Who would have thought that walking into a classroom of 10 years olds could give you sweaty palms, tunnel vision, and make your mind go blank. They say animals can smell fear, but after walking into a classroom in Beşikdüzü I can confirm that 10 years olds can also smell fear! More of that later…
One of the great things about cycling is that you have a lot of freedom, the massive downside is that you can only cycle so fast, and in the big scheme of things it is not that fast at all. This means we often end up having to leave a place earlier than we would like. Leaving Ordu was difficult, particularly after only spending one night enjoying the fantastic hospitality (thanks Ayşe and Serdal), but we had to be in Trabzon on a specific date to pick up a parcel that was being sent from the UK with a number of early Christmas presents to help us with the cold weather we are expecting. The mad dash from Samsun to Trabzon to meet this parcel consisted of a mixture of petrol stations (we love Turkish petrol stations) and local hosts for accommodation.
The penultimate day in the dash to Trabzon brought us to Beşikdüzü, a town we knew very little about, but this did not perturb us and, having not heard from our Warmshowers host we decided to sit tight at the bus station and wait. I busied myself cleaning Katie’s bike chain and tucking into too many delicious mandarins; Katie busied herself by chatting to everyone that wandered over to see what we were doing. This proved to be a very successful exercise. Within five minutes we had been invited for cay with Onur, and it just so happened that Onur was a friend of our host, so the appropriate calls were made and we were able to sit back and relax, safe in the knowledge that we would be sleeping indoors that evening.
Most çay houses in Turkey are full of men playing either Backgammon or Okey and this one was no different; the banging and clattering of game pieces on the respective boards and the good natured shouting is all part of the experience. Until this point in Turkey we had been mere spectators from afar as these games were played out very quickly, very confusingly, and very competitively; this was all to change when Hatıce (our host and an English teacher) arrived. Introductions out of the way, we rolled up our sleeves and jumped straight into a game of Okey. Time flew by and before we knew it we had been playing for three hours, had entertained many a strange look from the local experts and consumed close on 20 çays between us. It was around about this time that it was discussed and decided that we would visit the local schools to help give English lessons in the morning. Given that my accent is barely understandable in Britain I thought that it would be hilarious attempting to teach Turkish children, but nonetheless it must have played on my mind because my sleep was restless and by the time I was turning the door handle to enter the classroom my heart rate was higher than it had been for the entire journey.
On entering the classroom my concerns were immediately validated; most of the boys in the classroom were awful, truly awful children (read showing off in front of the substitute English teachers). To be honest this did not come as a surprise as we have seen the way that they are put up on pedestals in this part of the world and basically allowed to get away with murder (I have seen boys spit and punch their mothers). The boys that were not awful and all of the girls could not have been nicer and more enthusiastic about what was happening. After making a fool of myself to break the ice, the students who wanted to learn and behave were great and took it in turns to practice what English they knew (which, given they were 10 was quite a bit; massive credit to Hatıce). When the bell went for the interval I thought we had gained a reprieve from the children, but it was like jumping from the frying pan into the fire.
Given that we had arrived on our bikes (as we do everywhere we go), and they were parked at the front entrance to the main school building it was decided that we should go downstairs and check on them before visiting the staff room. What ensued was the closest thing I will ever get to being a celebrity and it scared me half to death. I am not too sure how many children were outside looking at our bikes (certainly north of 100) but at the appearance of both of us, we were cast into the spotlight and the mad crush started in an attempt to touch us, grab at us, and get our autographs; autographs FFS, it was madness. It was at this point that I thought (incorrectly) that it would be a good idea to take the “best” students (one male and one female) for a ride on the back of my fully loaded touring bike around the play ground. Bad idea; very very bad idea! This was akin to the San Fermín festival in Pamplona, except this time I was the bull trying to negotiate my way around the playground with an overly excited pillion passenger. I had essentially created the nucleus of a riot and the children were out of control with pure excitement; touching, pushing, grabbing… it was a genuine miracle no one was hurt. All this time Katie was left just shaking her head at her husband’s lack of foresight!
Respite from the madness was to be found in the staff room, negotiating our way to the staff room felt like being a Beatle in ‘64 and was easier said than done. At one point I was pinned up against a railing by half the crowd, chanting, jeering, screaming; and all I could think was Cave Creek. I honestly thought my time was up and the railing was going to give way, sending me plummeting to my death (landing smack bang on top of my touring bike from a reasonable height covered in excitable students). Entering the sanctuary of the staff room was wonderful although slightly concerning that the crush of students pressed up against the glass windows may enter inadvertently at any point. Katie and I both apologised profusely for the riot that we (read I) had started, but the teachers did not seem to care and probably half expected it (knowing children better that we do).
I now have a small understanding of why my teacher friends tend to need (rather than want) a large glass of wine on a Friday evening. Hats off to all teachers I say!
After the break it was time to go and visit the secondary school English students, and by now, with my nerves in tatters all I wanted to do was get on my bike and head for the closest hard shoulder. What we got in the classroom was a very fine group of well-taught, well-mannered students (entirely female). They all had aspirations of becoming either translators or English teachers once completing university. It was an absolute pleasure to talk to them, discuss our trip, and listen to what they had to say. When it came time to leave the entire class walked us to our bikes and then out of the school grounds to bid us farewell (whilst providing us with more packets of chocolate biscuits than is healthy). It was incredibly interesting that they took this time to discuss a number of pertinent issues with Katie. To a person, they have a deep mistrust of males, a thirst for education, and a desire to travel the world.
What really astounded us was the great level of English that everyone had (even the naughty disruptive boys). It was a credit to the schooling system and Hatice’s perseverance that this was the case. Sitting writing this blog the experience seems more alive and possibly more real than when it occurred, and it is fair to say that we absolutely loved everything about it. Show-off, spoilt boys and the ever-present falling dream included. Through the distance of time we both agree that it was one of our favourite travel experiences… EVER!
We would have loved to spend more time in Beşikdüzü, particularly teaching the older students and discussing topics with the teachers, but the parcel heading for Trabzon needed our signature so off we headed.
On arriving in Trabzon we had a message waiting for us… “Your parcel will not be with you until Monday”. This was a delay of four days, due to a complete and utter lack of competence and communication skills (no company names will be mentioned). We did at this point consider getting the parcel redirected, but our confidence in the company was at an all time low, and changing addresses may have meant we never got our Christmas presents. To say we were far from pleased about this situation is an understatement, I was livid; Katie not quite so much (but it takes a lot to rile her). Our frustration though was soon replaced with a feeling of “thank god”; it is funny how these things usually work out for the best. It just so happened that both Katie and I came down with some sort of horrible travel sickness (we don’t think it was food poisoning, more like a 24 hour bug), which would have been absolutely horrific if we were on the bikes. You know the sickness is very bad when McDonald’s is the ONLY food you trust to be able to stomach… dark days; but all part of the adventure.
From Trabzon it was a two-night/three-day cycle to the border, and in true Turkish fashion we were treated above and beyond anything that is expected. The night in Rize we stayed with Melih, a Warmshowers host, and spent the evening watching a rehearsal for a play he is acting in (completely in Turkish). This made great viewing, and it is remarkable what you can pick up whilst watching this sort of thing unfold in front of you, regardless of the language barrier. Rize, like so many other places we have visited really deserved more attention and time on our behalf. One night definitely did not do it justice. On leaving the city we were given a timely reminder that no matter how well you think you are cycling, or how many kms you have successfully negotiated, disaster can strike quickly and without warning. A very small lapse in concentration from Katie resulted in quite a painful crash (her first of the journey). Thankfully it was on a footbridge and no real damage was done (except for perhaps her pride), the culprit being a combination of black-ice and steel footpath (not your average cycle touring terrain). A lesson learnt, particularly with the copious amount of ice cycling we will be attempting.
Given our first Turkish experience (world’s most affronted border guard), it was only appropriate that we ended our time in this wonderful country with more memorable border banter. This time there was no Sarajevo Rose; there was no “soft-porn” being reviewed, this time there was absolutely no computer system up and running. What there was was unorganised mayhem and we were in the thick of it. There was absolutely no way we were being jostled out of our prominent position in the queue. Many times I had to explain queue etiquette to the dumfounded locals. Yes, I may have come across as rude, obnoxious, or perhaps even insane; but having spent my fair share of time in Britain it was my duty to explain queuing rules to anyone who would listen. Suffice to say we were not popular with the unruly mob, but we held our ground and the border guard must have realised he was dealing with queuing professionals as we were promoted from our position to the front of the queue/mob, processed (without the computer system coming back online), and off cycling much to the annoyance of the maddening throng. Welcome to Georgia!
We could have, and possibly should have stayed longer in Turkey, but the journey is long and we needed to push on. Turkey, we already miss you, but our paths will cross at some point in the future. Inshallah!