Break Down

While traveling through Asia in a converted army truck with a group of zany folks from around the world, we were almost through Turkey when we broke down in a small Kurdish village called Yuksekova. The guidebook we used said not to stop there. Not for lunch, not for tea. It’s larger now, and more cosmopolitan, but back then it was a scary place to spend seven days.

We pitched our tents in a circle around the truck to avoid having any of our gear stolen. Clarence and I thought we were prepared. No. In our summer sleeping bags and thin rain jackets, we froze as the temperature went below zero Celsius every night. I’ve never been so cold, and I’m from northern Manitoba.

We actually invited another couple to sleep in our tent, for the shared body heat. Clarence and I put his sleeping bag over mine and squeezed into that small rectangle together. Our tent cot collapsed, of course. But it was actually warmer on the ground. To this day I’m an inveterate night time pee-er, so of course, around 2 or 3 AM, I’d have to go outside the tent. All the villagers were sleeping, but the packs of wild dogs that roamed the countryside were not. They would circle the village, growling and barking. Clarence would come outside with me and count down. “They’re about fifty feet away. Forty, thirty…hurry up. They’re almost here…hurry!”

Do you know how hard it is to pee under that kind of time restraint? I remember diving into the tent with the dogs snapping at our heels. We’d laugh out of sheer terror, then try to go back to sleep. It was so cold! When traveling, it was nothing for us to get up at 4:30, shiver as the cooking crew of the day made breakfast and then squeeze together in the back of the truck, our laundry hanging above our heads.

Meanwhile, in Yuksekova, every day a crowd would gather at the wall behind our truck for their favorite entertainment: Us. At first, the people seemed fairly benign. The kids would jeer and the old men cat call, but we weren’t too worried. All the women on our truck were wearing scarves so as not to offend the locals. But it soon became apparent that we could not walk around freely. We had designated bathroom breaks where the guys from our truck would encircle us as we walked over to the local outdoor biffy. This was a shack with a set of footprints on the cement that you crouched over and did your business. Unfortunately, many people had poor aim, so you had to watch where you stepped. While we walked inside our circle of men, the people of the village would throw things at us. It was very discouraging.

There was a fellow we took to calling Omar, (he reminded us of the actor, Omar Sharif) who would ride up on a big white horse and stare at us with a very intense look in his eyes. It was the children that were the most annoying, and through sheer boredom, our behavior became quite childish as we started hollering things like, ‘The Kurds are turds!’ Etc. On behalf of myself and my husband, I would like to apologize to the Kurdish people. They’re a brave lot and none of us were at our finest that week.

It’s weird when someone perceives you to be something you are not. All the women on our truck were thought to be hired prostitutes, because what self respecting woman would travel around like this? I’m careful with how I think about people from other cultures, now, because I know what it feels like to be misunderstood. That’s the great thing about travel. You think about Canada, and feel so deeply grateful. Hot water. Peace. Acceptance. No wonder refugees want to live here.

Anyway, one evening after supper, except for the guys who went to phone the British Embassy and the other guys who were scouring the country side for truck parts, the rest of us were sitting in the truck feeling very sorry for ourselves. Suddenly, all the men from the village showed up and started to rock the vehicle from side to side. Clarence was there with us and I remember standing in the middle, clutching him and crying, ‘We’re going to die in Yuksekova! Oh my God!’ I’m sure that was another instance where my mother was praying. Eventually they tired of scaring the crap out of us and went on their way. We tried bribing the village police with whisky, etc, but aside from accepting our gifts, they weren’t really all that much help.

On what I remember as our last night there, some local teachers from a nearby boarding school came and offered to host us for the night. We were thrilled! We folded up our sleeping bags and brought everything we owned so it wouldn’t be stolen. Clarence and I were offered a ride which we gratefully accepted. My husband got in the front with the driver, and I was ushered into the middle of the back seat. Two teachers sat with me, one on each side. I felt completely safe and comfortable until they attacked me. They were literally ripping my clothes off and Clarence had to shout at them and tell them that I belonged to him. He didn’t bother saying I was his wife, because they’d never have believed it. But they stopped. I kept thinking, these guys are teachers!

Culturally, we might have been from Mars. When members of the Iranian army drove into the village to take us across the border (a tale that needs its own post) I remember how courteous they were. They were all young, like us, and seemed happy to meet us. The Shah was about to be kicked out, and the country was going to change, but that day was wonderful.

Turkey is a beautiful country and Istanbul was very modern at the time. Women often wore no head covering at all. We went to Turkish baths where stone lion heads gushed water and where we reclined on a large marble dais in the center and were washed by women wearing loin cloths. It was very biblical.

When we went to another small town and asked if they had baths for women, they said yes! Very excitedly. We arrived at the baths (wearing our bathing suits, just in case) and every man in town was there, lining the walls and awaiting our arrival. Our guys stood in a circle behind us and held up their towels so we could have a semi private wash. Good times.

Other highlights from Turkey:

Clarence jumping into Peter’s arms in Lake Van when he saw an octopus in the water. The beauty of it was how gracefully Peter caught him.

A hail storm that delivered hail the size of hardball’s and sent us into hiding with pots over our heads.

Our friend and fellow traveler, Lynn Olson, being chased down the beach by an old man brandishing a burning piece of wood (He wants to kill me! she said. No one has ever screamed that loud, since,) because we didn’t know all the driftwood was his.

Turkish bazaars, (lovely!) Turkish Delight (yuck!) Fantastic scenery and an unforgettable experience. No breakdown will ever be as memorable. So, dear friends who are gathering for another reunion, here’s to great memories. I’ll write some more, soon. And here’s a couple photos.

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