It had been taking about five rides with an average wait time of 45 minutes between them to hitchhike any sizable distance in Turkey. I knew that to go from Cappadocia to Gaziantep in one day would be ambitious, but I had a good feeling about it. To give me the best possible chances of getting a ride, I shaved the night before and switched into my nicest shirt. I woke up before sunrise to watch the hot air balloons flying over Cappadocia, then returned to my hostel to get ready for the journey. I ate some breakfast, filled up my water bottle, and applied a thick layer of sunscreen. With a full charge of emotional energy and an accepting smile, I walked to the edge of town and began to wait.
I think I've only ever been picked up by a car with no men in it once before, when hitchhiking from Chiang Mai (North Thailand) to Bangkok, and that lady also stopped to get her hair cut. The three ladies in this car were sisters from Ankara, in town to deal with some legal stuff after their parents death. Two of them spoke English reasonably well, and all of them were very friendly. The driver told me that they wanted to make a 30 minute stop in Nevsehir to get their hair cut, but that they could take me a bit further on my way after that if I wanted to wait. Though it was early in the morning and I had gotten my first ride fairly quickly, I was already anxious about the long distance ahead of me. On the other hand, I would have had to navigate two junctions on my own if they left me in Nevsehir, and I knew it would be easiest if they could leave me directly on my path. Given that it had been taking around 45 minutes to get rides in Turkey, I figured I'd go with the bird(s) in hand and wait it out in Nevsehir.
They parked at a hair stylist then told me to meet them back there in 30 minutes. We exchanged contact info just in case, then I started wandering aimlessly through the city. On my way back to the salon I passed a pide shop selling the most delicious looking fresh bread. Though I already had some food for the journey, I couldn't resist buying a fresh pide for only 1tl ($0.50 US). When I got back to the meeting point the women were still inside. Part of me knew that it wouldn't take 30 minutes for them to get their hair cut. I walked into the beauty parlor and sat down to wait. The young male stylist and his two even younger assistants instantly began swooning. The three women laughed and talked with the men in a not unobvious fashion about me. I recognized the Turkish words for "American" and "Beautiful" and lots of points and gazes in my direction. One of the assistants came and sat next to me, using his phone to translate for a conversation. He seemed to speak enough English for what he wanted to say, but I think he preferred the phone because the visible text was silent. After cutting the women's hair but while we were still waiting to go, the head stylist came and whispered something in my ear which I couldn't make out but which I understood to mean "I'm gay". As if he had to tell me. He also gestured that the previous barber had done a bad job on my hair and shouldn't have taken it up so high around my temples, which I was also already aware of. Do you know how hard it is for men to get anything other than a buzz-cut when traveling and without speaking the local language? After over an hour of waiting we got back in the car and were on our merry way. The women were nice enough to drop me at the far side of the town they were going to, which saved me the trouble of crossing it on foot.
This was the point in the story when the traffic really began to drop off. While trying to walk to a better location for hitchhiking, these three nice guys pulled over to pick me up. They didn't speak any English and the car was a complete junker, but they seemed nice and unassuming. They didn't take me as far as I was expecting, but they took me as far as they could before turning onto an access road leading off into the desert.
Driving slow and cautious when there was virtually nothing that could happen on an empty road through the plain, this nice old teacher picked me up. We were getting along fine with the combination of my Turkish and his English, but he felt compelled to call his English-speaking friend for translation. That may have been for the best since for once, a foreigner translating over the phone understood that I was trying to hitchhike, and convinced the man to leave me on the side of the road rather than a bus stop in the center of a town.
The previous man went a little out of his way to drop me in front of a tollbooth on a large highway headed in my direction. I think we were both a bit worried that the road wasn't operational yet since there were no cars in sight and no one manning the tolls. The guy got out and walked around the tollbooth and to the office in the back. During that time this nice Kurdish man drove by and I flagged him down. The previous driver spoke to him for a bit (I guessed explaining my situation) and then motioned for me to get in. This was another case when I thought I'd be going a little further than I did, but I generally take any ride heading in my direction. After taking this mans photo he shook his head "no" then put on a smile and held up the peace sign for me to take it again.
I was practicing my juggling and listening to my audio book when these two truck drivers came by. I've taken to listening to audio books while hitchhiking since they allow me to keep my eyes focused on the road. I usually wouldn't juggle, but with the infrequency of vehicles on the highway and the distance I could spot them from, it gave me a good chance to practice and still put the balls away with enough time to hold out my thumb. I really lucked out with these guys. They didn't speak any English but they were headed a long way in my direction and removed the obstacle of me making it through the largest city on my path. They had a portable electric water heater in the cab, which they used to make tea. I was glad that I had my pide to offer in return for a cup of chai.
The demeanor of the guy in the back in the picture above reminded me a lot of George Costanza from Seinfeld. At one point the men decided to switch drivers and began to make the change while going down a mountain, but then I think the driver, remembering my presence and seeming a bit more responsible, decided to just pull over for a minute. After a few hours of riding with the guys I began to get hungry. I took out one of my red bell peppers and offered it to the men. They didn't want any, so I ate it like an apple, which they seemed to think was odd. I had a few other snacks, all of which they declined with the hand motion that they were full. Then, shortly before letting me off, they stopped for lunch. The little truck stop had all their dishes on display, but rather than consult me the men just ordered. First came three plates of assorted vegetables, which I wasn't sure if we were supposed to share as appetizers or save for the main meal. I waited for the men to make a move. Finally one of them snacked on something, so I followed suit. Lunch was six of the most juicy and delicious chicken drumsticks I've had on this trip, with a side of roasted tomato and Anaheim chili. I never know how hard I'm supposed to push when it comes time to paying for a meal. Like usual, the driver insisted on paying and I got the impression that if I was any more forceful it would have been insulting.
This was definitely the weirdest ride I had all day. As I was crossing to the center of the fork in the highway where the previous two men dropped me off, this guy pulled over to pick me up. When I was getting into the cab he motioned for me to put my pack on his bed. I motioned that I could just put it in the middle, which is where I usually put it, and then he patted firmly in the back as if to say "Put the pack, on, the bed." So I did. Of all the people I've met on this trip, the driver of this truck was about the worst at the language-barrier-communication-game. I'm sure I'm partially to blame because I'm good at grasping at straws and reading subtle hints in the other persons body language which tell me to either blindly agree or disagree, giving them the impression that I understood. That only works however, when the other person doesn't demand a response. Seemingly everything this man barked was followed by an inquisitive glare. The usual trick of responding in random English, which makes the other person either smile and laugh in acceptance of our mutual failure, or mimic my response in a continuation of the game, didn't work with this man. He just seemed... distressed.
At some point on our journey he grabbed a bottle of something and started spraying it on the dashboard. Then he handed it to me and I motioned the question "Should I spray my side of the dash?" and in a very non-joking gesture, he motioned for me to spray under my arms, then kept his gaze fixed on me. Ouch dude. I didn't think I smelled that bad. I acquiesced, if for no other reason than to get him to look back at the road. When it came time to drop me off I asked if I could take his picture and he motioned "No" so I started putting my camera away, then he grabbed my camera and pointed at himself, then outside. He put on his dress shirt (he had just been wearing a wife-beater) and hopped out for a photo with his truck. He made one more unintelligible demand, then in a final effort of futility, shook my hand, did the traditional Turkish salutation of touching heads on either side, picked my sweater up off my bag and handed it to me, grabbed my crotch, then turned around and got back on the truck. I stood there in shock for a fraction of a second, then let my bewildered countenance expand into laughter and an confounded shake of the head.
This guy technically didn't stop to pick me up. He stopped to take a piss on the side of the road, and after I noticed him sitting in his truck for a bit, I went to ask for a ride. Like the previous guy, I thought this man was going all the way to Gaziantep, which I finally realized everyone was just calling Antep. After just a few kilometers he asked if I wanted to stop for chai. I motioned "Sure, what the heck?" so he pulled off at a little cafe full of truckers drinking tea. We each had a glass, then another. Just as I was finishing my second cup the man started talking to other people in the cafe. Then he suddenly motioned for me to quickly get up and follow two guys that were headed back to their truck. I got my things out of his cab and went over to where the two men were standing.
The guy sitting in the middle had stubby fingers and reminded me of a family friend called Uncle Phil. He spoke roughly as much English as I did Turkish, which multiplied our power of communication. He told me that the driver was from Iran and I was glad to be able to thank him in Arabic. Though we only shared about twenty words in common, the man in the middle was eager to speak to me. He was telling me about Islam. He had a joyous and serene manner when he spoke, that of genuine love and amazement. His speech, which was far less intelligible, reminded me exactly of the very nice Jordanian guy I hitchhiked with at the Dead Sea. I've had many people lecture me about the wonders of god, pointing at everything as an example of his existence, and usually I think "You've drunken some sort of poison. You're delirious." But not with this man, or the man from Jordan. It made me happy.
He was talking about how Islam is all about love and peace and accepting all people and religions, even the Jews. He condemned violence and emphasized the importance of the heart. One of my fathers is a Sufi. When the man in the middle asked me to repeat after him, I completed the sentence before he was finished: "La ilaha illallah". He showed me some ceremonial videos on his phone, which at very first looked like terrorist warning videos, but then I quickly came to recognize from my childhood. These Muslims are just singing and dancing in circles. This guy is talking all about love, peace and acceptance. Hey, I wonder if he's a Sufi? The man took off a silver ring with two moon and stars on it, and gave it to me. He motioned for me to try it on my pinky. It was too big. Then he motioned to my ring finger. I tried it on and it fit. I took it off and handed it back to him. He wouldn't take it. I persisted but he refused. Shortly afterward they pulled over and let me off. I thought these men were going into Gaziantep, which is why the previous driver had made the hand off, but they left me at the junction at the far north of town.
The first thing I noticed when the truck drove away was Orion starring down at me from the sky. That particular constellation reminds me of a good friend back home. Empowered with my new silver ring and the presence of my friend, I started walking toward the city, determined to do whatever it would take to make it home that night. The first truck to come by pulled over to pick me up, even though he didn't have much time to see me and there definitely wasn't a good place to pull over. I like to think the silver ring on my outstretched hand caught a glimmer from his headlight and attracted his attention. By the time that I had hurried up to the front of the truck, the man had crossed the seats and opened the door. He motioned me in with a calming smile.
This man was also Kurdish, and he was perhaps the friendliest of all the drivers. No more than one minute after picking me up, we got stopped at a police checkpoint. It was no matter. The guy driving had nothing to hide and shortly we were on our way. He didn't speak English but he made it clear that I was invited over for dinner with his family. I wanted to take him up on the offer but I had already made arrangements with a guy through CouchSurfing and I didn't want to keep him waiting any longer. The driver wasn't going into the city and my host's house was at the far end of town. The nice Kurdish man said he would drive me to the bus station and help me get a bus. Then he took out some money and tried to give it to me for the fair. I successfully refused to take his lira. When we arrived at the first bus stop at the very north of town, two dolmus's (Turkish van-buses) were sitting there waiting. The man motioned for me to wait, then got out to check where they were going. A minute later the man came rushing back, motioning for me to quickly get my things and go. I snapped the photo above as I was rushing to jump on a dolmus that was starting to pull away. I can't help but wonder how through all my travels, vehicles always seem to be leaving at exactly the moment I'm trying to board them.
As I rode through the entire city of Gaziantep, I had a wonderful feeling of homecoming, like returning from a very long voyage. I got off the bus near where the GPS on my phone told me my hosts house was. I started walking in what I thought was the right direction, only to realize that the GPS didn't sync up with the directions he had given me. I was standing on the sidewalk texting my host and trying to get my bearings when a nice young man approached and asked in English if I needed any help. I told him the landmark I was looking for and he pointed me in the right direction. Then he offered to escort me there. I took him up on the offer. He told me he was Syrian and then my host called. My host was also Syrian and the guy escorting me offered to talk to him to make sure we were going the right way. The Syrian kid took me to the door, exchanged contact info and then said good night. After 9 rides and 13hrs I had made it the nearly 500km/310mi from Cappadocia to my destination in Antep. I met wonderful people, including a couple Kurds and a Syrian, and acquired the ring of man. I could have taken a bus, but it's about the journey. Besides, for the cost of a ticket from Cappadocia to Antep I can buy a kilo of the finest of their famous baklava.Soundtrack: Born To Be Wild (Steppenwolf)