In 1982 I travelled alone through Greece for a month stopping off at islands along the way and finally I ended up in Rhodes. One afternoon I was walking by the Rhodes harbour talking to the locals and one boat owner said that he was leaving for Turkey in a few hours and would I like to come along. I just decided in that moment “yes” that would a interesting. I went back to my room packed my tiny bag and so on a whim I took that boat to Ismir thinking I would stay a few days.
Little did I realize that 6 weeks later I would emerge from Turkey so exhausted, exhilarated, and my world view completely changed.
A couple of hours later I embarked a boat which was a tiny fishing vessel that had the cargo of four tourists. There was a very naïve English couple, a nervous woman of about 50 years of age of indeterminate race and myself. We all sat on the edge of the boat and chugged down the Ismir Korjezi enthralled by the scenery. The sea was smooth and glassy—barely a swell and the many islands that were covered by a dark green healthy forest that rose steeply out of the water. I don’t remember seeing any villages or signs of civilisation along the Korjezi, just the earth in her glory. On that boat trip, I effortlessly enticed myself to stay longer in Turkey. After a few days I knew that I had found the best travel that I had experienced on this trip to Europe so far. After spending time in India, Nepal and South East Asia, Italy and Greece seemed tamed and civilised and the culture not too different from home with our many Greek and Italian immigrants.
Turkey was the East and it oozed a sense of adventure, the thrill of not knowing what the next moment would bring and sheer physical beauty—a combination not to be rejected. I knew little about Turkey except that it was the gateway to the east at Istanbul.
As a child I had always looked at Turkey on the large world map in our farmhouse kitchen in a remote corner of the world called Wubin in Western Australia. I have always been intrigued by the name. I had wrongly assumed that the county was named after a huge clumsy bird. Maybe now I realise that it is around the other way?
The port of Ismir was quaint. There were restaurants at the water’s edge, where the few tourists ate fresh, healthy food that had maintained the organic life force that could be tasted and felt. Inside my simple but clean hotel, women held meetings in the stairwell, and smoked large fragrant cheroots. Being in the stair well was like being in a place of worship. Shafts of light would catch the “incense” of the cigars smoke that curled slowly up from the perfumed cheroots that casted shadows on the women whose heads were covered by beautifully crafted muslin scarves that had intricately beaded trims. When I entered the stairwell they would stop their quiet muttering and quietly watch me with large liquid eyes that appeared to have a silent mind behind them.
The men met in the coffee shops filling them with the smoke of small thin cigarettes and the aroma of Turkish Coffees. In Turkey at the time it seemed that men and women had completely different lives. The first morning after my stair experience I went to breakfast by the ocean. I chose a table next to the water and after a few moment the young English couple joined my table. They ordered “Standard Breakfast” from the menu and sat back waiting for what they imagined was bacon, eggs, chips, sugary cereals or what ever the English eat for breakfast. They were given a Turkish breakfast of the freshest warm Turkish bread, feta cheese, olives and zinging tomatoes accompanied by strong black coffee. As many inexperienced tourists do, they reacted as though slapped on the face by the waiter and stood up as though to have a fight! I sat back laughing as I watched the Turks smile, gently whisk the offending meal away and take the order for a bland cardboard beige coloured “English breakfast”.
There were so few tourists here that the waiters were not jaded by this experience yet. The other tourist from the boat joined us and the three of them spoke about their escalating fears. They decided to take a bus straight to Istanbul. I decided to travel south alone.
The bus service in Turkey is excellent, clean, and efficient with little extras such as the provision of fresh water. The local custom is for the driver to look after any stray women. As a stray I was given the seat behind the driver. At rest stops the driver made sure that I was served and would order for me, all very confronting but pleasant for me. When I arrived at my destination they gave me instructions of where to find accommodation and generally acted as unpaid tour guides. The Turkish gypsies find the bus service so good that they have thrown away their previous mode of transport and could be seen at the bus stations with all of their possessions wrapped up in huge cloth bundles waiting for a bus to their next destination.
I traveled south and then east finding Turkey absolutely wonderful. The people were friendly without being overbearing, the scenery, the food, cleanliness, culture, antiquities, buildings—all magnificent. Because I traveled alone I had many little things that I did to make myself feel safe. After all, I was in Turkey alone and none of my friends or family on knew where I was. If anything happened to me—well—that was not to be thought about. I would always make sure that my bus arrived at its destination during the day so that I had plenty of time to find accommodation when it is light and therefore safer.
After a few days of travel I arrived in the Cappidoccia region; a place where the past residents carved out cave homes from the soft rock of fairy mushroom or (depending upon your Freudian analysis) penis shaped weathered sculptures . Each home had very small tunnel entrance where you had to crawl on your hands and knees to get in or out so in the past was safe from invaders. In many of the homes there were rock carved church rooms with wonderful artworks in them weathering away as the soft rock buildings fell to the ravages of time, vandalism and weather. In the past the Cappidoccia region of Turkey had a Christian heritage.
The hotel I chose was really just someone’s home with a few spare rooms. I put my pack down and went to wash. There was one other guest, an English female traveler called Sharon. Sharon was short but large and twenty-three years old. The previous day she had been brutally raped. Before I had time to even meet her such was her angst that she pulled down her shirt and showed me the strangle marks around her neck and the many dark fingertip bruises on her breasts, around her neck and upper arms.
I felt sort of numb to her experience as I couldn’t imagine it. At the same time I intrinsically knew that she was alone and frightened and very much needed someone safe to take over her life for a few days as she recovered. At least enough so that she could make her way home to England again. I happily did this for her. I enjoyed her zany sense of English humour and was also feeling alone after traveling for a few months by myself. Sharon and I traveled again together in Egypt the following year, but that is another story.
In my travels I have found that many men in third world countries can fall in love and want to marry single Western women within a few moments of seeing them. The Turkish men were no different. It is amazing how the hope of a passport in to the Western world can make a woman so desirable.
Me being butch around the Men
Turkish women were not to be seen much on the streets so most of my interactions were through the men. My desirability as a potential passport was an advantage and the men would show me around sites, and introduce me to the customs of the culture.
I handled these interactions so that I became a sort of “token” male, a kind of female that you would not want to marry. I did this by being forthright, in their face and “male” in mannerism. I sat as they did, drank coffee with them and used worry beads.
If they made any sexual references I would tell them that although lewd talk is OK in Turkey between men and women and that in Australia a woman would slap them on the face for saying such things. At the same time I would go to slap them on the face and just miss them by centimetres. This would shock them and they would assure me that it was not a Turkish custom. After that they would treat me with the utmost respect trying to make up for their social blunder. The men would then do everything to convince me that the Turkish people were really honourable and didn’t treat women that way.
From the Cappidoccia region I traveled to Kaiseri, where the dry dusty desert plain abruptly turns to huge snow covered mountains that appear to have no foothills.
Kaiseri is in the wind shadow and therefore desert, it had a huge Turkish carpet bazaar where people from the world over came to purchase intricately hand knotted rugs.
It was Ramadan so not the time of the year when the carpet buyers were there.
Ramadan provided some challenges as few restaurants were open and I often had to buy fruit for a meal. The Turkish people in the odd restaurant that was open would be kind enough to make me a cup of tea and sometimes even prepare some food. I was sort of unconcerned about the Muslim thing about not eating during Ramadan, OK everyone told me about it but it just didn’t gel as it seems so unlike anything I knew about.
I was only in my 20’s. As I have become older I realise that this is the thinking of the majority of people of that age we simply see things as they are and don’t get too caught up in the details if they seem weird.
I just embraced the differences that made sense to me and this shaped me for life. Travel gently opened my mind to cultural stupidity and wisdom in my own culture as well as the land I was visiting.
At the carpet market I wandered around the tiny dark stalls looking at the carpets and inquiring about the manufacture and symbolism of the designs but not buying as I had no inclination to add a carpet to the weight of my back pack.
After a few days I decided to travel further east. Before I took the bus from Kaiseri to Malatya I checked the timetable to see what time it would arrive. It said that the arrival time was one o’clock in the afternoon so I bought a ticket and got on the bus. The bus drove through the desert where the soil was blandly tan, seemingly infertile and parched.
In contrast to Greece where the buildings are bright and the clothing is dull. Turkish rural buildings were dull, mud houses that blended in with the soil yet the people dressed in primary colours with flowing scarves and coats, the clothing providing the only colour in the landscape.
There were horse-riders galloping, pounding over the hard surface with streams of dust flying from the hooves. Children played by the road with simple toys and women worked at fetching water and tending to goats. All of them dressed in primary colours.
In the middle of the day we drove by a river that cut a bright green gorge through the brown landscape, the source was from the snow on the distant mountains.
I found myself sitting next to a young Turkish man who was in Army fatigues. After half an hour he politely started a conversation; “What is your name? Are you married? Please write to me. Here is my picture—you may keep it. Will you marry me? I love you” at this point he went to touch me on the very upper thigh. He must have been watching too much Dallas on TV for he assumed that his verbal marriage promise immediately gave him rights. I jumped up and said aloud in Turkish. “Bad Man!. You can see my Turkish was limited. This caused a furore on the bus and I was safely placed in the seat behind the driver. Dallas the soap opera was on TV in Turkey at the time, so it was no wonder that the Turkish men had such a weird impression of Western women. I used this to my advantage and reminded the men that I was from Australia and I was not an American. I felt slightly guilty saying this because I was sort of suggesting the American women were like the characters in Dallas.
By mid afternoon we were driving through a grassed and lightly treed area; the bus broke down. It was really broken. The driver and conductor tinkered way and the other men and I got off the bus. It was peaceful, with bees and other insects buzzing, a gentle breeze was caressing the pale green bushes and the whole ambience was of absolute serenity. The men wandered away, they went and picked flowers.
The women stayed and sat quietly on the bus, not even speaking among themselves. It appeared to me that they were conditioned to stay and forfeit the experience of movement, picking flowers or the simple pleasure of walking after sitting for five hours.
After many hours the bus was repaired and the men and I got back on with bunches of flowers that the men exchanged among themselves. Each floral gift was accepted after a ritual of bending forward, smelling the fragrance and eye contact.
Due to the break down we arrived in Malatya at dusk. By the time the luggage was unloaded it was dark. The moon was covered by the earths shadow and there was no street lighting.
The driver was preoccupied with the broken bus and I didn’t know which way to go to a hotel. I can feel and smell the bus station now – decades later – men in coffee shops were sitting on low stools where the lighting was golden and dull. There was the sounds of murmuring as they drank thimbles full of brown tar like coffee. The smell of the freshly brewed coffee wafted down the street and the night air was still and warm.
I stood looking at this scene seeing the wonder of this culture and at the same time worrying about getting a safe place for the night.
Within minutes of getting off the bus I was surrounded by a group of men—perhaps about 15 to 20 of them. They followed me as I looked for a hotel. I asked them to leave and I was ignored, so I walked down the road in the direction I hoped would lead to a safe room with my entourage.
The first hotel was painted pale green; the paint had a polished sheen and had gone brown in the places where people placed their hands; around the doors and at the counter. The group of men who had followed me waited at the door as three of them showed me to the desk. I asked for a room and the price. It seemed reasonable, so I asked to see the room. The manager and a small group of men showed me up three flights of stairs. At the top of the stairs was a roof. On the roof were two very separate rooms, like cells. One room was open and I could see a dirty iron bed. There were no windows—a bare light bulb accentuated the cell like appearance. Outside the door was a long bench and the excess men sat there as I perused the room, it was obvious that they are showing me a prostitute’s room. I declined this offer and asked to see another hotel.
This scenario was repeated twice more. Each time I become more desperate, I could smell my fear as my body reacted to my situation. I was wondering if I could find a safe room for the night. Finally, I demanded to see the best hotel in Malatya. Once again the group of men escorted me to another hotel. It looked better, the paint was clean and the manager was kind. The manager told the men who have been following me to the front desk to go away. Ahh… I started to feel safe at last. There was a man at the front desk that took the key that was offered to me, picked up my pack and took me to the lift. On finding the room he unlocked a spacious modern hotel room. It had a bathroom, telephone and two large clean single beds. I accepted.
The relief of finding a room flooded over me. The “porter” put down my pack and started to tell me that he loved me. The one line that the Turkish men learn in English is “I love you”. My experience is that it is more of a sexual reference or a plea for freedom from poverty than an emotional statement. I was not bowled over by this love at first sight, so walked to the door and said in my best Turkish “OUT!” When he did not seem to understand, I repeated it louder and louder.
The manager arrived. The “porter” slunk away so quickly it was almost as if he became a ghost that wafted quietly past me and disappeared into the ether. The manager walked into the room. He was very business like. Apparently the “porter” was not an employee of the hotel, he was just another guest. I was not to have men in my room, and as I had broken this rule I had to leave immediately.
I was just a business like. I was not going out into the street; nothing was going to influence my decision. I looked up my Turkish dictionary for the phrase “no men!” Every time he said anything I just repeated this phrase. He objected and told me to leave, picking up my pack and putting it at the doorway. I picked it up and placed it back on the bed. I stated with more impact; “No men!” Nothing was going to get me out of that room. This rather boring conversation continued for at least 20 minutes until after leafing through the Dictionary again I stated “No men, you go too!” He then said; “You can stay”. With that he picked up the keys, left the room, and locked me in.
At this stage I did what I thought was best; I sat down, my body started to shake with exhaustion and I burst into tears due to a mixture of fear and relief. This focused energy on the present, and allowed my subconscious mind through to finally have its say.
My mind and body were so busy concentrating on the doing of crying that a solution popped into my mind as if by magic. Of course, there was this wonderful bathroom with a huge lock on the door, hot water, a deep clean bath and lots of time on my hands. I would have a long hot bath and then? Who knows?
I stacked a few chairs and a cupboard against the outer door and then ran a bath until it was deep and steaming. I traveled with only one change of clothes so washed my clothes every time I washed myself. They dried as I dirtied the other change. I undressed and threw my clothes in to the water with the idea of getting us all clean at once. I had invented a great security system for my traveler’s cheques and passport. I had sewn pockets into my skirt on the inside that could be pulled out when I needed them. This left me unstressed about the rest of my possessions as I figured that if I had money and a passport, I could buy the rest.
In my frazzled state I threw my skirt and thus my passport and travellers cheques into the bath. I quickly pulled it all out and as I opened the soggy pages of my passport the photograph fell off.
Australian Passports in those days simply had a photo glued on with what I found to be water based glue. This stopped my crying, and I fell in to a state of shock, got into the water and laid there for about half and hour—numb.
After the bath, I picked up the telephone and asked to be let out of the room. A young boy arrived, opened the door, handed me the key and I was free again for the evening.
Little did I realise that this was just the beginning of an adventure that played out over the next week. I innocently blundered my way through the Turkish peoples land as I travelled further east, not realising that my ignorance was dangerous and that the Turkish culture had no idea of how to deal with a young Western woman travelling alone.