A one month voluntary project in Turkey during Ramadan would be the perfect cure for my battered liver and bruised ego. Travelling there alone intending to meet a group of other volunteers I jinx myself immediately by asking the fatal question “How hard can it be”?
”Six hours my ass”. I say aloud after two days of being hopelessly lost in Turkey. The bus bounces along a dirt road somewhere South of Istanbul and my tattoos, mow-hawkish hairstyle and long beard have gained the full attention of everyone on board. I feel uneasy, saying hiya to the strangers eyeing me up not knowing that hiya is the Turkish word for testicle’s and that everything about my appearance spells scum in this part of the world.
I arrived late in Istanbul’s airport due to technical difficulties which led to me having to get a later plane – They couldn’t find the flight crew- and so begins my two day journey I’ve been told would only take six hours to Balikesir.
Explaining at the station where I was going, I’m given my ticket and climb aboard the wrong bus. After many hours we change bus and then another and I begin to wonder if I’m still in Turkey.
I’m here to take part in a voluntary project for one month building a wooden summer classroom in the garden of a school for mentally disabled children. It comes as a welcomed surprise as I was originally told I’d be giving lectures on road safety, but this seems a thousand times better and I’m definitely not complaining.
While our bus stops at a grubby little town I’m met by an old Gypsy woman complete with headscarf and tattered, loose fitting clothes. Taking my hand she talks to me then disappears back into the crowd. A young student standing beside explains that she was praying for my soul. ‘Do I look that bad’? I ask. She says nothing and continues to read her book.
My massive detour through the barren wastelands of Turkey allow me to see some awe-inspiring dumps and shit holes where towns seem to be made up of sticks, stones and mud, but I forget the cramp in my legs and hunger I feel as we reach the coast and I’m treated to breath taking views of sandy beaches and jagged mountainous valleys.
I remain on land as my bus boards a ferry perhaps going to Greece or somewhere else that’s not Turkey and after five minutes of waving wild gestures, hand-signals and pointing on my map a soldier finally puts me on the next bus heading for Balikesir free of charge.
Standing at the bus station with my suitcase looking as bad as I feel, I’m met by a man from the voluntary project. Are you the English guy? He asks me. I do well not to knock him out.
Often I would wake in the dead of night to the sight and sound of my Romanian room-mate laying siege to an army of mosquitoes using a flame thrower made up from a deodorant can and a lighter. Too tired to care I roll over and face the wall pulling the duvet over my head as shelter from the roaring fire almost engulfing our room.
My friend Gabby can’t wake up in the morning and I’m given permission to use any means necessary to drag his lazy ass out of bed to which I take much pleasure in doing so. Beating him black and blue with my fists, a body shot with a wooden chair, stamping on his chest with boots on, whipping and a cup of cold water are amongst my methods which differ every-day. I walk to work early and as the hours pass by we realize the lazy shits just went back to bed.
Our group gets split into smaller groups for work and my teams made up of Gabby, one French girl and three Italian girls. We build an impressive wooden summer classroom and look on in amazement as the mentally disabled from the school play around us beating the crap out of each-other and playing with our plugged in electric band saw.
The pet rabbits escape leading us to an almighty chase for half a day ending with the only one we catch having its neck broken by a child displaying his feelings..Of hate!
Travelling by train to the capital Ankara sitting playing cards with some of the Italian girls I find myself being bitten on the shoulder, stabbed -or drawn- in the armpit with a pencil and burped upon. As bad as that may sound, we still keep in touch to this day and I even went to live at her house for a week in Italy. By now Ive probably fallen for every one of these girls at some point and I don’t know if anyone else in the world has been around so many attractive women at one time.
We’re here for a seminar and during free time we explore the sights Ankara has to offer including one massive museum for a single Turkish hero. Pictures in the gallery celebrating the sinking of British ships during The Great War do the job of reminding me I’m in a very different part of the world.
Frida and I lost the others in what was one of the strangest castles I’ve ever been in. This castle’s home to really poor gypsies who follow us around begging for money and their kids will even throw stones at some tourists who don’t hand out. We enter a patch of grass fenced off, close to the wall and what seems like a very angry man confronts us. His son explains that this is their garden and that small hut their home. He’s not angry at all but lets us climb onto his roof and shimmy up onto the castle wall for what must be one of the best views of Ankara. Getting lost isn’t always a bad thing you see!
Feeling tired, I decide to have an early night eventually waking to the banging and ringing of my doorbell. Dragging myself up at four am I open the door. A collection of volunteers pour in and I soon realize Anna, one of our Scottish girls, seems a little off. She’s not the type to be this fucked but, I don’t think anything of it. After all it’s still the middle of the night as far as I’m concerned.
I’m told of how they had been in a club talking with a group of Turkish boys who wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Eventually having to run away they found that the boys had caught a taxi and, still thinking they had a chance, were now waiting for them outside our hotel. Walking straight past the randy crowd, the girls told staff not to let these guys in then they made their way towards my room to fill me in on the night’s events.
Two hours later I open my door again. This time it’s Anna on her own standing before me holding a swollen wrist and still looking fucked. She explained to me how she had fallen while running and that her drink had been spiked. Now I see that familiar look in her eyes and wonder how I didn’t recognize it before. Getting drink spiked is a pretty shit thing to happen but, it could have been a lot worse than ecstasy. We find a pharmacy and get her patched up.
I remember some scary moustache man we were convinced was a gangster telling me in a club after I danced with some local girls that I could get shot for that! He told me he’d come around to our hotel to meet us and take us all out for beers at 9 o’clock the next day. Imagine my surprise at 9am when he shows up asking if we’re ready yet!
Once back in Balikesir, some of us find one of the few places that sell alcohol during Ramadan. We’re not in long before our basement bars flooded with officers carrying machine-guns and pistols. They talk to the manager, take photos of us then leave as sudden as they’d came. I still have no idea what that was about.
For our last three days we all head for Istanbul where I’m offered the chance to share a bed with two of the Italians in an effort to keep warm as the roof has sprung a leek in this dorm right above my bed. They are only joking around but I don’t really like reminding myself that I turned that one down. I don’t know my own mind sometimes.
A tear-full farewell brings it all to an end and once back in Scotland and sitting on my bed I’m struck by an overwhelming feeling of loneliness. Where is everyone?
So back in Scotland and back to work but, not for long.