Samsun was a medium-sized town on the Black Sea coast. It drew local tourists for summer. It was a conservative town. A bit shabby. It was plan B.
My original plan, Plan A, was to head home to Australia by going overland from Turkey to Australia. I could cross into Iran, skirt Afghanistan and head through Pakistan, India and work out my next steps from there. There would be several embassy visits, and waiting around for visas. Logically I would need to start with the most difficult visa, then work back to the easiest. I’d have to wait for each visa to be approved and then move to the next embassy. I’d need to work out travel plans, how to reach those border posts, cost of trains or buses, hostels. Turkey had an efficient transport system. I doubted the next 5 or 6 countries would come close. There would be countless connections, train stations and bus stations. And there would be a lot of waiting. After 5 months in the Middle East, I was tired. It had been fun, interesting, and it had definitely been an adventure. But it had also been, at times, hard work. As I left behind the Mediterranean coastline, I left behind the sunshine, friends and the westernised regions of Turkey. By comparison, 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, all the pensions and cheap hotels in my price bracket were full. This was an administrative city, not one geared for tourists and the only thing of interest was the Iran Embassy. Its front wall graphically highlighted Iraqi atrocities committed during the Iran-Iraq war now in its 5th year. A war that would end up costing over a million lives on both sides. I discovered that the embassies may be shut even longer than just the current holiday. After I read that I made up my mind. I headed to the central train station and bought a ticket. 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, also hidden behind the Iron Curtain. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the name of the sea, 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 backpack on a wire rack above the hard, wooden benches on offer. The train would take all day to reach Samsun, so the wooden bench was going to leave a distinctive impression on my rear end. 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 initially, it went swimmingly.
That was, until the ticket inspectors arrived. The Turks love a good uniform. With epaulettes, badges, medals and usually splashed with 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 chatted. 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, followed me in and closed the door behind them. Inspector moustache said: ‘Sit’.
I sat back on a comfy red leather couchette, beside the window, and noticed that Ankara was giving up its grimy built-up suburbs 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-breachable coastline 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 curtainless window into the compartment – it had heated up quickly. Sunshine lit up a broad rural landscape full of pencil thin poplar trees, rolling farm land and tattered villages. 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 the 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. I’d lugged it around the Middle East – finding other books to borrow or swap along the way. The book included wonderful stories about expeditions hunting Komodo Dragons through Indonesia and Bird of Paradise in Papua New Guinea. Attenborough’s rich and descriptive tales 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 headdresses adorned with Bird of Paradise feathers, their noses pierced laterally with a curved 6-inch bone, and they displayed sizeable penis gourds. The women wore grass skirts, big wide smiles, and nothing more.
As the train began to fill, so did our compartment. The inspectors could no longer shoo away the paying passengers. One young man, with an open smiling face, sat down beside me, his wife at his side, with a colourful scarf over her hair, and said ‘Merhaba’ (“hello”). I replied with a smile. He looked at the book in my hands, then motioned for it. As I handed it over, he went straight to the black and white photos. My heart skipped a beat. I saw what image he’d stopped at, his wife peered over his shoulder. I looked out the window at passing fields and villages trying desperately to lose my self in farmland, away from the train. Papuans in all their naked splendour, I’m convinced, were 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. If it was hot before, it now felt like a sauna. I imagined one of the older men who arrived later, 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 then 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. Somewhere in the darkness a few kilometers away were the fresh water shores of the Black Sea.
As I climbed off the train they all shouted, ‘bye bye’, smiling and waving as they walked away. They would certainly have stories to tell about meeting the stranger from Australia and his ‘interesting picture book’. Both of the inspectors shook my hand as I made to leave, and I could see genuine warmth. I asked: ‘Cheap hotel?’ and one of them, pointed me down the street. I walked down a darkened street, in a new town, tired from a very early start, tired from working hard to communicate, tired from the stress of being misunderstood. But as I walked out onto a main street, and could see a ‘Hotel’ sign poorly lit a few blocks down I thought of the warmness of the people I’d met, despite David Attenborough’s Full Frontal Natives. Cultural disaster averted, tomorrow would be different. But as I entered the lobby of what looked like a 1* hotel, I paused. I could smell sweat from a day in the sun. And I still smelt like a chimney.