The Pandemic works a little differently here in Turkey.
Monday through Friday the Turks mill around the streets and on buses; business like it was 2019. Up close and cozy. Crowded, bustling, touching, breathing.
But apparently on weekends the Pandemic comes out of hiding like the Loch Ness Monster, prowling the streets looking for people to devour.
And so, the government has banned all activities on Saturday and Sunday, forcing folks to stay at home . . . it’s Martial Law. No one may leave their home - less they get infected. A scientifically-proven method to finally beat this behemoth called COVID.
Stay home on the weekend!
This restriction doesn’t apply to tourists and foreigners. On weekends, I roam the abandoned streets of Armageddon with the stray cats and nervous chickens wondering where thousands of people could possibly be hiding. (Actually, for a foreigner to get ill in Turkey is absolutely delicious because it means he or she uses the hospitals and must pay for care . . . Turkey needs every Western dollar it can get its hands on).
The reason I mention this is because I was traveling through the metropolis of Ardahan (far east Turkey) on a Saturday and couldn’t find a way outta town. In order to make transportation economically viable, the little buses need some seven people to make treks to the next hamlet. Saturday morning this town was as deserted as an abandoned Soviet airstrip.
Ardahan is on ‘this side’ of the mountains on the way to Hopa on Black Sea, just south and west of Georgia.
Anyway, I was told at 9am that a mini-bus would leave Ardahan at 10ish . . . then at 11am I was told maybe 12ish . . . at 1:30, I wondered if I shouldn’t just go for it - a decision that didn’t promise any success. (At 2:00 the bus - needing seven people – still had only one ticket sold – to me.)
I started walking to the mountains, hotter than Turkish spices, road narrow with no shoulders, 35 pounds on my back . . . my impatience wasn’t serving me well as the eight men manning the tiny mini-bus station gave me looks usually reserved for stray dogs with odd-shaped boils coming out of their behinds.
I hiked (initially with exultation); and then . . . ambled (with not quite that arrogant step) . . . and then staggered (with the sure knowledge that I was an idiot) until my impatience had completely subdued. Walking two hours in the wild, being blew off the tiny road by the occasion transport truck, will humble any kind of rash impulsiveness.
But now, twelve kilometers down the highway, there was no going back to the relative security of Ardahan and those eight mini-bus guys drinking tea. I wasn’t sure what to do next because I was nearing the end of my physical rope.
But alas gentle and kind reader the clouds parted up above and a ray of sunlight burst onto that diminutive two-lane highway.
A little car (they are all little here) pulled over . . . actually it didn’t pull over as there was no place to pull over. The metal-angel came to a long screeching halt in the middle of the road . . . it was not a mirage because the blast of a truck bragging from the other side of the road had me leap into a gallop for the life-line being throwing to me by this motionless vehicle.
Two men sat in the front – one, not a word of English; the driver, could converse a bit. I tossed my luggage into the backseat and followed it with my drained body.
“Where go you?” the driver sort-of said.
“Artvin,” I said, though anywhere but the side of the road was fine by me.
“I go Savsat. Good?” he returned.
I guessed and said, “Good.”
Turns out his name was Fahri, Fahri Yesil . . . he said it just like that. James, James Bond.
For the next six or seven hours he became a great companion and an excellent guide. He was born and raised in the area but was making his fortune in Istanbul. He was only ‘home’ for two weeks, clearing up his dad’s property accounts. His father had passed away the week before. Though Fahri had moved his parents to Istanbul, a large part of the family’s property and assets were still in the mountains around Savsat.
I was to learn all this later. For now, let me return you to the back seat of the car and all the unknowns. The second man in the car was Fahri’s old school buddy and a sheepherder. They had just been in the grand village of Ardahan to pick up supplies.
Towards the top of one of the mountains, Fahri turned off into a dirt road and continued going up, passed the treeline into a clear area of pasture from which you could see for 150 kilometers in all directions. (I admit I was a little anxious in this desolate terrain).
In the centre of this landscape was this dwarfed handmade mobile-trailer, the grand central station to their sheep corralling business. Not that the sheep had to be corralled. There were 800 heads of sheep roaming the area under the supervision of 6 huge sheep dogs and 3 hired-hands from Afghanistan.
I was introduced to the sheepherder’s mother - commander of this motley crew - and as the men de-hauled the supplies, mom filled me to the brim with water mellow. She looked like she was 90-years-old, rough as goat nails and as strong as a bull. When she said, “EAT!” . . . I ate. When she said “MORE!” . . . I ate more.
After leaving his friend to the mountains, Fahri asked me if I wanted to see his village.
“You have time?”
“Yes.” I wanted nothing to do with carrying my pack. But more importantly I realized what an amazing gift this would be . . . and it was.
Fahri took me to his father’s summer house first, before taking me to his childhood home. A 150-year-old home, abandoned and falling into decay. Farm animals downstairs . . . living quarters up. Old cemeteries, resting places of his great-grand parents and ancestors. History taught and revealed.
Ghost-village school yards, deserted mosques, forgotten roads, forsaken fences and walls. All signs of what once was so important.
His buddy owned a fish farm and he insisted on treating me to the finest catch. We ate and conversed as best we could, often using his cell phone for translation. Hours passed and I couldn’t catch it all.
Finally, close to mid-night, he drove me to the village of Savsat and insisted on purchasing a hotel room for me.
Traveling, like I’m doing, demands 100 little decisions every day. Do I turn up this street, go down that road? Each decision opens up a different world and an alternative life direction. Do I jump on a bus to that village or push towards this city? Do I attempt a conversation with him? Each assessment puts me on a different path. Do I ask him or ask her which direction to go? Do I stop here for a bite or sit down there for tea? A tiny decision will impact the rest of the day, the rest of the trip - in a sense - the rest of my life. Do I exercise impatience and end up meeting an exceptional person who will bring me to sights and sounds I won’t forget?
I’m not sure what to make of it regarding my faith in a sovereign God. Whether every one of my feeble resolutions is orchestrated for a mighty purpose.
A karma? . . . what will be will be? A destiny?
I can’t think of a greater mystery.
Perhaps all we’ve really got is consideration and love for each other. Everything else – I don’t know.