Friday, 11 January
The next morning I crept out of my frost-covered sleeping bag and with stiff, blue hands slowly began to break camp. I shook an icy crust off my tent, and the tent’s fabric crunched as I stuffed it into my pack. I was having a hard time finding a source of inner strength to get started that morning, to shoulder my backpack, to place one foot in front of the other and get to work. Finding that inner source usually took only a few minutes, and by the time I had broken camp I’d felt it.
But this morning, camp was broken, and I still wasn’t in touch with that strength. I stood there in the brambles, my hands on my knees. I dug around for an image or a thought, anything, that would get me up onto that road walking.
I thought about my friend Aly in Istanbul. She had been a staunch supporter of the walk since before Day One, and in fact had written an article about it for Outsider magazine. She had talked me through many a low moment on the walk. I could hear her voice now telling me, “Matt, man, you’ve got to do this!” Then the strength came. When I climbed up onto the road and realized I had the strength to continue, I took the white board out of my pack and dedicated the day to her.
Then I brushed the dirt and brambles off my pants, and started walking.
The spectacular views as I descended the mountains into Gaziantep province soon distracted me from my doldrums. I was awed as I looked down on the sweep of the lush green plain below me, with its covering of farms and villages. The busier toll road had disappeared somewhere into the hills, so the air was quiet now and I could hear nothing but my footsteps.
Around mid-morning I approached the day’s main town, Nurdağı. As I neared the town, I spotted the cold, square government buildings of the Jandarma post at the edge of the city. As I walked past the post’s front gate I waved hello and nodded to the guard. I was just being polite and friendly—I wasn’t planning on stopping.
As I walked past the gate, the guard followed a quick “good morning” with more small talk. “Where are you headed?” “It’s awfully cold out!” “How heavy is that pack?” With each comment I would pause, turn around halfway, and answer before continuing. His curiosity, and his questions, continued and warranted more attention than a quick “good morning.” So I stopped, turned, and started walking back towards him. He got really nervous. A look of panicked uncertainty crossed his face, and he waved his gun and called out to me, “No, no, continue, continue!”
Other soldiers, hearing the commotion, started to appear at the gate. They were curious, calling out questions over the driveway that separated me from them. “Hello, good morning, where are you from? Where do you sleep at night? Do you like Turkey?” I wasn’t sure whether to approach and talk to them, or heed the advice of the first guard to keep moving. I thought of news footage showing Iraqi civilian drivers with their brains splattered over the back seat after getting shot in the head by nervous US soldiers at security checkpoints. I decided to keep moving. Better to seem rude than to get my brains splattered all over the road.
A few minutes later I came upon the local police station. I decided to stop by and see what kind of reception I’d get there.
I walked up to the guard booth at the front gate and said hello to the two policemen inside.
“Good morning,” the first policeman said to me, a huge grin crossing his face as he looked up from his paperwork. “It’s a little cold out, huh?”
“Yeah, it’s a little cold, but it’s warming up. The sun’s out.” I looked at the second policeman and said, “Hello.”
He responded with a curt, “Hello.” As cold as ice.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“My name is hello.”
The first policeman said, “His name is actually Ali. Ha! Ha!”
The first policeman invited me in for tea. The second policeman quickly put a stop to it:
“No,” he said, waving his hand dismissively, “keep moving!”
I think it was the first time ever in Turkey that someone had said to me that no, I couldn’t drink their tea. I sensed this was an interpersonal conflict and didn’t want to get involved. I had avoided getting my head blown off a few minutes ago, and I didn’t want to get arrested. So I said goodbye and kept walking further into the village.
I figured I would just keep walking and blow right through Nurdağı. Zero for two in this town, I thought. Just keep going. You don’t need them anyway. But then I saw yet another set of government-looking buildings and the naughty part of my personality came out, the part that loves being a bull in a china shop. I stopped. No, I’m not done with this town yet,
I walked up to the buildings and picked the nearest one, which turned out to be the local Agriculture and Animal Husbandry Government Administration office. I walked through the front door. There was no reception area, so I stuck my head into the doorway of one of the offices and called out, “Hello! How’s it going? What’s up?”
Before I could even focus my eyes on the room, someone grabbed my hand and pulled me in. He told me to put my bag down, sit, rest.
While I sat resting on one of the chairs saying hello to the four or five men in the room, someone thrust a cup of tea in my hand. Within minutes the office was full of curious workers wanting to find out who this foreigner was who had just walked in wearing that enormous backpack. I was the center of attention, and word was quickly spreading through the building that a visitor had arrived.
The conversation quickly turned to a debate about where they should put me up for the night.
“How about the office?” one man asked no one in particular.
“No, it’s unsatisfactory,” said a second man.
“How about the town hall?” volunteered one man who had just stuck his head in the door.
The chatter continued. How about this? How about that?
I stopped them. It was barely 9:30 in the morning. It was too early for me to quit for the day.
“Thanks, but no,” I said to the group, interrupting the debate. “I need to keep moving.”
“Have you eaten?” someone asked.
“Take him to the cafeteria!” someone else suggested.
“It’s closed!” said another.
“Order him some take-out!”
Three men lunged for the phone. It’s nice to be so warmly welcomed, I thought, but you don’t get many visitors here, do you?
Within minutes I was eating a chicken wrap and drinking ayran.
Then we stepped outside for some photos, came back in, and friended each other on Facebook. At that point I felt it was time to go, so I said my goodbyes. I could see they were disappointed to see me leave, as it meant going back to their paper-pushing and number-crunching.
The town was small, so within a few minutes I was clear of it and back out on the open road. I smiled to myself and thought,
This was what I loved about this walk. Sometimes I walk up to a Jandarma base and I’m told to move on. Sometimes I walk up to a Jandarma base and I’m ushered in and fed more food than I’d ever seen. Sometimes I check in at a police station and I’m told to keep moving without being offered a sip of water or tea. Sometimes I check in at a police station and spend the next two hours watching TV and eating dinner with the cops. Sometimes I walk into offices where I am stared at like a space alien, and sometimes I walk into offices where I am met with an overwhelming explosion of hospitality as if I were a gift from God. What happens in one situation never provides any indication of what will happen in the next.
At the end of the day, I stopped to wait for the bus back to Osmaniye out in the middle of what I thought was nowhere. Up pulled a car. The driver was none other than the son of the man who fed breakfast to Joy Anna and me at the gasoline station the day before. He gave me a huge bag of peanuts, waited with me by the side of the road until my bus came, and then insisted on paying my fare. I hopped in the bus and headed back to Osmaniye and the Oğretmen Evi for my days off and planned to visit with my new friends, Ilgi, Dilara, and Mutlu there.