Once upon a time, not even 48 hours having returned from a trip state side then getting on a plane again, after wandering around in the sweltering summer heat at the Acropolis, fighting fatigue, I was waiting with a bunch of others attending a Kokkalis Foundation summer school at Athens airport for a bus to take us to Olympia, ancient birth place of the Olympics.
The usual meet and greets were happening when behind me I hear this happy, excited, curious voice say ‘I’m from Turkey.’ Inquisitive Esra pries. We turn out to be living in the same city, attending the same university, our departments next door to one another. Introducing Volkan, aka Volky.
Volky doesn’t look like your Turkish stereotype. He’s tall, auburn hair, fair skin, freckles, speaks English, French, Russian, with enough Arabic to get by. Volky, like us has the urge to move. He just returned from 6.5 months in Morocco, where he was to conduct original research for his Phd, on a topic never covered in Turkey. So Volky, in some ways is a pioneer. He’s a diplomat in some ways too. He’s well informed, well traveled and represents Turkey – its history, culture, political knowledge as well as many foreign service folks I know. We met recently to exchange stories from the past half year. Volky speaks of different worlds. When we get together and compare notes, all we can do is shake our heads at how easy life is compared to some of our travels, and how simple life is, but most of us, or most of those around us make it unnecessarily complicated, painful even. We are both students of International Relations/Political Science, and despite being good students, good practitioners, all the international efforts, investments and so on, there are large corners of the world untouched. They are far from treaties, far from conventions, projects and indeed progress. Has the world forgotten about them? Do they want the world to stay away? Should they stay the way they are? Here are few glances into that world.
- On a side trip to Senegal and Gambia through Mauritania, there is a water crossing. One disembarks and crosses a wooden bridge to shore. The bridge is always slippery. Beneath the bridge, crocodiles. Now, one isn’t attacked immediately. Crocodiles close in in about 5 minutes. In that time, crocodile trainers from the other side get into the water to calm the crocodiles down, giving the hapless victim enough time to swim to safety, upon which $100 is paid for the duty. The bridge is purposely kept wet. The trainers thus have an income.
- In Mauritania Volky decides to wander around town while waiting to pick up his visa to enter Senegal/Gambia. He enters a mosque to find 30-4o Al Qaeda people (yes, seriously) asleep, clutching weapons, holding hand grenades. Volky’s thinking – ‘you, you guys, you’re the ones we read about right, you guys are the ones behind 9/11 right?’ Then, Murphy’s Law, one wakes up, wakes up all the others. Take a deep breath? Run? Beg? Volky shows his passport, bearing the Crescent Moon, a symbol not just of the Turkish Republic, but Islam also and somehow leaves without interrogation, then runs…
- There are driving curfews in Mauritania between 6pm-8am because of bandits on the roads. Travelers pull over and tents are set up where they spend the night. With a man he’s befriended, they’re in a tent, with tens of others, eating before sleeping. In Mauritania, you scoop food with your hand, toss it lightly into the air 3 times then lift to drop into your mouth. While chatting, Volky spots a tarantula the size of his hand, right behind his buddy. His buddy has a weak heart and Volky fears, if he should tell him, his buddy wont be able to handle it. Finally, as the spider moves towards his friends head, Volky tells him. His friend turns around, turns pale, swallows hard, nervously, ‘we…we’re used to this.’ Volky is thinking, ‘I have to sleep in this tent tonight and where there’s one, there’s more.’
- Volky has a scar on his scalp. He tried to take photos in Mauritania and had rocks thrown at him. Taking pictures is banned.
- He heads to a butcher to buy meat and the meat shown hanging to him is black. Volky argues that the meat must be pink. The vendor counters that the meat Volky wants is the meat he’s being shown. This goes back and forth a few rounds. Finally the butcher approaches the meat and starts swatting around with his hands. The meat is covered with flies and is indeed pink underneath. Volky decides not to have meat that evening.
The next trip for him is South Africa, where he’ll be working in the VIP office for the World Cup. Volky is one of those rare travelers who doesn’t wander to take pictures of every landmark or bright light, to buy the cheap souvenir, to brag or to see how many miles he can clock up. He goes to learn, to accumulate knowledge then to contribute to something better. All he needs is a pat on the back. His intent is honourable. How lamentable it is then, to hear of all the hundreds, maybe thousands of people in his life, a handful appreciate the same values.