It is Wednesday. I wake up at 6am. I brush my teeth. I get dressed. I have a bite to eat. I walk out the door at 6:32am.
I walk 10 minutes to the bus stop. The next bus to the nearby town of Bitlis doesn’t leave until 7am, so I cross the street for a cup of tea. I find a seat with a direct line of sight to the bus stop.
After I drink my tea I get on the bus and begin waiting. A few minutes later the driver hops in, fires up the engine, and pulls away from the curb. A half hour later he drops me off at a bus stop in Bitlis. The next bus out of Bitlis doesn’t leave for more than an hour, so I cross the street to another teahouse.
The staff and the regulars at this teahouse recognize me. This is not the first time I’ve been to this particular teahouse, since this particular bus stop has become an important part of my five-day project to walk the road between the village of Bekirhan and the town of Tatvan.
At the teahouse I meet the muhtar, the village headman, for a village called Direktaşı. I have seen Direktaşı on the map, and I have been using it as a reference point for distances, elevations, etc. I tell the muhtar I recognize his village’s name. How do I know it, he asks me. He is curious because, as he tells me, Direktaşı is now an empty town. It has been empty for a long time. I wonder, but do not ask, why an empty village needs a muhtar.
The muhtar leaves. I strike up a conversation with a half dozen zabıta police. The zabıta are commercial cops, patrolling the neighborhood, keeping an eye on things, making sure nothing is obstructing the wheels of commerce.
After a few minutes of chat I step outside for some fresh air. Ertin, one of the zabıta policemen, follows me outside. He begins talking to me about Islam and Mohammed. “Yeah yeah, that’s great,” I think. I wish I knew a polite way to tell him I’ve heard this before, and I don’t want to hear it again now. I think of one: “Come walk with me. Oh, is there a bathroom around here?”
Ertin shows me to a bathroom. I take care of my business and, when I come out, begin heading straight for the bus, which arrived a few minutes ago and is filling up. I hope to hop on the bus quickly and avoid additional religiously-oriented conversation.
Ertin stays close to me on the short walk to the bus. I mention to him that I will be passing through this same place tomorrow. He invites me to breakfast. “Sounds good,” I tell him. I hop on the bus, happy to be about to leave Bitlis. The bus sits there for another hour.
The bus finally leaves at 10:15am. I ride it for about 45 minutes, to the day’s walk’s starting point. I will walk 30 kilometers (19 miles), the same distance I walked yesterday, and the same distance I will walk tomorrow. It takes me 6 hours to walk 30 kilometers. That means I’ll finish around 5pm, shortly before sunset. I don’t like finishing so late in the day.
I finish walking 15 minutes early, at 4:45, at another village’s crossroads. A man is standing at the crossroads, making sure people get on the right buses. I tell him I am heading back to Tatvan. He tells me the bus to Tatvan will be passing through at 5pm. Thank god, I think, I’ll be home soon. The 5pm bus doesn’t show up.
The bus-hailer man tells me he will find me when the next bus to Tatvan passes through town. He points me to a couple friends of his and suggests I sit with them and have tea while I wait. I take a seat. They ask me how much a kilo of steak costs in the US. It’s been a while since I bought steak, but I take what I think is a pretty good guess.
One of the men, who has never been out of the country, taps his temple and says to me, “You don’t know what you’re talking about, but I do.” He quotes a number that is about 10% of the one I gave. At first I feel a little put out that I have been told so directly that I don’t know the price of meat in my own country. But then I realize that anytime the second man has a question about the US, I can just defer and say, “Ask [the first man], he knows everything.” I am tired and am happy to defer pricing estimates to someone else.
The pricing conversation continues. How many hours does the average worker have to work to buy one kilo of chicken? How about lamb, how long does the average worker have to work to buy one kilo of lamb? To each question I now answer, “I don’t know, ask [the first man], he knows.”
A minibus pulls into town. The bus-hailer man calls out to me. This bus won’t get me back to Tatvan, but it will get me closer than I am now. I hop on and pay my fare. I ride the bus about twenty minutes.
The bus drops me off at a transfer point, where I find a bus to Tatvan. The driver of the Tatvan bus tells me his is a direct bus to Tatvan. “Thank god,” I think, “I’ll be home soon.” I get on the bus and pay my fare. The bus pulls around to the other side of the parking lot and stops for a 20-minute dinner break.
After the break I get back on the bus. I cram into one of the remaining spaces at the back of the bus. The other passengers start peppering me with questions. Where are you from? What is your name? Do you have children? What are you doing here? I know they don’t meet many Americans, and even fewer who are walking across their country, so I answer their questions as best I can, even though I am so exhausted I can barely remember my own name. I am grateful when they begin discussing me amongst themselves, rather than discussing me directly with me. I sit back and rest a bit, my rest interrupted only when they need to consult me on a point of information so they can resume their conversation.
The bus stops off at a gasoline station between Bitlis and Tatvan. About a half-dozen passengers, me included, are told to get off. “What now,” I wonder. A man, about 80 years old, grabs my arm and shows me to a private car. I don’t resist, because he seems to know where I should be going. All six of us, including the man who grabbed my arm, begin loading into the private car. It is an unusually small car, and I fold myself in as best I can. There is no head room for me, so I bow my head and stare at my knees.
The private car pulls into Tatvan about 8pm. I ask the driver to let me off at the Big Mosque. I am cranky when I get home, having arrived after dark. I prefer to be back at home before the sun sets, a habit I picked up on the first half of the walk, when life was much better if I made camp and was safely in my sleeping bag by the time the sun set. When I’m out after dark I can’t see the faces of the people I meet. Plus, it’s easy to get lost.
In the living room I check my emails. One is from my host in the next city of Van. He will be leaving town and can’t host me after all. I will need to find another place to stay. “I’m too tired to deal with this now,” I think. “I’ll deal with it later.”
Another email is from my mom. I haven’t talked to her in over a week, but she follows my blog regularly (Hi Mom!). She asks me if I have a girlfriend. I don’t have a girlfriend, but my mom is the third person to ask that question this week. For almost two years no one has bothered to ask if I have a girlfriend, and now three people in one week do. I email her back, asking her why she asked. Did I say something? Am I giving off some “I have a girlfriend” vibes?
My host Veli calls me to dinner. He and his flatmate Asım have made a dinner of seasoned potatoes, pasta, and yogurt. Two of their friends from the building join us for dinner. The five of us spread some newspaper on the floor, set the dishes on it, sit cross-legged around the food, and eat from common plates.
I wolf down the potatoes and finish off one of the bowls of yogurt. Veli offers me some of his potatoes. I politely turn them down. It is 9:30pm. I am exhausted. It occurs to me that walking six hours in one day, and then getting up the next day to walk six hours again, and then getting up the next day to walk six hours again, and to do so in a foreign country, is a fairly unusual activity.
I sit quietly, staring at nothing, while the others chat excitedly about something. Veli notices I am tired. He excuses me from dinner. I take my leave, brush my teeth, and am asleep by 10pm.
The next morning I will wake up and do it again. Thirty kilometers a day. It doesn’t matter if I’m tired. Whatever it takes, I tell myself. Finish the walk.