Turkey Part II – Death By Almonds


2pm. Central Turkey. We had been spending the last few days doing some strenuous mountain climbing to avoid the flat expanse of the main road. It was starting to get hot, bits of us were starting to burn and unfortunately now we had left the lands where sun cream was available in supermarkets and pharmacies.


There had been no shops for a few days and we were nearly completely out of food. Having set off early we were getting pretty hungry. So we stopped and sat on the tarmac of the completely deserted road, to eat all the snacks we had left. Biscuits, sun-dried apricots and almonds. I ate the packet of almonds I had left. Turkey is renowned for its delicious, super-sized almonds. Haydn decided now was the moment to tuck into all of his foraged almonds from a tree in a field somewhere north of Konya. He placed one in the soft hollow of a dried apricot and chewed them together. He said they tasted “unripe”.


I was amazed he could eat them at all. When I had tried one (at the time of foraging weeks ago), it had been so bitter and foul tasting that I spat it out instantly and had to brush my whole mouth with toothpaste and gargle until the taste was gone. He’d picked them from a tree that provided cover over our tent one evening, cracked open their ridged brown husks between two stones and saved them in a jiffy bag until now.


When we cycled off again, Hayds was lagging behind up the next hill. He said he felt really weak. I did too, after days of mountainous climbing. I suggested we just get to next town in hope of some proper food. After another fifteen minutes of cycling I noticed that he was quite far behind me again, which was very unusual.


We arrived in the tiny town of Üzerlik. I asked a local man in Turkish if there was a shop here. He pointed onwards. There was one tiny food shop and one equally tiny chai bar. That was it. Every other building was a house or a mosque or someone’s vegetable patch.


We bought bread and cheese and crisps and sat down to eat. Haydn made a sandwich slowly but then put it back down on his lap. I looked over at him, he had a lost look in his eye and said he wasn’t hungry. I was surprised. It was around 3pm now, we had started cycling at 8am and had barely eaten anything. He should have been as hungry as me. He went to the toilet and when he came back he was speaking quite slowly and in a broken disjointed way. I put my sandwich down. I asked him if he felt OK. He said he actually didn’t feel right. He felt very weak and dizzy and confused. I could see his eyes weren’t focussing properly on me and suddenly I was slapped into a moment of panic. Haydn wasn’t OK. I still had a huge mouthful of sandwich which now felt ridiculous. I suddenly had a flashback to two words being next to each other in an article I had read a long time ago. Almonds : Cyanide. I asked him all in a rush, what did the almonds taste like, how many did you eat, what do you feel like? Answers: bitter, 15-20, not good. Fuck.


I quickly asked all the old men sat hunched around us on benches if there was Wi-Fi somewhere near by. They pointed to the chai bar next to the shop. I told Hayds to sit down, rushed inside, got the manager to put the password in and looked up bitter almonds on Google. A line jumped out at me immediately about poisoning; ’10-30 bitter almonds are fatal for an adult human being. They contain 50% more cyanide in each one than normal almonds.’ Fuck! Ran back outside, told Hayds to go and make himself very, very sick immediately. He ran to the tiny, dark outside hovel of a toilet and stayed there for a long time. I ran back and forth between the Wi-Fi and him, to see what to do next and to check he hadn’t passed out or stopped breathing, which the web research had explained may happen.


He looked out from over the top of the broken wooden door of the toilet, his eyes slit-like, bloodshot and watering. He asked in a slow, sad voice, if I thought he could stop making himself sick now. I said just keep going till you get everything out. He did. I tried to get the number for a local doctor. Using Google Translate I tried to explain to the old men what was going on and that Haydn needed help. A kind old man gave me a card with a doctor’s number on it. I tried the number three or four times. No answer. Nothing. I kept trying to ask the cafe owner about the number and if I could ring someone else. I showed him the Google translation for what was happening. He was helpful but very busy as the only waiter in the cafe and owner of the shop – also running between the two.


I looked up medical websites, desperate for clear advice, surrounded by a roomful of Turkish men playing loud snapping black gammon type games on round shabby red velvet tables. All of the websites said that there could be a sudden onset delayed reaction and it could be fatal. The sites all advised that the person should go straight to a medical professional. I ran back outside. I asked Hayds how he was. He said he thought there was no more to throw up. He came to sit outside with me on the steps. I told him I couldn’t get through to a doctor. He still felt dizzy and weak and terrible now he’d made himself so sick. I had to make a snap decision.


I phoned 112 and handed the phone to the kind café owner, explaining what I needed him to say.


We waited on the steps. I rubbed Haydn’s back and I said there would be help really soon. He sat there in silence, with his head between his knees.


Before long, the ambulance came screeching into the tiny village and three paramedics got out. I showed the Google translate description of what was happening and the female paramedic looked alarmed and rushed Haydn into the back of the ambulance. I was told to get into the front and suddenly I was faced with a horrible dilemma that hadn’t even crossed my mind yet. All of our belongings, the bikes, everything that we needed for this journey were sat in front of me. What could I do?!


I showed the female paramedic the bikes and held my hands up asking what to do. The male paramedic shouted ‘No bicicleta!’ Like I was asking to bring them in the ambulance! I only had a few seconds to decide what to do. Why hadn’t I thought before? Idiot! I tried to think of the most valuable, transportable items and grabbed them out of different bags as quickly as possible, while the paramedics shouted at me ‘Madam, Madam!’ I threw the random objects in the front seat and jumped into the ambulance.

It was an agonising moment, driving away from the bikes and the majority of our belongings with a large crowd of old Turkish men surrounding them. I could feel the hot sting of tears rush to my eyes as I pleaded with them out of the window, with my hands in a prayer position, to please look after our bicycles! Then we were off. I managed to get myself together in the ambulance and try to calm the swell of anxiety rising and raging in my chest.


We arrived in a slightly bigger village where there was a healthcare centre. We were taken into a room inside where doctors and nurses were stood around. It was a weird atmosphere in there, very relaxed, no one asking Haydn anything or examining him. Suddenly all sense of urgency seemed to evaporate. The female paramedic showed a plain-clothed doctor the notes from the ambulance. There were lots of people in the small room but none were looking at Haydn. Some where looking me up and down in a very disapproving way but none were focussing on Haydn. The plain-clothed doctor and a female nurse started laughing. What? I showed him the translation for what had happened on my phone. He looked at me with a mocking insincerity in his eyes. Now I started to get very worried.


The doctor asked Haydn to lie down and poked his stomach haphazardly and asked if it hurt. He asked this through charades as he spoke hardly any English. Haydn said it didn’t really hurt but mimed throwing up and his head feeling odd. I asked if anyone spoke English. They all laughed and shook their heads. Great. The doctor phoned a woman and passed her over to Haydn. Haydn was confused, ‘Hello’ – the voice said in broken English – ‘What is problem, I speak English.’ He explained from the beginning. Phone passed back. Turkish. More laughing. What was so funny!!! I was really worried now. I wrote on the phone; He needs an antidote for cyanide poisoning. The doctor reads it, looks at me. Waves his hand and we’re moved into a separate room where Haydn is given a bed. We are left on our own for several minutes. I try to monitor his condition and stay calm.


A nurse comes in and hands Haydn a thick black drink in a white plastic cup. He drank it with a grimace. It turned his lips, tongue and teeth ebony. I can only assume it was some kind of liquid containing a lot of charcoal. Then they put him on a drip of Sodium Chloride and another mystery yellow liquid. I hoped this yellow one was an antidote but when I translated the name I realised it definitely wasn’t. I knew that from my research in the cafe. Haydn asked me to open the window, as he was really hot. I did so and then rushed to the toilet. When I came back, he had a blanket on and the window was shut. He was lying there shuddering. He said he was feeling worse. I tried to have a conversation with him but he was becoming more and more delirious.


A child was screaming and screaming in the next room. The noise piercing the air, frightened, shrill, like a piglet moments before slaughter. It sounded like how I felt. I slammed the door. This was all getting too much. A nurse came back in and I said this wasn’t the right medication, he needed an antidote. More jovial laughing and shrugging. Ahhh! I felt like electricity passed through my body in that moment, I got very angry and everything became pin-prick clear. I said I needed to speak to the doctor again. She took me through to him. I showed him the same message, this time more angrily. And I told him in English that Haydn was not receiving the right treatment. He smiled passively at me and came back to look at Haydn. Poked his stomach again and studied his ankles quite closely – why!? He asked how Haydn felt. Haydn said worse. The doctor just smiled and said, ‘He’ll be OK’, and left the room. I sat there fuming. What more could I do! As I was sat there on the verge of a breakdown, the nurse came back and said we were going in an ambulance to the city, to a big hospital. So the doctor had changed his mind. Praise the lord!!!


We drove at high speed for forty minutes to get to Kayseri, sixty kilometres away.  We ploughed through red lights, siren screeching. I was gobsmacked at the unbelievable driving by other road users. Several people pulled out in front of the ambulance, bringing us to a screeching halt. They continued driving slowly with no seeming awareness of us and our siren at all, staring at phones in their laps and in no hurry to move out of the way.


We finally arrived at Kayseri University Hospital and we were rushed into an emergency ward. It was a very busy room with many beds very close together running down the walls. The room was full of people, both in beds and stood beside them. No one seemed to speak English again. I show the translation of what had happened to the woman behind the desk. She read it cursorily and told me in broken English that our insurance wouldn’t work here as it was a university hospital. I tried to convince her that it should work as we have full cover and we can’t afford to pay. Suddenly I remembered exactly where the insurance papers were, tucked away safely in a plastic wallet in the back of a pannier bag, sixty kilometres away, with the bikes. Fuck. I forgot them. I rush outside and phone my dad. I explain what’s happened. It’s good to hear his voice on the phone. Something steady and familiar in all this madness. He tells me he’ll look for copies of our insurance papers.


I go back inside; the nurse tells me to stop looking for the papers. Apparently it is a special university hospital where no insurance is valid. You’ve got to be kidding, why did they bring us here! I phone my dad again and tell him he can stop looking. I sit there in the emergency ward, someone finally looking at Haydn, phone about to run out of battery and no way to charge it. I asked all the doctors in the room, no one had a charger.


Finally, an English speaking doctor arrived. A kind faced, patient female doctor. I told her everything. She looked at me confused. She told me that the notes from the previous plain-clothed doctor, explained that Haydn had taken recreational drugs. What! I suppose that explained a lot. He had judged us – wrongly – and made a potentially life threatening assumption. Arsehole. That was why he was checking Haydn’s ankles – he thought he’d been shooting smack!


Maybe that’s what all the laughing had been about in the health-centre. Why didn’t he just ask me! I could have looked at him dead in the eye and furiously whispered ‘bitter almonds’!


So I explained to her again. Not bloody heroin. Wild bitter almonds, foraged from a tree in a random field north of Konya. Picked weeks ago and saved for a hungry moment of desperation today, about 5 hours ago.


They administered Haydn two different serum drips but said it was most important that he had made himself sick.


Before long he said he was feeling much better. My heart slowed slightly in its mad pounding and I felt for the first time that day that I was aware of myself breathing.


She explained about the insurance again and I said we had very little money but of course whatever treatment he needed we would have to pay for. She said if I wrote a declaration, she could withdraw the blood tests and other tests that would be sent off for analysis as she thought, due to his current state, Haydn should be OK now.


Then it dawned on us that we were going to have to decided whether to try to get back to the bikes that night or find somewhere to stay in the city. It would soon be dark and we knew we would struggle to find anywhere to stay once we got back to the tiny village of Üzerlik. It had been such a crazy day and I felt the awful sucking feeling of a ‘comedown’ in the depths of my spine. The aftermath of high-pitch, prolonged anxiety. Both mind and body suffering after an extended period of over-adrenalising.


The doctor warned that Haydn may have a relapse in the next three hours and he would need to be rushed to the bigger hospital in Kayseri for emergency treatment. God. OK. So we were definitely staying in the city then. My dad sent me a name and address of a hotel which was a thirty-minute taxi ride away. It looked too nice for our usual standards and a bit too far away from the hospital. The doctor suggested another closer, cheaper one. After much deliberation and patience on her part, we agreed. She rang for us and reserved us a room. I went off on a very long wild goose chase to try to pay the hospital bill but eventually a man came back to his booth and I paid. The kind doctor took us outside and helped us to get a taxi outside. She instructed the driver where to drop us in Turkish. She handed me her phone number scribbled on a piece of paper in case we need her help again. I remember gripping that thin scrap of paper so tightly and hugging her. I couldn’t stop saying thank you. And then we were off.


We sat in the taxi watching the blur of electric lights beyond the window. The fog of night creeping ever darker over this unfamiliar city. I was clutching Haydn’s hand, him weakly holding mine. I was so glad he was still here with me.


It felt like we were heading out of the woods. What a day it had been. All we needed was somewhere to rest our heads. The taxi pulled up at a busy junction and pointed to a shabby sign that read the name of the hotel in faded neon letters.


As soon as we stepped over the threshold of the hotel I felt like we were trudging straight back into the woods. It was the strangest and most unsettling decoration of a hotel I had ever seen. Every wall was mirror-lined and every horizontal surface covered with a strange object that you might find in a tacky garden centre or pound shop. It was like the fusion of a strip club, a casino and a hoarder’s paradise. It made my head spin. When we got to the reception I felt a sickening twist in my stomach. Three middle aged men with dark clothes, all smoking sullenly, were lingering there. Oh god. They greeted us with mild distain. I showed one the piece of paper that the doctor had written for us of the hotel name and the price. He managed to squeeze out a grimace. I quietly prayed that he would tell me this was the wrong hotel and the lovely one we needed was just around the corner.


He handed me a key. We paid for the room and for breakfast in advance. We were shown to our room. It was dirty and dark. One bare bulb attempted to light the space. As it was right above the main road, it seemed to vibrate with the roar of traffic. It had a long stream of tiny ants along the floor in the bathroom and multiple cigarette burn holes in the bedding, after we had asked specifically for a non-smoking room. I lay on the bed thinking; this is the only bit that really matters. It was shaped like a spoon. One of the men from the hotel kept coming every fifteen minutes to incessantly knock on the door and ask if we had finished using the phone charger we had borrowed. We lay uncomfortably squashed together in the central sag of the mattress, silent, exhausted and miserable. We hadn’t eaten for hours. Haydn’s nausea was still present enough to remove any desire to eat and my nerves had twisted my insides up so tightly during the day that I couldn’t even consider venturing out to find something now. We tossed and turned unhappily. We got no sleep.


Now I know this may sound like things could only have gotten better from here but somehow this hotel from hell managed to make a big old mess out of breakfast. A very odd man was serving us, who seemed to have some kind of inability with people skills. We deeply needed a calm, patient, capable person to just give us some form of nutritious food. Instead we got a strange man who kept blabbering Turkish at us incessantly and randomly laughing very loudly at us. We sat alone at a mirrored table surrounded by the garish room. Hundreds of tiny figurine eyes staring at us. He brought out some luke-warm teas and then gave us some stale white rolls with a few plastic pot mini-spreads. I finally persuaded him that both of us needed more food than bread and jam when we had paid for a proper breakfast and not eaten the day before because of our emergency situation. We had both woken very hungry. I babbled all of that in English at him, on the verge of tears, he understood that I was distressed. He took two eggs out from the low breakfast unit and carried them away. He was gone for quite a long time and I tried to hold my nerve. I wanted to march into the kitchen and make us both the proper breakfast that we needed. He finally emerged with two eggs which he placed in front of us like a triumphant three-year-old. I thanked him and he disappeared. I cracked into one and slimy translucent goo avalanched all over my plate and lap. The egg was still completely raw.


Hot tears rushed into my eyes and I walked back up to our room. I felt so drained and jangly, like loud bells were being rung in my ears. I sat on the bed crying. I just couldn’t take anymore of this ridiculous farce. It felt like we were living in a soap opera!


I thought I would message the kind doctor from the day before and ask for help with a taxi all the way back to Üzerlik. I definitely didn’t want any more dealings with the odd men downstairs. I messaged her with some questions and she organised the whole thing for us. So kind. She was our saviour.


The taxi ride felt like a very long time, all the way back to village, sixty kilometres away. It was wonderful to go at a slower speed than the ambulance and look at the changing landscape. I felt so relieved to see the city slipping away, the giant concrete tower blocks gradually shrinking and metamorphosing into trees and fields and small towns. I wanted to put as much space between myself and that awful hotel as I possible could. It was a place of nightmares. The events of the last twenty-four hours had been the scriptwriting of a nightmare. Back we drove to Üzerlik, to that tiny town populated by all those funny wizened Turkish men and we supposed women too but hadn’t seen any. And hopefully, we prayed, our bicycles and belongings would all be there, waiting for us.

All we could do was hope that our luck was about to change and that the road ahead could be a little smoother for a while.


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