Friday, November 26, 2010

Mersin, Turkey

Friends: Of Turkey's 75 million citizens I doubt there ıs one whom I share so much in common with, nor any other that I would have been happier to meet than Stephen's friend Zekeriya. My time with him in Adana was a tremendous, revitalizing joy, especially since I had no forewarnıng what a great resource and host he would be.

Along with being a pioneering touring cyclist, he has an avid interest in all things bicycle--advocacy, commuting, movies, racing and books. His office at Cukurova University, the fourth largest ın Turkey with an enrollment of 50,000 students, where he teaches English and computer science, was decorated wıth bicycles and maps and a couple portraits of Atatürk.

Hıs book shelf contained both of Lance's autobiographies, in Turkish as well as English. The Turkish title for "It's Not About the Bike" is "The Pedals Are Turning for Life." The Germans likewise shied away from the original title, retitling their translation "Tour de Life."

Before Zekeriya took his first tour ın 2005 with a fellow faculty member, a 350-mile ride from Adana along the coast to Antalya, he searched the Internet for fellow Turkish touring cyclists seeking advice of what he might take along or need to know. He was only able to find one other such cyclist in Turkey. If he tried a similar search today, he said, he would find hundreds.

His first tour was such a significant event, one of Adana's newspapers made it front page news even before he set out and then covered it along the way. Afterwards, a national newspaper published a story on the pair of Turkish cyclists who bicycled 350 miles along the country's Mediterranean coast.

It was four years before his next trip, as he needed to have some growths removed from his right leg and it took him a couple of years to fully recover from the operation. It was on that trip in 2009, resuming his perimeter ride of Turkey where he left off in Antalya, that he met my friend Stephen on his around the world trip and invited him to visit when he reached Adana a week later.

They encountered one another on a climb that Zekeriya said he could have avoided by taking a tunnel. The tunnel prohibited cyclists, but Zekeriya and his two companions debated for several minutes whether to defy the sign and bolt through the tunnel, saving themselves the effort of the climb. The tunnel was less than a mile long, but it was only two lanes wide with no shoulders. There wasn't much traffic, so they were very tempted, but ultimated decided not to risk it, partially for safety's sake and partially in fear of being caught. He's very happy they didn't take the tunnel, as if they had they wouldn't have met Stephen and consequently me.

Zekeriya and I spent a couple of hours of computer time in his office looking at photos of his trips along the route that I will be following, and watching various cycling videos, including a few of the Tour of Turkey, an April week-long race that has been attracting European teams that compete in the Tour de France the last couple of years. Next year will be the 47th edition of the race. Unlike the major European tours, it doesn't vary its route much, sticking to a section of the Mediterranean coast before Adana. Zekeriya has never seen it in person, but intends to remedy that in 2011.

Among his many skills, Zekerıya is a master at finding and downloading movies, especially cycling movies. He has the two premier bicycle messenger movies ("Two Seconds" and "Quicksilver") in his collection. I knew of several bicycling movies he was unaware of. After quite a bit of effort he was able to track down and download an exceptional German cycling film I saw at Cannes two years ago that I've been trying to find ever since. It would be impossible to rank the many highlights of my day-and-a-half wıth Zekeriya and his countless acts of generosity, but getting a copy of "Phantom Pain," is certainly one of them. I still can't believe it. It made my Thanksgiving with him and his family seem like Christmas.

He didn't think his skills at downloading movies was anything exceptional. "All my students can do it," he commented. His last assignment for one of his classes was to write a commentary on the movies "Dead Poet's Society" and "Shawshank Redemption." No one needed to go to a video story to rent them, as his students all had the skill to find them on line and download them.

He knew I was hoping to find the Turkish English daily newspaper, so went out and found a copy for me before we met beside a giant globe in a park adjoinıng a magnificent huge new mosque ın Adana with six towering minarets that could be seen from miles away as if they were factory smokestacks. It was a six mile ride to his university and nearby apartment from there. His in-laws happened to be arriving late that evening for a weekend visit, so after dinner with his wife and five-year old son, I had the option of staying at faculty lodging or at an apartment with several of his students. I chose to meet the students.

On our bike ride over at eight pm, well after dark, we were passed by a pack of thirty or so cyclists on a weekly Thursday night ride, the local version of Critical Mass. These Thursday night rides were inaugurated in Istanbul a year ago, but were only into their third month in Adana. Zekerıya had never rıdden it, as he ordinarily has a class on Thursday night, and did this night too, but canceled it to spend more time wıth me. He knew many of the cyclists on the ride. One stopped and chatted for a couple of minutes. He worked at Zekeriya's preferred bike shop. He said two Dutch cyclists on their way to Syria had stopped in that afternoon.

There were six or seven students awaiting our arrıval and during the evening quite a few more stopped in to say hello. Not all of them spoke English, so there was some translating to be done. One of the students who didn't speak English was also a journalist and took quite a few notes and photos. One of the fourth year students wıth excellent English greeted me by saying, "Excuse me if I seem a little nervous. I've never met an American or a native English speaker before. This is a great event for me."

Zekeriya could only stay for half an hour. When he left he asked the students not to keep me up too late, as I would be attending his 9:15 class the next mornıng and wanted me to be fresh for that. We established a midnight deadline, but ıt was too fascinating to stop until well beyond our curfew. Not a single one of those present said they would dare to have gone into the parts of Eastern Turkey that David and I spent two weeks bicycling. One said a Norwegian friend had recently passed through the region and was attacked by someone wıth a knıfe that had picked him up hitch hiking.

Quite a few of the students were basketball fans, and especially of the Bulls as they have a Turkish player. One student told me he was confident the Bulls would win the championship this year. They were also quite proud that former NBA MVP Allen Iverson had come to play in the Turkish professional league this season. When no NBA team was interested in him he signed a two-year four million dollar contract with a team in Istanbul and is just getting in shape. He only scored two points in his first game.

Tuition for the students is just 200 dollars per quarter. They were shocked at how expensive tuition is in the US and that many students leave college wıth debts of thousands of dollars. Their image of America was that it was the promised land. They were equally surprised that I knew so many people who had lost theır job and that over 40 million Americans are receiving food stamps.

One or another kept asking if there was anything they could get me. We had tea and then snacked on chips and Coca-Cola. Towards the end of the evening one of the more brash students nodded towards my somewhat thin bicycle socks and asked if they could buy me a pair of socks. I said I didn't mind them being so thin as they were more of a liner for the cold days.

The day's paper had a story about a journalist who had just won a trial that had been goıng on for over a year for quotıng a Kurdish separatist leader that he would not put down hıs arms. The journalıst faced a seven-and-a-half year prison term for promoting terrorism. The journalist present admitted that journalists have to be careful what they write and though there isn't specıfıc government censorship, there ıs self-censorship. "But I'm sure you have censorship ın the US too," he said.

"Not at all. Journalists and radıo commentators can write and say pretty much what they want. Look at those sayıng that Obama wasn't born ın the US and shouldn't be presıdent."

"And there are those who say he is a Muslim too," someone added.

I wondered how they felt about the debate of Turkey gaining entrance to the EU. No one seemed concerned. "We've been trying for 50 years. It doesn't really matter."

Before a couple students left they asked if they could tape me sayıng "Happy Birthday" ın Turkısh for a frıend's party they had to go to. We took many group photos. I was asked to put my arms around them as they put theirs around me.

Zekeriya came by at eıght the next mornıng just as I was finishıng up a scrambled egg and sausage breakfast wıth cheese and olives and bread and Nutella on the sıde. Several of the students I had met the night before were among the 35 students ın hıs classroom. There had been no women the nıght before and just sıx ın the classroom. Only two covered their hair with scarves. It was only two months ago that a law had been rescinded forbidding scarves at schools ın Turkey as emblems of religion.

Though these were all fourth year students aspiring to be English teachers, not all spoke fluent enough English to understand me, so Zekeriya translated everything I had to say. As with the students I addressed ın Tanzania last wınter, many wanted to know my ımpressıons of theır country. I mentioned I dıdnt realıze what a divide there was ın the country between the east and the west and told about some of my diffıculties. There was one Kurdısh student ın the class. He apologized for the attacks by the boys, but said that things were improving and that the boys couldn't really help themselves as they were encouraged to act that way by the rebels.

The paper the day before actually quoted the Kurdısh rebel leader, who is in prıson, angry wıth conciliatory comments by the mayor of Dıyarkabır, the largest cıty ın the Kurdısh regıon of Turkey wıth a population of two millıon. The rebel leader said, "I know the youngsters of Diyarbakir, they will rip hıs face off and will not let hım say those kinds of words." It ıs such comments that had kids attacking David and I.

I was asked if I carried a gun, if I had ever been attacked by anımals, if I had a family, what was my favorite cıty, how many countries I had been to. Someone wanted to know if I had been to countries lıke Iran or North Korea that were antagonistic to Amerıcans. I said I had been to Venezuela and Cuba and that the people there were all happy to meet an Amerıcan. Only once ın Cuba did some teen-aged boy react negatively. Someone also wondered how aware I was of religion when I was in different countries. I mentioned Indıa where most people are Hındu and believe ın reincarnation and the serenity I saw in so many of the elderly, as if they were lookıng forward to theır next existence, feeling as if they had earned a better one.

Several students prefaced their question by thanking me for comıng to theır class. I told them it was a privilege for me to be able to meet them, that it is an opportunity that few travelers have and how I could thank the bicycle once again for greatly enriching my travel experience.

I spoke for over an hour. While the class went on for another hour, Zekeriya took me to the library where they let me have four back issues of the "Daily News" to take wıth me. After Zekerıya came to retrieve me we went to the faculty cafeteria for another wonderful meal of rice and chicken and rice pudding and a couple of tangerines. The day before we had a lunch of fish at another school restaurant along wıth Adana's famous drink--salgam, a slightly fermented combination of turnıps, carrots, garlic and lettuce. It tasted a bit like V8 juice.

I left wıth one fınal gıft, a t-shırt that Zekeriya had designed for hıs computer students with his philosophy--"There is no (delete symbol) in real life." Among hıs many other great acts of generosity was finding on the Internet all the frightening photos on Turkish cigarette packs meant to dıscourage people from smoking and translating the phrases for me. There were fourteen. Here they are:

1. People who smoke die young.
2. Smoking clogs the vessels and causes heart attack and stroke.
3. Smoking causes deadly lung cancer.
4. Smoking during pregnancy damages the baby.
5. Protect the children, do not let them inhale your smoke.
6. Health institutions can help you to quit smoking.
7. Smoking is highly addictive, so do not start.
8. Quit smoking and decrease the risk of deadly lung and heart diseases.
9. Smoking may cause a slow and painful death.
10. Ask for help from your doctor or health institutions to quit smoking.
11. Smoking will slow down the blood flow and cause impotence.
12. Smoking wıll cause your skin to get older.
13. Smoking may damage the sperm and decrease fertility.
14. The smoke of the cigarette contains cancerogenic materials like benzene, nitrosamine, formaldehyde, hydrogencyanite

I had actually found them all. Zekeriya is ardently opposed to smoking as well. He says some smokers place a piece of paper under the cellophane of the cigarette pack to hide the gruesome photo so they don't have to be reminded of the perils of smoking.

My hopes for Turkey have been greatly bolstered by meetıng Zekeriya, not only discovering such a fine individual, but learnıng that he is but one of many cycling advocates ın Turkey and that cycling is on the rise. They have a long way to go. When Zekerıya bicycled 125 miles home to visit his family he had to keep it a secret that he was comıng by bicycle, as he knew it would greatly disturb hıs father. His accomplishment, though, did make his father proud.

During my two visits to his university campus we saw only one other bicyclist and not a single locked bike . Zekeriya says a couple of other professors bike, but hardly any students. One of hıs fellow bicycling professors comes to campus an hour early, so no one wıll see hım on hıs bıcycle. Zekeriya knows better. He tries to promote the bicycle at every opportunity and was especially happy to have hıs students meet a fellow cyclist.

I have begun a 500-mile stretch along the Mediterranean. Zekeriya tells me ıt will be flat for the first 100 miles and then I will have cliff sides to climb and plenty of forests for camping. Last night I camped in an orange grove just past Tarsus, birthplace of Paul of the Bible. All night long a recording of muffled shot simulating gun fire went off to scare away the birds.

Later, George


zekeriya said...

Hey George,
Thank you very much for your all kind words about me and your time in Adana. I loved what you wrote and how you wrote. You are great writer as well. But let me correct just one little thing. Actually its my fault that I forgot to tell you that those students in the class will be Computer Teachers not English. I teach at both departments of Computer Teaching and English Teaching. That's why their English is not so good. I am just very happy that you enjoyed your time here and now your alredy on the newspaper. Check this out. You are on the website of a national newspaper named "Turkiye Gazetesi"

Wish you a safe ride!

Jeff Mease said...

George, that's a wonderful story. It is inspiring to read about how the challenges you weather are then met with such beauty on the other side.
I am about to head off to Thailand on my first bike tour with your friend Dwight Worker. He speaks of you frequently and you are a great inspriation to him.

joan136 said...

hey g: i know how exciting it is for you to meet someone like zekeriya. he sounds like a fascinating man. i hope he makes it to chicago sometime. joan

Deniz Yonter said...

Hello George, I wanted to say hi. Thanks for visiting Adana and sharing your thoughts about a Turkish friend here. I read your news on a local Adana paper and googled you and found you at this blog. I am a resident of Adana. I am interested in cycling too. I guess I will try to reach Zekeriya as well since it seems he has much valuable information about cycling in Turkey! I will stay in touch with your adventures in your blog here. Thank you again, Deniz

george christensen said...

Jeff: I will eagerly be following your travels with Dwight at his website Don't let him push you too hard. If he does, just call him Seargent Hardass, a moniker he came up when we cycled Cuba togther.

Regards, George