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2011 Narrative Travel Writing Contest — 2nd Place Winner

Turkey, Blindness, and the Philosophy of Traveling Slow

Turkish whirling dervishes

When I walked in on the Turkish man in my Amsterdam hostel dormitory he was staring at the ceiling. There was obviously something wrong with him.

His ear followed me across the room and when it heard me pull out a chair he stumbled over and offered me a cigarette.

“It’s rolled with apple tobacco,” he said. “Tastes awesome.”

The room was foggy and stunk like a gym locker. It was 3 p.m. Here and there among the bunk beds a bare arm or leg hung out from under a blanket.

The Turk lit up and blew the smoke out side-mouthed while his eyes rolled around like the eyes of a puppet. They were bloodshot and small, like lizard’s eyes.

“How many did you drink?” I asked.

“Alot. Three.”

“Three? You’re brave. I can only handle one.”

I couldn’t stop staring at his eyes.

“Your eyes are crazy,” I said. “You must really be out of it.”

“I’m blind,” he said.

A teenager emerged from beneath a mound of blankets and wandered like a zombie into the bathroom.

The Turk handed me the cigarette. I apologized about saying that about his eyes. I spent a few minutes feeling bad about it. Then I realized he couldn’t see me, and relaxed.

I stared at him. I discovered I could explore his face in ways impossible with a seeing person. I examined his lines and pores, his whiskers, especially his eyes.

His name was Göktürk, which means “Sky Turk.” Although he was born in Istanbul, where everyone calls him German, he has lived most of his life in Germany, where everyone calls him a Turk. He was the first Turk I’d ever met and so served as my introduction, however partial, to the idea of Turkey.

He’d been traveling around Europe for a few months, sight-hearing, or sight-smelling, or whatever the blind do when traveling. At the time I couldn’t understand what they could do, or why a blind person would travel at all. For me, nearly all the enjoyment of travel was somehow tangled in sight. One traveled to see things, things inaccessible to the blind. Theirs was a world of pure dark spaces and hardship of traveling it didn’t seem worth it.

“There is a Turkish proverb,” Göktürk said in response. “He who doesn’t pray has no ears for the call to prayer.”

There was a whole world out there that I had neither smelled nor listened for. Sight had been eclipsing my other senses. Without sight, Göktürk said, the other senses open like flowers.

“People tell me about what they see and I cannot imagine,” he said. “But there are things I feel that, when I tell them, it’s like they don’t exist for seeing people. Things like a smell-face.”

Every human apparently has a unique smell-face—this is how Göktürk recognizes people without hearing their voice. The same goes for a city, a village, a country. Each new place was an evocative world of new odors. He asked me to imagine the wave of color The Seeing might experience when they go to India for the first time. It was the same for him, but with sounds and smells. Each place had its own smell-and-sound-cloud.

“It must be crazy,” I said. “How you are right now, and being blind.”

“I’m feeling sensations, something like colors maybe, very intensely.” He stood up and stumbled towards the window. “You see where the light falls through the window?” He moved his hand into the shaft of sunlight. “I can feel the changes in heat, and how the light spreads out.” He made a hoop of his fingers around the light shaft and followed it down, as if it were a solid pillar, all the way to the wall. “I can feel the light hits here,” he said, tapping on the square of light on the wall. “And from there reflects out,” he made a vast gesture of his arms. “Across the ceiling like waves.”

“And sounds are as strong as the color feelings,” he continued. He held his breath. “I can hear water splashing in the canals outside, and bicycle bells. I can hear you breathe, and maybe even your heartbeat.” He took a whiff of air. “And it seems I can smell everything, like the dirt in the carpet, and mouse droppings. And food in my beard. I can smell the different smells of everyone in the room, and where they’ve been, and what they’ve eaten.”

Men playing music in Turkey

Göktürk put on his jacket and threw out a jumble of rods which snapped together into a walking stick.

“I’m starving,” he said. “I’m going for hamburgers. Want one?”

“I can go for you,” I said. “You’re messed up, and you’re… blind. What if you fall into a canal?”

“I hear where the canals are,” he said. “In Europe it’s not so hard being blind. The crosswalks make beeping sounds, and the Euro comes in different sizes, so I know what bill I have in my hand. I’m fine traveling here.”

When he left everything in the room seemed a little altered by what he’d told me. Then I tried it, I shut my eyes. A new world of odors spring forth as though they’d been in hiding, as though I’d finally tuned into something.

Now I open my eyes and I am in Istanbul, in a nargile café called Can. I’m inhaling a cloud of smoke through a nargile tube. It was the aroma of apple tobacco that evoked the memory of Göktürk.

Outside through the window the Bosphorus gleams like a mercurial ribbon, and beyond its waters the sun is falling behind Sultanahmet hill, raising like dark swords the silhouettes of a dozen minarets. In this café, because of the languid, smoky air, and the dreamy slowness of movement, time seems to have lost all meaning. No clocks hang on the wall. If they once did, perhaps they’ve melted.

I fog smoke from my nostrils and watch it dissolve as I lean forward from the indentation I’ve introduced to a beanbag and wearily slide another backgammon token across the board. My opponent, who left to buy salep, a hot drink made from orchid flour, some twenty minutes ago, hasn’t returned. I don’t mind. It takes about an hour to smoke a pipeful of tobacco from my nargile. The smoke is cool and elating, and I would like to reflect upon this memory.

Göktürk springs out like a jack-in-box every time I whiff apple smoke, dragging a complex web of memories behind him. It was four years ago I met him.

Though there have been many short conversations and chance events that have bumped my life in one direction or another, I consider my encounter with Göktürk particularly important. In my memory he is larger than life, something akin to Odysseus.

When Göktürk returned from getting hamburgers we talked for a few hours. After that conversation I realized I could never again whine about the hardships of travel. Whenever I’ve been followed or stared at, or been harassed because I’m American, or couldn’t sleep because a slimy rat ran over my leg in the darkness, I remember Göktürk. He went through all that ages ago, alone, without sight.

The most important thing he showed me, however, was how to slow down, to widen my awareness, to experience the world in an imaginative way. A day, a night, a clock, a country, Göktürk showed me these things only had meanings others had given them, which I had inherited and which I could disfigure by seeing them the way the blind see them. He’d personally never seen such things as a clock, or a calendar. Their artificiality was obvious to him.

Never before Göktürk had I closed my eyes and allowed my other senses to feel there way around an environment. Now that I do I find the world awash with odorant molecules (the average human can recognize up to 10,000 of them) emanating from trees, flowers, earth, animals, food, machines, and other humans.

I close my eyes. I sniff the air.

First I smell smoke—the glowing charcoal atop the tobacco plug of my nargile sizzles the apple and hot molasses into vapor and interfuses it with the low tones of damp tömbek gurgled in bubbles through the water. From the mild-eyed Turks smoking like woodpiles nearby I smell cherry licorice and what seems to be cappuccino and foamed cream smoke. The steamy fragrance of tea rises from their tulip-shaped glasses and a waiter passes carrying a trey, the aroma of spiced cocoa stretching behind him like a comet’s tail.

The room itself has a distinct scent, the dusty smell of an old book. The beanbags scattered across the floor like fat teardrops smell like human sweat and smoke, chemicals shed off living bodies from Turks, Kurds, Greeks, Armenians, Germans, Iranians, Iraqis, and catapulted back into the air every time someone plunks down on one. It smells like Christmas Eve night, in a log cabin, in the Orient, a thousand years ago.

Startling to think these chemicals are swallowed every moment by my nose. The girl in the headscarf a few beanbags down has a bouquet of odors evaporating off her as I write this. The waiter passes, stirring a light breeze, and her molecules fly through the air like lock-armed skydivers and are engulfed by my nostrils. She becomes a part of me.

This activity, nargile smoking, slowing down, lounging in a salon for hours, smelling things, reflection—in order to understand and feel the concept of time behind these acts one must understand how they are woven into the fabric of the Turkish culture that has been inhaling me for a year now.

There are many other aspects of modern Turkey. Look outside and you will see a bustling market where fake brand name shoes are being sold alongside a panorama of locally grown fruits and vegetables. Headscarved women will be shoving between the aisles, squawking at one other like hens. You may see a Starbucks, a Burger King, Nigerians hocking watches, businesswomen wearing thigh-high slips and lipstick, old men smoking cigarettes so forcefully it seems they’re trying to suck genies through the filter.

A parade of cars might pass, with bearded men hanging out the windows, honking, waving Turkish flags and calling for the liberation of Palestine.

So I’m not trying to make generalizations. What I’m getting down to is the essence of a ritual whose understanding demands time, and a certain state of mind and being. It’s an understanding of an organic sense of time, not the mechanical ticking of watches but the sort of time associated with growing chin hair, or the menstrual cycle, the sort of time many backpackers, obsessed with racing through as many countries as possible, do not take the time to understand. This is a sense of time that has often been associated with the Orient. Whether that’s just an illusion I don’t know, but let’s explore it.

The nargile I hold in my hand has long been a symbol of this Orient. It’s easy to observe this fact in nineteenth century Orientalist paintings, where Ottoman men are often depicted lounging in sedirs with their nargiles, and harem women, among their draperies and ornate carpets, dreamily puff from the serpentesque tubes. To stare at this nargile, to study it, to lose time completely and pay full attention to this one object, would be to embody the sort of time I’m talking about.

This Nargile has long been an object of mystery. It has the ability to combine in one piece of equipment the ephemeral nature of smoke, often associated with the spirit, and water, a symbol of the unconscious mind. It’s an instrument that inspires a total bodily movement, an experience with its own laws, a ritual that rejects the screaming rush of urban life and becomes a metaphor of life itself. The smoke is one vast ethereal unity until the lung heaves it through the water, where it becomes an encapsulated unit, a bubble, a soul, which is inhaled by and inhabits the body for a time before vanishing back into dispersion.

I close my eyes. I listen.

I hear the gurgling smoke of a dozen nargiles. Here and there dice clatter across a backgammon board. Conversation is hushed and only occasional; sometimes a gentle wave of laughter. A fog horn moans from afar as a ferry tugs down the Bosphorus. A waiter’s feet pad across the carpet as he stirs a tin of charcoals with metal pincers. Outside the wind howls and the café’s outer canvas flaps up like a raven’s wing.

Herman Melville once remarked “these Turks smoke like conjurers.” It’s a habit quintessentially Turkish. The government recently attempted to combat this stereotype by banning smoking in most public places, including all forms of public transport, but I have yet to enter a single bar or restaurant where this law is actually enforced. I routinely see bus drivers light up when there’s a lull in traffic; the ferries are filled with smokers. In nargile salons patrons continue to puff away.

The tradition will not go dying lightly. Last year a man, enraged at having his cigarettes confiscated because of the new law, shot and killed the owner of a restaurant in Saruhanli.

It all began with nargiles. Tobacco arrived from America in 1601 and thousands of nargile salons like this one sprang up in Turkey. Though the nargile itself was around long before tobacco (originating in India in the late 1500s and originally being used for more recreational substances) they became popular with tobacco’s introduction. Turks adopted the pastime with passion. Nargiles soon became important status symbols. Offering your nargile to a guest became a symbol of trust, while not providing one was a serious insult.

Today these pipes no longer occupy a central position in Istanbul’s social life. For many years, after the introduction of cigarettes, they disappeared almost completely. Nowadays they are for those few who have the patience and tolerance to pursue a more balanced approach to living, for Turks who want to reach back to something valuable in their heritage, who want to become heirs to a centuries-old tradition and experience an alternative mode of time, one that contrasts greatly with the frenzied chaos of modern Turkey.

But most Turks now days just smoke cigarettes.

I look up from writing and see a group of western backpackers with blonde dreadlocks has entered the salon. They sink into some beans bags in the corner. A waiter approaches, holding a nargile out like a giant flower, but they shoo him away. They remove their eyes from the surroundings and bury them in a guidebook. They seem to be planning the next move. “NARGILE” has been checked off the list. They snap photographs of one another from different angles and leave.

I used to be a lot like them.

But my philosophy of travel has changed a lot over these last few years, as I’ve encountered people from all walks of life, such as Göktürk, who’ve introduced me to new ways of seeing. That’s why I’ve been in Turkey for nearly a year now, just inhaling it.

But from the beginning I guess I’ve always been committed to traveling somewhat slowly, preferring to spend one month in one country rather than one week in four. I also prefer to use overland transportation and only fly when I absolutely must.

This commitment to remaining grounded comes from the longing I feel while flying, when I look down all the earth being passed over, all the cities, all the stories going on down there that I’m missing out on. There is nothing beautiful to me about an airplane, nor about the way it has made the world so small.

But not many of my beginning philosophies were admirable. When I began to travel I had the adolescent desire to visit as many countries as I could, to rack them up as though they were poker chips. I believed each country I visited somehow imparted to me its power and mystery, as though I too had in some way been engaged in the struggles of those indigenous to the land when in truth I had passed through them like a child through an underwater aquarium, watching whales and sharks pass over me from behind the safety of thick glass.

I often inserted my travels into ordinary conversation, trying to inspire admiration and respect. The more dangerous sounding the country the better. Using loaded words like “Colombia” or “The Middle East” I would use the ignorance of others to implant the idea that I was courageous, never revealing the banality of time in between the emotional climaxes, or the times I felt overwhelming lonely and afraid.

I remember an American girl in Athens one summer who rushed past me in the street wearing a fanny pack. “I can’t believe we did Greece in two hours!” she said to a friend. They were already on their way back to the airport.

I contrast this way of traveling with Brianna, a girl who requested to stay with me through the hospitality network couchsurfing.org a few summers ago. She was a Louisianan who pedaled up to my home in Oklahoma one day, on a bicycle loaded with luggage. She’d ridden that bike halfway across the United States and had another half to go before reaching California.

When she arrived to my house she was sweaty and dirty and you could see in her eyes all the country she’d passed through, all the fields and people and solitude she’d known.

Passing over the Arkansas line she’d seen a tornado reach down like a finger and scrape across the prairie a mile before it vanished back into the sky.

“Threw the trees around like weeds,” she said. “I watched from an underpass in the middle of nowhere. I might have been the only one to see it.”

She had the sort of calm about her that a forest evokes when there are no humans in it. She’d never been out of the US but she knew more about the real world than anyone who’d been through fifty countries and never stopped to have a good look at one. She sold me on the idea of traveling on a bicycle.

“You’re exposed to all the elements,” she told me. “When you’re in a car you’re in a shell. You don’t feel the weather.”

You get to know the land intimately, she said, you see how slowly it changes, how the plains dry out into desert and then slope into mountains out west. You feel that elevation rise in your hamstrings. You can stop and stare at a valley for a long, long time, or even a particular tree if you want to. No one’s around to say otherwise. You rise with the sun and eat and sleep with the earth. You meet the backroads people, the people who’ve rarely if ever seen strangers. Time blows away.

Every now and again lighting illuminates the Bosphorus. Wind. Waves.

My mission over the past year has been to get to know intimately the land and people of Turkey, like Brianna had gotten to know the U.S.

After my first meal I figured I was under way. The way I saw it, the food grown in Turkey comes from the soil itself. The sun strikes a seed, the seed pulls in water and elements from the land and from these builds things like pumpkins. So when I eat Turkish pumpkins I am literally absorbing Turkey into my bloodstream. If the body renews itself every seven years, creating from newly consumed elements, which, in my case, come from Turkey, then I am so far, physically, one seventh made of Asia minor. My American soil dies and is eaten by new Turkish white blood cells every day.

When I came to Turkey last February it was to settle down indefinitely. I moved into a religiously conservative neighborhood and it took about a month before I’d become a regular fixture on the street. The first few weeks young boys would often hound me, shouting “yabanci” (foreigner) and shooting me with cap guns, but eventually my novelty wore off. Perhaps they accepted me.

I learned the rhythms of the neighborhood, and the characters that inhabited it, characters like the beggar Gül. Once a week Gül would set a bowl on the sidewalk and get on her hands and knees and nudge the bowl forward with her nose while she pleaded for mercy. In winter she sometimes built a fire in the middle of the sidewalk to warm her swollen, battered feet.

One day, during my first Istanbul Spring, my roommate Emre proposed I join him for a hike. At the time I thought this meant Emre was an experienced hiker and was inviting me along for the ride. In reality he had just watched “Into the Wild” and was romanticized with the vision of trudging into the wilderness with only a backpack.

Emre is not your typical Turk. He’s a self-proclaimed “metal head,” a title he takes quite seriously. Outside his desk job Emre spends nearly half his free time on heavy-metal related activities. He listens to heavy metal music while eating breakfast.

The night I met him, after I first moved into the apartment, he came home in a pressed shirt with a tie, carrying a briefcase. But then like Clark Kent he went into his room and transformed himself. He came out wearing all black—a Metallica T-shirt with laced-up storm-trooper boots, a nose ring, and nearly a dozen earrings in each ear. He was going out to a metal concert.

Imagine this man, who is well over six feet tall, appearing in my doorway one night loaded up like a donkey with brand new camping equipment, including two aluminum hiking rods he’d been feeling his way around the apartment with “for practice.”

We took the train across Anatolia in the dead of night and arrived to the town of Sakarya. We made our way to the home of Emre’s grandmother, Cemile, passing heaps of rubble along the way, remnants of the devastating 1999 Izmit earthquake, which had claimed up to 45,000 lives. Emre’s family had been there, not far from the epicenter, when it happened. As soon as the ground began shaking buildings on every side of his parents’ home collapsed, leaving theirs like an up-thrust finger.

Entering Cemile’s home was like entering a rearranged memory. It could have been the home of any widowed American grandmother, with the aroma of mothballs and long-unstirred potpourri baskets. The photographs on the walls were sepia and yellowed with age, but instead of the WWII Joes and Charlies of my memory they were of Mehmets and Mustafas, strong, noble Turkish men who’d fought in the war of Independence, seated next to proud-looking, taciturn women. They stared out at me like ghosts.

Cemile’s hands looked like old withered leaves. When Emre took hold of one I thought it might crumble. He bowed down and kissed it and touched it to his forehead and kissed it, over and over again. She must have been over ninety.

She led us to the sitting room and held out a bottle of effervescent cologne for me. I didn’t know what she wanted me to do with it. I nearly drank it.

“No,” Emre said. “Like this.” He held forth his hands while Cemile splashed the cologne over them, rubbing it into his palms and neck.

The next morning we trekked across Sakarya in a light drizzle. Emre strapped his hiking rods to his backpack and covered the whole contraption with a tarp, making him look as though he were carrying a radio tower. Needless to say, we attracted attention.

“Turks don’t usually go into the wild like this,” he said, as eyes followed us down the street. “That’s why they’re staring.”

We hitchhiked to the small village of Doğancıl, and had to walk the last half-kilometer because the road was washed out.

Doğancıl was a town of about a dozen houses clustered around a half-collapsed mosque, and under this mosque flowed the village water supply, a brook of sparkling water that spouted into a large tub. When I took my bottle out to refill from it an antique little man appeared in a skull cap.

“Peace be upon you,” he said, in Arabic. Then in Turkish: “That’s the freshest water in all of Turkey. You could never find water like that in Istanbul.”

And then: “You’re from Istanbul, no?”

From the way we were dressed he suspected we’d come from the big city. We answered yes.

“Too crowded a place for real living,” he said. “Wouldn’t live there if you paid me.”

“We’re hiking up the mountain there.” Emre pointed. “For some camping.”

“It’s quite beautiful up there,” the man assured us. He’d hiked up there many a time as a youth. He would take us up there himself, he said, but these days he was the village headsman, which meant he had responsibilities to attend to. Besides, his bones were old.

He looked up at towards the mountain and said: “But the weather might be too cold up there this time of year, even for you young people who own the world.”

He added that we were more than welcome to stay with him should we abandon our plans.

In the middle of this conversation two women, skin wrinkled as tree bark, wearing what seemed to be clown pants, waddled up to offer us tea. They were even shorter than the old man, everyone no more than four feet. It was a town of hobbits.

The women agreed with the old man—it would be far too cold to go up the mountain. Besides, there could be bears, or wolves. A man driving past on a tractor also stopped when he saw us. He crawled down to extend his welcome. The women informed him of our plans and he too insisted we stay the night—we could all have tea together, and his wife would cook a spectacular dinner and…

Turkish man with tea

We finally broke away and Emre pulled out the map. I’d imagined we’d be hiking for a good half day before reaching a proper campsite, but we arrived in about an hour, to a meadow where the shadow of the mountain we would be climbing the following morning stretched over us. It was a rather diminutive mountain compared to the one Emre helped build in my mind.

I set to work constructing my tent. Emre emptied his tent onto the ground and a gust of wind blew the flysheet up into a tree. Once he retrieved it he watched the method I was using. He was a quick learner, but still took awhile to set things up because every few minutes he would drop everything and remark how beautiful this place was.

It was his first time to go camping, maybe the first real time to be outside of a city, and he was right. And his enthusiasm was contagious. It allowed me to see the natural world anew, with eyes of snow. When I looked over the meadow it seemed greener and juicer than anything I could remember, with light falling over it like pineapple juice.

After lunch we hiked around the hills and came back when the sun was low, to build a fire.

Emre tried to spark something up while I gathered wood. He lit a piece of toilet paper, smooshed it under some twigs, and watched the little flame lick around a few seconds before it vanished.

“No,” I said. “Like this.” I demonstrated how to build a teepee of kindling, and then stuffed dried straw and lacerated newspaper strips inside and lit it on fire. “Then you have to give it oxygen.”

Emre tried, blowing so hard it nearly extinguished the flame.

“Gently,” I said, blowing calmly over the embers. Within a few minutes the large branches began crackling.

We hadn’t brought anything to cook, we just wanted the heat so we could lay outside under the stars.

Emre revealed the bottle of raki he’d brought--an anise-flavored Turkish liquor. I’d tried it before and hated the stuff, but I took some anyways, drank it straight because I wanted the warmth it provided.

“No,” he said. “Like this.” He poured some in a bottle with some stream water, making it cloud up white.

“When it’s white like this we call it lion’s milk,” he said.

The liquor sank into me smoothly. The fire danced on our faces and the heat created a cosy little room amidst the cold winds. It was an atmosphere ripe for stories.

Emre told me stories about growing up in Istanbul, and in the Turkish community of Switzerland where’d he’d spent a few years as a child. They were city stories, and they were as fascinating to me as my stories were to him, my stories about growing up in Oklahoma, about going on survival campouts in the boyscouts, about raising pigs, and the years I spent working on a ranch.

As we talked I realized how great the divide of land and culture was between us, but also how insignificant that divide was. Beyond the artificial dressing heaped onto us by our societies we were still human, still connected, just two friends, one Muslim, one atheist, lounging by a fire in the mountains, enjoying the baser elements of being alive.

 
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