I spotted the figure sitting by the side of the forest track long before he spotted me. Old, hunched and visibly tired of minding his little herd of goats, it required the old man a seemingly herculean effort to get to his feet. Feet that, upon closer examination, looked more like gnarled tree roots than actual feet. He came over with a joyful “Merhaba!” as I passed, and I shook his heavily calloused hand that felt like grabbing a bundle of dry, old twigs.
He asked if I wanted to join him for tea. It was a hot afternoon despite the winter season and I gladly accepted. I followed the tree stump of a man to his hovel, a little shack built out of scrap wood and covered with tarps. Most herdsmen live like this in the Turkish countryside, moving their dwellings with the seasons and the needs of their goat herds.
Once inside, he motioned for me to sit on the carpeted platform that was the living room. While he was busy putting on the kettle, I took the time to take in the interior decoration of the place. As far as shacks go, I thought to myself, this isn’t even that bad. The plastic tarps covering the outside made for a warm shelter, and the wood stove in the middle of the room hinted at an ability to further heat the place, when necessary.
Wall decorations consisted of a small collection of sweaters, pants and t-shirts and a large hunting rifle. Upon following some wiring along the shack’s corners I noticed the man had access to radio and even a television screen. What looked like absolute poverty from the outside seemed not as severe when examined more closely.
Mehmet (as his name turned out to be) was poor, though. I therefore refused his offer of Menemen, a Turkish egg dish, seeing as he’d probably be forced to use what seemed like his last few eggs. In true Turkish fashion he kindly ignored my protests as he continued to make me lunch anyway.
We sat down to drink tea, eat some eggs and have an attempt at conversation while both not speaking each other’s language. My phone was turned off and buried somewhere in my backpack, so Google Translate wasn’t able to come to the rescue this time. I nevertheless was able to teach Mehmet the words for ‘sugar’, ‘egg’ and ‘okay’, which he then happily continued to mutter for the rest of my visit.
At some point I noticed him scrawling something in the dirt with a stick while softly talking to himself in Turkish. It was at this point I realised he was probably going to ask me for some money; something which at this point I had no trouble with. Considering his relative poverty and my relative privileged status, combined with the fact that I just ate his last bread and eggs this was only to be expected and perfectly fine. In my head I calculated the local restaurant price of two cups of tea and a lunch dish, and came out at a fair thirty Turkish Lira, around five Euros.
When escorting me outside he produced a flat rock, and scrawled something on it. All right old man, name your price, I thought while lifting my backpack on my back. When he showed me his price, I was a little shocked to see the number ‘100’ written there. When asked to confirm, he eagerly nodded, “Yes, yes, one hundred, please, money?” I moved to grab my wallet and explain I would be willing to give him maybe fifty lira, no more. I then noticed that I only had a hundred-lira note left in there. Damn.
Seeing as he would probably deny having any change anyway, I decided I’d let the old swindler have his little win. In the end, he had been really hospitable. You know, up until the scamming. And besides, am I really in a position to complain? Travelling the world, being able to be here at all? What is a hundred-lira note compared to the freedom my Dutch passport and resources offer me?
From my experience, getting invited for lunch, tea or a night’s sleep is pretty common in the Turkish countryside. In general, Turkish people are extremely welcoming to strangers and everyone hiking or passing through the country will have some story or another of a warm welcome into someone’s home. I have had the pleasure of many more such invitations, almost all without the need to pay for them afterward!
However, this encounter will always stick with me as an example that this isn’t always the case, especially where years of tourism may have corrupted the local customs somewhat…