1st February -15th March, 2013
Most tourists in Istanbul have probably never heard of Zeytinburnu, a working-class neighbourhood on the European side of Istanbul, just West of Fatih on the shores of the Marmara Sea.
I found my room there through a certain well know hospitality exchange website, on one of the Istanbul accommodation groups. The room was cheap, the guy seemed friendly. We exchanged some emails and I prepared to move in on arrival in Istanbul.
Zeytinburnu is an important lesson for city planning in Turkey, because it was one of the first Gecekondu districts. In other words most of the buildings were built illegally, without infrastructure, and without any aesthetical concern. In the 1960s legislation was passed to prevent this type of building but by then this type of development had become unstoppable. At first these were little brick-built single storey cottages. From the 1970s onwards the little houses were replaced by multi-storey concrete apartment blocks built in rows with no space in between. In most cases the ground floor was used as a small textile workshop, and thus Zeytinburnu became a bustling industrial area with a large residential population living above the workshops. All this was still illegal and unplanned and still lacked the infrastructure and the aesthetics. After a heavy rain the streets would run with dirty water for days.
On meeting my new landlord Barış (pronounced something like “Barush”), whose name means ‘Peace’, it quickly became clear he was somewhat paranoid and perhaps even paranoid delusional. He took to me straight away though and lowered the price of the room still further, saying he wanted to help me. “There should be more people in the world like you”, he said. Barış began regaling me with tales from his past. He told me about his psychologically abusive father, his ex-girlfriend who went out of her way to be mean to him and his downstairs neighbour, whose main pass-time was apparently to continuously torture Barış in lots of fun little ways – such as turning his electricity off at random intervals; drilling small holes into the wall in his bedroom that would allow carbon monoxide to seep in when he lit his fire in the flat downstairs, and pumping the smell of glue up through the floor vent in the bathroom. Subsequently, to keep this downstairs madman at bay, we had to keep to lots of little protective rituals in the flat, such as keeping a large bottle of water over the floor vent in the bathroom. Barış also informed me he’d had the electricity in the flat rewired, making it impossible to trip. This concerned me somewhat. I considered the idea that Barış may be mistaken about the neighbour and could possible have faulty electrics that tripped when a certain appliance was plugged in. He had effectively rewired out the safety mechanism that could keep the flat from going up in smoke.
Along with the safety precautions regarding the downstairs neighbour, came a strict cleaning regime. Everything must be cleaned spotless the moment it was finished with. The house was perpetually gleaming, but that didn’t stop Barış from making a fuss, complaining about the mess and the grime. I reasoned with him that since I cleaned the bathroom each and every time I used it, cleaning it weekly as well seemed a little pointless and perhaps even a tad excessive. He glared at me.
I was in Istanbul to take a CELTA course. This idea had been turning over slowly in my mind since I first came to Turkey two years previously. Finally, the germ of an idea had seeded and sprouted into a fully-grown plan. Now here I was, about to become a professionally qualified English teacher. I was terrified.
The CELTA course would take place over five jam-packed weeks, during which I would commute four mornings every week to 4. Levent, across the Golden Horn. I did this with several million other people, who all attempted to squash themselves into every available tram, train, bus and metro each day. I took pleasure in this daily dash, feeling important. I had something to do. I was a busy person. I ran up and down the escalators every day, even when I wasn’t running late.
Living with us in Barış’s flat was a young eccentric chap named Murat. Murat labelled himself a ‘Vintage Enthusiast’. He was passionate about bicycles, helping other people, and vintage clothing and accessories. One day, for example, I came home to discover Murat had found a couple of Rainbow hippies out somewhere on the streets and invited them to share his tiny box room with him, despite being previously unfamiliar with the concept of Rainbow.
I was lucky to have Murat around on the day I moved out of Barış’s apartment. I was also fortunate enough to be sick on that day. If I was my usual self, I wouldn’t have asked my friend Jo for help in moving my things, and she wouldn’t have been there to sit down on the floor with me in protest when Barış refused to return my deposit, claiming that I didn’t wash my sheets and should therefore be penalised the 225 Turkish Lira I had given him – (around £80).
When Barış lost his temper completely and began to push me forcefully out of the front door, Jo pulled me back in and Murat tried in vain to calm our nutty landlord. It was futile. I never recovered the full extent of my deposit, but I got about half of it back in a compromise, after phoning for backup. When someone began hammering on the door from the other side, Barış began looking seriously nervous. “Mafia’s here!” Jo grinned. Our backup had arrived.
Barış told us he’d given Murat his bank card and pin number and instructed him to give us the money once we’d all exited the building. On getting outside, we discovered he’d given him 125 lira to give to us, rather than the bank card. He still owes me 100 lira. Barış has since deleted his profile on the hospitality website.
Rebekah and I leave Kars in a snowstorm early one morning and weave our winter way through Ardahan and Artvin to Şavşat, a small town without much to say for itself.
We left Halil’s place early, without any tea. There’s no çay in Şavşat – only shitty buildings, piles of bricks and hard, unsmiling stares from those we pass on uncrowded streets. Rain is abundant, unlike the tea. We leave as fast as possible, wondering why this small city should be so much more miserable than its neighbours.
We inch our way North to the Black Sea coast. People had warned us to beware of wolves. We peer skittishly over snow-caked fields, see occasional bushy tails disappear over frosted mounds. Finally, we meet some amidst a long wait in a lay-by, somewhere on the way to Hopa.
The wolves lick our hands and snuffle into our plastic food bag, thoroughly cramping our style and warding off anyone who may ever have dreamed of stopping for us.
A group of three men idle out of the roadside shop and stand by us, watching, occasionally asking a question. I let Rebekah do the talking , embarrassed by my own meagre Turkish.
Finally, we get a lift to Trabzon with an older, well-travelled man. He speaks Turkish, Russian and a little Persian, English and German. Rebekah, who also speaks Turkish, Russian, English and a little Persian (as well as German, Dutch, French and a bit of Kurdish and Urdu), chats away with him in each of them. He seems thoroughly impressed by her and I feel myself to be a bit of a let-down.
As we approach Trabzon, our ride slows down and we lose over an hour for reasons unknown. Perhaps he was running early for his appointment with his Russian girlfriend, who he begins to tell us about as we’re approaching the city. He drops us 8km from Çağatay‘s house, outside the hotel where he’ll be staying with her.
We begin walking.
We arrive at Çağatay’s house late, not in the best of moods. We take him out for çiğ köfte – my favourite vegetarian Turkish fast food. I’m aware of a gulf between cheery innocent Çağatay and these two road-battered women. I’m not sure if it was there or not the last time we met.
The next day, Rebekah and I stumble out of the door as early as we can manage.
Escaping from Trabzon is tough.
Eventually, around lunchtime, we find a dolmuş – a shared minibus – to Akçaabat, further along the coast.
We hitch a truck to Samsun, but get out after 10km when the driver asks directly for sex.
We hitch a ride to Giresun with a man in small van, with dodgy eyes and a lot of questions.
Rebekah wanted to see the Black Sea coast in winter. We knew already that this area of Anatolia isn’t the most favourable place for female hitchhikers. Trabzon, in particular, is infamous for its large population of sex workers, who migrate from Russia and other post-Soviet countries to make money from Turkish truck drivers and sex tourists. One of the side-effects of this is that truck drivers are often seemingly unable to imagine that women might be standing by the road for any reason other than sex.
The worst is a truck driver on the way to Samsun. I sit straight in my seat, hands folded in lap, and try to evoke the countenance of a prim primary school teacher with a poker face. Rebekah is still doing the talking. Her fluency quickly makes it impossible for her to ignore the hints and subtleties which I could easily have glossed over, feigning ignorance. She becomes frustrated quickly, and it shows. Unfortunately, rather than the desired effect of ceasing the truck driver’s flirtation, her display of discomfort only escalates matters.
We each have our ways of dealing with things. Rebekah is frustrated and upset and I can see the driver is getting off on it. I try to calm her down, but she becomes irate, thinking I don’t understand or don’t believe her version of events. I cannot understand all of the words the man is saying to us, but I am hyper-tuned into his body-language and his energy. It’s true that she is the one who will suffer more if we stay in the truck with him. After all, she has to listen, has to understand, where I can just tune him out. On her request, I take the reigns and adopt a tourist-Turkish ‘asking about the family’ stream of conversation. Unfortunately, he takes this as an opportunity to tell us about how hard his work is, with his wife and family a whole 7km outside of Trabzon and how he has a Russian girlfriend, who is currently away. Rebekah explodes.
We climb out from the truck and wait for another lift, each subduing our inner rage.
When I’m asked by drivers if I’ve eaten, I always say yes, declining, at least the first time, the offer of food. Rebekah, on the other hand, is of the idea that we put up with a lot of shit as female hitchhikers, and road-gifts are the pay-off for this. When two businessmen stop and ask if we’ve eaten, Rebekah tells them, “Oh no, we haven’t eaten anything all day!” They drive us to the nearest restaurant.
Breakfast from the businessmen
Our drivers and their medieval steak
After a slap-up meal at the poshest restaurant in town, the men put us on a bus to Samsun, telling the driver to drop us on the road to Ankara.
We’re not long on the road when a guy stops. Rebekah goes to talk to him, returning to say he looks drunk. We’re well practised at getting out of cars by now, so we decide to get in and see how it goes. His driving is terrible, but he seems nice enough, though he’s not very chatty. “Small brain, big heart” is our eventual conclusion. He phones all of his friends and tells them – “I have two tourists with me. Tourists! One is from England and one is from Germany!” He buys us coffee, then stops in Çorum, a town famous for its leblebi – roasted chickpeas, eaten as a snack. Huge neon signs pronounce the sale of every type you can imagine, from chocolate-coated to plain. Our driver takes us into one after another after another – “Turist!” he tells the sales people, while encouraging us to try a handful of each different type, before sauntering into the next place along and beginning all over again – “Turist!”
Two Turkeys and a fat bird
During our journey the guy spontaneously gives us small presents – anything lying around in his car. He gives me a picture of two Turkeys and Rebekah a photo of a fat bird. We thank him, struggling to keep our faces straight.
After running our of petrol and crawling into a garage, the guy puts us on a bus to Ankara, where we meet Rebekah’s friend, Ümit.
During our journey, I heard drivers ask Rebekah, in Turkish, if I could speak Turkish. I heard her say no, repeatedly. I tried not to let this get to me, reasoning that to her, my Turkish is like a child’s at best, and that anyway, I had barely spoken it in front of her because my confidence was so low. Ümit saves the traces of my confidence, with his warmth and patience, speaking with me while Rebekah is in the shower.
It’s been a long, slow road. Rebekah and I are both exhausted. I will continue my journey to Istanbul alone, by coach, the following day, leaving Rebekah with Ümit in Ankara. I will decide, not for the first time, that I’m never going to hitchhike the Black Sea coast again.
I will go back on that decision two months later.