15-20th March, 2013
After leaving Barış’s apartment, I go to live with Jane and her friends in Mafia’s place, just around the corner in a different part of Zeytinburnu. It’s another world.
Jane and I share a room with Mafia and his partner, our friend Helen. There are two other rooms in the flat. One, which under different circumstances would probably be a lounge, is occupied by Mafia’s brother, their sister, her husband, their 6 year old daughter Farzana, and an adult male relative, probably somebody’s cousin.
The third room is occupied by a fluctuating number of boys who, like Mafia and his family, have fled from Afghanistan. The boys, mostly young teenagers, came to Turkey unaccompanied and are all working in the textile sweatshop down the road, trying to scrape a living and hopefully save up enough to continue their journey – to Greece and beyond. The textile factory bosses are known for not paying their child labourers and Mafia is often heard booming – “Get the money, get the money!” before storming out of the flat to fight a sweatshop boss or demand payment for one or other of the kids.
Farzana’s deep brown eyes stare into mine. Her outstreched arm clutches a tetrapack of orange juice. “Oh, yes please!” I tell her. She doesn’t understand the words, but she delicately unscrews the small plastic cap and pours the juice into a cup. Placing the carton back on the floor, she lifts the cup with both hands and holds it out to me. When everyone has juice, Farzana busies herself dusting surfaces with a scrap of cloth from the pile we found at the bottom of the stairs.
Mafia kicks Jane. She jumps up and lunges herself at him, pounding him on the back. He laughs and swings her to the floor. She grabs a leg and starts beating it. He pins her to the ground, then grabs her neck and cracks it to one side. “Aaaaarrrgh, that’s not fair!” she yells, before collapsing in giggles.
If Mafia and his brother are anything to go by, cracking various body parts is the national pastime in Afghanistan. They are constantly cracking themselves and other people. Mafia can even crack his own skull.
Farzana, her mother, father and the possible cousin, leave early one morning to catch a boat to Greece with people smugglers. They are taken to one of the Greek islands, where they wander around waiting to be arrested and call Mafia nervously. They have met some people who have offered to help them, but don’t know whether to trust them or not. Mafia tells them not to trust anybody. “Don’t worry”, he tells them, “just walk around and sooner or later you will be arrested.”
Farzana does many drawings while in the house with us. Some of them are of crossing borders and asylum procedures, others we have no idea about.
1st February -15th March, 2013
Most tourists in Istanbul have probably never heard of Zeytinburnu, a working-class neighbourhood on the European side of Istanbul, just West of Fatih on the shores of the Marmara Sea.
I found my room there through a certain well know hospitality exchange website, on one of the Istanbul accommodation groups. The room was cheap, the guy seemed friendly. We exchanged some emails and I prepared to move in on arrival in Istanbul.
Zeytinburnu is an important lesson for city planning in Turkey, because it was one of the first Gecekondu districts. In other words most of the buildings were built illegally, without infrastructure, and without any aesthetical concern. In the 1960s legislation was passed to prevent this type of building but by then this type of development had become unstoppable. At first these were little brick-built single storey cottages. From the 1970s onwards the little houses were replaced by multi-storey concrete apartment blocks built in rows with no space in between. In most cases the ground floor was used as a small textile workshop, and thus Zeytinburnu became a bustling industrial area with a large residential population living above the workshops. All this was still illegal and unplanned and still lacked the infrastructure and the aesthetics. After a heavy rain the streets would run with dirty water for days.
On meeting my new landlord Barış (pronounced something like “Barush”), whose name means ‘Peace’, it quickly became clear he was somewhat paranoid and perhaps even paranoid delusional. He took to me straight away though and lowered the price of the room still further, saying he wanted to help me. “There should be more people in the world like you”, he said. Barış began regaling me with tales from his past. He told me about his psychologically abusive father, his ex-girlfriend who went out of her way to be mean to him and his downstairs neighbour, whose main pass-time was apparently to continuously torture Barış in lots of fun little ways – such as turning his electricity off at random intervals; drilling small holes into the wall in his bedroom that would allow carbon monoxide to seep in when he lit his fire in the flat downstairs, and pumping the smell of glue up through the floor vent in the bathroom. Subsequently, to keep this downstairs madman at bay, we had to keep to lots of little protective rituals in the flat, such as keeping a large bottle of water over the floor vent in the bathroom. Barış also informed me he’d had the electricity in the flat rewired, making it impossible to trip. This concerned me somewhat. I considered the idea that Barış may be mistaken about the neighbour and could possible have faulty electrics that tripped when a certain appliance was plugged in. He had effectively rewired out the safety mechanism that could keep the flat from going up in smoke.
Along with the safety precautions regarding the downstairs neighbour, came a strict cleaning regime. Everything must be cleaned spotless the moment it was finished with. The house was perpetually gleaming, but that didn’t stop Barış from making a fuss, complaining about the mess and the grime. I reasoned with him that since I cleaned the bathroom each and every time I used it, cleaning it weekly as well seemed a little pointless and perhaps even a tad excessive. He glared at me.
I was in Istanbul to take a CELTA course. This idea had been turning over slowly in my mind since I first came to Turkey two years previously. Finally, the germ of an idea had seeded and sprouted into a fully-grown plan. Now here I was, about to become a professionally qualified English teacher. I was terrified.
The CELTA course would take place over five jam-packed weeks, during which I would commute four mornings every week to 4. Levent, across the Golden Horn. I did this with several million other people, who all attempted to squash themselves into every available tram, train, bus and metro each day. I took pleasure in this daily dash, feeling important. I had something to do. I was a busy person. I ran up and down the escalators every day, even when I wasn’t running late.
Living with us in Barış’s flat was a young eccentric chap named Murat. Murat labelled himself a ‘Vintage Enthusiast’. He was passionate about bicycles, helping other people, and vintage clothing and accessories. One day, for example, I came home to discover Murat had found a couple of Rainbow hippies out somewhere on the streets and invited them to share his tiny box room with him, despite being previously unfamiliar with the concept of Rainbow.
I was lucky to have Murat around on the day I moved out of Barış’s apartment. I was also fortunate enough to be sick on that day. If I was my usual self, I wouldn’t have asked my friend Jo for help in moving my things, and she wouldn’t have been there to sit down on the floor with me in protest when Barış refused to return my deposit, claiming that I didn’t wash my sheets and should therefore be penalised the 225 Turkish Lira I had given him – (around £80).
When Barış lost his temper completely and began to push me forcefully out of the front door, Jo pulled me back in and Murat tried in vain to calm our nutty landlord. It was futile. I never recovered the full extent of my deposit, but I got about half of it back in a compromise, after phoning for backup. When someone began hammering on the door from the other side, Barış began looking seriously nervous. “Mafia’s here!” Jo grinned. Our backup had arrived.
Barış told us he’d given Murat his bank card and pin number and instructed him to give us the money once we’d all exited the building. On getting outside, we discovered he’d given him 125 lira to give to us, rather than the bank card. He still owes me 100 lira. Barış has since deleted his profile on the hospitality website.
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.