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Istanbul cops, Turkish Hooligans Serendipity – Hand to Mouth to India Chapter 7

How does a penniless hitchhiker find a bed? the Turkish cops are always ready to help.

In the morning, I was informed that I had barely entered Istanbul and was only on the periphery. That was why it had all seemed so dull. Meekly, I allowed my benefactors to place me in a minibus to head for the centre. Soon I was back on the motorway – this crazy city is intersected by screeching tongues of roadway connecting all the neighbourhoods together.

The motor car will drive modern man to distraction‘ said Gurdjieff.

I arrived at the celebrated tourist centre of Istanbul, the Sultanahmed, where the famous giant blue mosques stood, untouched by the modern age. Within seconds, local guides were hustling me to buy postcards, maps and whole piles of other assorted crap. To them I was just another backpacker on tour with a bundle of traveller’s cheques and a camera in my knapsack. They decided to leave me alone when they saw the condition of my boots which didn’t look like they’d last the course to India.

I strolled around the grand mosques and palaces, was dutifully impressed and then prepared to get back on the road. I got myself a Turkish-English dictionary and mailed a couple of postcards to my folks back home to let them know that I was still alive.

Now, hitchhiking out of Istanbul is no simple matter and it was almost impossible to find any kind of access point to the thundering monster of highway that could be seen tantalisingly below from the bridges where I stood. I spent three futile hours trying to track down a slip road before I realised that the best way around this kind of obstacle was to catch a bus to the next small town and try again from there.

This I did and, by the time I was on the outskirts of the next village, the heat of the day had already passed before I found a reasonable place to stand near a small petrol station. I spent half my energies trying to flag down likely looking vehicles and the remainder dodging the cars that swerved in to fill up.

I got a ride in a truck with a toothless old man who spoke no English and I hopped in. With the aid of my dictionary, we established at length that he was from South West Turkey where the English tourists really ‘go to town’ and that it was certain that if I tried to hitch through East Turkey, then I was a ‘lunatic’ as I was sure to be ‘hijacked’ and ‘murdered’. He made the accompanying pistol-to-temple sign with his fingers.

He became pretty fond of me in no time and occasionally pinched my cheek with paternal care. Nevertheless, he became pissed off when I declined his offer to go South with him as I insisted I had to go East. He shrugged angrily as if I was little more than a corpse sitting in his passenger seat for all my chances were against the heavily-armed Kurds on my route.

The early evening traffic was ‘madness’, my driver told me and we became stuck in an unmoving queue of vehicles. He pulled over into a gravel patch and began to lower the seats, suggesting that we sleep for a while. There didn’t seem like anything else to do so I lay down lengthways with him over the front seats and he placed his hand across my belly – not an explicitly sexual act but more intimate than I’m used to with people of the same gender.

Occasionally, he would try to roll a bit closer and I would have to move him gently away; the whole situation was so comic that I couldn’t really feel threatened by this tiny old cozen of skin and bones who I could probably have lifted up with one hand. There was no one else around and so what did it matter if I indulged his need for a little companionship and warmth? Just as long as it was not any more than that.

When the traffic had eased, we got under way again and I became concerned that nightfall was only about an hour off. We were only 40km away from Istanbul. My day’s progress could only be counted as miserable. The sky outside was scattered with suspicious clouds and the prospect of rain deterred me from jumping out into the passing woodland to make a fire for the night. No way did I want to get caught in the open if yesterday’s kind of shower came again. I was equally less sanguine about arriving in a town in the evening time and attempting to find a local to give me a bed.

At this point in the trip, my fears about my immediate wellbeing reached a head. For the first time I found myself poor and alone in a very foreign culture – somehow having no money in Europe wasn’t that big a deal, it all being so close to home ground. But now that I was in deep beyond the point of return, I was assailed by doubts and worries. What would I do if I became sick? And would I really have to lug my waterproofs all the way to India if the weather was going to be like this?

I began looking out of the window, in an anxious search for somewhere good to kip down in safety and warmth. At last, I saw a field that looked reasonably discreet and I bid my confused old man goodbye as I stalked off into the night. I laid my stuff down by a bush, some hundred yards from the road and trusted that the dim orange illumination cast by the streetlights didn’t depict me too brightly.

Occasionally, drifting conversation would come my way from local residents on an evening stroll and I just hoped that they wouldn’t be expecting to see anyone. I closed my eyes to a curiously relaxed sleep. I’d often read of exhausted bluesmen who sometimes used to fall down asleep across the railroad tracks they were following and it seems that we are at our most trusting precisely when we are most defenceless.

But there is no rest for the wretched and sometime in the middle of the night, I heard a soft pattering sound that I knew meant something bad. I’m always reluctant to wake up to the unpleasant, half-hoping that things might just go away again if I keep my eyes shut. After a drowsy struggle I fathomed that it was the beginnings of rain.

“Fuck!” I cursed aloud and realised that to sit still any longer could be absolutely disastrous, as a cloudburst could have reduced me to a shivering pneumonic wreck in about five minutes. I dragged myself out of dreamland and gathered my stuff into my arms with all the haste that I could muster, before staggering like a lame donkey with a poor sense of balance to the nearest concrete road bridge. I sat under that thing for the next three hours playing the sleepless blues on my clarinet and munching miserably through bits of bread and olives that I had left, more for something to do than because of hunger.

The morning call to prayer eventually came and I wondered if Muhammad had ever spent half a rainy night under a motorway bridge. It’s written that he had been in the habit of going to sit in a cave in the wilderness to fast and meditate many years before he received his first revelation from the angel Gabriel. He knew all about the loneliness of doubt too. After the absolute thunderbolt of the first transmission of the Qur’an that caused him to shake and quiver with its power, he had to wait another two full years before the Angel appeared to him again. During this time he had a difficult time maintaining his faith, like a candle trying to stay alight in a storm.

But I seriously doubted if a religion would flower as the result of my night-long vigil and when no angel appeared before morning, I caught a bus into town. I realised that if I had difficulty here explaining my situation to people who sometimes spoke a little English, then it was going to be near-impossible in East Turkey where people were poorer and the levels of education correspondingly lower. I hit upon the idea of getting a small postcard with an explanation written on the back in Turkish to say that I was a spiritual seeker, travelling by means of God for my food and shelter.

I left the bus at a random point in town and wandered around aimlessly, until some shopkeepers hailed me and dispatched someone to look for a speaker of a European language. A solid young guy named Mehmet was brought who spoke some German. Pretty soon I was being fed soup and rice, drowned in tea and being introduced to every man in town. Somehow, by breaking bread with them a bond of trust was established and I became surrogate, long-lost family. I was taken around to the cafes where, on Sundays, the working men played cards, dominoes and chess all day – much like the old guys in Northern England, though here hot tea substituted for beer.

I was a novelty and everyone was happy to give me bits of food and endless glasses of chai as long as I didn’t mind answering the same questions over and over again: How old was I? What was my job? Was I married? Why did I have no money? Did I want to become a Muslim? And so on ad infinitum. The big joke which they went to great trouble to make me understand (by means of exaggerated snipping gestures around their groins) was that if I were to convert to Islam I’d have to be circumcised. All good fun amongst men.

Mehmet suggested that I come with him and his friends to the football match that afternoon. It seemed like a good way to escape the endless discussions-cum-lectures about life – my life in particular. This was the crunch with Muslim hospitality to one in my position; wherever I went, help would usually be given but almost always accompanied by a lecture on the faults and shortcomings of my way of life. I wanted to tell them about the Sufi dervishes who had traditionally wandered hand to mouth through the Muslim empire. No one seemed to know about the age before the advent of charter flights, visas, insurance policies for everything and sticky red tape that ties up as much freedom as it can wrap itself around. But as much as I can rant here on the page (again) there was no way I could go into explanations like that to every person who wound me up in this way. Thus I just leant back on the classic tactic of quoting from their own texts:

“Allah will provide.” I told them wearily. They nodded in approval, though secretly they believed me to be off my hinges. Some even doubted that I had come this far by hitching without money but I had nothing to prove to them. But even if they didn’t know their own traditions too well in their heads they carried the best of it in their hearts.

“We love you, Thomas! We do! We love you, Thomas! We do!” sang a coach of a hundred young football thugs in between their songs of adoration for their football club, Karseilly. I was a Star! And the grinning, fresh faces of the young fans were excited to have something new to yell about. It’s a strange thing but whenever they sang some football chant or slogan, their Turkish accent was inexplicably replaced by an oafish slur that can be heard at any football ground in Europe – had I discovered some kind of cross-cultural genes here or what?

But I was wrong-being a football fan in Karseilly had nothing to do with watching the game but rather about the posturing outside the stadium away from the vigilance of their elders. Mehmet had suddenly been transformed from an awkward bachelor in front of the old men in the cafes to a militant leader of idle youth, fully in his element amongst hundreds of fired-up youths who all just wanted to be on the right side. The winning side. It wasn’t clear what the stakes were as Mehmet strutted around, always in some urgent hurry to attend to some imagined contingency of great importance. He was trailed by a bunch of younger sidekicks, eager to demonstrate their worth.

Finally, he was given some justification for his clownish activities as the opposing fans suddenly scaled the partition behind which they were enclosed. The air filled with a volley of stones and rocks, falling just short of our main body. I was ushered protectively to the side while the boisterous young men of our side seized the chance for glory. Following Mehmet’s example, they charged forward and returned the missile fire with whatever debris they could gather from the ground.

My escorts turned to me with grinning faces, as if to say, ‘fun, eh?’ I didn’t bother to conceal my anger and disgust. The police soon came in and Mehmet and his colleagues at once assumed the look of schoolboy innocence, before returning with a triumphant cheer. They were all very impressed with themselves.

“You fight and try to kill your fellow Muslims, for fuck’s sake?” I cried. They all looked a little confused as if they couldn’t see where the problem was. Why was I, a bloke of the same age as them acting like their fathers?

“No, no,” they told me patiently. “This is not dangerous.” I gave up and became even more despondent when I found out that the match did not begin for another hour and a half. This pre-match mini warfare constituted more than half of their total expedition – the release of their frustrated testosterone in a socially-accepted way. What was I doing here? I asked myself yet again. I might as well have been in England. It was the kind of thing I was fleeing.

Fortunately there were no more incidents and to my relief, there was not enough room for all of us in the ground. A more genteel lad took me off for some chai in the sanctum of a cafe. There we attempted philosophical discussion about the duties of one’s life with the sole aid of my dictionary. One word at a time.

Back at home, no one seemed to have given any thought as to where I was going to sleep that night. I eventually had to force the issue. For some reason, though everyone kept pressing food into my hands, no one was inclined to take me in so they had a whip round and got me a bed in the local hotel. I woke early and got on the road right away, pausing only to get one of the young lads to write me out a card in Turkish. He wrote that I was a ‘friend of Allah’ and needed people to house and feed me on my spiritual quest.

A sullen lift from a Romanian took me out a way and as usual I wasted a lot of time in finding the right road. After some time, I got on a very slow-moving truck heading North to the Black Sea. I fancied a swim and the prospect of drowning my troubles in a kind of baptism in the ocean. I sat tight as we moved inch by inch up the beautiful hills that separated us and the great salty waters on the other side. I tried to impress my driver with my Turkish:

“Beautiful, yes? Very beautiful. Good. Fantastic. Thank you. Very good. Yes.” And so on with the enthusiastic and idiotic vocabulary every learner of a new language picks up. He smiled patiently.

Towards sunset, we came across the expanse of the Black Sea and the waters lapped against the shore with all the reassuring caress of a lover’s hand; Nature’s comfort for the weary wayfarer, who ‘ever seeks the sweet golden clime, where the traveller’s journey is done.’ – to quote Blake.

I was hoping the old man driving would concern himself with where I was going to sleep that night but instead he let me out by a small town with some kind of industrial plant by the harbour, glowing gold as the sun hung low in the sky. I began to walk to the main market area in the hope of flashing my postcard at someone and invoking some of the famous Turkish hospitality. But within seconds, a young guy in a car pulled to a quick halt and shouted:

“Come On!” So of course, I clambered in and he took me off to see his friend: a mechanic who could speak excellent English.

This turned out to be one of the least favourable of encounters I had in Turkey. I was ushered into a concrete garage and abruptly presented to a guy in overalls, who spoke to my young driver for a minute in Turkish, casting me sidelong glances all the while. Then he turned and spoke to me in a passionless tone of interrogation, to determine if I was a runaway from home. As I answered his questions, he turned to work a little at the underside of the elevated car by the wall. Finally, he faced me with folded arms and asked:

“So, are you hungry now?”

“Er, yes, a little.”

“Well, we can drop you at the bus station and that’s all we can do for you.”

So I found myself standing by rows of buses on their concrete beds. Alone in a sleepless night that was too dark to find a safe place on the beach to rest and, wearied by my rude last encounter, I felt low again. Up and down, up and down. This was often the story but fortunately with the Muslims, there were always enough ups just waiting to happen.

Nothing was going to happen unless I made the effort, so I summoned the energy from somewhere to approach a few people with my pilgrim’s postcard to see if that humbling tactic would meet with any success. The first youth I spoke to didn’t seem to comprehend and I wondered if he could read. My dejection was unexpectedly dispelled a minute later when he doubled back and put his hand on my shoulder, asking:

“Ekmek ?” (“Food?”) Poverty is a great teacher of language and I recognized that crucial phrase straight off. He took me to a cafe and after placing money down on the counter for my mutton soup and rice, he bid me goodnight and left.

The guys working in the cafe also wanted to read my postcard and once they understood the score, they plied me with stuffed pepper casserole and chai until I could take no more. Afterwards, I was taken down the road and introduced to some young, long-haired guys with gentle smiles and shining hearts – it was immediately decided that I was to be a guest in their home.

My host was a guy named Selchuk, a young student with long, flowing blonde hair. As we walked up to his house he almost apologised that his mother wore a head covering. He brought out maps of Turkey and we examined my route. He warned me that hitchhiking was ‘absent’ in Eastern Turkey and assured me that ‘terrorist activity’ would hinder me on the roads there. I’d have to take a bus.

I heard this story so many times in the West of the country that I began to wonder if I was crazy, heading naively towards violent militants with rifles and grenades. I didn’t really have a clue as I hadn’t done my homework on the area. I was just vaguely aware that the Turkish were in the habit of sending airplanes over to drop bombs on small Kurdish villages. Goddamn suspicious, carpet-weaving, ethnic minorities with their own language, hanging about for thousands of years just cluttering up the place.

Breakfast was big and hearty, with local breads, cheeses and olives. I only stopped eating when it occurred to me that it wasn’t polite to be sitting by the meal mat on the floor, munching away when everyone else had finished 45 minutes before. Well, a guy’s got to fuel up – never do know when you’re going to get any more.

I was put on the phone to every English speaker in town and my friends were a little at a loss as how to satisfy their strong urge to help me. They were educated guys though, for all their untainted cheeriness; when the football came on the television Selchuk switched it off at once, pointing out the word in my dictionary: ‘exploitation’.

Selchuk and I went walking on the promenade that would have been beautiful if not for the leering industrial plant that crowded the view. We then turned to wander up a hill, climbing dozy streets whose concrete slabs were drugged with sunshine and the town wore a cheerful suggestion of aspiring to modern times without being in too much of a hurry.

With some consternation Selchuk explained to me that he was a ‘bad Muslim’, because of the way he looked and acted. I tried to console him in my poor but growing Turkish that there were ‘different paths – different people but all same.’ I’m not sure how that Indian logic translated but it seemed to cheer him up a bit. The bounding free heart of his nature struggled with the claustrophobic confines of his nurture – I wish he could have known that in some alternative setting he could find people of similar bearing and that there was nothing wrong with his bohemian way of life.

I wouldn’t have minded staying for a while but I was not invited to do so. Selchuk and his friends put me on the afternoon bus back down to the main trans-Turkey highway, insisting that hitching would be easier down there. As I got ready to board the bus they hoisted a big bag of food on me and despite my protests, stuffed my shirt pocket with a million and a half lire (about $20), that would sort me out for a couple of days. I sat on the back of the bus and actually wept, stunned by their kindness and generosity.

It was this sort of thing that restored my faith in the goodness of the human heart and cured my bitter cynicism about the human condition. From my perspective of material destitution, I was able to glimpse some of the hidden sides of people and found that the majority really will extend their help and means to you – at least, when there’s no hiding from the fact that you’re genuinely in need.

I came out on the Istanbul-Ankara highway and a group of kids that I’d been talking to managed to get me my next ride, by chatting up a truck driver on my behalf. Hitchhikers need to be on good terms with all folks great and small.

The road wound up through some pretty mountains and we seemed to be leaving the influence of the West behind. Greater things surely lay ahead. Towards the end of the day, the driver announced he was stopping to rest for the night and I scrambled out to stroll around the roadside village. I eyed up potential places to sleep. There were a number of derelict buildings with large gaps in the bricks where the windows once were. But my plans were foiled by a cruising police wagon that hauled me in and then drove me two kilometres up the highway hill to a side of the road restaurant where they said I could find a hotel.

Cops in Turkey were generally very kind to me and though it was never my first instinct to expect any good intentions from them, they were always more than friendly. I was, of course, more accustomed to the usual uncultured thugs who use their positions of power to obstruct any act of freedom – schoolyard bullies grown up, getting a rush of the power endowed upon them by virtue of a shiny black uniform and gun.

Okay, I’m generalisng and i guess there are many who really do try to act as guardians of the peace, sorting out disputes with the minimum of fuss and stepping into nasty situations most of us would rather have nothing to do with.

However, not many of them have an interest in organic farming or in the magic of auric healing; as guardians of the status quo, they’re not generally of a bearing that can absorb the weird and the wonderful. You won’t find many artists, poets or yoga students amongst most cops, for instance. If only they could all be like the cops in Holland who are required to pass psychological personality tests as part of their training (an easy going and understanding manner is essential in dealing with the space cadets found in the European capital of decadence, Amsterdam.)

Of course, I say all of this as one who instinctively feels himself to be on the wrong side of the law. Whilst I’ve never done much that is illegal, I always have to give a second thought as to whether I might have a piece of hash in my pocket when I see a policeman coming my way in the street. The non-smoking, working population generally has little bad feeling towards the constabulary, simply because they are fairly unlikely to end up on the wrong end of the law which is where the real character of the police is seen.

I’ve been arrested twice in my life: once as a 16 year old attempting to hitchhike home from a road protest – I was stupid and inexperienced enough to try and flag cars down on the motorway. A police car screamed to a halt and then reversed back to where I was standing. They were not happy men. It emerged that they had been stationed on the protest that had held up the entire motorway, as we all made a big party on the offending bypass that had cleaved a beautiful valley in two.

“I find it quite ironic that you’re trying to hitchhike home, having been on a road protest.” a six foot three bloated pig with a helmet told me. After taking my details, he instructed me to return up the grass verge and not let him see me again.

“But I haven’t got any money or food or anything warm to wear.” I protested.

“Well, quite frankly, I don’t care.” he replied and I ended up walking 12 miles back to the protest site in the dark.

These kinds of experiences, together with the brutal horse charges, aggressive searches and general intimidation common to police worldwide leave me to conclude the average cop to be something other than my guardian and my friend.

Here in Turkey, though, the police had put me in rather a nice place at a restaurant that had an outstanding view of the plains below and the nearby habitat looked pretty friendly for one sleeping out. Somehow, the further I progressed East, the more acceptable it seemed to make a bed in the open as I came to lands that have no taboos about ‘vagrancy’.

A smartly-dressed young Turk came out, who was assistant manger of the place and after he understood that I was a traveller of little means, he refused to allow me to pay for dinner. He set me up at a little table and the waiters brought me soup, beef and rice, all of it excellent.

I lay down to sleep in the garden that lay to the side of the restaurant that night and felt a large psychic load lift off of me. I finally ceased worrying about my day to day welfare. Time and time again, circumstances were providing enough to meet the needs of the situation and fretting about it all just detracted from the thrills of the Journey.

After some time, you can become accustomed to any fear, even begin to feel indifference for what once turned your stomach with dread. It was all delightfully out of my hands and consequently, I felt more safe and secure than any time in the past. I had discovered the cosmic game of catch, falling without fail into the waiting arms of the universe.

Having finally overcome immediate fear for my physical wellbeing, it followed that all other aspects of my world would be catered for too, provided I conducted myself with the patience and respect to let things work out In their own time.

It was like stepping out over a terrible abyss and finding that a bridge appears beneath my feet with each step. Once I actually took that first fearful stride everything fell into place as and when needed. Maybe I would be sick and hungry in three weeks time but if I worried about it now I’d suffer the experience twice. Once in my imagination and then again if it actually happened.

Most of what I needed usually came to me but sometimes I had to face a few things first as part of the lesson. In the May of that year, I was returning from my European tour back to England. A whole day’s hitching brought me only around 60km along the French coast and I was still a little way from Calais, where I could catch a boat back to my tiny island. I had walked six miles out of Dunkirk to try and find a decent spot to catch a lift. I was aching, weary and miserable, the sun was going down and a vicious wind with an icy whip flayed my poorly-clothed body. I couldn’t see any viable place to kip down from the harsh elements for the night and I seriously doubted if I had the strength to walk back to civilisation.

The sky began to grow darker and darker and the sunset splendour faded along with the warmth of the day, my spirits dissipating along with it. In a few minutes, no car would be able to see my out-stretched thumb and I seriously began to contemplate that Death by exposure might be my fate that evening. Ironic, true, to die so close to home, having been 3000km around the roads of the Continent but a sense of fair play and justice rarely seems to concern Fatality. I began to consider the demise of Tom – my carefully-constructed personality to die of cold in minutes after all these 20 years of struggle and effort. Was this to be it? Didn’t I get to go down in glory?

I was rescued from this oblique perspective by a Renault bound for Calais. Within minutes of arrival at the port, a British car driver I chatted to pulled out a wad of notes and gave me £5 to get me across the water. Then on the ferry, I met another young guy who bought me pints of beer in exchange for my stories.

All the comfort of the world was mine again but only after a close encounter with the grim side of things.