Wednesday, 6 March
Today’s walk is 32 km (20 miles), starting at the provincial border between Urfa and Diyarbakır, and ending at the village of Tokaçlı.
The temperature is 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit), and the crosswind so strong the bus is shuddering and the bus door won’t open until the attendant rams his shoulder into it.
When I step out of the bus into the freezing wind, all I can hear is my brain yelling at me to “go! go! go!”, not “stop and take a photo.” I usually take photos of the road signs at provincial borders, but I glance at the sign and decide not to today. To keep from getting blown over while I walk, I lean hard to the side. I gaze out at the windswept plain. It is barren, just like I feel inside.
I’m not bored, though. I only feel bored when I am looking for distraction. If I were looking for distraction I would be tremendously bored, since for the next six hours I will do nothing but walk on this windswept plain. But I’m not looking for distraction. I know from experience that there is nothingover the next hill. There’s only another hill. So I empty my head and bang out the kilometers.
A man who I think is a shepherd waves me over to a small stone shelter next to the road. I eagerly head in his direction.
“Roj baş,” I say as I duck into the door and hide from the wind. Greetings.
“Roj baş,” he smiles and says back.
He motions me further into the shelter and invites me to sit down for tea. I sit down next to the stove and warm my hands.
When my eyes adjust to the darkness I notice there is another man standing near the door. The shepherd introduces him. They are friends. The friend and I greet each other. Roj baş.
The friend is brewing tea. He points to the kettle. “It’s not ready yet,” he says. “Give it a few more minutes.”
A random thought flashes through my mind: Where are the sheep? I didn’t see any sheep outside. Aren’t these guys shepherds?
I take a closer look around the room and see a half-dozen automatic rifles leaning against the wall.
I didn’t know shepherds carry automatic rifles.
I look at the shepherds a little closer. They are wearing camouflage fatigues and headscarves.
Wait a minute, a voice in my head tells me. These aren’t shepherds.
I stand up. I don’t know where their loyalties lie. I don’t want to. I tell them I’d like a rain check on the tea and that I really must be going.
We shake hands, say our goodbyes, and I head back out into the wind.
Thursday, 7 March
Today is the last leg of my walk into Diyarbakir. I hop a bus to where I left off yesterday so I can walk the 30 kilometers back into Diyarbakir.
I climb down off the bus and take out my writing stuff. The clean whiteboard I used to use for my daily dedications is gone now, crushed by the other things in my backpack. I discarded it about 300 miles ago. Now I write my daily dedications on scraps of paper.
A memory has popped into my head and I dedicate the day to Bill Munn, a friend of mine from my teenage days. I stand by the side of the road and write the memory on paper so I can type it into my computer later:
When I was 15 I lived in Visalia, California. On Saturday mornings a bunch of us would ride our bicycles to Rocky Hill, one of the foothills of the Sierras.
One day Bill Munn came with us. He was a patriarch of the Visalia cycling scene at that time, but he wasn’t always a regular at the Saturday morning rides, even though they started in front of his shop.
At that time Bill was about 35, I guess. He was, shall we say, a little bit heavier than the rest of us.
We young bucks got to the top of Rocky Hill way ahead of Bill. While waiting for Bill, some of us rode around idly in circles, while some of us just sat on our bikes, leaned against the bars, and watched him sweat his way up the hill.
At the top he pulled to a stop and gasped out some words I’ll probably laugh at for the rest of my life: “I can’t breathe, I need a cigarette.”
By the time he came to a full stop he had pulled a cigarette out of his pocket, lit it, and started puffing away.
I notice that while I’ve been writing in my notebook I’ve been standing in front of a police station. I figure I have mere seconds before the cops show up to find out what I’m doing. Sure enough, three of them appear as I close my notebook. They greet me and pat me down. They check my documents and rifle through my notebook.
“Who is Bill Munn?” they ask, pointing to his name on the page, perhaps suspecting that he is a spy higher up in the organization.
“An old friend of mine.”
They eye me suspiciously and hand the notebook back to me. I say thanks, turn around, and begin my walk for the day.
Six hours later I walk into Diyarbakir. I stop briefly to take a photo of the city limit sign: Diyarbakır, population 875,000.
Over the past 7 days I have walked from Şanlıurfa to Diyarbakır. 185 kilometers, or 115 miles. I suspect I am tired, but I also suspect that if I were tired I would not know it. So now that 77% of the walk is done, I will be taking 3 days off.I will be visiting a school, and I’ll also have two days of napping and eating. I might try to catch a movie too. I don’t watch too many movies these days.
Friday, 8 March
I spend the day at Rekabet Kurumu Cumhuriyet Fen Lisesi, a science-focused high school in Diyarbakır. I am a guest of Nazile Çelik, one of the school’s English teachers. She is a friend of my hosts in Diyarbakır.
This particular school is pretty competitive. The students have to pass a special exam to enter, and then once they’re in, they not only go to school during the week, they also take 4 hours of additional classes at private study schools on Saturdays AND on Sundays. Chess, table tennis, and volleyball seem to be the most popular extra-curricular activities. Almost half of the students want to be doctors.
Visiting schools is exhausting for me, but it is, hands down, my favorite activity on the trip. If I had the invitations, and the endurance, I would spend every single spare moment of this trip visiting schools. I don’t care if they are primary schools, middle schools, high schools, or universities. I LOVE visiting schools.
The students get excited, and I get confused and overwhelmed, and in the hallways a million people talk to me at once and I don’t know who to focus on. But once I get in front of a class and start talking with the students the rest of the world falls away. It’s just me and the students in front of me.
Saturday, 9 March, and Sunday, 10 March
I spend one of the days touring Diyarbakır with four students of Nazile Çelik: a young man named Diyar, and three young women named Esgi, Esra, and Aysel. We climb around on the city walls, visit the city’s four-footed minaret, and relax with a hot cup of menengiç, a hot drink made with terebinth berries, in one of the old town squares.
I spend part of the other rest day helping my host with the ironing. Some people, like my host, hate ironing. I love it. It brings me peace.
I spend the rest of the time sleeping and eating. My host asks me if I want to go out and explore. I say no, I do enough of that these days. I just want to rest, thank you.
Monday, 11 March
On the walk today a man asks me, “What’s this region was called?”
There are a couple possible answers to that question, and for those answers wars have been fought, and are still being fought, and people give, and take, lives.
I don’t want to get involved. It’s not my fight. I just want to finish walking across the country. So I answer the best I can: I smile and say, “I don’t know, you tell me.”
He smiles back and declines to answer, too.
The day is sunny and warm with big blue skies. There is no wind. Rolling hills as far as the eye can see, with a change in the ground cover now. West of Diyarbakir the land was covered with rocks and was used only for grazing. East of Diyarbakir it’s the opposite: no rocks, and all farming. Mostly wheat, barley, and lentils. Fresh green sprouting grasses cover the rolling hills. Last time I saw a wheat field was in December and it was brown.
I stop for lunch at the Ortaçlar Petrol in the village of Köprübaşı (“Bridge Head”). Lunch is two ice creams, a bag of nacho cheese Doritos, and some water. Doritos enjoy a large distribution network in eastern Turkey; you can find them almost anywhere.
İsmail and İshak, the owners of Ortaçlar, ask me to make sure I mention their gasoline station in particular. So the next time you find yourself in need of fuel in Köprübaşı, 20 kilometers east of Diyarbakır, be sure to stop by Ortaçlar Petrol. Ask for the fill-up special, and tell them Matt sent you.
My walk’s 1,000th mile matches exactly with the middle of the Tigris river. I stop briefly to note that to someone in a less utilitarian, more poetic mood, the combination of rolling the odometer to 1,000 miles while crossing a river considered by many to be the cradle of human civilization would probably be more significant. I resume walking across the bridge. Two more days of this and I’ll be ready to move on to the next town, Silvan.
Tuesday, 12 March, and Wednesday, 13 March
I can see a few mountains have started to appear in the distance. In about a week I’ll start the climb up onto a higher plateau, and I’ll finish the walk on that plateau.
On one of my breaks I stop at a gasoline station for some tea. They ask me about federalism in the USA. In my Tarzan Turkish I try to answer questions like, “In America, are the state governors appointed by the President, or are they elected by the people?”
As I walk back out to the road, I reflect that in western Turkey, when I would tell people I was heading east, they would almost invariably pantomime machine gun fire. Now that I’m in the east, I am answering questions about federalism.
When I reach Silvan, my destination for the day, I snack on peynirli kol böreği and çay. While I eat someone explains to me that the Bible is broken. I thank them for the information and hop a bus back to Diyarbakır.
Thursday, 14 March
As the bus leaves Diyarbakır I pull out my notebook and pen this:
There was a squirrel. He was out hunting for nuts. He saw a nice big one down in the well of a tree. He grabbed the nut. He tried to pull it out, but the nut was too big. It, plus his hand, wouldn’t come out together. So he had to make a choice — let go of the nut, or hold onto it and starve.
Today I am leaving Diyarbakır. I have been here for over a week — three days to walk towards the city, one day to visit a school, two days to rest, and then three days to walk away from it.
I am moving on to Silvan, and then Tatvan. In Silvan I’ll be staying with a new friend of mine, Islam. People are waiting for me in those places. I know from experience now that some of them will become great friends, but in order to meet them, I have to say goodbye, at least for now, to my old friends.
It is like breaking up with people every day, day after day, and I don’t like it a whole lot. In fact, it is the single most emotionally exhausting aspect of this trip.
But the soon-to-be-new-friends are waiting for me, and so I’ve got to say goodbye, at least for now, to the old ones. Thank you Diyarbakır, it’s been real.