This is part two of this story. For part one click here! Enjoy!
The soccer match was held in a small indoor arena. The tiny field of play is apparently supposed to make the match into a higher scoring affair. So, unlike full sized soccer, it would be a lot harder for me to hide and simply pass the ball when it came to me.
Onur quickly introduced me to the other ten players. Most of them were around our age except for one middle-aged, short chubby guy called Mustafa. Okay. I immediately set the minimum goal of at least playing better than Mustafa. I should at least be able to do that.
The match started and I set about stomping around in my huge hiking boots. At first things went well enough. I was teamed up with Onur and we jumped out to an early 2-0 lead. The ball would sometimes find its way to me and I would simply pass it off to the guys who knew what they were doing. Onur, who was basically directing me around the field, was pushing the opposing goal often, and our goalie was a stonewall. It was going so well, in fact, that by halftime out team was up 5-0. Excellent. Now, even if I did make some dumb mistakes, it wouldn’t even matter.
We came out for the second half and things started falling apart faster than in a Chinua Achebe novel. The opposing team scored three goals in as many minutes. I turned the ball over pretty much every time it came to me. Fortunately, Mustafa was doing as little as I was, so at least I wasn’t the only one coming up blank.
Still, my feet seemed to turn to stone as we got deeper into the game. Any pass to me bounced hard off my feet and to an opposing player. I couldn’t dribble the ball to save my life. The opposition scores again twice more. With ten minutes left it was tied.
With about seven minutes left, somehow I accidentally stumbled into a pretty good position. I was near the opposing goal and their keeper was focused on Onur as he dribbled the ball up and took a shot. Their keeper dove and made a beautiful save but the ball popped up into the air and headed right towards me. This is it! An open net. Nothing to stop me. The ball was at waist height. All I have to do is kick through the air and smash it into the empty goal. I’ll break the tie and be the hero! Here we go!
Nothing but air. My kick popped the ball right back up into the air like a foul ball in baseball. It fell and a defender recovered it. I’d like to say my meter high, sweeping kick looked cool at least, but I probably looked like a spastic buffoon. We returned to defense and Onur ran up to me.
“Okay, James. Just stay here on defense. Don’t go up there. Stay here and defend against Mustafa.”
As deflating as that sounded I knew at least that I could do that. Mustafa is as bad as I am at this dumb sport!
With three minutes left Onur scored and we were up by one. If we could just hold this lead my ineptitude wouldn’t be too embarrassing. Just as I was thinking this, though, Mustafa found himself with the ball, coming straight at our goal. I knew what I had to do. I stick to him like a shadow and just as he was shooting I slid down on the ground like a baseball playing going into second base. The shot bounced off my leg and harmlessly away. Mustafa tripped over my leg, but whatever. I was pumped. I felt like I had just conquered the world as I stood up.
“Yeah! Did you see that block, Onur?” I yelled.
“That will be a penalty shot, James,” he replied.
What? What the goddamn shit?!
Apparently my slide block looked more like a slide tackle to the others and apparently that’s frowned upon in this sissy sport. The image of long-haired Europeans diving and crying at the least bit of contact flashed into my mind. I wished we were playing anything else at that moment.
So Mustafa had himself a penalty shot because of me. God, please don’t let him score. He’s been terrible like me all night. Just make him miss here again. I wished I could run up and trip him again as he was taking the shot.
Here he goes…
Mustafa was running back, hands up in celebration. He scored and by his teammates’ reactions, they were just as surprised as I was. The game ended tied at six.
We all went into the clubhouse for tea but the conversation wasn’t about the match we just played. The news was on a nearby TV. Earlier that day a young bystander injured by police in protests in Istanbul had died. He was just going out for groceries when he was hit in the head by a teargas canister fires by police. Istanbul and the other major cities in the west of the country were seething with protests against Prime Minister Erdogan. It seemed a world away here in frozen Kagizman, though.
Onur turned to me. “Fucking Erdogan. Now he wants to limit things like Facebook and Twitter, too.” I had heard as much on the news. I was glad to see that Internet freedom was high on the list of communists living in eastern Turkey.
The next day we sat over breakfast (yogurt again) and Onur told me about his new girlfriend.
“I really like her, but I’m not sure if I want her to move in with me or anything.” (Onur was unmarried and young but lived alone. A rare thing throughout all of Asia.)
“But there aren’t many female communists like her in Kagizman. She’s probably the only one,” he laughed. “So, she’s probably the girl for me.” I was surprised how easily and quickly Onur kept opening up to even though he had only known me for one day.
I stayed for another day in Kagizman. Not because I was crazy about the town. Just because staying with Onur was one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had when traveling. As we said goodbye on my third day, he hugged me and smiled.
“You must practice soccer, my friend. You were so bad!” He laughed slapped me on the back like he had when we first met. “I hope we meet again, James!”
“Me, too, Onur,” I said, and I sincerely meant it.
I’ve been told by people all over the world (most off by friends and family in America) not to trust strangers. Or to be careful around people I don’t know. We’re all told this from a very young age but I still hear it from people today – adults telling other adults not to talk to strangers.
In my experience this has been some of the worst advice I’ve ever received. This isn’t unique to America though. I’ve heard it from friends in Japan. I’ve even been told by Indians in India not to trust any Indians! However, everywhere I go, the people I meet are welcoming, hospitable and gregarious.
If you listen to the media you’d think half the world is out to kidnap you (especially if they are – gasp! – Muslims). This is nonsense. I encounter far more kindness from those we paint as scary foreigners in scary lands than I do from my own countrymen in my own country. When we meet travelers in our homeland we naturally want them to see the best that our culture and country can offer. I know I felt that way when I would meet tourists in New York or Japan.
Solo travel on a budget inevitably leaves you in a vulnerable position. You don’t gave your guides to hold your hand, drivers to navigate for you, or traveling partners to lean on if you need a break. So it requires a certain level of trust in the people living where you’re traveling. When we see someone placing that trust in our us and our culture, it’s normal to want to reward it. I’ve been told that people who budget travel with their young children are witness to this hospitality more than anyone. It makes perfect sense. What better sign of trust can you show people than putting your children in the care of their society?
Still, it can be hard to keep this in mind. It’s tempting, when alone, to keep your guard up a bit too much. It happens to me every once-in-awhile despite my best efforts. However, whenever I find that happening, I can think back to my time in Kagizman. I was as far removed from my home as possible, completely unfamiliar with where I found myself. Yet thanks to the kindness of strangers, I felt as welcomed as I possibly could. So much for all those warnings we hear as children.
So, when you’re traveling, don’t listen to your old first grade teacher, yelling you to stay away from strangers. Don’t listen to the major media warning you about all the scary people and places. Be a little vulnerable and trust people. You never know when you might wind up playing soccer and drinking tea with folks you’d never have met otherwise.