Once I got my tent set up in the park, the feeling of panic I had felt back in the hotel 36 hours earlier subsided, and now I calmly lay back in the familiar grass, my feet casually propped up against the tree.
As the light fell, people came out of their houses to take evening strolls around the village and they began to notice that I was back. I suppose I was hard to miss: a foreigner, vaguely familiar now, his tent set up in the village’s central park, reclining in the grass.
About 20 times I had the following exchange:
Villager walks past the park, notices me, turns head towards me, stops walking, tilts head curiously.
“Yes, I am.”
“What brings you back?”
“My foot. I hurt it and I need a few days to heal it.”
“So you’ll be here a few days then?”
“Yes, looks like it.”
“Welcome back. Geçmiş olsun.”
“Thank you, much appreciated.”
Tuesday, 11 September
Tuesday morning, after breakfast, the villagers either climbed onto their tractors to go work in the fields, or piled into the commuter train to commute to work in one of the nearby towns. I stayed behind to work on my foot.
I knew from my training before coming to Turkey that the first thing I needed to do was to make a diagnosis of the problem by walking barefoot. Walking barefoot gave me a level of precise feedback that was not available to me when shod. So I took off my shoes and emptied my brain so that my foot could tell me what it needed, instead of me telling my foot what I thought it needed.
I began walking barefoot on the stone pathways through the park, making a mental note of what muscles were giving me trouble and would need work in the next few days.
This diagnosis work took me about half an hour, and then I was ready to begin working those particular muscles back into shape. I limped to one end of the stone walkway and stared at the other end. The other end was a mere 50 feet away, but those 50 feet seemed as far away as the other end of the world. I took a deep breath, started with my left foot, and began walking. My right foot hurt every time I put my weight on it, which scared me, but I reminded myself that the point was not to be free of pain, the point was to rebuild the muscles in my foot so I would gradually feel less pain.
I limped to the other end, turned around, and repeated the process. Stare at other end of walkway. Take deep breath and summon courage. Begin walking. Get to other end.
I continued like that, walking back and forth, for about two hours. Once in awhile, one of the remaining villagers would walk by or watch me from a distance. I suppose mine was a puzzling presence–this stranger, tent set up in the park, Turkish barely good enough to explain what he was doing, walking barefoot back and forth, back and forth in the park.
At noon I took a lunch break, lying down on my back in the grass next to my tent, my feet propped up on the nearby tree to drain the blood and avoid any swelling. I munched on some cookies I had bought from the bakkal. One of the villagers had seen me walking my laps in the park and knew that I was healing my foot. She emerged from her front door, scurried across the street, and handed me a large block of ice before scurrying back into her home.
Thankful for the ice, I rested my right foot on it for a few minutes, and then stood up and walked back to the stone walkway to resume my work for the afternoon.
Shortly after lunch my foot felt good enough to begin walking longer laps around the park. On the other side of the park I spied a concrete amphitheater. The amphitheater was a mere 100 feet away but I had been so focused on my foot that morning that I hadn’t noticed it. I decided that by the end of the day I wanted to be able to walk up and down the amphitheater steps.
Then the negative self-talk began:
You want to walk across the country, but you can’t even climb up and down an amphitheater’s steps.
You’re never going to figure this out. Your walk is doomed.
I pushed the negative thoughts out of my mind:
That’s just negative self-talk, don’t listen to it, just concentrate on the next few feet in front of you. Take it one step at a time. No pun intended.
For most of the rest of the afternoon, I continued walking laps around the park. Walk a few laps. Rest on one of the park benches. Walk a few more laps. Rest on one of the park benches.
My impatient self and my methodical self began fighting each other:
This is ridiculous, you should be out conquering the world, my impatient self would say.
No, this is exactly what we need to be doing right now, My methodical self would chime back.
But this is ridiculous, you know it is, come on, admit it.
Whatever. This is what we need to do right now.
That’s right, calm down. There will be plenty of time to conquer the world later. Right now this is exactly what we need to do. Leave us alone, let us do our work.
For most of the rest of the afternoon, I continued alternating between walking laps around the park, and resting on a park bench. I began eyeing the amphitheater stairs, knowing that my rendezvous with them was coming soon. They would be my test. Had all these laps around the park been doing me any good?
With about an hour to go before the villagers started returning home from work, and knowing that I would certainly be invited to a social gathering of some sort in the evening and wouldn’t be alone in the park anymore, I decided that test time had come. It was time for me to try the amphitheater stairs. I stood up from the park bench and walked over to the stairs. I eyed the top of the stairs. It was a small amphitheater, so there were only about 10 stairs, but again, the top end of those 10 stairs looked as far away as the rest of the world.
I took a deep breath and stuck out my left foot. I lifted it up onto the first stair and put my weight on it. It felt fine. But of course it did! That wasn’t the one I’d hurt.
I lifted my right foot onto the second stair and put my weight on it. A bolt of pain shot up my leg. I grimaced as I clumsily heaved myself up onto the second stair.
“Uh oh, that wasn’t good,” I thought to myself.
I tried half of the stairs like that. Every time I put my weight on my right foot, the shooting pain went up my leg, and I grimaced.
Halfway up the set of stairs, I decided I would go back down and try again tomorrow. I turned around, but going down turned out to be harder than going up. The panic began to rise again.
I walked a few laps around the park hoping to return to normal and to tamp down the panic. I returned to the park bench to rest, telling myself that I would learn how to walk the stairs tomorrow. Then I got up to walk a few more laps before going back to my tent to lie in the grass, prop up my feet against the tree, and wait for the villagers to come home.
When the farmers on their tractors and the office workers on their train began to return, my friend Huseyin from across the street stopped by and invited me to dinner at his house. His mother would be cooking.
“Of course,” I said, already tasting her home cooking on my tongue. “What time?”
“We’ll eat in about 30 minutes.”
A half hour later, I limped across the street to Huseyin’s house. I limped in part because my foot still hurt, but also because I wanted to keep my weight off it, noting that I had made some progress that day and didn’t want to undo it.
Inside for dinner there were seven of us: Huseyin, his wife, his mother, two of his sisters, his young nephew, and me. We spread a cloth out on the floor and ate village style, sitting cross-legged on the cloth, eating from communal trays of cold green beans in tomato sauce, carrot salad, and copious amounts of bread. After dinner, the women cleared the trays while Huseyin attended to some domestic chores of his own, and then we re-congregated in the living room to digest the huge dinner with cup after cup of cay while watching the news.
After about an hour, Huseyin said he needed to go visit a relative in the village and asked me if I wanted to stay and watch TV.
“No thanks,” I told him, “much appreciated, but I think I’ll go back to the park. Thank you so much for dinner, it was great.”
Huseyin and I both left the house. I crossed the street, and as I entered the park, the older men who had tried to convert me when I was there before spotted me, and, probably relieved to think that I was back for another religious conversion attempt, called me over to their table for some cay and god talk before bed.
Wednesday, 12 September
The next day, my Christianity still intact, I walked more laps around the park, and, many times, successfully climbed and descended the stairs. Things were looking up. I figured that tomorrow, my third full day in Horsunlu, I would tackle the dirt road outside the park, and that four days in Horsunlu would be enough (two of them had already passed). By then my foot would be good enough to resume the walk.
That evening, once again, Huseyin invited me to dinner at his family’s house. As we did the evening before, we sat village style, cross-legged on the floor, eating from communal platters.
After dinner and cay, however, instead of Huseyin’s running off to visit relatives, or my running off to participate in yet another attempted religious conversion, all nine of us lounged back onto the pillows. I got to play my first game of Okey, the Turkish version of dominoes. I had only a vague notion of what I was doing, yet with a lot of help from my fellow players I managed to win a few games. I could barely recognize what a winning hand was, though, so for all I knew they were just being nice to me.
At one point, Huseyin’s cousin interrupted the game to bring out a shallow plastic tub and a clean cloth. He put my right foot in the tub and began to wash it with olive oil. He was aware that my right foot was hurting, and he wanted to do anything he could to help. I felt a little embarrassed and uncomfortable, having my foot cradled and washed, and I eyed the other family members to see the expressions on their faces. They seemed to approve of his activity, so I swallowed my embarrassment and allowed it to happen.
During the foot washing, Huseyin got up to leave the room. I briefly thought he might not approve of the foot washing, but a few moments later he reentered the room with an armful of objects and walked over to me. He spread the objects out on the floor and took a seat next to me. He waited for his cousin to finish drying my foot, and then he asked me if I had heard of Rumi.
“Of course,” I said. “Rumi was a great man.” Rumi was a 13th century Persian poet and Sufi mystic buried in Konya, a city I would be walking through.
“Yes, he was. Have you read his poetry?” Huseyin asked. He picked up one of the objects, a small book.
“Only a little. But I liked what I read.”
Huseyin handed me the book. It was a collection of Rumi’s poems. I thumbed through it quickly. It was in Turkish, but I figured I could read it, it would be a good challenge for me.
“Take this book with you,” Huseyin said, “you can read it on the road.”
“Thank you, thank you very much,” I said.
Next Huseyin picked up a large lead-and-glass lantern with an image of Rumi inside.
“This will make a great addition to your home after your walk,” he said.
“Yes, it will,” I agreed, eying it warily. Neither would I be able to carry a lantern made of lead and glass the rest of the way across Turkey, nor would I have a home to put it in when I finished.
I reached out to accept the gift and said, “It’s so beautiful, but I am afraid it will break in my backpack. Is it okay if I leave it with you and pick it up after the walk?”
“Yes, of course,” Huseyin replied.
I knew I needed to lighten my load a bit, and saw an opportunity to leave some other stuff with him, too, “I also have some other things in my pack I’d like to leave with you and come back to pick up later, is that okay?”
“Sure,” Huseyin said, and he showed me to a storage room at the back of the house where I could leave the lantern and whatever else I’d like.
My logistical concerns taken care of, we resumed our game of Okey and drank some Turkish coffee.
About 9 p.m., I thanked his mother for dinner, took my leave, walked across the street back to my camp in the park, and curled up in my sleeping bag for a good night’s sleep.
Thursday, 13 September
The next day was my third full day in Horsunlu. I woke up and waited until most of the village left for work again, and then I continued working my foot back into shape. I walked a few laps around the park to get warmed up, walked up and down the amphitheater stairs a few times to make sure the previous day’s improvements were still intact, and then I ventured out onto the dirt road next to the park.
Though the soft dirt road made an excellent padding under my feet, the surface was a little uneven. But after a couple hours of walking laps, 300 meters out and 300 meters back, my foot adjusted to the unevenness.
By lunchtime I was able to walk the laps with few problems. I was glad to realize my foot was coming back into shape quickly and predictably. Another day of working it, I figured, and I would be ready to conquer the open road.