Thursday, 23 August, 2012:
I wake up in Istanbul a week before my self-appointed date to start the walk. The mid-morning sun is shining through the window, and I am already sweating in the humidity. I want to go back to sleep. I want the walk to be over. I wish my big plan had been a dream and that this morning I could shake it off, shower, drink some coffee, drive to work at a familiar office, sit at a familiar desk, and type away at a familiar computer writing familiar emails to familiar people. If only I had been happy with that.
Instead, one week from today I will begin my solo walk across the entire length of Turkey by stepping into the Aegean Sea at Kuşadası. Then I will lace up my boots, pull on my backpack, and walk out onto a hot, dusty highway—my home for the next 7 ½ months until I reach the barbed wire fence that separates Turkey from Iran.
I have mapped out the entire route in such detail that I’ve even made a spreadsheet breaking the entire route down into 11-kilometer (7-mile) segments. For every one of those segments, I know the beginning elevation, the ending elevation, and the average temperature of that area for the time of year I’ll be passing through. For every one of those segments I know if there is a gas station or a village, and whether the road bends to the left or to the right. I have gone out of my way to eliminate as much of the unknown as possible, but there are two things I can’t answer beforehand: 1) Where am I going to sleep at night? and 2) Am I going to die from a scorpion sting on the Central Anatolian Plateau?
I think back to the spring of 2000, when I careened through the streets of Hong Kong in the back of a taxi cab with my friend Teresa. We were both 30 years old at the time, dreaming of what our futures might hold. I told her, “Watch out, my 30s are going to be amazing. I am going to do some great things.”
She asked, “What are those things?”
“I’m not sure,” I told her. “Just wait and see.”
I didn’t tell her this, but I was planning to build a small business empire, just large enough to sustain my family and me. I was going to find “The One,” settle down, get married, and have children. I would come home at the end of the day to a house filled with people who loved me. I would eat dinner with children who were my own flesh and blood, who depended on me, who called me “Daddy.” At night I would fall asleep next to the woman I loved and wake up next to her in the morning.
I did start a business. It didn’t go very far, and I closed it down. I started a second business. It went a little further, but not far enough, and I closed it down. I started a third business. It went a little further than the second, but not far enough, and I closed it down, too. While those things were happening, I found the woman I thought was The One. We got married. By the end of the decade we had split up.
Shortly after I turned 40, I remembered that conversation in the taxi cab in Hong Kong. I remembered the optimistic boast I had made, and I compared my dreams at 30 to what had actually happened. “My 30s were a lost decade,” I would tell myself in my more self-punishing moments. But then one day I said to myself, “No! There’s no way I’m going to allow an entire decade of my life to be ‘lost!'” And that’s what had brought me to this point.
Thursday, 30 August, 2012:
At 10:30 a.m. I stepped off the bus in Kuşadası[a]. I had taken an overnight bus from Istanbul. The other passengers scurried to taxis or cars driven by loved ones. Car doors banged shut. Cars sped away. Even the bus driver pulled away in his bus. I stood alone in the parking lot not knowing what to do next.
A voice in my head said, “Welcome to your new reality. It’s going to be like this for a while.”
Another voice replied, “You are not of this world now, get used to it.”
I wandered around the parking lot aimlessly for a minute or two, and then sat down on a bench in the shade. I pulled out my phone and texted Merve, a friend of mine back in Istanbul, “Arrived in Kuşadası, see you in Denizli in three weeks.”
I stuffed the phone back into my pocket and thought, “I’ll need to put my feet in the sea before the walk starts, maybe I should head down to the sea.”
The sea was about 3 kilometers away. I stood up and began walking. It was hot. I remembered why I was starting on 1 September, and not earlier: In July of last year a friend who lived in the area had posted on Facebook that her car was covered with tar from the road melted by the summer sun.
Kuşadası is a tourist town, with a permanent population of about 70,000, swelling to as much as half a million during the summer months, depending on how many cruise ships are docked at the port. Walking through it is a little like walking through the cantina in the movie Star Wars, a place filled with thousands of people just passing through from distant galaxies. People who will be gone in a few days. People like me. Guess I’m not as special as I like to think.
I reached the sea and noticed that because of the cruise ship docks I was still about 30 feet above the waterline. So I turned left and began walking south along the coast, looking for a place closer to the water.
One or two kilometers later I spied a narrow gravel road about half a kilometer long heading toward the water. I walked down the road to an embankment rising about 3 meters above the water.
I pulled off my boots, dropped my pack, and eased myself down the rocky embankment into the ankle-deep water. The water was cool and clear. I took a picture of my feet in the water.
A family walking by on the gravel road above watched me as they passed. I smiled up at them sheepishly. It’s probably perfectly normal to take a photo of your feet in the water, but for some reason I was embarrassed being caught at it. Nothing about walking across a country seemed normal to me yet.
After I took the photo I climbed back up the embankment to the gravel road. I dried my feet, put my boots back on, and eased into my pack.
Finding a place to sleep on the first night had been my major fear. Maybe, I thought, I should tackle that next. I walked a few steps and took a look around. A couple hundred meters away I saw a man and a woman sunbathing on a dry grassy area with a building nearby. It looked like there might be places to camp on the grassy areas. I walked toward the couple. I couldn’t tell what the building was, maybe a house.
The man, about 55 years old with matted salt-and-pepper hair, looked like he had lived a life in the sun without sunblock. The years had not been kind to him.
The woman looked to be in her mid-20s. She was reasonably attractive, or perhaps I was just lonely.
She had seen me coming, but the man had not, so as I drew near I called out in Turkish, “Hello, how are you?”
The man looked up then. “Merhaba!” he called back and waved me over.
I wondered if I had walked into a situation where I would be a third wheel. Were this man and woman together? I felt like a lost little kid stumbling onto the adults at a late-night party. I was wearing baggy knee-length shorts, a sweaty black t-shirt, and carrying my oversized backpack.
As I approached them I blurted out in my very bad Turkish that I was looking for a place to camp that night, was it okay for me to set up my tent on the grass nearby. The man answered immediately in English that of course I could stay, no problem, and he waved his arm across the realm to signal that I could camp wherever I liked.
Then he motioned to me into one of the lounge chairs next to the two of them and asked me if I wanted something to drink. I was hot and thirsty. I told him that an iced tea would be great if he had some. “Sure!” he said, jumping up from his lounge chair. “Peach or lemon?”
“Peach,” I said, and he disappeared into the building to get my iced tea.
I turned to the young woman. I had since gathered that she and the man were not together.
My eyes settled briefly on the strings of her bikini pressing against the flesh of her hips and looked immediately away.
Keep it in your pants Matt! You have a job to do! I reminded myself.
I asked her, “What brings you to Kuşadası?”
She replied that she worked for a cruise line and had come from Moldova with her Moldovan clients. She told me the boat was docked in the nearby city of Izmir and she had a couple days of shore leave. She had decided to spend those days sunbathing by the sea.
The man brought back a can of Lipton peach “iced tea.”
I thanked him and took it. The can was warm, but I kept my mouth shut.
I could see through the open doors and windows of the building that this was not a house but an empty restaurant building. I didn’t see a stick of furniture–no tables, no chairs, no cash register. Just a large, cavernous, empty shell of a building surrounded by large windows that probably hadn’t been washed in 30 years.
I asked the man his name. “Murat,” he said.
Murat made me a little nervous. His offer of a place to stay, a chair, and some tea weren’t coming from a place of hospitality or kindness. He had a hungry look in his eyes that said, I have a need. Business is slow.
The three of us sat on our lounge chairs making small talk. Strangely, the chairs faced away from the sea.
After about an hour the young woman got up and left. She had to go back into town to meet some friends, she said. So she left me alone with Murat, and the two of us in our lounge chairs sat facing away from the sea, me “sipping” from a can I had long since emptied.
Later that afternoon I needed to leave to go meet Orhan, a friend of a friend of mine. I stood up, told Murat I would be back later that day.
Orhan was a local TV celebrity, and as I walked the few kilometers back into town to meet him I recognized his picture on posters around town at the bus stops. He picked me up in his car at the city center and took me for a short tour of Kuşadası, then we stopped at a grocery store to pick up a few things for lunch.
From the grocery store we went to his home, where his wife prepared a delicious lunch of köfte (meatballs), sigara boreği (deep-fried cigarette-shaped pastries filled with cheese), a cold soup of squash and yogurt, and çoban salata (tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers). We ate lunch and a dessert of cold watermelon sitting on their balcony overlooking the sea, enjoying as much of a conversation as my rusty Turkish would allow.
After lunch Orhan dropped me off back at Murat’s place where I went for a swim in the bay. After swimming and lounging for a while in the shade with Murat, I set up my tent. A new camper, named Goksel, had arrived and was also setting up his camp nearby. Goksel, a university student from Istanbul, was hitchhiking south along the Aegean coast in order to walk the Lycian Way before school started again.
After our tents were set up, Göksel and I walked into town and had a couple beers. Then I headed back to camp while Göksel continued touring around Kuşadası. He was a young man, and for him 9 p.m. was way too early to turn in.
That night, as the palm trees above me blew gently in the sea breeze, the Aegean waves lapped at the shoreline, and the salt air blew gently through the mesh roof of my tent, I slept one of the most peaceful sleeps I’d had in years.
Friday, 31 August, 2012:
Friday, the day before the walk, Murat and I sat in the lounge chairs most of the day while Göksel did some sightseeing in town.
Murat, by the way, seemed not nearly as impressed by me as I was. Yesterday’s Moldovan woman had not seemed very impressed either. Göksel seemed to think my plan to walk across the country was pretty cool, but he had his own agenda.
Around mid-afternoon Murat sat up on his lounge chair, turned to me, and asked, a little over-eagerly I thought, “Would you like some dinner? Could I fix you some chicken?”
Chicken sounded good, sure, but I had never seen anyone get so enthusiastic about a poultry dinner. I seemed to be about the only customer Murat had seen in awhile. So I said, “Yes, that sounds great.” Murat sprang up and ran inside to call some domestic help for the evening.
Later, a woman arrived to help Murat grill the chicken on an inside grill.
Murat asked me if I wanted salad. I told him yes. There was no refrigerator, of course, as the whole building was empty. He went into the pantry, brought out some wilted greens, and began chopping them up for the salad. To drink, he offered me either a beer or fruit juice. I chose the juice, and he brought me a can of warm fruit juice to go with my wilted salad and half-cooked chicken.
I had a silent struggle with myself as I stared at my plate, and this was probably only the first of many such struggles I’d have, I thought. Can I or can I not be okay with eating a chicken dinner that I knew hadn’t been fully cooked or properly stored beforehand. I decided to eat some of it.
After dinner I retired to my tent and fell asleep.
Saturday, 1 September, 2012:
On the big day I woke up with my alarm at 6:00 a.m.
I wanted to take a shower that morning. It would be my first shower in a couple days, and my last one for who knew how long.
I broke camp and crammed everything into my backpack. I asked Murat where the shower facilities were. He pointed them out to me, but when I got to the facilities it turned out there was no running water. I brought that to his attention.
“Oh, you want running water!” he said.
“Yes, that would be nice,” I replied.
“Oh, I’m sorry. There isn’t any. You can use the buckets in the restaurant vestibule,” he said.
The vestibule floor was made of stone with a drain pipe in the middle. A small plastic pitcher sat next to the water bucket, presumably to use as a ladle.
I tasted the water first, to see if it was salt water from the sea, or freshwater. It was freshwater, so I picked up the pitcher and gave myself a sponge bath.
After I bathed and dried off, I dressed myself in my best black T-shirt (gotta look nice for the start of my walk!). I paid Murat 50 lira for the two nights’ camping and the one chicken dinner.
At 6:40 a.m as the sun was peeking up over the hills to the east, I took off for the cruise ship docks, the official start of the walk. The sea and the sky were a clear blue. No one was out yet. I had the road to myself. I had been preparing for this for almost a year.