Cycling Plus #25:
Hospitality on the Turkish backroads
Istanbul, once the jewel of the Ottoman empire... A profusion of mosques loom over a tangle of backstreets, minarets piercing the sky like giant needles. Over the background din of traffic, the melancholic azans waft in stereo, calling the faithful to prayer.
We stop on a bridge, absorbing the scene through the dusty, early evening air that preludes the sunset. A cluster of fisherman peer over its edge and lend this space a sense of calm, despite the frantic taxis and polluting buses that hurtle by.
My riding companions are Eric and Manu, a Parisian couple on a journey from France to Africa. We take to the Turkish backroads, sharing orchard picnics, idyllic camping sites and a succession of punishing climbs that steer us over a barrage of hills. We stop to pick roadside figs, peaches, plums and apples that grow abundantly in the fertile valleys around, while those working the land proffer vegetables, our offers of payment refused. Sitting amongst old men, permanent fixtures in village cafes, we drink Turkish coffee, a shot of thick, dark liquid, or tea served in small shapely glasses.
I resume the road alone once more. By now, I've left behind the valleys laced with fruit, and here on the Central Anatolean plateau, the open plains are dry and empty. Cropped like spiky hair, a patchwork of burnt black wheat fields appear over the horizon. I ride hard, climbing over softly rounded hills, tinted with hues of violet and beige, sliced with lime coloured sediment. A few kilometres up, a few kilometres down. Friendly truck drivers wave encouragingly, and in the late afternoon light, these barren hills roll far into the distance, setting my mind roaming. Almost two years of travel, their meaning, the inevitable conclusion of reaching home.
Passing a water fountain, a farmer hails me down. It's a quiet spot. Just an old tractor and a sleeping dog, a box of tomatoes and a lone melon. Merhaba - hello - I begin, as he strides purposefully towards me. He mumbles a stream of Turkish words, almost pulling me off my bike, dragging me into the shade. His eyes seem squeezed shut and I can only discern a single tooth. Emerging from behind a tree with fresh flat bread and a pot of salt, my impromptu host slices tomatoes and a pepper he pulls out from a pocket, handing me a round of sandwiches. Insisting I eat, the one melon is sliced and proffered too. All the time, mumbling Turkish words, tapping me on the back, smiling, encouraging me to take another bite if I pause to draw breath. Tessekur ederim, - thank you - I say, my hand on my heart. Then, Allah ismaladik, the Turkish farewell. Allah, he agrees, smiling his one-toothed smile. Allah, he repeats, waving his arms about, looking all around. Allah is everywhere.
Again and again, I find myself overawed by the welcome I've received from Turkish people. How many places can there be where such unquestioning hospitality transcends language and culture? As I approach the border with Syria, I can only promise myself not to forget these acts of kindness, learn from them by returning them, and continue this circle of hospitality.