Many people asked me "How will you know when it's time to go home?" and I always responded with "I'll know," which I'm sure was as unsatisfying and outlandish to them as it was to me. I figured it was kind of like love, which no one could properly explain and people told me I would "know when I feel it." For traveling I assumed that moment would follow something bad happening, but it didn't. When my pack got lost on the way to Nepal I thought "I'll keep going with the cloths on my back if I have to." When ten porters with foot long machetes jumped me in Vietnam I thought "That could have happened anywhere, I'll just move along." I never considered that it would be something positive that would make me feel like it was time to return to the states.
There were many times on my trip where I would arrive in a city expecting to stay one day, then meet a wonderful person and wind up staying for a week. The Kurdish/Zaza guys that hosted me in Mardin were great, and every day they kept telling me to stay one more day so I could experience else amazing. One morning over breakfast the guys were telling me about a place called "White Waters" and told me that they would go there the following day. A picnic adventure to a place which numerous people in Kurdistan told me I must go to sounded great, but all I could think was I should keep moving along. I've been here too long. and then I told them "I can't. I have to go." They asked me where I had to go and I said "Home. I should go home." I wasn't looking at any of them when I said it, in fact I wasn't looking at anything — I was just staring off past the wall of their cave.
I hadn't processed what I was saying and I didn't want to make a big decision like buying a ticket across the ocean without giving it some time for thought. I decided to move to another city and sleep on it. The boys were sad to see me go but they understood that I had to, and they connected me with a friend at my next destination. As a continuous traveler I've been called a "gentleman of the road," but I'd like to talk about a different kind of gentleman of the road: the type of gentleman I meet on the road. The guy that my friends in Mardin put me in contact with in the capital of Turkish Kurdistan didn't speak much English and I originally took him as a dumb brute. He had a big head which somehow seemed pixelated and reminded me of a character from the Nintendo64 game Golden Eye. He was large and muscular and when he walked one shoulder would sway forward with the opposite foot. The first thing he asked me when we met at the bus station was "Drugs?"
He told me that we were going to go back to his house to drop off my pack, then go out and meet some friends. I'd been working on my technique for not overeating at Kurdish houses, but I found it completely ineffective with my host who would end meals by getting up, command me to "finish it", point at all the remaining food and then walk out. After a standard local dinner we went to go meet my hosts friends. We walked a circuitous route through dark alleys that had the letters "PKK" spray painted frequently on the wall. My host had an earnest concern for my comfort and my physical safety. When crossing the street he would frequently take my arm as if I were a gentleman and he were a lady. When other men have touched me on this trip it often made me feel uncomfortable, but not with him. Perhaps it was the way he led, one step in front, glancing side to side for cars.
We met one friend at a time until our group numbered five, then walked to a large field of tall grass in the center of town. What is this park doing here? I wondered. We walked to an arbitrary point then sat in a circle. One of the friends took out three poker chip sized discs of hash and handed one to me to inspect, meanwhile he and another friend got to work rolling doobies. Now I've been around some serious drug users in my life, but I've never seen splifs as large as these guys rolled; and with what skill they joined six rolling papers and emptied three cigarettes by the light of a cell phone! When he was finished rolling, the man traded me the disc of hash for an enormous joint. I lit it and took a puff; it instantly hit me like a buckwheat pillow to the face. I coughed and handed the joint to my friend, and it glowed like a torch in his hand.
A sliver of moon was just over the buildings on the horizon and as my eyes adjusted to the darkness I noticed other groups of people sitting in the grass as well. "Everyone come here smoke hash" my friend told me. "It's ok. You safe." And I did feel safe when I was with him. He had told me "This is my city" and I believed him. One of his friends, who reminded me of my high school quarterback, showed me how to be double-jointed. When both joints eventually landed on me, I tried it. The guy on my right kept looking more and more like Spock until I was sure that he was wearing a Star Trek uniform. I couldn't shake the feeling that the moon was setting despite it only being 9pm. It's just the drugs and parallax fucking with you. You're probably slouching more and hence the moon in reference to the horizon and your friends big head doesn't appear as high as it did before. Soon there was no angle I could sit where the moon was visible. The guy on my left showed us his fucked up ankle, which explained why he had been walking with a limp. "JESUSCHRIST! You should get that looked at!" I didn't mind making an exclamation like that when I knew that no one around me spoke English well enough to understand it when said quickly.
We finished the three discs of hash, then went in separate directions. My host and I went to get something sweet — at my request — and then to his friends internet cafe to hang out. The night wound up being way less crazy and eventful than I was expecting. The next day my host took me around the rustic old city which had a bad ass stone wall around the old part like an ancient capital of China. My host turned out to be much smarter and kinder than I had originally taken him for, and I really enjoyed his company. Then I got that feeling again, the feeling that I should keep moving on. I decided I'd give hitchhiking a break and took a bus to the city of Van, famous all over Turkey for its delicious breakfasts. One of the reasons I didn't hitchhike was because I was sick of struggling to get over language barriers, and the nice Kurdish man sitting next to me on the bus who spoke almost no English and had brought absolutely nothing to entertain himself with kept trying to talk to me. Other than that it went fine and I arrived in Van in the mid evening.
I had no friends, no hosts in Van, but that was intentional. I was looking forward to the solitude. I wanted a shower, some internet, and some space to myself. I guess that was too much to ask (at least for a reasonable price). What bothers me about most of the places I've been to on this trip is the way the locals don't care when things are broken. Three times in a row the hotel owner either didn't know the wifi password or the wifi didn't work. When I'd confront them about it, they would just say "No internet" and leave it at that. No "Sorry, let me try to fix it" or "Sorry, that's because XXX" or "It'll be back XXX," even in Turkish. I would tell them that I needed to find somewhere else to stay then and they would just watch me go. That was it. They didn't want my money, and none of the places had more than a few guests. I finally found a place with internet, but no running water. I was loosing my patience. I'd been loosing it since I started the trip.
After a couple days of solitude and good breakfast, I got that anxious feeling again. I wanted to go the quickest and easiest way to my next destination, and since there were no direct buses I decided I'd hitchhike. I went to the edge of town not taking a moment to notice what was around me as I walked down the street. I was unenthused and uninspired. I just wanted to get to Dogubayazit. I didn't have much water but I figured that I could just buy more when I ran out, since anyone who picked me up was likely to be going somewhere with people, and where there's people there's water. The first person to pick me up was a regular seeming guy in a van. He was bad at communicating. He didn't use any meaningful gestures or try to use common vocabulary to help me understand him. I asked him the usual questions and he told me that he had three kids. I tried to just look out the window, which revealed an increasingly dry and desolate landscape, but he insisted on talking. He asked me if I was married, as most people do, and I told him that I wasn't. Then he said something I didn't understand at all and laughed, and put his hand on my leg. He left his hand on my leg and continued speaking. Suspecting that something was amiss, I used to my phone to translate "I'm heterosexual." I showed it to him and he laughed and then grabbed my chin softly as if to admire my face. I pulled my head away and told him to let me out. He motioned that he would let me out just up the road, and drove on.
Over the next hump in the road there came a break in the median. He pulled over and let me out, then switched to the other side of the highway and headed back toward town. I was left standing in the desert with no water and very few passing cars. I felt like a fool for getting myself into that mess. I didn't want to hitchhike anymore, but there were no buses or dolmuses to flag down. Eventually an old trucker picked me up and I felt comfortable in his cab. Unfortunately he was only going to a quarry up the road; no water there and again I was standing in the desert. When hitchhiking in Cappadocia with an older American guy I learned the art of the understanding wave. Just as a car was about to pass and it was evident that they weren't pulling over, I would switch the "thumbs up" to a "no hard feelings" open palm. I think that accepting gesture changed the mind of a family driving a black Lexus, because they stopped in the middle of the highway and backed up to get me. The father was driving and the mother was in the back with three kids, so I got to sit up front. Again I felt comfortable since I was riding with a family.
Two nice guys with a large gas canister strapped in the front seat picked me up where the family dropped me off. The landscape between there and my destination began to get more green and mountainous. The two guys, of which one was Turkish and the other was Kurdish, spoke a little bit of English and that also put me at ease. As we got closer to Dogubayzit I could see mount Ararat towering out above the surroundings: it was striking. I could tell that it was beautiful, but I felt no awe. The guys stopped at a hospital to drop off the gas canister, then asked me if I wanted Turkish kebab. I said "sure" so they brought me to the center of town, exactly where I wanted to be, and found a nice place for lunch. After a feast, which they of course paid for, I set off searching for a hotel. Every gust of wind or passing truck would send a wave of dust into the air as I walked down the streets. I finally found a place to stay and all I wanted to do was sleep. It was 4:30pm and I knew that I should go to the palace outside town and then watch sunset over Ararat, but just didn't feel like it. I pushed myself to go out anyway.
Ishak Pasha Palace was 6km outside town and since there was no public transport I figured I'd walk and try to hitchhike. Few cars were going that way and they all passed me by. One car with three young guys in it gestured the question "Just one person?" to which I gestured back "Yes, just one" and then they sped off. The car itself seemed to mock me with its motion. Two minutes later I saw the car again, parked on the side of the road. The driver motioned me over and then spoke in clear English. "Hello. Are you going to Ishak Pasha Palace? I'm a survey engineer and I'd like to talk with you. I can take you there. I have to do a quick job, but if you go to the cafe one hundred meters up the road and wait for me, I'll be there in ten minutes." I told him I would wait, though something inside me said I shouldn't. I found the cafe and ordered a glass of tea, then did some writing. As soon as I was finished with my letter the man appeared. "I wasn't sure if you'd wait. That's one thing I like about foreigners: they do what they say they will do. It's not like that in Turkey." He paid for my tea and then we got into his car.
On the ride up the mountain he told me that I reminded him of his friend from Lithuania and that that's why he stopped. When we got to the palace he paid my admission, which involved getting my money back from the ticket taker and handing it to me. He seemed to know everything about the place. He had way more information than was on the signs or online. I see old castles and palaces and ruins all the time, and Ishak Pasha was truly exceptional. It had indoor hot water, one-way glass, and remarkable stonework. Just before sunset we went higher up the mountain to an old castle where we sat and drank juice. The guy told me about his Lithuanian girlfriend and how on their first date she didn't show up so he called her and when she spoke in English he didn't understand anything she said but he was too embarrassed to admit it so he just waited there uncertainly. The hair of my beard prickled a little when he spoke. I could feel his anxiety and I understood why he wanted to improve his English.
After the sun went down but there was still light in the sky, he took me to an ancient cemetery which was recently unearthed. Then we stopped for food — even though I was still full from the enormous lunch — because they had a local specialty which he wanted me to try. The whole time I was with the man I shamefully kept waiting for "the rub." Does he want to sleep with me? Is he gonna ask me for money or give me a sob story? There was nothing. He paid for everything then brought me back to my hotel and said good night. He just wanted to talk, like he told me at the beginning. He was a true gentleman of the road, and I couldn't help but suspect him. Before we parted ways he told me that if I stayed in town longer I could live with his family and do fun things with him and his friends. I knew that I should stay, to get the culture and the experience, but I said "I can't." It was like the "I can't" back in the cave in Mardin, said without conscious thought. That's when I knew it was time.
The next morning after breakfast I checked flights back to America. The cheap flight I had found a couple days before was still there. I went about buying it like I was preforming a routine action online, with no unnecessary haste or delay. When the purchase was complete I had no sinking feeling or feeling of euphoria; very much like when I bought my departure ticket for this trip. I think the decision had been a long time coming, even though in both cases it didn't take long for me to pull the trigger. A big part of the reason behind why I decided to go home was a progressive exhaustion. Do you know the last time I got a good nights sleep? No? Me either, but it was back in the states. I'm tired. I'm tired of getting cat called and of being stared at. I'm tired of being a gentleman of the road. As I suffered through Walden while waiting for a ride in the desert, I kept thinking: you can't learn about the world in seclusion. You need experiences to fuel your thought, and you can't ignore the human or the social element of life no matter how much you want to. And that's why I travel. I travel to learn and to grow; and I have, leaps and bounds. Then it hit me: all the knowledge and growth is useless if you never settle down and use it.
I don't know what the future will bring. I'm flying to Miami on the 17th (because it only cost $250 to get there from Turkey) and then I may hitchhike to Texas to visit my friend before heading back to Wisconsin. I feel the need to see America the same way I saw the rest of the world. To be honest, I don't have a very good concept of the states and I can't compare it to the places I've been. I'm excited to see the country through new eyes and from a different angle. And I'm sad that I won't have that understanding of Europe or Africa, but I wouldn't really learn about those places if I was just trudging through, avoiding the experiences and the culture. So I'll stay in America for a bit, maybe just through the Wisconsin fall, but I'm certain that at some point I'll make it over to that part of the world, even if it's in a series of shorter voyages.Soundtrack: Homeward Bound (Simon & Garfunkel)