Today’s walk went pretty quickly. There weren’t many places along the way to stop and rest, have a cup of tea, chat with the locals, etc. Actually, there were none. So I rolled into Sarikoy, my originally-intended destination village, more than an hour earlier than usual, even though I didn’t get a particularly early start this morning.
The village was set back from the road a few hundred meters, so I asked a family down at the road if the village had a bakkal (a corner market). I asked because I was looking for food and water, yes, but also because I prefer to let the locals direct me into a village that’s off the main road, rather than entering the village on my own without permission.
The answer to my question, “Is there a bakkal,” was “No, we buy everything at the carsi.” “Carsi” is a broad word meaning market, or bazaar, or sometimes even the commercial center of a town. It’s one of those words that means a great deal to the locals, and absolutely nothing to everyone else.
This was a pretty small village. It looked to be only a few hundred people. So I would not be surprised if there was no bakkal. But there was a lot of interfering background noise — honking geese, passing cars, etc. So I asked again. Was there a bakkal? I added that I was just looking for water (I held up my empty water bottle) and a little food, thinking maybe they’d offer to fill my bottle or hand me a piece of fruit or something.
No such luck, but this time the older woman said there was in fact a bakkal, but it was closed, and would not open for another hour and a half.
This was unusual. Yes, there have been times I’ve walked into a particularly small village in which the one bakkal was not open all day. But whenever that had happened, another villager, usually a young boy, ran over to pull the bakkal owner back to work.
She pointed to the center of the village, off the main road and up the hill a few blocks, so I started walking up that way. I stopped at the mosque to rest up a bit and wait until the bakkal reopened. After about 20 minutes hanging out at the mosque I decided to walk up to the bakkal anyway.
I shouldered my pack and walked out onto the street, almost getting run over by a small boy and girl chasing each other around the village. They stopped dead in their tracks, mouths wide open, staring up at the giant humpbacked stranger walking through their village. Some older boys nearby laughed at the little kids’ shocked expressions. I greeted the older boys and asked if there was a bakkal nearby. They said of course, there’s one just up the street, follow us.
We got to the bakkal, which was open and had been so all day. It was manned by a 35-year-old man named Fatih. I asked Fatih bey if there was any water, a softball question if ever there was one — I have never seen a bakkal that did not sell water. However, Fatih bey said no, we don’t sell any water, we get it all from the town’s fountains.
I bought a loaf of bread and a small carton of yogurt and asked Fatih bey if there was a place I could sit and eat. He pulled a carton of sugar cubes out from under one of the shelves, dusted it off, and indicated I could sit on it. I did so, and, after offering Fatih bey some of my white bread and yogurt (he declined), dug into my lunch.
While I ate I talked to Fatih bey about life in the village. He was from the village, the only child of his family left after all the other brothers and sisters had moved away to the cities. He was married with a couple kids, and was looking forward to celebrating the upcoming holiday with friends and family. I asked him some questions about slaughtering the sheep, but I couldn’t understand his accent very well and so had no idea what he said when we talked about anything but the most familiar and well-worn subjects.
Fatih told me numerous times he liked village life, that it was quiet and relaxed, not noisy and stressful like life in the cities. I asked him how business was at the bakkal. He said the bakkal wasn’t doing very well. I was not surprised, given that some of his fellow villagers were barely acknowledging it existed, and when they did they thought it was closed when actually it wasn’t.
When I finished my loaf of bread and carton of yogurt Fatih bey cut me off a piece of homemade helva (a popular tahini-based dessert). I used to not like helva much. I don’t know whether I’m acquiring a taste for it or what, but this was some of the most delicious helva I’ve ever tasted. It was all I could do to show restraint and not keep asking for more.
At this point I went for “the ask,” that time in the conversation when I directly ask if there is a place in town where I can camp for the night. Everything is in my pack, I say. Tent, sleeping bag, everything. All I need, I say, is a place to lay it out — a mosque garden, an empty room, whatever.
Fatih bey said no, unfortunately, probably not here in this village. We are too small, he said. Our mosque does not have a garden (true — what garden there was had been entirely covered in concrete), and there is no school or park. Fatih bey suggested I walk up the road a few kilometers, where I would find a gas station and a rest area to camp in (that is, in fact, where I am now).
When people say no to me, the most common thing they cite is their village’s lack of facilities. I want to counter that if they had seen some of the places I had considered acceptable places to sleep, they’d be amazed. A hard tile floor in the corner of a gas station’s office. A spare, unlit storage room. A dirty orchard on the side of the road.
But then I realize none of this information would change what they had to say even slightly, because they are not saying no because of the reasons they are giving, they are saying no because of something else, and that something else quite likely has absolutely nothing to do with me.
In the earlier days of this trip I thought the results of my requests for a place to stay were driven by my approach, in the way I asked, in who I asked. When I began to realize the results had little to do with me, I thought maybe they had to do with the venue — was there a patch of grass somewhere, for example? But for every place that has turned me away for not having a patch of grass, a place without a patch of grass has welcomed me warmly.
So then I thought maybe it was the size of the village. Maybe a village that couldn’t support a bakkal couldn’t support visitors. But for every tiny village that couldn’t support a bakkal that has turned me away, another tiny village that couldn’t support a bakkal has taken me in.
Every time I think I’m starting to see a pattern, I realize there is also data to refute it.
At the beginning of each day, I do not know what the end of the day will hold in store for me. In fact, at 3pm, when I typically walk into that day’s intended destination village, I have absolutely no idea what kind of reception I will get. I have been shown to the imam’s living room. I have been shown to the town’s vehicle maintenance yard. I have been shown to the mayor’s office. I have been shown to the mosque garden. I have been shown to the hard-tiled floor of a gas station’s office. I have been shown to a cheap hotel. And sometimes, once or twice a week, I am kindly shown the exit. And almost none of it has anything to do with me.