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Plans and Improvisation

When you travel for an extended period of time, you find yourself roaming. A lot. You start to disregard any sense of itinerary or agenda, and you let yourself float in the serendipitous surf that a new city offers. Even if unaware of what you’re doing or what you’re looking for, there’s usually things you notice or scenes that catch your eye. You put yourself in this hyper-aware state, letting curiosity dictate every decision or whim. Sometimes this can be exhilarating and immensely fulfilling, other times it can be distressing as you find yourself floating further and further from shore, stuck in the uncertainty of what it is you’re looking for. There’s no telling what reaction you’ll have when you commence this exploration, because just like anything else in life, it’s the context that usually dictates the reality of your condition. What time did you get into this new city? Did you figure out your lodging situation yet? Are the locals friendly? Is the area clean? Comfortable? Too clean or too comfortable? The list of conditional circumstances goes on and on, but you can’t dwell on this filter you’re perceiving the world through; recognizing its presence is usually good enough.

This particular time I was roaming the streets of an overlooked city perched on Turkey’s Black Sea coast. It was a destination my travel brother, Jim, and I had agreed on back in the War Room months ago. Our year-long itinerary boasted a solid framework, but left a lot of room for improvisation when it came to specifics while in the field. So sitting in a Georgian cafe with a plate of Khinkali and a carafe of Saperavi, we needed to figure out what this next step was. The blueprint called for Turkey next then make our way over to Italy, but we didn’t anticipate how our exposure to Middle Eastern and Central Asian travelers (people we knew nothing about or what we thought we knew was tainted with political bias) would affect our plans. But then we realized that funny girl in the hostel (who took forever to get ready) was Iranian, and that nice guy that gave us all rides home the other night was Afghani, and that gregarious cinematographer with the hot girlfriend was… Azerbaijani? And the list of these incredible people continued, and the conversations we have with them inspired and encouraged us to visit these places we once thought so dangerous or dull, until we found ourselves in a Georgian cafe trying to figure out which of these amazingly unexpected audibles we should call while in this part of the world.

The decision to go to Lebanon took longer than a single wine-soaked cafe cogitation, but eventually Lebanon was what we chose. It was close to the Syrian Crisis but not necessarily in the middle of it; it was in the Middle East but didn’t exhibit the usual antipathy towards the West; and it had a very unique culture considering it was the only country in the region whose population was nearly half Christian. There was more to it than this, but most of the other reasons revolved around these core factors. Now how the hell do we get there?

Cheapest flights in the region turned out to be from Ankara, so to our luck we had to go through Turkey anyway. Ankara was only a few hours inland from Turkey’s Black Sea coast, which ironically gave us the opportunity to take the same route we planned for this country back in the War Room. We’d skirt along this ancient coast, hopping between the few ‘major’ cities it accommodates and see for ourselves why everyone’s so silent about this part of Turkey. That was a big part of the reason why we originally planned this route- out of all the hours of research we did on this region, it was like the Turkish Black Sea coast didn’t exist. The only fragments we found that proved otherwise was the obvious Google Earth satellite view and a Guardian article that described someone’s rather unremarkable visit. The latter gave us a little context into what we’d be getting into, but it didn’t exactly ‘sell’ it. In a way, though, it did. At least for us.

One thing we had no trouble finding over and over again during our research was that people were traveling, people were blogging, and people we’re cataloguing every inch of the globe already. It seemed like no stone was left unturned. Or at least no stone worth turning. So we sat there in front of our computers trying to find all the cracks and crevices in between. All the places that weren’t being talked about and photographed a thousand times by the countless new Insta parvenu. And although this research was paradoxical, like repeatedly trying to observe the spot perpetually stuck in your peripheral, it was still possible. You just had to stop fixating on the details and start embracing the ambiguous. These areas were all gambles because you had to figure there was a reason no one was going there, or at least even talking about them. It didn’t necessarily mean they were dangerous, because that would at least inspire some conversation; it just meant they were probably pretty unexceptional. But we’d never know until we went.

We took an overnight bus from Tbilisi, Georgia to Trabzon, the closest major city on the Turkish coast. I’d love to say it was a derelict little gem shielding it’s cozy charm from your average tourist, but it wasn’t. It was a drab fusion of brutal architecture and boisterous signs thrown together to exemplify the depths of urban aesthetic disregard. I’m sure there were some redeeming qualities to this inaugural city, but we had five days to get to Ankara so we didn’t exactly have time to go meandering for the benefits of our doubt. Jim and I stretched our legs from that eleven hour bus ride, grabbed a nice breakfast, then stuck our thumbs out for a ride up the coast. We met a Turkish hitchhiker and joined forces (which we realized was very fortunate considering most Turks don’t speak English), then got picked up by a laconic Special Forces officer in a Porsche Cayenne (yeah, pretty good start). The guy drove us to Giresun, the next major coastal city, which was exponentially superior to our previous stop. Although the tacky store signs and functional architecture seemed to be a theme with these cities, Giresun was fortunately adorned with intricate alleyways sloping up into the hillside, a cobblestoned shopping district alongside its traditional bazaar, and city squares and fruit stands and historical facades. It wasn’t necessarily the most beautiful city I’ve come across in my travels, but it had character and it had a pulse and that’s honestly all I needed.

It was finally time to explore again. Not just a new city but a new country, a new culture. I slipped into that hyper-conscious state, camera at the ready, processing just as much internally as I was externally. I laid in the shallow surf of this sensorial tide and let the rhythmic drift pull me left into that alleyway and then up onto that overgrown staircase, down back into the market and over and into that shop. I did this for hours, wandering but aware, until it started getting dark. I knew I should’ve started heading back, but I heard this soft rumbling up ahead and a luminous glow bouncing off the overcast sky. I thoughtlessly headed towards it and found myself in front of a massive soccer stadium packed to the nosebleeds. The city was built on a hill, so from where I stood I could watch a sliver of the game from the narrow, open corners, which many people were doing already. The game was fine, but the scene it provided was what I would cherish. It was anachronistic, cut from an old reel and spliced onto the present, providing a chance to imagine a time preoccupied more with personal affinity than with the ineffable deceit of modern distraction. No one was on there smart phones checking their latest feeds, they all were simply there. I stopped and took a breath, leaning over the iron railing, feigning interest in the game, imagining myself a part of this other time. Then I smiled, considering how much planning and improvisation prepared this moment to be.


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