“Evlin misin? Are you married?” the driver, an athletic teacher from Ankara, Turkey asked me.
“Hayr, biz arkada lariz. No, we're friends,” I responded as we barreled down highway D260 from the Kapadokya region in Turkey to the driver's home town of Ankara. This was my first mistake. A crucial one, it would turn out.
I sat in the backseat and J, my Danish traveling companion, sat in the front seat. After an unfortunate groping and propositioning incident earlier in our hitchhiking trip around Turkey, we had learned to adopt this seating arrangement with all our drivers. The nature of our relationship was hard to characterize. We were in that unlabelable zone somewhere between friendship and relationship. I would say we were lovers, if the term didn't immediately conjure up slinky animal print dresses, shag carpet, and other vestiges of the 70's. Friends and lovers. Frovers?
J slept in the front seat while I conversed, in my faltering Turkish, with our driver. Like many before us, he was obsessed with our sleeping arrangement.
“You slept in a tent?” He asked. “One tent? Together?”
Not this again. I answered in the affirmative, then fell silent.
“Your friend is tired.” More silence. “Maybe he is worn out from too much sex.”
Lovely. Another sex-obsessed driver. I didn't respond, instead I slouched into position, closed my eyes, and pretended to sleep.
We were making good time and soon approached the city limit of Ankara. I tried not think about what awaited us there. J and I had determined that, despite his tent and our cheapness, we would get a hotel room. This was, after all, our last night together and privacy was essential to some of the activities we had in mind. But, much as I loved those activities, I didn't much care to think about that either. He would take a plane back to Copenhagen and I would hop on a bus to go back to Istanbul.
“Where will you sleep?” our driver asked. He apologized, in true Turkish fashion, for not being able to host us in his home.
“I think we will go to a cheap hotel,” I said. “We are poor!” My broken Turkish did not allow me to make such a statement delicately.
“Will you sleep in one room? In one bed?”
Diversion. “Do you know of a cheap hotel?”
He responded, something to the effect of helping us find a hotel. One problem with my broken Turkish combined with hitchhiking was that I often got only a sense of what the driver was trying to communicate. This had previously resulted in us being stranded on a dirt road, miles from the nearest house or town. In this instance, he served us well, dropping us off at a hotel and making sure we were comfortably settled in our room. Then things became weird again. He invited himself into the room (which had two twin beds I was happy to note for propriety's sake) and invited himself into our afternoon plans. Spending time with a middle-aged, mildly perverted Turkish man on my last day with my sevgili (paramour) interested me not in the least. So I told him that we were tired and would likely take a rest. He insisted on joining us for dinner, and as we had already exchanged phone numbers, I told him to call me.
The word sex sounds the same in Turkish as it does in English and as J had been only half-asleep for most of the drive, he had caught enough of the conversation with the driver to remark to me, “Another pervert?”
“Lets get out of here. I don't like him knowing where we're staying. Plus I think he's friends with the owner. He could just show up any time. And this is our last night together.” I didn't need to be reminded.
So we strapped on our backpacks and walked the neighborhood, searching for another cheap hotel.
We found one, which I bargained down from fifty lira to thirty-five. (About bargaining, let me say this: It's all about the smile. Don't try to be mean. Be firm, but be friendly and flash a big grin.) After loudly and enthusiastically participating in some of our planned activities, we again hit the streets of Ankara. We were in search of the perfect meal, an actual meal eaten at an actual restaurant, sitting at a table instead of a street curb, eating from plates and forks instead of from plastic bags and fingers.
As we walked the clean streets of Ankara our driver called. With each ring, I felt guilt for not answering him.
“Couldn't I just make some excuse? It's rude not to pick up.”
“Sarah, he was a pervert. You don't have to be nice to perverts. Besides, do you really want to spend the afternoon with him?”
J had a point, so when the driver called a second, third, fourth time, I flinched only slightly and ignored each ring. We continued to walk the streets together. I bought a paper bag of heavy, juicy figs and J bought a tea set so he could make Turkish ay at home.
Home. The word stuck in my throat. J was returning home, but where was I going? I had quit my job in Istanbul and given up my apartment. I had a backpack the size of a schoolchild's and no future plans. I pushed this unwanted thought aside (a skill I was becoming quite adept at) and we focused on finding dinner. As other unwanted thoughts came in (“What are you doing with your life?”, “Will you and J see each other again?”, “Why are you leaving Istanbul, a city you love, full of friends you love?”) I also pushed them aside.
This was perhaps my most valuable skill as a traveler, as a hobo—the ability to focus on the here, the now. For now, I was happy, For now, I was walking down the street arm-in-arm with a fascinating person in a fascinating country, no load on my back, no load in my mind.