Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Kavala, Greece to Istanbul, Turkey: Hospitality Saves me from Myself

This is a part of the tour where I had a lot of negative energy. If you've read my last two posts, you know it's been building for a while. I only have myself to blame. If you only want the happy bubbly parts of touring, you might skip this post. But, my writing will always be honest. Life isn't always happiness and bubbles, and I will always represent the tour as factually as I can. No butter.

I awoke in my hotel room outside Kavala feeling like I'd been knocked out the night before – almost too true, after the headwind and rain. The sun was up, which was good, but it was still windy. I wanted to chide the owner of the hotel for charging me 30 Euro for a room for all sorts of reasons – I had fallen on the staircase and would have hit my head if not for my helmet, the trash hadn't been taken out, the internet had been spotty, and it was a little weird that (A) I was the only guest and (B) he only showed up, driving frantically into the parking lot, after ten minutes of knocking on the reception door... as if he was working from home and watching the door on a camera. But, if that really was the case – if he couldn't afford to work from the hotel – he probably needed the money more than I did. At least, all the times throughout the day I got angry at myself for paying 30E for a hotel room, that's what I told myself. And compared to what I would have paid some other places, 30E was very, very reasonable... despite being almost two days of budget. I needed to get over myself.


In Kavala proper I biked up a 200m climb just to get pastries from a Lidl that was closed. Happy Sunday! Even more pissed off than before, I coasted down and stopped at the coast to finish the food I had left – an apple, some bread and peanut butter – and tried to enjoy the view, but couldn't. I did find a bakery with really kind hosts that spoke almost impeccable English, which I was very grateful for. A few cyclists waved at me coming into, going through, and going out of Kavala, which was nice. But all in all I was just too tired to appreciate that beautiful city... and there was a freaking headwind.



In retrospect, I'm not sure how I mustered this smile.

Couldn't decide which I like better. Is more of my face really a bad thing?

Find the castle!

I left town for a fairly uneventful day, except for having to use a train bridge at one point since the car bridge was out.


I was almost caught with the sun down, but after making it out of whatever town I was in, bitter from having to “no” multiple beggars (and offering a banana to one who made the “food' sign – hand to mouth – and having him turn it down?), running on fumes, I found an okay spot by a tree after 20 minutes of hunting and getting my shoes all muddy. I was too tired even to inflate my sleeping pad, It was windy all night, and right at midnight it started to rain. Greece, it seems, didn't want me to leave.


The next day I would make it to Turkey – but not before biking through a stunning part of Greece just west of Alexandroupoli and wearing my hair in a ponytail for the first time.




The border crossing was uneventful – every cycle tourist I knew that crossed had had their bags searched in some way, shape, or form, including one who had to take everything out and lay it on the table... I got not so much as a curt, signed “move on” from any of the guards, many of whom were having other conversations, one on his phone. The border itself was very decorative, with blue and white painted on the railing on the Greek side and red and white on the Turkish side, flags there too... but at the end of the day, it was just a crack in the road that I biked over. One guard at the very end stopped me and asked me something in Turkish; when I asked if he spoke English, he seemed interested in my uke for a moment, then changed his mind.



Welcome to Turkey!

Turkey was windy and hilly. For simplicity's sake, I resolved to stay on the highway for the rest of the day – there was a wide margin and it went right where I wanted to go. I got smiled, waved at, and politely honked at quite a bit just after crossing, but the fanfare died down the farther I got from the border. After taking dinner at a picnic table by a gas station, I struggled up one last hill before spotting a great place to sleep, walked down into that valley, inflated my sleeping mat (not making that mistake again), and was asleep by 8. It was, thank goodness, a peaceful night – no rain, no wind, not even too many dogs barking. It would fall below freezing, but I was fine in my 15 F sleeping bag.




The next day was, while not exactly hell, not very fun. I'm sure if I'd had a break day in the past week, I would have felt differently, but after being woken by the religious chants from distant village speakers at 6:30, the first three hours was hills and headwinds. Finally I resolved to turn out of the wind, which was incredibly moralizing, except that the hills kept getting worse. I played that push-up track in my head: “Up... down... up... down...” – except there was 20 minutes of climbing between each “down” and “up.” It was never flat – reach the top and you go down, reach the bottom and you go up.

Up...

Down...

Up...

Cows...

I passed through town after town and waved at old guy after old guy sitting at the town square – no time to stop and say hi. At the end of the day the hills seemed to be laughing at me: between every town was a 200 meter climb, some with 10-12% grade, some gravel, some paved gravel pretending to be a road but worse than gravel because it was just gravel that didn't settle under your tire – I named it “ass-felt” as in, “my ass felt that the next day.” There was lots of swearing and mumbling and wishing I didn't have a flight to catch.


This was the worst climb. 200m down and up, at least 10% grade, on dry mud.

Finally – finally... FINALLY, I made it to Corlu. The city itself had some gentle hills; it was 1.5 miles through town to where I would meet my host, Melih (“meal-ih”) at a Carrefour (grocery store). He'd told me to look for a rice seller whose phone I could use – seeing no rice seller, I settled for the car mechanics who were eyeballing me curiously. I mimed about using their phone and they obliged; while Melih was on the way, we exchanged names and the little English they knew (“thank you,” “you're welcome,” “America”). Melih showed up on his bike a few minutes later and we rode three minutes to his bike shop, where I left my bike for the night; then, it was a three minute walk to his apartment, and up an elevator without a door. We left our shoes in the hall.

CITY SPOTTED

His sister spoke limited English, but was very enthusiastic; his mom spoke no English. All the same, we got along swimmingly, and I felt right at home. They were immensely kind, and much time was spent sharing letters and photos from previous guests – they had apparently hosted more than 200 people! Melih himself had been on three tours, including one through the desert and snow of western China – the alternative to the Pamir highway when heading east from Kazakhstan. Some of his photos were unreal, and he said at one point they went two weeks without seeing anyone. I was impressed and baffled... but not jealous.

After hanging out in the living room for a bit we were invited into the kitchen/dining room for dinner, just as Melih received a call to the shop – so we sat and stared at the food waiting for him. After 90 miles of Turkish hills, my stomach grumbling, this was torture. But it was worth the wait. And okay, I snuck a grape. Making faces back at his sister helped pass the time.

The food in Turkey is simple, but good. It reminded me of the Color Farm, except it wasn't vegetarian: potatoes, chicken, beans, bread, grapes, and tomatoes; halva for dessert, then Turkish tea, which is made in a double boiler. First the leaves are steamed, then water added to the top to make tea; finally, the tea is poured in a cup, and hot water from the bottom added to the appropriate concentration.

Turkish teapot

“So, you could sleep, or we could go to the shop, work on your bike, and have a few beers. Which do you prefer?” I felt a pang of guilt and sadness at this request. I knew the “good guest,” get-positive-feedback-answer was bikes and beer, but that wasn't why – I wanted bikes and beer. Few things make me feel more at home than getting my hands greasy fixing my bike, drinking a beer and sharing stories and shooting the shit with a fellow mechanic. But for my physical health, I knew that was very unwise. A 120 mile day had been not too long ago, and then a rainy day, then three days of headwinds and a day of killer hills... next up was more hills, and Africa, and who knew how long until my next rest day. Perhaps regrettably, and not without chagrin, I chose sleep.

I awoke to an empty bedroom – apparently I had been sleep talking and Melih had moved to the living room. He had woken me up when he came in and told me about the supposed terrorist attack in New York which was probably why I was sleep talking (I sleep talk when anxious; humans killing each other makes me anxious). After breakfast and trying to convince the kitten, Uma, that my feet were not play things, I thanked his mom again and we went to the shop to work on my bike. M___ insisted on doing the labor – apparently in Turkey, if you buy the part, the labor is free – so I did what I could around the edges. Louisa looks even better now with 40mm, off-road capable tires.

Comparing wear on the old tires -- back tire (left top) definitely has more wear than the front tire (bottom right), despite being newer. Typical for touring bikes loaded more in the back (and most bikes, since most of the rider's weight is on the back).

The ride to Istanbul was surprisingly energizing. For the first two hours there was a tailwind and hardly any climbing. The wind got ansty the closer I got to the coast, however, and the density of both buildings and traffic began to pick up. A number of people had advised just sticking to the highway, so that's what I did. The margin came and went, and some trucks gave less space than I would have liked, but all in all I felt pretty safe. I passed many cops, and even many checkpoints where they were pulling cars over to inspect them under view of fully armed hummers, but I was always completely ignored – not so much as a wave or a nod. The “rules” here remind me of India – there aren't any. Cars go backwards on the highway, people cross on foot... and bikes ride in the margin.

Up...

Down... up...

Down... up...

Down... okay you get it.


The one time I tried to get on the sidewalk!

As I got into the city proper the highway became a proper three-lane affair with a two-lane exit road running parallel. There was so much traffic it moved at my speed – a sweet 18 mph for one gentle, hour-long downhill – and despite being surrounded by traffic I felt the most zen I'd felt in a long time. For a good hour it was just coasting or gentle pedaling, focusing on the white line, ignoring waves and honks (“I'm trying not to die...”). Six months ago I would have had an anxiety attack doing that. But now... I was in the zone. Towards the end of the day I stopped at park to center myself and finish off my food, then pushed the last 10k off the highway and into the city.




I was floored by the kindness of Ogulcan (pronounced “ol-john,” roll the “j”) and his family. I knew from the moment I saw him it was going to be a good night – some people just have that kind of vibe about them. He's a very positive, upbeat guy who has a sort of aura of happiness about him. I left my shoes by the door when I came in. After a shower and some talk, his mom came home from work and we did l'abise (the French not-kissing on the cheek – “We kiss in Turkey,” she said, translated by Ogulcan). Later, his father would arrive and ask if it would be rude to wear his pajamas around the house. The whole family was upbeat, laid back, and – best of all – a little goofy. Humble, too: his mom said she “felt silly” sitting on the couch not understanding any English. I told her (via Ogulcan) that I felt silly, being in Turkey and not speaking any Turkish! But she did resolve to learn some English so we could talk when I came back in March.

There were elephants in sets of seven around the house. His mom has a superstition that this brings good luck, but whatever the case, we all agree that elephants are fine creatures. Dinner was soup, stuffed bell pepper (but of a variety I'm not familiar with – they look the same, but taste very different), and burek – a pastry made by the neighbor who heard of my coming (Turkish hospitality is very much “it takes a village --” when Ogulcan and I were walking down the street, many of his friends greeted me and were asked where I was from, etc.). Dessert was a sesame seed pastry of some kind, and Turkish coffee.




The story goes that coffee is always served with water so the guest can indicate if they are hungry: if you are invited into a stranger's house for coffee and you finish the water afterwards, you are served a meal, no questions asked. If you leave some water, that's saying you just wanted coffee. We had already had dinner and a touring cyclist is always dehydrated, so I drank all the water without expectation.


I was even more flattered to be Ogulcan's second Warmshowers guest. The first, apparently, was not so talkative – he had been from China, where, I am told, it's more common to be reserved, as talking too much can be impolite (“the opposite is true here,” said Ogulcan). I commented on what a great host he and his mom were after just two guests. He said he had hosted others before, like a foreign exchange student, but that mostly it just came naturally. It seems that Turkey and Greece have much in common: dates, figs, and natural hospitality.

Welcome to our home... here are your slippers and cardigan.

In addition to travel and hospitality, we also talked a bit about the crisis in Syria. It was interesting to discuss whether the people coming from Syria were good or bad people – we concluded that probably, there were more murderers and kidnappers in Turkey now, but also, more good people too... in proportion to whatever proportion they existed in Syria. Because the news, as you know, just reports on what's “newsworthy,” which is not always an accurate representation of the truth.

For almost all cyclists, Istanbul represents a transition of some kind. Some start or end their tour here. For those passing through, it's the transition from Europe to the Middle East. For me, that will be the case come spring... but for now, I'm flying to Africa. Talk about culture shock – it's well below freezing at night here. In Ethiopia, it will be room temperature... the low, that is. My diet will shift from fresh baked pastries to rice and pasta, the days will be long enough I can take naps without worrying about the impending sunset, and I could get eaten by a lion. I finally get to meet Jacob, who I've been planning to bike across Africa with since before leaving for my tour, though we were originally going to meet in Morocco. His blog is here if you want to learn more about him or see his perspective as we travel through Africa together (hopefully we'll get along!).

On a more short-term note, Melih and Ogulcan have been immensely helpful for my mood. There's a TED talk out there about how stress can be your friend – if you listen to it and treat it, one possible cure being the compassion of others. As peeved as I was a few days ago, recounting in my head how to get that 30E hotel room down to 25, wanting to lash out at wild dogs, swearing up and down the hills, I suddenly find myself at peace. I'll make my flight. I have time to kill. I've had three good nights' rests (I count the first night in Turkey – that was a great place to camp). And I have felt truly welcome and at home in two strangers' homes.

If my tour wasn't “real” before, it sure is now. Happy November – next post from Africa!

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