Adventures in Urban Camping
by Sean Monterastelli
It wasn’t a bicycle tour in Burgundy, or a weekend hike up to a secluded cabin in the Black Sea mountains . . . but this brief getaway from the monotony of city life did just as much in restoring my sanity as any lengthy vacation ever had.
"I might’ve found a way to coexist with this oppressive brute of a city," I said to my wife, Aslı, one night in our Istanbul apartment. "If everything goes well tomorrow night, we’re going to make this a weekly event. We’ll camp one night a week on the island. Or three. The more time spent out of this apartment the better."
"We’re lucky to have such a nice apartment," came the reply.
"We are," I said. "The living room really gives the impression of waiting for a bus in the street and our bedroom is a reminder of the tomb we’ll be buried in. A real steal for Istanbul."
She looked at me in astonishment.
"I still can’t quite believe that this plan of yours will actually work," said Aslı. "Did you confirm with Kaveh today?"
It was a rhetorical question. My wife was well aware of my reluctance to make plans.
"Call him now," she insisted.
"I’ll call him," I assured her.
She stood still, keeping her eyes trained on me.
I searched for my phone.
I was surprised when he answered. I thought he’d be attending to his plants, or watching his Biryani cook.
"Sean!" he cried.
"Kaveh," I said. "I’m looking forward to tomorrow night."
"Man, it’s just that…" he began. "Man!"
His excitement was often too much for him to convey in words.
"Can I assume that you’ve secured the permission of your wife for our little adventure?"
"Come on!" he laughed. "I mean… that was the first thing I did this morning."
His pause was revealing, but not wanting to embarrass him, I kept my suspicions to myself.
"Alright man," I said. "Well, I’m all packed and ready. I’ll see you at the Bostancı Ferry station tomorrow at six."
After hanging up, I found my wife spread out on the couch watching a TV show.
"He hasn’t asked his wife yet," I said. "Maybe you could give her a call."
The next day I left work at 5:30 on my bicycle and began my harrowing ride to the ferry station. I watched the blue mini-buses, the kings of the road, as they fluttered across the two-lane boulevard like concussive bats: stopping abruptly, swerving out of control, accelerating with suicidal ambition towards the halting traffic. It wasn’t easy, pedaling a bicycle in the early evening rush hour traffic, but bike commuting was the only enduring legacy of the semi-nomadic lifestyle I had embraced in my early twenties.
Since moving to Istanbul I had, within a year, gotten married, moved into a three bedroom apartment and was dispensing with a third of my salary on rent. Strangely, there was nothing in my past to indicate that I would have suddenly embraced such a domesticated existence. Before coming to Istanbul I had lived in an artists’ cooperative in a renovated industrial warehouse in South Oakland. Before that I had spent three years riding a bicycle from Alaska to Argentina, camping most nights in the wilderness, miles away from human habitation. During my last two years at UC Santa Cruz, I lived on a platform high up in a redwood tree.
I often waxed nostalgically about that platform; its warped and molding plywood, the rusted cables that held it, precariously, 30 meters from the ground, the complete lack of any railings that might have prevented me from rolling off its edge to my death. The subtle drift of the trees as they swayed with the wind, lulled me to sleep in the way I imagined a mother’s hand rocking a baby’s crib. On late spring and summer mornings, I’d often wake to see below me, not the ground, but a thick blanket of fog. It felt as though the tree were floating along on a cloud.
Living in the treetop was far more mind-expanding than any of the numerous drugs so readily available on the UC campus. I became a happier, more responsible, and more focused human and witnessed, seemingly overnight, an improvement in everything I did. Though I would go on to travel the world and do other exciting things, I would always feel a yearning to return to that ideal lifestyle in the redwood canopy.
The desire to be reacquainted with nature only intensified after living in Istanbul for four years. Once its exotic mystique had worn off, I came to regard the city as a continuous force of disruption in my life.
My friend Kaveh shared a similar disdain for city life. He had, in fact, only recently returned to Istanbul after failing to make a living in the Aegean Coastal town of Bodrum. Everything had seemed ideal at the outset: the summer villa inherited by his wife, a view of the sea, a nearby trail system that spanned through breathtaking scenery. But with the end of summer and the exodus of the seasonal tourist population, the young couple saw their source of revenue dry up and their social circle reduced to retirees, convalescents, and boat people.
It had been our first meeting after his return, when, after drinking far too much rakı and recounting how his dream had slowly unraveled, he had proposed the idea that we go camping together on the Island of Burgazada—not on a weekend, like some yuppie, but right in the middle of a work week. The idea of rolling into work refreshed and invigorated from a night on a quiet island, breathing the fresh air of a forested hilltop, was exciting indeed.
With his large head, barren of even the faintest stubble of hair, and his black thick-rimmed glasses, Kaveh was an easy figure to spot among the crowd of Turks awaiting the arrival of the evening boat at the Bostancı ferry station. While it was impossible not to reciprocate his genuine smile, I noticed immediately, to my dismay, that he hadn’t brought his bicycle.
"Where’s your bicycle?" I asked.
"Man!" said Kaveh. "I didn’t bring it."
I wavered in stunned silence, allowing the news to settle in.
"Hadn’t we made it clear that we’d be taking the bikes?" I asked.
"I don’t think so," he said. "I think we just talked about going camping, bikes weren’t mentioned."
Before I could muster any words of reproach, I felt the phone vibrate in my pocket. I considered letting it ring, or better, throwing it into the shallow waters of the harbor. Then I remembered that of the three people who ever called me, one of them was standing in front of me.
"Hey, it’s good to hear your voice."
"Be careful," she said.
"I’m always care…"
"Camping isn’t something that people do in Turkey," she said. "People don’t just go into the wild and put up their tents."
"I didn’t bring the..." I said.
"It doesn’t matter," she continued. "It’s still illegal."
I started to think of all the times I had camped illegally: squatting in abandoned buildings, hiding in remote corners of urban parks, snipping barbed wired fences to trespass on private land.
"Illegal!" I said. "You forget that I come from the land of the strictest property laws in the world."
"I don’t know how it is in America," she said. "I only know how things are in Turkey. Camping isn’t some recreational activity for the middle class to get in touch with nature. It’s what gypsies do. Refugees."
"Nazar değdirme," I said, invoking the Turkish superstition of the Evil Eye.
"Look," I said. "We’ve already committed to this trip, so you’re going to have to try to relax and not try to jinx it with these negative thoughts."
"Ok," she said. "I’ll try."
We boarded the ferry at six o’clock. Though the passenger rooms were nearly empty, we opted to stand near the railings in the open, exposed to the wind and the spray of the sea for the forty-five minute duration of the trip. The city didn’t exactly fade into the distance so much as diminish slightly in prominence, allowing me, like a jealous Turkish lover, just enough space to not asphyxiate.
When we had landed, we headed directly to the market and bought beers, potato chips, corn nuts, and dried fruit. Then we began the steep climb up a dark and silent dirt road; Kaveh in the lead hauling his backpack, and me trailing behind, pedaling just enough to keep from falling over.
As we neared the top of the hill, I became aware of the city lights blazing behind me, like stars densely clustered, competing for the point of greatest luminosity. There was no telling where the city began and where it ended, which, if any, part was more densely populated, or where any open spaces remained.
"We’ll have to be quiet here," warned Kaveh, gesturing to the lit windows of a one-story building.
We crossed over a grassy meadow, an ideal camping location if ever there was one, and continued on toward a grouping of large fir and pine. At the sharp edge of a cliff Kaveh stopped, dropped his bag, and turned around to gauge my reaction.
"What do you think?" He asked.
I inspected the spot, noted its merits: the view of the sea, the cover provided by the trees. There was no flat area to throw a sleeping bag, but having come equipped with my jungle hammock, and a desire to sleep suspended in the air, the layout of the land didn’t concern me.
"You’ve outdone yourself this time, Hajji."
"I knew you’d like it."
For a moment we stood silently staring out into the sea and savoring the remnants of an ochre hued dusk. Then we opened the beers and snacks and sat down to some long overdue conversation.
"Man, you can’t believe how much I needed this," began Kaveh.
"You especially," I said, encouragingly. "It must be hard leaving the peace and solitude of Bodrum behind and coming back to this chaos."
"It’s horrible that it didn’t work out there," he continued. "I had all these projects going on. But I have to admit, it was hard not having any really good friends, you know, like ones that I could just talk with for hours and never get bored."
"The gravity of this city just pulls you right back into its orbit," I said. "The work is plenty and meeting people is easy."
"But you’re not happy."
"I love my wife, and that’s more or less it," I said.
"The job’s not going well?"
"It’s a job."
"Man, are you getting bit by something?"
"Now that you mention it, my legs are burning," I said.
‘‘Those tiny ants," cried Kaveh. ‘Thousands of them."
"Yeah, they’re all over the place," I said, getting up from the ground.
I went to my bicycle and pulled my hammock from the pannier bags. Then I went about setting it up between two trees.
"That was good thinking, bringing a hammock," said Kaveh.
"After spending six months on the road in Central and South America, I don’t go anywhere without it. Keeps out the bugs."
"Yeah, I need to get me one of those."
Though tired and uninterested in getting eaten alive by ants, I knew that getting into my hammock at that moment would’ve been an egregious act of indifference to the suffering of my friend. We spent another two hours talking, drinking, getting bitten by the ants.
At one point I called my wife and told her that the inspiration I had sought was here, but it couldn’t be expressed in words, that she would have to come out with me. She was warming to the idea. It wasn’t a bicycle tour in Burgundy, or a weekend hike up to a secluded cabin in the Black Sea mountains—all amazing trips that she had planned as though to prove her own lust for adventure—but this brief getaway from the monotony of city life did just as much in restoring my sanity as any lengthy vacation ever had.
Kaveh too took a moment to talk to his wife, and when he got off the phone, we both agreed on how lucky we were to have such women in our lives. Then, citing the lack of beer or food to power me on, I retired to my hammock. For a few minutes I enjoyed the gentle swaying motion provided by the wind before quickly falling into a deep sleep.
A few hours later I was awakened. Kaveh stood near the hammock, talking in a hushed tone.
"Are you awake?"
I was, just barely.
"I encountered some people just beyond these trees," he went on.
"What kind of people?" I asked.
"I don’t know exactly," he said. "But apparently they patrol the forested area of the island."
"In the middle of the night?"
"I guess so."
"What did you say to them?"
"They asked me what I was doing up here, and I told them I was staying in a hotel down by the harbor and that I couldn’t sleep so I went for a walk."
"That sounds plausible," I said. "What are you worried about?"
"I’m pretty sure that they’re coming this way now."
"What do you mean? Did they see you come this way?"
"No, I took another path down the hill, then came up a back way."
"So why do you think they’ll come over here?"
"Because that’s their job."
"People don’t take their jobs that seriously here. We’re hidden away from view by these big trees. There’s nothing over here. They have no reason to come and investigate."
He stayed silent for a few minutes, contemplating what I had said. In that time I felt so comfortable, so removed from any worries or cares that I nearly fell back asleep.
"I think we should go." He said.
I didn’t respond.
After a minute or two had passed, he repeated himself.
I looked at my friend through the mosquito netting of my hammock, saw in his eyes the suffering he bore so stoically, remembered the ants and what a tremendous torture they had once been for me before I had invested in my hammock.
"Ok, maybe we should go," I said. "What time is it by the way?"
If, as Kaveh had suggested, the patrol were close by, I would have to avoid making any sound while packing my things into the bicycle bags, but my weariness precluded this possibility. I stumbled on the uneven ground dropped the bag of empties, and knocked over my bike.
"I don’t see them anywhere," said Kaveh, as he spied through the trees. "Let's head to the main trail, it’ll be quicker."
We jogged down the hill, Kaveh in the lead with his giant backpack bobbing up and down, me following behind, pushing the bicycle. After a small bend in the road we came, suddenly, face to face with the patrol. Kaveh looked at me, as though for guidance. The two men looked at each other, confused. They soon focused their attention on Kaveh.
"Who is he?" asked the one man, pointing to me.
"Ah... he’s my friend," said Kaveh, in Turkish. "He’s staying with me…"
The other member of the patrol cut him off.
"Which hotel did you say you were staying at?"
Kaveh opened his mouth but couldn’t bring himself to say anything.
The patrollers looked, more than anything, disappointed. Kaveh had no doubt done a good job charming the two men. Now they felt betrayed.
"You’ll have to come with us." They said.
They marched us down to the harbor and up to the steps of the police station. For the next hour we were asked the same three questions again and again: who were we? What were we doing? Why had we lied to the patrollers?
We tried, as much as possible to play the foreigner card. Being new to Turkey, we hadn’t yet become familiar with the rules. In our respective countries, wandering around forest trails in the middle of the night was a perfectly reasonable activity.
The deputy wasn’t convinced. He wondered why, if Kaveh and I were travelling together, I should have a bike while he went on foot, and why, if we insisted that we hadn’t camped, we had so many things in our bags. After we finally admitted that we had camped, the conversation got even weirder.
"Do you have a house?" asked the policeman.
"Of course," answered Kaveh and I, in turn.
"Do you work? Do you have jobs?"
We answered that unfortunately, despite being foreigners, it was still very much necessary to hold a steady job to support our wives.
"Your wives know where you are right now?"
His loud sonorous sigh betrayed his irritation. He said he wasn’t sure what to do, but he couldn’t just let us go. He’d have his men transfer us to another precinct in Istanbul. They could decide what to do.
We were put on a boat and brought to the mainland. Then we were escorted to the Kadıköy district police station. At some point I was able to get a distress message out to Aslı, telling her what had happened and where we were being taken.
Fortunately, Aslı was able to convince the officers on duty to release me without too much hassle. As she would explain later on, they weren’t even sure why I was being held. Kaveh, on the other hand, possibly on the account of his Iranian nationality, proved a bit more difficult to bail out.
Since the authorities refused to release Kaveh, we ended up having to call his wife. She didn’t look too pleased when she arrived at the station, but after a criminal background check was conducted, they agreed to give her back her husband.
Outside the station, the four of us stood around searching for something to say. But the turmoil of the city around us and the long ignored rings of our phones denied us the space for reflection. I had seven missed calls. They all came from one of the three people who ever called me. The other two were standing beside me. It would be just another day like any other.