At 5:15 a.m., shortly before sunrise on September 2nd, the wail of the muezzin’s call to prayer over the loudspeakers of the minaret rising over me stirred me out of my sound sleep. Not only was sleeping by a mosque safe and convenient, the mosque came with a built in alarm. I pulled on my boots and stumbled about 20 yards to the little outhouse in the mosque’s garden. Then I knocked down my tent, brushed off the dirt, and stuffed it into my pack. All was quiet. There was no one to say good morning to, since most of the adults in the village were already in their farms tending to their fig trees. I thought that was probably why no one came to prayers that morning.
I felt a momentary stab of self pity. Here I was on the second morning of my big cross country event that was going to take months of my life and there was no one around to share it with. I hungered to hear a simple “Hey, Matt, safe journeys on your second day!” or “Bravo! You made it through the first night!”
But I let it pass and walked out to the main road a few hundred meters away and began walking east towards the sunrise. A few hundred meters later, once I started to feel the call of the day’s adventure stronger than the pull of my warm sleeping bag, I stopped, pulled off my pack, pulled out my small whiteboard, a black marker, and my camera. I scrawled “Today is for Mason Waters,” photographed it, stuffed everything back into my pack, and resumed walking.
About 200 meters later, I realized I was hungry. I looked at my watch: it was 6:30, time for breakfast.
I spotted an outdoor tea garden up ahead on the left side of the road. Outside was a dusty handwritten sign advertising gozleme. Gozleme, a popular food in Turkey and a favorite of mine, is a layered flatbread stuffed with a choice of crumbled white cheese, mashed potatoes, or spinach. The place seated only about twenty people, and I was their only customer. I asked the owner if he was open. He was. The morning air, though still crisp and fresh, was starting to warm up so I took a seat under one of the shade trees and ordered gozleme and cay.
I was hungrier than I thought, so I greedily tore into my breakfast, scraping the plate for that last crumb of the gozleme.
When I finished I pushed back from the table feeling smug and proud of myself. Here I am on this big adventure. I am probably the only person in the world who dares do stuff like this. At that moment two other men breezily stepped into the tea garden wearing backpacks. I could see from their freshly-pressed t-shirts, cargo shorts, and white Nikes that they were not locals.
I greeted them and invited them to sit down with me for breakfast. They ordered cay and gozleme too. I asked what they were doing and where they were from. Only one of them spoke a little English; the other spoke none, and neither of them spoke Turkish, but we did the best we could. I asked them what they were doing and where they were from.
They were best friends from Poland. One was named Darek and the other was Piotr. One was a Catholic priest and the other was a diamond-tipped industrial saw blade salesman.
They were on an extended walking pilgrimage from Poland through Southeast Europe and then east through Turkey, southeast through Syria and Jordan, and finishing in Israel. Their operational model was that they would work at their regular day jobs during the year and then during their two to four week vacation they would leave Poland and walk a certain leg of the journey. They had already been engaged in this project for some years and had been through Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, and Northwestern Turkey. The year before they’d walked from Istanbul to Izmir. This year they were walking from Izmir to Denizli.
The previous night, they told me as we sipped our cay, they had slept in a large, steel ocean shipping container.
I looked at their backpacks and was amazed that they were so small. I wanted to compare weights, so I stood up and walked over to their packs, asking if I could pick them up and look at them. My own pack weighed about 18 or 20 kilos, which is about 35 or 40 pounds. On the other hand, their two packs together weighed half of what mine alone weighed. I asked them what was inside the packs, and they rattled off a brief list of the main contents. I realized I was carrying a lot of equipment that they didn’t have. For example, they carried sleeping bags, but no tent. I thought, man I have a lot to learn.
At this time, September 2012, Syria’s civil war was heating up, and I asked them if they were going to have trouble walking through that country. They didn’t seem too worried. They said that because they were walking only two weeks at a time they would be walking into Syria in five years, and by that time Syria would probably have it all sorted out.
As we ate breakfast we continued talking. They gave tips for life on the road, and I told them a little about the country. I did most of the learning though, since I was new to life on the road. We finished our breakfast and asked the owner of the restaurant to take a photo of us. Then we shouldered our packs and left. Though we were walking in the same direction, I let them go ahead first, pretending I had business to tend to before setting out.
They took off down the road, and I followed a few minutes later so I could see them off in the distance ahead of me. I felt a mild sense of comfort being able to see them ahead of me. After about an hour of walking I couldn’t see them any more.
It was fig harvest season in this area[ Remind where you are?], and there were lots of figs drying by the side of the road. Early in the afternoon while I walked, a local farmer waved me over to his side of the road. I went over and shook his hand. He introduced himself as Nasuh and motioned me to sit down in the shade of his garden’s awning and offered me some chilled watermelon. We sat in the shade eating the chilled watermelon and dried figs, but I was mainly interested in the pitcher of cold water sitting on the table, I greedily drank whatever he offered, and was disappointed he didn’t seem to realize just how much I wanted all the rest of it..
He spoke a little English and I spoke a little Turkish, so we limited ourselves to friendly small talk.
As Nasuh and I were in the middle of chatting I saw the two Polish guys coming towards us down the road. Somehow during the day I had passed in front of them and not realized it. I called them over, introduced them to Nasuh and invited them to sit with us in the shade.
Since Darek and Piotr didn’t speak any Turkish, I ended up translating into Turkish what they said and translating into English what Nasuh said. Because my Turkish wasn’t very good, and Darek’s (? right name)[ Names?] English wasn’t very good, communication was difficult and sometimes Nasuh would look at us as though we had said something kind of rude or had turned down his hospitality or something like that.
After our snack Darek, Piotr, and I resumed our walk, chatting together for about 3 kilometers (about 1 ½ miles). Darek and Piotr liked to walk faster than I did, but I was finding that once I started walking the weight of my pack didn’t matter as much as long as I walked in a straight line and on flat ground. [ Did they stop and go, etc?]
We crossed through a nice grassy area with some shade trees and I told them I was going to take a break under one of the trees. So we said our goodbyes and they continued on.
I took off my pack and rested under one of trees for about 10 minutes. When I stood up to begin walking again I felt relaxed. The small villages I had been walking through had now turned to an idyllic little valley surrounded by hills and full of trees and farms.
After walking for another hour, I came to the edge of Germencik, a small town of about 10,000 people. Two preteen boys, 11 or 12 years old, stood at the side of the road underneath the city limit sign watching me as I approached. The younger one was leaning on a bicycle.
The older one swaggered across the road and asked me for money, eyeing my backpack and the few possessions I had dangling from it such as my evening sandals, my jacket and a couple of other other items. None of it was valuable to anyone else, but if I lost my night time sandals I would have to wear my hiking boots in the evening and I definitely did not want to do that. So everything was valuable to me.
When I told him I had no money for them, he started grabbing at the objects dangling off my back pack. I started walking faster, telling him again that I had nothing for them. He seemed to lose interest and began to fall back. But then they collectively seemed to remember they had a bicycle and if one of them got on it they could harass me more efficiently.
The older boy called back to the younger one to come up and ride alongside me, to take charge so he could rest. The younger boy started pedalling towards me now, but the bicycle was too big for him and he had to stand up in order to pedal. When he did finally wobble up to me on the bike, he continued asking for money and tried batting at the back pack with one hand while hanging onto one handle bar with the other. To keep his balance, he had to resort to words rather than actions, and his begging became more and more desperate. I figured I could outlast him as long as he was on the bicycle, and after several minutes of this they both gave up on me and I entered Germencik alone and in a bad mood.
There is a commuter train that runs between Denizli and Izmir, two of the larger cities in western Turkey. The tracks that run between the two towns run parallel to the highway I was walking on through Germencik. On the other side of the railroad tracks, a couple hundred meters to my left, I saw a really large mosque. I thought, Okay, I’ll go check out the mosque even though it’s kind of early to settle down for the night.
I walked onto the mosque grounds, which were shaded and grassy under huge trees. The grass was soft, cool, and green, long enough to reach my mid-calf. I would be able to use the fountains, the bathrooms, and there was food nearby, everything I needed for the night would be there.
I plopped down next to the fountains and gulped water from my bottle. I wiped my chin dry and turned the fountain on to clean up a bit. I figured I would wait until the sun went down and then find a place on the mosque grounds to camp.
Just then a man walked up, apparently to pray in the mosque. “Merhaba,” he said to me, then introduced himself and asked what I was doing.
I said, “I’m walking across Turkey, and I started just a couple of days ago.”
I expected him to smile and laugh and not take me seriously. Instead, he simply said with a straight face that he had come to the mosque to do his prayers. He invited me to a feast his family was giving—a sunnet (circumcision ceremony) for his son. He was headed there after prayers, he said. I eagerly accepted his invitation. As a stranger to him, I felt quite honored to be included in such a personal family event.
“Wait a few minutes while I pray,” he said and went inside.
When he came back from his prayers, I pulled my pack back on and we walked together the couple hundred yards to his house. There were dozens of people milling around in his packed-dirt courtyard, waiting for the chicken to come off the grill. A few dozen were also seated at long folding tables with white paper tacked to the tables.
The man proudly showed me to a seat and walked over to the grill so he could get me the first plate of chicken. I began to make small talk with the people seated around me. The man brought the first plate of chicken to me and handed it to me with a flourish. It was still pink inside. I smiled and took the plate anyway, because I wanted to be a gracious guest.
I quickly became the center of attention as guests questioned me about my walk and who I was. I took part in the festivities for about a hour and a half until my belly was full of chicken, rice, and coban salatasi (tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and peppers). There was also plenty of rakı going around and I drank my fill of that, which was a mistake as I wasn’t much of a drinker.
At about 5:30 p.m., just before the ceremony itself, I began to feel a little embarrassed that I might become the guest of honor at someone else’s party, so I told them I needed to go as I needed to finish my walking for the day. I put on my backpack, and walked unsteadily out of the yard, shaking a lot of hands as I went. I walked to the main road which was only about 100 feet away and leaned against a wall because my head was spinning from the raki.
I had wanted to go back to the mosque for the night, because it was so nice there. However, I had just told everyone I was leaving town.
I continued leaning against the wall for 15 or 20 more minutes trying to clear the cobwebs from my head before walking on to the next village, which happened to be Erbeyli, a small village of about 2,000 people.
It took me about an hour of walking to reach Erbeyli.
In most of the towns I had passed, the mosque was within 200-500 meters of the road. In this village it was a little further off the road but I could spot the minaret rising into the sky about a kilometer away on a road perpendicular to the main road. I had picked this as the spot to stay even before I arrived in the village. I heard the call to prayer begin as I entered town, so I stepped up the pace a bit.
I turned left off the main road and crossed the tracks of the Denizli to Izmir train. On the other side of the tracks was a bakkal (a corner market). Bakkals are often the social hub of the village, so I popped my head into the market to say hi and tell them I was walking through and would like to go rest a bit at the mosque. I asked if that would be okay, and the owner of the bakkal said that yes, of course, it was fine for me to rest there.
I left the bakkal quickly. I was in a hurry. I wanted to be waiting in the mosque garden when the men came out after prayers.
As I walked deeper into the village towards the mosque, I encountered many families out for a relaxed late-afternoon stroll. Happy, well-dressed kids, even little girls, circled around on shiny new bicycles, welcoming me to their village. I returned their smiles and greetings.
When I arrived at the mosque, I was relieved to realize the men were still inside for prayers. I found the spigots and set down my pack to wash up. After washing up as best I could, I loitered in the mosque garden, took a look around, and noticed that the garden was completely tiled over. The previous night’s well-kept mosque garden had plenty of dirt and grass to sleep on. This one might be more challenging but with my sleeping pad it wouldn’t be too much of a problem.
Soon the men finished their prayers and emerged from the mosque. When they saw me standing there they looked at me questioningly. Who is this unidentified stranger with a back pack standing by the fountains? They didn’t seem suspicious, just curious. I smiled at them and nodded and said hello. The larger group dissipated, leaving a smaller group of six behind. They walked over to me, we shook hands and started chatting in Turkish. They asked me who I was and what I was doing there. When I told them I was walking across Turkey they began laughing. “Well, you’re just beginning!” they said.
As we made small talk I commented on the nice farms around the area and asked what they were growing. I found out that in this area they grew peaches and figs mostly.
One of the older men, who seemed to be a leader in the group, questioned me further about what I was doing. I told him more about my walk and that this looked like a very nice place to stay for the night. “Would you mind if I set up camp here?” I asked. “I have everything I need in my backpack.”
“It’s probably not suitable,” said the older man. “Look, it is all tiled over.”
The sun was getting low, and I didn’t want to have to move on to the next village, so I pressed a bit more and asked, “Is there another place I could sleep instead?”
They eyed each other uncertainly. I started to feel uncertain myself. Was it not cool for me to stay at a mosque after all? Was it not cool for me to stay in that village? Then they began explaining that the problem was that the tiled over mosque grounds weren’t really a suitable place for me to sleep. They wanted me to have a roof over my head and a couch to sleep on, they said.
I insisted that I had a sleeping pad and that the tiles were no problem. The older man said, “No, we will find you another place to stay.”
Most of the men in the group were elderly, 65-75 years old. One of the six, though, was a younger man in his early twenties. He stood out in the group, not only because of his age, but because he was wearing jeans and a light blue polo shirt with horizontal stripes. He spoke in a clearer Turkish that was easier for me to understand than the slurred Turkish of the older men. The older man I’d been talking to motioned to the younger man in the blue polo and told him to call the Muhtar, the village administrative head. The young man tapped a number into his cell phone and called the Muhtar. I overheard him telling the muhtar my story.
“Do we have a place for him?…Yes, he has all his camping gear — sleeping bag, tent, everything.…We don’t want him to stay at the mosque. The yard is all tiled over.…So what should we do?…No, that space is all used up.…Okay, I’ll do that.”
The young man hung up.
“We don’t have any space here,” he said to me, “but would you want to stay at my place?”
I don’t know what he thought “space” was, but an offer to stay in someone’s home was fine by my book.
Then the young man motioned to me and said, “Come with me.” So I said goodbye to the older men and started walking down the street with the blue polo-shirted one.
As we walked to his house I asked him some questions about himself. His name was Enes. He was 23 years old, and he was the village’s imam.
That was the first time I had seen a twenty-three-year-old polo-shirt-wearing imam. My image of imams was that they had long gray beards and mustaches and wore skull caps and long flowing gowns.
I asked, “Am I going to stay at your place tonight?”
He said, “Yes, of course!”
When we walked into his apartment I saw that he lived like a typical twenty-three year old kid who had just gotten his first job and apartment. It was basically a bachelor pad with no furniture to speak of except for a spindly little table in the kitchen that had one chair and a futon mattress lying on the floor of the living room. Enes dragged the mattress into my room so I could spread my sleeping bag on it. Later when I opened his refrigerator I saw only a bottle of ketchup and a jar of mayonnaise.
After a few minutes, Enes needed to leave to take care of some unspecified imam business. I stayed behind, alone in his empty apartment.
I decided to wash up a little in the bathroom. It was a good thing I wasn’t very dirty that day as the only items in the bathroom were a worn-down toothbrush and a half-used tube of toothpaste lying by the sink and a few sheets of toilet paper on the back of the toilet, no spare roll in sight. There were also no towels in sight. I washed as well as I could and then dried off with my t-shirt. Then I laid out my sleeping bag on the futon and checked my emails on my iPhone.
Enes came back to the apartment about 9:30 p.m. talking to a friend on his cell phone. Darkness had fallen at that point, and I was sitting in the dark because I hadn’t been able to find the light switch. Maybe there wasn’t even a light in the apartment, it was so barren.
When he finished the call, he said to me that he was going into the next town to hang out with some of his friends and would I like to come?
I said, “Sure, of course.”
We went out to his car, a rundown red subcompact. He cleared some debris from the passenger seat and I plopped down as he went over to the drivers’ side. While we drove the 10 kilometers to Incirliova, I asked him a little about the process of becoming an imam in Turkey.
Enes told me that most, but not all, of the imams are civil servants, he said. They go to a special school for imams, but they are government employees just as postal workers are.
The average monthly salary of an imam in Turkey is 2000 TL, or about US$700. I’ve always thought it interesting that the state is proud of its secularism, yet it hires all its imams. Today in Turkey, secularism is a hotly debated subject like abortion or immigration in the U.S. It’s one of those third-rail political issues.
Enes had graduated from an imam school, which I understand can be compared to a seminary in the U.S. but it is run by the government. Enes was originally from a town about forty miles from where we were. When you graduate from imam school, he told me, the government ministry in charge of placement places you in a village, and Erbeyli was the one he had been assigned to after he graduated.
I asked Enes, “What is the salary of an imam?”
He said that the salary wasn’t great. It was about two thousand lire per month, which comes to about one thousand U.S. dollars per month. So it’s not a lot but the village provides a house for you. It must be kind of like being a pastor in the United States. You don’t make a lot of money but that’s not why you do it.
In Incirliova we found his friends sitting outside a restaurant. They were in their early twenties. We sat on wooden chairs around a little wooden table on the sidewalk and drank tea. His friends were also government employees but from other departments in the government such as sanitation and postal. It was strange to my way of thinking that being an imam was a government job like theirs. Our conversation was about girls, fast cars, and vacations, probably what all young men in their early twenties would talk about. We did that for about an hour and when Enes drove me back to the house, he mentioned that he was going out to attend a friend’s wedding and invited me. I told him thank you, but it had been a long day and I would like to turn in. He said he would probably be out late, and suggested that before I leave in the morning we should meet up for breakfast. I told him that sounded good.
He did know where the light switches were, so before he left he turned on the living room’s light and showed me where the other light switches were. Alone once again in the imam’s unfurnished apartment, I went back to checking my emails and uploading photos from the day onto my website. By that time it was about 10:30pm, So I turned in and slept soundly.
Monday, 3 September
I woke up the next morning in the early light, about 5:30, expecting to have breakfast with Enes, but he was nowhere to be found. I brushed my teeth, packed my things in my backpack, and walked out to the main road for my day’s walk to Aydin, the larger town after Incirliova, where we had met his friends the night before.
A couple kilometers down the road a red car honked at me and pulled over. It was Enes. He rolled down the window and said, “Hop in, we are going to breakfast!” He wanted to catch me before I got too far away and apologized, saying he had wanted to have breakfast but had to leave to do some imam business and was glad he had found me by the side of the road.
So we drove to Incirliova and Enes called his friends from the night before to meet us for breakfast. One of them was busy and couldn’t make it. The three of us breakfasted on cay and pogaca which was a plain, buttery, white roll. This was not a fancy breakfast, but pretty typical.
“How did things go at the wedding last night?” I asked them.
They told me the wedding had been for a friend of theirs, so they had been out late drinking and had just woken up a few minutes before Enes had pulled up honking beside me on the side of the road.
I laughed at the image. Instead of a long-bearded holy man, here was this twenty-three year old kid in a light blue polo shirt and jeans getting drunk with his buddies, dancing until late at night at a wedding, and then passing out at a friend’s house. I was a little puzzled though. Earlier that morning I had heard the call to prayer in the village.
I said to him, “Well, I heard the call to prayer and I assumed you were at the mosque.”
He said, “No, that wasn’t me; it was a friend doing back-up for me.”
After breakfast Enes asked me if I wanted him to drive me into Aydın. I told him, “No, I need to go back to the spot where you picked me up. I need to walk every meter.”
He took what I said at face value. He took me back to the exact spot he had found me an hour earlier. We said our goodbyes, took a photo together, and on I went.