handtomouthtoindia »

Orient Express, Bulgaria Turkey – Hand to Mouth to India chapter 6

On a train with no ticket to Turkey, just 3000 miles to go to Goa.

I didn’t even try to explain all of this to my blonde Romanian friend when he offered to find me work and just told him that I was too lazy to have a job. Easier to explain and probably closer to the truth, too.

Back in Bucharest, the next day, he gave me a doughnut from his stall and abruptly disappeared. I jumped on the train to Bulgaria and stood in the corridor, hoping that the ticket inspector wouldn’t turn up. Hope again. A small and plump woman in a blue uniform came along halfway through the 50km journey and demanded more money than I had left in local currency. I hesitated, argued, fumbled and generally flustered about until she just said:

“Dah!” With a wave of her hand that wiped the air like a flag flown for humanity over the poison of the machine. She let me just pay the little that I had left.

The land was changing outside and each ridge and hill revealed new yet forgotten plains; redundant scenes of history where stories hung in the hazy air, beckoning the train to dare the trail to a dry and timeless continent where dark, ancient folk have searched unceasingly for that final elixir of juice to quench their parched and sandy souls. Where the air is thick with moisture and a magic that is just beyond reach. Maybe the heat was beginning to do strange things to me and the recent green fields of Transylvania already seemed a distant memory. The ground outside was more cousin to the scorched skin of the Earth found further South.

I was sick of Communism already as the legacy of the Iron curtain seemed to have been like a funeral shroud draped across the Creative Voice from Trieste to the Adriatic. I longed for somewhere with some depth and texture of culture.

Bulgaria wasn’t any better from first impressions. I stepped onto the station platform and was assailed by moneychangers in shorts and T-shirts. Their moneybags were attached to the waist and their calculators rested in their hands like a primed weapon. It seemed that they made their day’s wage by hoodwinking the newly-arrived who are often unsure of the rates of exchange. In a place where religion and folk art were wiped out as being incompatible with the broader aims of the People’s Republic of Wherever-It-Is, it looked like thirst for money had filled the spiritual vacuum after the stringent totalitarianism toppled over.

Money existed here as an end and a means in one. Hot, tired and disillusioned with the places my journey was taking me, I allowed the tales of others to influence me to the extent that I believed the stories of the taxi drivers who warned me that I was certain to be robbed by bandits on the unpoliced roads. I was pretty hung up with the fear of losing my clarinet and passport and so I found myself trudging back towards the station before I had walked half a mile through the town.

For a small payment, I ended up staying in the home of a taxi driver, eating with him and his family and watching moronic Turkish films on his satellite television. Outside, in the street, the local youth recreated the sounds of artillery fire with cheap and loud fireworks and I felt very pleased to be under a roof.

My friend Meriana in Vienna had already put me off her home country of Bulgaria when she told me that the character of the people was embodied in the nature of their language. She found that whenever she tried to speak about something intimate or sexual in Bulgarian, she would always choke on the words as she uttered them. She was much more at home in German or English where she could just scream ‘fuck you’ in one breath.

Just as the classic snootiness of the French is intimated by the nasal sound of their tongue, so I was prepared to accept that the Bulgarians themselves lacked spirit and fire, with such a sticky and enclosed language. Or maybe I’m just trying to cover myself for not being a real traveller and unearthing the ins and outs of every place I passed through.

The next day, I had to wait six or seven hours at the station to catch the train to Turkey – this time with a ticket, which meant that I had just $25 or so left. The whole place crawled with the ugliest of vibes. I almost got into a fight with some sinister Turks, who insisted on sitting much too close to me and I had to walk away from some mean-looking guys who claimed to be ‘Romanian Narcotics police’. They wanted to search my bags for cocaine of all things.

In the restaurant, where I spent the last of my Bulgarian money, young children hovered just outside, swooping down on each table as it was vacated, to scavenge what they could of the leftovers. I wanted out and fast. A few hours later, I got it and hustled onto the Istanbul Express while the moneychangers broke into their regular 4pm frenzy that was the main substance of their day’s earnings.

The train ride was uneventful and dull, other than the commotion caused when two hefty peasant women forced their way into the couple of empty seats which the sour-faced Bulgarians hoped to save for their own bulky comfort. I pulled Bishek’s droopy black hat over my eyes and hid until the border rigmarole. I got through easily and then stayed on board until the guards threw me off a few stops later. My ticket had expired at the border.

The train pulled away, leaving me at a small little station in 4am darkness. The clatter of wheels and carriages faded away into the night and I was left to collect my thoughts on a wooden bench, a big smile on my face.

I hadn’t been drowned in the English Channel; I hadn’t been smashed to pulp on the German autobahn and my throat hadn’t been cut by a bloodthirsty gypsy. Sometimes, it’s nice to be thankful for the good things in life. There only remained to be slaughtered by Islamic fundamentalists, eaten by wild desert animals and to contract any one of the long list of Asian fatal diseases. So I had good reason to be cheerful. Even the police patrol that checked my passport couldn’t dent my good spirits.

And then the night air parted to allow a loudspeaker to issue its vibrations through the sleeping town, in the same commanding way that had been heard here for over a thousand years. The call to prayer.

‘Awake! Awake! God is great! Come to prayer! Prayer is better than sleep!’

The pure revelation of heaven embodied in sound. The rippling wail of a wide-awake muezzin, urging the Muslim hearts to rise and rouse their faith for the pre-dawn prayer; to perform the ritual water ablutions and shake off the dirt of sleep; to join their brethren in kneeling worship before Allah in His magnificent Creation. I closed my eyes to bathe in the sound as nearby mosques also let fly wailing summons, forming a collage of chants to awaken all drowsy heads for the dawn.

In the time I spent in Muslim lands, I never got far enough out in the sticks to hear the actual call to prayed directly from a human throat up in the minaret of a mosque. Audio technology is undeniably more efficient but the force of the chant is diluted from the days of a primary rumble of the larynx of a blind man. A sightless singer was preferred because the elevated seat on the minaret offered an alarmingly privileged view on all of the local neighbourhood.

Before long, the red crayon of the approach of sunrise appeared on the horizon and I strolled off down the road, to see if hitchhiking was possible in Turkey. Everyone had been pretty skeptical about my chances of riding gratis across these lands and I was a little worried that the drivers might demand money for my passage. Almost immediately though, I saw a man on the other side of the road hail a car. It pulled over even though the dark of night had not yet departed and he was off on his way.

Thus cheered, I made my way down to the highway and grabbed a lift with a lorry after just a few minutes. I found myself hurtling towards the dawn as a fountain of light erupted in the Eastern sky.

“Me Ingliz.” I explained with an idiot’s smile.

“Me Turk.” he replied with his hand to his heart and this was about as far as communication got. He turned on the radio and our metal compartment was suddenly filled with a flood of Turkish song. I sat back in drowsy contentment as we left long stretches of road for dust and I did my best not to fall asleep.

It was still way too early for this sort of caper and I kept jolting out of daydreaming lapses until I was finally let out on the edge of a town halfway to Istanbul. I had to walk through a few streets to arrive at the next junction and I sang strange spontaneous songs to myself on a hobo high of roaming free. Pistachio shells littered the ground and the fruit stalls were full of local melons. I was looking pretty ragged and unshaven but paid no attention to the derisory laughs that I suspected were aimed in my direction.

After another half hour wait, a smart-looking car stopped and we were off at high speed towards the capital. From here on it was clear that seatbelts were not for Real Men and I averted my attention from the swinging lurches of the car by gazing out the window. The Marmara Sea glistened not so far away on our right: a shining visage as thousands of diamonds of light danced a fine ballet on its swaying blue waters. I figured I’d get the chance to swim later. So I sat tight and contented myself by playing spot-the-mosque as we passed each town.

The mosques in West Turkey are generally kept in great condition and are numerous even in the small villages that surely couldn’t contain enough believers to fill all these places of worship. Turkish style focused on the tall, slim minaret that pierced the sky with poignant elegance. It sliced through the sky like a straight finger pointing at Heaven. There were mosques adorned with spirals of green upon the eternally scribing pencil minarets and others wore symmetrical curving patterns of red and yellow polka dots. All of the spectrums found place in the House of God.

I’ve always had an interest in Islam and was now about to find out how things were in practice. I was enchanted by the spellbinding beauty of the mosques, the transporting chant of the Qur’an and of some of the more obscure Islamic stories and poetry. But i wasn’t so sure about the religion itself. Come to that I’m not sure about religion period. But whatever the lay of the land I was sure that some of the poets and prophets had been inspired by something, a glimpse of God or just a damn fine trip and so I guessed there would be something to learn. I’d grown up with the clichés and prejudices about Islam common in the West but I didn’t see how anyone could pretend to know anything about Muslims without having lived with them. Without first-hand experience how could anyone know what was really going on?

Still, most of my recent knowledge came from books, for that matter, so what did I know? I just wanted to arrive with an open mind and heart and see what this dimension had to offer. I didn’t anticipate any sudden urges to convert but I was open to anything.

Blame it on 1001 Nights but I imagined that Istanbul might be a gateway to a world of awe-inspiring smells, sounds and spells, woven of a tapestry of Middle Eastern finesse, enriched with thousands of years of living under starry desert skies and threaded with the soft steps of camel caravans, carrying merchandise of silver, silk and spices swaying on stubborn humps.

I was also a bit nervous about my vulnerability as a lone traveller as most of what I knew about the people or the lands was all second hand information. I was not yet a travel-worn rogue of the road but rather a naive young musician with Piscean dreams about the romance of the Lone Traveller. At this time, I was still easily influenced by the fears of others and hadn’t yet learned that the locals often know nothing at all about how things will be on the next step of the journey. Because they’ve never taken it themselves.

But I didn’t know this then and I had unconsciously absorbed many of the stories and advice I’d been given again and again on the road about the dangers of muggings and robbery. This came to a head when, 25km before Istanbul, my driver took us off the main road and out on a desolate dirt track on a hill leading up to a small cabin by a rubbish heap. I was ushered inside where an old guy and his two sons lived. They at once set about making tea in a samovar.

The pot of leaves fitted on top of the urn of boiling water and a small measure of the concentrate tea was poured out and then diluted by the hot water from the larger vessel. The tea was served black in small glasses shaped like women’s waists and drunk with a sugar cube held between the teeth.

I took a few sips and at once began to feel a woozy. The strange Turkish faces began to blur in front of my eyes and I imagined i heard mocking laughter. I’d been drugged. I waited for darkness to fall over me and to wake up (if at all) at the bottom of a rubbish heap minus a kidney. But then the last ounce of my reason made an appearance and reminded me that I’d hardly slept in days and that tea always makes me feel high anyway.

I cleared my head and calmed myself with a couple of deep breaths. I then refocused on the old man who made the tea and saw that he was delighted to have an Englishman as a guest in his humble home. His two sons sat groggily on their bunks around which were pasted various pinup girls. It was ridiculous to imagine any threat in this innocent scene. I was just paranoid from fatigue.

We returned to the road and some time towards noon we crested the last hill to meet an impressive vista of Istanbul up ahead; towering minarets rose on the corners and the city sprawled all over the landscape before meeting the sea in the South.

I was dropped off at the outskirts and I floundered around for an hour trying to find my way into the city. Eventually I realised that walking was no effective means of transport in a metropolis and a car fortuitously turned up to ferry me into the city. There was still no escaping the concrete tower blocks and I wondered how much further East I’d have to go before I’d be rid of them.

Things seemed much more hi-tech here than I’d expected. My senses were at once overloaded with an assault of sounds, sights and smells that seemed unashamedly modern in comparison to the gateway city of my imaginings. The traffic was intense, with roaring highways playing backdrop to the blaring horns of the street congestion and it took more skill in crossing the road than I was used to.

The first few signs of street life were here and that at least struck a familiar chord with the feel of the East: old men at stalls sold cuts of Doner kebab and chickpeas with rice whilst sandal salesmen sat on rugs beside piles of their leather footwear. The street fronts were lined with bureau de change outlets and handicraft shops. I struck out into the back lanes resolving to find the real Istanbul.

An hour later, I was completely lost in the suburbs and my clothes stuck unpleasantly to my skin as I dragged my bags up and down hills, desperately searching for some reference point. I seemed to be stuck in a never ending labyrinth of deathly housing estates with large and empty spaces in between, which gave way without warning to sudden, roaring motorways.

I wandered as a small and frail figure beneath a sadistic sun. Then as I stopped to clean the sweat from my eyes, a gang of Turkish workmen on a building site beckoned me over. Maybe this will be the magical contact that my seemingly aimless trek has brought me to, I thought, always expecting the wondrous to manifest itself amidst the commonplace and dull, just like the lotus flower that flourishes in the heart of swampland. I walked up to their cabin where the mustachioed men sat in their white vests and shorts. The smallest and fattest of them contrived to say in English:

“Ho, Ho! Madam – good fucking, yes?” Accompanied by the appropriate grunting gestures in a brave and magnanimous endeavour to cross the cultural boundaries that separated us. I couldn’t think of a suitably diplomatic response at that moment however and so i just walked away.

Weary and worn, I chanced again upon my starting point, none the better for my labours and sat down morosely on my packed-up sleeping stuff to reevaluate my position. I had about $20, most of which I wanted to save for the Iranian border in case the officials demanded proof that I could support myself in their country. There seemed no point in blowing the cash on a hotel room if I was going to be in the same homeless position the next day. If I was going to have to adjust to getting by with no money again, it was clear that I should start now.

Besides, Istanbul had hardly met up to my expectations of a city of mystery and adventure. Apart from the beautiful mosques that were mercifully plentiful, this could have been any other European city, as far as I could see, ugly and uninteresting. Turkey aspires to join Europe anyway and so I guess is shouldn’t have been surprised that there weren’t camels on every corner. And now that the Road to Kathmandu has fallen into memory, I couldn’t see any freaks dressed in bells and blouses on their way to get enlightened in India. I was lonely.

I was just thinking about moving on while there was still light when it began to rain tumultuously and I fled to the shelter of a nearby shopping complex. I shivered as I despondently watched the water fall, a few tears running down my cheeks in unison. Where was I? And where was I going? I didn’t know where I’d sleep that night and a bed outdoors was now impossible with the ground all soaked and muddy.

There were no Indian ashrams to give me food and shelter here and all I could foresee was a long and lonely road for another four thousand miles across barren lands. No one was going to open up to me and offer help, maybe just the occasional bread roll if I begged hard enough. Self-pity is a pretty seductive emotion and it tends to taint all past, present and future experience with its miserable brush – but at least when you reach rock bottom, the only way is then up and thus it can be a kind of purification. By indulging in all of your fears about the worst eventualities they are thrown out in the open and you can rebuild within.

With typical timing, the coin of fortune then flipped and gave me my first insight into the notion of hospitality within the Muslim community, which I would taste many, many times again on my journey. Naturally, when you’re standing on the streets of a city feeling ill, hungry or sad, no one can know about it unless you give them the opportunity to find out through some kind of point of contact – this being the great advantage of hitchhiking and street performing, that you inevitably meet and get to know a variety of people who will often help you out once they know where you stand.

On this occasion, I asked the help of a couple of young news stand guys to find a place selling roadmaps of Turkey. Passers-by became involved with the communication process and I ended up attracting the attention of a whole crowd, all of whom eager to help. I was just establishing the possibility of sleeping in a vacant office belonging to the uncle of a young guy that had turned up, speaking pretty good English – when a corpulent policeman appeared at my side intent on taking me off to the British embassy for assistance.

No go. I was not a tourist in trouble but a pilgrim in search of a bit of shelter and though the officer just wanted to be of assistance, the inattentive manner with which he waved his rifle around was making me feel pretty nervous. It was also drawing a mob of onlookers who imagined that I was being busted. In the end, someone had to lead the officer away by the arm whilst he complained in hurt tones that he was only trying to help. Meanwhile, I slipped away with my new friend, Ahmed, for some mutton and rice as we allowed the commotion to die down.

Ahmed then took me to the ‘office’, where I was due to spend the night. Upon arrival, I received an immediate interrogation from two young policemen as to what I was doing and why. Did my family know where I was? How much did I know about Islam? And did I want to become a Muslim? It took me a while to realise that these were the guys that were in charge of giving me a place to rest. It took even longer to convince them that I was in full command of my senses and knew what I was doing. More or less.

The ‘office’ turned out to be a small cabin at the end of a wide alley, beside a political building that the police were guarding for the night. The floor was dusty but it was warm and dry and I was pretty happy with my lot, though the policemen shook their heads disapprovingly that I should choose to subject myself to such conditions.

“It’s perfect!” I cried.

“No, it’s very bad for you.” they told me disapprovingly.

A few minutes later, a knock at the door produced Ahmed, bearing bread rolls, tins of tuna and bars of chocolate, apologising all the while that it wasn’t much. All of this put my earlier self-pity to shame and my confidence grew in direct proportion to the generosity I was receiving, refilling that most essential of hoboing fuels.

I dreamt of shuffling shadows of bored policemen, come to peek through the windows at the weird English bum who begged for his beef and slept on floors.

Otherwise, I slept fine.