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Chapter 29: Fishing

Adana to Sipahili. May 16 to 18.

From the journey's start in Baghdad I had traveled through cities, towns, villages and fields. I had crossed plains in highlands and lowlands, cycled over mountains and through the canyons between them. Now, leaving Adana, I was approaching what felt like a major milestone: the sea. I had not seen the ocean after landing in Iraq, and the thought of riding by the blue horizon to the sound of waves gave a boost of energy on the road to Mersin.

To be a traveling writer has a lot in common with fishing. To find local hosts and hospitality I lay out hooks on community boards and with prior connections, making sure there is an appealing treat in taking me in - often the story of the cycling Swede is enough. As a teller of tales I am looking for stories on the way, but I cannot rely for them all to come to me. I have to read the waters, know the breeding grounds and of course hope for a bit of luck. Curiosity is often rewarded. In Mersin, I had Nuzhet on the reel.

My impression of German women, at least those that go abroad on holiday, is that they are very hardcore when it comes to adventurous travel. Half Turkic, half German, Nuzhet seemed to have inherited more from the latter. I learned about the nomadic tribes in Turkey, present in mountainous provinces and moving four times a year with the seasons and their herds. Nuzhet was involved with the Nomads in Sebil province, in part as a collaboration with her job at the university and the Young Explorers Project where students from the city learn to live on the land at 2800 meters height, cycling up to reach the campsite. The stories from tribal culture, nomadic living, students' experiences and the life of Nuzhet would make a great book on its own, of that I have no doubt.

Mersin have seen big investments to encourage sports and physical exercise, and its waterfront with bike lane, running track and sea view made for a splendid welcome to a pretty and modern city. While the bike lanes would only appear sporadically going forward in Turkey, the sea views would continue from there to Bulgaria, as I intended to follow the coastline most of the way.

Sometimes I am not the one fishing, instead I let myself be caught. In Silifke, next stop from Mersin, I passed two cyclists on the road. One of them soon caught up with me, eager to talk. It should be clearly said, I don't always have social energy to engage with all curious people. However, judging by his looks, clothes and lack of luggage, this fellow was a foreigner that seemed to live nearby, and that made me curious too. His name was Sergei, from the largest city in Siberia, Novosibirsk. He was the first of what would be many Russian friends I have made in Turkey, and one l value highly. We cycled around town in the early evening, the first company on bicycle on the whole trip. The next day he helped find a good bike mechanic and invited me over for lunch. He even gave me a front-mounted bag to finally relieve some weight from my poor back wheel. He and his family of five have lived in Türkiye for three years, but now he tries to move everyone to Serbia. Insha'Allah, I will meet my friend there next time.

From Silifke the journey continued the following day, with a half-assed plan of reaching an accomodation with terrible reviews but decent price and the only one in the area. It was in the bay just beyond the little town of Sipahili, and as I arrived to this peaceful place I was greeted by a group of local men by the beach, enjoying their Saturday evening beer and thoughtfully discouraged me to avoid the motel. After checking in anyways to an establishment, it you can call it that, that deserved every reviling review and more, I realised I had put myself in a bit of a pickle. I did have enough cash to pay for the motel, but not anything else, and the little bay sported nothing in terms of shops, diners or ATMs anyhow. Having no intention to cycle more hills that day, I instead went fishing for opportunities. "The men by the beach seemed helpful and curious" I thought to myself, making it a priority to seek them out before taking a long awaited, and much needed, swim in the Mediterranean Sea. Said and done, when I came down to the shore the men were just loading their beat. "Do you want to join fishing?"

For 40 000 years, people have been hunting in waters. Fishing has existed more than twice the time farming has, and everywhere in the world where you find humans living by the ocean, you find fishermen. In a global sense, you could say that going fishing is about the least original thing a man can do as the sun sets by the sea. And yet, joining the local fishermen that night gave me that excited feeling of being on an adventure that is my own, and I was grateful to share it with them.

I was introduced to the men. Serkan, the largest of the three and the one who invited me on, seemed to mostly do cooking and little fishing, or perhaps they took turns. Jilet, a younger and thinner fellows, worked as a firefighter in the next city. I never caught the name of the captain, he was mostly referred to as "Boss" or "boss captain" and was the owner of the boat and the most experience fisherman. As we ate the catch from previous days, fried with a salad and bread, the men spoke of the big fish that we could get. However, they had to admit that they caught nothing major for two weeks. For these fishermen the times were hard, on top of the financial ruination that the plummeting Lira has caused every Turkish household. The only bright side was that none of them had families of their own, so no one else went hungry because if their recent lack of success. The jokes about their single lives caused only tragicomical laughter. But tonight maybe, just maybe, they would catch the big fishes, and bring them home.

At dusk we cast off to the selected area. They had prepared hooks with small fish that I counted to plenty more than 200. As they lay out the bait, and later when we went back to to collect, I realised that the total length of fishing line that they had carefully rolled up and likely tied together was well over a kilometer in length. Between the laying and the fetching was waiting and praying. Obviously none of them were pious Muslims in their drinking and smoking, but they all believed in God, and hoped for him to grant their wishes. When men go fishing, they are up all night to get lucky.

For every hook that came back empty with neither bait or catch, spirits sunk one drop at a time. When we finally returned to shore, we did so with only a handful of midsize fishes, that would cover one or two meals maximum for the three of them. The hundreds of small ones that had been bait were obviously eaten by someone, just someone more clever, or more lucky, than the fishermen on this night.

The next morning I finally took my first dip in the ocean, and swam out to Serkan who had slept in the boat. He tried to give a smile. "Maybe tonight". But there was no faith in his voice, no hope in his eyes. It was as if he no longer believed there was more fish in the sea. And so I left the fishermen of Sipahili, unlikely to ever see them again. Although there was no catch to speak of, and there was no deep interpersonal connection at play, my evening on the boat felt like an essential little part of my story, and in any version I tell it, it is a chapter I will never leave out. Returning empty-handed from an evening out is about as real, as authentic, as life gets.


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