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.
“I’m not going there!” Lisa, Sara and I all said when we first read about Kalkan. Yet here we are.
Kalkan is something of a British colony in Turkey – tourists, fish and chips and large screen TVs showing football and English soap operas fill the streets. I am reminded of why I left England. Our host is a Turkish man, an Alevi, which would be interesting were it not for the egotistical slant he puts on everything. The kind of man who has many stories, all designed for the listener to steadily learn of what a wonderful human being they have before them. Apparently, once he had seven women in his house, all crying because they wore inappropriate footwear of the Lycian Way. He’s horrified to hear of our friend Lisa, out there walking with Deniz (a strange Turkish man) with her plimpsols and not enough money. He decides she is now his personal responsibility, along with Sara and myself. We are no longer deemed capable of making decisions for ourselves.
We go to sleep while he’s still at work and when he returns, he’s horrified to find us sleeping on his two rather short sofas in our sleeping bags. “You can’t sleep like that – you’re ladies!” He whips Sara’s sleeping-bag off her, not even bothering to check she’s wearing anything underneath, and pulls the sofa out into a bed. He puts a pillow under each of our heads and then sits on his computer smoking next to my feet for the next four or five hours. Every time I stir he says gently, “I’m sorry, I am disturbing you.” To which I of course reply, “No, it’s fine.” This seems to aggravate him and when I get up to use the toilet I am remonstrated on my return – “Why are you angry with me?” “I’m not!” I say, surprised. “I’m just finding it hard to sleep – the heat, the light, the smoke…” “Aha!” he jumps on this – “I told you I was bothering you!” “But it’s your house!” I tell him… This only angers him more, since apparently I am not accepting his hospitality. “But look, I’m really not used to sleeping indoors these days…” I try to explain. “What?! You are crazy! Crazy lady!”
Lisa arrives the next day. She wants to couchsurf for the night, but neither Sara nor I want another night with this man. I get a text message from another CSer. She can’t host us, but knows of a place we can camp. We go to meet Maggi at her boutique shop. She’s an English woman, living and working in Turkey for many years. She does a lot of work with animals, especially stray dogs, many of whom hang out in and around her shop. We drink tea with Maggi and her friend and talk about animals, then she gives us a voucher she won in a raffle: a free meal for two in a restaurant nearby! Maggi calls her friend Attila who collects us in his car. Attila owns a bit of land on the edge of town where he was building a beach resort on the rocks until planning permission was withheld. Now he’s pleased it will get some use. It’s not exactly the picture that went through my mind when I first heard the words “unfinished beach resort”, but it certainly has it’s own beauty and we’re all delighted with it, deciding immediately that we will stay for two nights instead of one.
It’s a beautiful starlit night on the rocks, but when a storm whips up the following day we’re invited to stay with Maggi, despite her lack of space. Lisa steps on a nail outside Attila’s place on the way there and it goes right into her heel, so there’ll be no more trekking for her for a few days. Dropping Maggi’s name about town with the Turkish people yields free tea, discounted food, and a bar owner giving us free vegetables from his own garden. What a popular lady she is – apart from with the snobbish villa owners of course, who seem to think the stray dog population is putting off visitors, and that Maggi is encouraging it by helping with the Winter Feeding Program and medical care. I’m surprised to hear this – these are the happiest, friendliest stray dogs I’ve ever seen.
Now it’s Sara’s turn to leave us and we’re back to a party of two. It’s been awesome travelling with Sara and I know we will travel together again, perhaps to India overland this autumn.
Now it’s just me and Lisa alone again, our first stop is Kaş, a place I’ve been meaning to visit for quite some time. I tell Lisa, “I feel like Kaş is calling me”.
While I was in Istanbul I kept seeing these posts on Couchsurfing groups about a CS host with a campsite in Kaş, in need of a little help getting it ready for the tourist season. He’s hosting people for free and is happy if they can help out a little. It seems like a good thing to do and Sara has already been there and enjoyed herself, so now it’ me and Lisa’s turn.
Arriving at the road just outside Kaş, we’re greeted by a surprising sight – not exactly what I pictured when I heard the word “campsite”. “This just looks like a building site!” says Lisa, who’s known for telling it like it is.
The site itself is a slit of land, wedged between two main roads, overlooking a marina building. It mostly consists of cement platforms and piles of rubble, with a small building and a table outside at the top. We are greeted by Can (pronounced “Jan”). Can has glasses and long wavy hair, tied back into a ponytail. He looks stressed, but greets us warmly. We are given our pick of “bungalows” – small wooden huts with two beds in each. Lisa and I are charmed by the first one with the white rush walls. It even has a plug socket, so I can write on my laptop in bed.
The campsite has been shut for thee years, during which time a shiny ugly new marina has been built opposite, in place of what used to be a beach. Can was offered a lot of money for his land, but is steadfastly determined not to sell. Apparently they used TNT to build the road above him in an effort to push him out. “This is my castle”, says Can.
Ali and Nedim are the two other main characters. Neither speak any English and are both in their late forties. Ali is warm and charasmatic and we get along well, despite our limited shared language. Nedim is more of a private person and seldom takes the time to speak with us, but I suppose this is just his way. Mehmet arrives a day or two later. He’s a bit younger, very sweet, and speaks a bit of English.
Lisa and I are given light painting work and fed like queens by Ali, who turns out to be an amazing chef. It takes a day or two for the concept of veganism to sink in, but when it does we are fed up on gourmet food and are happy and at home at the campsite.
One day, Lisa and I are hitchhiking up to a “festival” (more like a fete, I suspect) in a small village, high up in the mountains behind Kaş. We’ve been waiting for ages since it’s an obscure direction we’re travelling in, but finally a woman and some children stop and we’re on our way. The woman is nice enough, but when she stops to collect another woman and more children, I notice the adult newcomer gazing at me with spite in her little beady black eyes from the front. I’m conscious for the first time of my bare-flesh arms and decide to cover up with the scarf in my bag as soon as we stop the car. Lisa and I take to gazing out the window, away from the beady black eyes… “holy shit!” we just drove past two bare chested bronzed muscular guys with piercings and tattoos wearing shorts. They were eating at a pension with backpacks right beside them – travellers! Proper ones! We have to stop this car. I bumble something in Turkish about this place being fine. The beedy eyes are very suspicious, and rightly so it would seem. We get out of the car and trek back to the place we saw the guys.
They are just finishing off their dinner, but no sooner have we said hello than the pension owner has rushed out to greet us and hurried us around the house and up some stairs to meet his wife. They put çay into our hands and the woman gets a box down from the top of a cupboard and sets about showing us every silk scarf she has ever made. “Mmmmmm… chok güzel!” We admire them, glancing at the window. How long will these guys be sticking around for? The man gets out his photo album and shows us pictures of all of the tourists he has met. Ten out of ten for trying, but we still have to say no to the food and pension room he’s trying to sell us. I try to explain in my terrible Tukish, a little embarrassed, that we want to speak to the men outside. Reluctantly he lets us go. They are still there. Apparently they were out walking on the Lycin Way and this small boy came and grabbed them and brought them here to eat. These people are so pushy!
The guys are Swedish and walking the entire Lycian Way. We tell them about Can’s place and say goodbye, certain they will never come.
We were wrong. Two days later two familiar pairs of shorts arrive at the campsite. They will stay and work for a few days. These guys are into body-sculpting and their idea of “rest” seems to be shovelling cement and bricks for Can and working out at the gym in town in their spare time.
Now there are more travellers at Can’s – us, the Swedes and an American couchsurfer named Evan. I also meet another American guy called Brice in a bar in town and all six of us decide to trek the next part of the Way together.
It’s a sad goodbye at Can’s. Lisa and I promise to return, but I’m sure Can and Ali don’t believe us – little do they know how soon we’ll be back…
It’s my first day in Istanbul. Sarah, whose blog Fourty-four Sunsets I have been much admiring of late, is showing me around the trendy Taxim area, taking me in and out of cafes and sweet shops and pointing out which of the enigmatic looking dishes are suitable for vegans – a surprisingly large amount of them in fact. Sarah and I are coincidentally in the same city for twelve hours only, and thus have the opportunity to finally meet in person. Sarah is probably my new best friend. It’s rare and precious to meet someone that I gel with so easily and completely.
Sarah recently wrote a guest entry on the Vegan Backpacker blog here. I won’t repeat what she said, but here follows a few of my own pictures, a couple of additions and reviews of the two purely vegan restaurants in Istanbul.
We mustn’t forget the kumpir. These giant jacket potatoes can be stuffed with almost anything imaginable. The cafés in the Ortaköy district of Istanbul make kumpir that are especially popular with the tourists and offer even more ingredients. When ordering you are given a little list of ingredients with tick boxes. Simply tick all of the vegan ones, making sure to omit the basic butter and cheese solution, usually first on the list.
Throughout Turkey you can find vegan food in Turkish lokantas, as Sarah has written. In Istanbul though, there is the luxury of actual vegetarian restaurants, as well as two purely vegan ones, which Pam and I have been working our way around with the help of our old friend happycow.net. These are much more expensive of course, but worth it for a very occasional treat.
Saf Akatlar is by far the most expensive. It’s built inside a swanky sports complex and offers organic gourmet quality food in generous helpings. This is possibly the most extravagant, delicious food I have ever eaten. They make their own raw cashew humus – need I say more?
Loving Hut is a more affordable family-owned franchise, part of the international chain of vegan restaurants opened by followers of Supreme Master Ching Hai, an advocate for vegetarian living. It’s possibly the smallest restaurant I have ever eaten in, the entire thing including the kitchen being smaller than the average sitting-room. There is one table wedged in-between the kitchen and the door and a mezzanine above the kitchen with some cushions, where my friends and I opted to sit, leaning occasionally over the balcony to ask for tea or to order more food.
More than other cities I’ve visited, I found my Istanbul social life very much revolving around Couchsurfing. There’s a Vegan and Vegetarian Istanbul group on the site and on my first weekend in Istanbul, the first CS Vegan Potluck was held. This was such a roaring success, with just the right amount of very interesting people and unbelievably delicious cuisine, that before long we had the second and third Weekly Vegan Potlucks under our ever-tightening (or should that be ever-loosening?) belts.
Now I’ve said goodbye to Istanbul and such luxuries as vegan restaurants and potlucks. But still there is always a good lokanta.