Arriving home at Mustafa’s each day had meant I ended the day with a warm, home-cooked meal and a hot shower in a spacious bathroom, but all good things must come to an end. Mustafa’s inlaws needed their apartment back. They lived in Kilis, a city adjacent to the Syrian border about 50 kilometers away, were coming for a visit, and I would need to find another place to stay.
So during that day’s walk, a few miles east of Gaziantep, I pulled out my cell phone and called Tomas, an Italian Couchsurfing hitchhiker I had met a couple days before in a cafe.
Tomas answered: “Hello?”
“Hi Tomas, it’s Matt Krause from Couchsurfing, remember me?”
“Sure, what’s up?”
“I’m looking for a place to stay tonight. I know it’s kind of short notice. Do you know of anything?”
“Probably. Tonight I’m staying in the attic of a friend of a friend’s place. You might be able to crash there.”
“Have you stayed there before?” I asked Tomas.
“Have you met the host before?”
The connection sounds kind of tentative, I thought. But I sleep in ditches by the side of the road. Beggars can’t be choosers.
“Can I join you?”
“I think so,” Tomas responded. “Meet me in the square downtown at 5pm.”
I breathed a sigh of relief and stuffed my phone back into my pocket. “Good, that’s taken care of.”
I continued walking.
A few kilometers later, a village appeared on the horizon and I spotted, at its edge, a collection of tents with people milling about. Cool, a market, I thought, I’ll drop in and take a look.
I came to the outskirts of the village and began walking towards the market.
I noticed that the women wore bright colors — purples, reds. I generally didn’t see Turkish women wearing robes that colorful.
I noticed lots of children running around unattended. Huh, that’s different, I thought. At most of the Turkish markets I see, there aren’t a lot of children, and the mothers generally hold the ones present close.
I noticed lots of men sitting on the ground in small groups. Huh, that’s unusual. I almost never see groups of Turkish men sitting around at a market, especially not on the ground.
I noticed the tents were empty, save for a few bunks and some scattered bags of clothes. Huh, that’s unusual too. Most of the markets I see have tents overflowing with goods for sale.
I stopped dead in my tracks. I looked around closer at the women in robes, at the children running around, at the men sitting on the ground outside empty tents.
I wasn’t standing in a market. I was standing in a refugee camp.
I looked around some more, wondering if it was always this easy to walk into refugee camps.
A truck pulled up on the road a hundred meters away. Some men got out of the cab and began pulling temporary fencing from the back of the truck. I guess this is a new camp, I thought. They haven’t even put up fencing yet.
I resumed walking. Another quarter-mile and I had left the village and its new refugee camp behind. Back out onto the open road. Only mile after mile of gently rolling hills and row after row of pistachio trees. And the occasional Syrian family making its way to the camp I had left behind me.
After the day’s walk I hopped a bus back to Gaziantep. I met Tomas on the square. We picked up my backpack from Mustafa’s office nearby. We went back out onto the square and met Sara, an Italian exchange student who had helped Tomas find the attic where he and I would sleep that night.
“Where is this place,” I asked Sara. “Is it far from here?”
“I don’t think so,” Sara responded, “but I’ve never been there.”
We wandered up and down streets, in and out of blind alleys, and finally found the place. It was behind a locked gate. Sara tried a bunch of keys on a ring full of them, and finally found the key that unlocked the gate. It popped open into a small courtyard. We entered the building and climbed the stairs to the attic. Tomas and I dropped our packs onto the attic floor.
I looked at Tomas. “You hungry?”
“Yeah, I’m starved.”
“Let’s go eat, then,” I said.
We descended the stairs and found a nearby restaurant for dinner.
That night as I fell asleep, I worried about Tomas. It was cold in Gaziantep, and especially cold in that attic. My sleeping bag was toasty warm, having been designed for sleeping on snow and ice. But Tomas had only a summer bag. It was going to be a cold night for him.
The next morning, I woke up to see Tomas sitting next to a glowing space heater, cupping his hands and breathing into them.
“Are you okay?” I asked. Mist came out of my mouth as I spoke. “It was kind of cold last night.”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Tomas answered, shivering, “just trying to warm up.”
“Come on,” I said to Tomas, “Let’s get out of here and go get some breakfast.”
It was my day off, and I was looking forward to a leisurely breakfast in a warm restaurant followed by some sightseeing. Besides, back in Osmaniye I had promised İlgi that I would introduce foreigners to şalgam whenever possible.
“Have you tried şalgam?” I asked Tomas as we descended the stairs.
“No, what’s that?”
“It’s a local drink, it’s delicious.”
After breakfast we wandered around the city sightseeing, knowing that we had only a few hours to give to a city that had taken thousands of years to create. Later that day, Tomas’ phone rang. It was Sara. We would need to clear out of the attic later that day. The owner was coming back and would need the space.
“I guess we’ll need to find another place to stay tonight,” I said to Tomas. “Any ideas?”
“No, none. I guess we’ll have to look for a place. But first, let me introduce you to şalgam. Come on, there’s a shop across the street. They’ll have some.” We crossed the road and entered the shop. I ordered two şalgams.
Tomas grimaced as he took a sip of his. “Is there something wrong with this?”
“No,” I said, “it’s supposed to taste like that. Drink it fast, it’ll be easier that way. Besides, we should start looking for a place to stay.”
After drinking, and grimacing, his way through şalgam, Tomas and I walked around Gaziantep looking for a cheap motel to stay in. The shadows grew longer and longer, and then the sky dimmer and dimmer, and we had inquired at almost a dozen places, but they were all too expensive, or full, or, if they fit into our budget, didn’t have hot water, which was kind of a deal breaker since it was so cold outside.
Finally, we found one which fit our budget AND had hot water. And, to make it even better, the manager took pity on the two homeless strangers wandering around the city looking for a place to stay, and he gave us an especially deep discount. We went up to the room. The water was hot and the sheets were clean.