Friday, May 15, 2015

The Backgammon King

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Even in October, Ankara is scorched earth hot.  My buddy and I were walking down a small street in Turkey's capital when the shoulder strap of his backpack snapped, swinging the load to the side and nearly toppling him off an embankment.  I was pissed.
If there is one thing I'm a fan of it's a minimally packed bag.  There is very little you need to haul around unless you are bringing gear for a special activity like climbing.  Basically I adhere to this rule:  If you need it, put it in the pack; if you might need it, leave it out.  Worse than an overpacked baggage is an overpacked baggage that inconveniences your travel buddies.  They need to help carry it.  They must wait for a taxi because five blocks is too far to walk.  Now we had to fix the damn thing because a surplus of unused clothes and appliances (including a blowdryer) overpowered the fabric of the shoulder strap.  I was an un-happy camper.  We had a full agenda of museums and ruins to see that day.  My tightly wound itinerary was in jeopardy.
 We descended into an off-the-beaten-path neighborhood looking for a tailor who could sew up the bag.  A few inquiries lead us to his faded green door, but knocking got no results.  "One hour," says the neighbor.  "One hour?" I say.  "One, two hour," he says.  Deep down this sounded like three.  I left the bag with the neighbor and we set off for a shady spot to kill time.  A few doors down there was a teashop, a staple of Islamic countries.  They are places where Muslim men can enjoy some of the few vices allowed them:  drinking caffeine, smoking cigarettes, and playing backgammon.  Muslim women are not present.  They must entertain themselves at home.
 We pushed open the class door and entered the smokey, musky room full of idle chatter and the clack clack on chips moving around a wooden course.  As i scanned the room for an empty seat I caught the gaze of a couple men in the middle of the room.  They beckoned us to come and gestured at the backgammon board in front of them.  I was no whiz at the game, but I did brush up a little bit before the trip.  I must have also been bestowed with a touch of beginners luck.  I beat this guy, which created a huge roar in the joint.  The man was furious.  Elevated chatter ensued.  Someone was sent out to get someone.  Ten minutes later a hush fell over the crowd as the neighborhood king of backgammon strutted in through the door, other men moving aside deferentially.  Word spreads fast in this part of town.  Neighborhood pride had taken a hit and the heavy artillery arrived to shore up the defenses.  We sat face to face in a scene reminiscent of the drinking contest that began The Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The place was now jammed to capacity, kids peering in through the windows.  It was USA vs. Turkey for all the marbles.
I pick up the dice and rolled double sixes.  The man fixed a stare on me so intense I considered apologizing and re-rolling.  No.  Don't show weakness.  In this game, in this neighborhood, they respect a man who holds his ground.  I moved my pieces, leaned back, and, looking back into his gaze, cracked a small smirk.  The king rolls double 4s.  Not bad.  He moves the chips lightning fast.  When I move I touch the board with the chip every step of the way, murmuring the count.  From here on out my fortune slid and his held firm.  A 2 and a 3 to his 6 and 4.   A 1 and 4 to his double 3s.  It wasn't just the tosses, he was building up a fortress of piles which crept down the board without breaking formation.  I had loner scout chips skipping forward and being picked off like field mice in Hawk Land.  It was turning into a massacre.
I made a late comeback.  Just enough to constrict chests and make the collective breath a little more shallow.  When the king's last chip left the board the crowd sighed in relief.  The hero was still the hero and the outside threat was neutralized.  After a lot of backslapping, tea drinking, pantomiming, and smiling we walked out of the cafe into the fresh air of a Turkish afternoon, cigarette smoke spilling out behind us like a stage effect until the door swung back shut.  We fixed that damn backpack and climbed up onto a small hill to watch the sunset.  The museums were now closed, but the memory of them, had we made it, would now be as extinct as their fossils.  What I had in my pocket instead was a real connection with regular guys and a true moment in time.
 Since that day this has been a great observation of my travels:  misadventure trumps straight adventure everyday.  Take local transport, meet people, and when a detour appears always take it.  One day you might just end up a backgammon king.