Rose Hips and Hard Times | Travel | Smithsonian
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Rose Hips and Hard Times

Sultan packs me a goody bag with tomatoes, cheese and peppers so hot I can’t even touch them. I timidly suggest paying and she tilts her head back sharply with a quick tsk—"not a chance.”

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The author runs on empty as he pushes his bike over rough terrain in the Murat Mountains.

There’s something I must address: On this so-called “adventure,” I’m carrying a laptop computer. I’m not particularly proud of this fact. I keep the thing hidden deep in my rear left pannier, and I don’t usually turn it on in camp. But, hey, many travelers are carrying electronics now. Wi-fi zones have become ubiquitous—if not always safe—in virtually every tourist-savvy spot in Turkey, and even in the villages, the technology is arriving as locals get rigged up for the Internet age.

So, how does the presence of this thing, which weighs not even three pounds, affect the essence of adventure? Hardly at all. In fact, it adds an element of danger to just the mildest rain squalls. Moreover, the computer doesn’t have Internet-anywhere capability, which means, in spite of Google’s aerial Earth-view programs, I can still enjoy the most thrilling and sacred turn that a traveler may meet: getting lost. I’ll always take joy in reading paper topographic maps, and if I were with a partner who pulled out an iPhone to find directions back to the main road, I think I might smash it with a bat, like Quint did in that scene from Jaws. Anyway, one thing is certain: The era when cyclists and backpackers carried typewriters is over.

It’s morning, and I moo like a cow and squeeze at a pair of invisible teats to indicate to a man in the road that I want fresh milk from a village cow. The man, named Adem, is dressed something like an El Paso caballero, with a leather hat and a vest, and his handlebar mustache bounces gladly as he tells me that fresh milk is available. He walks me into the adjacent village, a quiet little place of 200 people called Orencik. At the café, the men are gathering for another day on the stoop. Adem introduces me, and the men begin chattering about “the American.” Adem is a superb host, energetic and selfless, and he bounds away to find me some milk. In just a moment he returns to report that he’s found a household with a ripe heifer and that milking is underway. “Super! How much for a pint?” I ask. The old man beside me wearing a fiery orange head-wrap raises his cane, jesting that he’ll brain me before I leave a dime here. In a moment, a lady delivers a pail of steaming hot, boiled milk. Adem serves it into glasses and we drink. When the milk runs out, we have tea, and when that runs dry, we talk.

Adem, at left, fills a bottle with fresh milk for the author in the town of Orencik.

Eventually, our conversation peters out, and silence resumes her reign. Though the traveler in me itches to move, the anthropologist in me decides this is an invaluable opportunity for some deep cultural immersion. And so I sit with the men, all of us still as tombstones. The water in the mosque fountain trickles across the street. The wind brushes the dry leaves. The men rattle their prayer beads. An hour passes, and the anthropologist in me feels a sudden urge to go for a bike ride. I stand, shake hands all around, hold the warm bottle of milk to my heart, offer a bow of gratitude and bid farewell to the good little village of Orencik.

I continue northward, on a meandering route that I guess will take me to Istanbul in two weeks. The region consists of scrubby halfhearted hills. I much prefer real mountains, with high windy passes that get cold at night and summits that scrape the sky. Nonetheless, I manage to contrive a good adventure, getting lost and hungry for two days in the Murat Mountains. It takes some concerted effort. With just 30 almonds and some raki to my name, I leave the asphalt and head into the higher peaks. Going hungry, you understand, is a basic requisite of real adventure. The relevant works of Nansen, Nordhoff and Hall and Orwell teach us this. Most times in our opulent modern world, we don’t have the guts to go hungry—or if we do, some nice melon vendor by the roadside calls us us over and carves us up a six-pound fruit packed with calories (and won’t even take any money), spoiling the adventure. But not today. I’m out of almonds by late afternoon, and the gravel roads lead past nothing but a few cabbage patches and barren plum orchards – and figs don’t live at this elevation. I grow weak and must walk on the steeper grades. I resort to eating rose hips. For dinner I have several stolen wormy crab apples and a glass full of raki. I type the day’s travails into my laptop. Times are hard. Life is good.

Early in the morning,  I enter a village called Ovacik. I’m ravenous, and I approach a man in the street. “Please, cheese to buy? Money money?” I sound like an idiot, but he leads me through the streets of dirt, stones and rubble to his home. As we pass a side alley, he beckons me to stay in the rear as he picks up a large heavy stick. A black dog guarding a doorway lowers its snout and curls its lip. The man faces off with the mongrel like a gladiator and with a flick of his head motions me to hurry past. If only I had brought my spear! We’d be a formidable duo. He backs away and tosses the weapon, and we carry on.

He is Ahmed and his wife is Sultan. I foolishly plod inside their tidy home wearing my shoes—a breach of Turkish custom—and they have a minor panic attack as I tiptoe back and remove them on the doorstep. I really just want to hand over five bucks and leave with a brick of cheese, but their Turkish instincts kick in and they treat me to a two-hour breakfast. Making conversation is laborious, and my Lonely Planet dictionary isn’t helping. It contains translations for “babysitter,” “beach volleyball,” “bribe” and “reiki” but not for practical applications like “elevation,” “mountain pass” and “bear” (which is ayi). I have to roar and claw at the air to ask if the animals live in the Murat Mountains. Ahmed says, “Yok,” meaning “none,” though I swear I saw scat the night before. Finally, Sultan packs me a goody bag with tomatoes, peppers so hot I can’t even touch them and homemade cow cheese. I timidly suggest paying for it and she tilts her head back sharply with a quick tsk—body language for “not a chance.”

The food comes in handy, for it’s another long day of dirt roads and rose hips. Near dusk, I hit asphalt and zip downhill toward the city of Gediz, sparkling in the valley below. I find a loaded roadside peach tree, take several and then ask a goatherd if I can camp in the hills. He leans forward on his staff and looks outward, surveying the landscape. He sweeps one arm across the view, palm facing up, and smiles. “Anywhere you like.”

And under an oak tree I spread out my tarp and kick off my shoes. I have five juicy peaches and a hunk of cheese. I also have a splash left of raki—plus six hours of battery time on my laptop. Life is good.

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