I TOOK A BATH WITH A RELIGIOUS FUNDAMENTALIST
The sixteen year old boy had succeeded in his mission to make his friends laugh. In fact, the whole group of about seven or eight was now sniggering behind us, repeating over and over the word that had triggered the giggles.
“Hey, Grinpis!" one of the group called out.
To this bunch of well-presented highschool students from Turkey's middle class, enjoying kebabs on their lunch break under the warm March sun in the city of Samsun, Adriana and I apparently looked like representatives of Greenpeace. Adriana, in her oversized military coat, Palestinian scarf, bumper platform boots, and bright green hair. Me, in a pair of camouflaged shorts, a vest, canvas shoes, sporting a four-week beard and with a large tattoo of Cat Stevens' face on my arm. Both of us marching along under the weight of our backpacks, and with me carrying a tent under my arm.
"Grinpis!" they all called out in unison.
We carried on walking, flashing the peace sign as we did. The kids laughed raucously. We reached the footbridge that would take us to the other side of the busy dual carriageway, when one of the group left his friends to run to us and initiate conversation.
"Hello," he said, "Where are you from?"
His pals quickly caught up, and now we were all stood at the foot of the bridge, introducing ourselves to one another. The group was divided evenly between boys and girls. We told them that we were from Romania and England.
"What are you doing in Samsun?" one of them asked.
One of the lads quickly answered for us, "You are here with Grinpis!"
"Nope, not here with Greenpeace. Just a couple of travellers, spending some time trying to get to know your country a bit. We are hitchhiking through, from west to east. We started in Istanbul, and eventually we will make it to Kars, before carrying on to Georgia and Armenia," Adriana filled them in.
"But why Samsun? We don’t get foreign tourists here. Do you mostly travel in Turkey by bus or by train?" one of the teenagers asked.
"Neither. We hitchhike."
"What is hitchhike?"
There was a mixture of worry and excitement on their faces, as if hitchhiking was something suspicious.
"Are you hippies?" one of them asked.
"We’re not cool enough to be hippies."
"Really? You look like hippies. And you otostop. I think you are hippies. Do you have homes, or do you just live on the road?"
"I wish I lived on the road, but no, I live in a flat in England," I said.
The teenagers had to get back to school, and we had to be getting on, too. It was coming up for 2 in the afternoon and we had a long trek ahead of us.
"Good luck in Turkey, Grinpis guys!"
"Thank you. Stay in school! And remember, hugs not drugs!"
Feeling slightly offended that my appearance had led to some kids asking whether I had a home or lived on the streets, I quickly changed into a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. We then walked until we found the entrance to the motorway leading south. Our original plan had been to stick to the northern coastline as we missioned through Turkey, but a couple of days earlier we had decided instead to head 285 miles south to the historical region of Kapadokya.
We had been standing at the roadside less than five minutes when a silver Opel Corsa pulled over and the driver, a short, bearded man with a baseball cap and a pot belly, got out and opened the boot for us to chuck our stuff in. Ahmet told us in German that he was driving to Merzifon, a town 65 miles south of where we were. I sat in the front, while Adriana relaxed in the back.
It was clear from Ahmet’s demeanor that he wanted to communicate. There was just one problem: He didn’t speak English, and neither I nor Adriana spoke Turkish. This meant that we could either sit in uncomfortable silence for the duration of the journey, or I could attempt to hold conversation in German; a language that admittedly I had managed to pass my GCSE in, but one that I had no real feel for.
Getting through the basics wasn’t a problem. We talked about family, and I found out that Ahmet lived and worked in Germany as a landscape gardener; was married to a German woman and had two little daughters there; and was in Turkey for a couple of weeks to visit relatives.
Like every other driver that had picked us up during our travels through Turkey, Ahmet was curious to know what we thought of his country. The standard way of asking this question was simply to point out the window at any and every bit of scenery, whilst repeating over and over, "Türkiye güzel," (Turkey is beautiful), and then waiting to have it reconfirmed by the foreigner in the passenger seat, "Türkiye çok güzel!" (Turkey is very beautiful!).
He was also keen to know if Adriana was my wife.
Our feelings about Ahmet were positive, he gave off an air of trustworthiness, so we decided to tell him the truth, that we weren’t married. His reaction surprised us somewhat: Frowning and going silent for a while, as if disappointed in us. I lit a cigarette and watched the dusty hills roll by outside my window.
After a short while Ahmet broke his silence by asking with a returned smile, "Çay?"
We knew well enough by now that when a driver asked if you wanted tea, it wasn’t a question; it was an exclamation.
We pulled over into a roadside café and were seated at a plastic table covered in a red and white plastic tablecloth. Three glasses of tea were brought over, while Ahmet disappeared into the little shop and returned with three cans of Coke, three small cartons of fruit juice, three bottles of water and two packets of Marlboro Red. He tossed a packet over to me.
"For you," he said in English.
I put my hands up to my chest to decline this generous offer, not least of all because I had plenty of packets in my backpack, but Ahmet insisted. I thanked him and together we smoked.
We finished our teas and stood up. From my pocket I took out a 5 Lira note and put it on the table next to the bill, but Ahmet picked it up and handed it back to me, before dropping a few coins on the table, waving goodbye to the waiter and leading us back to his car.
"Teşekkürler," I thanked him.
As the drive continued south, and while the three of us sipped our Cokes, it became clear that Ahmet was what you would call “a good Muslim boy.” He went to Mosque, didn't drink alcohol, didn't like the “easy” way in which young women in Germany dressed, and didn't seem to think too highly of Adriana, for numerous reasons, which he made quite clear.
An unmarried woman should not be travelling with a man, for a start. Plus, her head should be covered.
Despite his lack of warmth towards Adriana, Ahmet's opinion of me seemed to be the complete opposite. It didn't matter to him that I was a man travelling with a woman that was not my wife.
Adriana, though she spoke not a word of German, was intuitive enough to realise that she wasn't exactly flavour of the month with our driver. I, meanwhile, was finding the situation quite amusing. I played up to Ahmet, telling him that I found alcohol to be quite detestable and that I believed in God and in living a pure lifestyle. He warmed to me even more.
"He hates me, doesn't he?" Adriana asked from the back.
"Yes, yes he does," I replied.
"And he thinks you're the best thing since sliced bread, doesn't he?"
"Um, yes, yes I do believe he does.”
“He doesn’t believe that you believe in God, does he?”
“You better believe it.”
"Fucking liar. You suck!"
"Don't blame me, blame the casual chauvinism of Islam."
We entered the town of Havza, driving up and down side streets, past teenagers on their way home from school. Every girl's head was covered by a scarf. The area seemed more conservative than places we had previously visited.
Ahmet asked in German if we had experienced a hamam (Turkish bath) since arriving in the country. I told him we hadn’t, but that we would at some point. He said he wanted to take us to one now, as he also liked to have a proper wash in the traditional way on returning home. I told him that it wasn’t something we had budgeted for, and that we would wait in the car for him. He told me not to insult him; that we were his guests.
"What's happening now? Why are we stopping?" Adriana asked from the back, with a sigh.
"Ahmet's taking us to a hamam."
"What? Tell him we can't afford it. Jesus! Why are you laughing?"
"Because this is funny. Now, cover your head like a good girl."
Ahmet explained that the area we were in was famous for its thermal spas. There were a lot of them; all doubling up as expensive hotels, with signs and prices in English, German, French and Italian.
After walking around for a few minutes, we found one that Ahmet found agreeable. We entered.
Ahmet paid the man behind the desk 20 Euros for each of us, before having a female employee take Adriana up the stairs to the women’s area, while I followed my new friend through to the men’s changing area. Just as we were splitting up, Adriana said, "If you are going to have a chat, can you at least pretend that we’re a couple and that we plan to marry one day?"
"But that would be fibbing, wouldn't it?"
"Just do it. He might think a bit more highly of me then."
In a large room full of lockers, a man in a white t-shirt handed us each a small bit of material; similar in size and feel to a tea-towel. I didn’t know what I was expected to do with it, so I just followed Ahmet’s lead and placed my valuables in a locker, before stepping into the changing cubicle next to his and taking off my clothes. Was I to just stroll out stark bollock naked or was I to try and stretch the towel enough to tie it around my waist? Or did I stay in my pants? I’d never been in this situation before.
I heard Ahmet’s door open, so I wrapped the towel around my waist and went out to join him. He too had his towel tied round him like a mini-skirt. We put our clothes in the lockers and then I followed him out to the pool area.
There were two pools; one large, one small. I followed Ahmet to the small one. He stepped down a couple of the steps into the water, and then sat, submerged up to the waist. I copied.
The water was boiling. Instantly I became dizzy. The gentle ripple of the water was lifting up the towel still tied around my waist, revealing to Ahmet the underside of my testicles; or if I’m to use the scientific term for this part of the body, he saw a bit of turtle neck.
This was awkward. There was nobody else in the pool. We were just a couple of hirsute men, strangers really, sitting next to each other with our balls hanging out, and struggling for conversation thanks to a language barrier.
This didn’t stop Ahmet trying. I was not ready for his first question. He didn’t seem the least bit uncomfortable asking straight up if Adriana and I had sex together.
Taken aback, I told him that we didn’t because we were both against the idea of sex before marriage, but that we would marry soon. I was lying simply for the sake of lying by this point. I didn’t even know why. Ahmet reiterated his belief that we should not be travelling together if we were not married, and that it didn’t matter if we were girlfriend and boyfriend or not.
He asked where we were going to stay if and when we made it to Nevşehir. I told him the truth, that we didn’t have anything arranged and that we would more than likely just pitch the tent somewhere and camp for the night. He told me that he wished he could invite us to stay at his family home, and that as a Muslim it was expected of him to help a traveller, but that it would not be acceptable for Adriana to enter his house. I could, but she couldn’t.
This didn’t really leave an option, as I was quite sure Adriana would have something to say against the idea of me pottering off to Ahmet’s family, while she wandered around in the woods searching for berries. Even if I myself found the idea quite tempting.
If he were at home in Germany, Ahmet said, then we would both be welcome under his roof, but too many eyebrows would be raised in his village if he let the two of us stay at his home in Merzifon. He kept repeating, "Du, Kris, kein Problem, aber für Adriana ist Problem," over and over again. I nodded.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw one of Ahmet's bollocks float up a little bit from underneath the towel. Ahmet noticed that I had noticed. The awkwardness of the situation was painful. There was silence, as we both looked in different directions. I caught a glimpse of our reflections in a glass door and was slightly shocked to realise that out of the two of us, sat there naked together, flashing our bits at each other at random intervals, I was the one that looked more like a Turk.
Ahmet stood up and walked across the marble floor to where large men who definitely were hairier and more Turk-looking than me, gave you a scrub down. Ahmet sat on one of the seats, I followed and sat on one next to him.
What ensued I can only describe as a human car wash. A man, almost naked, gave my body - which was also almost naked, remember - a vigorous soaping. He rubbed his hands roughly all over me, before pouring a pot of freezing cold water over my head and down my back.
I was pleased when I had my clothes back on and was waiting outside by the car for Adriana to emerge. My hamam experience had not been an overly pleasant one, but it had been memorable.
Adriana joined us and we drove on. I told her what Ahmet had said about it not being okay for her to go back to his home. I also told her that I had seen a side to him that I wished I hadn't. The underside.
We drove on to Merzifon, with Ahmet repeating over and over the whole way, "Du, Kris, kein Problem, aber für Adriana ist ein Problem."
"I wish he would stop going on about it," Adriana said, "It's not like I haven't got the message."
At Merzifon we all got out of the car, but rather than wave us goodbye and hand us our bags to continue our hitchhiking journey, Ahmet beckoned for us to follow him into a large bazaar.
Inside, he knew everyone, and introduced me to each and every stall worker. They all shook my hand. They looked at Adriana for a couple of seconds, then looked away. She didn't have her head covered.
After about twenty minutes we went back to the car and Ahmet told us to get in. He said it wasn’t safe to camp by the roadside and then again said, "Du, Kris, kein Problem, aber für Adriana es ist ein Problem."
It was starting to get dark, and we had no idea where we were being taken.
When we entered the tiny town of Hamamözü, it was pitch black. Ahmet entered a little office and spoke to a man sat behind a desk, before returning to the car and telling us that we would spend the night in a room upstairs. It was a Bed and Breakfast, and Ahmet had paid for the two of us, without letting us know beforehand.
He handed us the key and we exchanged numbers. I was to call him if we had any problems. And then he shook my hand and drove off into the night.
"Just another day on the road in Turkey," I said to Adriana.
"You saw his balls," she said back.
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