Sunday, June 3, 2007

Who's afraid of a little old man?

He's about 45, his round, gentle face as smooth as silk - as though he's shaved only moments ago. He's wearing a pair of blue dress pants embedded with a background pattern, a subtle pink highlight that isn't immediately noticeable. His shirt is a paler shade of pink, so pale it looks almost white at first glance. There is a ragged, well-washed hole above his right breast, and he has one sleeve rolled up to mid-forearm while the other hangs unbuttoned around the opposite wrist. His rough, calloused feet are covered by cracked plastic clogs made to look like a pair of penny loafers, complete with seams and toggles. His head is bare, and his face wears a simple, contented look. I have no idea what he wants.

He appeared suddenly from the forest, carrying a large piece of curved deadfall over his shoulder. He was walking comfortably under the heavy load, whistling as he made his way through the open, uneven forest, finally stopping when he noticed us taking a rest near the large rock cistern, the only water source for miles. He quickly changed course and, shrugging his load to the ground, walked over to us without pause. After silently examining the scene for a few moments, he took a seat on the rocky ground several feet away and settled in. That was five minutes ago, and he still hasn't uttered a sound or moved a limb. Abby and I are more than a little confused, and have no idea how to proceed.

Abby makes the first move and ventures a cheerful merhaba, hello in Turkish. His face lights up, and he replies in kind. Then...nothing. He resumes his silent, motionless examination, and we, the same. Abby and I look at each other, at him, at each other again. The awkward face-off continues.

Again, Abby makes the first move, mostly because she's the first to flinch, I'm sure.

"Should we offer him some bread?" Her voice is skeptical, eager for support.

"Yeah, sure," I say.

We just finished snacking on fresh bread, tomoatoes and peppers pressed upon us by a wızened old woman several villages back, and they are still lying out. Whıle Abby points to her stomach and makes eating gestures, I ask him if he's hungry - in English. Not surprisingly, the only response I get is a pair of upturned eyebrows.

"Ekmek?", Abby ventures. It means bread ın Turkish, and was one of the first words we learned upon arrıval. Turks eat bread ın colossal quantities with every meal, loaves and loaves of the stuff, and you can't throw a stone in this country without hitting a bakery.

A flicker of recognition crosses the villager's face, so Abby reaches into the bag, pulls out a piece of flatbread, and extends it towards him. It's a short distance, but the cultural and language gaps make it too wide for a simple piece of bread to span. He declines, explaining why at length (or so I presume), and the staring contest resumes anew.

Over the course of the next several minutes, we manage to introduce ourselves, and learn that his name is Ahmed. But progress is slow, his English is worse than our Turkish, and he shows no interest in trying to initiate any type of communication. The tension becomes unbearable, made worse by the fact that he seems oblivious to it. Perhaps sitting awkwardly together is enough for him, but for us, it's too much to stand. I make eye contact with Abby, and we silently agree that it's time to go. I stand up, too quickly, and hurriedly pack my things. Abby does the same, and the whole time we're telling our spectator what we're doing and why we can't stay longer, and though we'd really really REALLY like to stay and chit chat some more that doesn't seem to be working out so well so maybe we should be off, and who knows- maybe we'll be back this way again sometime soon.

We shoulder our packs, wave goodbye (several times), and start walking - again, too quıckly - back towards the trail. I don't feel threatened, but all the same, I'm relieved to be up and moving.

The initial elation fades after 20 feet, and I slow to a stop. I look carefully around, then glance furtively at Abby.

"Abby, do you know where the traıl is?", I hiss from the corner of my mouth, trying to look casual. I can feel his stare burning through my back and into my soul. I try not to turn around. I feel guilty and confused and rude, all at the same time, and my mind is racing. All this curious man wanted was to spice up his day a little by hanging out wıth the funny looking foreigners, so why couldn't we bear with the little guy for more than 15 minutes? Besides, didn't I travel to be put in precisely these types of situations? I'm flustered and ashamed, and when Abby shakes her head no, I swallow my ridiculous, awkward pride and, my cheeks red with embarrasment, look back.

Our friend has better manners than we, and is pointing out the path through the puzzle of rock and pine. After a few halting steps, I locate the trail proper, and with a final wave, we continue towards the sea. I resist the urge to look back until we're well around the corner.

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