I had been walking through the Menderes River Valley for a couple days, and I was starting to recognize the local patterns.
The straight road where I was walking ran predictably about 100 miles through the valley created by the Menderes River. Parallel to the road is a railroad track. About once an hour during the day the Izmir-Aydin-Denizli commuter train runs back and forth along the track. That track was my constant friend and companion through the entire valley.
I would be walking through the peach trees alone and the tracks would start humming and vibrating like a high-tension cable, and within moments one of the commuter trains would whiz past. For variety, at one point I tried walking on the consistently-spaced concrete cross-ties but found it too difficult to balance as the spacing threw off the rhythm of my stride.
At night the tracks were used by a couple of freight trains, but their bread and butter seemed to be carrying the commuter train during the day.
Most of the villages along the tracks operated according to a very similar schedule which was that when the train came through town, the young people got on to go into the city and work while the older people went out to the farm.
These communities had sprung up along the track about every 5 or 6 miles, a distance which took me about 90 minutes to walk. So as I left Aydin, I could predict that there would be another village within an hour or so, and I would have plenty of light left for that walk.
Sure enough, about an hour after Aydin I came upon a village called Imamkoy, a small town of about 2,000 people.
As I crossed the tracks to exit the road and enter the village, I came alongside a group of women coming home from work in the fields. When they saw me they scattered, averting their eyes. In fact, as soon as I walked into the village all the women seemed to disappear. There was not a single woman in sight in the whole town. I realized then that this village would probably be more conservative than Erbeyli.
Shortly after entering the village I saw a bakkal, or corner market, where I could stop and say hello. Outside the bakkal was a little tea garden where a few elderly men sat at tables drinking tea and talking. I poked my head into the bakkal and asked if it was okay if I sat down and got a drink of water. The bakkal owner answered, “Sure, sit down. Have some water.”
I bought a bottle of water, set my pack on the ground, and pulled up a chair beside some of the men. After we had made small talk for about twenty minutes, the bakkal owner joined us at the table. He seemed a bit standoffish toward me, and it felt like he was saying, Just wait a few minutes and let us get to know you before you get too friendly here.
I started to get nervous. I felt like I was having to audition for a role as a homeless person. And while I completely understood the need for getting to know a person who might be staying in one’s village, the daylight was burning and if the answer was going to be no I needed to get moving. I tried telling myself, Okay trust in the universe and give it a little time with these people and things will turn out fine.
But I blurted out, “Is it okay if I stay in the village tonight?” And gave my usual spiel–“I’ve got everything I need. I’ve got my back pack. I’ve got my tent. I’ve got my sleeping bag. All I need is a space to set it up.”
He looked at me intently and said, “Why don’t you sit a little longer and then we will make a decision.” The other men just looked at me silently.
I was surprised that the atmosphere in Imamkoy could be so different from a village just 20 kilometers away where I’d been welcomed so readily.
Imamkoy suddenly felt empty, gray, and lifeless. Other than myself and these elderly men and the bakkal owner, there was no one in sight. I supposed the younger men were still out in the fields working–the women, too, aside from those who’d arrived in the village at the same time I had. And those women were nowhere to be seen.
There was still some daylight, though, so I sat around with these guys for a little while drinking tea. Since it was fig harvest time, trucks were coming in and out of the village. I watched the regular delivery trucks as they came by. I watched one truck go by with farm workers headed out to a field and another truck going by loaded with figs, heading for the wholesale market.
Then a truck came through and stopped in front of the bakkal to sell watermelons out of the back of the truck. A few of the villagers appeared then to buy some.
The driver of the truck took note that I was sitting outside the bakkal watching. He picked up a long knife and slit one of the watermelons in half. “Here, have some watermelon,” he said and handed one of the halves to me. I savored each bite and let the juice run down my throat and my arms.
When it began to get dark, farmers began returning to the village and the men I had been sitting with scattered to go back to their homes. Soon it was just the market owner and myself sitting in front of the bakkal. But his son, who was about ten, soon rode up on his bike with a few other village boys his age. It was getting on toward dinner time.
The bakkal owner called his son over to us and asked him to run upstairs and have his mother prepare some extra food. The family home was above the market. The market owner and I would be dining outside that night, he told his son.
I asked the bakkal owner again if I could stay at the mosque, which was just across the street.
He said, “Well it’s unkempt. We don’t take very good care of it. So let’s find you another space.”
I assumed he meant I was unwelcome there in the village, and that I would need to move on to the next village. It was already well after dark, too late to move on, so I felt on edge, nervous that he might not let me stay there.
Then I heard the bakkal owner telling his son, who was still standing by us, that after he talked to his mother about dinner he was to take his friends and go clean out the very dirty storage room next to the unkempt mosque. “We’ll put the foreigner in there for the night,” he said in Turkish.
Then he shrugged apologetically at me and said that there was no electricity in the room and that there was a thick layer of dust over everything. However there was also no clutter in the room that would have to be cleared out.
I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that I’d have a place to stay that night, regardless of how dusty or cluttered it might be.
So the kids went into the storage room, swept out the dust and sprayed down the floor with a hose. Then the son said to me, “Okay, it’s clean now. You can go in and get set up.”
The room was very warm and wet and humid from being sprayed down. It felt like bedding down in a swamp. Since there was no electricity I set up in complete darkness.
Soon the bakkal owner came out to get me for dinner, and we dined on green beans cooked in a tasty tomato sauce, a cucumber and tomato salad, and olives. No meat, though, as was usual in the poorer villages. We sat at a rickety table out in the open garden across from the bakkal and next to the mosque. His son appeared once in awhile to see if we needed anything from the house.
After dinner the bakkal owner went back inside to take care of his family, and the neighborhood boys came out to play a game of football (or soccer) in the street. When they saw that a foreigner was sitting at the table, they came over to me and started asking questions about football. They wanted to know which was my favorite team and which players I liked. Since they were rabid football fans, they knew the names of many of the players and they wanted to know about my favorite team and players. I tried to fake my way through the conversation. The fastest way to kill a conversation in Turkey is to say you don’t care about football.
I told them my favorite team was Fenerbahce, which is one of the two biggest teams in Turkey. As soon as I said Fenerbahce their eyes lit up and they said, “Oh, we love Fenerbahce,too,” and they started listing names of players. Immediately the conversation was out of my league. I just smiled and didn’t talk much myself and let them fill my silence with their excitement.
Then we played a card game which I didn’t really understand. One of the kids was glad to sit next to me and actively play cards while I pretended to learn what was going on. When it was ten p.m. I said, “Okay, it’s about time for me to go to sleep. I’ve got to get up early and start walking tomorrow.” The kids kept playing until midnight.
The bakkal owner had been right about the mosque grounds being unkempt. As in my room, the area around the mosque was completely dark, and I stumbled my way through the litter and debris that was invisible in the dark to find the bathroom in the mosque. Though I’d taken it personally at first, thinking the bakkal owner didn’t want me here, I could see he’d had good reason to suggest I sleep somewhere else. This was downright dangerous.
After stumbling my way back out of the bathroom and into my bed in the storage room, I fell asleep to the sound of the boys outside playing. I was still sweating. My sleeping bag was made for -20 degrees F., and even though I lay on it completely open, it was still hot.
Tuesday, 4 September
At 6:30 a.m. I woke up to the sound of the steel door in front of the market being rolled open by the bakkal owner. I wanted to get out of there pretty quickly because I wasn’t feeling very welcome. So I stuffed my things in my pack and walked out of the storage room.
I poked my head into the market to say goodbye and had a rare-woman-sighting. The man’s first customer of the day was one of the village women who had come down for supplies for the morning. But I knew from the code of ethics in the village not to make eye contact or say hello. So I just said to the bakkal owner, “Thank you very much for your hospitality,” and gave him my contact information. I walked the 200 meters out to the main road and took the morning picture of my white board with that day’s dedication.
As I walked away I thought about the strange lifelessness of the village. I thought of the abandoned mosque. I thought of the women coming in from the fields the day before, turning their eyes away from me. I wondered how it would feel to be born a girl here and have to avert my eyes and to have it determined for me that my life was pretty much out of my control.
That wouldn’t have been the case in Erbeyli, though, just 20 miles down the road. At least I didn’t think it would.
I thought of Enes and Erbeyli and how welcome I’d felt there. Enes was an imam but not like the bearded holy men I’d imagined imams to be. I was happy about feeling welcome there and that imam’s could wear jeans and polo shirts and get drunk.
I was struck then by the difference in the two cities only 20 miles apart. They had been accommodating enough here, yet for the first time since I’d begun my walk I didn’t feel like a welcome member of the community.
I felt uncomfortable and disoriented as I realized that whatever image I’d had of imams, or women, or that people were friendly and hospitable in the west of Turkey and conservative terrorists in the east, whatever I’d thought to be true of how a thing would be in any given place was probably 95% wrong. Maybe this was how it would be for the months ahead of me. I was going to have to live with that disorientation, allowing the world to present itself to me as it was and not as I thought it was or should be. I’d have to be born a dumb-ass anew each day.