The next day as I go to a free Wi-Fi zone to check my mails, the mailbox brings some good news. A Turkish man, who lives in Istanbul, has replied to my ‘couch-surfing’ request and has offered to host me. A delicious meal will be awaiting you, he’s written in the end. Now isn’t this God-sent! Hungry as I am, I jump up with joy.
His name is Sulleiman and he is from Benin in west Africa. He has lived in Istanbul for the past twelve years. He greets me at the door of his apartment, and begins telling me about himself.
But all I can think of, is the delicious meal awaiting me.
Sulleiman works as a chef cum waiter in a nearby cafe, and apparently cooks a Turkish specialty so well, that the cafe is fully booked every evening.
Okay, but where is the delicious meal awaiting me?
After ten minutes, that seem like ten years, he takes me to the dining table. Hastily, I take my seat. But as he uncovers the cooking pan, a deluge of despondency sweeps over me. There, waiting patiently on the pan to welcome me, was one giant, steaming, stuffed eggplant- the only solitary vegetable that I incontrovertibly evade! Blame the pangs of hunger, but that morning for the first time in twenty-two years of my life, I eat eggplant- or more specifically, wolf it down.
When I am done, a young man joins us at the dining table.
“This is Su Hao from Taiwan,” Sulleiman tells me. “I am hosting him as well.”
With a half-eaten ripe tomato in one hand, Su Hao greets me with a gentle bow. He is a friendly, talkative guy. Soon I learn that he had started his journey in Berlin, bought a bicycle, cycled across the whole of Europe and reached Istanbul. He tells me stories from his travel across Europe- everything from how he lost his way in a dense forest, to how he got stranded at the Bulgarian border due to visa issues and how he ran out of food (and luck) after he got robbed of everything (including his bicycle), and had to walk the last part to Istanbul.
He laughs meekly as I look at him with awe. “Yeah it has been quite a journey,” he tells me. “I could write a book!”
Su Hao sketches beautifully well. He shows me a few sketches he made during his travels, which luckily enough, didn’t get stolen. I show him a few photographs I’ve clicked on my camera. Then we go for a long walk through the city.
Sulleiman is still not home when we get back. We head towards his cafe, and buy a piece of cake on the way to surprise him. He readily lets us help with the dishes, as he smiles and reluctantly accepts the piece of cake.
“Come on ya guys… didn’t have to do this!” Invariably, most of his statements in English start with ‘come on’.
Late in the night, the three of us walk back home, a vexed Sulleiman telling us about how racist he thinks the world is.
“Them French people… I tell ’em we’re da same family, brother. Come on… we come from one colony. But I don’t get no visa to live in France ’cause I’m from Africa!” he laughs hysterically. “Ma grandfather… he work’d in cocoa fields earnin’ jus’ a piece o’ bread, man. And them Americans… dey sellin’ chocolate and makin’ so much money… man… dey can buy a house! It’s a scam! Dey rippin’ us, man!”
Su Hao puts an arm around his shoulder, trying to comfort him.
“Come on… I tell ’em… why can’t I travel around da world?” he continues. “Ma English friend… he jus’ need a passport, man! And me? No, I’m black! I tell ya, brother,” he turns to me gravely, “it’s a crime to be born in Africa!”
He goes on to tell us a passionate story about blood diamonds. A shiver passes down my spine as I suddenly begin to see the world through the eyes of an African. Everything about the world that the media has taught me is such prodigious and inordinate deception!
I can’t sleep a wink that night. I hope I don’t get killed for being black, one day, Sulleiman’s words keep ringing in my ears and his face keeps flashing before my eyes.
It is incredible how my thoughts about One World unconditionally coincide and confirm with Sulleiman’s. We both have a dream- a dream to see a world that is devoid of the fences of race, creed, caste, religion and language. A world that is one country. And all the people, its global citizens.
I don’t know just yet, but after coming back to India, I get Sulleiman’s words tattooed on my right forearm- Je suis un citoyen du monde, he’d sworn- I am a citizen of the world.
Sulleiman’s neighbor, a cheerful man, Mr. Himmet, is a carpet merchant. He runs a shop just outside his house, selling an assortment of handmade Turkish carpets. He invites Su Hao and me over to his shop, to have a look at the exquisite mats. After a few visits, I start helping him sell his carpets. Turkey sees a lot of German tourists- so my German speaking skills come in handy.
After about a week, Mr. Himmet hands me a 50 Lira bill, as a token of appreciation for all the help. I refuse to take it, but he insists that I keep it. Suddenly, I have an idea.
I get Sulleiman to write a note in Turkish on a piece of paper.
Thank you for the Simit, the note reads.
I put the note and 20 Liras in an envelope, and run towards Topkapi Palace, where the Simit seller had offered me a Simit. I am so excited. I know I really need to do this.
I can’t exactly recall what that sympathetic Simit seller looked like, but I remember his red Turkish cap, and I know I’d recognize him if I see him again. I look for him for about an hour, but without luck. I ask another Simit seller if he’s seen the vendor with the red Turkish cap.
He shakes his head. “He hasn’t turned up since two days now.”
My heart sinks. Hugely disappointed, I put the envelope back into my pocket. But then my face lights up again. Ten minutes later, as I make my way back towards Sulleiman’s house with a bag, I distribute the twenty Simits which I purchased from the 20 Liras. The old, homeless beggars promptly grab the Simits with big surprised smiles.
“It is not how much you have, but how much you can give that determines how rich you are.”
When I reach Sulleiman’s apartment, I have nothing left in my pocket. And yet, I know I feel rich.
I don’t want to take back home anything but reminiscences from my travel. So in the last few days before I fly back to India, I give away most of my belongings to street children and old beggars- all my spare clothes, and whatever little money I have left. It feels great to give- almost like I am gaining power with every possession I let go of.
“Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose. Because the richest man is not he who has the most, but he who needs the least.”
After a lot of difficulty, I gift my watch and my favorite blue ‘Mumbai Indians’ t-shirt to Sulleiman as a souvenir from India. Although it isn’t an expensive watch, I think I should gift it to him as a memento of indebtedness for hosting me for so long.
As I wait to board the plane back home, all I possess is my passport, an air ticket, a camera full of memories and the clothes I am wearing.
I had landed in Turkey with just 60 Liras in my pocket. Today I fly back to India richer than I can ever imagine to be.