Difference is not the same as danger

Now I am travelling in rural eastern Turkey things are quite different from the atmosphere in the tourist towns, in these places you see all sorts of western clothes and some young ladies have clearly not read the memo on cultural sensitivity ,wandering around in short shorts and light tops, however in these areas tourism is big business so these things are tolerated and understood, so much so that mosques that are regular toursit sights offer shawls and skirts to visitors so they can cover up – funny thing is to see the guys walking around in skirts because they wore shorts.

The countryside is another world…to get across to Iran we have two days in central Turkey a hundred miles or more from the nearest tourist sights, after a long days drive we came to a small town, we needed a supermarket/bakery for food and would have liked coffee, but it is Ramadan or Ramazan as they seem to say here and 4pm in the afternoon. We feel the difference as soon as we hit town, every lady in the street is wearing strict Muslim dress and headscarf, the guys all in long trousers and long sleeved shirts, most with beards and some with traditional hats, the feeling of difference continues as folks stare at the car and then at the five of us in our modest but western style clothes.

It is apparent that this is a pretty traditional town, there are many restaurants and of course café’s line the streets – every single one of them is shut as it is not yet nightfall and no one is eating or drinking. Shopping is of course fine, so we split up looking for supermarkets and bakeries, with little English spoken both myself and my Farsi speaking Iranian friends resort to my very handy picture book and a lot of hand waving. As they are paying – this always takes a bit of time, as they love to haggle over every cent just for the fun of it – I walk back to Nelson where Maryam had been keeping an eye on things, by then a few folks had gathered on corners to look at us including a few policemen on the other side of the road led by an older sergeant pacing up and down while casting suspicious looks in our direction.

On the surface this could seem like a bit of “a situation” but I thought it was time to put into play the tactics I had read about in guide books and travellers blogs so I smiled and waved to the senior police man and stepped into the road with open hands walking towards him. The folks gathered on the corner and my Iranian friends were all watching with interest and were as surprised as I think the policeman was. Regaining his composure he drew himself up, shook my offered hand and said “welcome, were you from?” within a few moments we were all in a group looking at the car, chatting in a friendly way,  We were just some travellers passing through a small town both sides just not sure how to react to each other and unsure if the others pose some sort of unkown type of threat. With the gesture of friendship the handshake and walking across to talk all the tension went out of the air and we were assisted to find the fresh bread we needed and directed to a camp site with friendly waves just 30min later

Sometimes difference is just difference, not danger

The theme continued the next day when we tried to find a wild camp on the south side of a lake off the main highway that we had spotted as promising on a map, I drove round a dusty corner on a rough track to find myself sliding to a rapid stop in the middle of sandbags and machine guns just in front of a barrier and slightly past the first guard with a rather cross looking officer with a clip board in front of me.

Again following the system I smiled, put up my hands in a universal “sorry” gesture, I said to my friends, “maybe foreigner leads here” thinking that I could act stupid (which would not be hard, as it was already clear we hand landed in some sort of military protected area) so got out of the car, with my ipad map in hand. Once again, following what I had been taught about Persian culture, I led with a handshake which was accepted with a smile and then officer said “were you go!” regaining some sternness. I pointed on the map at our hoped for route and he firmly said “no” pointing back the way we had come, I smiled and said OK OK sorry and walked back to the landy for an awkward five point turn between the sandbags but smiling and waving to the soldiers…

We camped in a little campsite we found just 200m down the road and the owners and his family were very welcoming, later in the evening the daughter showed us along the shore where a group of six guys were sitting, clearly checking us out, so we gave them a bit of a wide berth, on the way back one guy skipped a stone on the water quite successfully so I clapped and gave him the thumbs up.  He laughed and asked the inevitable “were you from” and we all started to try to better his record of 9 skips, once again in a few moments the atmosphere had moved from both groups eyeing each other with suspicion to sign language laughing skipping stones and hand waving.

One of the daughters told us, as we moved apart after 15min of fun, that these were the self same soldiers who had been manning the checkpoint earlier. They were out for a walk along the lake before breaking the fast at sunset when the Mosque would announced the end of the day…15 min after that two of them arrived at our camp with a plate of cooked chicken and salad for us to share, all smiles and wanting to look around Nelson, which of course I happily obliged.

So at the end of this amazing educational day I am sitting in a big group of dancing Iranian and Turkish young people a mixture of my friends, the owners daughter and young son and her four friends who have come to chat to the outsiders, swap music (Nelsons handy battery wifi speakers on full blast) and clapping and laughing over google translate, this last scene enabled by one of my friends Maryam being a lady so they are allowed to walk with us and join in as “big sister” is with us, the father comes along at first and we make tea for all as tradition dictates. As I went to the toilet I could hear the soliders singing around their camp fire just 30m away from us as the stars came out.

All this day, and even the privilege of travelling with my Iranian friends all down to the simple advice, smile and offer the hand of friendship, most times you we be surprised and delighted with the outcome.

About Gerry Mulligan

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