Barefoot on a Turkish Bus – Turkey, Europe

The large Mercedes Benz bus left Selcuk, a resort on the Aegean sea, for its twelve-hour journey to Istanbul. It rode through green fields, barns and farmhouses. It passed a long stretch of dark rocks layered with patches of grass, and it came to a stop in a dusty village. The door opened and a six-foot tall, barrel-chested man with bushy black hair and a curly mustache stepped in. The bus attendant pointed at the seat by my side. The man sat down and stretched his legs wide. A smell of tobacco and sweat came my way. I pulled back my right knee and checked the air-conditioning spigot. It was adjusted to its maximum opening. The bus screeched, gained speed and headed east toward the Anatolian plains.

My travel companion poked me in the ribs and pointed at the short, smiling bus attendant holding a bottle of mineral water. I passed the attendant my paper cup and said, "Thanks."

"Thanks, eh?" the big Turk said.

"Thanks for what?"

He poked me in the ribs and laughed. I shrugged and opened my dated International Herald Tribune.

"American, eh?"

"Yeah, from Santa Fe, New Mexico. And you, where are you from?"

"American, eh?" he said and slapped his thighs.

A joker, I thought, wanting to break the monotony of a long ride. The bus attendant, back from distributing water to the passengers in the rear, pointed at the picture of President Clinton in the paper.

"Luwinsky," he said and broke into a raucous laugh. My companion joined him in the merriment. "American lover Pasha," he said, nudging me in the ribs.

The bus entered a village, circled a dusty plaza and stopped before a mosque. A woman dressed in a long, black tunic and a black scarf covering her head, stood at the curb. My companion jumped and rushed out. Standing by the woman’s side, he waved. I waved back.

Bare feet cause explosion
I removed my shoes and placed my feet on the vacated sea, when shouts exploded behind me. The bus attendant ran over, pointed at my feet and contorted his face.

"What?" I asked dumbfounded.

He grimaced as if he were going to vomit. I had clean socks. My feet weren’t sweaty. I pointed at a teenage girl across the aisle with her bare feet tucked under her. He explained with his hands that she had come barefooted into the bus.

OK, I thought, I’ll take my socks off and that will solve our problem. The couple behind me screamed as if bitten by a snake. The teenage girl turned, her eyes wide eyed. The attendant ran to a storage bin, returned with an aerosol canister and sprayed my feet with it. Astonished, I watched a perfumed cloud rise toward the ceiling. The couple sighed with relief.

I was fuming. I wasn’t mad at the attendant. I was angry at the couple who had started the circus. Putting my shoes on, I plotted revenge. Once the passenger in front of me had let the back of his seat far down, forcing me into a fetal position, I let the back of my seat go all the way. The woman and the man screamed. The attendant came back frowning, shaking his head.

"My feet no good. My seat no good!" I yelled and did nothing.

He bent over, pressed the button and made the seat retract. I made my seat go back half-way. The couple accepted my act without further protest. Half an hour later, my composure regained, I reflected that Turks value their feet above all else. They wash them at the fountains outside mosques. Many wash them even when not planning to enter the house of worship. In their minds I was an infidel, and infidels had, by definition, evil-smelling feet.

I reviewed the highlights of my Turkish journey: Ephesus with its magnificent, colonnaded library; Pergamum serenely weathering centuries on the crest of a hill; Asceplion with its healing tunnels; Meryemana, with its Romanesque stone hut in which Mary spent her last days, and Ahmed, my intense, wiry Turkish guide, who lost his cool when I suggested the Kurds be given a choice whether or not to live in the Turkish state. It was the journey of a lifetime. I wanted to tell the couple behind me that I forgave them, but I couldn’t speak a word of Turkish.

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