The Hitch to Istanbul

I walked up to the Bulgarian border patrol slightly buzzed, slightly hungover, Istanbul on my mind. I’d just had a wild weekend in Romania at a wedding celebration, the bride being a friend of a friend, and it had been a long hitchhike from Berlin to get there. Now I had a fair distance still to go until I’d hit Turkey, but a great friend living there, and another who’d be visiting at the same time.

I showed the guys my passport with no problems, then I waited alone on the shore for the ferry to come, no cars, no other pedestrians, just me and some stray dogs barking at me from a distance, too fearful to come close.

The ferry finally came, as did a big truck at the last minute, but not one I could catch a ride with. It took just a few minutes to get across the river, into Bulgaria, then through the checkpoint on the other side where I walked to the main road and began hiking along, sunset already upon me. I’d gotten a late start due to beers, beaches and typical good times.

Walking along, I was already thinking about a camping spot due to the low amount of traffic and daylight left. I was in a beautiful spot walking along the water and had no shortage of options, but I managed to get a ride from someone cruising along to the next town before the light went out.

Once in this town I started walking more, now with fewer options as far as trees and places to get out of the way for the night. I crossed a road in front of a car, the driver got my attention and ended up getting me a ride to the next town from there.

It was now completely dark, I passed through the town, of which there wasn’t much of a town at all, but still no trees, just open fields. I kept walking, still thumbing headlights coming my way when they did, but mainly looking in the distance hoping the trees I saw would be good enough to hide away and rest my tired body in.

I got to them only to discover that they were all property borders and there were many houses, the pickings were slim. Before I could get disappointed though, a van pulled over and I had myself another ride. It was a juice truck of sorts, that what the guy was hauling. He didn’t speak any English, but was quick to get his daughter on the phone to play translator. I told her where I was heading and had some back and forth and somehow managed to end up working out a prime drop off point on the far end of the city he was heading to, Pleven.

He gave me a loaf of bread he had as I hopped out and thanked him. Just as I closed the door fireworks started going off that I see in the opening of sky between buildings and trees. I have no idea what they were for, other than to put me in a great mood to counteract my tiredness.

I wandered through the dark and was instantly out of the city, the road was dark and lined with trees and bush going up a hill and onward. I walked along it for a good while, so many good spots to choose from that I became pretty selective and finally found the perfect spot a ways up hidden from everything, flat ground and comfy for the night.

In the morning I was up fairly early, munching on my new found bread and happily walking until a couple young guys gave me a good ride to the edge of the next small town. I began walking there too, finding myself surrounded by sunflower fields on either side. They were drooped down, but seemed to be waking up with the sun and opening their faces, I felt like I was waking up on pace with the lot of the, all was generally blissful and I forgot I was hitchhiking or going anywhere at all for a minute.

A truck hauling green glass passed me that had passed me earlier in the morning, we laughed together recognizing each other, moving at the same pace as it was. Shortly after another truck came along, this one stopped and gave me a lift to the next little city after making a couple quick deliveries.

I walked through the city and got a ride from an English speaking couple on vacation, they took just to the base of a mountain road. I waited in that spot for a short amount of time until a guy heading up the mountain gave me a lift. He was only going to a restaurant half way up, he didn’t speak any English except to say “Michael Jordan!” and smile when I told him I was from America.

I waited in the curvy pull out parking lot on the slope of the mountain, things were getting awfully beautiful around there and threatened to continue. A hero of a trucker picked me up burning up the mountain around the curves, then straight down it with vast views of the incredible Bulgarian beauty. Through cities, still cruising, I made myself an “Istanbul” sign sensing I was getting close, this was easily the breakout ride of the day so far.

He dropped me off at a truck stop and I stood there for a while hitching cars and trucks as they passed. Bored of standing, I picked up my pack and got to walking, this immediately triggered a car to pull over, three guys who took me up the road to another gas station.

I didn’t wait around there, I got to walking along the main highway again. A horse and buggy passed me along with many cars, then finally an off duty trucker, driving his car, gave me a ride a ways up closer and closer to the Turkish border. He was a happy guy with a little bit of weed that he offered me and then decided against it warning it may not be the best thing to have at the border, fair enough.

I began walking along the road where he dropped me, nothing but fields all around and light traffic. I found a pull out to stand at for a while and soon got a ride from a guy bound for Greece. He drove me to a restaurant in the next town that his friend owned, his friend was there and happily drove me to the other side of town where I could more easily get a ride.

I began walking from there, the road seemed far wider than necessary, the shoulder alone was wide enough for seven or eight trucks. That worked out well, a trucker saw me and pulled over to let me in. He drove me right up to the Turkish border, but was either going to be delayed there or didn’t feel comfortable taking me through the checkpoint, so that’s where I hopped out.

I got my passport stamped out easily enough, then walked through no mans lands as the rain came down heavier and heavier. I reached the many lines of cars all checking in, eventually someone got my attention and I gave a guy twenty euros for the Turkish visa and got my passport stamped once more.

Traffic was going slowly after the checkpoint, this was a good thing. A few people on bicycles passed me cheering me on, and me cheering them on. Soon I got a ride from a trucker who said he was bound for Istanbul, all was perfect We passed the bikers and I stuck my head out the window giving them another good yell and got one again in return from them.

We buzzed through the rest of daylight, sunflower fields a plenty, into the sunset and at last through the dark. I’d been trying to understand where this guy was going exactly, Istanbul is pretty big, I couldn’t figure it out, but he seemed to understand the name of the neighborhood I was going. So I thought anyway.

At last he stopped the truck and signalled I was where I wanted to be and in broken English gave me directions to walk down the street a certain way and I’d figure things out.

hopped out and began trying to orient myself with my map, but things weren’t clicking. I didn’t in fact no exactly where my friend Walter lived, just the general part of the city, so at this point I was looking for any streets that matched with the map or any internet cafe I could find.

After hand signalling, diagramming and passing my glitched out phone with the map to people on the streets, I’d gotten pointed down a hill. I walked along the road, still not making sense of things. Finally I saw a McDonalds, the international sign for WiFi. As I was trying to pull up a clearer version of the map and determine where I was at, someone came over who spoke English and helped me out. They explained that I wasn’t quite in Istanbul, just outside of it still, this explained why I couldn’t find any streets that matched up.

Now that I knew where I was, I had to find my way to Istanbul, again. I managed to get to a highway, this was going to be late night inner mega-city hitching at it’s finest, not ideal, but I was on a mission.

Somehow I got a ride right away, a van full of drunks who each knew just a few words of English each, all shouting at me, laughing, egging me on (for what I don’t know), questioning me and all of the like, an instant show, all without revealing where they were going. Again I just had to trust that I was pronouncing where I was going correctly and would get somewhat close.

The driver dropped a handful of the guys off and we kept going, he let me use his phone to call Walter, but it said the phone was disconnected. He dropped me off, somewhere, and I began trying to hitch another ride while figuring out where I was. I amazingly got a ride quickly from a guy bumping dance music heavy, but he didn’t go all that far.

I walked through the streets for a good while, pretty sure I knew where I was and that I was still pretty far, for a walker anyway. Down by the highway again a taxi pulled over, I quickly ran up to explain that I was hitchhiking and hadn’t much money, no Turkish money for sure. He didn’t seem to mind and offered to give me a ride anyhow.

I was extremely grateful, he got me to a busy part of Istanbul that I thought was in the right area. I walked around the busy people, it was midnight or so and the place was still jumping. I tried my hand at finding a loose WiFi signal, but found nothing. A guy tried to sell me mussels, he spoke English and ended up giving my some Turkish cash, a little reversal as it were, and very helpful as it was enough to use the internet cafe nearby.

Getting online I discovered that Walter was out of town for the night camping with his girlfriend. He’d originally told me to show up anytime, I just happened to pick the one time that wasn’t so ideal. From his message I was able to get a better idea of where he lived though, but I now had the whole night and part of the next day to fill, and hopefully with a bit of sleep somewhere.

I began my wandering, some people watching and exploring, seeking out where I could possibly camp, but that wasn’t too likely in the thick of the big city. I eventually wandered to a nearby park and found myself a bench, it would have to do. I went from sitting, to slumping, to fully laying down and catching spurts of sleep.

At some point I was woken up by two police officers telling me it was dangerous to sleep in the park, but not exactly ordering me to leave either. They left and I slowly sat up and started to gather what reality I was in. Before I could get it all together and get up, a couple guys came over and started talking to me. I sat for a minute as they asked where I was from and so forth and why I’d come to Istanbul, why I was in the park and so on.

They offered to take me to a cafe for a coffee, I considered it, but something seemed out of place. Before I could say yes or no, the cops rolled back in with there truck and instantly started yelling at the two guys and began checking their IDs and there was some shouting back and forth until finally the guys were given their IDs back and took off very quickly.

The one cop said, “Guys try to stick you, want to fuck you, gays. How long here?”, I gathered he meant how long I was staying in the park, the answer was as long as it took to walk out of it and move on.

Off I went, winding through streets and down hills similar to San Francisco’s, eyes open for anywhere I could close my eyes with out getting hit on or otherwise. At last I found a wide open concrete park of sorts, fountain in the middle, right by the water. I sat on the steps off to the side and nodded my head down, intermittent sleep is better then none. I moved from there to a bench by the water eventually, then back to the steps, sleeping and people watching clear until noon the next day.

I wandered from there closer to where I thought Walter lived so I’d be close. I climbed huge staircases, down plenty more steps, admired the freeway towering high in the air, watched a couple guys fight, read my book on benches and meandered around taking in the city. I managed another WiFi signal to find that Walter could meet me back where I started, the busy street from the night before by the park.

He wouldn’t be in until late that night, so I had plenty of time meander back, get some Turkish cash to work with and explore. Once back to the busy street, Taksim was the name of this place, there was much to see and plenty to smell. Girls from all over the world in all kinds of clothes, ice cream cones every few steps, meat cooking, street performers, businessmen marching, tourists dragging their feet and teenagers walking the same old walk.

I got my self a sandwich and a banana shake, read some more, went to the internet cafe and then waited by the fountain, people watching and then finishing my book minutes before Walter and his girlfriend appeared.

All was well once I met up with Walter, the journey was complete and I could relax for a while. We caught up on missed time, I told him about some of my recent travels and he told me the amazing story about meeting his girlfriend (who he’s now marrying as I post this, Congrats man!).

I spent over a week there in Istanbul, spending lot’s of time geeking out with my fellow geek, drinking Turkish coffee and giving Walter grief. He’s was fasting for Ramadan which limited his consumption up until towards the evening where the loudspeakers all over the city would start chanting, then the whole city would eat.

We met up with Nick and his mom one day for dinner and coffee, Nick is a friend of ours from Alaska who was currently on a year long trip around the world, I’d so far seen him Australia, Thailand and planned to see him again in a month back towards Amsterdam. We hung out again the next day, taking the ferry to the Asian side of Turkey and finding incredible food to enjoy as Nick and I always do.

Walter also showed me around the city, taking me to a big mosque with beautiful fountains around and a spice market full of bright colors and incredible smells, spices piled up as high as they possibly could be.

Finally the day came where I had to get a move on. Walter was also on the move, him traveling by plane and incidentally to the same place that I was, to the Netherlands. That’s where he’s from, and also where we were having a reunion of sorts in several weeks. I would by no means be heading there as directly as him, there was quite a bit to see on my zig zag back. I headed to the airport with him all the same and we chatted a bit more, then finally parted ways, him deeper into the airport, me out to the street to see how well my thumb could get me flying.

August 1, 2011 to August 17, 2011