I am sitting in a pine forest in Turkey, about 200 kilometers from Istanbul. It is a quarter to four. There are 4 or 5 more hours of daylight, but I have also been riding since 8:30 this morning. A lot of thoughts swirling through my head, but let me recap real quick:
I met some Swedes, the first I have met so far, at the hostel in Thessaloniki. They were cool, had a Northwest vibe, and were having a quick holiday on their way to Berlin, where they are moving. I left about eleven, almost forgetting about the time change because one of my clocks changes automatically and one doesn’t, but thankfully I caught it! Riding out of Thessaloniki I rounded a corner and came up on seven dogs hanging out by a dumpster and quickly dismounted.
They stayed calm. I saw a couple more after that, but it was really hot, so none of them had much energy, thankfully, but I picked up a good stick on the way out of town. I casually rode through a very empty Greece once more. I ran into a Swiss cyclist who was heading home, having started last Fall in Denmark, wintered in Norway, then looped through Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria. He was a super cool guy, on the level. He was only going to Thessaloniki, and I was in no hurry after my big day prior, so we talked for a good twenty or thirty minutes, which was refreshing! There are a number of different types of people doing this sort of thing, and this guy was very much my type: bit of a wizard, big beard, natty clothes, down to earth, with a certain light in his eyes. I hope our paths cross again someday.
I asked about camping and he suggested I camp on the beach, which I did. This was a big step for me: I camped right out in the open. I rolled in about five o’clock to an unoccupied section of beach, accessed by a dirt road through an uncultivated field. There was an old shower, which I delighted in making use of, and a number of corroded benches, one of which I spent the next few hours on, reading, writing, eating, drinking. When it got dark I pitched my tent. Nobody bothered me. I have seen a lot of camper vans parked all over, and have relaxed a bit.
The next day was another long one, sort of by accident- the road curved inland away from the beach and I wanted to get back to it, which I did, at about 9 o’clock. As I was passing through a little coastal town, I rounded a sharp corner smack dab into a pack of six dogs. They immediately gave chase, and I put on some speed, but they were fast. I pulled out my stick and they paused, which gave me some space though they did not give up immediately. I outpaced them and realized that people were sitting on their porches watching all this. Must have been pretty strange to see some greasy foreigner sprinting through town on a bicycle laden with luggage while waving a stick and snarling at a pack of dogs chasing him through their quiet little town at almost nine in the evening! I did about 120 kilometers that day. Yesterday a headwind picked up and stuck around. I passed through a super cool town, Komotini, which had a college vibe. I hung out at a very nice café for wifi, pretending to be normal again for a spell. Then back into the wind. I ended up climbing a pretty significant coastal range too, and the heat! My deeply tanned forearms got burnt. Now it is sunblock every day and sweating buckets. I camped in a field of olive trees last night, which was inevitable around these parts. Real nice, except for the choir of dogs, which was impressively incessant. I don’t know what they were barking at- the moon? For once, it wasn’t me.
More headwind today, and my legs are shot. I felt pretty giddy coming into Turkey. I had no conscious expectations; at this point I reject all spoken opinion about places and will be pragmatic, but open-minded, allowing experience to dictate. No one knows what these places are really like who hasn’t been here. Clement raved about the hospitality in Turkey. It is a highway for cyclists as well, people speak of it as almost another “run-of-the-mill” adventurous experience. As I neared the edge of Europe and the Western world, however, paranoid thoughts bubbled up into my mind about having trouble getting in, harsh treatment, bribery. I wondered if they would let me take my food, if they would search my bags, if they would detain or delay me. I also really wanted to keep my stick too, and decided to try and bring it through. These childish fears frustrated me, because they were all based on paranoid hearsay, stereotypes, American agoraphobia, cultural conditioning. I did my best to shut it out and take control of my thoughts and emotions. I succeeded in clearing my mind, and became simply excited. 6 kilometers from the border, I saw some writing on a sign, and seeing that it was in English, doubled back to read it:
This made me curious: is this young man, almost certainly American, intent on disappearing in the East, of joining a school, or finding himself and settling in Persia, Thailand, Tibet? Is he depressed and running from a girl who broke his heart? Is he under the impression that he might be killed while traversing this region? It was very melodramatic and I wondered how long it had been there. I laughed at the absurdity of it, and it was not lost on me that this little note reflected to a degree my own subconscious imaginings.
After passing a good mile-and-a-half of backed up trucks awaiting inspection, I roll up to the Greek side of the border. The man flips through my passport, gives an impressed look, stamps it, and waves me through. I ride through an amalgam of trucks and cars and onto a bridge. There are two sets of young Greeks with automatic rifles on either end, then a couple of matching Turkish sets beyond that. The Greeks smile and wave, the Turks ignore me save one, who, holding his helmet, gun strapped to his chest, stares blankly at me, and I stare at him.
I pass more soldiers. Policemen and soldiers in the rest of the world are not so stoic as they are in the States. These might look bored, or are sitting on a curb, holding their helmets, or perhaps two sets of motorcycle police are hanging out in the shade next to a field, shooting the shit, dickering around. They are just at work. Makes me more comfortable, they are human, relatable, and can be reasoned with. In the States it’s like cops aren’t allowed to smile. Anyhoo, I roll up to the Turkish side and a man waves me to a window. He looks at my stick, and with concern, indignation, and perhaps a little incredulity he gestures at it and asks sharply, “What is this?”
“For the dogs in Greece,” I say with a smile. At this face melts into a grin, understanding dawning on him. “Ah, you get attacked eh? Okay.” He directs me in broken English to the real booth a little further on. I hand the man there my passport. He looks at me and asks if I have visa, and I say yes, an electronic one, which he asks to see, so I pull it up on my tablet, he types in the reference number, then gives me a stamp. On to customs. Two officers stop me, check my passport, and I look at them, fully expecting to dissect my luggage for them. They argue a little in Turkish, the only word I know is “bike.” One of them squeezes the top of each of my back panniers, hands me back my passport and waves me through. Sweet, not worth searching. On through to another little booth, which the man absently waves me past and then I am in Turkey! Easy! That was the easiest border crossing yet, save for Bosnia. I pass another two miles of trucks- looks rough, an all day affair maybe- and find myself riding on a nice new highway through farmland, and into that pernicious headwind, of course. They let me keep my stick too, and I am glad, for I needed it twice later that day.
Some cute little pups:
I really can’t believe how easy that was. I am tired, and the road is boring- straight, flat, through nondescript fields. I am comfortable, but frustrated that I was not able to control my thoughts and emotions better. Yes, I know it is reasonable to feel some apprehension when, say, you are bicycling into a totally new environment, but in this regard I am merciless with myself. I have no use for fear or self-pity, it is wasted energy that could be put to productive use- these sentiments do nothing to make one safer or more comfortable. So far, Turkey reminds me a lot of the States. I got to thinking about the States, and two songs emerged from deep in my memory, songs I learned twenty years ago. I was riding past a nice field of grain, and recalled the song “America the Beautiful.” I found I remembered the words pretty easily, they may not be exact, but this is what I found:
America, of spacious skies, and amber waves of grain,
Of purple mountain majesty, above the fruited plains,
America, America, God sheds his grace on thee,
And crowns thy good with brotherhood,
From sea to shining sea.
I then recalled “God Bless America,” more or less:
God bless America, Land that I love,
Stand beside her, and guide her,
With a light shining bright from above.
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans, white with foam,
God bless America, my home sweet home,
God bless America, my home sweet home.
I found it remarkable that I could remember these. Surely I have heard them once or twice in my life since, but I remember learning those in grade 1, at age six or seven. Initially in my mind I thought that “America the Beautiful” was a good description of Turkey. The second song betrays my own nostalgia for my own country though. Honestly I left home and find myself riding through faraway places because I did not see what I needed to live a meaningful life in the States. I have found it, so to speak, in my back pocket. I think constantly of my family and friends, specific relationships, memories that pop up from long ago and make me laugh. I think of all the things I want to do, a big one of which is to be closer with my extended family, and to cultivate community with some of my friends that I haven’t lived near in awhile. The point is, everything I was looking for I have back home, and I want to live more than I have in a long time. I must complete this journey though. I need the time.
I love where I am from, not the political entity “The United States,” whose property I am, essentially, but the people there, and the natural landscape, that have made me what I am. The smell of pine uplifts me, and makes me feel at home. I am excited to camp in this pine forest tonight. These songs I recall, perhaps they stir patriotism in some of you, but having been struck by how well I remembered them after so long, and that they were taught to me so young, I see in them flagrant examples of the cultivation of nationalism in children. It is exactly the sort of propaganda the news might drag out to castigate China or North Korea, school children singing crazy songs about how great their country is, ordained by God, watched over by great leaders. Your blood is supposed to be dyed the color of whichever flag claims you. In the end, people all have the same motives, and so do modern governments. Me, I’m with Tolstoy, particularly after the trouble I anticipate having with this Chinese visa. Turkey is an interesting place to remember my roots.
I stopped in the town of Kesan, successfully withdrew money from an atm that was all in Turkish first try, and buy a few groceries before hitting the road again. This has been an emotionally turbulent day, and I am tired. I see a man in a truck throw some trash out the window. This does not surprise me, there is a lot of evidence that he is one of many. I soon come upon this man again, having pulled over, and he quickly and casually dumps a bunch of receipts in the road. This inflames me. I almost did some rash things. He saw me in his mirror, but looked away as I passed. I would have yelled at him, but I haven’t encountered any English here, so he wouldn’t understand me. I also almost stopped and picked up the receipts, but I knew I would have thrown them into his lap, so I just kept riding. I don’t think a lone American kid needs to be picking fights in Turkey right now. Man, my blood was boiling! Something about the way he threw it just disgusted me and I dwelled on it as I continued down the road.
This should not have angered me so. In the Balkans you can tell where the seasonal streams are by the multicolored plastic refuse they leave behind. Piss bottles everywhere, all through Europe. The Balkans have a terrible disposal system, so there will be mattresses and dozens of bags of household trash, you name it. Off the side of the road, up any unpaved road, off the sides of cliffs. Alongside the Adriatic, along beautiful lakes, anywhere, you look over a cliff and there is a mountain of trash. Even in the Dolomites I saw a huge dump- a sanctioned one, but a huge pile of trash in the middle of these beautiful mountains. It is the same in the states, trash everywhere. Why, then, does it enrage me so to see it? Because it is catching some scum red-handed. There is nothing that belies such ignorance, carelessness, and spiritual depravity, such a lack of appreciation for the only life-supporting planet in the known universe, the sanctity of nature and the beauty of life than littering. It is like taking a dump in your own bed. Seeing this really knocked my faith in humanity back down a couple notches. Why do people suck? Why are so many of us no better than lower brained animals?
I tell you, we speak of human reason as if people have it. We do the same with common sense. People are neither reasonable or sensible, not without proper upbringing and education. This is also why I should not despise this man: he probably learned it from someone else. Bad habits breed bad habits. It is simply not a cultural value here. Really, all these places are still beautiful. Also, I can tell by these trash piles whether a road is a good one to camp down- more trash, more rural, less travelled.
If only we didn’t use so much plastic. The West is to blame for the consumerism and wasteful packaging. I am amazed how much trash I generate as a traveller- all my food needs to be transportable, and I eat a lot of snacks. Trashy man. I never leave trash anywhere though. At least put it in a bin where it can be taken away and decomposed or melted down or recycled or hidden from polite society.
So yeah. Emotional day. Decided to stop early. When you have to push for every pedal stroke for a few days in a row your knees get sore. I also love the pines. Turkey is a point of embarkation for me, and I am excited. I am also looking forward to a few rest days in Istanbul, it is a city I want to explore a little!
One of the things nobody told me about were the fireflies! I was puzzled when I saw a couple glittering points of light and thought somebody was down in the valley below, but soon the forest came alive with hundreds of fireflies, which I watched, mesmerised, for over an hour (I’ve never seen fireflies before.) I did not sleep well and woke up late. Probably the coffee I had after dinner, but I felt a fatigue verging on sickness and I wanted it. I packed quickly and then took my time with breakfast. It had rained in the night, which I didn’t mind, because it was perfect riding weather! I felt a little strange until I got on the road. Perhaps it was the mellowness evoked by the muted sky, perhaps it was my drowsiness, but I felt completely comfortable all day. I passed through Tekirdağ, the only large city in between the border and Istanbul. I needed groceries- one of my favorite activities is grocery shopping, particularly in new countries. I am a fat little pig in a candy shop, which I enjoy, but I also like to figure out what I am going to eat, what I can eat! I wandered around this store for some time. The best item I bought was hazelnut butter without the chocolate, kind of a beige color. It is very, very tasty. I passed through the town, which had a nice waterfront and gave off a college town vibe. You see every type of fashion, from a stylish twist on tradition with the scarves to the hip, punk and grunge. A lot of flags around- the Turkish people are very proud of it, more than anywhere I have yet seen.
As I make my way through town the sunlight begins to fade. There are plenty of fields, but they are all somewhat exposed and- more importantly- they are on the other side of an insurmountable guard rail. I ride on, keeping out a keen eye for camping. I figure it will only get busier from here on out, for I am about 100 kilometers from the center of Istanbul. I am beginning to think I’ll need to get creative, when I pass some official beach camping. I ride in, find the owner, and ask if I can camp. They don’t really look open yet, but I don’t need anything. He says yes, and for six euro I enjoyed the beach front, comforted in the knowledge that I am allowed to be there, and got a cold shower and available bathroom to boot.
There was a little café and I had myself a beer and watched Turkish CNN with my hosts (no international news, an interrogation of some politician about the national economy). They asked me where I was from. Antony told me to say I am German, but I am a terrible liar, and am worried that someone will speak German on the off-chance, or ask to hear some, so I told them I was American. Perhaps it was a coincidence, but they all just said “ooooohhhh…” and our conversation ended. Well, that took the wind out of the sails! Could have been that only one of then spoke broken English and we were at the end of our rope anyhow. Me, I think it is important that people know that some of us are interested in their culture and want to be here!
The next day broke on another somber sky. It had rained a little in the night. No one was around at the café, I think the men had stayed up quite late drinking tea and smoking. No coffee for me- far too windy to cook my own. I hit the road around nine, I have a big day into Istanbul, and must brave this legendary traffic I have heard so much about. I ride for an hour or so into a very strong wind that is now coming from my left side. I see a gas station and stop in for a coffee, noting that the sky is getting very dark. As I am drinking my coffee under the station shelter, the sky splits open and heavy rain tears in at about a forty-five degree angle. I actually stood out from under the canopy on the far side, it was the driest spot! I finish my coffee, glaring at the sky a little. It lessens a bit, and I put a bag on my leather saddle and don my rain jacket. A man asks me in Turkish if I am actually going to ride in the rain, to which I simply shrug my shoulders. I start off again, and it is only a drizzle, for about five minutes before the faucet is opened up all the way. The wind is driving from the left as before, so my side gets soaked through and the drops are slapping my ear like the flat of a hand, very loud. I can only keep one eye open, and I am soaked to the skin in no time. My boots fill with water, and after that I am fine. Could not have been wetter if I jumped in a pool. The lightning and thunder come into play as well, heavy heavy. I cannot believe I am still riding through this. My chain is soon creaking, washed of grease, and I splash my way down the highway to the perplexity of many an onlooker. I laugh at the sky, I sing loudly, accepting it.
Others might be inclined to think that nature is dissuading me from getting to Istanbul, but if we anthropomorphise the weather, I interpret it as a test: how bad do I want it? The answer is “A lot.” No growth without struggle, and I am more than a match for it. I have nicknamed myself and my bike, by the way. I am called, in my mind, “The Boogey Man” because I am always hiding in the bushes. My bike is called “Lodo,” which is Spanish for “mud.” Our nicknames are interchangeable, for my bike hides with me, and we are both usually dirty and wet, weather from rain or sweat. We have ridden through many, many thunderstorms though, so I also refer to the bike as “Lightning Rod.” If I ever get struck, then the bike will be “The Third Rail.” Me, I’ll be “KFC.”
After three or four hours the sky finally cries itself out. I stop to eat some lunch and have a nice chat with a very kind policeman, who has a grin a mile wide and is very intrigued by my bike. I continue. I get closer to Istanbul, and I get excited. The rain is gone, and the sun even comes out. About 30 kilometers from the city center traffic gets crazy and stays crazy. There are little buses and cars constantly pulling off to the side of the road and a lot of merging, but the traffic is not near as bad as I expected. It was a very dangerous ride in, I suppose, and very long, but I had a lot of fun- my brain was fully engaged, and it was like a game, very stimulating! It is like you are a cell in a giant brain, everyone communicates with each other and the stream develops organically. The key is to be assertive and not to make any sudden movements. When I needed to merge, I waited for the impatient cars to cut me off, then slowly drifted over, usually timing it with a vehicle I knew was not exiting, when possible. Like a cow, I simply amble over to where I need to be. It was a long, long ride, and it is always very hot, and exhilarating. Felt like a brain exercise. Anyhow, I will never forget it, and will probably have to repeat it to get out of town on the other side!
I am here, at last, in Istanbul, and I feel very accomplished. This was a benchmark for me, a complete trip in itself! I am at the Gateway to the East, and at the beginning of a be adventure, phase 2! I am very comfortable here, feel right at home. Riding into old town I felt like a celebrity, feeling powerful after the ride in, and certainly a bit of an oddity. Now to take a little holiday and maybe fill out some visa paperwork. I will stay here at least four days, I’ve earned them.