I was on a back road leaving a dust trail behind me that startled rope-pegged donkeys out of their sullen afternoon doze, the way before me stretching into the distance as infinite space. I had traversed miles of nowhere, taking in the lowland marshes of rice paddies where egrets strutted in measured steps collecting minnows for lunch, and the high mountain passes bordered by cliffs where only shaggy wild goats were sure-footed enough to clamber over the shifting stones. On one side was a vertical wall with jagged protruding stones threatening to shred the car like a tin opener if I ventured too near, on the other side a sheer drop of a thousand feet where I would’ve tumbled over boulders the size of houses. Now I found myself back on the flat of a fertile valley under a canopy of willow, high pine and hanging moss.
Bumping off the tree lined avenue onto a two-lane concourse at the next narrow turn I hit tarmac and a wide-open avenue where the sun caused ripples to rise from the burning pavement. As I rounded another bend in the carriageway a man in white shirt and black trousers, dressed as if going to a fancy cocktail party, stepped to the edge of the embankment and waved me towards the arcade of restaurants that sat back under the palms; an oasis from the heat of the afternoon sun that blazed in the cloudless blue sky.
I had spent the afternoon trekking trails where usually only pack animals and lizards dared to venture, reaching the pinnacle of an ancient isolated outpost, peering into the canyons and across the verdant vale to yet another range of high hills that reminded me more of the high points of Wyoming and Utah than any other place I’ve been. I had scaled the rugged uneven peaks in my hardy boots and drunk a litre of water to stave off the incessant thirst brought about by the sweltering temperature. So, hunger rumbling in my belly I hit the brakes and slid across the gravel drive, kicking stones out across the grassy verge and skidded to a stop under an awning that covered a small parking area.
In front of me was a sheltered terrace where tables were laid for dining in a setting of comfort and serenity, and I thanked the Lord for small blessings of potential nourishment. Another smartly attired man appeared and opening my car door welcomed me into the peaceful relief of the shaded patio, while yet another gentleman handed me a moist towel to wipe the fine sand of the road from my hands and face. It’s amazing the accumulation of dust that settles over the skin attaching itself to the sweat that acts as magnet to the fine particles of soil that swirl around in the car when the windows are open. A bottle of cold water was proffered and fresh brewed tea was simmering on a nearby stove.
After the initial obligatory handshakes, exchange of pleasantries and smiling we moved on to the business at hand, getting food on the table. There was no menu here – instead, pictures high up on the wall, above the arches that marked the entrance to the kitchen, illustrated the type of food available, and it looked like meat was the main item on all of them. Asking about vegetarian pizza only got me blank looks and a stream of various hesitant languages to determine which part of the world I had rolled in from. Once their television learned English and my stuttering dictionary Turkish was established as the intermediate currency of communication, we attempted to negotiate dinner.
As a teacher, I have often been asked how to say sonra gorusuruz (see you later) by petrol station attendants, the difference between ‘you will’ and ‘you can’ by shop clerks – “errm, well I may buy this because I can, but I don’t think I will .. and occasionally by people who know me a little better, the difference between words in ‘English English’ and ‘American English’ .. subtle but often very confusing – like telling time: is it half past twelve, or twelve thirty? .. and don’t even think about present perfect tense, it doesn’t exist in Turkish and sometimes leads to confusion and circular discussions .. oh, and prepositions – well, you can sunbathe on the beach before meeting me at the restaurant to drink yourself under the table as you gaze out over the Aegean, but in Turkish you only have one word with two spellings (f or m) to say all these and the rest of them as well .. and it comes after the subject or object – so not really even a preposition anyway is it? Hmmm ..
Accepting that when in Rome one does as the Romans, and in the middle of nowhere one does as local custom demands, I acquiesced to the suggestions of the attentive huddle of smiling servers and cooks, taking my chances with what would be my evening meal. They snapped to attention and began to hustle back and forth with platters and trays. First up was a large salad of shredded lettuce and sliced tomatoes, three varieties of olives and sliced cucumber. The cucumbers aren’t served like in the UK and US where we chop little circles end-to-end, but lengthwise, skin peeled and dusted with a layer of sea salt. Red and green peppers (bibas) cut as thin as strands of spaghetti were liberally sprinkled on top, and bread – oh, wonderful fresh from the oven pide (a cross between pita and nan) all puffed up with bubbles of steam trapped inside waiting to be pierced with a fork and ripped open in hungry delight, it’s marshmallow texture melting in the mouth accompanied by the cool crisp garden vegetables and creamy mint yoghurt dressing.
As I sat drinking cay with fresh lemon slice (my own personal habit), tearing into the warm bread and scooping olives from the bowl, two men in overalls began washing my car, first hosing it down, then squirting on bubbling suds before using a big soft brush on the chassis. Scrubbing the dirt from the wheels and cleaning the windows with a soft cloth, they were particularly conscientious in their job, and the car began to gleam in the shafts of sunlight streaming through the foliage of the overhanging tree branches.
Before I had a chance to finish this cornucopia of garden delights in front of me, the main course arrived. Several plates of delicacies were placed across the table as my salad bowl and plate were whisked away by young men in crisp white shirts and bow ties. I looked at the selection of dishes arranged around me, more vegetables, some of it grilled and some fresh and raw, another basket of bread – this time several different types, and a dozen or more skewers laden with cubes of beef, lamb and chicken. Having only eaten meat twice in the past 25 or more years, I plucked up my nerve and trusting carnivorous instinct attacked the dish like a starving cannibal.
Accompanying the smorgasbord of meat was a plate of herbs and spices that accentuated the strong braised flavour I was unaccustomed to eating. They were delicious – paprika, garlic and chilli, cardamom and kekik (oregano), thyme and turmeric were all laid out in a colourful pattern set on their own side dish for liberally rolling the little steak bites into as a stimulating and tongue tingling addition. With two types of vinegar and a light red wine splashed over the fresh vegetables my mouth was alive with flavours unlike any I had experienced for many years, or perhaps ever before. Although I don’t have any intention of continuing with a diet consisting of meat products, I felt neither guilt nor pride at my adventure into the world of animal flesh again, and pleasingly suffered no ill effects from ingesting these chewy morsels.
After consuming all I could eat, with more left on the plates than I could possibly have managed, and washing it down with spring water and rich dark coffee topped up with cream and (so unlike me) a healthy dose of brown sugar, I was engaged in conversation by several of the attendants who were curious as to my mission in the backwoods of this long mountain pass. We laughed and joked about my American accent when one of the gathering crowd hinted he noticed a difference between the way I spoke and the usual English tourists they had met on visits to the coastal resort areas.
They were surprised and excited that a real live Yankee had stopped in their humble hideaway in the far-flung Anatolian peak district. The talk turned to the universal language of football (that’s soccer to you Americans) and the upcoming World Cup matches, the arrogance of United supporters, the displacement of Galatasaray as top team in the league and the unfortunate incidents of hooliganism that often marked encounters with English teams.
I asked if any of my audience had ever been abroad and no one had, though one man told me he had a Russian girlfriend back on the Eastern border near Syria and that Russian pilgrims would often come through his hometown on bus trips to see Mount Ararat and explore the Biblical lands where many a saint had wandered many generations ago. In our stuttering grammar confused way he told me she was coming to visit him soon and he was practicing his Cyrillic so they could converse in her native tongue, but that his real desire was to one day go to Japan.
Finally, as the sun began to shift toward the evening edge of the map, I was treated to a lovely selection of cakes dripping with honey from the hives I passed an hour ago on the craggy towpath down from the mountain. I love the fragrance and flavour of just cracked coconut, and with a few shavings on top it was just the sweet I needed to give me a boost before the drive back to the turquoise coast where the Aegean Sea meets the Mediterranean.
I paid my bill, brought almost apologetically from the makeshift cashier’s table – astonishingly it cost less than 7 pounds (14 dollars) including bahsis (tip) and car wash and extra bottle of water for the ride. I had not felt so satiated and rested for many days and the few lira in gratefully received gratuities I pressed insistently into the waiting palm of the head waiter was worth the extra attention.
Hitting the road again, my foreign car, now shorn of the dust and grime from the sandy pebbled roads and gleaming as new, was still drawing inquisitive glances from the other patrons seated under leafy trees in the yard. I waved farewell and turned toward the sun where it was soon to set across the Aegean, knowing I had made acquaintances I would long recall as I’m sure they would remember me. Having discovered a little about each other and the diverse paths that had brought us together at this crossroads restaurant in a moment of compatriotism and shared human interest made the experience of personal travel worth a lifetime of reading stories.
Several days later as I was watching the news over a breakfast of cheese, bread, olives and fruits, it was announced that a bus carrying Russian tourists had overturned in Antalya, claiming 26 lives. Surprisingly though I receive about 267 channels on the satellite my only English language news station is the popular 24-hour broadcast of Al Jazeera, and I usually turn to the readily available internet for more accessible information. But, Antalya is only a few miles further along the coast, and I couldn’t help but think of my friend the waiter and the heartbreak that so many families would feel knowing that such terrible a waste of lives could happen in such an idyllic location, and I was moved to realise this happened on the same road I had so recently travelled.
Life is fragile and yet has so much opportunity for compassion and connection with others to generate a neighbourly sense of solidarity in the face of tragedy, whether natural disaster or human error, if we make that step beyond our front garden or back yard and choose to encounter the world and its many varied inhabitants as an extension of ourselves. Time pours through the hourglass of our lives and every grain of sand trickling past the narrow space of here and now is a moment slipping away that will either contain a treasured memory or simply be lost in the shifting passage of current movements.
That day the eagles and vultures that soared over my head searching for prey while rambling on the precipices high above the lush valleys in the central farming lands reminded me that we can all soar to new heights if we set our sights among the clouds. While cruising through the marshes I passed flamingos scooping briny shrimp in their upturned beaks and thought of the complexity of life in all its evolutionary forms. Every creature great and small has its place in the scheme of things, from the herons that migrate across the swampy delta of the coastal region, to the woolly sheep that huddle on the windswept dry clay outcroppings of the craggy mountaintops.
Every day in life should be an adventure in learning, exploring and discovering ourselves, meeting people and seeing things in new ways through fresh eyes awakened with awe and wonder. Our journey through this cosmic chaos, regardless of where we spin our wheels, and our understanding of how we fit into the splendid pattern of being that populates every microscopic entity, whether rich or poor, alone but surrounded by strangers in the marketplace, or just hanging out with the friends you’ve known all your life, is a precious moment that can’t be recaptured or lived again.
If only we could all halt the hustle and bustle of daily life that demands so much our time and take a moment to enjoy simple pleasures, exchange a few pleasantries with those we meet or pass in the street, taste some unique culinary specialities, hop on a fairground ride, smell the sweet fragrance of flowers, read something we might not usually consider, swim in the sapphire sea, learn a few words of greeting in another language, and never forget to tell those we love how much they mean to us and that we never stop caring whether they are near or distant.
At the end of our journey when the tires finally settle on solid ground and the sunlight filtered dust is all that remains to remind us of the past, if we meet again along the trail, we can only hope that like the countless grains of sand that slip forgotten through our fingers to blow ceaselessly on the wind, in the course of time’s eternal passage when our hearts are placed alongside our deeds, that the balance of scales, measured and weighed in stories of passion and justice, tilts promisingly in our favour.