Samsun was a medium sized town on the Black Sea coast. Drawing local tourists for summer. It was a conservative town. A bit shabby. It was plan B.
My original plan was to head home and go overland from Turkey to Australia. Plan A fell apart. I would need to visit embassies, lots of embassies, and wait around for visas. After 6 months in the Middle East I was tired. Ankara, the capital, was grey, cold and closed for the three days of Eid Mubarak – the celebration that follows Ramadan. Ankara felt soul-less.
Everything was shut. I couldn’t find accommodation, and the only thing of interest was the Iran Embassy whose front wall graphically highlighted Iraqi atrocities committed during the Iran-Iraq war now in its 5th year and would cost over a million lives on both sides. I discovered that the embassies may be shut even longer than I wanted, and this made up my mind. I headed to the train station and bought a ticket. To anywhere.
Anywhere was Samsun, several hours north by steam train. Who could resist a steam train! They were rare these days. And it was cheap. Samsun sat on the Black Sea, a large body of fresh water, that stretched north to Soviet Ukraine, and east to Georgia. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the name, but I figured it must have a beach, and I could use it as a stopping point on a loop back to Istanbul. Steam train, beach, Istanbul, and work out what next from there. Easy.
I boarded the train’s 3rd class compartment at the end of the train – I was so stingy I skipped 2nd class – and threw my back pack on a wire rack above the hard, wooden benches on offer. The old wooden carriage was a faded green, and it filled quickly with locals. A small family sat down opposite me. They were curious but all smiles. We played a game I was now well familiar with. How quickly can I use up all 6 words of Turkish that I knew, test how many words of English they knew, and then start throwing my hands around like a mad conductor playing charades to communicate. This game and my current book would be entertainment for several hours. And it was going swimmingly.
That was, until the ticket inspectors arrived. The Turks love a good uniform. With epaulettes, badges, medals and usually splashes of red. The inspectors now looking down at me were no different. One of them, with a typically thick bushy moustache said: ‘Ticket!’. I handed it over. He stared at it. Then he stared at me. His colleague returned, and they conferred. They stared at me again, and the one holding my ticket said in a stern voice; ‘Come’.
Oh shit. What have I done. I looked at the family opposite, but they could offer no help.
Grabbing my rucksack, I followed them up the train and as we passed 2nd class I oddly felt like I was being led to the headmaster’s office, for what reason I was unclear. They directed me into a 1st class compartment, closed the door behind them, and then inspector moustache said: ‘Sit’.
I sat back on a comfy red leather couchette, beside the window, and noticed that Ankara was giving up its outskirts to countryside. They sat opposite me. Then, the questions began. “Where from?”. I replied, ‘Uc’. This was one word I’d learned early that normally got a good response: Turkish shorthand for ‘Australia’. Their faces lit up with big smiles. ‘Ahhh, Uc. Welcome’.
70 years earlier, Australian and Kiwi soldiers arrived on a rugged un-breechable coast line in an attempt to break through Turkish lines and reach the Dardanelle Straights. They were fighting for the first time under respective national flags as their now independent governments chose to support Britain in the fight against the Germans in WW1. The ANZAC legend was born, but they would be slaughtered in their thousands on the beaches of the Gallipoli Peninsula. Their fighting spirit however, would earn the grudging respect of the Turks, including their commander, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who would go on to found the Republic of Turkey and then drag it into the 20th century.
I could hear the rhythmic puff and wheeze of the steam engine just ahead. I caught whiffs of coal smoke as it found its way through cracks and gaps in the creaking old carriage.
“Work?”, they asked. ‘Electrician’ I replied as I pointed at the lights and switches in the compartment. They nodded and looked suitably impressed that I had a trade and wasn’t simply a student. As the questions flowed, I realized that the crime I’d committed was being a rare foreigner on their train and then buying a 3rd class ticket. This so offended their sensibility that they moved me to 1st class. Over the next few hours we used up those pearls of each of other’s language and introduced well-honed hand gestures and charades to learn a few more. They were surprisingly good at this game. At each stop they’d rush off to check tickets and then eject any passengers who’d entered our compartment – whether they had 1st class tickets or not. They wanted to practice English a little longer.
The sun now streamed through the window, the compartment heated up, and I was breaking into a sweat. I opened the window wide to let in some cool fresh air. What I got, however, was a huge belch of smoke from the engine. My eyes stung, and my book, clothes and skin were covered in coal ash. That steam-engine romance quickly died, I shut the window and brushed myself down. But I now smelt like a chimney. I picked up my book again, wiped sweat from my brow, and pushed myself further back into the faded red leather to escape the direct sun.
Each time the train slowed, and the inspectors left to check tickets, I lifted my book and read some more. I was reading David Attenborough’s “Zoo Quest’, a book I’d bought in London’s Natural History Museum before I left and had only just started to read. The book included expeditions hunting Komodo Dragons through Indonesia and Bird of Paradise in Papua New Guinea. Attenborough’s rich and descriptive stories were supported by a series of black and white photos of wildlife, BBC film crew and a few pictures of the natives. One picture showed highland Papuans: The men wore head dresses adorned with Bird of Paradise feathers, their noses pierced laterally with a 6-inch bone, and they displayed sizeable penis gourds. The women wore grass skirts, big wide smiles, and nothing more. This was going swimmingly.
As the train began to fill, so did our compartment. The inspectors could no longer shoo away paying passengers. One young man, with open smiling face, sat down beside me, his wife at his side, and said ‘Merhaba’ (“hello”). He motioned for my book. As I handed it over, he went straight to the black and white photos and I saw what image he’d stopped at, his wife peered over his shoulder. I looked out the window at passing fields and villages. Papuans in all their naked splendor was not something most Turks would normally see. There were giggles, laughs and whispered comments in Turkish as the book then got passed from hand to hand. The apartment was now full. I imagined one of the older men saying to his wife: “And that’s why my dear, Christians are not to be trusted. Keep an eye on the children, don’t let them anywhere near the stranger”.
My desperate attempts at explaining who David Attenborough was, that he made films about wildlife didn’t seem to translate that well. I was convinced that they were just rubbish at charades. But they laughed at my attempts and a short while later we arrived at our final destination, Samsun, which was now in darkness. As I climbed off the train they all shouted, ‘bye bye’, smiling and waving as they walked away. Both of the inspectors shook my hand as I made to leave, and when I asked: ‘Cheap hotel?’ and one of them, pointed me down the street. Cultural disaster averted, tomorrow would be different. But I still smelt like a chimney.