Lessons in Turkish Hospitality

Chris and Stefan meet at camp
95 kilometers, AKA time to look for a campsite. We reached our goal for the day, and the ride had been a demanding one. The Western stretch of the Black Sea coast in Turkey is beautiful, but cyclists pay for the stunning vistas with brutally steep climbs out of narrow gorges and tucked away valleys. After tackling a number of hills with 10 percent grades, our thighs were begging for rest.

We spotted a patch of grass next to a stream that looked like a good spot for our tent, and hidden enough from the road so that we wouldn’t be bothered. We began to roll our bicycles down a hill to the location. Then we noticed the lone farmer working in his orchard close by. The grass patch was on his property.

Because we didn’t feel in the mood to cycle any further, we decided we’d ask the farmer if it’d be OK to pitch our tent on his land.

“Merhaba” I said, meaning “hello” in Turkish.

The clarity of the conversation went downhill from there. Said farmer knew about as much English as I did Turkish.

I walked to the edge of the ridge and pointed to the piece of land, mimicking the action of setting up a tent. He paused for a moment in thought, and then nodded his head in agreement. Now we were getting somewhere. In my mind I was already looking forward to cooking up a brimming pot of pasta, and watching the sun set over the farmer’s golden wheat fields.

But then the farmer drew the number 25 into the ground, and made a motion of payment with his hands.

“Bummer” I thought. “He wants us to pay.”

I pulled my pockets inside out, to indicate we had no money. The farmer laughed, shook his head, and put his arm around my shoulder. “No no, OK OK” he said. He pointed to a spot next to his wheat field, showing us we could set up camp right by his house.

“Great” Morgan said. “Let’s do it.”

We wheeled our bikes over to the spot, along with a German bicycle tourist named Stefan. Stefan had randomly shown up during the negotiation with the famer and wanted to camp with us. Given the language barrier, we decided not to even try to explain to our host that Stefan was a separate cyclist who we had met minutes earlier on his driveway. It was a bizarre coincidence.

While the three of us set up our tents next to the wheat field, the farmer came over to talk with us. It was lighthearted banter until, again, he traced the number 25 into his palm, pointed towards Morgan’s tent, and mimicked the act of paying.

Stefan, Morgan, and I were disappointed. It seemed obvious he wanted us to pay — something we had no intention of doing. We decided we would just have to pack up all our stuff again and leave. Morgan motioned to the farmer that we would get off his property.

But again the farmer laughed, shook his head and urged us to stop packing. He then made an eating motion with his hands. Now I was really confused.

“It’s ok, we have our own food” I said, showing him the pasta inside my pannier. “No no” the farmer said forcefully, pointing toward his house. He was inviting us to dinner.

Feeling slightly uneasy at the whole situation, Morgan, Stefan, and I were shown to a table outside his home. Two young women emerged from the house bearing two large loaves of Turkish bread and a 2 liter bucket of some of the freshest, most amazing yogurt I have ever tasted. The farmer joined us at the table with his father, a gruff old man of 84 with a scraggly beard and tired pouches under his eyes. He kept pointing at Stefan’s skinny arms and urging him to eat more. Given the fact the yogurt tasted like it had been made within days of our arrival, we had no problem fulfilling his request. We stuffed ourselves.

Of course, we grossly miscalculated. The feast wasn’t over — what we had thought was dinner was merely the appetizer. We were shown inside, where we encountered the rest of the family – wife, grandmother, two daughters, and a son. They brought us Turkish Chai, biscuits, homemade soup, and mounds of fresh salad. We were humbled at our hosts’ hospitality. Looking at the modest house, I could tell they were going out of their way for us. I suspected they didn’t usually eat this lavishly.

We finished our plates, battling a food coma as we were getting ready to go back out to our tents to sleep. But right as the table was being cleared, the farmer said the word “Kamp” and, for the third time, made a payment motion with his hands.

This time it was really uncomfortable. How could we refuse to pay now that we had been fed by his family? And here I was thinking we had put this issue behind us already.

The credit is owed to the German, Stefan, for finally figuring it out. The whole time the farmer didn’t want us to pay to stay on his land; rather, he was using the word “kamp” to ask Morgan if he might buy his tent, and for how much. It was a simple matter of letting him know that the tent wasn’t for sale, and the matter was put to rest.

It was a scenario that confirmed a few things for me. It added yet another validation to the selfless hospitality of Muslims in Turkey that Morgan and I had experienced from Vize, Istanbul, and the Black Sea. It showed how language barriers can make an innocuous situation unnecessarily stressful. And last, I think it showed how we came in with negative expectations that colored the way we understood the farmer’s proposal. While it’s important for us to be on our guard, sometimes we might be too much so. After all, I’m glad we didn’t leave. We would have missed out on a very privileged cultural experience.

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One Response to Lessons in Turkish Hospitality

  1. pH says:

    Chris, your video presence and writing loosen with each report; as a fan, the pleasure is in finding the subtleties emerge in the tale; it makes for seamless transport, full immersion .

    This entry tied a knot in my throat. The pathos of that humble family wishing so much for a tent… your staggered discomfort and relief and discomfort again…the bottomless feast…the Third Man emerging on cue as if he belonged, circumstances not allowing you to consider the options…It’s the best road story of the trip thus far. As for the hosts, if you have their address to give me, I willmsend them a tent, so touched was I.

    Well done Chris – Well done Morgan

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