The man smiles as he hands it to me, opening the page with my new visa. My own glossy face looks up at me, head-scarfed and serious.
I hadn’t flown in eight years. It takes a few false starts before the ticket is booked, my visa numbers entered and swallowed by the screen. My flight is from Antalya airport in the early hours of Monday morning: the bottom part of Turkey. Now I’m at the top. Perhaps it seems ridiculous to hitch-hike for two days to get to an airport, then another full day from London to Glasgow when I could probably hitch the whole way in a week. I can’t explain it. Some things just feel right.
The way to hitch out of Istanbul is through Gebze, a small city within Istanbul’s suburbs, a train ride away on the Asian side of the city. From there it’s a short hitch on a ferry over the thin wiggly Eastern part of the Marmara Sea to Yalova. First I stop in the Gebze restaurant where Pam and I feasted on our trip to Bursa some months earlier. It’s a large-ish yet quiet restaurant, with an outdoor patio overlooking the Marmara. This is where I choose to sit, heaving the weight of my pack down onto the stone slabs by my table. I have a rusty pan attached to the back, which clangs about.
Men rush to my assistance. I explain in Turkish that I’m vegetarian and that I don’t eat eggs, milk, butter… “Yes, I understand” says a man. He goes off and I sit down, not entirely certain that they will understand, but resigning myself to attempt to eat whatever it is they bring me. Three waiters arrive laden with trays and lay it all out before me: there is roasted aubergine, fried potatoes, chickpeas, green beans, mushrooms, copious rice, a basket of bread, oil, two huge salads… everything seems to be vegan. “Enough!” I tell them, smiling. How can I possibly eat all this? How will I afford it? But I’m hungry, so I tuck in and devour most of everything, taking care to leave a little on each plate lest they bring more. “Kaç para?” I ask the man who brings me tea, but he just waves his hand and disappears. I order a coffee, which I remember was complimentary. After I have finished I’m ready to hear the price. The first man comes back out and asks if I enjoyed the meal – “Oh yes, of course, it was wonderful. Teşekkür ederim.” But how much do I owe? He shakes his head – “Para yok.” No money. I can’t believe it. All the men line up and bow as I leave.
“Babam hasta”, I explain to all my truck drivers, business men and family members on the way to Antalya. “My father is sick, ama döneceğim – but I will return”.
I stop for a night in Eskişehir. I don’t know anyone in Eskişehir and was hoping to get further. I send a barrage of text messages from a ciğ köfte bar, between rolling the spiced bulghur blobs in crisp lettuce leaves and shovelling them into my mouth.
An anarchist I’ve been emailing in Izmir calls me up: pure coincidence. He knew I was travelling today, not that I was here. Eskişehir is his home town. An hour later I’m with his friend and the tiny infant kitten he has adopted, watching him bottle feed it on his sofa and sipping hot sweet tea. Somehow, the universe is looking after me.
Despite an early start, the next day is tough. I argue with road workers, walk miles in the wrong direction and frostily decline a kiss. My heart is heavy.
When I get most frustrated hitch-hiking, when nothing is going right, if I can persuade myself to take a break, everything somehow works out. After a slap-up meal in a roadside diner, a truck driver picks me up from the Highway of Hell and takes me straight to the airport: a four hour drive.
I’ve booked a flight with a package holiday company from one of the most touristic spots in the country. A snaking queue of mostly British voices welcomes me – “If only it were five degrees cooler, it’d be perfect – know wha’ I mean?” – “An’ then ‘e looked at me ‘n’ said alrigh’ darlin’, an’ I just said you’ve gotta be kiddin’!” – “our holiday would’ve been great if it weren’t for all the bloody Russians!”
My first flight in eight years. I wasn’t missing much. I am shepherded, scrutinized, ticked off and stamped. Finally, I’m in my regulatory plastic chair, knees just touching the one in font. Lean back and die, I think to the man sat there.
When it’s time for the individually packaged food portions to come out, the vegan one I ordered over the phone is missing. “Did you have one on your way in?” they ask. “I didn’t have a flight in.” They stare. Nothing can be done – it’s hunger or egg. I choose hunger over egg, but not without regret.
At dawn we soar over a billowing white carpet as specks of pink and then orange appear. As we drop below, everything turns grey and the concrete below glistens. “Not quite what you’re used to”, says the man beside me, whom I’ve not yet spoken to. I peer out the window: Birmingham. I can hardly believe it.
To be continued…
A crumpled pile of Mathieu is sitting outside the row of shops and cafes on the run up to the Turkish border. At first I don’t even recognise him – partly because he’s so unlike his usual smiling cheery self, partly because he left the camp in Bulgaria a full 24 hours before me and was heading in the direction of France… “Mathieu – is that you?! What are you doing here?!”
The whole sorry story comes out. He left the camp with two friends heading to Germany and was persuaded to take a roundabout route via the Turkish border in the hope of getting a straight lift to Germany. Well, they got one, but just as Mathieu was climbing into the truck, the driver changed his mind and said he would only take two people. So his friends waved goodbye and set off for Berlin, leaving him to catch the next ride… only there was no other ride, and despite seeing three other pairs of hitchhikers get rides head of him, despite sleeping on a cardboard box behind one of the cafes, despite being up again with his thumb out at the crack of dawn, and despite now being on first name terms with all the restaurant owners on this road… Mathieu is still here 25 hours later.
Borders are funny places. Sit for ten minutes and a group of stray travellers forms, all from different countries and heading in different directions. Many are from the No Border Camp, like us. Determined to see Mathieu off before I leave, I swap my pre-arranged lift on the other side of the border with another traveller and poke my thumb into the blazing heat. I will get him a lift… After an hour Mathieu is smiling again, relieved that at least it’s not just him. Me and a young blonde girl from Germany, also from the camp, switch places – taking breaks in the shade between shifts. The sun really is scorching. I take a final twenty minute shift and start counting down how many more cars I’m prepared to see roll past me. I’m just about to call it quits when a car stops. The car full of Turkish men seem a little put out that actually the ride isn’t for me, but for my male friend. I tell them what a wonderful person he is, hug him to show we’re really good friends, tell how he spent last night on the cardboard box behind the cafe, and eventually they cave in – “tamam, we take him.” “Yay!” “But where are they going?” asks Mathieu. “Who the fuck cares? – just get in the car quick before they change their minds!” - There he goes, smiling and waving. I’m so happy I could cry.
My hitching buddies now consist of the blonde girl from camp and a random guy from Mexico we met on the border. We crossed the border on foot and now wait in the thin strip of shadow created by a lamp-post, shuffling backwards every couple of minutes as it moves around us like a sundial. A guy stops and agrees to take us, all the way to Istanbul!
Istanbul welcomes me back with open arms. There are many people here from the No Border Camp, and I seem to bump into them all every time I walk down Istiklal Caddesi. There are still a lot of Rainbow people too, just returned after the 66 day sema recently finished in Yalova. I find them playing music as I’m walking with some activists and suddenly all my worlds collide – how strange to see these people here on the streets of this city, playing this music I was whirling to – what – a month ago? It seems like a decade!
I’m staying with Helene, the original initiator of the continuing weekly vegan potlucks. It’s good to always make sure I’m here on a Sunday, when deliciousness occurs. This time a few of the Noborderers attend too and we all scoff our faces with humous, ciappati, stuffed tomatoes, chocolate walnut cake (made by me), and the biggest bowl of fruit salad I’ve ever seen.
I arrive at the Iranian Embassy looking something of a hippy-muslim-punk hybrid: not-quite-ankle-length orange skirt over stripey trousers, a-symmetric zip-up green jumper – holes in the sleeves carefully disguised with rolling technique – and a blue, orange and white headscarf. I feel certain they will see through my disguise.
The guys with the Australian passports in the queue in front of me used the same dodgy online visa agency as me. One is told his visa isn’t ready yet, despite having applied a week before the other. Mine seems to be ok, but I’m given another form to fill out anyway – the one I was trying to avoid by using this service. £52 wasted then! I have to wonder who is this Iranian woman, with the Hamburg address and Swiss bank account? The instructions for the bank transfer came with the same warning twice in capital letters, highlighted in red: Due to embargo on Iran, please do not mention Iran in your transaction. Do not mention Iran, do not mention visa, nothing at all, just your own name.
I reach the front of the queue for the second time and am given a slip of paper with an account number on it. The man tells me to take it to the bank over the road and pay €100. Ok, bit weird, but I go dutifully over the road and take a ticket from the machine before sitting down on a plastic seat among lots of other people. Slowly it becomes apparent that we’re all here for the same reason, only most people are Iranian themselves or dual nationals. The bank must be in on the swindle! Soon the Australians from the queue arrive and we discuss our travelling arrangements (they are cyclists) and wait for the numbers on the screen to go up. Finally I get to the counter and give the man my debit card. But now of course, the Embassy is shut…
The following day I’m back at the embassy the minute they open, handing over my receipt for the money. The man takes my form and passport and tells me to come back in two days… two days?! What on earth did I pay that woman for then? The strange thing is that it’s not possible to get a visa for Iran without going through this palava.
Finally I’m leaving the Embassy for the final time, passport in hand, new shiny Iranian visa inside. However, my plans have changed…
At Antalya airport a snaking queue of mostly British voices welcomes me. They are all complaining – the queue, the heat, the other tourists – “our holiday would’ve been great if it weren’t for all the bloody Russians!” I look at the floor, embarrassed that I’m the one he’s speaking to – that I somehow prompted this. “Them bloody Russians don’t give a toss about anyone, pushin’ and shovin’…” Later, his eight year old son is running around, tired and restless at 4am. He bumps into someone by accident – “Oi! You gonna be a Russian when you’re older are ya? Are you gonna be a bloody Russian?”
My first flight in eight years. I wasn’t missing much. Bureaucracy, secuity, controls – everything moulded, plastic and sterile. We are shepherded into lines, scrutinized, ticked off and stamped.
The clouds look beautiful at dawn.
When it’s time for the individually packaged food portions to come out, the vegan one I ordered especially over the phone is missing. Nothing can be done: it’s egg, or hunger. I choose hunger over egg, but not without regret.
We soar over an endlessly billowing white carpet as specks of pink and then orange appear. As we drop below, everything turns grey and the concrete down there glistens. “Not quite what you’re used to”, says the man beside me, whom I’ve not yet spoken to. It’s a funny thing: wherever I go, people assume I’m from somewhere else.
Oh my god, I’m in England! I’m in England and it’s 7am. Now on the ground I wait for a bus. The hunger cuts deeper, the clouds sway open and sunlight trickles through. Birmingham. I order a medium soya latte at the nearest coffee shop and get out my laptop. It’s the biggest coffee I’ve ever seen – have portion sizes grown while I’ve been away?
Epilogue: an email from Mathieu
A little tiny word before to go to work: I made it!
The people you stopped for me…. haha, they drove me 90km, and then dropped me on the side of whatever Bulgarian “highway”, by the bushy side road …. I had a hard time, even a finger from a driver, but I made it to the border of Serbia at night. And day after have been horrible. Woke up at 4, no cars, no truck, no one to stop for me. At 12:00 I sent a message to my boss saying that I won’t make it, asking for the money to cover my way back by flight. Right after sending I was on the side of the road and a car stopped. It was like:
“Hey, where are you going?”
- Don’t know, Belgrade?
-… what ’bout you?
- “ho, Germany. Stuttgart”
So I had a 1700 km ride, 20 hours, 180km/h, only slowing down to avoide the speed controls …. The night after I was in Lubeck.
You rock and I think you’re awesome.