Wednesday, December 21, 2011

En Route to Georgia

The trip to Georgia marked one of the best days I have ever had. It started out similarly to the previous few. We thanked our hosts, bid them well and walked to the highway. While we waited for someone to take us, we couldn't help but notice how much our backpack sizes differed and what that said about each of us.
Ashley, Agnés, me. (Ashley)

It was a little slow getting out of Rize. We left in the morning and there wasn't a lot of traffic. Along came a shuttle van. When it stopped I explained that we were hitchhiking and therefore didn't need to be taken in the shuttle van. The man insisted that there was no one in his van anyway and he was going to Fındıklı, a town on the border between Rize and the Artvin province. So we climbed in. It was nice that we didnt have to crowd into the back seat of someone's car with all our luggage. It was roomy and nice inside. We were all exhausted. Ashley and Agnés fell asleep, but I fought off sleep to keep and eye on our driver. He seemed nice enough, but I didn't get a great feeling about him. He called a friend of his on the phone. He didn't think I knew any Turkish. I heard him talking about how lucky he thought he was giving a lift to some beautiful foreign girls. Hey, what about me, I thought. So the guy was sleazy, but at least he wasn't dangerous. He stopped the shuttle van to pick up some passengers. I felt a little guilty that we were freeloading and the others had to pay. I decided that it would be best for us to get out of the van before Fındıklı.

Cow in front of the state hospital in Ardeşen (Ashley)

We were passing through Ardeşen when I made my decision. I told our driver a believable fabrication about how the girls wanted to do some shopping in the market. I had already woken them up but had not yet explained what was going on. We exited the shuttle van and bid our driver adieu. Our eyes were caught in the middle of a tug-of-war match between our exhaustion and brightness of the eastern Rize morning; yet for me, it beat another minute in the shuttle van. We bought some snacks from a bakery where I engaged in a pleasant conversation with a local. He was incredibly kind and helpful, giving up his chair and pooling two others around a table for us. For Ashley, I asked the man where the nearest bathroom facilities were and he helped her to their location. Sitting at the table, we were asked by another person associated with the bakery if we wanted beverages or anything else. Considerate of the Ramadan month, I responded that we didn't want to be rude and consume food or beverage in front of them. "Thank you," came the reply, "but we're not fasting either." After Ashley returned, we did not tarry at the bakery much longer. Our destination was Georgia and we only had one day to spend there. We thanked our new acquaintances and walked on down the road, signaling for someone to take us east.

I was pleased with the main street of Ardeşen. It was busy and lively, with shops and people all about. It was slow getting out of there at first, but I didn't mind. Eventually a car with two or three old women approached. They were dressed in clothes of a pattern traditional of the region, and in addition they wore big smiles as the car pulled to stop near us. They were such a riot. One woman asked us where we were going, but I realized that they really wanted to know where we were from. It was their second question. They were so lively and friendly, laughing and looking at us with admiration as I chatted them up for bit. I could see that there was room in the car for us and wished that we would get invited along. However, their destination was reportedly a local one. They seemed like they were having so much fun with the experience of stopping and talking with us. Often when a car stopped for us that was not going where we were going, the driver would sort of hurry off as though choosing to stop was a waste. But these women showed no sign of such a sentiment. It occurred to me later that they must have known all the while that they wouldn't be able to take us far, yet they wanted to learn about us and make an adventure of it anyway. I was disappointed when they drove off, but I took joy in seeing their hands waving enthusiastically as the car disappeared down the road.

A little later another vehicle stopped for us. It was a large white van. I knew it was a commercial vehicle of some kind, perhaps a touring van. When the side door opened, a Turkish man jumped out. I could see Turkish tourists inside the van. He asked where we were going. I told him eastward, but I more emphatically told him that we were merely hitchhiking and did not want to cause him or anyone any inconvenience. One or two of the people inside told us to come on and join them, that it was no trouble at all. I resisted their hospitality for a few moments more, pointing out that we did not have money for transportation and that we could easily find a ride with someone else. These points were laughed off as nonsensical and so we gave in. I couldn't gather too much from their conversations, so I engaged in one with someone sitting near me. They were a family from İstanbul who had hired the large van for a private tour into part of Artvin. A couple of them could speak some English. As we talked more about our plans and their plans, they began merging. By that I mean, we were invited to accompany them into the foothills, away from the Artvin coast. We made our decision about 2 kilometers before the diversion point of our intended paths. Life's an adventure, my companions and I agreed, let's see where this one takes us.
Into the Artvin wilderness (Jeremy)

The adventure took us down increasingly narrow roads, until they were wide enough for only the van. The dirt road wound along a river, sandwiched by lush trees which were decorated with the occasional strikingly-gorgeous bird. None of them were of a species I recognized. We stopped a few times to get out and admire our surroundings.
Ashley, sitting alone in a comfortable spot (Jeremy)

Ashley and Agnès (Jeremy, with Ashley's camera)

Ashley (Jeremy, with Ashley's camera)
Me, looking less-than-completely-heterosexual, holding a flower (Ashley)
Me looking completely heterosexual without the flower, shut up (Ashley)
Treated to a delightful meal of fresh alabalık (trout) near the river (Agnès)

Trying muhlama (cornmeal with cheese and butter) for the first time. So good! (Agnès)
On the way back to the coast, where our paths really would diverge from that of our new İstanbul friends, we stopped by an old pair of bridges.

Overview of the bridge (Ashley)
The bridges did the beautiful landscape justice (Agnès)
Ashley and I enjoying the view (Agnès)
Hard not to admire the architecture (Jeremy)

Me, stopping to smile for the camera (Agnès)

Ashley running up the bridge toward the awaiting van (Jeremy)

The next frame, showing Agnès following suit (Jeremy)

Finally, I came running along toward my companions (Ashley)
Back at Ardeşen, we bid our new İstanbul friends farewell and turned toward Georgia. Much of the day had passed, but it didn't seem to matter. We had quite enjoyed our unexpected adventure into the wilderness of Artvin, and we had plenty of sunlight left. We got a ride to the border with a friendly family of three in a new car. We were dropped there with only two things left on our to-do list: get across the border, and then hitchhike to the coastal city of Batumi.

We walked toward customs quickly with eager anticipation. It would have been hard to imagine it at the time, but the day was about to get even better. We could never have asked for what was in store for us.
Walking toward the Georgian border (Agnés)

Monday, December 5, 2011


Getting to Rize was more trouble than I had imagined it would be. Really, it should have been the easiest leg of the trip. There's lots of traffic on the Black Sea highway, and Rize was the next big city going east. We hiked down the road to the highway. It took a little while for the first car to stop, but eventually one did. The man was going about two towns over, which would be good progress. I felt comfortable traveling through Trabzon toward Rize, because at some point I had memorized all 18 towns of Trabzon and their locations. You can do the same now, if you'd like.
District Map of Trabzon
Everything seemed to be going just fine for our first hitchhiking experience without other friends. I had noticed that the man was low on gas, but didn't say anything. Moments later he spoke and asked if we wouldn't mind stopping in the next town for gas. I told him it was no problem as we were not in any kind of hurry. A few minutes later, we entered the 2 kilometer Araklı Tunnel. I thought, this would a terrible place to run out of gas. About 500 meters into the tunnel, the car slowed down. The man shifted into lower and lower gears so the car wouldn't stall, but nothing happened. The car stopped dead in the dark 2-lane tunnel.

We all jumped out of the car asap. The tunnel was not straight; cars and trucks were coming around the bend and then changing into the far lane to avoid hitting our car from behind. I was trying to think. There was no place to which we could push the car. Pushing it backwards would be stupidly dangerous. Pushing it forwards would be a 1.5 kilometer nightmare of wishing not to get sandwiched in a collision. My thoughts were interrupted by a loud voice echoing from everywhere. The tunnel's safety systems were kicking in. It said something like, "It is dangerous and forbidden to stop in the tunnel. Please remove your vehicle from the tunnel." LED screens had changed to show that our lane was to be avoided. I was relieved to think the police might show up soon, but there seemed to be nothing we could do. The man started calling friends for help from his phone. He told us we ought not to wait around. We felt bad for him, but we thanked him, wished him luck and began walking down the noisy dark tunnel. I expected to hear a crash at any moment. About 200 meters later we saw something that made us stop. There was an emergency pullover spot large enough for two cars and equipped with a telephone. I looked back. The man's car was not in sight due to the curved nature of the tunnel. I looked at the girls. I didn't want to put anyone in danger, especially them. I felt badly enough about our predicament up to that point. On the other hand, I hated to think that the man's car might get hit at any moment. I set my backpack down at their feet and said I'd be right back. I ran as fast as I could back to the car. I said to the man as quickly as I could, in the best Turkish I could muster, that there was an emergency place up ahead and I would push his car.

I felt a bit like the character on the cover of some suspense novel. What would mine be called? "Hitchhiker's Guide to Tunnel Emergencies" maybe.

The man climbed in and put the car in neutral. I ran around the back and pushed with everything I had. I checked over my shoulder almost every second to make sure no one was coming. The car slowly picked up speed. I was standing near the right side of it in case I needed to jump to safety onto the sidewalk. A car passed, but it was in the other lane the whole time. The fear, darkness and especially the noise made be forget about everything outside of the tunnel. I was running as fast as I could when I threw my last push toward the car, extending my arms and trying not to fall over. The girls were in sight, the emergency spot was in sight. The man pulled into it and stopped the car. A few moments later I caught up, panting. I shook the man's hand again and thanked him again for his trouble. He thanked me in turn. The girls and I headed for the other end of the tunnel, a bit relieved.

The noise of the tunnel was really bothersome. When we finally reached the other side, I found that I was walking very quickly toward the light and the promise of serenity. We were happy when the second car that passed us stopped to give us a ride. It contained three boisterous young men. As always, we only spoke English to them at first. They didn't really know any. Once I determined that they were cool (and that they had a tank full of gas!), I relaxed and switched to Turkish. We shared jokes and stories. They laughed as I told them about the tunnel incident. One of them reacted to the story with a smile as he shook his head and exclaimed, "Şaka gibi!" Exactly. It was fun to recall what would make a good campfire story so soon after it happened. These adventures are an investment, payed for in time with the wide eyes of young relatives eagerly listening to the stories years later. It was nice to get a inkling of that feeling.

We made it to Rize and walked through the center of town.
Walking through Rize Merkez (Agnés)

I love Rize. Of all the places in Anatolian Turkey, Rize is the one where many of the people look like me, act most like me and have a sense of humor most like mine. When people in Turkey ask me where I'm from, I tell them, "Rize". I had been to Rize once before and I figured the first place to go, like with Trabzon, was to the seaside.
By the sea in Rize (Agnés)
The weather was a bit gloomy, which is typical of the region. We found a little waterfront cafe where drank tea and ate hot gözleme. As evening came, I made the arrangements for meeting our CouchSurfing host, Emre. 

Emre had a full house. In addition to his roommates, he was hosting two other couchsurfers already. We ate Ramadan dinner all together and had a wonderful time. The other couchsurfers were a French woman, Francoise, and a British Woman, Lisa. They were walkers. That is to say that they enjoyed walking great distances. They were getting ready to hike through the Kaçkar Mountains and into Georgia. What a delightful pair they were. I was glad that our hosts and the other couch-surfers spoke English for the sake of my companions and for mine to some extent.  The dinner filled us all up nicely and stayed up late, chatting and laughing together. We were such a crowd, that it was hard to fit everyone onto the couch.

In the morning we ate breakfast and said goodbye to Francoise and Lisa who headed off for the mountains. We also planned to go to the mountains, but not to the same exact location. We wished them luck. A little later, we also departed. The plan was to return in the evening and stay another night.
Walking toward the mountains (Ashley)

We hitchhiked out of the center of Rize, to Ardeşen. We walked south toward the mountains along the road. The first thing anyone notices about Rize is how green it is.
Strange architecture along the river (Agnés)
The second thing one notices about Rize is how much it rains. It started raining lightly and we were not having success finding a ride. Many of the vehicles that passed us didn't have room for three, but that was alright. We enjoyed being together. Finally after about 20 minutes, Ashley said "That's it. I'm letting down my hair." She released her blonde locks for the world to see. It might just have been coincidence but it wasn't 2 minutes before a car stopped. The pair sitting up front were students from İzmir. They were visiting their folks in Rize for the holidays. The driver's English was excellent and he explained that he and his friend were going to the Ayder plateau. Lovely; so were we.
We stopped for a few minutes in Çamlıhemşin. (Agnés)
Green Çamlıhemşin (Ashley)
I especially enjoyed being surrounded by lush green nature after the winter and spring in İstanbul. Contributing most greatly to the green ambiance were the tea fields, for which Rize is famous.
Tea fields (Ashley)
The scenery to take in along the way was endless. Ashley remarked at some point that she was not very impressed with Rize the city, but the nature made the visit very worthwhile.

Misty and green, the foothills of the Kaçkars, Rize (Ashley)

Hiking around in the foothills (Ashley)

Being there we were all filled with an urge to return someday with hiking gear and tents and just get lost in those mountains for a week. We finally made it to the pastures in touristic-yet-pleasant Ayder.

Ayder pastures (Ashley)

Another view of the pastures (Agnés)
After hiking around for a while, we decided to get a bite to eat before meeting our ride back to Çamlıhemşin with the guys from before. We strolled through the village and found a place to sit and grab a bite.
Ayder village (Agnés)
Mantı and pide (Agnés)
In the photo above, I'm chatting with an old woman while drinking some very fresh Turkish tea. There were two women who seemed in charge of the place and they were both a lot of fun to speak with. However, it was the old woman who really fascinated me. She spoke and looked Turkish yet her garb and her accent were not Turkish. It sounded more like a Laz accent, but it wasn't that either. I found out later that she was Hemşinli. She told me all about her childhood in the nearby villages, working in the high pastures in the summer and on the farms during the year. She told me about how the place has become a lot more touristy than it once was, which she did not prefer, but she also said that it's just the way it is. I liked her, and I liked her stories.

We met up with our ride and they took us back half way to Ardeşen. It was only as we got out of the car and stood around chatting, that I let onto them that I could understand Turkish. I explained that it's one of our hitchhiking safety precautions. The driver told me that if ever we had a problem in the area, his brother is the mayor of a nearby town, and we should just give a call. He invited us for dinner, but we already had plans to return to Rize where food and our things awaited us. We thanked him and started on the rest of our way back.

Our ride back had another nice surprise in store for us. When we got to Ardeşen, we walked to an intersection corner and waited for someone to stop. It couldn't have been two minutes before a friendly looking guy in a small white car pulled over and invited us to climb in. This man was clearly a local of Rize (and not just because of his license plate code). His look and his personality was what I call Lazoğlulaz. He was so cheery and down to earth. He said things like, "Look at my luck! I was just driving home after work like I always do, but this time I found a.... Canadian.. ... and an American... and a Catalan...! Look at us!" We chatted for a little bit. I told the girls I would explain more about the man later, because I just had to tell them about what a phenomenon of Rize he was. There was a pause in the conversation and I asked him how life was in Pazar-Rize, his hometown. "Life is süper!" he said. "Everyday anything can happen, but mostly it's the same. Pazar is full of friendly people and my family is there. You should come sometime and enjoy it."
The man offered to take us further than Pazar, but I insisted that he not go out of his way for us. He made me ensure him that we would have no trouble getting the rest of the way to Rize. When he pulled over to let us out, he said, "Let's take a picture!". A couple was walking near the seaside with some groceries they had bought at the market. "Dostum!" The man called out to the stranger with a very familiar and close form of the word 'friend' and proceeded to ask him if he'd be so kind as to take our picture.

I was sad to see this guy go. I had known him for 20 minutes, but scarcely have I met anyone with such a sense of humor and positive outlook on life. We waved as he climbed back into his car. Before he could pull out, someone else had stopped for us. I turned to Ashley and said something like, "Damn, you should just never put your hair up."

Back at Emre's, we helped in the kitchen and then went out to meet some new couch-surfing guests and escort them back to the apartment. They were a pair from Germany. That evening there was music and fun conversation. The German fellow got me into listening to old Selda Bağcan tunes, then a recent hobby of his. The next morning before we headed out, we were part of another couch photo.

We had made a plan for the day which was our craziest yet. We were going to hitchhike out of the country, into Georgia. We walked toward the highway. I was motivated by going to a new place I had never been before. And it turns out that the trip to Georgia would be filled with good fortune.

Thursday, December 1, 2011


Looking east in the morning, from the shore in Trabzon (Photographer: Ashley)

We woke up on the bus in Trabzon, first thing in the morning. By 'we', of course I mean Ashley and Agnés as well. Agnés was our new companion on the adventure; we met in Amasya. For the first time on the trip, we had come to a place that I had already been. The familiarity of everything recalled a time of innocence when my experience in Turkey was new and I knew little. I thought about how the city would seem different this time around.
Looking west (Ashley)

We rode a shuttle bus to the center of town and then walked to the seaside. As we approached the water, we noticed a handful of people napping under a canopy near some picnic tables. With the backpacks and everything, they looked like tourists. We walked to the water's edge where we ate apples which we had carried with us from Amasya. I remembered taking an early morning nap there on the rocks two years before. Times more innocent. As we began to walk back toward the city, the nappers had awoken. We said hello and shared our apples with them. They were Polish students, just  celebrating the summer by hitchhiking through Georgia and then Turkey on their way to the Balkans. They told us all about their adventure and it was quite inspiring actually. None of them knew any Turkish, but that didn't prevent them from hitchhiking through parts of the country to which I hadn't even been. They slept in tents or not, if the weather allowed. Our strategy of couchsurfing in safe albeit small towns and economizing on bus trips no longer seemed very badass. They welcomed us to join them on a hitchhiking adventure to a remote monastery in the mountains later that day. We gladly accepted.
Making plans at breakfast (Agnés)

Before going to the mountains, however, we stopped for breakfast at a restaurant in the middle of Trabzon, which to our amazement was open despite the Ramadan holiday. The Poles were delighted that I could speak a bit of Turkish and so we got along very well, asking advice and directions of the locals while we ate our Turkish breakfasts in a group of six. After breakfast our new friends told us that what they desired most was a shower and a place to wash their clothes. We knew just the thing. After our experience in Amasya, the solution was obvious. We took them to a hamam (Turkish bathhouse).
Our Polish friends hanging laundry (Jeremy)

Like the one in Amasya, the hamam we went to in Trabzon was essentially empty except for our guests. I chatted with the owner of the place for a little while. He explained that they were happy to have tourists during the Ramadan slow season. I asked if there was a place that my friends could store their luggage and get their clothes washed. He said, "Right here." The man game them a room to store everything and took all their dirty clothes. They were grateful to the man and also thanked me for making the arrangements. Some hours passed. Ashley, Agnés and I went to an internet cafe to catch up on things. When we emerged, the Poles were still bathing. When they were finally finished, they hung up their clean clothes and we headed outside, refreshed.

We had to walk for some time through the city to get to the highway going south. The city of Trabzon isn't all that spectacular, but we enjoyed the walk.
Strolling through Trabzon (Ashley)

Finally someone stopped for us. There were so many of us that we agreed to hitchhike separately and then meet up later at the monastery. Almost all of our friends fit into the first car. It wasn't long before another vehicle stopped and took the rest of us. Getting to the Sumela monastery took two rides. The first got us to Maçka; the second got us to part-way-up-the-mountain. We hiked the rest of the way. The scenes were beautiful as we pressed on up through the mist.

Agnés walking up ahead (Ashley)

It took us quite a while to get to the top, but we couldn't complain. We were glad when we did finally make it. None of us had had a clear picture of what the monastery was like before we actually saw it for ourselves.
Sumela Monastery (Jeremy)

The mist, while enchanting, prevented us from seeing any view of the mountains. I think if we were to go back on a clear day, it would seem like a completely different experience. Most striking, however, were the interior features, such as the paintings on the walls and ceiling in the chapel section.
Striking art at the Sumela Monastery (Jeremy)

Impressed, enchanted, at the monastery (Jeremy)

Getting back to the Trabzon city center was a bit of a concern for us at first. The day was getting late and the light was fading fast. There were not very many cars at the upper parking lot which meant we might have had to hike all the way back down. One car came and took the more tired-legged among us, which included Agnés. Ashley, one of the Poles and I continued down the road for a surprisingly short time. A car passed, stopped, moved ahead about 30 meters and then stopped again. It was obvious that this was a new situation for the folks inside. I had noticed that the car was almost full, and by its license pate I could see that it was from Rize, a bordering city. When we got to the car, we found three members of a family inside. They were my kind of people. We piled into the car, with me in the middle and Ashley on my lap. It was the first of many car rides in which I'd have someone sitting on me most of the way. At one point, the mother, who was in the back seat with us, got a phone call. The first part of the conversation went something like this:
    - Mom? I'm quite alright, how are you? We are on our way home from the monastery. You're not going to believe what has happened. We were just starting back when we took some foreigners in the car. They are from everywhere! America, Canada, Poland... We thought there wasn't room in the car, but there is! You should see us!

She paused frequently to laugh. It was funny to me that this situation seemed so wild, fun and unusual to her. Making conversation with our hosts was fun and easy. We joked and laughed at lot, and I stopped occasionally to translate the interesting bits to Ashley. Our Polish friend had fallen asleep. When we got to Trabzon, they dropped us off and we thanked them and waved goodbye. They wished us well and wore fantastic smiles. It seemed everyone's day was brighter for the trip.

Walking back toward home base at the hamam, we began making plans for the surprise birthday party in the evening. We were informed that one of the Polish students had a birthday that day and was not expecting anything, let alone anyone to remember that it was his birthday. So his friends' plan was to commandeer a cake, take it to a restaurant and have them bring it out after dinner. After regrouping at the hamam we split up. I led a small group to find a restaurant, reserve a table for later and make arrangements for the birthday surprise. Another group went to buy the cake. Everything was set.

"You guys..." (Agnés)
At the same time, I was making arrangements to meet our CouchSurfing host with whom I'd been texting earlier in the day to solidify arrangements for accommodation. I met him shortly before dinner. Işmail, a med student at the university in Trabzon, seemed like a very friendly character. I told him a bit about our time in Trabzon that day. He was surprised to find that I knew some Turkish, as apparently most of the tourists he hosts know very little. We got along well, I introduced him to my travel companions, and invited him to join us for dinner. We were quite the crowd and had a lovely time. After dinner and tea, the cake was brought out. The birthday boy was quite surprised. The candles were mostly blown out by the wind, but Agnés captured a shot of the man at the restaurant relighting the candles, while the surprised birthday boy gave his friends a look of 'you guys...'. After cake, his friends threw him in the fountain nearby. It was an unforgettable evening.

Ashley, Agnés and I went back to Işmail's flat where we set up places to sleep. The weather was very nice, and there was room on the balcony for two. Ashley opted for the couch, while Agnés and I set up mats and blankets on the balcony. Sleeping outside was very refreshing and I slept very well. In the morning, Işmail fixed a Turkish breakfast, complete with homemade jam from his hometown, a city to the south, at the head of the Euphrates River.
We had passed such a nice time in Trabzon, it was hard to say goodbye. Our next stop was another city to which I had already been, but like with Trabzon, I expected the second time around to be better.
Şimdilik görüşmek üzere Trabzon (Agnés)
 We were headed to Rize. However, it was in getting there that we fırst encountered a very dangerous and rather unusual situation. Cliffhanger.
Hitchhiking to Rize (Ashley)