November 15, 2011
Now that I’m home again and sleeping in a cumbersome nest of quilts, sheets, mattresses and pillows—an unnecessary luxury called a “bed”—there is at least one benefit: I can read late into the night without fear of being seen and mugged by good-willed Turkish Samaritans. This, precisely, happened to me in the highlands near Izmir. The other evening I came across the following words in the second edition of Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook, by Stephen Lord, and I had to laugh: “An ideal camping place is unseen from the road and not in the line of vehicle headlights….”
This is plain, simple, accurate logic dictated by common sense, and I’ve known it for years.
Yet on one particular night in October in the Aydin Mountains, I was lazy and camped just 15 feet above the road. I was drinking wine and reading a book with my headlamp, flipping off the light each time I heard an approaching engine on the road. I felt graceful, sly, discreet—like I was a fearless, wise cat and the mountain all mine. I saw every passerby, but not a soul on Earth knew I was here—until I botched it at around 9 p.m. A car came around the bend and I wasn’t quick enough. My light, which I had restored with brand new batteries that afternoon, illuminated the entire hillside as I fumbled for the button. In a moment I managed to flip it off—but it was too late. The car pulled to a stop just below me, and a young man stepped out. Fearlessly—but with reassuring innocence—he plodded straight up the bank and into my camp and sat down beside me. We chatted for a few minutes, and he said he would be passing by later with a collection of buddies and that they would be sure to stop.
“Great,” I said.
He wasn’t lying. It must have been 2 a.m. when a van stopped below the road. Five drunk young men—the first visibly intoxicated men I think I’ve seen in Turkey—spilled out and began dancing in the highway to Turkish music from the car’s radio. One by one they clambered up the bank to sit with me. None spoke English, and we struggled to converse for the next 30 minutes. I realized that I was a host for once and these fellows guests in my modest pad. I had no tea but I offered wine. We passed the bottle around while making laborious conversation. They furnished me with all sorts of far-fetched warnings: There were snakes here, they said, and roving herds of vicious swine.
“Eh,” I said, shrugging.
They finally stood to go and insisted that I come with them to sleep in a spare bed. I’ve rarely been able to explain to the civilized people of the Earth—at least not in Turkish—that I prefer sleeping under stars than strange ceilings. Yet I held my ground and my friends departed.
Stephen Lord, I was amused to read, has had similar experiences on the road in the Middle East. “Good luck,” he writes in his Handbook, “in explaining your preference for camping over staying in their home where you will be expected to sing for your supper.”
He also writes that “…one reason to pursue ‘stealth’ or discreet camping is that you will eventually tire of being invited into locals’ homes. This tradition of hospitality is especially strong in Muslim countries…Refusal can be awkward so think ahead.”
And stick to the woods, keep clear of the road and beware of your headlamp.
Tucked into my blankets and comforters here in San Francisco, I’ve also been reading through Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, admiring Robert Louis Stevenson’s simple adventures in the south of France. I’m feeling a growing kinship with the author, for it seems he encountered some of the same paranoia that I’ve observed. One night early in his trip he stayed in a monastery—fashionable today among paying tourists but at the time just another option for the wayfarer—and the monks, Stevenson writes, “…threaten(ed) me with many ludicrous misadventures, and with sudden death in many surprising forms. Cold, wolves, robbers…were daily and eloquently forced on my attention. Yet…the true, patent danger was left out.”
I’m reminded immediately of all the warnings I received of wolves and bears in Turkey while no practical advice was ever offered about true annoyances and hazards to the bike tourist: steep slopes without ground to camp on, no running water in the next 30 kilometers, asphalt so bumpy it’s as bad as cobblestones, and hunters who drive the roads at night with loaded rifles aimed into the bushes.
And the same mis-prioritized system of cautioning tourists occurs in the Republic of Georgia, where I toured for three weeks in 2010 and never received a single word of caution about the perils of the highways, which in Georgia are exceedingly dangerous. I recall the day I entered Georgia from northeast Turkey. In the first mile I saw two vehicles run oncoming cars off the road and onto the shoulder as they made harrowing attempts to pass others, all parties honking wildly at the others. I grew accustomed to simply ignoring this madness of the Georgian highway. But it would have been nice if someone had kindly warned me, “My friend, watch out on the road or we’ll run you down!”
But almost all I heard about, time and again, was the threat of Armenians and wolves. So feared were the latter of these enemies that on one particular night 10 grim-faced people stood around me in the street, all excitedly chattering about wolves. A girl who spoke English said that a pair of folks in eastern Georgia had been killed by wolves recently. These people had their way, in the end, and I was taken to a home. “Can I sleep out here in the yard?” I asked as we entered the gate. “Wolves,” they answered and stuffed me into a dark room with two snoring men.
The next evening, as I camped high in the Lesser Caucasus Mountains, I heard howling in the wind, across the hills.
I later did some research, and guess what? Fatal wolf attacks did indeed occur in Georgia in 2009 and 2010. In the Balkans, I received bear warnings in 2009, though no one spoke much about the landmines—which are, thankfully, clearly announced by ominous signs bearing skulls and the word “Mines.” As for the feared Turkish bears, two people were killed by them between 2003 and 2008. Still, I wasn’t a bit nervous when I encountered a whopping pile of scat in the hill country just south of Bursa this October.
But as I read through the Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook from the comforts of home, I’m pleased to find that Mr. Lord is all business and reason; the threat of bears is not even discussed. And Stevenson in his Cevennes account further wins my approval when he writes, “I was much disturbed by the barking of a dog, an animal that I fear more than any wolf.”
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