Monologue

A mirror stands tall before me

There she stares back at me, in fear

Her eyes as black as coal, as white as snow

What do you want? Why are you looking at me?

She attacks. She flares her teeth

I don’t know, I say. Curious, I guess.

Curious to see what lies behind that blackness

Curious to unfold your fears, unveil your darkness

Curious to know..

Her eyes tremble, she hides her teeth.

You don’t want to know, she bleeds

I am unlovable, unforgivable..she hides her face away

But I am here. I stay. You’re stuck with me, I say.

I’m not going anywhere. Look here my way.

Let me love you, please. Over here. Let me know you, please.

I am here. I stay.

Mirror starts shaking, it breaks. A million little pieces, she disappears

The music stops. I catch her eyes, they dissolve

We sit outside of our bodies, we hold each other, we cry

It’s so hard to accept. It’s so hard to love those reflections now scattered away

Those eyes of yours, they contain multitudes. Three hundred forty six million lifetimes and more

So many stories untold, forgotten. So much hurt and pain begotten

I know its bad now. I know you’re sad

We don’t have to dig beneath the surface, we don’t have to understand

I forgive you I inhale

her tears lure behind a cloud of smoke, she exhales

It’s Okay I finally hold that fragile gaze

It’s tough, we linger there for another breath.

We’ve never lasted this long before

She smiles sadly. Careful not to fall,

Will you love me again tomorrow? She holds her breath

Of course I will, my blue neglected self

I gather the pieces, all around us, they’re spread

we pick up the glue, together for the work ahead

I am not going anywhere. I stay.

I’m here. I am always here. I say

my old studio flat in Gemmayze, Beirut

Lonesome in Tbilisi

(Note to new lovely readers: In order to understand what I talk about here, you will need to start from the bottom, most of my posts are continues and related to each other although they are not always in chronological order.)

When I think of the short time I spent in Tbilisi, the capital city of Georgia, a few things come to mind;

Alcohol, a bit of shame, and a lot of sex but most of all, an excruciating feeling of loneliness.

I had just turned nineteen a couple of months before, and as the plane landed on Georgian soil, I felt so nervous and scared. I had no idea what to expect and I worried I had made a mistake.

The decision to leave came so unexpectedly to me. I was drinking a beer with Charlie at Leyla Teras, only two nights before the flight, and complaining to her about life. At Papillon I had only lasted another month before quitting again, this time without running away from my boss but by actually facing him and giving him a professional notice.

I wasn’t happy with the routine of working all night at a bar just so I could make it on time to pay the rent, or, hoping that I’d get enough tips by the end of a shift just so I could buy myself a meal or a pack of cigarettes. I felt bored and tired of all of it after a while. I longed for more. I wanted to travel and get lost in the beauty of the world. I yearned for adventure and experience. The more I ran around that cycle of survival, the more I felt I was missing out on something greater, something better, something outside of it and way farther from it.

Nayera and Olivia had left back to their countries and I envied them their ability to enter and leave Europe as they pleased. It was much harder for me to do so and so I avoided thinking about it and focused on what was easy instead. Although I was sharing the rent with Saxonne at her duplex flat in Tarlabasi and it was cheap, I knew she did it as a favor to me and I couldn’t help but feel like a burden on her. Plus the constant chaos of the famously dangerous neighborhood had begun to stress me out.

Looking at Charlie’s concerned face that night, I complained about it all to her. I had saved some money from my month’s work at Papillon and I was trying to find a room in a better location but no matter how thoroughly I searched, it didn’t seem to want to be found. I didn’t know what my purpose was in life. I felt lost in my vision of freedom. I told Charlie, that I felt like I ran away for nothing, which was something i constantly questioned. I wondered out loud to her; is this what life is? Is this the freedom I so longed for? Is this how it feels to be in the grown up world? I want to fly, I want to travel and see the whole world, I want to experience something new everyday. I am so bored of Istanbul. I don’t feel happy here anymore. I don’t know what to do. I started crying desperately and it felt like I had only run away from one box to find myself in another. The closer I got to freedom the further it seemed to slip away.

Charlie held my hand and said: What do you want now? Travel? Why don’t you just do it, then?

Where to? This passport limits my dreams.

Why not go to Georgia? Ali is traveling there in two days. The tickets should be cheap and you’ve already saved the money.

My heart jumped at the idea and I immediately checked my visa options for Georgia. They didn’t require any. I would get my passport stamped upon arrival. We were still sitting at the same table, our beers half finished, when I got up from my chair all excited and asked Saxonne if I could use her laptop. She was working behind the bar that night and she helped me get in touch with Ali who had also worked shifts with her at Leyla Teras.

He was surprised by my decision yet remained kind about it all. He provided me with his ticket details so that I could buy the same flight as him and he assured me he’d help me with the accommodation once we got there and try to sort me out with a job as well. I was speechless. I couldn’t control the flow of emotions that poured out of me. I bought the ticket right then and there with Charlie’s help and it was all sorted out before we sat back down to finish our beers and celebrate.

Charlie and I on that fateful night

It only really hit me the following day, the fact that I only had two days to gather my things and say my goodbyes before life would change again for me.

Everything happened so quickly. I packed the same backpack I had runaway with nine months ago, only this time it felt heavier. I said goodbye to my friends and spent my last night at Papillion drinking and crying. I tried to take pictures with Mustafa but each time he held the camera up and said smile, I broke down in tears and sobbed like a baby in his arms. He laughed and called me a drama queen which I admit was true of my overwhelmed, confused character back then. Mustafa dropped me off at the bus stop after he closed the bar. We hugged and he told me to think of him every time I listened to Wild World by Cat Stevens. And until today, I always think of that moment whenever I hear the opening lyrics of the song.

In that moment of leaving him behind and heading for the airport, I honestly believed I would never see him again. I thought I would never come back to Istanbul again. I had purchased a one way ticket with the conviction that from Georgia I would continue exploring different countries. I would go forwards in my journey and not backwards.

It was mid December when I arrived at Sabiha Gokcen airport. The weather was cold but not as cold as I was told Georgia would be. I met up with Ali at the gate and from there he kept me company. As we waited for our flight, he told me a bit about Georgia. He said it would be covered in snow when we got there. And I said I looked forward to that. I had never really experienced snow in its fullness before.

He told me about his friend, David, who co-owned both a hostel and a bar and how we would be able to stay at his hostel in exchange of helping out. He also said he’d ask him if I could work at the bar in exchange of some pocket money. Ali had a purpose in Georgia. He knew exactly what he was going to do and why he was going. He was also a decade older than me and much calmer about new changes than I was.

My heart raced as we walked out of Tbilisi Airport and into the cold. The city was covered in white and the silver light of the moon looked magical in its reflection on the river’s frozen surface. My mind was numbed by the cold. Unable to speak no more, I focused on Ali’s back and followed him wherever he went.

We got into a taxi and Ali gave the driver the address of the hostel. We learned later that it was one of the first hostels to open in Tbilisi. I had never stayed at a hostel before so I didn’t know what to expect when I got there. The ride was bumpy and I watched with amusement through the window in the back seat as the scenery changed before me but the colors stayed the same; delicious forms of white against the infinite blackness of the sky. It felt like floating in a black and white dream.

The taxi dropped us at the hostel’s gate. The building looked dark and haunted from outside. We looked at each other and wondered if the driver had dropped us in the right place. We pressed the buzzer over and over again and waited until I couldn’t feel my body anymore. We yelled through the gate with our hands held close to our chests until an older man with a funny looking hat and a long beard came out from the side of the building and opened the gate for us.

He welcomed us in and helped us with our bags. I caught a familiar whiff of alcohol on his breath as he introduced himself to us, Andy, I’m the manager of the hostel. When we went inside, it was warm and the sudden brightness of the place, after standing in the dark for so long, woke me up from the dream.

After we took off our jackets, Andy showed us around the place. If I remember correctly, there were two or three rooms in the hostel, one of them a private room and the other two were dormitories. There was a kitchen and a living room. The shower/ toilet was outside. I had never been in a house with an outdoor bathroom before. It all felt very exciting and new to me, this whole strange first time experience. Once our house tour was over, we left our bags in one of the dormitories and joined Andy in the living room.

The end of that first night at Tbilisi hostel

We were greeted by a young man and two women laughing on the floor, seated around a low table topped with empty bottles and half full glasses, when we entered. Andy opened a vodka bottle and brought two more glasses for us to join. I hated vodka so I asked if there was any beer around and he pointed to a large plastic bottle on the table with strange writings on it. I poured myself a foamy glass from the intriguing Georgian beer bottle and sat back to observe my surroundings. I watched them drink and heard them talk but I couldn’t completely relax within myself.

Kuwaiti Ali and I in the kitchen

Georgia was a strange experience. I mostly spent it as an outsider looking in. Always trying yet failing to fit in. I felt misunderstood and found the Georgian language to be much more difficult to learn than the Turkish. Most of the locals spoke either Georgian or Russian or both. Only a few of the younger generation could speak English. And even those, they often avoided speaking with me for too long with the exception of about five people who made the effort to get to know me a bit more. I couldn’t blame them. They all had their close net of childhood friends that they’d known forever and they seemed to prefer to hang out together. I couldn’t simply just become part of their groups. I could only be the outsider whom they spoke a few polite English words to then turned around and continued their conversations in their mother tongue. I understood that, even though I had cut all contact from my past and didn’t have any remaining childhood friends in my life. In away I envied them and dreamed of one day having my own trusted circle of friends too but that dream seemed so far away then.

Manu’s naked butt
Manu and I contemplating the dirty dishes

So I stuck to the foreigners I met at the hostel. I mostly hung out with Andy the Australian manager, Ali the Iranian I had traveled with, Connor the Irish who hated fake dead squirrels, Manu the laid back German who always wore the same hoodie and was often caught butt naked in the outdoor shower, and Ali the Kuwaiti party animal who looked like a teddy bear and often passed out in the bar after having only a couple of shots. I was famous at the hostel as the Palestinian who fried old salads for lunch, caught cigarettes in her mouth before lighting them and refused to wash the dishes.

The Bar
The Bar
Iranian Ali and I that night at The Bar

On our second night, Ali took me to The Bar and I was finally introduced to his friend, David. I remember I was surprised at how young and handsome he looked when he greeted us and showed us in. It was early so there were no costumers around. I had expected him to be a middle aged ordinary looking man. I was impressed that someone his age had managed to own not just one business but two. He told me he was twenty five years old when I asked him and I said I was nineteen. I felt awkward sitting at the bar next to Ali opposite him.

The beer he offered, my journal at the time and my pack of tobacco

They had a lot to talk about and so I just sipped on the beer he offered us and waited for Ali to pop the question that would decide my fate. When he finally did, David looked at me and said with an appreciated frankness, “We honestly aren’t looking for anyone to help at the bar and we don’t have the budget to hire anyone but I’ll try to find something for you to do as a favor to Ali. You won’t earn much at all. Just enough to buy you breakfast and a pack of cigarettes. Is that OK for you?”

I nodded and thanked him. I didn’t care as long as I had something to do. I really liked the ambiance of the bar. It was covered with trinkets and curtains from places David and his partner had traveled to. The lights were dimmed and it had a wooden floor. It felt like being in a tree house or like being in my own magnified vision board of places I dreamed one day to be.

Earlier that day I texted Ivan, the man I had a short lived romance with when I was in Olympus. He was the first Georgian I met and the reason I learned Georgia existed. I had really beautiful memories of our connection and I still felt bad that we never said goodbye.

While we sat at the bar with David, I received a message back from him asking me where I was. I texted him the address and within fifteen minutes he texted me back and asked me to go outside.

By then the bar had slowly started filling up, and David asked me if I would be up with helping out in the kitchen as the cook’s assistant, washing dishes and peeling potatoes. I said yes excitedly and we agreed I would start the next day.

I went out in the snow and walked around the frozen fountain in front of the bar to find Ivan standing on the other side of it, waiting for me with a big smile on his face. We instinctively ran towards each other and hugged. We kissed as if we had never parted and I felt so excited to see him again. What I couldn’t see though was that he was very drunk. I brought him into the bar only to realize that half of the people in there already knew him including David who immediately frowned upon seeing him. I couldn’t understand what was happening in that moment. The Ivan I had met in Olympus was a happy loving and kind man who smiled with joy at everything but the Ivan I was meeting again, was a loud, seemingly unhappy drunk who got into fights and was kicked out of bars for it.

I was stuck between caring for him and feeling nervous and insecure witnessing this other version of him. That night we spent it together in a hotel room and I felt so cheap, heavy, and sad the next day when we walked out into the piercing cold and said our goodbyes in front of the hotel gate. We couldn’t reignite that romance we had once shared. Maybe I was different too. It was something when you were on holiday and another thing when you were amid the reality of your own life. I sympathized with him and I felt heartbroken that it didn’t work.

I knew as I took the old train back to the hostel that I wouldn’t spend any more time with him. By the end of that day, I let go of him completely and I decided instead to only remember the good times we shared in Olympus.

I hooked up with David not long after that night and we had an on and off thing going on for a few weeks before we decided to stop and keep it professional. I was clingy and needy and he wasn’t looking for anything serious. It took many conversations and reflections on my side for me to accept keeping it casual and eventually stopping altogether. As away to get over him I hooked up with many other men, most of them were friends of his while others were passing foreigners. It was somewhere in the middle for me; between experimenting with sex, which had been a taboo in my previous life, and feeling completely so lost to the point that the only way I could connect with anyone was through physical intimacy.

with Kuwaiti Ali and friend at The Bar
With guys from the hostel in the beer pong room at The Bar
dancing with a Georgian woman at The Bar

I worked most nights in the small and stuffed space of the kitchen while Ali stayed behind the bar counter mixing drinks with David. I washed the dishes, listening to music from the mp3 Charlie gifted me on my 19th birthday. I followed the old cook’s instructions as she showed me how to cut the potatoes and how to prepare the sandwiches. She taught me how to say “I am very cold” in Russian. We communicated with hand gestures and smiles. I enjoyed her presence a lot. It was the only calm inducing thing in an often loud, wild and crowded bar. She was my anchor when I felt so overwhelmed and insecure. I’d sit across from her in the kitchen and watch her knit beanies for her grandchildren and that would fill me with peace again.

at the white table in the kitchen after Manu allowed me to put make up on his face. P.S/ we were just friends.

She would always leave around 8 pm and I would stay behind washing whatever empty glasses they passed me, and every now and then I would get free drinks from Ali. I’d drink them sitting on the white table in the middle and scribbling on my black journal. A lot of after hours action happened behind the closed doors of the kitchen. Many men walked out of that storage room at the back with big grins on their faces and giggling women at their sides. I had my own share of memories in there as well. I wouldn’t call them my proudest moments but I also don’t regret any of them.

It was a hectic time in my life. I was young and naive. I wanted so much for a man to love me. I wanted to be in love so bad that I ended up looking for it in all the wrong places using all the wrong ways. I drank too much, complained and cried too much, blacked out more nights than not and woke up next to men whose names I couldn’t recall and whom I would never see again.

I got sick so many times. I’d stay in bed for nights on end, screaming from the pain that would grip my body. I read only one book and it was the one Olivia gifted me on my 19th birthday. Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”. It was my only true companion.

I had late night chats with Andy, whose bunk bed was right across from mine. He was often bothered by my coughing attacks in the middle of the night but I tried not to take it personally. He would tell me about his travels and I’d listen with a heart full of hope and wonder for my own future travels and the adventures that I dreamed I would one day have too.

People would often criticize my behavior back then, they’d tell me how I ought to be and that I should stop doing this or that. They’d call me funny names and have fun at my expense and I would laugh along with them. I’d listen to them and feel ashamed of myself. I didn’t know much after all and they had more experiences and years ahead of me. Deep down though, I always got irritated that they’d felt entitled to talk to me in that way. I would imagine a day where I would be all grown up and show them a woman they couldn’t mess with. A woman that was able to stand up for herself and draw the line between her space and their unwanted opinions with just one look.

By February I grew restless. I felt very unhappy in Georgia. I cried more times than I could remember. There was this one night where I had one too many shots of Cha Cha then woke up the next morning to see pictures of a drunken me on Facebook. I was there but I couldn’t remember any of it. My hair looked wild, my eyes were puffed up red and It looked as if I had been crying my eyes out. I felt embarrassed looking at those photos. I hated that I was so vulnerable in front of all of them and that I couldn’t even remember it. Some of them looked at me funny as I passed them that afternoon, one of them even said, you need to get your drinking under control.

There were good moments too, they’re just over shadowed by the hard ones. I made some friends with a few Georgians, most of whom were women. The truth is that when I look back, these two months are somehow submitted into my memory as the hardest and loneliest months of my last ten years of travel.

I remember once, I went out to that fountain outside the bar and looked at a statue of a naked woman right at the center of it. It was snowing and I was told that If I made three wishes to the fountain lady while it snowed, my wishes would come true. I was drunk and sad again, feeling sorry for myself when Ali approached me and gave me a hug. I told him of my sadness and how lonely I felt and he said something that I would never forget. Something that in that moment felt like the worst thing he could have told me but when I reflected on that moment later on, I realized it was nothing but the truth. He put his hands on my shoulders firmly and looked into my eyes then said,

Maya, we are born alone in this world and we die alone. The sooner you accept this truth, the easier your life will be.

Manu announced one February morning that he was hitch-hiking to Istanbul soon and I jumped at the chance. I asked if I could join him and he hesitated. I was able to convince him after a bit of nagging and I got his OK when I told him I could get us through Turkey with the few Turkish that I knew. I was very happy to join him especially because I couldn’t afford a flight ticket back on my own.

It was easy to say goodbye to Tbilisi. There weren’t as many tears as when I left Istanbul. The excitement to be on the road again in the direction of a city that held within it my loved ones was much grander than the sadness of letting go.

I had my copy of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” in my hand and the heavy green backpack on my shoulders as we began walking towards the highway with Manu ready to raise our thumps and start another unexpected adventure. In the end, I didn’t last as long as I thought I would and I ended up coming back to Istanbul much sooner than I thought I would.

Although Georgia was tough and I was lost in it, I still think the 19 year old me handled it romantically and stuck to her true drama queen self at the time. It was a necessary experience without which I wouldn’t be the woman I am today.

Forgive me, Beirut

Three weeks ago, I was sitting by my balcony in my old room in Beirut. Before me the mountains stood tall shimmering against the hot summer sun. The sky was a clear blue and the birds filled it with familiar songs. Songs that I had gotten used to hearing every morning and every sunset. I watched the harbor within sight, ships resting on the surface of a silent sea. Every now and then I’d hear the sound of a helicopter fly over the building. Electricity had been gone all day and I was feeling restless.

As if quarantine wasn’t enough. As if the economy crises wasn’t enough. As if being unemployed wasn’t enough. As if having all my flights and dreams that had been canceled wasn’t enough. The electricity would come back only to tease me then it would cut again ten minutes later. The internet gone along with it. The humidity adding to the heavy weight sitting on my heart.

I complained day and night with my flatmates. We tried to see the blessing in disguise, the meaning behind all of what was happening in the world. We tried to be grateful that at least we had a shelter over our heads. That at least we had a couple of hours of electricity a day while others didn’t have none for days. At least we had water. At least we had some dollars we could exchange while others had nothing to exchange.

I still complained. I got so suffocated by the deteriorating situation in Lebanon that I started looking at cheap flights back to Istanbul, in Turkey, since it was the only country that was open for tourists. My mother and siblings were settled there. My old friends were there. I got excited about the prospect of living in a developed country again after living in Beirut for the past six years. I couldn’t wait to live a life where I didn’t have to worry about whether there was electricity today or not. Where I didn’t have to worry about how much the dollar was worth on the black market. It changed every day.

Life was so unstable it made me hate Beirut. The Pandemic ruined everything for me. It affected an already fucked up situation in Lebanon and made it even worse. All the friends that I had grown up with over the past years had left me behind. Simon went back to Ireland. Judy, back to Ethiopia and Noemie was leaving too, back to France. The hostel where I used to work was closed and empty since March and I had lost my best friend over a phone fight. I thought I had to leave too. I couldn’t stay in Beirut any longer.

My phone had broken a week before that. It was too expensive to fix it and so I had to adapt to a life without a phone as well. I tried to book a flight to Istanbul with my bank card but it wouldn’t work. I grew anxious. I kept saying, nothing is working out. Maybe I’m not meant to leave. I reached out to my sister and asked her to help me buy the ticket. The first one she bought, was supposed to leave Beirut on the 29th of July. It got canceled a few days later and I messaged my sister again, this time with a growing panic. Help me, please! I feel stuck here. I really have to leave. She registered my panic then calmly said, Maya you need to let go. The more you hold on to something, the more you block the universe from helping you get it. Just relax and let go. She bought me another more expensive ticket the next morning. This time I would fly out of Beirut on the 26th of July.

The moment I received the flight confirmation, something switched off in me. I felt nothing. I realized I was not excited about Istanbul anymore. I was going to miss Beirut. I suddenly felt scared of going back to Turkey after all that I had lived in Beirut. I didn’t know how to say goodbye to that city. I had always told people that with Beirut it was always a love and hate relationship. Beirut would slap you around and strip you naked one moment then it would stretch out its arms and take you into a warm embrace to tell you everything was going to be just fine. Beirut changed me. It made me understand who I was better. It humbled me and allowed me a closer connection to a world that had always rested within me.

Three weeks ago, I’d go to Riwaq cafe, just around the corner from my home. I’d sit there with Noemie, our laptops open before us, and I’d write to you about my past while she’d study for her exams. Antoine, would come over to our table every now and then with his energetic and full of love spirit. He’d tease us in his French Lebanese accent, he’d make us laugh then he’d dance his way back to other tables. I’d write for hours at Riwaq. I’d write to you about my past adventures. A past I once enjoyed bringing back to life but now…I don’t know.

Three weeks ago, I sat numbly on my balcony, my head clouded by an unnatural amount of hashish, and watched the sunset over the port. I saw smoke coming out of a building near the harbor. I had seen that smoke before. I thought it must be industrial or something. It bothered me. I had always seen that smoke coming from that building for a while. Everyone spoke of a possible war. The vibe on the streets was as restless as my dreams were.

As my departure date grew closer, I persisted in my denial and the amount of hashish I put in my joints increased. When there would be no internet, I’d put my chair on the balcony and listen to music saved on my laptop until its battery died. I had this song by Ibrahim Maalouf, that I would listen to on repeat, titled Hashish. In a way that was my own personal way of saying goodbye to the city. After all it was his song, titled Beirut, that had brought me to Beirut in the first place.

Those little moments of dazed and confused contemplation, meditating through the humidity and the pollution in the air. Thinking, this is my Beirut. It was never perfect and it might never become perfect. Maybe that’s why it became the city I stayed in the longest since I ran away. Something about its rawness, the authenticity of its streets, the bluntness of the bullet holes in its post war buildings, and the protective walls its people had around their already broken hearts.

I persisted in my denial. I didn’t want to admit it even to myself, how much I was going to miss Beirut. How unreal it felt that I was going to leave it and this time, maybe for good. I’d stand with my hands wrapped firmly around the balcony’s railings and as I’d look at the massive view before me, I’d see all the people’s faces I’d met since I’d been there.

People I’d worked with at Radio Beirut on Armenia Street when I had first arrived. People I’d popped ecstasy pills with on weekends and danced through the night in underground clubs with. People that had broken my heart and made me feel worthless. People that had lifted me up and reminded me of my worth. People I’d checked in and out of Hostel Beirut. People I’d had one night stands with followed by one day disappointments. People I’d snored cocaine with in Hamra while trying to keep it up at another bar job one more hour. People that I’d hugged trees with at acid hyped festivals in old summers back when I still took drugs. People I’d had deep and enlightening conversations with over endless cups of coffee at Sole Insight cafe on Vendeme stairs. People I’d had secret crushes on and was never going to tell.

Johnny and his mother Margot at the corner shop that I had grown friendly with. Motaz the young Syrian man that worked at the bakery next to my home who was trying to learn English and always made me the best cheese manaeesh. Majd my dear Syrian friend with whom I learned to understand people more and practice patience more. Versions of myself all through out those six years and how far I’d come. I’d sigh, as if by leaving Beirut, I was leaving all those versions of myself and all those conflicted memories behind as well.

I persisted in my denial until the last possible second. My flight was at four AM in the morning. I didn’t sleep that night. The electricity cut at midnight and I stood in the dark. I watched a blacked out Beirut while smoking my last joint before I got ready and woke Noemie up. Her flight to France was booked to leave a few days after me. She helped me take my bags down. I was terrified. Nothing felt real to me until she hugged me in front of the waiting Taxi. We both cried and clung to each other. I realized how much I was going to miss her. I got into the taxi and looked through the back window at her standing in her shorts in the middle of the street waving at me until she disappeared out of sight.

I cried all the way to the airport to the dismay of the driver who happened to be a woman. She said, you’re lucky your leaving. Why are you crying? This country is doomed. I couldn’t explain it to her. I couldn’t even explain it to myself. I knew I had to leave. There was nothing for me in Beirut anymore. At the same time I knew I loved Beirut so much in all its imperfections that it tore me apart to leave it.

At the airport, I cried even more when the ticket officer told me that I couldn’t fly to Istanbul with a one way ticket. I had to have a return flight. I had no phone to arrange it and the ticket offices only opened at six AM. I stood on the side and begged the officer to let me through. I told him my family lived there. I told him I had no phone and I didn’t want to miss the flight. I told him I didn’t want to come back to Beirut. He felt sorry for me and asked his colleague to lend me his phone. I couldn’t remember anyone’s number and they were all asleep at that hour. On a note I had with me, my friend Seda’s number was written. Her husband was picking me up from Istanbul Airport the next day and I had written it down in case I couldn’t find him. I called her silently praying she’d answer. She was my only hope to get out of Beirut. She answered after the second ring and booked me a return flight on the spot then sent me a screenshot of it to show to the officer. They let me through and I boarded the plane on time.

When I arrived in Istanbul, I felt exhausted. I couldn’t absorb anything. My soul and heart were still back in Beirut while my body walked lifelessly around the old Taksim square. I felt homesick the minute I landed my feet on Istanbul’s ground. I felt like a stranger in a strange land. Turkey, the country that once felt like home to me, felt like nothing now. I sat in my room at a hostel my friend sorted out for me and I climbed to the roof through its balcony. When I looked up at the night sky, my heart jumped at the sight of the moon. I hadn’t seen it the past nights in Beirut. Seeing it again felt like home. Staring at its enchanting white light I felt transported back to my balcony in Beirut.

A week passed. During which, I hung out with my brother, found a small room in a crazy duplex flat with nine other flatmates, and slowly started accepting my new reality. I hung out with my old friend Nigel who like me was stuck in Syria for six months, his plans were all canceled and the only country that would have him was Istanbul. Along with my brother he helped me move my luggage from the hostel to my new home. I told him as we walked in the sun with all my life’s belongings on our shoulders, that I was never going to forget his kindness and that I was going to write about him in the blog one day. There you go my Aussie mate. Thank you.

On the 4th of August, 2020, at 6:10 PM, I was sitting at a restaurant with Nigel introducing him to my favorite Turkish dish, Cig Kofte, when my phone beeped. Noemie messaged me. I opened it to see four to five different videos of an explosion that had just erupted in Beirut. She was safely in France by then. I didn’t know what I was looking at when I played the first video. That same smoke I used to see over the port was there in the video. I thought it was just another big fire but then the sound and the explosion happened and my heart stopped. I replayed that video probably a thousand times. I was in shock. I said goodbye to Nigel and went back home. I started calling everyone I knew that was still back there while at the same time replying to all the messages from people asking me if I was safe. I felt horrible telling them I was actually in Istanbul. I felt so guilty that I was safe while Beirut wasn’t.

Nothing made sense. When I called Majd, he didn’t answer. I texted him over and over again to ask him if he was safe. He sent me a quick voice note to let me know he was but that the hostel was completely destroyed and there was no internet anymore so he couldn’t have phone calls. He sounded tired and I worried about him. Motaz from the bakery was safe but his father was injured at the hospital. My old landlord texted me back to say that the building I used to live in was destroyed.

Everyone told me how lucky I was that I left just a week before that. Good timing, they said. I didn’t feel lucky. They told me I was protected. I felt uneasy when I heard that. I felt undeserving of that protection over others. I still don’t understand it. A week has passed since the explosion and I still can’t understand how such a thing could happen. I thought these kind of things only happened in the movies.

Around me in that duplex flat, my flatmates drank on and smoked up as if nothing happened while I stared at my phone flipping from one video to another in complete and utter astonishment. I grew restless as life around me in Istanbul went on. I couldn’t sleep that night knowing that my friends were homeless back in Beirut. That the neighborhood I had lived in for years was no more. That the city that held me with all my hopes and fears was no more. That those protective walls over my friend’s broken hearts were no more.

They say grieve hits you in waves. At first there were no tears. Only shock and worry then shock and relief that all my loved ones were safe. Then came an unfamiliar obsession with following the news that I never had before. All those who know me, know that I never liked talking politics nor did I ever follow the news. I used to frown at people who told me the first thing they did when they woke up in the morning was read the newspaper. I only cared about the spiritual journey and making it as a writer but ever since August the fourth, I’ve lost it all.

I’ve lost my joy in the beauty of life. I’ve lost the fulfillment that comes with writing. I can’t sit still for a second to write. What about? I’d ask myself. There is no desire in me at all to write about my past adventures. With this new obsession came anger. An anger that builds up within me day by day without an outlet nor a place to put it. An anger at the whole world. An anger at those in power. An anger at the unfairness of it all. How did we get here?

I am so angry, it scares me.

I sat the other night on a balcony with a view quite similar to the port view I had in Beirut and my heart tightened. I thought, this too could all just explode one day. Nothing lasts forever. All these buildings and streets could all in one second turn into rubble. What’s the point?

This morning, August the thirteenth, I woke up to a video sent from my old landlord. I watched as she walked around breathless in my old apartment showing me the broken doors and windows and thanking God that I wasn’t there when that happened.

I went out to a cafe determined to try and write something but no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t. I talked to my friend Amy and when she asked me how I was feeling, I finally broke down and cried. I hadn’t been able to shed a tear ever since the explosion.

I walk down Istanbul streets and all I see is Beirut. I look at the Graffiti in Istanbul and all I see is Meuh and Exist and Spaz covering up the walls, buildings and stairs of Beirut. I look at the young Turkish faces walking around me and all I see is the Lebanese faces that have endured more than enough.

I feel I can’t be unless Beirut can too. I feel I am nothing until Beirut rises again. I feel I can’t sleep until the Lebanese people are fully avenged and compensated for the crime that their despicable, corrupt, and moronic government committed against them.

I am not Lebanese. I am Palestinian. I never lived in Palestine though so it was never my home. It is always my roots. Beirut, however, was a home for my soul for a long time. Although I am not Lebanese I feel this explosion in Beirut has taken a big chunk of my soul and buried it along with the city under the rubble. My heart is so broken. I can’t stop crying. I love every single Lebanese and non Lebanese on the streets of Beirut right now as if they were my own family. I want to hug every single one of them. I want to have some fucking super power, bring back the dead and build back the city in the blink of an eye.

I feel guilty that I am safe, as though my pain is unjustified, as though I’m undeserving of this life. I feel I’ve betrayed my Beirut. I feel anxious and triggered every time I hear an ambulance siren or a helicopter passing or a door slamming with the wind.

I wasn’t there. I was in Istanbul yet it feels as if I was in that explosion, and half of me died along with it, and my already restless dreams have become even more so.

My heart is literally with you, Beirut.

Forgive me, habibti.

Born At Midnight

Coming back to Istanbul, feelings were mixed up. Olivia was leaving us and going back to France soon and Nayera wanted to spend as much time with her before she left.

I still had some money on me from my previous job at the Irish pub. Enough to afford a months’ rent of a small room that had freed up at Nayera’s place.

During that month, I was lucky to find a job at a cafe in Cihanger; the expensive neighborhood I had lived in earlier that year. The owners of the cafe were an old hippie couple that always seemed to look stoned and in love when I greeted them. I learned how to use the espresso machine and foam the milk for the cappuccinos. I trained with a Dutch girl who was patient enough to teach me everything.

It was a fun job. Different than the others. The hours were set and the payment was as much as I would have gotten if I had worked all night at a bar. I remember bursting with joy as I shared this realization with Mustafa and him laughing at me and calling me either a naive or a spoiled teenager. I wasn’t used to working a shift. At the bars I had worked, especially at Papillon, there were no shifts. I’d start at a certain hour and work until closing time. Most nights I’d work more than twelve hours and spend the whole next day in bed from the pain that would seize all my bones and muscles.

I enjoyed starting my day early for a change and having a good cup of roasted coffee instead of the instant Nescafes stirred in with cold milk that I’d make in the late afternoons at Papillon before starting my so called endless ‘shifts’.

Unfortunately that job only lasted a month. I was distracted and slow most of the time especially that the cafe had only four or five tables and not so many costumers. Somehow the adrenaline rush I’d get pushing my way through loud, crowded bars, and carrying alcohol over people’s shoulders, was numbed and dulled by the quiet and easy day time vibe of the cafe.

I was bummed to leave a good job. I knew I could have tried better and stayed longer but in the end, the heart wanted what it wanted. And my heart craved the night. It craved the loud music and the regular drunk costumers who somehow always amused me. Their life stories became my favorite drama, a source of entertainment for me. Who needed soap operas when you worked behind a bar?

They’d lay out their heartaches and disappointments to me as if I was their therapist and I’d listen and pour them another drink when they’d push their finished glasses towards me. Sometimes, I’d only do that and other times I’d share my story and that would give them enough to think about. Some were inspired and felt ashamed to complain about their lives in front of me, others were worried and told me it was not such a smart thing to be on my own in Istanbul at this age, which was always discouraging to hear but I tended to forget their words as soon as they were gone.

In my head, they knew nothing. I always believed that if anyone knew anything about how to live my life, it was me. I had hoped to always come back to myself when in doubt and try to find the answer within me. However at that time, I only hoped and did not always succeed in listening in. I was too overwhelmed to get silent enough for that. It took me years of listening to what other people thought of me and what they thought was best for me in order to finally be able to shut all their voices out and meet myself for the first time, hear my own voice for the first time and actually like it better, trust it better and go confidently with it much easier.

After giving my notice at the cafe, I started the search for night jobs but my Turkish was still not good enough. Mustafa again, came in and acted as my savior with his shining armor, that is, his wit and his genuine smile. He asked to meet and when we did he offered me to work again at Papillon. This time he said, I would get paid more since I knew my way around a bar better than the first time. I didn’t take long to consider it, only a few seconds later I agreed and we shook hands on it.

Papillon felt different the second time around. Even though only a few months had passed between then and now, I felt I had already grown some roots in Turkey. I was proud of how far I’d come since I had first stepped foot in the country. Mind you, I was still eighteen and knew nothing about life. But I felt all grown up then, with my road girl friends around me, Saxonne and my brother Mustafa taking care of me. I could at least tell whiskey from rum from gin, whereas, when I had first started, I had felt dumbfounded when I had been asked by the dreadlocks boss, during the short interview he’d given me with Mustafa acting as our translator, if I had known what whiskey was and I had said no.

Until today, I still don’t know why he hired me that first time when every answer to every question he’d asked me had been a clueless no. Better yet, why he rehired me after I had run off without quitting properly the last time. It must have always been Mustafa whispering in his ears.

I loved being back. I stood up for myself more and more when dreadlocks yelled at me. I worked harder and learned more Turkish night by night. My home situation though, was not as great. After one month of staying with Nayera, we all had to move out. If I remember correctly it was probably something to do with a flatmate or a landlord. During that time, I had my backpack at Papillon’s and slept the nights on the couch next to the bar. I’d go to Saxonne’s to shower and wash my clothes and sometimes she’d let me stay a few nights when I had days off from work. Eventually I ended up moving to her small duplex studio in Tarlabasi and living with her until my decision to leave Turkey came.

She’d make me these fancy french breakfasts. Stuff that tasted so good, I hadn’t known were so easy to make. She taught me how to make French toast and brew a good coffee. She taught me how to use the washing machine and take better care of myself. She introduced me to Jacques Brel, Edith Piaf, and Tryo, but the ones I really liked and became obsessed with were, Tom Waits and Bob Dylan.

Photo credit: Ali Eshqi
Photo credit: Ali Eshqi

I loved living with her. She’d sleep on the bottom floor and I’d have the top floor with the kitchen and the couch all to myself. She had found a job at a cool bar called Leyla Teras, only two blocks away from Papillon and whomever finished their shift first would go over to the other and drink up until closing time. Speaking of Closing Time, that was my favorite Tom Waits song at the time.

When I had first arrived in Turkey, they had given me a three months visa stamp for free. During these three months and along with the kind strangers that had helped me runaway and make it all the way there, the plan was that we’d use the time to research asylum options for me in neighboring countries so I could get a refugee status and protection in either Europe or America.

However, the more we had looked into it, the more I had hesitated. There were many requirements, the processes were long and daunting, and I had felt discouraged by it all. I didn’t want to become a refugee. I wanted to be free. In the end, I told them to stop looking and that I had decided to make it on my own in Turkey and see where life would take me.

When my visa’s expiry date had approached, I had started panicking. I had been at Papillon with Saxonne, Mustafa and the dreadlocks boss. I had shared my worries with them and asked them for advice. I didn’t want to leave Turkey so soon and I didn’t want to become illegal.

Saxonne had said then that she had also needed to renew her visa and that she would accompany me to the Bulgarian border by bus where we would cross the border by foot and come back on the other side to get a new three months visa stamp. She had said it only took a day to do that and that it would be a piece of cake. We had gone through with it and succeeded and it had been a hell of an exhausting ride more so for her than me, since I had been so terrified the whole way while she had continuously tried to calm me down.

After another three months had passed, I had started panicking again, and Saxonne had assured me again by reminding me of how we had succeeded the last time. I couldn’t believe it would work again. I had been gripped by this immense fear that somehow I’d be caught on the border and I’d be returned back to my family. That had been my worst fear ever since I had sipped from that delicious cup of freedom. That time, the dreadlocks boss offered us a ride to the border in his car which made the process easier and much quicker but it didn’t make it any less terrifying for me.

And so around that time when I was sharing a flat with Saxonne and going back and forth between my work at Papillon and dancing at Leyla Teras with her and my road sisters, two things were approaching;

The end of a nine months stay in Turkey, which meant another visa run was due soon.

And my nineteenth birthday. The first birthday away from my family, and the first birthday to celebrate as a free woman.

I had almost completed a month of working at Papillon. Leyla Teras had become our favored hang out place every night thus replacing the indie and alternative vibe of Papillon with its gypsy and Balkanish soul shaking live music. This change marked a new phase of my inner growth and an explosive dance routine that splurged out of my body cells as if it had been waiting a life time for its chance to shake it all out and let go.

I was excited to turn nineteen and I couldn’t wait for that day to come however when I realized that it fell on a Tuesday night, where no band played anywhere and bars were almost always empty, I was disappointed. I thought, I’d start at Papillon and spend time with Mustafa there then meet up with the girls at Leyla Teras and chill with them.

I expected gifts, a lot of them. I made sure to remind everyone of my birthday, day after day ever since the month of September had rolled in. I even spoke loudly of what I was missing in my life and what I had hoped one day to have, so much so, that the girls would shut me up each time with a rising impatience and would tell me they’d gotten it already and that they would never forget the date. The last second of the 28th and the first second of the 29th of September, born at midnight. Note that down in your calendar, please. That was only eight months after I had runaway from home.

On that day, Mustafa gave me the day off. All my friends were busy during the day and no one wanted to hang out. I sulked around Taksim square and watched an old lady feed the pigeons, then I wandered through Istiklal street, stopping to listen to each busker, before giving away whatever loose coins I had to a woman playing the cello alone halfway between Taksim and Galata tower.

When I got to Galata tower, I found a cafe around the square and I decided to treat myself for a cup of coffee. I took out my journal at the time and wrote about that miracle of a, dream come true, life I was having. I felt as if I was dancing on the moon. It didn’t matter that I was alone, in away it made it even more precious. I then walked the long walk back to Papillon with music blaring through the earphones jammed in my ears.

It was around 5 PM when I arrived. Mustafa gifted me a black journal and made me a cocktail for my birthday. We were alone for just a little while before a couple of costumers walked in and took him away from me. I felt so grateful to him back then. He really was my savior. I had met him only a week after I had runaway and ever since then he had become my protector and adviser. He had watched over me just like he would have watched over his little sister. It felt so important to me that I spent my first birthday of freedom with him at the bar where I had started and earned my first salary. Dreadlocks boss showed up and teased me about being there on my day off. Don’t you have a life? He said. I do, and that’s how I am living it, idiot. I replied. He laughed and asked Mustafa to make me another cocktail.

After I finished my third cocktail, I said goodbye to them and walked to Leyla Teras. Like every other cool bar in Istanbul, the bar was on the last floor and the building was seven floors long without an elevator. When I got to the sixth floor, my heart sank. The lights were all off and there was no sound coming through the thick walls above me. Were they closed?

I made it to the door and pushed it, fully expecting it to be shut but to my surprise it was open. As soon as I got in and called out, Saxonne? The lights sprung back on and all my friend’s faces jumped out at me from behind the bar and screamed Happy Birthday in my face.

I couldn’t believe it! No one had ever done a surprise party for me. They were all around me, hugging me and giving me gifts. Nayera got out a Tiramisu cake that she had made herself, all ready with nineteen lit candles, and just then the biggest surprise of all happened. The band that I had traveled with through mount Olympus came out from behind the stage with their instruments in hand and serenaded me with a reggae version of a Happy Birthday song.

I felt so shy and speechless, especially when I started opening the gifts they had given me. Olivia’s was a copy of Jack Kerouac’s, On The Road, along with a little purple journal that she had written a little note for me in. Nayera’s was Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Charlie’s was a CD with a playlist of songs mixed and chosen by her.

I had always loved the music she had on her MP3. I’d listen to it non stop while we were on the road and I’d keep asking her the name of that singer and that band then I’d write them down on my journal for later on. Jaime gave me a rolled joint and Saxonne kept the free tab going.

We danced through the night all together while the band kept playing my favorite songs. Songs that I had watched them rehearse and perform countless times before. Nayera dedicated Nina Simone’s Just Like A Woman to me and we slow danced to it while shouting the lyrics drunkenly out loud to the muse and entertainment of our equally drunk friends.

Photo credit: Could be Charlie

By the end of the night I was wasted yet serenaded by so much love. Leyla Teras was full of the people I’d met since I ran away. It all felt so good, but somehow a sudden heaviness descended upon me and took hold of all that which had surrounded me. It made my friends vanish and in their place, the faces of my brother and sisters, my mother and father, materialized.

I couldn’t control the tears. I don’t know if it was the amount of alcohol I had drank or the moment itself but I missed them so much and my heart ached for them. Even with all the people around me, I felt so alone and I suddenly got scared. I withdrew from the crowd and sat in a corner hugging my knees and sobbing like a mad woman.

Soon my friends as well as strangers started coming to ask me if I was alright and wouldn’t stop giving me hugs. All I could say between childlike sobs was that I missed my family and that I felt so lonely and everyone kept assuring me that I wasn’t alone, that they loved me and that I shouldn’t be scared. I was aware of the ridiculousness of my cries yet I couldn’t stop it.

That delicious sip of freedom I had tasted, suddenly terrified me. Looking around me at all of them, It felt as though I was lost in a sea of strangers, separated from my mothers grasp, and I was searching for her with a rising panic as I realized, I wouldn’t be able to swim over to the other side to find her. That I had left and by doing so I had chosen my independence over them. Now I had to live with the consequences of my action which were all dawning on me in that particular moment.

All the joy I had experienced on the road and all the fun adventures I’d had, disappeared, and all I wanted was for my mother to hug me and for my sister to tell me something she had found out and for my brother to bicker with me again.

Mustafa managed to rescue me once more. Saxonne had called him and he had left his shift at Papillon to come and get me out of there. He came over to me and hugged me. For some reason he was the only one I did not feel scared of. He immediately made me laugh, calling me a spoiled queen and a drunk teenager with his compassionate smile that always lacked any judgment and made me feel seen, understood, and safe. He carried me up and asked me if I could walk. Realizing that I couldn’t, he laughed and said, What kind of alcohol have they been giving you, girl?

We made it down to the street and he drove me back to Papillon where Saxonne would come and get me when she finished closing Leyla Teras. I immediately passed out on the swinging couch by the bar. I don’t know how long I slept there but when I was woken up, Papillon was empty, the music was turned off and the lights were dimmed. Mustafa was drinking a beer and scribbling in a notebook. Saxonne’s warm face peered at me and the first thing I said when I saw her was, sorry. She told me there was nothing to apologize for. I felt really embarrassed when I remembered how many people had seen me cry. I asked her if my friends were mad at me and she said they were only worried and hoped that I’d feel better soon.

We went back to her place after I hugged Mustafa goodbye. When I was alone, I dug up the black journal he had gifted me and found to my delight that he had written a note for me. I slept soundly afterwards with a new resolution regarding birthdays; they were heavy as fuck, loaded to the brim with emotions, yet I loved them still and already looked forward to the next one that would mark my twentieth year.

When I woke up the next day, all thoughts of my family were faded out by dreams and hangover headaches. The excitement of knowing I was free though, came back doubled. With it, I bounced joyfully down the street hoping to find the bakery open so I could buy some goodies to surprise Saxonne with.

I could live with missing my family, but I couldn’t live without my freedom.

The Mad Ones..

As soon as we arrived in Rishikesh and landed our feet on it’s unpaved ground, we were greeted by a troop of orange monkeys. I had never seen a real monkey before. I was told to stay away and hold on tight to my things. I was told that those monkeys were the most skilled pickpockets in the whole of India. And that was proved when they snatched my companion’s bananas and fled out of reach to peel it and eat it in front of us with a daring stare and a cheeky squeak.

I hung out with my Israeli companion for the first few days. We booked two separate rooms in a cheap guesthouse and did some sight seeing around the city. We were recommended by other tourists to take a swim in the Ganges river. It was cleaner there and supposed to be a holy experience in which the body and soul would be purified. I jumped in the water and floated again on my back. After a few dips I got out and felt exactly the same as when I got in. Only fresher and cooler.

I accompanied him to the Jewish Chabad he had wanted to visit. I was welcomed there and gifted one of those tiny hats they wear on their heads. It was an interesting experience but I did feel uncomfortable after a while, and so I decided to leave him there and go for a walk.

On my walk, I received a frantic text message from the British woman, asking me to help get her out of the Ashram. When I asked her why, she said she would tell me later. I took the address from her and stopped a tuktuk. In my head I could already guess why.

By the time I arrived outside of the ashram, it was dark and the only light illuminating my surroundings was a faded orange glow from the one street lamp on the pavement. I asked the tuktuk driver to wait and then I texted her to let her know I was there.

After a couple of minutes I noticed a shadow running heavily towards us. Her face was alert and red from crying, her body was trembling as I rushed to take the bags off of her and placed them in front next to the driver. We hurriedly sat side by side in the back and the driver took off without a word, towards the guest house.

I took her hand in mine and she burst out crying. I didn’t ask her anything. I just held her hand and kept repeating to her, that she was safe now. That it was over and she had nothing to fear anymore. When we arrived at the guesthouse, I took her to my room and told her she could stay with me as long as she needed. After dinner, she told me what had happened. She said that she had been the only one there and her teacher had tried to sexually harass her.

The next day we went for a walk in the city, the three of us, I was walking ahead, barefoot, and enjoying the buzz of the vegetables and fruits market, when across from me I saw a buffalo standing big and strong, wagging the flies off of his body with his long tail. To my surprise, I noticed a familiar old face from my time in Nepal, standing close to him. He was eating a mango and feeding some of it to the buffalo while he ate.

My heart lifted and I felt magic in the air as I rushed to catch him. “Pierre!” I shouted and his face beamed when he recognized me. We hugged and he quickly updated me on his trip since Nepal. I met his three other friends, Jo, Adrian, and Tof, who had just arrived in India to be reunited with him. They told me where they were staying and invited me to join them on a motorbike trip up to the Ganges source in two days. I told them that I would love to join and we agreed to meet the next day at their guesthouse.

On that same night though, I got sick. I felt so weak and I couldn’t eat or drink anything without puking it straight afterwards. I developed a fever the next morning and could not move from the bed. My travel companions left to get lunch while I laid sweating and moaning.

I felt so lonely then, and helpless. A few minutes after they left though, I had this strong urge to take my bags and leave. I didn’t want to be with them anymore. I didn’t want to stay in that guesthouse any longer. I didn’t even want to wait until they came back and say goodbye. Something took over my body and I found myself hastily ripping off a note from a journal and scribbling my goodbye to them on paper instead, so they didn’t worry.

I took my bags and somehow managed to carry them over my shoulders. My mouth was dry, my empty stomach grumbled in hunger and my skin looked pale in the dressers’ mirror as I walked slowly but with determination out on the street. The burning sun and the humidity, increasing my fatigue. I had to reach the other side of the city to where my friend’s guesthouse was. That was a forty minute walk considering the speed in which I was walking. In my head all I had to do was keep myself from fainting.

I couldn’t describe to you the force which moved me. My body could barely hold me up let alone a huge backpack and a drum on top. I still don’t know how I managed to walk half the way to the bridge. I knew after crossing it I would still have to walk another twenty minutes. I thought I would die but something in me persisted. I knew I had to get there. I knew that once I got there things would be alright.

On the bridge, I dragged my body along gasping for breath. I’d stop here and there to gather what remained of my strength, then I’d push my legs a bit further. A scooter passed me by and then another. I stayed out of their way, but then a scooter stopped right next to me and the local man driving it asked me where I was headed. I said the name of the guesthouse and he said he knew where it was. He offered me a ride and I almost cried in gratitude. I said yes and without a second to waste, jumped behind him with all my baggage. In only a few quick minutes we were at the entrance of my destination.

The driver dropped me off and left in a hurry, I didn’t even get a chance to thank him. My friend was not there when I arrived but the family that owned the guesthouse rushed to help get my bags off of me and asked me to sit down with them. They seemed very concerned when they saw my face. The woman put a bowl of boiled rice in my hands and told me to eat it. She gave me some yogurt as well and said that I’d feel better soon. It was almost like magic, my stomach did feel much better after the rice and although I was still weak, at least I didn’t throw it up and it gave me some energy.

My friend and his friends showed up towards the evening and were happy to find me. We sat on floor mattresses in the common area and shared joints and stories all night. I felt so relieved to have made it there. I was growing a bit restless and bored with my other travel companions and sitting there with Jo, Adrian, Tof and Pierre made all that hard journey worth it. It made absolute sense to me that I should be there and that I needed to be on that trip with them.

The next morning a guest that was staying there as well offered to guide us in a free meditation and yoga session. We gathered up on the roof with the sun slowly rising up before us and imitated his every movement, guided by his voice. By the end of it we were all sitting in silence, eyes closed and I could feel the hair on my skin as the wind brushed softly against it and the warmth of the sun as it reached my heart and filled me with joy.

I liked those boys a lot. They excited me. Jack Kerouac’s words hung in my head each time I sat observing them. “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” I felt home with them and I made a decision right then and there that I’d tag along with them as long as I could.

We were six people in the end. Four guys, two women and three old Royal Enfield motorbikes. I remember the morning we started the trip like it was yesterday. We left the heavy backpacks at the guesthouse with the family, took the essentials that we needed and strapped them on the backs of the bikes. I sat behind Pierre, Lulu sat behind Adrian, and Tof sat behind Jo. The man who ran the guesthouse snapped a picture of us just before they started the engines, and off we went on the road.

We yelled and shouted with joy into the sweet air of freedom and the sound of the bikes went voom voom as we climbed over hills and went down highways. The guys would race each other and the speed in which Pierre rode, excited me up to no limit. We laughed and sang songs. I opened my hands wide to the road and watched the sky above me, feeling ever enchanted by the ride and the journey through the beautiful nature of India.

By the time we reached the source of the Ganges river, we had already had one accident and my first motor burn scar had started developing on my calf. We sat in awe by the river. Jo made a fire by the cave and started cutting onions and tomatoes with Adrian while I strolled by the river, sat on a huge rock with my feet in the restless water and rolled a joint. After we ate, Pierre got out a bottle of Ketamine and told us we were going to get high tonight.

I had never done Ketamine before but as always I never said no to a new experience. I wanted to try everything out at least once before I made up my mind about it. The whole day felt like a dream to me. Being with those guys brought out another side of me and made me dare to do things I wouldn’t have dared to do otherwise. At least that’s what I believed back then. I needed them in order to explore how crazy I could get. To exorcise the wildness I knew I had within me.

They boiled the Ketamine over the fire until it transformed from liquid to white powder and then they separated it into short lines and we took turns snorting it. It hit me immediately.

I went out of my body and was standing on the roof of a moving train. All around me was pitch black and silent. I could feel the rush of the wind as the train sped past sudden flashes of merging white light and noise. My heart was beating so fast, I wanted to get off that train before I lost my balance and fell. It stopped and I was suddenly walking in broad daylight in the middle of a crowded bazaar with people shouting and the sun burning through my eyes.

At some point I felt Lulu holding my hand from one side and Pierre holding my hand on the other side. Their skin felt like paper. They didn’t feel real but the awareness of their touch brought me back to the sound of the river and the warmth of the fire around which we sat, each tripping our minds off. Although it felt like a long trip, only five minutes had passed. We then climbed into our sleeping bags exhausted and huddled next to each other beneath the cave’s shelter.

The next day, we set off for the road again, this time stopping at each village we passed through on our way. We attempted to communicate with the old women on the streets, molding and cutting pieces of hashish in their laps and smiling curiously at our excited faces as they did so. We managed to purchase quality amounts from them for much cheaper rates than we would have gotten in the city. Although we could not understand a word they said nor could they understand us, looking into their small bright eyes left me in absolute awe.

The soft creases in their faces told of tales, words could only dream to deliver. The ease and swiftness in which they moved their bodies, portrayed a contentment and grace that taught me more about life than any school or book ever had.

Going back to the city down the hill, the guys raced each other again. My heart was in my hands as Pierre picked up the speed and suddenly dared me to stand up on the seat behind him. I hesitated and thought it reckless. I did not trust my own balance. He challenged me again. He shouted over his shoulder, “You can do it! Trust me. You won’t fall.”

Somehow, I heard him and knew that I was going to do it even as I shook my head, no, in fear. He slowed up and lifted his hand for me to catch. And as I lifted my feet up and crouched behind him on the seat, I took hold of his hand and yelled back, “Don’t you dare let go.”

I stood up and he started increasing the speed slowly as we continued around and down the hill in circles. I felt a surge of adrenaline rush through out my body that made me scream with joy at the wind, the mountains and the sky above us. I was still holding on to his hand for balance when he said, “Now try and let go.”

I did, and my balance somehow did not fail me that time. I spread my arms wide open and started laughing. Behind me I could hear Jo, and Adrian cheering me on. And as I slowly sat back down, I could hear Pierre laughing proudly and calling me, crazy.

That was only my third day with them and I was already attached to each and every one of them. I was already hooked on the adrenaline that came with adventuring alongside their madness.

That evening we stopped at a guesthouse after yet another accident where my second motor burn scar started developing. That one was worse and deeper than the first and it made walking painful. Pierre’s bike needed some tending after the accident and so we paid for a room that had a king size bed and shared it for the night, all six of us, side by side on that bed. Sharing in order to cut down on the cost of living.

The showers were outdoors and door-less. They were only separated by wooden like curtains from the side. We took turns as there were only three stalls. Each went into one, and we showered in our bathing suits, passing the shampoo bottle between us, over from one curtain to the other. I let my injured leg hang outside away from the water and tried to clean up as much as possible when I heard my name being called by a familiar voice.

As I opened my eyes I saw a smiling Mihai standing across from me, watching as I showered with amazement in his eyes.

I looked back in shock. What was he doing there? I wondered and how crazy it was that our paths crossed like that, only one month after he had left me weeping my heart out in Kathmandu.

I went over to him and we hugged. It felt weird. I was aware of my friends watching behind me, our awkward reunion. They didn’t know about him. They didn’t know much about me. We were not at that stage yet. Mihai took me to the side and asked if we could sit somewhere and talk. We did. He told me about his trip so far and I told him about mine. Half an hour later, he stood up, kissed me, then again left in a rush. He left me feeling sad. I didn’t know why but his sudden appearance brought back the pain I had felt loving and moving on from him.

When I went back into the room, I saw my friends spread out over the bed, some lying on their backs and others on their stomachs, laughing, rolling joints and talking. When they saw me, they went silent and asked me about him. I sat down in the empty space between Pierre and Jo and told them the whole story, then I started crying and they soothed me. Before I knew it, Mihai was forgotten and I was laughing madly at something Toff said and getting high while Lulu held my hand and laughed with me.

Photo taken by Jo

We would look at a stoned yet hyper Jo and sing an old Lou Reed song to him, “Hey Jo, lets take a walk on the wild side...” and that would be his cue to start rolling another one.

A Train, A River, and A Naked Dealer

Oh, that train ride was spectacular.

When I first laid my eyes on the train as it arrived, my heart skipped a beat. How beautiful and old it looked. An old blue paint was scratched and peeling off its edges. I fell in love instantly. It felt as if I was entering a time travel vehicle where I would be transported back into the far past. I couldn’t wait to get on it. My ticket granted me a seat in the working class carriages. And so did the Israeli guy’s ticket.

As soon as the train stopped, a mountain of passengers quickly formed in front of each carriage entrance. People were climbing and jumping over each other’s shoulders to get in.

I stood back with my jaw dropped in shock at the scene before me. How the hell would I get in? I thought. My travel companion seemed to share my reaction as we both waited for an opening to jump through.

When there was more space, we rushed to get in. Once in, the battle to find our seats commenced. The train started moving and we hadn’t yet found our seats. Everywhere was filled with people. Floors, beds and seats were all taken. We ended up climbing each to the over head luggage spaces. We found two empty ones facing each other.

I squeezed my things to one side, and sat leaning on my bag with my head facing the window side. Once comfortable we both looked at each other and laughed. We had made it. Now the long thirty two hour journey to Varanasi could begin.

I dozed off here and there, and between each halt of the train, I snacked on whatever the street vendors passed around in the aisle. I said yes and bought everything they offered, from roasted spicy nuts to salted cucumbers and fried samosas. Each time I devoured a snack, my travel companion stared at me in horror.

“How could you eat that? You don’t even know where it came from. You’re going to get sick!”

I looked around me at all the locals eating exactly what I was eating and said, “If they can eat it, then why can’t I? As long as I am in India I’m going to eat whatever the locals eat. My stomach will just have to adjust.”

He looked at me as if I had lost my mind and stuck to his bananas and bottled water.

To quench my tobacco cravings, I walked around the moving train and found a toilet where passengers had stood in line waiting their turn to smoke as well. We went into the small toilet in threes, and laughed as we each took turns to puff the smoke out the little window.

I found the journey to be more exciting than the destination itself, so much so, that in those small moments of spontaneity; fooling around and laughing with the locals, eating whatever they ate without thinking twice let alone once about it, and comfortably squeezing between men to smoke my well earned cigarette through the piss drenched toilet’s window. In those moments of spontaneity, I felt as if I was soaring in utter bliss. I was free. Up on that head luggage space, with my head bumping against my backpack watching the sky before me as it changed color from bright to light to slightly faded then dark, and then a little darker. I was free.

Even as my travel companion complained and worried about every little thing. I still felt so free. It never seemed to seize, this amazement at how far I’d come in only two years. It never seemed to click in my head that all that, was not a dream. That I was actually there, on my own, going where ever the wind blew, with who I used to be and the life I once felt forced to live, tucked faraway behind me. So faraway, it felt as if it had never existed. As if that girl never had been. As if all I was, was right there in that train. Fresh, new, free, without a past and without a future. Only the outstretched road and the adrenaline that came with diving head first into my fears that I had grown so addicted to.

When we finally reached Varanasi, it felt as though we had spent multiple lifetimes during that train ride. It took some adjusting to walk on stable ground again. My bones cracked against the wind in pain, they felt unfamiliar beneath my skin. We rested at a small chay shop near the station to gather our thoughts and fill our bellies with some real food.

My companion suggested a guest house he had been recommended and I agreed to join him. Together we walked through the old city, where buffaloes seemed to outnumber men. It was mid-day and the sun was burning strongly through the atmosphere, it’s heat radiating back from the earth in waves. Locals at every shop were throwing buckets full of water to cool the air. And the water sizzled, bubbling as it hit the heated ground.

The guesthouse was very old. It had a well in its center surrounded by a fully grown and tended garden. The rooms were spread around it in two floors and the family that ran it were, as most families that had hosted me before, kind and respectful. I shared my room with a British woman who had come to India to learn from some Guru in an Ashram. While my companion shared his room with a Spanish man from Barcelona.

We had all just arrived in the city. They knew more about it than me. I knew nothing. I just went to places. I never really studied them beforehand or understood the history behind them. For example, I had no idea what the Ganges river was or what Hinduism was or how Holy and important that city was. And so as they discussed it excitedly, I kept interrupting them with questions of what, why and could you elaborate?

I learned that you could not swim in that Holy river. That it was filled with dead people’s ashes. Back then the idea of cremation terrified me. I thought it terrible that a body would keep burning until it was turned completely into ashes. Even if said body was dead and could not feel a thing. I had a fear that what if it actually did feel everything and we didn’t know? Then of course, the idea of slowly decaying below ground wasn’t appealing at all. In fact, it terrified me even more. Especially that growing up, at school, our teacher had told us that a snake would appear in your grave and torture you until you were absolved of your sins. That you would be made to feel everything even if you were dead. It took me years to exorcise whatever I had been taught in school out of my mind and body. I now honestly, do not care at all what they choose to do with my body after I am dead. Enough about death though, let me get back to Varanasi.

Soon I had developed an idea of where I was and I grew even more excited. Although the city fascinated me, I knew I wanted to leave it soon. I did not feel like I would spend a long time there.

At night, I went out with the Spanish guy and the British woman to an evening ceremony that apparently was performed every sunrise and every sunset upon the Ganges river. We were handed flowered plates with unlit candles in the middle. Then we were put on a little wooden boat. That was my first time on an actual boat. I remember feeling ecstatic like a child as I sat on one side and braced myself for the journey. The man handling the boat, rowed us farther into the Ganges and soon there were boats everywhere around us.

Music and mantras sounded through the air and serenaded us as we watched the sun slowly disappear behind the horizon, before we lit our candles and pushed the plates on the surface of the water.

The Spanish guy had explained to me that it was in honor of the dead and so as I lit my candle and watched it float away, I thought of my Grandpa. Then I looked into the water and thought of all the dead swimming beneath its surface, their ashes mingling together and becoming one with the river. Without anyone watching, I slid my hand in the water and felt its coolness against my skin. The Spanish guy caught me and smiled then he too put his hand in the water, and together we communicated with the dead in silence.

After the ceremony, we went on a hunt for drugs. I had been told that once in Varanasi, I had to try one of their Bang Lassis. A yogurt shake mixed in with a bang load of Hashish. Those were the kinds of information I had sought about cities before visiting them. Never mind their Holiness, tell me more about those lassis.

We were unsuccessful in our search. We roamed the streets at night and asked passers by about that shop that sold them. No one knew about it or maybe they knew but they didn’t want to get involved with a couple of tourists. We must have seemed really stupid, asking around like that as if it were legal or alright. We almost gave up when a man approached us and asked us to follow him. He said he had everything we needed.

We followed him into an alley, and down some stairs. At which point I began feeling discouraged. I was not so sure I wanted those lassis anymore. At what cost anyway? But I was with the Spanish guy, and watching him, he seemed confident and relaxed and so I felt safer.

We were made to wait in a brightly lit living room. We were told that the man who had it all would come to meet us there.

Shortly after, an old man appeared, naked except for a white towel wrapped around his waist, his hair grayed with age and twisted into very long and rusty dread locks all wrapped up around his head like a turban. He walked in barefoot, holding a medium sized wooden box in his hands.

He bowed slightly and said Namaste before crouching down in front of us and placing his treasure box in the middle. We said Namaste back and held our breath for whatever was to happen next. Looking down at the box, I noticed with horror that his balls had come out from underneath the towel and were resting shamelessly on the floor. I tried hard to look away and pretend that it hadn’t unnerved me. I tried to focus on the box and what lay in it, but every now and then my gaze would stubbornly drop back to the hairy sack of balls in wonder.

In the box were all kinds of drugs that we could have thought of. He had hash brownies, coke, opium, mushroom cookies, LSD, ecstasy, hashish, weed, you name it. The Spanish guy bought the mushroom cookies while I chose to get some more Hashish. Unsatisfied, we both decided to share a bit of opium. I had never tried it before and wanted to try something new. With the naked old man we shared a joint in silence then finished up our exchange, bowed our Namastes and left. As soon as we were back out on the streets we burst out laughing.

I had felt embarrassed being in the presence of a comfortably naked man. I thought how one day I’d like to regard my own nakedness with as much carelessness too. I imagined a world where being naked was not such a big deal. It probably existed somewhere. Definitely not where I came from though.

At the guesthouse, we found the rooftop and brought the chairs up from our rooms to place them in a circle underneath the night sky. Clear, dark and blanketed with a sea of shimmering stars. The Israeli guy had slept the whole day and refused to partake in our drug ceremony but agreed to sit with us.

We split the opium ball into three pieces. I was confused and didn’t know how we were supposed to take it. The Spanish guy said to just chew it. And so we did. It was nasty. It tasted horrible. Our faces twitched and turned trying to swallow it down. Much to the amusement of the Israeli guy who kept laughing and pointing his finger at us. We chased it with as much water as we could, no matter what I did though, the taste hung there beneath my tongue making me shudder each time I swallowed.

We spent the next 6 hours, talking. Just talking. I could not stop. I did not feel anything in particular. I just couldn’t stop talking and walking around. At the end, exhausted, I sank into my bed and passed out.

After three days in Varanasi, together with the Israeli man, we headed back to the train station. He wanted to go to Rishikesh city for some Jewish temple gathering and I wanted to continue moving. The British woman had beat us there, and had already settled in an ashram while the Spanish guy wanted to stay in Varanasi a bit longer. And so, our next adventure began to where more adventures awaited.

The City That Shall Not Be Named

I said goodbye to the lovely faces I had grown accustomed to in Pokhara, and boarded the waiting mini van with my djembe and my backpack.

Four months ago, I had traveled alone to Nepal. I had been terrified and uncertain of what to expect. Now I was leaving with a multitude of new friendships in my heart and a collection of memories gathered and stored in my head.

Sitting in the van in a seat jumping up and down as it drove on, I felt the warmth of my tears sliding unexpectedly down my chilled cheeks. My eyes’ vision, blurred by them, was transfixed on the scenery passing us by. The mountains and the lake, the stretched out green fields, and all the small colorful houses. They were brushed in a dreamy haze, slightly unclear, through the van’s breath stained window pane.

A light drizzle was falling and the sun was rising at a very slow tempo. It was still dawn when we arrived at a crowded stop that seemed like the last corner by the edge of the world.

There were a few big buses around, empty, waiting to be filled. I could see a couple of foreign faces at the small chay stand were the crowd mingled. Something about it being so early, the air so fresh after the drizzle had stopped, and the smell of the spicy masala chay reaching my nostrils, made my stomach grumble with excitement.

I dumped my backpack and djembe onto the floor next to an empty chair and went over to the stand for a quick Masala Chay and a cigarette. I still had 15 minutes before the journey over the Indian border would resume. I had decided this time around to travel by land rather than by plane. It was also the cheapest option available and my Nepalese visa was approaching its expiration date.

I sat down on the empty chair, struggling to light my cigarette with one hand and holding on to the small hot cup of tea with the other. The woman sitting in front of me pushed her lighter over the table towards me.

“Oh, thank you.”

“No worries, are you also going to Chitwan?”

“No, I am going over the border to India. My visa is running out.”

“Cool. You’re going alone?” She seemed to hesitate.

“Yes. I am hoping to catch the train from the border city to Varanasi. I have some recommended contacts there.”

“Wow. You’re brave to do that.”

“I don’t know about that. Aren’t you also traveling alone?”

“No, I’m on a tour with some friends, they’re over there.” She pointed towards the foreign faces I had noticed earlier.

I was disappointed. I had hoped she would also be traveling alone to India so we could partner up and share the journey. In truth, I was scared and that’s why I didn’t believe her when she said I was brave.

They were all called off to their bus half way through my cup of tea and I was left alone with my nerves to contemplate my upcoming adventure with a couple more puffs of my cigarette and a fully risen sun before me.

I kept having this feeling that I’d missed my bus. Every now and then I would check my red old Samsung flip-phone with the yellow smiley face I had painted on it back when I was behind the bar in Istanbul, but I would still have some time left.

In the end, it was finally time and I was the first to get on the bus. I chose the first seat by the window. It felt safer there. I had my things around me protectively and the window open. The usual mix of feelings gathered within me and filled my heart to the brim.

Fear, dread, excitement, joy, freedom, presence, hope, loneliness, and again, fear. Do you know that mix? Are you familiar with it? I knew where I was going yet I had no idea what it would be like once I got there or how the journey would go. I had no idea if I would make it there alive or if I would survive once I got there. I was hopeful though. I knew nothing but I believed I would make it. That it would all be alright.

To be honest with you, I can’t remember the length of the bus ride nor how many stops we had. I remember on a couple of stops during the night, passengers got off to piss, men on one side of the street and the women on the other.

All they had to do was squat and pee, their long dresses covered their asses while I had a pair of pants on and in order to pee, I had to bare my ass for all to see. I remember a moment when shame waltzed out of me and I said – fuck it. I don’t care if they see my butt or not. I’m peeing or else my bladder is going to explode.- I wished I was a man then, just so I could pee easily whenever I wanted, wherever I wanted.

Anyway, somehow we made it to the Indian border after crossing the Nepalese one. We arrived in the middle of the night into a city that had a pretty difficult name to remember. Although it was dark, it was crowded with Indian men everywhere, shouting, arguing, spitting and staring. Not one woman in sight.

My heart pounded in my chest and fear seized my body from the waist down. I thought in that moment, that, that was it. I was going to die here. I rushed to cross the street to the other side where all the lit kiosks with fast food and hotel signs stood.

I had hoped to find a place to stay the night. I knew then that I would not be able to catch a train at that hour. I caught a blonde foreign head walking ahead of me and I leaped with hope but soon the blonde disappeared into the crowd and I couldn’t find them again.

I was having a panic attack as I entered a change office by accident thinking it was a hotel reception. There, I found a Norwegian couple, changing their money and I collapsed at their mercy.

“Thank God! Where are you staying? I just arrived and I’m scared shit.”

I was serious yet they laughed. The man had a ponytail and his wife seemed very loving. She smiled at me and said,

“It is a scary city. It’s good you found us. We are staying at a hotel nearby. You can come with us.”

Immediately my tensed shoulders fill down in relief and my heart freed itself from the tight grip that had been squeezing around it. With all that, the tiredness from the long journey began to dawn on me and I let out a big yawn as I entered the hotel hallway they were staying at.

They waited as I booked my room which turned out to be just next to theirs and we agreed to meet up after we had freshened up. The room was small. A queen sized bed filled it from all corners and after dumping my heavy backpack and drum on it I had to squeeze my way around it to the bathroom. I showered and changed then laid on the bed for a few moments contemplating my journey so far.

I made up my mind to leave, the city that shall not be named, as soon as morning came. I hoped I would be able to find a train to Varanasi but that thought also scared me. I had never taken a train in India before. I had never traveled through India alone before and every new step on that journey terrified me but I knew I had to carry on. I thought, hopefully, in the morning, the city wouldn’t feel so dreadful as it did at night.

Sometime later, I heard a light knock on my door. When I opened it, the man with the ponytail asked me if I was hungry. I said yes, I was, and he invited me to their room where upon their bed, a newspaper was spread with a plate of rice and some dal on top, accompanied with a dozen chapatis.

We all ate in silence and then we ordered a round of masala tea from room service. I wanted so much to give back something as a thank you for all their kindness but all I had was some left over hashish. With hesitation, I asked them if they smoked and to my surprise they both nodded eagerly.

We couldn’t smoke indoors and so we got out of the room, each holding our cups of tea, and went into the elevator up to the last floor. It was quite the adventure. The building was some kind of a sky scraper. I don’t remember how many floors it had but I remember the feeling when we opened a door and walked out on the roof.

We had a view of the whole city around us and the moon was beaming strongly above us. My whole experience shifted within hours from arriving with fear and dread to lighting up a joint with two kind strangers on the rooftop of a skyscraper on a full stomach and with a calmer mind.

We discussed our trips so far and naturally they learned all about my story and had the same reaction of tears and admiration that others usually had. I noticed with my story and my young age, I always ended up attracting people in my life who wanted to take care of me. I was aware of that and very grateful for it because without those people, I don’t know where I would have been now.

Unfortunately, I can’t remember the man’s name but his wife’s was, Adrienne. They were both so sweet.

In the morning, it did feel a bit safer to walk around. I said goodbye to the couple after breakfast and headed to the train station in a tuktuk. It felt good to be back in India somehow. I didn’t realize how much I had missed its chaos until I woke to its delightful morning buzz.

I felt relieved and ready for the adventure once I had secured my train ticket to Varanasi. I held on to it and stood a few feet from the tracks, waiting for the train to arrive. A man approached me. He seemed very posh in his appearance and smelled like strong cologne. I really disliked all scents of body perfumes then and I still strongly do now.

I didn’t understand a word he addressed to me. I looked at him dumbly and said,

“Sorry but I don’t understand you.”

“Oh, I thought you were from Israel.”

There we go again, I thought. I had had this conversation so many times before, ever since my journey through these parts of the world began. Even Indian locals had welcomed me with “Shalom Shalom” each time they saw me passing. Some of these conversations ended up good and positive with us becoming friends, though others ended up with them looking me up and down with disgust then shrugging away from me uncomfortably. I had a strong hunch on how that one was going to end and it was not going to be good.

“I am not. What were you asking me then?”

“Are you going to Varanasi, too?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Where are you from?”

“I am from Palestine.”

Then came a long pause. A pause I was accustomed to. It did not make me feel awkward at all. I only waited for him to walk away like I had expected him to do. But, to my surprise, he didn’t.

“Waw. You really look Israeli. I didn’t expect this answer at all.”

“It is funny, isn’t it?”

We both laughed.

“Can I accompany you on this journey?” he asked.

“Sure.”

Southeast Lessons

I can’t remember the names of the two people I hitch-hiked, from Olympus all the way back to Istanbul, with. I remember the face of the Turkish woman and the stuffed smell of her long dreadlocks. I remember my amazement at how fast and easy we got back. It took us literally half a day and only two rides.

As soon as I reached Istiklal street, I bought myself a Simit (Turkish bagel with sesame seeds) from one of the scattered red carts spread around each corner, always guarded by an old mustached man or another. I was so eager to find Mustafa and Saxonne, I wanted to fall into their familiar caring arms and tell them all about what had happened to me. I felt as if I had arrived home. Istiklal was mine.

I knew every turn and every shortcut. I knew which bar was on the first street and which was on the fifth. I knew some people as I passed them by. They always said hi. I knew which street musicians played on that part and which others played on another a couple of meters further ahead.

“Istiklal”, meant the same thing in Arabic as it did in Turkish, Independence. I thought it suited my new life perfectly.

I stayed at Nayera’s place for a while as we tried to figure out our next hitch-hiking trip. We wanted to go southeast this time. Kurdistan, was what we often referred to that part of the country although some of our Turkish friends didn’t think it was a wise idea to do so and advised us against it.

We decided to make our way to Diyarbakir. It was the month of Ramadan. And in only one week after arriving back in Istanbul, I was on the road again with my girls.

I felt mixed emotions embarking on that trip. We were exploring a more conservative side of Turkey, something the girls found curious and exciting whereas I had run from a culture quite similar to that and felt a bit weary of what to expect. I consoled myself with the fact that I’d be with them and that I could always pretend to be a European and just act the part.

It constantly surprised me and took me off guard, how much I ended up loving the people and their hospitality. We were never left to sleep on the streets. Somehow a kind stranger always appeared and guided us to the nearest shelter.

On our way and in each city or little town we rested for the night, we ended up sleeping in hospitals, police stations, Mosque rooftops, park benches, beaches and more chay shops. As we squeezed our butts in the backseats of huge shipping trucks we’d stopped, the drivers, although fasting, bought us packs of cigarettes, water bottles and big watermelons, which they’d split open and cut in pieces for us to eat on the way.

Photo credit: Charlie

It was the sort of adventure I had always imagined myself experiencing. Free on the road, without a plan, trusting in strangers and believing that it would all go well.

I remember Olivia was reading Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” and I had asked her what it was all about when she explained to me that it was a story of a group of men who go on hitch-hiking trips all across America and at some point make it to Mexico.

We used to write a lot. We’d find a chay shop at each stop and sit around a table, each with her own little notebook. We’d sometimes read out our journals to each other. They’d always laugh and crack jokes at mine. I enjoyed making them laugh, to the point that I would exaggerate in my writing on purpose just so I could entertain them later on. They’d document details like the names of cities we were in and the sites we had seen, whereas I’d document feelings I’d felt and how many shits in awkward places I’d had. What cracked them up was the amount of details I’d put into it and the elaborate descriptions I’d use.

Photo credit: Charlie

I still have all those journals. I have them smudged with long dried puddles of chay and attempted scribbles of each of their faces. Nayera with her thick and expressive eyebrows, Olivia with her boyish smirk, and Charlie with her curious stare. Old precious memories tucked between half fallen rusty covers that have traveled with me everywhere, always stacked in piles, at the bottom of my backpack.

It was the first day of the holy Muslim holiday (which came after Ramadan to celebrate the break of the long fast) when we entered the old town in Diyarbakir city. We walked into a bazaar looking for a place to sit and eat.

On the second floor of one shop, we were trapped by a chatty young man who seemed to be fascinated by the variety of nationalities before him. He couldn’t believe it when he heard our adventure so far and kept repeating how crazy we were to hitch-hike alone as women in this part of the country.

At first I felt uncomfortable by his hold on the girls, then irritated because they didn’t seem to want to break free. I was hungry and all I wanted to do, was to walk in the opposite direction to where the restaurants were. I could smell the steam off the freshly baked bread and hear the inviting clatter of cutlery against plates. The more their talk stretched out in Turkish, the more my stomach grumbled in pain and my sighs of rude impatience got deeper. The girls eventually seemed to agree with him on something and then we said goodbye.

As soon as we were out of earshot I asked them, why it had taken them so long, and they said he had been trying to convince them to stay the night at his family’s home. I protested in the beginning and they thought I was being too judgmental. I did not like that at all. I didn’t trust his intentions. We talked it over as we ate. As soon as my stomach was full, I was able to soak in their thoughts better. In the end I had no other choice but to go with their decision to accept his invitation. It was either that or facing the unpredictability of the streets on my own.

He had exchanged numbers with Nayera. After food we walked around the old town and enjoyed watching the festivities. As the sun began its descend and the night brought along colder winds with it, Nayera rushed to call him and arranged a meeting at the same shop where we had left him.

Along with another older man, they were closing the shop as we arrived. It turned out his family owned the shop and the older man was his father. That eased me up a bit and I decided to get out of my head and try to smile more often, so as not to seem rude.

Nayera and Charlie walked ahead with them, deeply engaged in a conversation that I could not comprehend, with the little Turkish I knew back then, while I walked with Olivia behind them, silently contemplating their backs, the way their hips jerked as they switched from foot to foot, and how their shadows danced around them mimicking their every move.

His mother greeted us at the door. A plate topped with Turkish sweet delights, in her hands. Her big smile shone through the night like a lighthouse might to a lost boat amid the raging sea. It filled me with warmth and my body instantly relaxed upon seeing her.

She had prepared a feast for us. Try as we might, we could not persuade her to stop filling up our plates each time we thought we were done. His family was big, all comfortably squeezed up in the small and humbly decorated space of their house. The abundance of generosity and love was overwhelming. It felt like a homecoming.

She had already arranged our mattresses with sheets, pillows and blankets, on the rooftop, under a clear night full of stars. She led us there, made sure we weren’t short on anything, then wished us goodnight. We couldn’t believe our luck. How did a single conversation with a stranger at a bazaar, manifest into all this love, food and shelter? I stood over my mattress with awe. I felt giddy and excited as the cool summer breeze brushed gently against my skin.

Photo credit: Charlie
Photo credit: Charlie

Life. It amazed me so. I lay on my back, stretched my arms and placed my hands underneath my head. My eyes fixed on the brightness of the moon above me. The girls whispered their “goodnight”s as they each tucked their bodies into heavy blankets and I whispered goodnight back, feeling the warmth of my own around me. I felt grateful, hopeful, and so full of joy as I tried to fall asleep, and as we left their home the next morning, to continue our trip, I realized I had been taught a valuable lesson.

A lesson that I would have to relearn over and over again over the years and that I am still learning, “Not to judge a book by it’s cover. Not to judge a person by using past experiences as an excuse. Not to judge, period.”

Photo credit: one of the girls, not sure which

From Diyarbakir, we went on to Mardin and in that beautiful, old city too, we were blessed with a nice encounter and a family home to host us for the two nights we stayed there. The mother spoke Arabic and reminded me of my aunties in Palestine. The way she dressed, the features of her face, and the way she tried to get me to marry her oldest son all the time:

Photo credit: Charlie

“Look at how handsome my son is!”

“Isn’t he such a good man!”

“Wouldn’t you want a husband like that?”

“Come on. Let me marry you to him. I really want you to be my daughter in law.”

To which I would always reply: yes, but no. She made me laugh and she was very loving in the way she would take me into her arms suddenly and plant a smooch on my cheeks for no reason at all, just because she felt like it.

I loved the Kurdish people and their spirit. I loved their hospitality and their generosity even when they had so little to offer. The whole trip went on for two months and by the time we got back to Istanbul, it felt as though we had grown two years in wisdom.

Photo credit: could be me but most probably Charlie
Photo Credit: Charlie

Barefoot in Olympus

I broke away from the band as soon as we arrived at our final destination. By broke away I mean, took distance and tried to find my own space without them. The drummer had provided for and taken care of me during all that time on the road and now I wanted to manage on my own without depending on him anymore. After weeks of sleeping in the same tent, smoking from the same pack of cigarettes and sharing a beer can between us every time we wanted to drink alcohol, we got to see each of our flaws and we started fighting like little children over the silliest things. We were both Libras and we needed to find our own balance, alone, without each other, in order to remain sane.

I felt like a burden on him all the time and he felt a responsibility over me because of his promise to Nayera and that stressed both of us out. When I told him I had met a friend I knew from Istanbul and was going to sleep in her tent instead, he got mad. He said I was being ungrateful. I tried to explain to him that I was doing that for his sake but he wouldn’t hear it. In the end we stopped talking for some time and after a couple of days apart, we laughed about it and agreed that it was indeed for the best.

Damla was the friend that offered me a space in her tent. I had met her briefly in Istanbul and she was a very close friend of Nayera. When she saw me she was excited, she thought Nayera was with me. When she found out I was alone, she told me I could join her if I liked and I did.

For some reason, I was unable to navigate the natural environment around me on my own. I had fears that I could not even realize let alone understand. I was intimidated of the idea that I’d be left alone, that I’d get lost somewhere and not find my way back, or, that I’d be unwanted, disliked and hated simply for who I was. I was quiet, didn’t start a conversation but always eagerly answered the questions that were directed at me.

I sat in silence, documenting everything down in my journals, sometimes writing for hours without taking a break. My eyes wild in observation, I would look at each person’s face studiously. I thought I could learn how to be free in my body through them. I wanted to learn how to be myself without caring what they thought of me. It was such a frustrating task. I hid behind my books all day on my own allowing my fears to cripple my movements and my curiosity.

The band played every evening at the same bar where I wrote. Some evenings I continued writing even as they performed and it got crowded and people filled the floor around them dancing. I didn’t mind. It didn’t make a difference to me if the place was loud or quiet, full or empty. Once I was in the writing mode, nothing could distract me from the bubble.

Except for that one particular night, I was deep into my emotions and felt so much anger against the leader. He had insulted me in front of an audience during the day and I again had been unable to defend myself.

I watched as he performed, then poured out everything I wished I had said to him onto the pages of my notebook instead.

My bare feet were resting against the empty chair in front of me when suddenly it disappeared and they crashed onto the floor. I looked up irritated, ready to attack whoever it was, only to find a handsome looking man staring back at me with amusement in his eyes.

“Sorry, may I join you?”

I wanted to kill him for disturbing my space.

“No, I’d rather be alone, please.” I snapped back at him then tried to go back to my writing after finding another empty chair to rest my feet on.

I couldn’t go back completely. I was distracted again by the same man, when I realized he was sitting at the table next to me all along with a group of his friends. They were all looking at me and laughing which made me feel uncomfortable so I decided to move tables and sit as far away from them as was possible.

Just as I was getting back into my writing, The man and his friends moved tables and settled again next to mine. I could feel his eyes burning a hole into my side but I ignored him stubbornly and hid my head between the covers of my notebook until I was done.

As soon as I got up to get a beer, he was beside me, offering me his bottle. I turned away and instead of going towards the bar, I started dancing on my own. He started dancing too, and did some really funny moves around me. His facial expressions were what eventually cracked me up and I finally let him in.

“Take the beer.” he said, smiling big and offering me the bottle again.

I looked at him, and realized he wasn’t Turkish. His accent was different.

“Where are you from?” I asked, my curiosity taking over.

“Georgia.”

“In America?”

“No, Georgia the country, not the state.”

I had never heard of his country before. “What language do you speak?”

“Georgian but most people there also speak Russian.”

We were shouting over the music in order to hear each other.

The music picked up and we continued dancing.

“What were you writing in there?”

“Nothing. Just some thoughts.”

“You seemed pretty angry when you were writing.”

I laughed and chose not to explain why.

“Why did you pull the chair from under my feet?”

“I couldn’t resist. I wanted to get your attention.”

“Really? But why?”

I couldn’t trust him. I couldn’t believe a guy as handsome as him would pursue me. The leader had ruined my confidence.

“Because I have never seen a girl like you. You are so beautiful.”

I laughed sarcastically, choosing not to fall for it. We drank more beers and continued to get to know one another.

His friends were hilarious, everything they did or said made me shake with laughter. One of them worked in an office, the other worked as a DJ in a club and was also the lead singer in a local rock band. Ivan, the guy whose beer I was sharing and whom I was getting comfortable with, was a painter. He called himself a desperate artist. I asked him to show me his art, and he took out a folded paper from his back pocket.

As I unfolded it, I could feel his gaze fixed on me. Sketched on it with a black pen, was a silhouette of a woman bent over a book, her face hidden and her bare feet, outlined over and over again. I smiled.

“Is this supposed to be me?”

“Yes. I couldn’t get the feet right though.”

I spent the night with him in his bungalow a few miles away from where I shared a tent with Damla. We sat next to each other on a big rock in front of his room and looked up at the moon in silence before he asked if he could kiss me. Everything felt so unreal. My whole experience with him felt like a dream.

The next morning we had breakfast and sat in the sun talking about our lives. He gifted me a drawing and I wrote him something in his notebook. He was leaving back to Georgia the next day and we agreed to see each other again in the night before he left.

We never did. I couldn’t remember much of that night anyway. I had drank too many beers and danced myself into a blackout before the clock struck midnight. The next morning I awoke with a strong sense of disorientation and a pair of heavy blurry eyes. I looked around for my glasses only to find I was in a stranger’s tent. I was so afraid. It was my first alcohol blackout.

When I found my glasses, I got out of the tent and ran to his bungalow, hoping to catch him. He was already gone. I walked back to the bar and asked for a coffee.

Damla found me later and told me what had happened. I cried from the shock of it all. I felt overwhelmed. I had never lost control like that before. I had never lost my memory. It frustrated me so much that I had to depend on everyone’s version of what they saw me do then collect each of their stories together in order to understand how I had ended up in that stranger’s tent.

In the end I was assured that I had just danced endlessly and had been very happy. That after the bar had closed, I had passed out on a bench in the cold and the bartender had carried me into his tent which was literally behind the bar, had put me on his mattress and had slept outside in his sleeping bag.

I had no choice but to believe all that. I was depressed for the remainder of that week until I finally found two people who were up to join me in hitch-hiking back to Istanbul. I was done with that adventure and ready to go back to what had grown familiar almost as a home. My own Constantinople.

Imagine a bird born in a cage. It never learned to fly. Never even knew it could. Then, one fateful day, that bird was helped out of its cage and was told it was free. It could now go wherever it pleased, and do whatever it wished.

Back when I was eighteen, I felt just like that bird. I was finally free when I escaped to Turkey on a one way ticket. I was free, a few months later, on top of mount Olympus with that roaming street band, but I wasn’t given an instruction leaflet on how to explore that freedom. I had no idea how to be. What I knew was so different from what I was seeing and experiencing. The people around me, excited and intimidated me all at once.

Freedom started out clumsy, blind and stumbling. Over the years it has reshaped itself into so many layers and dimensions that now it is no longer what I thought it was at all.

That First Summer

It took only two days of hitchhiking to get to Foca, a small town north of Izmir, where the free music festival was taking place. We were all very excited to have finally made it. We followed the loud music bursting through the sky, and it guided us to the beach side.

From the top, patterns of colorful tents decorated one side of the beach, and as we hiked down the little hill, I saw the stage, alive and crowded, on the other side.

Nayera’s favorite band was playing. She had confessed to me on the way, that she and the drummer had a little something going on between them and I was excited to see how he looked like.

We headed first to the tents’ side. The girls set up their things, and I changed my clothes and fixed my hair. It was almost sunset. They wanted to have a quick swim in the sea before joining the music and I, not wanting to feel left out, decided to join them. I didn’t do much swimming. I literally just dipped myself in and got out. The waves were too strong for my liking and they had already swam so far out that I couldn’t make out their heads anymore. I was not going to chase them.

After finding the wooden shed bar, where people were getting their beer cans from, I decided to wait for them there. I didn’t want to lose sight of them. It was very crowded and I knew I wouldn’t be able to find my way back to the tent in the dark. Yet at the same time I felt so excited and I wanted to see everything. It was my first experience at a festival.

I felt so out of place. The vibe and atmosphere of my surroundings over whelmed me. I didn’t know how to sit, how to talk, what to do with my hands or how to let go and enjoy. I leaned over the bar to ask for a beer but the bartender didn’t hear me. After positioning myself directly in front of him, I raised my voice a couple of notches above a whisper and said,

“How much for the beer?”

He finally noticed me and came over with a smile, giving me his full attention. When I asked him again, he said,

“We are not selling. It’s free! Everything here is for free.”

A spark went through my eyes in disbelief. Could it be?! A free festival with all this music and nature and on top of that even alcohol was free?!

The bartender took a cold can of beer out of a big red cooler, handed it to me then rushed over to a group of people who had just gathered around the bar looking thirsty. I took my beer and decided to relax a little. I should go and have fun. Walk over to the stage side and dance to the music. So what if I danced alone? Who cares? I’m free. Stop being so self conscious.Shake it off.

Nayera’s favorite band was still playing. It was reggae music and the rhythm was heating up. People were jumping around and getting lost in it. I found myself an empty spot, not too far from the stage, so I could see them playing, and not too close, so no one could see me dancing.

Photo Credit: The festival’s photographers

I swayed to the music and sipped on my beer. After two songs, my swaying turned to shaking and I was finally dancing and enjoying myself. Just then, when I let go and really began to feel the space around me, Fillip and Johannes bumped into me and were happy to find me. The girls also found their way to us after their swim. Together we raved until the music was over and the night, much darker.

Photo Credit: The festival’s photographers

When the stage closed, most people drifted slowly back to their tents or the little quarters they had set for themselves to continue their own parties. Some of them though, including us and a few musicians from the band, decided to make our own after party around a big bonfire.

The lead singer of the band was the center of attention. He had a confident, loud and leading personality. Everyone sat around in a circle with the fire burning in the middle and the far sound of the waves as they collided in the sea, serenading us. They listened to him as he commanded the mood.

Nayera introduced me to her crush, the drummer of the band, and him and I got along well. He was goofy, simple-hearted and kind. I was happy for her. They seemed to be getting on well together and she looked radiant with alcohol and love.

We were all wasted at that point and I ended up being seated next to the charming leader. He seemed interested in me and let me jam along with him when they started playing music. He gave me a triangle and showed me how to use it. His confidence and self-assuredness fascinated me.

I didn’t know how to react to him. He looked older and much more experienced in life. His dreadlocks were tied up and his beard was long. His face, rough, and his features, hard, yet altogether he looked very handsome.

I was shy yet curious and amazed by everything around me. My attraction to him was minor compared to my attraction to the whole experience. Everything was a first time to me while all those people around me had probably done those first times many times before.

When the after party was over and the fire was put out, he started asking me all sorts of questions. We walked by the beach and he held my hand. It was dark and the sound was slowly disappearing into a peculiar silence. I was shivering from the sudden cold wind and he hugged me to keep me warm.

As soon as he learned I was eighteen, he grew distant. It was so visible, the instant shift in his mood, that I could almost see the wall rising up between us. He told me he was double my age and that he felt tired. He walked me to my friends’ tent, then went away.

The next morning, he was different and ignored me when I said hello. He sat faraway from his band mates and looked very angry about something.

There was a beach hut where everyone gathered to have breakfast, coffee and endless cups of tea. All for free. I found the drummer there, who greeted me warmly and asked me to join him and his friends. I met the trumpet player, the bassist and the saxophonist. They kept repeating a Turkish phrase, chok tatlisin, to me, which later I learned meant, you are very sweet.

Nayera and the girls joined us too and we all hung out afterwards under the sun. We got high, drank beer and took turns swimming in the sea. There was other bands playing on the stage and their music completed the whole summer vibe.

A part of me wondered if the leader was angry because of something I’d said. I couldn’t understand how someone could be so kind and attentive, one night, then suddenly, come daylight, turn ice cold and not even return my greeting. I tried not to let it ruin my time.

Photo Credit: The festival’s photographers

By the end of the one week festival, I had made many friends from many different camping groups. I had learned what anarchy and communism meant, sort of. I had grown tight with the boys from the band who treated me like their little sister, and I had bonded even stronger with my road sisters, who were ready to head back to Istanbul.

On the last day, the saxophonist asked me if I wanted to join their band on the road and be their hat girl while they busked around for coins. They were headed towards mount Olympus.

I got so excited by the idea. I had felt so sad that the festival was over and that I was about to say goodbye to them. I couldn’t believe my ears when they, instead of saying goodbye back, said, “Why don’t you come with us? We still have one space left to fill in the van.”

I shared my news with Nayera. I told her, I didn’t feel like going back to Istanbul yet and that I have decided to go with the guys instead. She was angry at first. She said, “You started this adventure with us, you ought to finish it with us.”

I argued back. I told her, what was the point of my freedom, if I couldn’t decide to continue with another group on another path, when the group I had started with was going back on a path I didn’t want to take?

This made absolute sense to Olivia and Charlie. It took Nayera a while to let me go in peace. The drummer offered to take care of my accommodation and share his food with me when he saw how concerned Nayera was for my well being. This calmed her down a bit.

In the end, we hugged goodbye and I watched them walk back up the hill where we had arrived from, and onto the highway on the other side.

My heart skipped a beat watching them go. Although I was set in my decision to stay and join the band, I suddenly felt lonely and afraid without her. I couldn’t help but worry if I had made the right choice after all.

When I went back to find the boys, they were packing up their instruments into the back of a white van that looked like it hadn’t been washed for ages. The driver was a fat and bald man who kept cracking jokes and pinching my cheeks. Another girl joined us and we all took our seats as the journey south-east, began.

We camped in every town we stopped at and the drummer kept true to his word. He made sure I always had a spot to sleep in his tent and shared half of his food with me. He even gave me a bit of his share from the money they got busking on the streets. He often joked around saying he was giving me my allowance and that I should spend it well.

I helped him carry his drum kit in and out of the van, I helped him set it up and watched proudly each time as they performed. Between songs, I danced with the hat in my hand and passed it around, waiting awkwardly as people threw money in.

Of course the leader didn’t like any of it. I didn’t have to understand his angry Turkish, whenever I heard them mention my name in an argument, to get it. What confused me though, was that sometimes when he would be in a good mood, he would address me and ask me to pass him something, or, he would say, good morning, out of the blue. I was cooperative because I knew where I stood in that van and I knew that although they all wanted me there, their leader didn’t.

Nevertheless, it was an exciting and unforgettable experience for me. To be on the road with a cool bunch of musicians not knowing which new town I’d discover next or what mount Olympus would be like. Not knowing how long I would last with them, and how long I would stay before I tried to find a way back to Istanbul.

I was so happy. It was my first summer of freedom after I had runaway. I was surrounded with music, people, a stretched out highway and the unknown which laid beyond it.

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