The Kindness of Strangers

The schoolteacher army of amateur travel agents was mobilized and on a mission. I’d spent the day at my host’s elementary school, and the whole faculty was gathered in the teachers’ lounge grading papers, drinkıng çay, talking about the kids. After rain and wind cancelled my ferry out of İstanbul at the last minute, I needed a new plan. The music teacher said train to Ankara; the volleyball coach knew a guy in the bus terminal; the principal’s assistant’s brother had lived in Pittsburgh for a few years, which was helpful, she assured me. Fıve cellphones going full speed and full volume and a young guy working the internet made it happen: they decided I’d go by overnight bus to coastal İzmir, where the weather was better and the people even more legendarily friendly.

My host, the principal, and teacher Murat led me to the terminal–I pedaled through traffic and rain, following their car to Harem (really). There, my bargaining team worked for 30 minutes to find me the best price and to negotiate cargo fare for my bike. Up the hill to the home Murat shares with his parents to wait the several hours until the bus left. We were met by an elaborate feast of dolma, spinach soup, spicy potatoes, börek pastry, fresh bread. Several hours of friendly struggle with our limited shared language later, Murat took me to the bus for the 9-hour ride south. Mom packed me bus snacks.

In İzmir, I met two cycling Aussies, also refugees from the İstanbul weather, also planning a route around the coast. Dorothy, Greg, and I have been riding together for about a week now.

We cycled under sunny skies out of town along the beach. A picnicking family waved us over–insisted, really–and shared their bread, olives, and cheese. Çay for everyone. Five words of English and three of Turkish. Grandma wouldn’t let us leave without a baggie full of sweet cinnamon bread for the road. I felt oddly like I was taking advantage of these strangers, but I didnt yet know that this kind of simple kindness and warmth towards travelers would be an everyday occurence in Turkey.

The coast towns are getting ready for the high season in a few weeks. Riding through them in May is like being backstage at the theatre, seeing the lights hung and the scenery painted. The funky Deniz Hotel wasn’t really open yet, but they took us in and we joined the family for dinner and rakı on the patio, surrounded by eucalyptus trees and palms. After a few drinks, our friendly host decided that my Turkish name will be Ahmet. We drank toasts to America and to Turkey and to bicycles.

These last couple of days, as we rode on winding lanes up the broad river valley from Selçuk to Pamukkale, through farm villages and past the Menderes River, we’ve been waved down by old men to drink çay together at roadside cafes, by farm women who stop us in the middle of the road to fill our bottles with warm aşure (a fruity oaty sweet drink that would make an ideal breakfast), by another farmer who gives us a bag of young plums. Along the way, shouts of HELLOHOWAREYOU! from schoolkids behind fences; cheers from shepherds and men on tractors; waves, horns and thumbs-up from drivers in both directions. In a brief rainshower, we stopped to drink çay, and the guy at the hardware shop next door hurried over with tarps to cover our bikes. The guy at the fresh orange juice stand consulted with us on the map and route, and then refused money for the juice, as long as we stay in touch via facebook.

And in the last kilometer to Pamukkale, as we were separated up a steep hill at the end of a long day in the wind, a little boy ran up behind each of us and gave us a mighty running push over the steep part–a turbo boost across the finish line.

So: google Ephesus and Pamukkale to see the sites. Lots more to tell, which I’ll do next time.

Your tired correspondent,



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