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…