I strolled into the small township of Iskenderun, Turkey, having earlier that afternoon crossed the frontier from Northern Syria. Walking through one end of town and back again, I checked out the surrounding area and noticed a nice secluded little park, and thought to myself, this looks like a good spot to spend the night.
Later that night, when the town was in darkness, I made my way into the park and parked myself down beside one of the hedges that surrounded this area. I stretched out my sleeping bag on the grass and crawled inside, and was soon very cosy, comfortable and was drifting off to sleep.
Early next morning, I hitchhiked out of town on an unmade gravel road. I immediately became aware that there was very little traffic going in my direction.
After approximately an hour or so, I heard a car approaching in the distance from behind me. When it drew nearer, I could see that it was an old-fashioned Buick. I signalled with my outstretched thumb high into the air to see if I could get a lift.
To my complete astonishment, the vehicle stopped immediately, and out of the front of the car stepped a very nattily dressed swarthy gentleman, who looked extremely businesslike.
Of course, neither of us could speak to each other in any common tongue. Nevertheless, the Turkish man waved to me and pointed to the back seat of the car. I signalled to the boot of the vehicle and indicated that I wished to place my backpack inside, which he permitted me to do. I then climbed into the back seat. The Buick roared off and, within minutes, the three occupants, all men, attempted to engage me in conversation.
I soon became aware that they had a knowledge of German and a little French, in addition to their own native Turkish. For the next few hours, we all tried our very best to communicate, using our hands in sign language, together with a smattering of French and Farsi.
Fortunately, I had with me, inside my shirt pocket, a newspaper cutting of an article that had been written in Lebanon about me and my world travels. This was printed in French. I showed the cutting to my hosts and they all became excited, and exchanged with each other what I imagined were their points of view about my trip around the globe. Of course, I was an instant star and my friendly companions’ faces became wreathed in smiles, and they behaved in a very jovial fashion towards me.
Sometime later, the Buick pulled up in the centre of a small village, and one of the Turks went across to an open air market and approached one of the stallholders and purchased fresh bread, grapes, Fetta cheese, melons and raki. The latter is a fiery aniseed liquor. As soon as he’d climbed back inside the vehicle, we were on our way again. The Turks passed all the food around, with all of us taking frequent swigs of the ‘burning liquor’.
I had never tasted raki before and was surprised at how strong it was. My hosts were greatly amused by my demonstrating with my mouth wide open, panting vigorously. This was my only method of illustrating the fiery strength of this alcohol.
Towards dusk, we arrived in the town of Adana, which is situated on the Mediterranean sea.
The Turkish driver of the vehicle indicated in sign language that I was to remain seated inside the car, whilst he opened the door and hopped out. He disappeared inside a nearby small hotel. A few minutes later, he returned, and handed over to me a long coil of pink tickets, which I could clearly see were numbered bus tickets. The driver also gave to me a printed receipt and pointed in the direction of the hotel, whilst at the same time he placed his hands very close to his face used the sign language for sleeping.
Collecting my backpack from the boot of the car, I held out my hand to say goodbye, as the Turks stood in a group, and smilingly shook my hand. They pointed in the direction of the hotel, indicating I was to go inside. Then they all climbed back inside the Buick and drove off, leaving me standing there bewildered at the wonderful spirit of hospitality that had been shown to me.
Strolling into the hotel, I was met by a man whom I assumed was the manager. He held out his hand to welcome me and motioned for me to follow him. We climbed some stairs to the first floor, walked further and stopped in front of one of the doors. The manager opened the door and showed me a room with a bed and all the facilities. Then the manager put his arms straight forward with his hands turned palms upward. This I knew was the sign language for this room is all yours!
Really, what extraordinary hospitality! I felt so overwhelmed at the way my Turkish hosts had behaved towards me, a complete stranger to them.
Early next morning, I displayed my long bus ticket at the bus depot, which was just around the corner, and I was then guided by a ticket attendant to the bus that my free ticket was valid for. I couldn’t believe my luck. This bus would take me all the way to Ankara, the capital of Turkey, which was situated in the centre of the country.
The bus journey was an all-day event, climbing up into great mountains through the middle of Turkey for much of the trip.
Turkish men, women and children completely filled the bus, many trying to talk to me, and very often I was offered fruit or bread. In Turkey, everyone seems to eat non-stop during a bus or train journey.
Nightfall was approaching as I clambered off the bus and hastily sought somewhere to sleep for the night. More by sheer luck than my planning, I arrived at a racecourse. I surveyed the scene and decided to pass the night inside on the nicely clipped lawns.
The next day, I found my way to the Turkish newspaper office of Ulus. Here, I was interviewed by an English-speaking journalist and was informed that my travel story and photograph would appear on the front page of this particular newspaper the very next day.
Wow! I was going to be famous!
At the same time, I was given the address of the English language newspaper, The Turkish American News. The editor of Ulus informed me that this newspaper would be very interested in any articles that I could write about my travels. This was good news indeed, since this would mean that I would be able to earn some very-welcome, and much-needed local currency.
During my second night inside the racecourse, I was stretched out inside my sleeping bag and fast asleep when, all of a sudden, I was rudely awoken because there was a torchlight being flashed nearby.
Before I had time to move, I was confronted by four Turkish policemen, all with rifles aiming at me. The tone of their excited voices, and their arms waving and guns pointing at me, made me rise. I dressed quickly, rolled up my sleeping bag on top of my backpack and was ready to go. I was frog-marched off to the nearby Police Station.
Inside, I was instructed to sit down, then the Police Chief marched in and sat down opposite me. His eyes wandered suspiciously all over me. However, he soon realised that he could not communicate with me, and proceeded to order a nearby policeman to go and fetch Turkish coffee. When this arrived, a cup was passed over to me. We both then sipped from our tiny cups, and surveyed each other, wide-eyed, regarding each other in stony silence.
Round about 5 a.m. a policeman came rushing in with a copy of that day’s newspaper. Luckily for me, it was the Ulus. When the Commandant of Police saw my picture on the front page, and had read a few words, a great beam slowly spread across his face and he stretched out his hand to vigorously shake my hand. At once all, the policeman in the station started to gesture towards me, some laughing and all talking very fast. Once this had happened, I was the hero of the police station. Phew! I was no longer a common criminal up to devious means!
Soon, breakfast appeared and was spread before me on the Chief’s desk. This consisted of black olives, Turkish bread, Fetta cheese and, of course, endless cups of sweet, thick, black Turkish coffee. I was enveloped by the strong aroma of coffee, clouds of smoke and perfume billowing from sweet Turkish cigarettes. My travels in Turkey have given me a life-long liking for the above coffee and food.
At the Turkish American News office, I was allotted an area with a typewriter on a small table, and was able to create an article about my travels. The cash I was paid for my story was most appreciated.
During the next few days, I explored a considerable area of Ankara. Then I decided it was time to move on, so I purchased a 3rd class railway ticket which would take me to Istanbul.
Mid-morning I joined the train, located my carriage and sat down in one of the seats. Soon, I was joined by an attractive older Turkish lady accompanied by what I assumed were her two young daughters. It was not long before the carriage was filled with a faint smell of pleasant perfume.
I kept secretly looking at the older girl and thought to myself how attractive she looked, with her jet black hair, and smouldering black eyes. Soon, the train was under way and I noticed the older girl produced from her bag, a newspaper and was reading very intently. She kept her black eyes peering down whilst her dainty hands held the newspaper she was reading. Suddenly, she looked up and across at me. She excitedly thrust the newspaper before her mother’s face, and carried on a sharp breathless conversation. Finally, she turned the newspaper around towards me, so that I could see what it was that so overwhelmed her: it was the newspaper, Ulus, with a head-and-shoulder photograph of me on the front page!
Well! That was the start of an adventure I shall never forget. During the next 10 hours, both girls tried to communicate with me, the elder having some knowledge of English. Using a mixture of words and sign language, pointing to ourselves to indicate names, we all managed to convey what our first names were. The elder girl was named Semiha, and the younger girl was named Guner. During the rest of the train trip I managed to learn some Turkish words from Semiha and was soon able to count from 1 to 100. I also learnt many Turkish words, including ‘very beautiful’. I think Semiha encouraged me to learn these words on purpose, so she could hear me attempting to pronounce ‘very beautiful’ in Turkish!
To me it sounded like ‘chuck-gazelle’. When I kept repeating these words, Semiha smiled, appearing extremely happy.
The family came from a town on the Black Sea coast, very close to the Russian frontier. Semiha’s father was a train driver who was being transferred to Istanbul for the summer months. Semiha herself was an gymnastic instructor at a high school. I gathered they were going to their summer home for three months.
The train journey flashed past so quickly, especially when the mother produced a feast of Turkish goodies from one of her bags, insisting on sharing everything with me.
The train started to draw into Kadikoy, the Asian sector of Istanbul, and I was getting ready to say goodbye to my wonderful friends. The train stopped, then to my astonishment, Semiha took hold of my hand and gripped it tightly with her tiny soft hand and dragged me out of the carriage. At the same time, she made numerous arm signs that I was to join herself and her family and proceed along in the same direction with them.
We all walked over to a waiting taxi. Once we were all aboard, the cab roared off. I had no idea where I was being taken. Later, I was to learn that I was fortunate as I was in the eastern part of Istanbul that few tourists ever visit.
We arrived at the bottom of a hill and the taxi left us with all our belongings scattered around. It was indicated to me that we would all have to walk up the hill carrying our possessions. Since I only had my backpack, I helped to carry some of the families’ suitcases. The climb up the steep hill took plenty of effort by all concerned!
On reaching the top of the hill, we walked through a small garden where I observed a tiny cottage built of wooden planks. I felt elated. At last, I was going inside a real Turkish home, surrounded by family icons of the past.
Semiha in sign language told me that I would be sleeping outside and under the stars, there being no chance of rain at this time of the year, and could choose any spot in the garden I liked.
I was amazed because Semiha and her sister, Guner, quickly informed all the local neighbourhood that Nomad, the foreigner from England, was staying here with them.
Dozens of Turkish men, women and children came around to welcome me to Kadikoy. So much so that soon my arm became very weary of shaking hands. However, I was indeed a favourite and was made to feel completely at home. Everyone demonstrated with hand signs that they wanted me to go and visit them in their homes and partake of a meal with them also.
Soon, I was becoming quite attracted to Semiha and I could feel she was feeling the same about me.
In the evenings, after a meal of endless plates of food, whilst the rest of the family rested in armchairs, Semiha came and sat outside with me and did her level best to talk to me.
Whenever her younger sister, Guner, came to join us, Semiha quickly muttered some sharp words, and Guner moved quickly back inside the house. I guessed she was saying the equivalent of ‘Get Lost’.
At times, I thought she never wanted to leave my side. Many times, she flashed her beautiful black sparkling eyes in my direction. I tried to appear not to be interested, since I had learned she had a boyfriend in the Turkish army, stationed in South Korea. I noticed she had a ring on her finger, and I kept pointing to it and shaking my head in disapproval. In response, Semiha shook her head of long black hair, and waved her arms about very quickly, exclaiming, “Nichin,” which I had learned was the English equivalent of ‘nothing, or does not matter.’
One day, Semiha once again took me by the hand and indicated that we were going for a journey on the Bosphorus to the main city of Istanbul. We walked down the hill to the port area and embarked on a large passenger ferry.
Semiha wouldn’t let me pay for anything on this trip. We visited the famous blue mosque and many museums. Whenever we arrived at a ticket office, Semiha held a hurried discussion with the ticket attendant. Of course, I had no idea of what she was saying, but was aware that we never paid for any of the tickets. I could only assume that she was repeating what had been written about me in the newspaper.
Everywhere, both of us were swept before waiting queues and allowed to enter any sacred sites or famous buildings, taking prominence before any other queuing persons.
In the late afternoon of that day, we took a long ferry ride on the Marmara Sea, passing large numbers of passenger ships and freighters. During this voyage, Semiha suddenly took hold of my hand and held it tightly in her soft and tiny hand, every now and then giving it a squeeze.
I started to become worried as I realised that I was in a Moslem country and had better watch my step and behave myself. I tried to unload my concerns on Semiha, but she refused to listen, waving her hands about in exasperation. Instead, she just smiled at me, fluttered her dark eyes, and moved ever closer towards me, squeezing my hand even tighter.
This was the best ferry ride I had ever taken!
Altogether, I spent many nights under the stars with Semiha sitting at my side. I was quite surprised that her mother did not seem concerned in any way. In fact, her mother often gave me big hugs, and produced endless slices of delicious cake as if to try and win over my heart. Sometimes I thought to myself, now this is how I imagine a mother-in-law ought to be.
Semiha’s father came home late at night and left early in the morning, and hardly spoke a word to me. Nevertheless, I spent the best part of a month living in this fashion, and found it difficult to leave. Whenever I made signs that I wished to depart, there were cries of, “No-No-No,” or words to that effect.
Semiha constantly begged me to remain.
Nearly every afternoon, I was invited to a different home to sit and drink home-made soft drinks, and never-ending preparation and displays of food, all prepared for me to sample!
One day, the whole family and numerous other friends from miles around invited me to join them on a ferry ride to a lonely beach where we had a Turkish style picnic.
First of all a huge and colorful luxurious carpet was stretched out on the sand, then all the food was set out. Never in all my life have I seen so much varied and wonderful food! During the meal, there was much merriment, laughter and talking. At times, I felt as though this was my very own family as I was treated like a long lost relative.
Needless to say, I had to take the plunge, be firm and finally depart. I indicated that I was finally leaving and heading for Greece.
The day I left, I was constantly shaking hands with all my hosts, and being given parcels of Turkish food.
I promised that I would write. How they would read letters in English, I didn’t know. I guess they would find someone to translate for them.
Semiha and Guner cried and, just as I was walking away, Semiha came over and kissed me!
As I walked down the hill and onto my next adventure, my mind wondered why I felt more attachment to complete strangers in foreign lands than I ever do to my real family and relatives.