Monday, June 13, 2016

The kindness of strangers, or: Why I suspect the world is a nicer place than it sometimes seems

Why hitchhike? It’s a question that Flounder has asked me, friends and family have asked me, and I have occasionally asked myself too. After a tense ride in which the driver, despite my repeatedly changing the subject, asks about my sex life and then grabs my ass as I leave the car, it is easy to forget my motivation for traveling this way in the first place.

And I could tell you what I tell everyone, that I like not knowing where I’ll go exactly or how I’ll get there, that I like meeting people, inserting myself into their world and leaving my assumptions at the door (of the car), and I like stepping outside (way outside) of the tourist zone.
Can you take us to Istanbul?
BTW, Flounder made this sign 'laminated' with clear tape so that we could use dry erase markers and reuse it.

But as my writing professor, Nynke, always reminded me, specificity is universal. So let me show you what I mean.

After a ride to Alanya, one of my least favorite beach towns in Turkey, Flounder and I walked to the edge of town. We stood on a busy street corner, just after a traffic light. Cars had barely any space to pull over for us and not much time to see us and then stop.

‘We should just keep going,’ I said. ‘We’ll never get a ride from…’ but before I could finish my sentence, a car had stopped for us.

‘Nereye gidiyorsunuz?’ I asked, as I always did. Where are you going?

‘Antalya’ya,’ he responded. And we were off.

These guys picked us up in Turkey and we ate breakfast with them by the sea.

It was a long ride, at least 120 kilometers, so we had a lot of time to talk. And he spoke English so I could ask slightly more insightful questions than ‘Where are you from?’ and ‘How many children do you have?’

Korhan worked as a model scout, basically, and he lamented the fact that none of his girlfriends trusted him because of this. Indeed, during our car ride with him, at least 15 girls called his phone, desperate for a job. His fondest wish was to have a baby girl, but his job seemed to be interfering with this goal.

He wondered if Flounder, being an attractive man who taught young college students, mainly girls, could sympathize. But I told Korhan that I trust Flounder, and indeed this is the only way forward unless you can find a partner who is willing to be sequestered from the lascivious eyes of all women everywhere, spending his life locked in an anti-cheating cage.

A view out the window from a ride in Western Turkey

And Korhan told us about his time in Belgium, when he arrived knowing no one, with almost no money at all. He couldn’t find a job and took to sleeping on a park bench because he was weak from hunger. After nearly eight days without eating, a man, Musa, stopped and asked Korhan what he was doing. Musa was from Turkey but had lived in Belgium for 30 years. He had seen Korhan sleeping in the park day after day and took pity on him. Musa fed him, clothed him, and found him a job.

‘He was my angel,’ said Korhan. ‘He was a second father to me and I owe him my life.’

Musa took a chance on a homeless stranger, sleeping on a park bench, and now that man is successful, hardworking, and is supporting his whole extended family. Inspired by this, Korhan pledged to help those that he could, and since we were in his car, that included us. We were his guests and we shouldn’t think twice about accepting his hospitality, he explained.

He offered us a place to stay for the night. Tired, we happily accepted.

The next day, Korhan dropped us on the road to Fethiye and Kaş. We were picked up by Doğan, a large man with a large laugh and an obsession with Alaska. In fact when he spoke of it, he spoke in all caps. ‘ALASKA!’ he boomed.

Doğan and I near a cove he stopped at for a swim

He was delighted when we gave him a postcard with a photo Flounder had taken in Alaska. He pinned it above his seat, looked at it, and said ‘ALASKA!’

Doğan also spoke English and that’s how he was able to tell us that he was married to the most beautiful woman in the world, a woman more than twenty years his junior. And he could tell us that he was afraid to take her many places because he was sure she would be discovered by a talent scout and be whisked away to model or act in movies. And he said that when they walked down the street together, both men and women would stare at her and so to alleviate the negative energy from their jealousy (the evil eye or nazar) they would pinch each other constantly.

But the most interesting thing he told us was about how he had lost $900,000.

‘I played a game,’ Doğan said, ‘and I lost almost a million dollars.’

We thought he had gambled, but no, he had invested in the stock market shortly before the 2008 financial crisis. And then, instead of selling when he had a chance, he held onto the stock and lost everything.
We stop in one of the many Roman ruins along the Western coast of Turkey - most of which have no entrance fee as the ruins are simply too plentiful

In spite of this, Doğan was generous. He bought us lunch, a ridiculously large amount of food. He drove us out of his way to drop us at the Lycian ruins of Myra, and when we ran into him unexpectedly in Kaş, he loaded us down with gifts.

He called me deli Sarah—crazy Sarah—for my love of hitchhiking, of adventure verging on danger. Korhan had said something similar, had warned us to be careful in Turkey. But when I pointed out that Flounder and I had only had good experiences hitchhiking in Turkey and that that was how we had met them, Doğan and Korhan, both responded that we were lucky. There are bad people in Turkey. Not everyone was like them.

While this statement is strictly true, I tire of this widespread idea that the world is a scary place and that you can’t trust anyone. For years now I have traveled in a way that relies on people, on the kindness of strangers. Flounder and I have relied on the kindness of over 100 strangers on this trip of ours and we have never once been disappointed. We have only been continually surprised and delighted by the warmth, hospitality, and love we have found.

Another kind stranger. He gave us a ride all the way to Istanbul, and stopped at the ruins of Troy, paid for our tickets, and showed us around. Amazing.

Why do I hitchhike? This was the long answer. The short answer is this: I love people. I believe in the kindness of strangers.


  1. "The world is as we are. It depends on how clearly you can see. The brighter we are. The brighter by far, our world turns out to be." Joan Rothenberg from "Henry the Hound Dog."

    Happy you are writing again.


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