On Sunday, I rolled out of bed and, before going down to breakfast, gathered up my stuff and prepared to check out of the Oğretmen Evi. Later that morning I would be hopping a bus to the nearby town of Tarsus, to visit the students at a school there for a few days.
It only took me a few minutes to pack, since I had gotten so good at it and didn’t have much stuff anyway. I pulled on clean clothes, feeling like a million bucks even though the clothes were just cheap nylon track pants and a Tshirt with no dried sweat or dirt, and headed down to breakfast. Having been at this hotel for four mornings now, I had gotten used to a new routine: Pull on clean clothes. Eat breakfast. I felt like I was living in the lap of luxury.
After breakfast I hopped a bus for the two-hour ride to Tarsus American College, a private middle and high school.
As I neared the school I thought back to my first phone conversation with the American teacher who had invited me to the school. It had been back in November, over a month earlier. I had been walking along the side of the road when my phone rang. I pulled the phone out of my pocket and stared at it. It didn’t ring often those days, and I barely recognized the ringing sound. From the foggy reaches of my distant memory I remembered that when someone calls you, you typically answer. So I clicked the button for “answer.”
“Hello, this is Matt,” I began.
“Hello Matt, my name is Stacey Brown. I am a teacher at Tarsus American College, a school in Tarsus, a city on your route.”
Of course, Tarsus, I thought. I recognized the town’s name instantly, having pored over the satellite maps of my route many times.
“Yes, I know of it. How can I help you, Stacey?”
Stacey told me that one of her friends had read an article about me in Outside Magazine and told her I would be walking through Tarsus. That friend had suggested Stacey call me.
Stacey asked me if I would in fact be passing through Tarsus, and if so could I come visit her students for a few days?
“Sure,” I said, “I’d be happy to. How do I find your school?”
“Walk through the city’s Cleopatra Gates, and then face east. You can’t miss us.”
The Cleopatra Gates, I thought to myself, sounds great!
“Could you check your calendar,” she continued, “and let me know when you’ll be in the area? I will need to talk to the school and get their approval for those specific dates.”
Almost no one ever asked me for specific dates. Because I had planned the walk so carefully beforehand, I knew for months ahead of time almost the specific day I would be passing through even the tiniest villages out in the middle of nowhere. But so many people back home thought this walk was a footloose and fancy-free gallivant across the country. It was refreshing to hear someone ask me for specific dates about something that would happen over a month later.
I smiled. A kindred spirit, I thought to myself.
“Sure,” I answered, “give me two days, and I’ll look at my calendar and let you know when I’ll be in the area.”
That was how I met Stacey Brown. Now, over a month later, here I was approaching the gate of her school.
As I walked up to the guard station, I imagined that I would be received like a rock star, that the guards at the gate would know immediately who I was, and would be as impressed with me as I was. After all, no one but me walks across the entire country.
I had let it conveniently slip from my memory that St. Paul was from Tarsus, and thousands of years earlier he had walked across Turkey proselytizing for Jesus. People had been walking across Turkey for thousands of years.
“Hello,” I said to the guards as I walked up to the school gates. “My name is Matt, and I’m here to see Stacey.”
I expected them to know exactly who I was, that my appearance would be the highlight of their day.
They looked up at me with blank expressions.
“Matt Krause. I’m here to see Stacey. Stacey Brown.”
“Ah yes, Stacey Brown.” They picked up the phone and dialled someone somewhere.
They couldn’t find Stacey. After a few moments of confusion, they widened the search and began supplementing the landlines with their cell phones until they reached someone who knew where to find Stacey.
“Yeah,” the guard on the phone said into the receiver, “there’s some guy out front, with a big backpack. Says he’s looking for Stacey.”
So much for the rock star treatment. I was just “some guy.” I thought back to the moment when I stepped off the bus in Kuşadası, watching the waiting cars whisk the other passengers away, leaving me alone on the blacktop, thinking to myself, You are not of this world anymore.
I waited about five more minutes and Stacey and Mr. Hanna, the school’s headmaster, appeared to greet me at the gate.
They escorted me inside to my suite in the guest wing of the teachers’ housing complex. The suite had a soft, inviting bed, a sparkling clean bathroom, and a sitting room with a computer.
“Is this acceptable?” Mr Hanna asked.
I tried to act cool, but I couldn’t help myself. “Of course, it’s more than acceptable!” I blurted out. I added, silently, You have no idea where I’ve been sleeping, do you?
As they prepared to leave, Mr. Hanna asked me if I wanted to use the wifi. He said he was embarrassed, though, because it would take them a couple hours to find the password. No problem, I thought to myself. I might not be used to beds anymore, but I have become amazingly resourceful when it comes to connecting to the internet.
I simply said, “No, that’s okay, I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
Stacey told me she and Mr. Hanna would pick me up a few hours later for dinner. Seconds after they pulled the door shut behind them I spread my arms and fell backwards into the soft white comforter splayed across the bed, rested there for a few minutes, and then got up for a long hot shower.
Later, when Stacey and Mr. Hanna returned to pick me up for dinner, they were accompanied by two more people: Filiz, Mr. Hanna’s translator, and Pınar, one of Stacey’s students. We walked to a nearby restaurant. Almost as soon as we sat down, the four of them began peppering me with questions. I was so happy to be speaking my native language, and to be speaking with people who understood all of my words, that between their eagerness to ask me questions, and my happiness to talk, I barely touched my food.
Filiz and Pınar wanted to know what I had been doing in the evenings along the walk. I mentioned that usually I spent time in the village socializing, but for the past few weeks I hadn’t been in many villages and had been camping alone by the roadside.
“What do you do when you are all alone in the dark?” they wanted to know.
“Well, I tried reading with a booklight in my tent after going to bed, but soon had to dispense with that.”
“Why was that?”
“With the light on I couldn’t see out of the tent, and I have to be able to see my surroundings, even in the dark,” I said.
“How do you see your surroundings in the dark?”
“Well, of course, I can’t see them like I do in the daylight,” I explained as well as I could, “but in the dark, shapes take on a different personality, and I need to know that personality. Plus, I could have a light anywhere in the world. The point is, I’m sleeping in a tent in Turkey. I need to experience that and not turn on a light and start reading.”
Filiz and Pınar stared at me without saying a word. I was afraid that next maybe they’d tell me it was time for us to go home. I was afraid they were thinking, “Who is this crazy man, sleeping by himself in the dark at night?”
But Mr. Hanna smiled and began reciting a poem by Wendell Berry, “To Know the Dark:”
“To go into the dark with a light is to know the light
“To know the dark, go dark, go without sight
“And find that the dark too blooms and sings
“And is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.”
I relaxed. They weren’t puzzled by me. They understood me quite well.
Filiz pointed at my plate and reminded me to eat. I finished my dinner and the five of us strolled back to the school slowly, taking in the warm Mediterranean evening air. I would need a good night of sleep, they told me, the next few days would be very busy. I wasn’t sure what they had in store for me, but I was happy to place my trust in these people I had just met.
Monday, 10 December – Wednesday, 12 December
What they had in store for me was three whirlwind days of running from classroom to classroom, from auditorium stage to auditorium stage, up and down stairs, from building to building. Pınar and 5 of her classmates (Bade, Elif, Oya, Dilek, and Lara) had been appointed by Stacey to be my guardian angels for those three days. They picked me up from my apartment each morning and led me to a huge breakfast spread in the school cafeteria each morning. They escorted me from classroom to classroom each day, where the other students would pepper me with an endless array of questions: What do you eat? Where do you sleep? How do you wash your clothes? What kind of social life do you have? Do you ever worry? Are you ever afraid? The students wanted to see what I carried in my pack, so often I would empty it onto the classroom floors. Shortly before the end of a class, one of my guardian angels would show up and wait by the classroom door. When the bell would ring, I would hurriedly stuff everything into my backpack, and the two of us would run to the next classroom, pushing our way through a sea of admiring students. The guardian angels were the cool people, trusted by the school to escort a valuable visitor from class to class. Not only was I a rock star now, they were too.
I had grown accustomed to walking alone for hours each day, talking mostly to 65-year-old men outside mosques or 25-year-old attendants outside gasoline stations, and now I was surrounded by a bunch of secular English-speaking Turkish kids from wealthy families in urban areas. I had grown used to being cared for by strangers, but within hours the students did not feel like strangers anymore, they had become family. They even got worried that I might be homesick and one day organized a “Taste of Home” luncheon where they presented me with a platter of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They took care of me, and I wanted to take care of them.
The teachers made sure my after-school social needs were taken care of, too. One evening they invited me to play in their indoor soccer game. I told them I had no soccer skills, but they insisted skills were not necessary for this game. “Then I’m perfect,” I said, “I’d love to join.”
The game was like no soccer game I had ever seen. It was played on a basketball court, and it was perfectly acceptable to bounce the ball off the walls and ceiling. It was basically a three-dimensional game played on a hardwood floor with a ball ricocheting off the walls and ceiling. I loved it. The teachers had even done away with the rule “no blood no foul” — when one of the teachers got hit in the face with the ball, she just wiped away a rivulet of blood, laughed it off, and went back to playing.
From sunup to bedtime the school kept me busy. I was happy, cared for, and comfortable.
Thursday, 13 December
On Thursday morning I said goodbye to my bed, took one more hot shower, pulled on my pack (now stuffed with clean clothes), pulled the apartment door shut behind me, and walked toward the school gates.
For three days I had swum in a sea of warm, friendly people. For three days I hadn’t had to think of anything. All I had had to do was put my hand out, and one of my six guardian angels would appear to take me to where I needed to go next, or to feed me, or to show me back to my apartment at the end of the day. Outside of the school gates I would need to do all of those things for myself again. The transition back into the real world was going to be tough.
As I neared the gate, one of the students ran up to me. He asked if he could take a photo with me, and if he could get my autograph. While I was signing one of his books, another student ran up to us. Then another. Then another. Within seconds I was surrounded by a hundred students, all clamoring for a photo and an autograph. The warm human sea was back, and I was happy to swim in it for a few more minutes. I signed one autograph, and then another, and then another, for about two hours. Then the crowd began to dwindle, and I knew my borrowed time in the Garden of Eden was about to end. The world was calling.
When the last autograph was signed, I sighed, pulled my pack back on, and walked out onto the street. The school gate shut behind me.
I sighed again, hitched up my pants, and began walking towards the city center.