A Turkish cycling guide taught me the power of expectations. Ali, handsome, if not intimidating, had a tan, bald head and a brown Fu Manchu mustache tipped with gray. On first impression, he wouldn’t have been the man I stopped to ask for directions or for help patching a flat bike tire. But when I introduced myself, his dark eyes softened. We exchanged laughs over the amount of luggage I’d saddled my husband with. Ali’s laugh swelled from stomach to mouth until it resounded across the Mediterranean. His humor and local knowledge would lead my husband and I, along with a dozen other cycling enthusiasts, on an 8-day course from Marmaris, Turkey to Kalkan and back. We’d sleep aboard the Bahriyeli, a boat with a four-man crew that would meet us and anchor in each new bay for the night.
It was October 2012 and violence was heating up the Turkey-Syria border. American news reported of warring Islamic sects, mortar attacks, and both countries’ militaries shooting down planes alleged to violate the other’s airspace. Families rendered homeless after bombing shelled out their houses sought refuge in neighborhoods more removed from the border. Just how much bombing, how many people affected, and to what consequence for us, if any, wasn’t clear.
The plan was to surround ourselves with Turkish history and culture by cycling off the beaten path through south central villages. Friends and family had suggested that my husband and I cancel, but I’d already risked missing the trip because of a personal emergency. A cosmetic surgery had collapsed my right lung and caused both a bacteria and a MRSA superbug in my nose. After a lifetime of teasing, the nose I’d wished to make smaller had blown up with antibiotic-resistant infection that weakened me from head to foot. Four months later, driven by stubborn resolve more than physical strength, I flew off to cycle the hills that outlined the Lycian Coast.
When we arrived at the port of Marmaris, Ali was tuning up trekking bikes, a type of bicycle that is heavier than the usual bike designed for roads, but sturdier on mixed terrains of gravel and sand. Elvis, a younger man who’d survived the war in Bosnia as a child, assisted Ali with checking us travellers onto the three-masted, wooden boat. We mingled on the teak sundeck in the dry heat of the pastirma yazi, or Indian summer that takes its name from the pastrami-like sausage cured in this climate. Most members of our group were American or Canadian and used to crisper fall temperatures. Ours was Ali’s last trip of the season. And by then, he’d perfected his art of keeping company happy.
We stayed docked in Marmaris that night. Falling asleep under the trance-like doot doot beat from the nightclubs. Awaking in the morning to Ali ringing the ship’s bell to call us together for breakfast and the day’s itinerary.
“Good morning, guests,” Ali greeted us as we spooned local yogurt and honey into bowls. “How is everyone doing? Ready for warm-up ride today?”
Elvis distributed maps highlighted with a winding route.
“We wizit Dalaman for lunch and stop in Sarsala,” Ali explained. Despite Ali’s limited English vocabulary, he’d chosen the more thoughtful words, visit instead of tour and guests instead of customers.
My fellow cyclists jumped in with the standard concerns. “How far is it, Ali?” and “Is it very hilly?”
“About 40 kilometers, undulating,” Ali replied. He and Elvis snaked their hands in unison to demonstrate rolling hills.
“Easy peezy,” Elvis reiterated.
It became obvious early on that the ride was more challenging than they’d indicated. For one, my definition of undulating provided for ups and downs. For the first hour we committed to the up without relief from a down. I can’t speak Turkish, but the street signs with vertical arrows labeled 10% grade—warnings about exertion to cars with engines—were self-explanatory. I saw these signs every five kilometers where a turn or switchback offered false hope that a descent was just around the corner. I struggled for air, which was funny considering a forest of liquid amber trees surrounded us.
“They use in pharmacy,” Ali had told us about the tree leaves.
One of those pharmaceutical uses is to treat asthma. But complications from my surgery, not asthma, contributed to my huffing on the bike. My right side pinched as my weakened lung worked to keep up with my body. I couldn’t breathe in through my nose, which was still swollen from the infection. Breathing through my mouth helped until the motorcycles, or mosquitos as Ali called them, buzzed by and blew exhaust in my face.
“How far?” I asked my husband for an update in breathless shorthand. He looked at the GPS system clipped to his handlebars, additional proof that our guides were fudging numbers. For every kilometer Ali and Elvis quoted us, we’d cycled two. My face dropped with my morale. I stared at the road directly in front of me instead of the mountainous scenery. Sweat and sunblock seeped into my eyes as my legs pushed and pulled on the pedals. Clanking noises in the distance grabbed my attention. A herd of goats necklaced with bells occupied the entire road. Everyone hopped off their bikes to take pictures as a man shepherded the scattering animals to one side. I welcomed the moment as an excuse to walk my bike.
The second break came when we stopped for lunch. Ali recommended a variety of mezze for the table. We snacked on small plates of grilled eggplant, lamb, and flatbreads with dipping sauces until our meal arrived. And even though we’d been hot all morning, Ali imparted a tradition of following each meal with coffee.
“Turkish mocha?” Ali came around to each of us and asked. “With sugar?”
“I’ll take mine with lots of sugar, Ali,” said one cyclist. “Just a little bit for me,” said another. “Black for me,” I said, “I never take sugar.”
Ali wrote down each specific order and translated them for the waiter. The waiter returned with a tray of small cups and saucers. Ali read from his list. “Sugars for Bruce and Eddie, little bit for Carol and Joe here, with out for Holly.” He continued this way until we each had the coffee we’d requested.
“How does everyone enjoy the Turkish mochas?” Ali asked.
The responses came at once: “Great,” “Perfect,” and “Just what I needed.”
The mud-thick coffee provided enough caffeine to propel me up the remaining hills. Ali motioned for us to stop along a ledge for our reward at the final peak.
“Here’s your panorama,” he said, mimicking like he was clicking a camera.
We overlooked rocky cliffs lush with trees and bushes. Midnight blue water pooled in the half moon shape of the harbor below. Only a handful of boats anchored in the undeveloped oasis that awaited us. After two minutes of the long-anticipated down, we reached the beach and our pit stop. We dove into the cool water in our cycling clothes and let the salt soothe our muscles.
That night aboard the boat a couple of us star gazed and refueled on raki, a licorice-tasting alcohol the Turks nicknamed “White Lion” for its strength. I asked Ali, “You call today a warm-up? Why did you lie about the route?”
“Everyting’s here,” Ali said, gesturing to his mind. “If I tell you fifty kilometers, you say ‘fifty kilometers is so far, I will never do it.’”
Elvis nodded. “You think about how far am I going and not what’s happening.”
Over the following days I exercised this philosophy as if it were a muscle I wanted to tone. The less attention I paid to my aches, the more I felt cheered on by our environment. Children playing in their yards alongside the roaming chickens waved and yelled “mer’ba,” the casual pronunciation of merhaba, or hello. Several boys riding their bikes toward me extended their hands. We high-fived and giggled as we passed. Farmers plucked pomegranates from the trees bordering the narrow road and gave us handfuls of the fruit. Beekeepers offered honey from the comb. Women wearing floral-print headscarves chatted and ate the çitlenbik they’d picked along their stroll. They smiled and opened their palms to us. We chewed on the bitter, nut-like berries before taking off again. In between our interactions, I eased into a comfortable pace set to the rhythm of the bells clanking from the goats grazing the hillsides.
During portions of the days, when the sun scorched down and my out-of-shape calves burned, what wasn’t happening around us preoccupied my thoughts. On one stretch of undulating hills there were no trees, only miles of farmland. Minarets rose like grain towers off in the distance. I’d been listening to our chains shifting gears and the occasional tractor clambering past, hauling flatbed trailers stacked high with the day’s pomegranate harvest. Then the azaan, or call to prayer, played across the countryside. Multiple calls from the three mosques on the horizon overlapped. A medley of meditation that functioned more like a work whistle to signal another day drawing to its end. Men and women bailed their last rows of hay into tepee shapes. More trucks carting pomegranates rattled by. A girl in a pink Cinderella dress twirled in her gravel driveway. “Mer’ba,” we yelled to each other. I pedaled past one of the mosques I’d seen. Its parking lot was empty. Only the dogs heeded the call, bowing down on the side of the road for a nap on the warm pavement.
That night, barefoot aboard the Bahriyeli with glasses of cloudy white raki, some of us asked Ali to clarify the role of religion in Turkey.
“We are first Turks, then Muslim,” Ali said.
He would repeat this concept in later conversations. It was the perfect definition for the lifestyles I felt in some small way a part of, if even at the distance of a hello or gratitude for the zing of fruit on my taste buds.
Ali’s statement made me consider the importance of how I defined myself—athletic and energetic. Moments when I pressed on despite the discomfort or my helmet heating like an oven on my head made me feel more like my old self. In fact, overcoming the physical demands made our visits to villages like Saklikent, or the “Hidden City,” more rewarding. Saklikent was created around one of the deepest canyons in the world, which meant relief from cooler temperatures while we ate lunch at the outdoor café. Located at the base of the gorge, the café invited patrons to relax in one of their hammocks swinging among the sweet scent of red and pink flowers. We kicked off our shoes and slid into one of the low-lying tables with seats covered in brightly-patterned kilim cushions. We dipped our sweaty legs into the icy stream that flowed from the canyon through the aisle between tables. My heart skipped from the shock of the cold burn.
Like before, Ali helped the waiter take our afternoon coffee orders.
“Everyone enjoying the Turkish mochas?” Ali asked.
“Yes!” We thanked Ali for the treat we looked forward to during every day’s halfway point.
One day, however, we deviated from our coffee ritual by stopping at a traditional teahouse in Palamut. The teahouse was located at the top of a hill on a side street with closely-packed houses and markets. Everyone saw, if not smelled, us coming. We entered the men-only space wearing sweaty lycra bike shorts and tank tops. A few of the women in our group joked that at least their bandanas provided some form of appropriate coverage. The men at the teahouse, lounging in khakis and shirts with collars, paused from their game of okey to observe as we joined them on the porch. They chuckled when we groaned up the steps.
“They want to know why you doing this,” Ali explained. “They say there are easier ways of getting where you are going.”
We shared their laughter. They weren’t the first, and won’t be the last, to be curious about why we cycle for fun.
Grapevines wove an awning above our heads. A waiter stood on a ladder to cut several bunches of grapes from this natural ceiling to give our table, compliments of the house. The men resumed their normal conversation and round of okey as Ali translated our tea orders.
During our farewell dinner aboard the boat Ali revealed news of a little game he’d been playing all week. He confirmed one last time that we’d enjoyed our tea and Turkish mochas. We cheered this special treatment.
Then he confessed, “I order all mediums.”
“What?” we asked.
“I order them same, medium,” Ali said. “Everybody get medium, one sugar.” Ali held up his index finger for emphasis.
He chuckled as he performed a skit of himself taking our orders.
“You ask, ‘little sweet,’ or ‘not too strong,’ and I say, ‘okay.’” Ali pretended to scribble orders on his palm. He turned to the side as if handing our orders to a waiter. He faced front again and read from his fake list.
“Mocha little sweet for you,” he said, leaning forward as if serving. “Mocha not too strong for you,” he continued.
We glanced around at each other, jaws dropping and tears of laughter running down our bronzed faces.
“And every time I ask I get answer, ‘Ali, it’s better than I make at home,’” he concluded as our whoops and applause rang out along the Marmaris coastline
Ali had tried all week long to protect us from what we wished for. He’d known that come Day 8 we’d be sad that the answer to “How far, Ali?” was, “No farther.” That we’d recount our experiences, not the kilometers. That Turkish coffee with a lot of sugar wasn’t the Turkish coffee experience. And that no one in her right mind would drink Turkish coffee black.
In my Ali state of mind—strong and beautiful—I questioned whether I would have wanted my surgery.A headline one morning before my husband and I’d flown to Turkey read: Turkey on brink of war. I’d been too busy packing to notice. Too interested in distracting myself from hospital beds and IV drips with a change of scenery to care. But no amount of news or planning could have prepared me for the personal connection I’d develop one pedal stroke at a time up and over the countryside.
Headlines a year later make me worry for the people whose smiles are so vivid in my mind, but I know they keep their spirits up. They’re Turks.
Holly Morse-Ellington is a writer living in the Baltimore area. She travels with her husband, a ukulele, and friends they pick up along the way.