Look…my merich

Last year I travelled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to Ramallah and back to Jerusalem in a day. While travel guides will tell you to travel in a group or take a taxi, I did as the Palestinians – I took minibuses. These are also popular, cheap forms of transport in Turkey, and in Russia. The last time I went to Russia was solo, so in between these three cultures, and with some Arabic, I figured I could find my way around.

The distances between these cities are not great though a 30 minute journey from Bethlehem to Ramallah took 2 hours. Firstly, because the road skirts Israeli settlements and secondly because the minibus was involved in a car accident. That meant I had plenty of time to meet some folks.

Road to Ramallah

Road to Ramallah

In Jerusalem and Bethlehem, I blended in, travelling as a single female, I wasn’t out of place. Ramallah reminded me of various Turkish cities from 15 years ago. It felt familiar and when Palestinians learnt I was Turkish, their kindness doubled. The only place I was an anomaly were in the transitions, for instance on the journey between Bethlehem to Ramallah. I was the only female on the minibus, but with recitations of the Quran playing the whole journey, I did not feel a tinge of angst or danger (one of the reasons the Quran is broadcast is for protection). Seated next to me were two Palestinian men, being born and raised in Jenin refugee camp. Between them, they probably spoke 20 words of English. Now I first wasn’t sure if they were being friendly or “friendly” so I kept my sunglasses on and guard up. The one sitting next to me was just fascinated that a Turkish woman was travelling solo, not part of a tour group and doing as the locals do. He was very keen to start a conversation with me. So he showed me his phone  – a basic Nokia, one of the early versions with a colour screen, to show me pictures of his kids. He wanted to look at the maps of Jerusalem and Bethlehem I’d picked up from the tourist offices. The journey continued through uninhabited spaces – save for shacks, literal shacks belonging to herders with sheep and goats running around. Then, he presented his phone, “look, my merich, my merich.” I took the phone and said ‘hello” to which a woman answered – merich..his wife (my marriage). The conversation:

(me) – hello?

(merich) – hello how are you?

– very well, how are you?

– how are you?

– (realising this could go on and also becoming shy…) You have a beautiful country, I’m very happy to be here

– (giggles)

– ok here’s your husband, bye!

– (giggles), bye bye, bye bye!

Shortly afterwards, a car drove into the minibus, it wasn’t a bad accident but meant we all had to exit and wait for a new minibus to take us the rest of the way. At the corner where the accident happened was a furniture store so I went in to charge my phone. Playing on the computer screen of the managers desk was the immensely popular Turkish show, Muhtesem Yuzyil (the soap about Sultan Suleyman, Hurrem and co.)

Turkish soap power

Turkish soap power

The replacement bus arrived, we continued to Ramallah. They walked with me until the center of the city and said goodbyes. Custodians of a stranger, they went their way and I went mine. I do wish I had exchanged contact details, but stopped, limited by adult onset shyness and thoughts of what communication means when you don’t share a common language. I don’t even remember their names but that endearing terms stays with me, “my merich.”

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Now this is truly a modern day nomad. Introducing Vulcanus Africanus

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…

    Understand, then judge if you must

  • 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.

    We all want the same things in life, really

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.

My Nomad is Calling Again…

We often forget that humanity had to be nomad for a very long period before arriving to the present times; we often forget because it’s hard to imagine leaving everything behind again, and again, and yet once more. But deep inside we unconsciously drive for that extra mile, we always want things to be a bit better, to move forward as much as we can…I guess we humans have never stopped being nomads; at least mentally.

But what about those literally modern nomads? Those who seek new sensations, new landscapes, new ways to experience life? Is there space for people like this in a western civilization that continually tells us how to love the things we have? A civilization with so many rooted milestones (studies, job, house, marriage, children… a cute little dog), that as soon as someone decides to leave that path people ask “why?”

Many people have asked me that question: what is it that makes you go? To be honest with you: I have no answer. There is no rational explanation; but I can describe the feeling. A sudden inner pressure that once there keeps growing, and growing, until one day nothing else matters than the next adventure, and you find yourself looking for jobs “anywhere in the world” as long as they are not “here.” Then, without further explanation, one might trade a very well paid job, a wonderful spouse and a brand new TV set for a filthy back pack and a map. Routine becomes a deep grave, and I bet you can find many nomads under medication because they think something is wrong with them.

But I must say that the above is the superficial level. Deep down every erratic being knows what the final motivation of an endless path is: continuous discovery. But the nomad road is not about discovering other places; it’s about discovering your limits. To push you full speed towards your fears; face your true strength and your humanity every single day of your trip. When one feels totally exposed to a world where nobody knows you and is able to survive, It’s hard to feel more alive than that. The downside is that once you try that kind of life there is no turning back…

So here I am, a little person, hearing that inner nomad calling again. Preparing myself to be painfully uprooted once more from people I dearly love in order to continue my journey. Saying bye is never easy, – I’d even say it’s harder every time – although a true nomad knows that there are no goodbyes, in reality they are just shorter or longer “see you later”s. Next stop? Who knows; the call has not been answered yet.

I have no idea where I’ll end up, but of one thing I’m certain: I’m grateful every step of the way, because thanks to my nomad life I have found an amazing “alternative family” on the way that I love very much. That translates into a huge mortgage of gratitude to be paid daily. You see? At the end we are not that different you and me 😉