Earlier this year, I pitched this story to a publication about chance encounters with people on our travels. While it wasn’t published, I wanted to share it here because I think it’s important to remind ourselves of the good in the world. This is the first in a series about the kindness of strangers from my travels.
A knot formed in my stomach in the days leading up to the journey. I’d spent a week and a half traversing the country of Turkey, starting in Istanbul. Then I hopped around to the ruins and sailed the Mediterranean coast. I spoke not a single word of Turkish but had to figure out how to get from Fethiye to Cappadocia. From there, I would catch a flight back to Istanbul and then home. And, of course, take a hot air balloon ride over the fairy chimneys. That couldn’t be overlooked.
I booked my trip before the violent protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Before a solo female traveler was murdered in a touristy area of the city. Before the American embassy in Ankara was bombed. My mother’s mind wasn’t eased when I told her I was going anyways, that the trip was already paid for. I told her I’d be safe, telling myself as well. I was both cautious and confident as a veteran solo sojourner.
I looked up a bus company online before leaving for my trip so I knew at the least that this route was available. I walked into town a few days early to buy my ticket. Logistical anxiety has always been my travel Achilles heel. I sent myself into a tizzy, fretting over every detail. How would I get to the bus station? How early should I show up? How do I find the right bus? Would there be thieves on board who would want to steal my camera? Would I sit next to a man who harassed me in my sleep? Would I miss my stop and end up somewhere I didn’t want to be? My mind exhausted itself with possible scenarios.
The overnight bus to the otherworldly landscapes of Cappadocia didn’t leave for hours. So I soaked up the sun by my hostel’s pool with travel companions, but one by one, they all left to go elsewhere. With an hour left before my bus was scheduled to leave, I packed up my gear. A friendly Turkish man hailed me a dolmus, a public minibus, and told me how much to pay and when to get off. I stood anxious and unsteady with my backpack as the bus slowed for others to get on. The driver signaled me to get off at the bus station.
With the ticket in hand, I showed it to a bus driver that pointed me in the right direction. My fears about sitting next to a stranger eased when I took my assigned seat in the front row. Next to me was a sweet Turkish woman, who offered me dried fruits and other treats that I politely declined. I later learned that individuals seats are placed with the same gender.
The bus itself was nice, something you’d see back in the States, with televisions in front of every seat. All the programming was in Turkish, so I tried to decipher what was happening in these soap operas. Unable, I stared out the window. Before my eyes, the landscape changed from palm trees and coastline to dusty and lunar.
Between naps, the bus made frequent stops for us to stretch our legs and the drivers to grab a snack, a tea, and a smoke. At first, I was afraid to even leave the bus since I had no idea how long we’d be there. What if no one realized I wasn’t back on the bus? Would they leave without me, my backpack still tucked away under the bus?
Hours into the journey, my stomach was grumbling audibly and I had to risk it. The rest stops-cum- roadside restaurants carried Turkish delight, gözleme, and pide. My limited grasp of the Turkish language allowed me to order a tea and cheese pide, which resembles a pizza. I tried to eat quickly, simultaneously eyeing the door. I wanted to stay close to someone, anyone that I recognized.
After a few stops, the driver noticed that I was hesitating near the door to avoid missing the bus. At the next break, he waved at me when it was time to go, a simple but effective system that required no languages. I tried to thank him but just smiled. He didn’t know the level of my appreciation.
The bus lurched to a stop in the pitch blackness at 4 am, shaking me awake. The driver announced “Göreme,” the stop for Cappadocia. A few people got off and went on their way. Something I hadn’t considered was how exactly I would get to my hotel in Uchisar, another village. I had no cell service or WiFi and there was no one in sight. No taxis were waiting. This was my worst nightmare.
Lights were on at one of the restaurants in town. Employees were enjoying a late-night shisha after closing up. I knocked on the window and felt relief when someone answered in English. I asked if it would be possible for someone to call me a taxi. They obliged and welcomed me to wait inside, away from the cold. I hadn’t considered this weather when packing for what was a majority Mediterranean vacation.
A black car soon arrived to whisk me away to my hotel. I pulled up Google Maps to follow the blue GPS dot, just in case. I paid the driver and thanked him when we arrived at my hotel, where the night manager was waiting for me. Despite the time, I checked into my room and passed out into a deep sleep in my cave room.
Every step of my journey could have been met with disaster. I might not have made it to the bus or have been left behind in rural Turkey. I could have wandered in the dark in search of my hotel, a good 5 miles on winding roads. Instead, I was met with unrelenting kindness.
“The Turks are the best people in the world,” the young Turkish man said with confidence to the Texans next to him. I laughed as I heard this on my flight to Istanbul the week prior. But I now had to agree.