A travel romance can have lasting consequences.
WHEN I SET OUT TO CIRCLE THE GLOBE ALONE, MY FAMILY was certain Id return in a coffin. Their only hope was that Id pick up a man along the way. My mother in particular was very keen to see me matched up, and actually encouraged me to pick up strangers. "Girl, why don't you find some nice, strong guy along the way to help you carry that big ol' bag?" she said. I rolled my eyes, but secretly I hoped-was sure I would, actually.
At the core of my heart, I knew God had plotted a Harlequin Romance ending for me. He had already X-ed the spot where I would bump into a Rugged, Sensitive, Intelligent, and Handsome Wayfarer who would take one look at me and say "At last." And then we'd walk hand in hand through the dusty Arabic market, oblivious to the flies landing on our faces, shopkeepers peering out from their fruit stalls to proclaim, " Elhamdu Villah! Thanks be to God!"
But it was shm pickins, at the hostels where I stationed myself. Shaggy, boozy boys in Tevas and the same shirts they'd worn since the overland journey from India didn't figure into my Hollywood fantasy. I can't respect a man who bargains down the price of a fifty- cent beer. They didn't seem to notice me much either, being in need of a haircut myself and always hunched over tea and a journal. My blue eyes drew the lusty brown locals to me like a magnet, however, especially in the Middle East. "Beautiful! I love you!" "Ishta! Cream!" they'd yell, hissing and clicking their tongues as I crossed the street. Sometimes they'd even snatch my breast, or worse I was told that racy American movies were to blame. The walls around my heart quickly hardened. "No, no, no; imshee, gidi- niz, go away," became my relentless mantra through the Middle East and Mediterranean, especially in Turkey, where the boys are clingier than sweaty clothes on a sweltering desert day.
Then I met Anonymous. Tired of the bikinied beaches and liquored discos of the Mediterranean, I had journeyed to Turkey's far east, to Turkey. The guidebooks warned me that PKK terrorists nab tourists there and make them eat raw snake and hedgehog, and that women should never travel to Eastern Turkey, especially alone.
So I expected to land in cultural outer space. Instead, I made instant friends who took me into their homes, schools, villages, businesses, and lives. When I refused to stay any longer, they passed me on to acquaintances in my next destinations, the hospitality building up like fireworks on the Fourth of July. I had never felt safer.
Two middle-aged Dutch women I met along the way gave me a card for the Biiyiik Anonymous hotel, and told me to ask for Anonymous, the hotel manager. "Say hello for us," they said as I boarded a bus for Van, a historic city near Turkey's Iranian border.
The women didn't know my type, or even that I was on the lookout, but Anonymous fit the script. Kind, witty, and expressive. Hazelnut eyes, almond skin, and raspberry lips. Anonymous took me into his office, we struck a fair bargain on a room, and sealed the deal over dinner.
Anonymous took me in soquickly and smoothly that I didn't have a chance to say no, or even know what I was saying yes to. My second day there, Anonymous gave me a tour of Van and took me out for lunch, gestures I marked up to brotherly Kurdish hospitality. Still I wondered, was he really just being nice, or was he after something else?
That night I got violently ill from the cold cucumber soup his sisters made with unpasteurized yogurt. Anonymous sent me up toast, cherry jam, and peaches with pink carnations on the side "roses," as he called them. Suddenly I knew he was courting me.
While my stomach recovered, Anonymous took me to lakeside restaurants, abandoned islands, and tea gardens. We watched sun-sets, laughing at the big orange as it slipped into Lake Van, and darkness left us huddling against the wind.
Anonymous introduced me to the famous cats of Van, snowy Persians with one blue and one green eye. At his family's apartment, Anonymous's sisters served tea to us, and his widowed mother welcomed me in a voice gruff from hand-rolled cigarettes. I played with his henna- fingered nieces, who took to me like an auntie. Back in his office, Anonymous strummed jangly chords on the saz, serenading me with mountain legends in a booming cowboy tenor. "Whatever you want, boss '" Anonymous joked. A week became a century.
One evening, we climbed to a crumbled hilltop castle a thou- sand-some years old. I gasped at the pale green of Lake Van, crisp against the violet sky and zebra-striped mountains. Sitting at the bluff's edge, we peered down at goats, mosques, and merry makers, tiny and innocent beneath us.
In such slow spaces, Anonymous unfurled his life and boyhood for me. Stealing eggs from baby birds, being frightened by the big talk- ing box when the village got its first TV, struggling with school because he spoke no Turkish. To fulfill his military duty in Ankara, Anonymous flipped burgers and played in the army band. Working for his family's hotel, Anonymous learned English and how to be gentle. Now he dreamed of opening his own tour company and traveling to "Indiana Jones" places like Africa and Arizona.
I also learned about Anonymous's culture. At night, we slipped out onto the terrace on top of the hotel and swayed our bodies together under the stars. We promised to look at the night sky once we parted and to remember we were seeing the same moon. " Seni seviyorum! I love you so much!!" he'd say. He interpreted my silence as not "feeling free with my feelings," which was somewhat true. I couldn't tell him that the feelings weren't really there.
Anonymous was a welcoming oasis for a lonely wanderer. But with each hour, I fell deeper into his heart, an awkward place I couldn't quite seem to leave. Beyond the deep voice, broad shoulders, and sculpted face, Anonymous was still a boy, far too delicate for my rough, fickle hands.
That didn't stop me from enjoying Anonymous's bed, an ink-blue, anti-evil-eye charm staring out from the wall as our bodies heated up. But though Anonymous got so aroused the veins on his forehead bulged, I refused to take my pants off. It had all gone too far already. Instead, I let him escort me back to my room and kiss me good night, hearts and groins thumping.
Every day I tried to leave, Anonymous gave me spaniel eyes and I gave in for another day. "Thank you, thank you!" he said, twirling me in the air. He thanked me again with gifts I didn't want but couldn't turn down, including his Nazar Boncuk, the blue-eyed talisman. Anonymous said it would protect me from unwanted attention.
But I had to pluck the stars from his eyes eventually, moving on to the green meadows of Romania, the sandy beaches of Thailand, the snowy heights of Tibet, every day falling in love with a new corner of the world. When I left, Anonymous was in such bitter despair that I swore off travel romance for the rest of my trip. "You drank me like a cup of tea," he said when we parted, literally hitting his head against the wall.
He was right. I devoured his life story, his culture, and his love mainly to satiate my curiosity.
Three years later, Anonymous's phone calls still haunt me here, back in my San Francisco apartment, reminding me to be careful what I wish for. The azure eye looks out from my wall, now watching over my solitary sleep. In spite of my mother's continued prayers, I've yet to find a man. Anonymous's cursed kiss was the last to cross my lips.
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