Even though we have only made it to İstanbul technically we are now on the Asian continent, and the more we head east the more hospitality we encounter. Already ın Turkey İ have been amazed at how people treat guests and foreigners and İ know we wıll be seeing a lot more of this. İ´m not sure how long it will take or if İ will get tired of having almost everyone we pass wave and yell ‘hello friend’, but İ am sure that this is the genuine nature of the Turkish people.
Our first full day in Turkey we spent cycling our asses off against strong headwinds and over countless long, stretched out hills. The winds were so strong that instead of cycling down the hills in our highest gears, we were only using one or two gears higher then the ones used to climb up. Because of this we only covered about 85-90km with the amount of effort that normally would take us 120-140km. So by the middle of the day we were already dam tired and cursing this wind that had been battling us head on for 4 or 5 days without resistance. İn the mid afternoon we were too exhausted to continue without passing out for an hour or two, which we did in the dirt on a small hill beside the busy highway while tiny biting ants and annoying buzzing flies tried to wake us from the sanctuary of sleep.
By the end of the days our legs were like spaghetti as the sun was going down. We were getting close to the massive city Istanbul (population around 17 000 000 ) so it was not easy finding a hidden place to camp out for the night. Luckily we came to a coastal town and made our way down to the wide, sandy beach where we though we would have a peaceful sleep listening to the waves gently crash on the shore….but we were wrong. The first thing to disturb our slumber were the armies of kamikaze mosquitoes that had us ducking for cover, heads tucked in sleeping bags. Then after a few more hours of sleep İ heard the voices of some dudes beside us, rolling over İ poked my sleepy head out of my sleepingbag to see 5 cops with machine guns staring down at me, so İ decided it was a good time to wake up again and wake Maarten who was still sleeping like Goldie Locks. The cops tried talking to us and we tried talking to them but there was a major language barrier confusing things. Fortunately some locals that lived on the beach noticed the situation and within seconds there was a crowd of people standing around the two of us who were still laying in our sleeping bags like a couple of squirming worms, and one of them, a soft spoken women, could speak English. With her help the situation was soon clear….the cops only wanted to warn us that our bikes and bags weren´t safe there and we assured everyone that we were comfortable with that and if things were stolen we would not cause trouble about it. They left us there to sleep in the sand. İ was a bit surprised that the cops didn´t give us a fine or even make us get up and leave like they would in many other countries including theır neighbours to the west.
Soon we were sound asleep again only to be woken a few hours later by the next invader of our peace…an extremely annoying dog. This little white scruffy bastard stood about 20 feet ( 6 meters) away from us, staring at us with beady little eyes and continually barked at us with an irritating high pitched sound for at least 4 or 5 hours without stopping. Seriously, İ´m not joking, İ actually started to think it was a robot, İ never met a dog that could be so persistently retarded without stopping for a breath. Needless to say we slept well that night.
The second day in Turkey is when İ started noticing how amazing cycling in this country was going to be, all because of the people. In the early morning as we were brushing the sand off and packing our things, an old man slowly walked over to us with small steps. He was curious in our bikes and paid attention to the way we loaded our gear on them. As we were going to leave the beach the way we came on to it he stopped us and showed us a shorter way to get back to the main road. He walked behind us and when we stopped to check our map he invited us over for tea at his house that we were standing beside. Gladly we joined him for a cup, Maarten had already mentioned to me that before cycling he wanted to stop ın a cafe for tea so this was just perfect. We sat in the man´s front yard sipping each 4 cups of tasty Turkish tea (if you haven´t had it you don´t know what your missing) while we showed him our map of Turkey and how far we were cycling. Upon leaving he wished us good luck and we thanked him for his kindness, shook his hand and hit the road. This was all without being able to speak each others language.
Further down the road still cycling against strong relentless headwinds, the traffic got much too heavy to be enjoyable so we left the main road to zigzag along through maze of coastal villages. This method was much slower but a hellofa lot safer and more relaxed. İn one of these villages we passes by a little bike repair shack that was run by a man with his two young son´s and his friend helping. When they saw us cruising by the immediately called us over to talk with them. They offered us a seat on the couch and chairs they had outside and something to drink. The man was the only one who could speak English and so became translator as we spoke to him about our trip and showed them pictures of our family which they were very interested in. These guys were so hospitable it excited me to see the rest of the country. The man`s friend went to the shop to buy food in order to prepare for us a delicious Turkish meal, and we all sat around and ate out of one pot using bread to scoop up the saucy food. He told us that family should eat together like this. After we ate they brought out tea and we talked a while longer late into the afternoon until we felt it was getting late and we really had to take off. İf we didn´t leave İ´m sure they would have offered us to spend the night.
Getting closer to the city the traffic was heavy with a thick choking smog which began to irritate my eyes. As İ´m sure everyone already know well that smog is a serious problem in most cities around the world and continues to harm human health while we continue to do nothing about it and continue to drive fossil fuel-burning engines. But why would we stop driving our polluting cars and trucks? İ mean, doesn´t everyone just love sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon monoxide inflaming their breathing passages, decreasing their lungs’ working capacity, causing shortness of breath, pain when inhaling deeply, wheezing, and coughing? Do we really care about smog being especially harmful for senior citizens, children, and people with heart and lung conditions?
Anyway…the traffic was almost suicidal by the time we were 20km from the center of İstanbul so we decided to turn off the motorway and get lost in the suburban jungle around the city. Lost we did find ourselves but it was all according to the inevitability of the universe and the chain of actions setting us up to be in the right place at the right time. As we slowly cycled backed to the general direction of the motorway, a black BMW with tinted windows cut us off and stopped in front of us. 3 doors opened and simultaneously 3 men with black suits and black sunglasses stepped out and stopped us, as if in a mafia movie. İ was picturing them pulling out guns but thought `who would rob a couple of dirty bike bums?´. We were confused at first, again because of the language barrier, but it turned out that the man who stayed seated in the car was not quite a mob boss, he was the mayor, and we wanted us to follow hıs car to a near bye mosque.
We entered İstanbul during the end of Ramadan, the 9th month of the Islamıc calendar. It is the Islamıc month of fasting, in which practicing Muslims refrain from eating, drinking and sex from dawn until dusk. Ramadan is a time of reflecting, believing and worshiping God. Muslims are expected to put more effort into following the teachings of Islam during this time. Purity of both thoughts and actions is important. Fasting is said to redirect the heart away from worldly activities, its purpose is to cleanse the inner soul and free it from harm. It also teaches Muslims to practice self-discipline, self-control, sacrifice, and empathy for those who are less fortunate, encourage actions of generosity and charity, which we were met with on our arrival at the mosque. İt was explained to us that the mayor wished for us to stay for a an iftar, or evening meal, which everyone ate together in the corridor of this huge, beautifully architectured mosque. Nobody could speak English but one of the men in charge of the activities at the mosque could speak German as does Maarten. Conversation with the Mayor went from him speaking in Turkish to the man in charge, who spoke to Maarten in German, who spoke to me in English. On the stairs in front of the mosque where people crowded around us to see who the strangers were, we had photos taken with the mayor and other people by some press and also with our camera. The Mayor seemed impressed with our goal and with our raising money for a school and İ was grinning like an idiot from ear to ear. The mayor left for other important meetings, living the busy life that comes with such a position, and we were escorted by the man in charge and given a grand tour and history of the place. They wanted our bikes to be safe so we carried them up into the corridor where everyone was seated for the meal. There was about 2000 people there and every person at once had their eyes on these strange foreigners bringing in their strange bikes causing so much attention. I felt terribly under dressed for this occasion having not showered in 5 days and having holes in the ass of my filthy shorts, İ apologized for this but was assured that it was not a problem. We were seated at a head table, me still not being able to help grinning like a fool, and after the evening prayer enjoyed a delicious 3 course meal. Everyone here, all 2000 people eat for free and the food is all donated. That is something you don´t often see in the west.
After the dinner a police escort was arranged to bring us and our bike in a truck dropping us of where we were staying, 15km away in the center of Istanbul. The drivers were very cool and wanted to have our phone numbers and email addresses so they could visit us when we returned home to Canada and Holland.
These are my first impressions of Turkey.