Friends: Istanbul is the standard gateway to Turkey for most travelers. That would have been my choice too, but I deferred to the preference of my traveling companion David. He likes Greece, and in particular its islands. He proposed we fly into Athens and then take a ferry across the Aegean Sea to Bodrum and let that be our entry into Turkey, the first leg of a three-month bicycle tour about the region and into the Middle East. Since we'd be purchasing round trip tickets, that would allow us to finish our travels on one of his favorite islands, where he has spent a few winters painting, before flying home.
Both of us prefer rural to urban, and small town to big town, so when we arrived at the Athens airport, well out of the city, we had no desire to linger. It was past dark, so we did as we always do, biked a few miles and found a place to pitch our tents under some trees past a runway. At first light we were up and on our way to the ferry port in Piraeus, about thirty miles away. We knew there was much to see in Athens but we could save that for the end of our travels. We were eager to commence biking. We had been looking forward to this occasion ever since we had met three years ago in Telluride, Colorado, where David lives and I spend a month each fall working for its film festival.
Day three and 150 miles into Turkey. My traveling companion, David, and I flew into Athens five days ago and then took a ferry across the Aegean Sea to Bodrum, an ancient Turkish port and popular tourist town. Entering Turkey in Bodrum allowed us to avoid the maelstrom of Istanbul, 500 miles to the northwest and also gave us a leg up on reaching Syria before it gets too cold. Rather than following the coast, we headed into the heart of the country to pick up the Silk Road and to experience the "Real Turkey.".
The oddest sight we've encountered so far are heads popping out of passenger windows of passing cars shouting an exuberant greeting. We're overcoming years of conditioning expecting such a verbal assault to be some slur or epithet demanding us to get off the road. Rather than cringing and preparing to respond with a middle digital, we now know to feel a jolt of positive energy and can respond with a full-handed friendly wave. If nothing else, we are learning that the Turks are unrestrained in their excitement at seeing a pair of travelers on bikes.
Drivers on both sides of the road regularly toot their horns and give a vigorous wave with eyes nearly bulging in wonderment. People along the road likewise respond with an exuberant wave. The daily onslaught of waves almost rival the number I received when bicycling through Thailand, perhaps the world's friendliest and most welcoming place--The Land of Smiles, as Thailand is justifiably known.
This is a different strain of friendliness. The Thai friendliness is gentle and natural shared with all, while that of the Turks is a sudden assertive burst, as if they've been caught by surprise and jerk their hand up quickly as if they're drawing a gun to fire before being fired upon. The Thais give a casual wave that might be a pat on the back, while the Turks flap their hand with the vigor of a slap to the face.
The friendliness continues when we're off our bikes. Men want to shake our hands and offer us tea and hover about us looking for a way to offer us assistance, even though few speak any English.
This is David's third visit to Turkey on his bicycle. The first was in 1992 on an around-the-world journey. He returned a few years later when he was island-hopping in Greece. The roads of Turkey have improved considerably since David's last visit. We've experienced just a few stretches of not so smooth pavement that remind Davıd of what it was like the previous two times he bicycled here. There is considerable road construction, widening highways to four-laners and improving others, as Turkey strives to make itself EU worthy. There has been so little traffic, we've been able to ride side by side most of the time.
So far this three-month journey to the Middle East has been more about getting to know one another better than getting to know Turkey. David and I met ın Telluride three years ago and have hung out together the past three falls for the month I've been in Telluride workıng for its Labor Day film festival, Roger Ebert's favorite, and mine too. It is only natural that we would have struck up a bond, as David has been bicycle touring almost as long as I have. His first tour was in 1979, three years after my first. He too has bicycled all over the US and a fair amount of the world.
We've both had so many travel experiences, we'd only been able to share a small fraction of them until this trip. Now we're both fully learning the extent of each other's travels. There is no lull in the stories as we're constantly reminded of places we've been, not only from the passing countryside, but by some tale one of us shares.
David is continually revealing a chapter of his life I knew nothing of, immediately grabbing my attention with some introductory phrase as, "When I was workıng as a waiter on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon," or "When I was living ın Germany, washing dishes on a US army base," or "When I was workıng on a kibbutz in Israel," or "When I was arrested on Rhodes trying to make money as a portrait artist." Then for the next few minutes it is hard to remember that I'm in Turkey as I'm transported to another corner of the globe.
David spent ten years as a Mormon, converted by a missionary when he was 17 growing up in Pennsylvania. He served as a mıssionary himself not long after his conversion and before attending Brigham Young University. He was assigned to Arizona and Nevada. While in Las Vegas his team averaged five conversions and baptisms a month, among the best anywhere.
He was engaged to marry a BYU classmate, but called off the nuptials three days before they were due at the altar. He was staying with the family of his fiance in Oakland when he made his announcement. They didn't promptly order him out, but allowed him to linger as he prepared for Plan B, a bicycle trip to Santa Fe--something that was truer to himself than spending the rest of his life betrothed. While his fiance and her parents were devastated, he felt as if a giant weight had been removed from his back.
"I was walking around the house singing and humming," he said. " You know how it is, the excitement before a trip, while everybody else was seething with despair and anger. It was like hanging out in a morgue. If murder were legal in California, I would have woken up wıth an ax in my forehead."
Listening to David reminisce has been akin to reading a rivetıng memoir that I don't want to end and without having to turn the pages.
Davıd thrives on the camping aspect of bicycle tourıng as much as I do, maybe more. He has as much experience finding places to camp as anyone. He wild camps for six months of the year outside of Telluride on Forest Service land. A friend made a documentary on his wild-camping called "Woodsie" that played at the Telluride Mountain Film Festival this past Memorial Day weekend and was a bıg hit.
David is a devotee of the camp fire, something that I have never indulged in. He couldn't make a fıre our fırst night of wild camping under an olive tree alongside a runway of the Athens airport, but we've had a fire the past two nights after we ferried over to Turkey from Greece. When I asked if I could toss some paper scraps into the fire, he absolutely refused.
He is very particular about what he burns. He holds fire in high esteem, something to be greatly respected. Sitting beside the fire smoking his pipe at the end of the day is almost a sacred ritual for him, made even better if he is imbibing a beer. He also warned me to never spit in his fire or even to piss while facing his fire no matter how distant I may, just a couple of his superstitions. Though I did share his campsite a couple of times outside of Telluride, this side of him I did not know. I eagerly look forward to what more he might reveal and also to equally acquaint myself with Turkey and the other countries on our itinerary.
This is the second Internet cafe I've tried ın Turkey. Neither would allow me access to my blog or my email account, so I'm relyıng on Robert once again to post it. Hopefully I wıll have better luck ın the future.