We pushed our bikes past hundreds of Syrian and Afghan refugees lining the waterfront in Kos, their point of entry into Europe and, hopefully, a better life. Tens of thousands of refugees crossed the waters of the Aegean from Turkey to the easternmost Greek isles of Kos and Lesbos this summer; we arrived in Greece some seven weeks earlier, just as the banks were opening — crisis averted — and we left effectively swimming against the current of a mass migration washing upon its shores. Some countries just can’t seem to catch a break.
The Turkish port city of Bodrum, from which many of the migrants shoved off in little more than inflatable dinghies, was our destination. The tiny ferry cut a northerly bearing across the strait, then turned hard to starboard, a 90-degree turn into the chop. The wind howled, spray off the bow reached us on the sun deck, and the scarlet flags emblazoned with the Turkish crescent and star failed to grow in size as the short twenty-four kilometer journey dragged on interminably. The refugees we saw living in tents and on donated mattresses lining the bicycle path in Kos, visible from the cafes and restaurants where tourists and locals alike dined on lamb chops and swilled their Mythos lagers, told news reporters that Turkey had nothing to offer them: Europe was their only hope. No matter how difficult our days ahead may get, no matter how steep the mountain’s pitch or how much we wilt under the sun’s rays, I know it will never compare to what these people endured the night of their sea journey. Nor will our stakes ever be as high. I do, however, know Turkey has something to offer us.
We are not blind to the war that drives the refugees westward, even as we seemingly cycle eastward in the direction of its epicenter, nor are we ignorant of the hostilities taking place inside Turkey and along its borders. What we are is geographically aware. Konya, where I write these words, is the most religiously conservative of Turkey’s major cities (1.2M people) and yet we walk the streets in perfect comfort. Our easternmost destination in Turkey, Goreme National Park, is still nearly 300 miles from the Syrian border. Is that too close? Who can tell? While there’s no guarantee that terrorists/ISIL aren’t getting across the Turkish border with designs on attacking Western targets (some probably are), we are confident that none are lurking in the bushes, hoping to pounce on the off chance a couple of Western-looking cyclists happen by. We are also curious about how we’d be received in this modern, thriving country that, in our opinion, gets an unfair bogeyman rap in some ignorant Western media outlets on account of its eastern neighbors.
Turkey has long been one of the countries Kristin has most looked forward to visiting on our trip. It’s where Europe meets Asia, where cultures transition, blend and collide; where foodstuffs mingle and delight; and where some of history’s greatest legends were born. It’s also a place that, during the years we spent planning our trip, we saw consistently ranked by other cycling travelers as one of their favorite, can’t-miss destinations. So here we are, current events and worrisome family and friends be damned. And we’re having a great time.
We left Bodrum after a day spent acclimating to our new surroundings, tracking down a roadmap, memorizing greetings and polite phrases, and touring the magnificent Bodrum Castle and Underwater Archaeology Museum (Bronze Age shipwreck recovered!). The route eastward out of Bodrum was very hilly, the heat had yet to abate — it hit 112 °F on one particular hill that day — and the riding was largely on the side of a highway as seemingly all east-west roads in western Turkey are at least a minor highway. In fact, after nearly 500 miles of cycling in Turkey we are now convinced that nearly every two-lane roadway in the country is being converted to a four-lane divided highway. Simultaneously.
While we’ve yet to find many of the tranquil narrow country roads we love to ride, the famous Turkish hospitality has greeted us around every corner. And it’s usually in the form of a tulip-shaped glass of tea. We spend much of our days riding from one petrol station to the next, raiding their ubiquitous mini-marts for water, Fanta, and Gummy Bears (don’t judge!) and it was at one such stop where we met a Turkish man touring his country on a beautiful BMW dual-sport touring motorcycle. While going over routes and itineraries, the gas station attendant came over, begged his interruption, and asked if we wanted tea. Not two minutes later, the five of us were sitting on a concrete wall, silver saucers in hand, drinking our scalding-hot glasses of floral dark tea. Later that same day, atop a mountain pass, I was waved over to sit in the shade with three generations of honey sellers on the side of the road. Kristin soon joined us and, over a glass of wine, we pantomimed a bit of our stories to one another. Though we had to politely — though probably rudely — refuse the invitation to buy a large jar of honey (a worse thing to put inside my panniers I can hardly imagine), the old man ordered his grandson to give one of the stuffed animals they were selling to Kristin as a gift. And so finally, on our first day of riding in Turkey, we gained our mascot. Kristin named him Bodhie for the town of Bodrum we had left that morning.
Those first few days in Turkey felt like real bicycle touring again. We were wild camping under some shady pines, riding without an itinerary, taking advantage of cheap roadside motels (cheap in price, but very nice in comfort), and were even starting to see large mammals again, albeit roadkill: we passed a dead wild boar on the side of the road not ten miles from where we camped one night. How great it is to be back in a country with wildlife larger than a fox!
Our route took us to the tourist town of Pamukkale where, for a former geology buff like myself, the massive travertine cliffs were more than just a pretty backdrop. From there we made our way east to Konya, by way of Isparta, wending northward along the eastern shore of Lake Egirdir and then back southward along the eastern shore of Lake Besiher. The mountains of western Turkey had given way to pomegranate orchards and groves of figs and apple trees as we climbed our way onto the Anatolian Plateau and the further east we got, the less European our surroundings became; Asia Minor is as perfect a name as there ever was.
But wherever we went road construction greeted us. Sometimes the new stretch of road would already be paved, but unopened, and we’d push over the gravel hump and have days-old highway all to ourselves, smooth cruising for miles! Other times we’d be forced to balance along the edge of a narrow gravel-strewn shoulder as trucks, buses, and cars all tried to squeeze past us and one another in a too-narrow space. But the cars treat us with care. In fact, if there’s any irritation we suffer at all, it’s from the constant honking and waving we receive. Seemingly half of all cars and nearly every truck slows to honk and wave at us as they pass. The attention is amusing at first, especially given how many cars seem to have personalized designer horns, but the horns can be quite loud and one does grow tired of waving to hundreds of people every day.
Nevertheless, we can’t complain. The same friendly instinct that has Turkish drivers waving and honking and yelling Merhaba! is also what leads to some of our fondest memories. Like the truck driver who pulled over, waited for us, and handed us two unopened bottles of water on a hot day. Or the family who insisted we eat some of their figs. Or, best of all, the construction crew that waved us over to join them in their tea break. We were riding along one of the new unopened sections of highway on our ride into Konya and up ahead, sitting in the shade of their truck, was a road crew enjoying a break. “Çay! Çay!” The older man, Ibrahim, yelled as he motioned for us to stop. “Merhaba,” I greeted in return, before realizing he was inviting us for tea. We squeezed the brakes, leaned our bikes against the truck and sat down for tea. Fortunately we had some figs and plums to share and one of the workers, Mustafa, knew a few words of English. We passed a half hour in each other’s company, draining the last of their double-boiler of tea.
At some point in every one of these encounters, the question of where we’re from comes up. Nobody ever guesses America*. Some think we’re German. Others assume we’re French. A few have even asked if we are from Spain. One said Australia. But America? No. Americans never come to Turkey, they say. In fact, sadly, we’ve yet to meet any Turkish people who have ever met an American traveler. A few years ago (and maybe even still today) it was popular for Americans to say they were Canadian when travelling overseas. Some did it for fear of terrorism, under the misguided belief that terrorists only target Americans, and others, we’ve heard, did it out of embarrassment. Some because of the country’s political/war actions and others because of the “Ugly American” stereotype that preceded them. I can’t stand stereotypes and have little patience for people who promote them. Especially when they can be so easily challenged. Kristin and I happily say we’re from the United States for two reasons: 1) because I like to think we represent the country well and the more people who get to actually know Americans (and us likewise them) the better off the world we’ll be, and 2) why not?
While I do chafe at being asked where I’m from when it’s the first words out of someone’s mouth, before we’ve established any dialogue, it’s not because I don’t want to say I’m American. It’s simply because I find it rude. “Where you from? Where you from?” is a phrase that grows annoying. It’s asked out of curiosity, and sometimes to figure out what language should be spoken, but it’s also code for We know you’re not from around here. And nobody likes being reminded that they don’t fit in. In tourist areas, the question gets shouted to us from across the street by merchants hoping to bait us into stopping, and hopefully buying. Sometimes I ignore it, other times I reply “Earth.” Once or twice, I just agreed to their first guess to end the discussion. Never mind that I don’t sound French. But I happily welcome the question after a relationship has been established. Americans like to ask people what they do for a living, others ask where people are from. Same thing; appropriate when a relationship has been established, but a pretty lazy icebreaker.
That being said, I nearly laughed out loud at the timing of one man’s inquiry today. I was at a barber in Konya, across the street from a very large, beautiful mosque. Outside the shop I could see women walking past completely covered in black, from head to toe with scarf, robes, and veil , the muezzin had just begun the call to prayer, and the barber had a long straight-edge razor at my neck, about to shave. There may as well have been a sign above my head flashing the words “Vulnerable Infidel” with an arrow pointing at me. The other barber, tapping distractedly at his iPhone, looks up and says the words: “Where you from?”
He repeats my answer in surprise and goes back to his phone. There’s a brief pause. I suppress my urge to chuckle being that there is still a large razor blade at my neck and then the man looks back and, like every other person to whom we’ve told where we’re from, he replies. “America? Very good. Very good. Enjoy Turkey. Welcome!”
*With respect to my answering America, allow me to explain. I have always been a bit uneasy when people from the United States use the one-word term America when asked to name their country of origin, as that word, America, actually refers to some 35 different nations that comprise “the Americas.” Yes, this is geographic semantics, and I fully acknowledge that the USA is the only one of those 35 nations with the word America in its title, but bear with me. Are our Canadian friends not also from America? What about those in Brazil or Mexico? Yes, technically, they are also American. So, for that reason, I often replied that I was from the United States. As most people do. You would be shocked — SHOCKED — by the amount of times this response was met with a blank stare. Whether in Spain, Japan, Italy, Greece, Indonesia, Morocco or Turkey, we have met countless numbers of people who, upon hearing United States, act as if we just said we’ve come from the planet Tralfamadore. It was only upon saying America that they knew what we were talking about. And this was almost always met with an excited, “America! Go Obama!”