Friday, 14 September (continued)
In a somewhat better frame of mind after lunch, I continued walking through Denizli. My gait was slowed by the pain in my foot, and by mid-afternoon I was only halfway through the city. I knew by the map that it was possible to make it all the way through the city by the end of the day, but the voice of self-doubt was yelling inside my head telling me that I would never make it. I was determined to escape the noise and exhaust fumes, though. I didn’t want to wake up to them in the morning. So I told the voice to shut up so I could walk in peace.
I got thirsty as I walked and stopped to buy a bottle of cold water, and a roll of cookies. Ahead was a shady park. I sat down on a bench under a tree to cool off and slake my thirst.
While I rested I decided it would be a good time to catch up on some emails, so I pulled out my iPhone to check my email inbox. One of the emails was from my dad. He asked about some protests in the Muslim world regarding a YouTube movie denigrating Mohammed. The protests, he said, were centered around a town in Libya called Benghazi. He asked if I had seen or heard anything about this, or was experiencing any negative blowback or anti-American sentiment.
I thought back to the welcoming receptions I had received at the gas station last night and in Horsunlu before that. I thought of the trays of food that people had been bringing me, the smiling faces and warm welcomes I had been getting for the past few weeks. I emailed him back that I was fine, and that no, I hadn’t experienced any negative blowback or anti-American sentiment. I was walking alone through a part of the world many of my fellow Americans seemed to think was a boiling cauldron of anti-American sentiment but the world they were reading about in the media and the one I was experiencing were completely different.
There were emails from other people too, but I didn’t see anything urgent, and daylight was burning. I wanted to get out of Denizli, so I decided to respond to them later. But before I stood up and walked back out to the road I pulled out my pad of paper and penned the following comment to post on my blog later:
Some videos get made, some diplomats get killed, some people get all up in arms, etc. I’d like to weigh in on this, since I happen to be walking across a Muslim country, and then I’ll return to our regularly-scheduled programming of me demonstrating that the world isn’t something to be afraid of…
As an example, I’ll use that case from a couple years ago where some pastor in Florida burned, or at least threatened to burn, some Korans. The details of this most recent case are different, but the song remains the same…
When a minister in Florida burns a Koran, how representative of your daily activities is that?
Are you running around hating Muslims, frothing at the mouth, spouting hate speech right and left? Probably not.
And how many of your friends and family are doing those things? Probably not many.
So if the Pakistani press’s story about the Florida minister is not representative of the vast majority of human activity in the US, why do we think shots of a couple dozen Pakistanis up in arms means the whole Muslim world is angry?
Another question we often ask is, if Muslims really don’t support anti-Western violence, why are they not organizing more anti-violence demonstrations?
The answer is in the answer to the question, why, when the pastor in Florida burns a Koran, do you not organize anti-anti-Muslim demonstrations?
The answer is probably that you are busy with your day-to-day life. You are busy getting the kids off to school. You are busy going to work. You are busy thinking about dinner and calling your husband to remind him to pick up a loaf of bread on his way home.
When a pastor in Florida burns a Koran, you don’t think, oh my god, I need to organize a rally. You think, god, there are some crazies out there, and then you go back to what you were doing, because most of living is doing those things.
The same goes for those folks “over there.” If you ever find yourself wondering why there aren’t more “anti-anti-Western” demonstrations in the Muslim world, ask yourself why there aren’t more “anti-anti-Muslim” demonstrations in yours, and you will have your answer.
You don’t need to travel the world to understand it. You just need to take the same rules that govern life in the world right in front of you, and apply them elsewhere, too.
I closed my notebook, stuffed it into my pack, and walked back out to the main road. My foot hurt a little less after the rest.
A couple blocks from the park, I passed a gasoline station and noticed the attendants gathered for a break around a spindly folding table. I didn’t plan to stop, since I had rested in the park just a few minutes before, so I kept my eyes forward and my head down, but one of the attendants ran out to the sidewalk to greet me anyway.
“Please, join us for tea,” the attendant said.
“No,” I smiled apologetically, “Sorry, I need to keep going.”
“No, please, I insist.”
Realizing there was no polite way to turn down the invitation, I smiled again and followed him back to the break table. The others were discussing a wedding they were going to over the weekend. They handed me an invitation and invited me to join them. Even though I was in a slightly better mood because of the friendly waitress at the kofte restaurant, I was still feeling moody and I thought, There’s no way I’m going to this wedding because it’s tomorrow and I don’t want to hang out here all day and I’m in a bad mood.
But I smiled and took the invitation anyway because I didn’t want to seem rude. I told them, “I’m not sure if I can make it but I’ll see what I can do.” Then I shook everybody’s hands, said goodbye, and continued walking.
After walking for another hour, I recognized the signs of getting to the edge of the city. The buildings were starting to spread out, and traffic was growing less dense. The light was also growing low. It was time to look for a place to sleep. I was nervous because I hadn’t quite made it out of the city yet.
However, emboldened by my new hobo skill (sleeping at gasoline stations), I began eyeing gasoline stations to see where I might spend the night. I stopped at one, sat down on a green, plastic upside down bucket in the parking lot, and, as I chatted with the station owner, I looked around evaluating whether I wanted to stay there for the evening. I had a feeling that this wasn’t the one for me and I should continue on. So I said goodbye to the owner and continued on another five kilometers.
Just east of Denizli I approached another gas station. It looked a little run-down, but by then the prospects of finding a place to stay that night were getting pretty dim. The attendant smiled and greeted me when I went in. He introduced himself as Metin. Metin was working the mini-mart and told me that he was the nephew of the station owner. I saw a restaurant adjacent to the mini-mart and walked in. There were no other customers. However, a basketball game played noisily on the TV and an air conditioner blasted a stream of icy air through the window.
Metin followed me in and poured me a glass of cold water. I sat sipping my water, watching the game with the air conditioner blowing over me. Man, it just didn’t get any better than this.
I hadn’t been sitting there for even 5 minutes when three young women who looked like they were in their early twenties walked in.
One of them, clearly the leader of the group, walked straight over to me. She stuck out her hand and introduced herself.
“Hi, I’m Ayşe.”
I shook her hand and replied, “Hi, I’m Matt, nice to meet you.”
I blinked a couple times, surprised and impressed by her directness but I drank it in like a parched man who has just crossed the desert drinks in a cool, tall glass of water. In two weeks on the road, not once had I experienced this kind of directness from a woman. I quickly rummaged through my brain, trying to remember how to keep my cool in such a situation.
“Where’s your girlfriend?” she asked.
“My girlfriend?” I blinked again. I didn’t know what she was referring to.
She described a news article she had read about me on the internet. The article had stated that I was walking for peace and my girlfriend was with me. I thought back to the first day of the walk in Kusadasi and how Joy Anna had been standing next to me when I was interviewed, and I realized that the paper must have misreported that she was my girlfriend.
Because Ayse had read the news article, she knew where I was from, where I was going, and how long it would take me to get there. Like I had been with Hakan the day before, I was briefly taken aback that a complete stranger already knew so much about me, but then I remembered that was okay, and to relax and use the opportunity to make a friend.
“Excuse me, I need to go get my friends,” Ayşe said.
“Okay, you do that.” I answered.
Ayse strode over to her friends at the cash register. She whispered something to them, they paid for their items, and then all three turned and strode back over to me. I swallowed hard. Keep your cool, Matt, I reminded myself.
Her friends introduced themselves to me. One was also from Denizli. One was from Izmir. They took nearby seats, pulled out cigarettes, and, as they lit up, they asked me if I’d like one too.
“No thanks, I don’t smoke.”
“We didn’t think so,” the one from Izmir said.
We chatted and made small talk back and forth. They laughed, giggled, batted their eyelashes, and flipped their hair at me. I reminded myself that I was traveling alone, depended on the kindness of strangers, and needed to be careful that I didn’t anger any boyfriends or family members, even though there were none around, so I struggled to stay as cool and aloof as I could. Plus my language skills were not refined enough to participate in their witty banter, but I had the impression that just made the exchange all the more fun for them.
I mentioned someone had invited me to a wedding the next day. Ayşe asked me which wedding. I pulled out the wedding invitation I had gotten a couple of gas stations before. Ayşe grabbed it from me and read the names.
“Hey,” she called out to Metin, who had been standing at the cash register across the room, “This is your village, do you know these people?”
Metin had been watching us intently from across the room. Now that he had been invited into the conversation, he came over. Ayşe handed him the invitation. Metin glanced at it.
“Yes, of course, the groom is a good friend of mine. I’ll be going to this tomorrow.”
Metin looked at me. “Would you like to come?” he asked me.
A few minutes before, I had been in a bad mood and had no plans of attending the wedding. But the light-hearted conversation with the flirty young women had changed my mood, and now I easily accepted the invitation:
“Sounds great, I’d love to,” I replied, thinking for only a second how quickly my mood had changed, and how all it had taken was a few smiles and some hair tosses. God, I’m so easy, I thought to myself.
I told Metin that if I was going to stay an extra day to go to the wedding I would need a place to stay. “I have my tent, my back pack, and all the equipment I need”, I said.
“Sure, you can stay right here at the gasoline station,” he said.
The three young women said they needed to go, and asked if we could take some photos together first. I said, “Yes, of course! One by one or all together?” One by one, they insisted. So I stood next to each one for a photo, and as I put my arm around the one who had introduced herself to me I remembered that I hadn’t showered in a few days, and I wondered how bad I smelled. She didn’t seem to mind though.
Then, as quickly as they had come, they departed. Metin went back to his work at the cash register.
I sat back down in front of the TV and tried to wipe the grin off my face. I was sitting in an air-conditioned room, I was watching a basketball game on TV, and I had just been flirted with by not one, not two, but three cute young women. I wondered what good deed I had done for the universe in order to deserve such a shower of riches from above.
Metin finished his work at the cash register and said goodbye for the evening, he would see me tomorrow and we would go to his village together. About an hour later, when darkness fell, I joined the gas station’s night crew outside near the pumps for a bit more TV watching and some sunflower seed-munching. When a customer would pull up, one of the attendants would jump up out of his chair, pump the gas, and then sit back down with us and grab another handful of sunflower seeds.
After a couple more hours of soap operas and countless handfuls of sunflower seeds, and as a nighttime news anchor explained to viewers that the West wanted to carve up Turkey and establish new borders throughout the Middle East, I crawled into my sleeping bag, which I had laid out on the cement floor in the nearby office.
I was unable to block out the blaring noise of the TV, and I was descended upon by dozens of mosquitoes apparently happy to be offered a feast of exposed flesh, and I had been too lazy to lay out my pad, so my sleeping bag was directly on the hard tiled floor, but I was so tired that I fell asleep within minutes and slept peacefully through the night.