Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Hitchhiking Kurdistan - "Why are you alone?"

I was hitchhiking through Turkish Kurdistan, alone this time. Lift after lift through the stunning mountain scenery, of course people treated me with the habitual kindness and hospitality. More than once I got invited to food and drink. One recurrent thing that dampened the experience however was that, again and again along the road, people asked me, “why are you alone?” It is just a small question, but it irked.  In a culture which poses a lot of importance on community even this little question, “why are you alone?” is often just innocent surprise, but sometimes it is actually formulated as a reproach.
It is rare, but it does happen, that this reproach gets more explicit. To quote one man who took me up hitchhiking for example, he exclaimed “What you are doing is wrong! You should not travel alone! It is just not normal that a woman travels alone!”
For what it is worth, that can give you an idea of people's mindset.

When people there in the villages asked "isn't it difficult travelling alone as a woman?",  if I was completely honest I would have to say to them that the most difficult thing about travelling alone is the constant attention it attracts, the misunderstandings. It is difficult to always have to explain what you are doing in terms as culturally transposeable as possible. To fill in apt answers to the intrusive questions into your private life locals feel no shame to pose. To bear the incessant criticism on the fact that you do not travel with someone else, preferably a man.
It is a clash of cultures.

In many situations, people's reactions remain surprised and curious, but are not offensive. Unfortunately the more my language learning advanced over the past years, and the more time I spent in this culture, the more I started to understand details I was earlier blissfully ignorant about. Suddenly I started hearing nuances in people's questions that I would sometimes rather not understand.
The question “why are you alone?” can be something like a congratulation on your courage, or honest, naive concern for you by people unused to see women travel. Yet ever so often, an undertone of suspicion swings in the voice of the person asking: “A lone woman? What is she doing? Is she a prostitute? Is there something else wrong with her that her family repudiated her this way?”
“Why are you alone?” ever so often implies, “do you have something to hide?”
Women do not travel alone, at least not decent women.

For me, the most difficult thing about being alone is in fact this incessant questioning, and feeling like I have to continuously justify myself just for being there. But to explain to those who ask me this, that it is people like themselves who are the only ones really causing me a problem, is an endeavour, near-impossible because of its circularity. Something which the people asking me are too strongly culturally conditionned not to understand.

As I explained learning to speak a language fluently can be disadvantageous for a female traveller. I blogged about this phenomenon in an earlier post here. And it is not just about understanding. Another aspect of the complications arising is that now you have the linguistic abilities to explain in detail what you are doing. This can be nigh impossible because in practice there are enormous cultural barriers that are difficult to attack in a single conversation. You may quickly find yourself entangled in what can easily be a never-ending debate. And what is so tiresome about it, is that basically what you are doing is trying to explain and justify the sole fact of your mere presence.

In a culture as conservative as Kurdistan, where men are extremely controlling of their womenfolks, a woman travelling alone could only be someone who was rejected by her family, or who is orphaned for example. That is why there sometimes is reason to perceive seemingly innocuous questions about my family as insults in disguise. The question “do you have a mother and a father?” is common in Turkey and surrounding countries, and posed with kind innocence as a way to speak about family members who are considered dear to all of us.
With my ear attuned to cultural nuances, however, in the slightly modified “do you have a father?” I can hear the disbelief that any male mentor would leave a female relative of any kind travel so far by herself, if he cared about her.
When travelling further to the West of the country (my ultimate destination was the Western Turkish beach resort Marmaris), I expected this kind of general standpoint to change, and quite frankly, I was looking forward to that.

Despite all this, I had my techniques when in Kurdistan: Beginning each conversation in my rudimentary Kurdish, a minority language in Turkey, was a way of appealing to people's local pride. This ensured I endeared myself to my drivers instantly, which meant I was treated exceptionally, even when accepting a lift only with guys.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Picknicking at Osama Bin Laden's with a Western Whore

Not being able to decide on a story, -were we cousins twice removed, or were we in-laws?- my travel mate Waqar and I decided to tell this particular group of guys driving us the truth on one account -that we were not related by blood or marital contracts- but a lie on another one: We told them we were both Germans. "These guys don't speak any English anyway, they cannot even tell the difference between the sound of German or English", Waqar remarked. At that particular moment we came down from the touristy town Murree in the mountains, entering Abottabad in the plains.
I imagined that the group of men would be thinking, "where would two Germans on a holiday possibly go when in Abottabad!" and drop us of right at the new picknick place, the newly evicted house of the world-famous multi-millionaire and terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden. It was june 2011. Only a month ago the man had been killed in his hide-out by American military conducting a highly illegal action encroaching on Pakistan's state sovereignty.
Reactions to his death in Pakistan were very mixed. What was certainly ironic was that right then it seemed that families from far and near streamed daily to his former residence so they could sit on patterned blankets and drink lemonade from 33 centilitre bottles with straws while they looked at it. Apparently a small crowd of business-minded locals had put up shop selling snacks and souvenirs. I was ready to do the tourist and queue up to get my Osama Bin Laden commemorative spoon, all the while affecting to ignore the CIA agents said to be numerously milling around the place as well, still trying to figure certain things out as they were.

However, the guys whose car we were in dropped us of at the total opposite of town, and we had to figure out how to make our way there. When asking for directions we were told that the only feasible way to go would be to take a taxi, which we did. It is Pakistan after all, and fares aren't that expensive. What happened though was that we arrived from the wrong side of the street, the side where the military academy that so famously flanked OBL´s former household was situated. That very military academy that was so much fuzzed about by international observers who stated that an internationally wanted criminal hiding out in a building adjacent to such an institution for so long was highly unlikely, and was one of the elements that caused so many conspiracy theories to spring up ("could it really have been Osama Bin Laden?", "was he really dead?").
When the taxi driver stopped and said that OBL´s building was hundred meters from here, we did not think twice about where we might have landed. And, as soon as we opened the door and stepped out... - okay, as soon as I opened the door, and stepped out, pale and blue-eyed as I am, like a sore thumb identifiable as a foreigner, I was spotted by the guards of the military academy, and we were under immediate arrest. That much for my planned afternoon of picknicking.

We were put into a small room, where we were kept for hours and interrogated in detail. We figured out quickly that the rather friendly uniformed men we were surrounded by were from the army, whereas the men in civil clothing, invariably uncongenial and affecting to be highly suspicious about anything we said, were representatives of one of Pakistan's intelligence agencies. Everyone was armed. The soldiers had their machine guns, while the men in civil clothes were wearing harnesses with guns under their shirts.
They looked through all the pictures on our cameras asking questions about the people depicted. We tried to satisfy their curiosity as much as we could, so as to assuage all suspicions about us, while not divulging anything too personal about anyone shown on the photos either. What was it their business? Waqar, as the Pakistani, had to give his mail and social media profiles and passwords, which was quite stressful for him, thinking of all the anti-state criticisms he liked to post on them. I tried to reassure him that the Pakistani secret services, of all secret services in the world, surely had higher priorities than queer activists, but it was hard even convincing myself of that in that rather threatening situation.

Waqar was even more nervous than me, sometimes he was even shaking. "A few months ago, they found the body of a journalist who criticized one of the intelligence services. It was a big scandal all over the country. We must be careful, it could happen to us." It sounded paranoid to me, but then, my friend was the local, and it would be unwise to lightly dismiss his view of things. He even expressed the fear that they might put rat poison in our tea. I sensed he was overly scared and gave him as much of a reassuring half-hug as I could, the presence of mustachioed men with Islamic ideas about non-married people of different genders touching holding me back, even though our relationship was otherwise entirely non-sexual.
As for myself, I tried to maintain a certain degree of optimism. I kept thinking, "they will let us go soon". But it was only by midnight that we were escorted to a hotel.

Waqar's family was called every day for the following week to find out about his whereabouts. His family were also made to feel that they were under surveillance, as they were made to hear a beep as from a recording machine every time they picked up the phone. The first thing the intelligence service apparently asked Waqar's elder brother was,  "Do you know that your innocent, sweet brother is travelling with a Western whore? This is so completely unislamic, you should not let this happen!"

Friday, 28 February 2014

With the Christians of Antiochia

After a few days spent with the Alawites of Samandağ it was time to head elsewhere. Toward the evening I was on the road, quickly getting a lift out of town. It was a married couple and their aged mother, a family of Christians. The man said he was a Bible-teacher, and would I like to meet the Christian youth he was teaching? There were many of them my age, I could come along with him the next day. I could not but agree. On the way home we stopped in a restaurant by a waterfall, just as night fell. Of course I was invited even though I had already eaten before leaving town. There was no use whimpering “gerçekten, gerçekten”, “no, but really”, they just stuffed me with mezze, be it houmous or roasted aubergine or bulgur salad, one dish more delicious than the next, until I basically had to be rolled out of the door. 

The man's name was Mihail, his wife's Hüsnya. He told me they got married when they were 18, to please their parents. "They said that we had to, so we did it. There was nothing to say against that, nothing to dispute. Today our children are freer." Two of their daughters and one of their sons are married to someone German or French. There is a fair amount of ethnically mixed marriages in emigration. The Arab Christians joyously get married to Europeans, whereas Alevite or Sunni Turks come back home to find themselves a co-religionist for a spouse, oftentimes someone from a neighbouring village in their home region, so as to help the community. What I found ever so slightly disturbing was that Mihail and Hüsnya had enlarged marriage pictures in nice frames of their three sons on the wall, but to find pictures of their three daughters they had to rummage through drawers.
The next morning, breakfast was delicious: Cheese as light as Aero-chocolate, melon as sweet and soft as caramelized butter. The hours until noon were spent reading on the rooftop terrace. There, the married couple dried tomatoes and grapes. As the sun dehydrates the fruit, the flavor components are concentrated. The more the raisins shrink, the sweeter they become; the more the tomatoes shrivel, the tastier they get. Of course, they are already delicious when fresh, nothing to do with the refrigerated, hormone-crammed stuff we buy in supermarkets in the West. Later I helped with the cooking, peeling vegetables with Mihail's mother and her friends. They only spoke Arabic, so I could not converse with the old ladies. Prettily gnarled hands washed rice, snipped away at beans and detangled small tight knots of garlic into diamond white individual cloves.

In the evening, it was time for Bible lessons. Before starting, Mihail showed me around the church. I was comfortably holding my arms behind my back, clutching my right underarm with my left hand, which I was surprised Mihail asked me not to do. Much later, in Russia, I was to read a sheet with instructions how to behave in orthodox churches where I found out this is indeed generally considered something not to be done. When finally in the class room, it took some time to fill up with kids, the ages reaching from early primary school age to late teenagers. One older girl had a rose tattoed on her biceps. Tattoos in this region seemed in fashion, especially among the Christians. Although I have heard before that the Bible condemns pictures engraved on skin, this prohibition seems less strong than in Islam where depiction of natural objects is frowned upon in general. Elsewhere in town I had seen young Christian men tattooed with tokens of their religious affinity, like crosses.
It was strange to hear Our Father, the prayer that all Christians whatever the denomination are taught as children, in Turkish, the seventh language that I learnt in my life, and the national language of a predominantly Muslim country. I did not associate with this “poem” instilled in me so many years ago which I could still recite in my sleep probably with Turkish or Turkey up to that point.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Chickpea Las Vegas

On the outskirts of the Turkish Black Sea city with the strikingly Greek name of Samsun, I stop a car. It is a seriously beat-up, old Mercedes, and it is red. I have an instantly good feeling with the driver, however, I consider it the thing done to point out one detail to my travel partner before we are going to get inside: "I think this guy might be drunk", I turn to Jo. A smell of alcohol wafted out to me when he opened the passenger door, or was that an illusion? The man seems very nice, and he is going to take us a long piece of the road way into the evening hours, when otherwise we will have to stop hitching. We confer very quickly between the two of us before we agree. And really, he turns out to be a lovely host for the following few hours.
One of the first things he says  to us after we settle down is: "In this world we are all brothers and sisters. You can call me Hassan Baba!" Then, as a gesture of hospitality, he offers us a little present each: To me he gives a small plastic figure of an eagle, to Jo a collection of calendar pictures of birds, a fluffed up sparrow on a branch, a pair of prancing pheasants.

Most of the trip he talks on the phone to friends or relatives of his. He tells all of them excitedly of the "two tourists, travelling with a saz, from England!" (conveniently forgetting one of our nationalities), and repeating to each person how nice we were. Along the road this time I got some nice reactions for the fact that I was carrying a bağlama (or saz) with me, that prototypical of all Turkish instruments. People liked the fact that a foreigner was playing their national instrument a lot. When carrying it on the street, people would stop to start talking about their favorite singers. And while hitch-hiking, there was none of our nice drivers who did not remark upon it favorably.

Let this be a lesson to other hitchhikers, though: There was more than one point of the trip with Hassan Baba, when we plausibly could have died. One time it is of distraction, our driver's distraction, when he is not looking at the road, too preoccupied by searching for his cigarettes. We are only savecd because I have a package of cigarettes to fiddle out from the front pouch of my hoodie and which to thrust on Hassan Baba as quickly as possible from behind. Earlier that day, we learnt that the rules of Turkish hospitality stipulate if you answer in the affirmative the question if you want to smoke, the person offering does not hand you one cigarette, they foist a whole package on you, and certainly they do not accept any refusal. As Hassan Baba lights his smoke, Jo comments in a manner that is both jocose and observantly serious, "You were given these earlier to save our lives right now!"

That is already the second time we can say that our lives are at risk. The first time was about half an hour earlier. Unable to brake in time, we slid downhill over the wet road and past the red-lights of a busy crossing, with heavy lorries waiting on each side. I kept my body pressed back to the back rest, and only after we sailed safely to the other side I sat up with relief. We had avoided a crash awaiting us with some probability, and that could have been quite a bang.

Soon enough, Hassan Baba is talking on the phone again. I have a hard time understanding his Çorum accent, and the fast succession of words. He uses some of the same phrases again and again, I could make absolutely no sense of it. "There was a guy, a cousin of my father's he wanted to marry, it was love. He put all his money on a car, it was a big show off. ... She had to take him to hospital, you see. ... They never married, it did not work out."
I was reminded of one time, a long time ago, when I had just started learning Turkish, and some garrulous driver or other graced me with an unrelentingly fast verbalization of the stream of consciousness going through his mind. Trying to make sense of anything, I was looking up words in my little hand-held dictionary as I went along: "Catapult", "primary school teacher", "dental floss". I was glad I had the little helper to hand, finally, it all made splendid sense to me.

  Hassan Baba in the meanwhile is driving in the middle of the road while keeping on speaking on the phone, flouting all traffic rules. Jo and I are still not sure if he is actually drunk, or if he is just a bit of a lovable weirdo. He also has a very bad cough, most probably exacerbated by his smoking, and is sporadically opening the door to loudly snuffle and spit clots of phlegm outside onto the road - in the middle of the motorway, needless to say.

Suddenly, in the dark, on the motorway, Hassan starts going very slowly. "I am running out of gas", our driver remarks explanatorily. His meter is broken, and even after he is to refuel, the needle is to point to the red area. In the case of a broken meter you have to count kilometers in your head  to see how much fuel you are using, and well, he seems to have neglected that task.
Running out of gas in the middle of a motorway? There is first times for everything! At least the "middle-of-the-street" syndrome is remediated this way, painfully slowly though that we are  creeping along, we are now at the side of the outermost lane. Traffic is rushing past us to the left.

The dilemma breaks out at exactly the least propitious moment: We have a long stretch of nothing but unlit, rainy road in front of us.
I count it as a stroke of luck, that the last bit of road is downhill. The tank had really hit rock bottom, and we let the vehicle slide. When the car grinds to a halt on the territory of the petrol station, but at the wrong pump, it´s the workers who push it along to the next fuel dispenser.

Jo has an endearing and understandable addiction to hot drinks in general, and an especially pronounced one to a particular one: Coffee. "Bulgaria was just paradise, there were coffee machines EVERYWHERE, even in the least expected areas. In random, residential areas of town, there would be absolutely no shops, but there would be a single standing coffee machine, just like that on the pavement!", she rejoices at the evocation of her memories."I hope where we are going, there 's coffee", is something that she sometimes says. When you remark upon the fact that she just had a cup, she says: "Well, I hope there is more coffee!"
So of course while the car is being refuelled, she takes the chance and gets a cup for our driver and herself (me, I was fine without one). Luck has it so they did not even make her pay.

''The speciality of Çorum are leb leb, so let me take you to the leb leb store!", Hassan Baba proposed. Leb leb - dried chickpeas, that would be. They are one of the most popular snacks around the country, eaten on religious holidays and distributed to guests at family occasions. When driving into Çorum, the main thoroughfare leading into the city centre is lined with shopfronts blinking garishly in the night with their screechingly bright neon-lights forming hearts, stars and arrows. Strip clubs? Casinos? No, the headings above their doors read LEB LEB. Welcome to Chickpea Las Vegas.

"I don't particularly like dried chickpeas", says Jo, "they make me feel like the dessert. They taste like talcum powder, don't they?" I could agree with that description. As for me, I am sometimes afraid they might crack my teeth in two, they are so hard.
We stop the car in front of one of the casinos, and go inside. "These are guests to Turkey from abroad! Let them try!", Hassan baba extorts the shopkeepers' largesse with a hint to traditional hospitality. Any self-conscious Turk cannot refuse food to a guest, and the shop owners smirk their consent. Hassan Baba turns to us and invites us with a sweeping hand gesture: "Serbest!" - "You are free to take what you want".
"I like his style", Jo winks at me, and with both hands we grab the goodies in front of us. Surprisingly, these particular leb leb are delicious! Cream-covered and looking like tiny birds eggs, or coated in pure chocolate and shiny and black like grapes, perfectly rounded, smaller than usual.
They may be dry like talcum powder or hard like pebbles elsewhere, here in Çorum from where they seem to be distributed around the country, they are fresh, and most palatable.
"I am going to look at leb leb different from now on", Jo remarks, clutching the small pack of simple, freshly roasted chickpeas Hassan Baba bought for us. Having just been roasted, they are still warm, and they are soft, but not powdery, melting like salty chocolate on our tongues.
After coming out of the first casion, we visit a second, and a third one, repeating the same show. We are almost stuffed as we stumble out of the third one. Almost. So we turn to one more. This last casino we visit, casino No. 4, sucks us into its glamorous world of fried almonds and chocolate-coated peanuts over a veritable red carpet and past a horse-statue (made of plastic though that it is).
Only after we are ejected out of this one our sweet tooth is veritably satiated and we head back to the car.

Hassan Baba drives us to the bus station, from where w take a bus through the night for the last piece of road. We are going to Ankara, to meet my friend Ümit.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Fuck the Patriarchy, everywhere

Given the fact that I am well familiar with a range of preconceived stereotypes that Western women are confronted with in Islamic countries,  when I hitchhike in Islamic countries, I feel some sort of responsibility in front of all these prejudices. Acting as a sort of representative of Western womanhood, I like to tell a tale about myself, which is in many ways fictional or at least fictionally rounded off at the edges, but which shows the basic idea that back in Europe I am not seen as property by none of the males in my entourage, and that I am ethically as well as financially independent.
I usually do not say I am married, but when I do, it is many times not to avoid sexual harassment as you may think! When I say I am married this is giving in to a desire in me to show that being married does not change an ounce about who I am and what I do.

People in Islamic, conservative cultures often assume that I am doing what I am doing - travelling by myself- because I am not married yet. Fathers and husbands are both seen as mentors of their wives or daughters, but fathers are seen as more progressive. A husband is considered to need his wife for sexual comforts, the cooked food and the housework, so he would never let her travel like that. Plus of course, while a young woman supposedly ignorant of physical pleasures may be trusted with her own virginity, a woman who is not a virgin anymore would sleep around at every corner.

There is one story, one particular lift that we got together with Sergey (about whom I blogged further down), which I find worth recounting.
The driver was a man with greying hair, who, having stopped for me only grudgingly accepted the second traveller in his car (Sergey walking down the road while I put my thumb out was our ploy to get cars to take us quicker). He was trying to flirt with me, touching my arm, which made me feel rather uncomfortable in the beginning, but thankfully that later stopped, in part thanks to Sergey's presence.
Sergey, who did not know Turkish sat silently on the back bench, never declining a single cigarette proffered by our driver. Both of the men were continuously puffing one cigarette after the other, going through more than one package this way.

I did not lie about Sergey's and my relationship, and it took some time until our driver realized that my male travel partner and I were neither related, nor in any way involved in a sexual relationship, we were just travelling together and in fact, we had only just met. It trickled down to him that that meant that before, I was travelling alone, but that at no point of my trip, not alone, and not with Sergey, I was looking for sex, neither for money nor otherwise. This seemed a radically new idea to him.
In fact, as he saw and understood correctly, I used Sergey's presence to ward off advances on all sides.
After he had accepted these basic precepts of my existence, we ended up having a real cross-cultural exchange which in some ways summed up all the conceptions about the women that are typically held in Islamic cultures.

"Oh, ok", he seemed to think, "so, you are really just a normal woman, you keep chaste, and while you are young, you pass some time acting like a man.”, and he went on to word a question to me: “You travel while you are young, don't you? But afterwards you will settle down with your man and make children" To which I answered: “Well, I am already 30, and anyway, I do never want to marry and have kids, no” – “Oh you want to live your whole life alone!”, he was surprised, but thought to have understood. I was one of those holy virgins, common in Europe in the Middle Ages, the only type of woman who had time to go around and do things pretty much just like men, basically for the fact that they did not have to be pregnant and breast-feeding all the time. “Not really, alone, no”, I countered, and lengthily tried to explain, making up a story of a lover, a cohabitation.
Whether I was in a relationship with a male partner or not mattered little to me. I was trying to reflect certain freedoms that in my society I have, and which despite many other shortcomings life in the Western world has, I would ferociously miss if I was a local woman. My driver seemed perplexed, but he had heard of those modern things already: “So you have a boyfriend?”
I answered in the affirmative. “But your boyfriend never says 'let's make kids'?”, the man asked me, maybe as a euphemism for “let's have sex”. Maybe he was still thinking of me as the virgin-saint, ignorant of sex, who was only romantically and platonically involved with someone. In any case he was testing the ground.
As an answer, I tried to explain the best I could: "No he doesn't. If he wanted children, we would have already broken up. Everyone searches for a partner who has the same plans for the future. If you want to start a family, you search for the person to do that with. If you don't want kids, you stay with a person who, just like you, does not want them." 
He pondered this for a bit. He understood I seemed to be neither a whore, nor a virgin, and I did not want children; I wanted the rest of a normal life, but I really just did not want children. It all seemed profoundly illogical to him. For a man, these ideas would maybe have been natural to accept. But I was a woman after all! During our conversation in his mind I had progressed from whore to normal woman to virgin and saint to some strange incomprehensible creature beyond any of these categories.

Another type of conversation that regularly happens is when a male local villager, usually even by local standards somebody on the conservative side (and never a woman, but that is to no one's surprise), convinced of the superiority of his culture, comes up to you and asks “So, now that you have seen how we live here, which culture do you prefer, yours or ours?”. It is clear that from the way they pose the question that they expect you to choose their culture.
It is not that I believe in the superiority of anyone's culture, and neither that I do not see the deeply problematic structures Western cultures have within themselves, as, on the other hand, the positive side of many Islamic ones. But – do these men really think a Western woman having travelled so far to talk to them would ever say, “yes, I wish I had grown up with a father so controlling that I would have never left my home village, except if accompanied by him. And that I then would be forced to marry a man who would take decisions over my life all the way down to what I am wearing” ?!
There is so many irritating instances of men telling me about how wonderful their culture is, I do not even want to start recounting them in detail. Usually they base this assessment on the fact that their lives are so wonderfully comfortable, when they come back from work there is always warm food on the table. They completely ignore the fact that their wives, submerged by housework and restrictive rules for female conduct, are unable to pursue any of their own interests.

Also read my article about sexual harassment while travelling.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

...and into the night

Our next driver, who turns out to be going all the way to our end destination Trabzon, is a lawyer, "I live in Erzurum, and got up at 4 this morning to drive to Kars. I had a courtcase at 9.30 in the morning. It lasted until the afternoon. Now I am very tired, yet I am going to drive on to see my friend in Trabzon." What was his courtcase about? "I am defending a murderer. A man got killed in his garden with a hunting rifle for a trivial fight."

 He is another polyglott, and it is fun to converse with him alternatingly in Russian, Persian, English and Turkish. He says he speaks Kurmandji Kurdish, too. "I have to speak Kurdish; some of the older generation of my customers do not know any Turkish, especially the women. But did you know that the law just changed a few days ago? It is allowed now to speak the language of your choice in court. So Kurds can finally defend themselves in Kurdish!" This is indeed great news. However, within the same two weeks of this law, a mass arrest of 85 individuals was made because of a fictional cinema film bringing human rights violations in prisons to the light. It is hard to know whether things are going forward or backward in this country.
"But not only the Kurds, other minorities, too, like the Georgians of the Artvin region, can speak their own language in court now! Do you realize that hundreds of years ago, where we are right now historically was Georgia?!"

Artvin is where our windy road is going to take us. The mountainous province is part of the Black Sea region, famous for its hazelnut farming, and its lively music played by fiddle and local bagpipes, the horron (both the name of the bagpipe, and the style of music).
The road is taking us into a world of dark dense fogs scattered around naked mountain tops. "So moody, the rainclouds", Jo comments on the scenery. The daunting, granite world around us could be quite atmospheric, wouldn't it be for the ugly quarries scratching and tearing into the stone everywhere. Deep down these near vertical stone walls, turquoise waters have covered up where the old road once lay. "Where we are driving now then was high up in the mountain, a place unknown to any human being!`, our driver says, "I can tell you, things changed a lot around here."
He sighs, but goes on to tell some stories: "Around ten years ago, when they just started to make this road, we would come with friends and camp out in the nature for a few days and go hunting. But with the building of the dams, the climate changed, and with it the nature. The animals have left now, they are further away in the mountains." Indeed it is striking how around here, surrounded by mountain tops, there is only rain pattering down on us, whereas where we came from, the high plains of Kars and Ardahan, we were completely snowed in. The strong rains are doubtlessly a symptom of the climate change caused by the new lakes.

And the zeal of the constructors is not stopping; at Şavşat, where we came from, they are also working to make new roads right now, since a dam will be built there, too.
Our driver stops to show us far away on the opposite side of the false lake deep beneath what seems to be a tiny Atatük statue. In reality of course if we can see it from here it means it is a huge construction: "There are two statues like this. They are only three or four years old. A rich man gave a lot of money, so they made these...", he shakes his head at the same time surprised at the ingenuity of human engineering, and the pointlessness of such an entreprise.

The scenery changes around us, there is now some vegetation, even trees, as we climb up another pass. "The name here is Cankurtaran. It means 'life-saver'. Before the asphalt road was built, this used to be a very difficult part, so many lives can be said to have been saved here I guess!", our driver muses.
This is the last bit of road through the mountains, after which we sail downhill, finally entering the town of Hopa through its hinterland. Trucks advertising tea companies line the road, and road signs advertise the toll station to the neighbouring country, Gürcistan, Georgia. We head West along the coast now.
Brightoner Jo remarks, "It is so nice to see the sea again, I did not realize how much I missed it"

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Hitch-hiking out of a Snow Storm...

It's January, and it has been a long winter already; snow in this, the coldest part of Turkey, the tableland around Kars and Ardahan, started already the beginning of November.
In the town centres, every so often huge machines, snow ploughs and excavators, scrape the compressed snow of the past weeks off the streets and, loaded onto the back of pick up lorries, it is driven away to be dumped outside of the city.  Roofs are thickly padded with snow and pavements are crusted with ice.
Some of the houses in Kars have collections of icicles at their gables that are so regular, side-by-side in gradually reducing lengths they ressemble small, translucent replicas of church organs.
As for Jo and I, we are going to hitch-hike out of the city today.

Kars castle in the winter fog

In the summer this is our favourite café

Dropped off outside of town by Jo's friend Halit, we are surrounded only by fields, padded now by a thick layer of snow. Flakes whirl all around us. It is as if the sky itself came down and blended into the earth. It is a unicolour world. All around is white.
My friends here warned me that in the winter wolves and feral dogs approach the outskirts of towns and villages, forageing for food. Several people said this to me, so I took it seriously. Our first drivers this morning though opine that the wolves stay out on the hillside: the villages are the domain of dogs, which can be ferocious. Wolves would not meddle with them.
Later that day, when hitch-hiking out of the town Şavşat we will come across the closest thing to terrible predators to be met on the way: A pair of straying dogs prodding their drippy noses enviously into our lunch bags, all the while violently banging their fluffy tails. Their kind faces were so similar to each other, we were to decide they must be brother and sister.
Another point they had in common was that they were scratching themselves vigorously and continuously. Sharing all things in life, the good things like the bad, it meant they shared their lice as well.
But that was what was to happen towards the end of our hitching day. Right now, we were not that far yet.

Out in the snow dessert right here there, ever so sporadically we can see agile, chestnut red-coated canines. They are foxes. Locals see them as lucky animals, even though of course they sometimes attack their poultry or other animals when they can.
Some of these beautiful animals out today are close enough to the road to be admired: Stooped silhouettes, muzzle hovering above the snow, nose curled with concentration as they prey upon invisible rodents somewhere out there, hiding in the white. Stalking forward, one paw lifted, waiting to attack. Winter is a tough season for all animals. "If I lived here I'd drive out and leave dog food for all the foxes, wolves and dogs around", my travel partner remarked at that point. "They start liking you and you would become famous as the wolf lady", I joked as a reply.
Suddenly our drivers stopped the car: "Look, a wolf!", they shouted. I trained my eyes on the far away animal. Jo took the excitement with a grain of salt:"I think it is a fox", she opined. But I could believe our drivers. We were able to see the animal's outline clearly from so far, that was reason enough to assume it must be markedly larger than the foxes we had seen so numerously out there in the snow. And its silhouette to my eyes really looked like a wolf, not a fox. The way the back of the animal arched, the size of its plushy tail. I agreed with our two drivers - this was probably a wolf!
I tell Jo of the etymology of the word designating the animal in Turkish. The original meaning of the word still in common use can be quite surprising: "Kurt" also means "worm".
In olden times the superstition was that if you used the dangerous predator's name it would appear at your doorstep, and this caused people to use the word for the tiny sleek invertebrate found in apples or pears, ridiculously unoffensive in comparison, in stead of the animal's actual name. The original Turkish word is not even known by most people anymore, although 'kurt' is still in common use to designate worms in fruits. A different word, 'solucan', designates earth worms as they crawl through the soil.

In some of the smallest villages around here, the water sources have frozen over. "People go with horse or donkey carts to fill up tanks at streams that haven't frozen over, or at the sources of other villages. This way they bring fresh water for themselves and their animals", one of our drivers tells us. He continues to confide in us that this is a hard winter especially because this year the selling of animals for the kurban bayramı, the Feast of the Sacrifice, went quite badly. The kurban bayramı is the traditional Muslim holiday that breaks the fast at the end of the holy month of Ramadan. According to the lunar Muslim calendar, yearly slightly shifting in relation to the seasons, it has been falling into autumn for the past few solar years.
In Turkey, it is famously the time when the people from the East load their animals onto trucks and drive them across the entire country to the major cities in the West. At Turkey's second biggest lake after lake Van, lake Chyldyr, which is near here, farmers living East of it, near the Georgian border, each year make their cattle swim across it. They do this by tying their cattle at the nose rings to robust sticks protruding on both sides of wooden boats, and in this way make them cross the lake in groups of six. From the other side they continue their journey West on lorries.
This year, people had to bring back some of the cattle the long way from the big cities. Now they have more animals to feed throughout the winter, and less money of course, too.

Our drivers are dairy product salesmen going from village to village. They stop their minivan and bid us farewell at Hasköy, half the way to the town Ardahan, the next large dot on the map. We wait around for a bit in the cold, but we get a lift pretty fast.

"What are your jobs?", the two men ask us. We are crammed into the back of their beat up white passenger car. "I work as a translator", I said, while Jo replied, "I am a writer." "About what is it that she writes?", our drivers asked me. "She writes about travel" - "Oh, like Evliya Çelebi!" They mean the famous Turkish traveller from the 1600s who left very interesting notes about the Middle East, the Balkans and some parts of Africa. Jo scribbles down the name of the celebraty. I laugh and reply for my friend, "For now she is not that famous. But one day she will be!"

Ardahan, ruins of a traditional building weighed down by snow
Winter in the village
About an hour later we have passed Ardahan, and we are now seated in another minivan, with a vendour travelling the country to sell water filter systems. He is a kind man, and tells us he loves literature and used to be a poet in his younger days. In front of us, through an almost opaque fog of whipped up snow blown straight onto the windscreen, a full-sized lorry appears. Our driver, going very slowly now, tries to communicate with the three occupants of the cabin of that vehicle. "How is the road ahead?", he gestures a question. "Pretty okay!", they are signalling back.
"I stayed two days in a hotel in Ardahan, because the Şavşat road was closed", our driver, who told us his name was Eren, informed us earlier. "It is a very dangerous part of road, you know you can die today!", he warned us. Both Jo and I have taken this road before, although in different weather, and knowing its tight bends navigating the abyss, we realize he is not joking.

Creeping up the hill, we see the road in front of us rise into the white fogs, a dark ribbon scratched out from the dense, all-surrounding whiteness. When passing the cusp of the hill, the road starts going down again. We are at almost 2000 metres. This was what is locally known as the 'Sahar pass', a title going back to the times of the Russian occupation of the area, 'sahar' coming from the Russian word for 'sugar'. On the hillside to our left, we pass the first group of houses in typical Şavşat architecture, wooden constructions with balconies to the front, and gambrel roofs. They are almost submerged by snow right now. The snow reaches up to their balconies. The houses are empty, these are summer huts. In that warmer and drier season herders bring their animals up here to graze.

In clear weather at this point of the road an amazing wall of of mountain rises into sight on the other side of the valley, mountains which are located in Georgia. Right now, they are completely out of sight hidden by the dense cold dance of thousands of tiny snowflakes. Even most of the road in front of us is hidden from sight. Usually you can see it unfold from here like a winding downward ribbon. The steep flanks of the mountains form something of a huge funnel open to the sky around Şavşat, the small town way down there on the other side of all this weather.
Approaching the town feels like riding down into a snow globe.

We are glad we have such a careful driver, and we tell Eren so. "This is my son", Eren points to the photo of a teenager on his dashboard, "I love him a lot, so I have to drive careful that he does not become a half-orphan!" How old he was, we wanted to know. "He is fourteen, but he tells everyone he is fifteen already. And when you tell his real age, that annoys him a lot!"
Having left the worst of the road behind us, we stop for a bit. I overhear Eren talk on the phone to a friend of his; "I am in a very bad place, there is a snow storm here and the road is dangerous. But I do what I can!"
He drives us down all the way to the town of Şavşat. Temperatures are strikingly milder, and the worst of the snow fall is clearly over now.
The rest of the road can begin.