I reached the town of Kosk (population 9,900) early, at only 10:45 a.m. I had planned to spend the night there but since it was so early I decided to keep walking right through Kosk.
Once I passed through the town and had a broader view of my surroundings, I noticed the Menderes valley beginning to narrow. In about four days I would begin the week-long climb onto the Central Anatolian plateau. Reaching that plateau would be a significant milestone for me. It would mark the end of the beginning. I would be well on the way and probably thinking that at some point I would finish.
East of Kosk I found an evil eye charm on the shoulder of the road. The evil eye, known in Turkish as the nazar boncuğu, is a Mediterranean good luck charm that stares back at jealous spirits and wards their bad energy away from anyone who might be even remotely admired or known. I had meant to pick one up in Istanbul, but I got distracted and forgot. I leaned down–very precariously under the weight of my excessively-laden pack–picked up the charm, and tied it to my pack where I planned to keep it all the way to the other side of the country. My sunglasses were no longer the only piece of equipment I’d found lying on the side of the road.
The road that day a very wide shoulder. But here in Turkey a wide shoulder is not a place to walk, it’s an extra lane to drive in when traffic is heavy or when tractors need a place to drive during harvest. Trucks also use them and one whizzed by me every couple of minutes. Today one of them swerved toward me. Maybe he was bored and this was his form of entertainment. He missed me by only a couple of feet. To have a semi passing you up and trying to see how close he can get is a scary thing to have happen.
I’d learned from living in Turkey that when there is an open space you take it. But in the three years I’d been back in the U.S. preparing for this walk by walking on the side of the country roads near Reedley, CA, I’d forgotten that rule. There, people generally don’t drive on the shoulders. So, once back in Turkey, I had to remind myself, Okay, you need to remember the local habit now or you’re going to die before you reach the fence bordering Iran, evil eye or no.
I stopped at a restaurant for a lunch of kasarli kofte. The cook knew who I was and how long I’d been on the road. He’d seen me in the paper, he said.
After lunch I walked for a couple more hours before approaching a Shell gas station where I decided to take a break. I said hello to the attendants and put my pack down, and they invited me to sit down in the shade and have a cup of tea with them. So I sat down with them and had some tea.
As we chatted, they said that two Polish guys had passed through the day before and had just left this morning.
I couldn’t believe my ears. Did they just say the Polish guys were here the whole night? I leaned forward, frustrated that my Turkish was so rusty and even though I was listening intently I wasn’t quite getting the whole story. I’d been so impressed by the Polish guys that I didn’t want to miss anything.
These Polish guys were taking on a kind of ghostly quality for me. I began to call them my doppelgangers because in the few days being with them I quickly learned some very basic hobo skills like how to find a place to stay at night and how to wash out your t-shirt. My admiration for their hobo skills forced me to raise the level of my own hobo skills.
So it was frustrating for me that I didn’t know enough Turkish to fully understand everything in the stories I heard along the way. But the gas station attendant said that yes the two Polish guys had arrived yesterday and spent the night, leaving this morning.
“Where did they sleep?” I asked. The gasoline station attendant pointed over to a grassy area nearby.
I was even more impressed with them now that I’d heard they had stayed at a gas station. So far I had camped outside a mosque garden, I had stayed on the floor of an imam’s apartment, and I had seen a lot of gasoline stations along the way, and I thought, Boy if I could figure out how to break that code! How does one get permission to stay at a gasoline station? What was the secret code or handshake? That would be a very helpful skill to have.
When I’d had enough of the conversation I said, “Thank you very much for the tea.”
Then I shook hands with the gasoline station attendants. As an afterthought I asked, “Could I lie on the grass and take a short rest before I continued on?”
They said, “Yes, of course.” So I lay down and took a nap on the grass where the Polish guys had stayed.
After napping I got up, put my pack back on, and went out to the main road to walk for a couple more hours.
Toward the end of the day I’d started looking for a place to sleep but was having a hard time finding one. The first village I rolled into was more like a wide spot in the road, and there were barely enough people to support a bakkal. However, I was tired and I wanted to stop for the day, so I tried it anyway. I spotted a tea garden by the side of the road. I walked up and sat down for tea, took off my sunglasses, and tried to make eye contact with the people at the nearby tables. No one would meet my gaze though, and when I finally did catch someone’s eye it was the waiter’s.
He walked over to me, leaned toward me, and said before I could introduce myself, “Maybe you better just move on to the next village.” I did take that personally, figuring that I was probably smelling pretty ripe.
I grudgingly stood up, shouldered my pack, and hit the road. Realistically though, I knew that there were genuinely no facilities to support me there.
As the afternoon shadows grew long, I pulled off the road into Sultanhisar, a small town of 5,000-10,000 in the eastern half of the Menderes river valley. There, I rested in the mosque garden for a bit before resuming my search for a place to stay.
A handful of people at the mosque told me that there was really nice camping at a set of ruins a couple of kilometers up the hill. I had heard about these ruins before–in fact, a number of people had recommended them to me in the past.
I climbed up the hill with my 45-pound pack, even though it was 4 extra kilometers (about 2.5 miles) at the end of the day. I had hoped to be through walking by then.
But I was looking forward to getting to the top as I had read about this site in various places. It had been described as bucolic, ancient, and silent, and had a great view looking out over the valley. As I climbed, I thought about how I had made good progress in the last few days, and if I liked the campground I might stay at it an extra day. I had peaceful visions of hanging my laundry out to dry against a backdrop of ancient ruins, looking out over the valley below, sipping tea and feeling content.
There were guards at the gate, however, who told me camping was forbidden there. Tired and frustrated, I told the guards the people in Sultanhisar below had said there was plenty of camping up here. The guards just said, “They don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Dejected, I hiked back down the hill and back into town. I returned to the mosque’s garden and sat for a few moments wondering what to do. There was no hotel in Sultanhisar and daylight was burning.
Across the street I saw the city headquarters and the sign above the door “Mayor’s Office” and thought, I should steal a page from my old China playbook.
Years ago when I taught and traveled in China, only a few hotels would accept foreign guests and they were often the most expensive hotels around. Not only were they expensive, but they required that the rooms be paid in foreign exchange certificates. The teachers at my school got paid in renminbi, the local currency. So for multiple reasons I couldn’t stay in the hotel where the town wanted foreigners to stay. One technique I used (along with the other backpackers I was traveling with) was to crash an official office looking dirty, sweaty, tired, and poor, and essentially say, “I’m your problem now, what are you going to do with me?” (This was executed more politely and respectfully, of course). We obviously could not scrape together enough cash to stay in the expensive hotels so hopefully they would have to get on the phone and find us a place to stay.
So I tried that technique in Sultanhisar. Sweaty, dirty, and wearing my backpack, I entered the mayor’s office and told the staff in the front office that I would like a place to stay in Sultanhisar that night but couldn’t find a place, and I told them about being refused entry at the “camping place” on the hill. The person at the reception desk took one look at me and quickly ushered me into one of the back offices. Someone else came to the back office and said, “Follow me.” I followed this person into the mayor’s office. The mayor was on the phone—actually on two phones at the same time, looking very busy.
I took my backpack off and sat in the overstuffed leather couch in his office, leaning forward so my sweaty back wouldn’t stick to the leather behind me. The attendant who had brought me into the room asked me if I wanted a glass of water. I said, “Yes, thank you very much,” trying my best not to seem too eager.
When he finished his phone calls, the mayor pushed back from his huge oak desk, introduced himself to me and shook my sweaty, dirty hand. I repeated my story to him and asked if he could help me find a place to stay. We chatted for a few minutes getting acquainted. Then he got on the phone again and made a call.
“I’ve got a foreigner here passing through. Can you find him a place to stay tonight?”
He spoke Turkish very fast and I didn’t quite get everything he said but when he hung up he looked at me smiling. “I’ve found you a place to stay,” he said. “Go with that guy over there.” He pointed to an assistant standing in the doorway, and then picked up one of the phones, since they were both ringing again.
The assistant drove me across the village in a beat-up old Toyota to the city’s vehicle maintenance yard.
“Is this where I’m staying tonight?” I asked.
“Yes, it is,” the assistant said.
I was happy to be assigned any place with a horizontal surface where I could stretch out and sleep, so it was fine with me that the mayor had arranged for me to stay at a maintenance yard that housed the village’s stock of vehicles–a couple of small buses, a snowplow that probably got used once every 20 years, and a of couple garbage collection trucks.
The workers were hospitable to me at the maintenance yard. They let me have the office which had a soft couch I could sleep on, making it the first time in a week I wasn’t on a hard surface (even at the imam’s house I was on the floor). There were no lights in the office but there were electrical outlets where I could charge my iphone and computer. It was quiet. There was running water. I washed three of my shirts and hung them out to dry.
After I’d settled in, the mechanics on the night shift invited me to join them for dinner of pide and ayran. Then we sat around the table drinking tea and discussing the tensions building in Syria. At 8:30 p.m. I went inside to sleep on the soft couch.
The next morning the alarm went off at 6 a.m., waking me from a deep sleep. I had been dreaming. The last time I remembered dreaming was a week before in Kusadasi. It was hard to believe I had left Istanbul only a week before. I had been walking four days and four nights. It seemed a lot longer. I brushed my teeth, washed my face, and, wearing a freshly washed shirt, I headed out for Nazilli, my destination for the day. This was my fifth day walking, and I had not showered in those five days. I hoped to find a cheap hotel or a hostel in Nazilli where I could celebrate the end of Week 1 by taking a steaming hot shower.
I left the vehicle maintenance yard and walked 3 kilometers to the main road.
Before beginning the day’s walk, though, I ate a breakfast of simit and cay with Mehmet bey, a dolmus driver who would be driving the same route I would be walking.
Things I learned this week:
• Wash shirts at every stop, one at a time so they can dry while hanging from your backpack.
• Mosques are great places to wash and rest up. They are like truck stops, but with religion.
• Things I need to learn: How to shower more regularly.