A day in a fairy tale

Driving through Turkey and unknowingly getting caught up in a census when no one is allowed to travel.

– The privilege of ignorance –

We had just married about a year ago. It was 1973, our first big trip together. In some way, as it confronted us with a new life, perceived not only as me and you but much more as we and us, it was our honeymoon. Honeymoon – not only the kind of traditionally designated time to finally sexually enjoy each other without restraint, but – equally burdened by tradition – the first time you act as a couple, as an officially accepted entity in a new environment. It was the wonderful maturing of something that was born when we met, and it had definitely started a life of its own.

We had broken all our bridges at home (in Germany) and set out to drive as far away as driving was possible. Today I see much more how this urge to “go away” has clearly mythical significance. (We actually made it all the way to Singapore in a year). In Greece we got stuck for the first time because we could not imagine that anything could possibly be more beautiful than that. But then in Turkey, on the other side of the Bosporus, we knew that we had not seen anything yet. This was finally Asia, the real adventure was just beginning.

Istanbul had been our introduction to the Orient, but only now, out in the country, did we get the feeling of being on a different continent. We had made little progress the day before. The roads were teeming with life. Passing through so many little congested villages had slowed our travel to a crawl. People and animals on the road, slow-moving vehicles, and the ubiquitous dolmus held us up all the time – (little taxi-minivans that stop and go every few 100 yards to load and unload people and their jumbled belongings). We loved this exotic flair of strangeness and exciting aliveness, we were young and restless, and we were on “a journey around the world”, we thought.So we had deliberately started out very early that morning to finally get to really cover some distance toward our fabulous goal. In the cool morning hours the driving went surprisingly well. The smoke of the cooking fires lingered over the fields, it was early summer, and the fragrance of flowers was in the air. A few cows and donkeys trotted along the road, unattended, obviously knowing their ways by heart.There was no traffic – actually no traffic at all, as we noticed after a while. Great, we made terrific progress. No traffic – strange! We passed through a few villages and there were actually no people visible; doors were open, smoke was rising out of the chimneys, occasionally we were not sure whether we saw the shadow of a figure inside of a house, but there was absolutely nobody outside. We zipped through the narrow village streets, and there was just the echo of our own motor, no other vehicle moving, no people to be seen. We are in a strange new country, we thought, and we had seen so many unusual things before, so we laughed and made jokes about this mysterious land and enjoyed the hassle-free ride.Hours went by. We were in a quite densely populated area, somewhere east of Kayseri, in the center of Turkey, but we still hadn’t clearly seen a single human being yet and not one moving car, for half a day. We sailed on without the slightest disturbance, but we gradually felt a growing discomfort. Something was wrong here! There was so much evidence of human life taking place everywhere but no people! It was like a slowly accelerating emotional avalanche: My God, maybe something has really happened here, something terrible! Are they all dead? A mysterious catastrophe, a nuclear explosion, a devastating disease? Was this the morning after the end of the world? (Were we already doomed too?) We realized that we had been pretty much out of touch with the rest of the world for quite some time, that we indeed had never listened to a radio or any other form of news for months. Maybe a war had broken out in the meantime, and we missed it. We only half giggled about our horror fantasies, this was really strange!

This was our first really long trip together, somehow we felt it was the beginning of a new life. We thought it was “The Journey”. To actually return home, eventually, was an option but not really part of our plan (and, looking back, we couldn’t know then how indeed appropriate that notion should turn out to be). And it was still our honeymoon. We saw the world happening to us, exclusively to us. Maybe we had forgotten that the world around was quite busy rolling on itself, in spite of our fascination with ourselves. This kind of occurred to us, now, with ever growing concern.

Just about noon we approached another empty mysteriously deserted town. We had already covered more miles than we ever did in a full day. Suddenly, around a curve, we saw a barricade across the road and a group of soldiers ahead. They all had been looking in the other direction and seemed very surprised about us coming from the other direction. Jumping up, they grabbed their guns and looked at us as if we were coming from the moon. We slowly drove up to them and stopped.

They made a few brief attempts to talk to us in Turkish, and we tried English, German, Farsi, and French, nothing had the slightest effect to cast some light on the situation. I watched the soldiers and tried to read their faces. In a way they didn’t appear to be scared or excited or somehow moved by some dramatic event, unknown to us. Still, our presence seemed to be a major problem for them. Interestingly enough they were not so concerned with our vehicle. (Usually our van, a remodeled bakery-delivery van, used to draw a lot of attention in Turkey because it looked superficially much like one of their own dolmus but had – what a surprise – a bed and a kitchen and only two people inside. People, waiting beside the road, tried to flag us down all the time).

Eventually they made unmistakable gestures to us to leave the car and go with them. We were taken to an army jeep, driven to town, and led into a bleak room with only one simple table and a few chairs. Another soldier appeared, all nervous and important, with a lot of silver tinsel on his uniform, obviously an officer. And an older man in plain clothes came in – a Turk like directly out of a fairy tale: Black eyes, a white magnificent mustache like a broom, a nose that looked like a weapon, and this old ‘fez‘ on his head that always looks like an upside down flower pot to me. He looked somehow funny and extremely impressive at the same time, and I thought I could detect something like a sly grin under his enormous mustache.

We immediately addressed him and tried all our languages. His eyes sparkled dangerously and his eyebrows made strange movements that completely distracted me. I think he didn’t understand a word, but it didn’t seem to bother him at all. He looked at me, not blinking – with his pitch black eyes, it was difficult to tell what exactly he was looking at. Without releasing me from his gaze for a second, he made a few grunts that must have been words because everybody around burst into laughter. I peered around and noticed how everybody seemed to look the other way to avoid my glance. Did he say something foul about us? Then he slowly opened his mouth, a remarkable set of huge dazzling white teeth was exposed, they flashed in the dim light, and his laughter rolled like thunder.

He fetched a pen from his pocket and made a gesture that he needed paper. The paper was hastily delivered, he planted the palm of his left hand on it, and looked at us again as if he was about to write down his verdict. Only now did he ask us to sit down by pointing with his chin to the chairs. It was dead silence in the room. He had our passports and studied especially Parvin’s unique Iranian document, full of exotic unreadable stamps. “Turkieh Iran ghahrdahsh” he declared, holding both index fingers up and rubbing them against each other in a conspicuous theatrical gesture. I was almost certain that he was probably smiling under his incredible mustache, but I still couldn’t completely figure it out. Parvin blurted out in Farsi to confirm that Iran and Turkey were indeed very good friends, but he silenced her rudely with an unmistakable movement of his hand and started writing. He quickly wrote almost a full page. A rubber stamp was given to him after he had made gestures that left no doubt that that was what he demanded. He looked up and – no pantomime could have played it better: “where’s the ink pad?” – No ink pad! Everybody around was very embarrassed and contrite. His look was devastating; fortunately we were spared this time. He spat onto his palm, rubbed the stamp in his saliva, and hit it on the paper so hard that it actually left an engraved mark on it (as I found out later). Now he gave me the pen and pointed to the bottom of the paper. It was more than obvious that I was supposed to sign this ominous document. Was this my death sentence that still needed my own signature? I looked around and scanned the faces and mumbled a few protests. I mean, not only did I not have the slightest clue what he had written, I also didn’t even begin to guess what this was all about and what had happened. Everybody around seemed to hold his breath and watched me, nobody smiled. He tapped his finger on the table only once, and I took the pen and signed. And Parvin signed too. And his majesty said “tamam”, and everybody relaxed and left the room. When we were already outside, the officer came excitedly with the sinister paper and importantly handed it to us. He nodded his attestation, said also “tamam”, and pointed to the jeep. We were taken back to our car, the barricade was lifted, and we could go on.

We didn’t hesitate a second and drove off without trying to ask any more questions. The town was empty again, and the road was as deserted as before. We released our tension by resuming our wild speculations on what the hell had happened in this world when suddenly another barricade with soldiers came into sight. Same reaction of surprise and confusion, this time one soldier actually stood in front of us and raised his gun. I started to get really angry now and raised my voice in frustration, knowing very well that no one could understand me. Then Parvin suddenly grabbed the mysterious document, which I had almost forgotten, and presented it to the soldier who was angry because I was angry. Nothing could have had a more dramatic effect. He glanced at it only briefly, his face lit up like the rising sun, and I could see how he stood at attention and even slightly clicked his heels when he handed the paper back. He commanded the barricade to be raised, said “tamam”, and saluted.

Again we were driving on empty roads, and Parvin really tried to study this magical paper now. There was not a single word we could figure out except our own signatures. But it sure seemed to be dynamite. It didn’t take long and the next roadblock came up. Same procedure. This time we proudly held up the paper right away and prompted the wonderful result even faster. Serious, even hostile faces miraculously lighting up, military salute, “tamam”, and off we were. This was magic! During the afternoon there were many roadblocks now. Each time we were treated like celebrities. We forgot all about our horror speculations. We drove in the middle of the road and on the wrong side, it was all ours. We laughed and couldn’t wait for the next roadblock and the next “tamam”. Did we end up in a fairy tale? This was the country of the tales of 1001 nights after all!

Well, it took a long time before the secret was finally uncovered.

The next day we had a major breakdown with our van, (one of countless). Way up on a lonely pass a crucial part of the front suspension broke. We were surrounded by scowling, grim looking sheepherders who didn’t even try to hide their hostility while I was wiggling around in the mud under the car and didn’t have a clue what to do. To escape the slowly escalating tension, we finally simply drove on at 15 mph, expecting the whole wheel to fall off any minute. These sheepherders all over eastern Anatolia were another mystery of this country in those years. They were really hostile – very contrary to all the rest of Turkey. Out in the open empty spaces of Anatolia they suddenly stood beside the road and threw rocks at you. And they knew how to aim because they controlled their sheep by throwing rocks at them all the time. At the end of that day it finally happened and our windshield was hit and completely broken, and we had to drive in the open air.

All together we were so busy limping on and surviving, that this mysterious day of being the only accidental survivors of the end of mankind for a while or traveling through a fairy tale for a day, was soon nearly forgotten. It had to wait until somewhere in India, many months later, when we eventually met a Turk (under crazy circumstances), a very educated man, who would compassionately listen to our story and finally end our plight of ignorance.

The solution of the mystery was this: There was a nationwide census in Turkey that day. Turkey has a unique revenue distribution system: Cities, villages, counties etc. are taxed according to their relative demographic status, like probably pretty much anywhere else in the world. But in Turkey taxes are calculated according to the number of people actually physically present in a place, not according to who is registered there (and may in fact be somewhere else). So, in order to avoid that they are counted somewhere else and benefit another area it’s very important for communities to have all their heads physically present and countable on the day of the census. Logically, traveling is forbidden on that day; you must be at home to be counted. There are many migration workers out in the country of Turkey, so especially there, they try to prevent everybody from moving on that day. It’s said, they actually almost imprison people for that day, so they are counted at their place and not somewhere else. An ignorant tourist is of course a problem (in those days there were not so many yet). Our ticket for free passage was a declaration of a mayor that we were tourists and should be treated well and granted free travel.

For more about these times click: Driving through India or A gun story

             Klaus  written and revised between the 1990s and Dec. 2010

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One Response to A day in a fairy tale

  1. Justin Ling says:

    Mr. Kommoss,

    In May of 2012 you commented on a blog post my wife, Ashley (theparallellife.com), wrote about our time near Valdivia, Chile. I am Ashley’s husband and I’m going through some of our past blog posts and I wanted to tell you what an great post this is. I have yet to read more of your writings, but to travel to world in the days when you didn’t have GPS or the internet……well, people did, and I shouldn’t say that it was impossible. However, maybe people found themselves in more situations like you and your wife did in Turkey in those days. I find it both frightening and exciting!

    As younger travelers (well, mid-30s) we found ourselves gravitating more towards older travelers on the road. We enjoyed the stories we heard from these fellow travelers and I felt we learned more about what these people were really about. They had amazing stories like you’ve shared here and (I believe) are more interesting than the young 20-somethings that we met on the road. Don’t get me wrong, we met some really nice people who were much younger than us and we’ve kept in touch with them, but there’s nothing like listening to someone who’s traveled well and spent more time on this earth than I have. Thanks for a great post!

    Justin

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