Anybody who’s ever gone abroad for any extended period knows that sooner or later you end up doing something while travelling that you wouldn’t ever consider doing while home. Travel is funny like that. It has a way of stripping away your inhibitions, filling you with courage, or even leaving you in such a desperate situation that you have no choice but to take a deep breath, cross your fingers, and hope for the best. For some, it might mean a bungie-jump off a bridge in New Zealand or perhaps a daring stroll on a nude beach in France, or having to risk a night out under the stars without tent or sleeping bag. For us, two hungry cyclists on the outskirts of a small town in Turkey, it meant something far more unlikely. And unseemly. We ate at Domino’s.
I know, I know. How will we ever readjust to American life? Are we even still housebroken?
The adana kebab and jalapeno toppings were on fresh-tossed dough, albeit with too little sauce, but all in all it was a decent pizza. Foreign travel never ceases to expand one’s mind.
Our forays outside our comfort zone continued the next morning when, with a head full of mucus, a constant cough and slight fever, I led the way south through a series of mountains with ever-darkening skies giving chase. Wishing nothing more than to lie in bed and embrace my bout of man flu, as is my
right duty, I found myself, instead, on my trusty Fargo for six miserable hours, in periodic rainstorms, through a desolate stretch of western Turkey. Kristin offered soft, nurturing words of encouragement throughout the ride while making sure to replace my stash of Gummi Bears with cold medicine from our first aid kit.
That night, in Çanakkale, I rinsed down some Theraflu capsules with a complimentary bottle of water, paying no mind to the broken safety seal. Glass bottles get reused all the time in Greece and Turkey as a way to reduce waste; hotels and restaurants routinely refill the bottles from large jugs of spring water. I spent the next two days, including a visit to Ancient Troy and the eve of my 40th birthday, focused on a task I always thought reserved for a later period in life: getting through the day without soiling myself.
Pro Tip: Petrol Ofisi service stations have the cleanest, most westernized bathrooms of all the petrol chains in Turkey. Memorize that logo at the link; it’ll be there for you when you need it most.
As readers of our newsletter are already aware, we are deviating from our original plan to travel overland across Asia — our reasons include the oncoming winter, likely visa difficulties, desire and lack thereof, and money, among others — and are instead departing Athens sometime around October 15th aboard a cargo ship bound for Singapore. This ship, in fact. In order to catch that cargo ship, we have to be back in Bodrum by October 8th to catch an overnight ferry back across the Aegean Sea. This has left little margin for error in our 1600-mile (2,575 km) loop around western Turkey.
We were worried that the aggressive itinerary — from Bodrum to Cappadocia to Istanbul and back to Bodrum — wouldn’t leave enough time for sightseeing, that we’d be so focused on each leg’s destination that we wouldn’t cherish the in-between places as much as we try to do. Nevertheless, we plunged ahead and went for it.
Now in Izmir, with our Turkish finish line just a few days of riding away, I can say that we indeed spent most of those days heads down, just trying to get the miles in. Every day was the same: wake up in an unfamiliar bed, eat the same hotel-provided breakfast of cold vegetables, cheese, olives, bread, and hard-boiled eggs, and then ride to the next hotel five or six hours in the distance. Sleep, wake up, repeat. And in looking back I can see that I don’t have many memories of these days or even many photos either. In fact, our most pleasant memory of this time was that of discovering the robust network of ferries that crisscross the Sea of Marmara. Despite our aversion to sailing, we do enjoy ferries and it was with great relief that we chopped two days of cycling off our route by entering and leaving the European side of Istanbul by sea.
I spent a fair bit of time this past week trying to think of something to write about (hence the delay). And each time I tried to form an opinion of Turkey, I saw two friendly faces pop to the forefront of my mind. One was that of Brad, the first person I befriended upon moving to the Seattle area in 2002. The other is Joe, a frequent co-author and friend of mine whose last email I now realize I am comically and unforgivably late in replying to. Next year, perhaps?
Brad, despite being an expert at long-form critique, has for as long as I’ve known him, been equally skilled at providing simple, one-word opinions. He’s been deploying everyone’s favorite snarky onomatopoeia, meh, with all of the timing and potency of a precision-guided F-bomb for as long as I can remember. Joe, on the other hand, doesn’t say “meh.” At least not with his voice. No, when asked to give an opinion on something neither great nor awful, memorable nor deplorable, Joe provides a squinting, wincing, tortuous, body-twisting, shoulder shrug that says all that needs to be said. As if to show how physically painful offering an opinion on something so… so utterly meh would be.
Which leaves me here, in a place neither suited for one-word analysis nor live-action melodrama. I will try to explain my ambivalence as best as I can.
The nine days we spent cycling from Goreme to Istanbul are a blur of desert, wheat fields, and mountains. Even the tea stops soon began to feel commonplace and forgettable. The landscape, though expansive and seldom scarred by man’s blemishes, lacked majesty. The food we enjoyed so much earlier in our travels soon began to taste as flavorless as our days. Had I not have ceased journaling weeks ago, I would have certainly given it up en route to Istanbul. What would be the point?
Istanbul was no better. That exotic-sounding city whose twice-named history was etched in my memory by the They Might be Giants cover song of the same name, Istanbul is a place that beckons with fantastical mental imagery. Istanbul. Where West meets East and vice-versa. Istanbul. Backgammon boards, hookah parlors, labyrinthine bazaars, carpet dealers, grind-filled itty-bitty cups of coffee and all the pistachios and apricots you can eat. I’d like to point out right here the similarities of the words imagination and imagery. Which begat which? The Istanbul we found was, in reality, no more exotic than most any other European city.
Perhaps it’s because we have been travelling for so long and seen so much that was truly different. Perhaps it is because the people who are awed by Istanbul’s presumed exoticism arrive there straight from the West and haven’t already been in the country for a month like we have. Maybe they’ve never been to a Muslim country before. Or maybe they saw what they expected to see as opposed to what they found. Whatever the reason, Kristin and I found Istanbul to be immediately forgettable. It’s dirty, smelly, and carries nearly as much graffiti as Athens. Tourist attractions, despite low occupancy rates following last month’s attack on the city’s US Consulate, had long lines and were so overtly touristy, it made us lose our interest quickly.
This isn’t to say that it’s not worth visiting. It is, even if only to know we don’t need to return. And we’re happy to have walked through the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (i.e. Blue Mosque) and wandered the spice market, and had the obligatory fish sandwich down at the Galata Bridge, and saw where Mustafa Kemal Ataturk died in Dolmabache Palace, and scoffed down multiple kokoretsi (sheep intestine) sandwiches near Taksim Square. These were all fine things to do. But that Turkish mystique eluded us. The exoticism escaped us. Ultimately it was just another city filled with traffic and touts and cheaply-made souvenirs and overpriced restaurants.
The truth is, we’ve soured on Turkey. The petty peculiarities we found endearing several weeks ago are now common irritants and downright annoying. We’ve gotten jaded, but it’s not entirely Turkey’s fault. One of the things we’ve noticed in this trip is that our motivation takes a dip after every three months of steady bicycle touring. That’s part of the reason we’ve booked this cargo ship to Singapore. Nineteen days at sea. No Internet. No email. Nothing. Nineteen days to digest everything we’ve seen and done since leaving Rome in June and to regain the desire to see more. Believe it or not, one does tire of a steady stream of new sights and sounds and major tourist attractions. At least we do.
Turkey stopped being interesting somewhere between Goreme and Istanbul. And part of that was because of everything that came before. All that time in Italy and Greece as well as those first few weeks in Turkey. Too much stimuli. But part of it is Turkey’s fault (and not just the omnipresent flies and cats that occupy every restaurant in the country). Never in my life, aside from a morning-after-9/11-America, have I seen so many flags flying in a country. The crescent moon and star fly on fields of red throughout Asia Minor; on trucks, on houses, on restaurants and gas stations and hotels. The Turkish flag is everywhere. Yet there’s something even more widespread: litter. For as bad as the litter was in southern Italy and Greece (and it’s really bad in both those places), it’s far worse in Turkey. Plastic bags and bottles line every street, broken glass dots the shoulder of every road. Disposable cartons, wrappers, and dirty diapers — yes, DIAPERS! — get tossed out the windows of moving cars as if nothing could be more normal. We’ve seen these things happen multiple times.
We’ve camped exactly one time in Turkey and the main reason for that is because of the litter. We’ve pedaled right on past countless picnic areas, water springs, and other clearings that would have been perfect for camping if not for the piles and piles of garbage everywhere. For a nation of people who seem to be so patriotic and so proud to be Turkish, they sure do treat their landscape like a wasteland.
Other touring cyclists have warned about the stray dogs and the aggressive rock-throwing children of Turkey. We’ve encountered no such kids and not one of the hundreds of stray dogs (they’re everywhere) has so much as lunged at us. Both animals and people have been nothing but courteous. Most smile and wag their tails, the dogs that is. Our annoyances have been constrained to aggressive drivers around Izmir, the constant buzzing presence of flies, the stench of urine, and the litter. Oh the litter. It’s depressing. It smells. And you can’t avoid it. And I don’t mean to imply that the United States is litter-free. Not at all. Truckers make sure there’s a noticeable amount of litter on America’s highways as well. But I’ve never seen anything like what we’ve seen in Turkey, at least not in a country this wealthy. And this proud.
But I guess, as the song goes, that’s nobody’s business but the Turks.