In travel, I have learned to appreciate the act of “getting there,” the inherent differences in modes of transport, the adventure of self-navigation, and the disorientation of arrival. Air travel, while having the transcendent feel of lift-off, always comes with the most complications: organization of liquids, security, timing, shoe-removal, passport control, customs, general airport racket and other irritations. Interestingly, the check-in, boarding and overall experience is quite different, depending on the airport and country of departure or arrival.
I was stopped in Bali because they thought my passport was fake, or at least that the picture was not me. It took a visit to the backroom, several border patrol officers and some alternate forms of ID for me to prove that my passport photo is just really, really terrible. Bangkok was also a real shit show: at customs I almost got into a fight with a fat Polish business man who tried to cut in front of me after I had been already waiting in line over an hour. Moscow was even worse, having the distinct resemblance to a chaotic and amorphous breadline.
I decided that my favorite airport ever is in Nevsehir, Turkey, where there is one metal detector at the front door and only one gate (no stress, so long as you can locate the airport in the middle of tundraland Turkey). Security is minimal and the employees are just kind of standing around telling jokes, haphazardly waving their hand wands.
Something that would never happen in post-9/11 U.S.: I passed through the metal detector holding a can of Diet Coke. I was really hungover and just thinking, “Please, please, don’t make me throw this out.” When the alarm went off, the security guard gestured to have me come back through and put the open can in one of those rubber bins (sending it through on the conveyor belt). As though we couldn’t have predicted what happened next: the D-Coke spills when it hits the rubber mud-flap entrance, and then a liquid filled bin is delivered on the other end. I grabbed what was left in the can and apologized for making a huge mess.
Something about X-ray screening a single can of Diet Coke was just really funny to me.
Various modes of transport invoke different sensations. There is a feeling of connectedness in train travel; the comfort of being linked to a beginning and an end. Then there is the attention grabbing lurch of taxis in traffic, the melodic sway of the double-decker bus, the awe-inspiring rush of motorcycling through busy intersections or along the coast, and the smooth satisfaction of crossing continents by ferry.
In Istanbul, my friend said to me when I am trying to get to Taksim Square, “You can just take a dolmuş. It’s like this yellow thing that takes people places.”
“You mean a cab? I have heard of this.”
Dolmuş (pronounced “dolmish”) is a common form of transportation around Istanbul and Turkey, which feels a lot like elementary school carpool, only you are riding with a motley crew of drunks, ex-pats, business types, students and families (i.e. everyone). Very egalitarian. The dolmuş is like a cab, except it’s a big, yellow van and has only one route; they are quite efficient and operate like a ride-share. I like the social aspect of it—riding in a mini-van with eight other people across town or to cross the bridge from Europe to Asia. Not that the Turks are the particularly friendly or want to banter like homegrown Midwestern types, but still, relatively pleasant.
I decided that my adventures wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t at least (try) hitchhiking. My travel partner in Turkey had already hitchhiked around the U.S., and I was a little jealous. My only stipulation was that I wanted some real hitchhiking stories. Like, the kind where I would have to break out of captivity from an unlit backyard cellar, fend off the advances of a highway serial killer, or report a dead body found in the trunk (not mine, presumably).
I see the headline: “Blogger goes missing.” No one cares.
We had just left the Underground City of Kaymakli in Turkey, where rocks were hollowed out to insulate Christians from the Persian and Arabic armies during the 6th and 7th centuries. The cave infrastructure we entered was eight stories deep, and I only saw one air vent. It is difficult to imagine what this looks like until you start wandering deeper into the hallways, down multiple levels and into the small rooms that break off unevenly for family dwelling (a property lawyer’s nightmare). Some of the passages are so narrow you have to crawl, a feat that is particularly harrowing when wearing a backpack.
It was overwhelming to think that in these cities (one housing 3,000 people and the other 10,000 for months at a time) were not completely unsustainable, crime-ridden and suicide-provoking. I am thinking about the practicalities—food, sex, childbirth? And where did they keep the booze? There is a wine cellar, but no lights and I could not help but imagine the thousands of people trying to navigate these tunnels in the dark, not to mention the claustrophobia that I felt after only five minutes.
Both of us start to feel sick on the third floor- and by third floor, I mean, third floor deep. A Turkish man asks, “Are you looking for tour?”
I answer, “No, I am looking for out.” We wanted to see the light of day before one of us threw up. Following the string of lights, we both were breathing deep, in recovery from the thick underground stench when stepping back into the cold and sleet. We decide that there should be some kind of signage, warning of dangers or sickness, but this is not America, and babysitting does not generate tourism profit.
On our trek back towards the main highway, we decided that the 30 kilometers to Goreme would better if we hitchhiked rather than taking a dolmuş. I wonder, “Do they use the same signs for hitchhiking here?” I have really big thumbs, which I hope works out for me like Sissy Hankshaw in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.
A few cars pass, then a van, then a truck full of young Turkish men who honk, but have no room. Finally, an older man in a black Sedan pulls over. The car is brand new and still has paper covering the mats on the floor. Our driver doesn’t speak English, but understands that we are heading to Goreme. Again, I am thinking that something terrible is going to ensue (for better or for worse). Riding along silently, he smiles under a thick Turkish moustache from the rearview. We are listening to some variation of Turkish rock and he is hot boxing us with a clove cigarette. When we arrive in town, he gestures to a restaurant and coughs, rubs his moustache, and says, “My restaurant. Tonight, you come.”
That night at his restaurant, he sits down with us (accompanied by a young translator from the kitchen) and offers to drive us around Cappadocia the following day. In the morning, we are taken to off the path sights and brought to a famous, but hidden lookout point, a process that involved getting his new car tire-spinning in the mud and a lot of heavy trekking in his Turkish leather shoes. Then he takes us to visit his friend who runs a winery where we are given a free tour and tasting. I thought I would still get some gritty hitchhiking story out of this, but still, no, the story ends with free dinner, free wine tasting, and some nice photo ops.
En route, off-course, or even in risk-taking, I have been lucky in my travels. I took a sleeper boat out into the fog of Halong Bay for two nights in January, which housed about 20 people and looked like an old pirate ship. The private rooms were nice, except that I accidentally turned the space heater in my room too high and blew out the electricity in the boat. Fortunately, even when I heard the crew running around frantically and all of the other passengers freaking out, I was able to tuck myself into bed and pretend that it wasn’t my fault.
Two weeks after I left Halong Bay, I read an article about the same tour boats. Twelve tourists died while sleeping in their cabins when the boat sank. Those who died were asleep in their cabins.
The most intimidating part of travel can be the vastness of it—the confusion of being able to end up anywhere and the impossibility of predicting who you may encounter, what plane may go down, what boat may sink, or whether, “You are now off-track,” existentially or physically (I am starting to miss the voice of my GPS).
When I was in Melbourne, I went to a club that was open until 2:00 PM. At around noon, we took a cab to breakfast and then got back on the train to return to the hostel. My friend and I both passed out and woke up in a city 45 minutes south of our destination. I have heard this happening to travelers in Europe (you want to get to Switzerland but wake up in Austria). Planning in transport only goes so far. I am becoming more patient and getting good at the reroute.
I am leaving again this week for London, then back through Central Europe, hopefully to Eastern Europe before I arrive in Spain next month. I don’t really know how this is going to work, where I am going to stay or how to connect the dots. Again, boarding a plane, then commuter train, then while wandering by foot, I will be rocking that blank look I have grown accustomed to wearing. I am comforted that at least I will be speaking English for a week.
There is freedom in travel, but freedom is always accompanied by the fear of being misguided, misdirected, or lost, not to mention the hazards along the way. But, even when faced with the most disorienting travel disaster, movement is still better than the alternative: treading those familiar and known paths, with confines that have the pressing numbness, of living in a cave.