Friends: My bike lure worked once again, snaring several more touring cyclists--a pair of young rookie Germans, including one with dreads, and a 40-year old well-traveled Englishman, Orlando. The Brit was a keeper, my best catch yet of the dozen or so I've added to my collection since arriving in Istanbul four days ago.
Orlando had just wrapped up a six-month ride from England to eastern Turkey several days ago and then bused 1,000 miles back to Istanbul, having had enough of the snow and cold. Besides being a rare experienced touring cyclist, he is the first I have met on this trip who follows racing and is a full devotee of The Tour de France, opening up a whole new field of conversation. He set out on his ride just before The Tour began, so wasn't able to follow it as closely as he normally would. I was delighted to give him a first-hand report of my experience following it.
Not only could he appreciate the Garmin jersey and tights that have been my uniform the past couple of weeks and earlier on the trip in the cold of the high country, he expressed an eagerness to join me next year following The Tour. It's starting point will be just a short hop for him over the Channel from England, in the Vendee region of France, just south of Brittany in the northwest corner of the country. Orlando is enough of a fan to know this and had already been contemplating getting over for it, the first time he would have witnessed The Tour other than at its Grand Depart in London in 2007.
Like every other touring cyclist I have encountered here in Istanbul, other than at the airport, he was bikeless, taking a break from the bicycle, getting around by foot rather than on his bike, something that is utterly unfathomable to me. Six months of travel on the bike certifies one as an ardent cyclist, a true devotee who ought to be so bonded to his bike that he wouldn't want to part from it, at least for long. I speak for myself of course. I certainly couldn't or wouldn't willingly forsake my bike. I live for the bicycle and want to ride it every day and at every opportunity. If I don't get a ride in, my spirit withers, leaving me lethargic and only half alive.
I crave that daily joyous glide on the bike, that freeing sensation of flight giving me some release from the earthly bonds of gravity and my earthly worries. It makes me feel good and makes me forget the bad. If I don't get that fix, I'm not good for much. Yes indeed, I am an addict, and evidently there aren't many. I seem to be mistaken to think all those who have been on their bikes for months getting here, having ridden thousands of miles, would be similarly transfixed. They all say they need a break, not realizing how revitalizing it is to give their bike a ride, especially stripped of all the weight it has been carrying.
If I had not been remaining faithful to my bike, I would not have met Orlando nor Adria nor any of the others. Orlando said he saw me ride by two days ago and chased after me, but wasn't able to catch me. He had been on the alert for me since, as he hadn't encountered another fellow cyclist in quite a while, not recognizing those unaccompanied by their bikes.
He was eager to hear how I had coped with Turkey. He too had had some quite traumatic experiences. He had been attacked by boys and dogs and was solicited for sex by a guy on a motorcycle who tagged along with him for twenty minutes. That was his most unnerving experience, as it went on for so long and, he didn't know how he was going to escape the guy.
"I'm still trying to figure out if I would recommend anyone else to bicycle Turkey," he said. "I've had some very very nice experiences, but some very horrible ones too."
He was waved over by a group of boys early in his travels in Turkey, well, well before the notorious east. He thought they were just being friendly, so he stopped to have a chat. They surrounded him and then tried to pull his panniers off his bike. He was able to escape. He was regularly stoned when he reached the east and had boys grabbing and chasing after him. One group threw empty bottles in front of his bike trying to cause him to crash. He sounded like he had it worse than David and I.
He was once surrounded by six dogs and had to wave his bike around to fend them off, a super human act with all the weight on his bike. But Orlando was an easy going chap, who thrived on all aspects of touring and only wanted to be positive about the experience, shrugging off the adversity, and not really wanting to dwell on them. When we met other cyclists, I had to drag these episodes out of him, as he didn't care to bring them up.
Just before I met Orlando, I had had another aggravating encounter as I sat reading in a plaza. Three teen-aged boys in their school blazers, smoking cigarettes, plopped down on an adjoining bench and began the "what is your name" game with not a speck of sincerity. It was clear that they had no intention of practicing their English, but only meant to harass me. I responded in French, saying I didn't speak English, and tried to ignore them. They persisted, just wishing to fuck with the tourist, finally giving up and sneering, "pussy European," as they trudged off. I hadn't had one of these episodes in a while, but once again I had to ask, "What is it about the boys here that makes them so hostile and belligerent?"
This is a country with all sorts of simmering tensions. Turks from the western part of the country fear going into the eastern third of the country. What to do about the "Kurdish problem" is a pressing concern. There is also tension with the Greeks. The Cyprus issue has yet to be fully resolved, and there are disputes over Aegean islands between the two countries and regular dog fights between their air forces. Turkey is very upset that Greece has the largest military budget in proportion to its GNP of any European NATO country, knowing that it is largely directed at them.
Turkey is also in a tug-of-war between its Islamic factions and more western leaning factions. Those who favor the western lifestyle fear their freedom of choice might be taken away by the increasing influence of the Islamics. The Islamic factions see western influence as a degenerative force. A mob of women recently stoned bars in a city that began employing women waitresses, who they saw as undermining the morals of their husbands and sons. All the bars backed down and returned to all male wait staffs.
The Armenian question is in the news again with the US congress considering passing a resolution condemning Turkey for Armenian genocide after WWI. When the issue came up earlier this year Turkey withdrew its ambassador from the US and is prepared to do so again. Turkish Airlines recently hired Kobe Bryant as a spokesman. That set off protests by Armenians. Turkish Airlines is the fastest growing airline in the world adding more and more destinations. The latest is Australia. It is also one of the few to be showing a profit.
The underlying unrest in Turkey is also exacerbated by the ongoing EU debate of whether Turkey is worthy of joining the EU. The Turks don't like criticism. The prime minister sued a rival party for criticizing him and won the case, which included a monetary award. The Turks are continually criticized by EU review boards for not meeting their standards. That does not go down well either.
A Turkish academic wrote a column in yesterdays paper about how difficult it was for him to get a visa to Germany to attend a conference. He had to make several visits to the German consulate and provide more and more documentation, finally getting a visa good for a week. He cited this as an example of how Turks are perceived and took it as an insult to the entire Turk nation. He said he got a US visa good for ten years without any hassle. There are three million Turkish workers in Germany. They don't want more. If Turkey is allowed into the EU, Germany fears it will be flooded with Turks, since visas will no longer be necessary.
On and on Orlando and I went recounting the many unsettling aspects of Turkey. It is the biggest traveler cliche to say how friendly the people of a country are. That's what everyone says about every country they go to, Turkey as well. A good majority of Turks are, but a very significant minority are not. Even with the several groups of students I spent time with I could clearly sense a smoldering resentment and hostility from some. There were those who found it hard to overcome their prejudices toward someone of a nationality that had been conditioned to regard with ill will. Their sneering tone was unmistakable at times when they were talking amongst themselves in their own language. It makes one wary.
Orlando and I after a couple of months each in Turkey are less blind than others to the resentment simmering in the hearts of all too many Turks. Most cyclists and tourists manage to naively pass through Turkey without penetrating the surface and leave saying how much they enjoyed their time there. We regret that we can't as well.
One day left in Turkey. Tonight I could cap it with what could be one of the highlights of my travels here. I was finally able to track down the details on Istanbul's bicycling community's Thursday night ride thanks to Zekeriya. Orlando will join me and hopefully Adria and the young German cyclists I met yesterday, as well. The ride is scheduled to begin at eight p.m., three hours after dark, and will meander about Istanbul for a couple of hours. I am hoping it will affirm that profound proclamation of HG Wells, "Whenever I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race." And I am hopeful that I might be able to add a corollary: "Whenever I ride a bike with a Turk, I am happy to be amongst them."