I hitchhiked to Ephesus in a rape-van full of manikin torsos driving 90kph. I hitchhiked back in a BWM blasting techno at 180kpm.1 I was making day trips from the lively coastal city of Izmir, where I had been CouchSurfing for almost a week. My host was active and had plenty of free time, so most of my excursions were made with him and often times his lovely group of friends. We bicycled almost 200km (124 miles) and visited the ancient city of Pergamon together.
One thing I noticed during my travels in Turkey was the prevalence of cats. Both in the big and little, and the new and ancient cities, healthy cats were roaming all about. Lounging on the ruins of Ephesus as if they owned the place, were all manner domestic-breed cats. Then I started to notice the food and water left out for them in the streets. There seems to be a nearly direct correlation between the condition of the local felines and the modernness (in Western standards) of the country. In the less developed countries, even those with generally "good" treatment of animals (practicing Hindu and Buddhist countries, I'm talking about you), the cats eye's were wide with fear and their movements inconspicuous.
But Turkey's not quite "West". Then again, it's not quite "East" either. During my travels in China I consoled myself by thinking "This type of overbearing governance is an anachronism, no modern country would move in such a direction of censorship." But I was wrong. Due to a series of leaked recordings about corruption at the highest level of the Turkish government, Twitter, and intermittently Facebook and Youtube, were blocked. A national election for local offices was held while I was in Izmir, but things largely went unchanged. Why had things gone unchanged? Everyone around me hated the prime minister and wanted to leave Turkey to escape the politics. Maybe I was getting a biased view from the liberal metropolises that I had hitherto been living in.
It was time to move on; to see more of the country and to meet more of the people. One my favorite ways to see a country and to meet the people is to hitchhike. There's some social construct which prevents most people from socializing with strangers on a bus, yet there's some awkward tension which obliges people to attempt to communicate when they're sitting alone in a car together, even when they don't have a common language. What I found, more than in any other country I'd been to, was that there was no common language. In fact, there was only one out of twenty rides in which the driver knew more English than I knew Turkish.
I played the game with the all the drivers that necessity explains the rules to and intuition devises a strategy for. Sometimes they would start, sometimes it would be me. "How do I explain 'speed trap' without using any words?" or "Will he understand that I'm trying to say 'I'm fat and this soda is too small'?" The game keeps you sharp. It exercises your creativity. Once when I guessed that the driver was asking me about my work, rather than pantomiming hands at a keyboard, I acted out digging a hole. "Is it wrong to say that I was a gardener? Was I? The memories of being a programmer and being a gardener are equally distant and equally vivid in my mind. I suppose it doesn't matter because based on my action he'll probably think that I was digging ditches on a chain gang."
The drivers were as generous in Turkey as they had been in other countries. I found that my customary rule of declining the first thing they offered me and accepting the second didn't work so well. I was obliged to take both the first and second item of food or drink that was offered, with the exception of cigarettes which they all respected my abstinence from and which would then prompt them ask (nonverbally) if I mind if they smoked. On my way to Pamukkale I had a guy whom I wasn't even sure understood what I was doing (hitchhiking), nonetheless where I was going, find me another ride at a stoplight and facilitate a hand-off with the other driver down the road.
Pamukkale was famous for its travertines (beautiful limestone hot springs), and after checking into a hotel following a long day of travel I decided I'd go take a look at them before the sun went down. Sneaking into Turkish attractions is so easy that I couldn't resist taking a closer look. I walked around the guard booth, then to the top of the travertines, then took off my sandals and walked down through the springs. It wasn't as beautiful as the pictures had made it out to be, but it was still a cool thing to see. I went back to my hotel and was about to eat dinner alone when two girls came walking through the lobby. "Excuse me. Are you going to dinner? I was about to eat alone. Would you mind if I join you?"
The girls and I went to a nearby restaurant and enjoyed a Turkish meal set to the soundtrack of the movie Grease, mixed with the occasional James Brown or R.E.M. hit. After dinner I suggested that we walk to the travertines to see them lit up at night. When we got there, the girls—who had only just arrived and were seeing them for the first time—said they wanted to "touch the white stuff." So, we snuck back in. When we got to the base of the spring we took off our shoes and began to climb. A few minutes later we heard a whistle. We looked back and saw a guard. "We can outrun him. If we make it to the top I know another way down." I told the girls. We took off in a dash through the springs, the chase being projected to the city via our shadows on the large, white, limestone walls. "Are you sure we can get down from up there?" one of the girls asked. "Sometimes you gotta get up to get down. So get on the good foot and lets take it to the bridge." I told them.
As we neared the top I looked back and saw that the guard was no longer pursuing us. When we came out of the the light, a different guard came out of the shadows. Then five more guards came out of the woods behind him. The lead guard started speaking to us in Turkish, then eventually, realizing that we didn't understand, suggested "No ticket?" There was nowhere left for us to run, and we all knew it. The girls and I instinctively huddled together, as a pack of wild game might do when a group of predators is closing in around them. The lead guard pointed at me, then gestured at his motorcycle. I started walking for the bike, and the girls tried to follow. He gave them the sign to stay. "I will return for you." I said with the loftiness and bravado of a knight riding off for the sake of a maiden. The guard got on the bike, and I mounted in the back. As we raced off helmetlessly into the night, "Hopefully!" was the trailing word I called out to the ladies.
The guard brought me to the park entrance were I was induced to pay for three tickets. The price was 20 Lira each, and when I paid with a 100 they gave me back the correct change. The guard did a burnout U turn, then I hopped on back of his bike and we zipped back to the girls. They were noticeably shaken, sitting alone and not knowing what was to come, and they were in disbelief when I told them that we were free to go. The guards were nice guys and the springs at Pamukkale were much more majestic at night than they were during the day. Having seen the travertines twice already, I decided to push on the following morning.
As I stood on the side of the road and watched car after car drive by with lots of empty seats, I started to wonder if I should get a bus. It had been taking much longer to catch a ride in Turkey than it had in any other country I'd been to, and at the same time there had been more traffic and more viable rides than anywhere else. It was always just as I was about to throw in the towel and start walking to the nearest bus station that someone would eventually pick me up. It was always just after thinking "I'm gonna start taking the bus from now on" that a ride would remind me of why I love hitchhiking. I'd spend four hours crawling up a mountain in the cab of a semi-truck, jokingly gesturing to the driver "Should I get out and push?", then I'd zip around the curves on the other side in the front of a Mercedes-Benz. The truck driver would buy me lunch and the Mercedes would stop for tea. When I was discouraged that I wasn't learning enough from my encounters, two Turkish guys with excellent English picked me up and took me all the way to my destination, sharing their political beliefs and helping me improve my Turkish along the way.
1I'm not trying to make light of rape, I simply don't know a better term for the particular type of van I was riding in. I searched online and even read a few articles about them, but alas there is no better, quickly understood term. Oh, and 90kpm ≈ 55mph, 180kph ≈ 112mph.Soundtrack: Summer Nights (Grease)