My red/blonde hair makes it hard for me to blend in anywhere, but it’s especially hard in a Muslim country. Hell, even in Greece I stand out. But so far on this trip I’ve caught myself being unreasonably paranoid or wary of people who don’t deserve it.
My WWOOFing friend Lena was the first to point it out while we were road tripping around Lesvos. I asked that we put my backpack containing my laptop in the hatch and cover it with a blanket. It was Sunday morning in a small mountain village named Andissa. She thought the idea was funny.
“It just never would have even occurred to me,” she said.
There’s also the fact that EVERYONE hitchhikes in Greece, no problem. And then there are two girls I met in Mytilini, Natasa and Daniella, who host Couchsurfers on the regular and once even picked up two Iranian guys off the street because they “had nowhere to stay.” I was stunned when they told me this. They shrugged it off like it was an everyday occurrence.
I’ve spent the last few days in Turkey, along the Aegean Coast. I’m running on a short schedule and headed back to Greece tonight, but I travelled from Ayvalik to Izmir, then Izmir to Selcuk, and then back to Cesme. The Turkish folks I’ve met along the way are kind and patient, and eager to help.
In Selcuk I wandered around the city centre one evening, taking photos and avoiding shops. I’ll be the first to admit it: I hate markets. I find no joy in the clamour and chaos. I hate people hounding me for money. I hate not being able to blend in. I understand why travellers are pulled to markets, but I just can’t love them.
On this occasion, a man sitting outside a carpet shop called out to me as I went by. His English was perfect. “Hello!” he said. “How are you?”
“Good, thanks,” I said and kept moving quickly.
“Where are you from?”
I halted. Really, it’s hard to consistently be an asshole. “Canada.”
“Canada! I have a good friend from there. He’s a writer. He wrote a wonderful book about Turkey.”
When he asked me if I knew of him, I admitted I hadn’t, and he rushed into his store to find a copy of the book. I stood outside, hesitant. But he clearly didn’t want me to buy the book, because he presented its used and worn pages to me, and then jerked it back suddenly like I were going to run off with it. We chatted for a bit, and he invited me for tea.
“It’s just been brewed,” he said. “Care to join me?”
I hate that my immediate reaction was “this guy is trying to sell me something and I shouldn’t trust him.” I know it’s a good idea to go with your gut instinct, but sometimes people really are just nice. I mean, I was dressed in backpacker clothing, dirty and tired, and certainly not looking like I had the extra money to toss around on Turkish carpets. I was, however, on my way to meet a friend and couldn’t actually join him. I told him I’d come back if my friend was interested, and hurried off.
I sat there for hours feeling guilty about my decision. What if he really was just a NICE guy?
(In hindsight, he was probably trying to sell me a carpet. But I doubt he would have FORCED it on me or anything.)
That evening we went for supper at a small family-run kebab restaurant. The owner bustled between tables with his young daughter in pursuit. As we were leaving, he asked if we’d like to look at some carpets in the store next door, run by another guy.
Of course, I thought. Here comes the sales pitch.
We refused and started walking away, and the storeowner ran after us. I was waving my hands, “No no, not interested,” and he shoved some postcards at me.
“For you,” he said. He was just giving me some postcards.
Clever sales tactic to ignite my guilt, or genuine goodness? And don’t you hate that I’m even questing this at all?
I’d like to believe with all my heart that people are inherently good. That the man in the carpet shop was truly just offering me a cup of tea because he wanted to share his homeland with me. That in the Western World, fear is a part of our upbringing, and while it’s smart to be cautious, it’s okay to let go sometimes.
But can we? The media tends to take only the scariest stories and turn them into something every household viewer sees and fears. What they don’t see is the kind lady from Naxos who brought me dessert, or the two sisters from Mytilini who treated me like a queen, or the softer side of Michaelis on the farm when he shared half his frappe with me while I was struggling in the heat. Or, my favourite: the guard at Ephesus yesterday, who emptied his pockets of cat food to feed the strays on site, and then carefully poured his bottled water into a small dip of an ancient column that served as a water dish.
Because I do believe people are inherently good.