Inshallah, we will make it,” said my driver, Abdul. “But first we must stop and take tea.”

I would’ve protested, but this was only about the fifth time we’d stopped for tea so far during the long drive. Besides, 17 hours in a cramped bus tends to take a toll after a while, and the scalding-hot green tea that Abdul poured from his scuffed water boiler was even better than the Taiwanese blend I fondly remembered my father bringing home after a business trip when I was a child. The fact that I was even drinking tea in the first place was impressive, given my well-chronicled addiction to Starbucks.

Perhaps, I should have said something though, as we later stopped for tea three more times, and by the time we arrived in Tbilisi, the journey had lasted more than 24 hours.

Maybe I should have known better. Why I thought a trip from Ankara, Turkey to the Georgian capital, along what in ancient times was part of the Silk Road, which maintenance-wise has changed little since then, would take just a few hours was beyond me. Perhaps, I’d been spoiled by the efficiency of the autobahn near my home in Germany.

Regardless, the ride was long. While the bus itself was fairly large, it didn’t matter: no air-conditioning and cramped quarters are unpleasant in any motor vehicle. Opening windows only made it worse, inviting dust inside as if the bus were a Hoover vacuum — and in roughly the same quantities.

But strangely enough, I wasn’t miserable.

Then again, why would I be? The view, unsurprisingly, was nothing short of spectacular: golden-brown hills peppered with the occasional palm tree and soaring minarets of countless mosques, quaint villages little changed since the days of the Ottoman Empire, and the glassy stillness of the waters of the Black Sea, all appeared through the dust covered bus windows. Even AŞTĬ, the hulking mid-20th century complex that serves as Ankara’s main international bus terminal, had its own exotic appeal — despite the roar of hundreds of buses passing through each hour and the seeming inability of anyone to speak any lower than a shout.

And even in this part of the world, modern conveniences were only a few inches away. As the day’s sunlight faded to orange-red and then to black, briefly creating the illusion we were traveling across the surface of Mars, I found myself preoccupied by the small television screen built into the back of the seat in front of me.

Flipping through the channels, I realized just how deeply American culture has penetrated virtually every region on earth. Though they had been dubbed into Turkish, the familiar images of the shows were still enough to make me forget I was even in Anatolia (as the Asian part of Turkey is known). Instead, for three hours, I found myself lost in the fantasy world of Terry Goodkind and his Sword of Truth book series, thanks to a marathon showing of The Legend of the Seeker. Still, with darkness enveloping the constantly rattling motor vehicle and with surprisingly few stars overhead, despite the clear skies and little artificial light, I was suitably distracted.

The most enlightening distraction, though, wasn’t a distraction at all, but a centuries old tradition of one of the world’s great religions.

Allahu Akbar…” the prayer, known as the Adhan, began. “Allahu Akbar. Ash-hadu an-la ilaha illa llah… (I testify that there is no deity except God).”

The sound was haunting, soul-encompassing and ephemeral, beyond anything I had heard before. Even above the low din of the bustling highway, the amplified voice of the muezzin could be heard (one usually repeats the words of the Adhan silently). They were beautiful moments: here we were, in a land wracked by instability (a virtual civil war in the country’s southeast has claimed more than 45,000 lives since the 1970s), and for a few brief moments we were able to put everything aside and pray. I may not have been a Muslim, but it was magical nonetheless. No modern song could even come close to the sheer overwhelming feeling and saturation of the Adhan; suddenly, I knew why the word Islam literally means “to submit.”

Then there was the tea. Turkey is famous for the stuff, and whatever exactly was in it, it was marvelous. Sweeter than many green teas, it somehow had an almost coffee-like effect, perking one up before a modest crash; the reasoning for stopping for tea so many times was beginning to become clear (though it was also often taken after packing up and following prayers). I’d have gotten the recipe, but my Turkish was woefully unprepared for such a task. But the mere gesture of hospitality, to say nothing of the free price, was surprising change from the money-driven world I was so used to, particularly while riding any type of transportation. “Thank you” became my most-used phrase, an expression of gratitude I combined with a smile and nod that Abdul and the other passengers would often mimic.

Was not stopping at all for food — just tea — difficult? Yes, (but thank goodness, I thought, for the box of biscuits I had brought with me from home). Was being the only person who did not understand the language or the customs of the country, such as women being forbidden from sitting next to men unless they are married to that man, an adjustment? Absolutely — but would I do it all over again if I had to? I most certainly would.

More than a full day after my journey began; we blearily pulled into the dusty bus terminal in Tbilisi around mid-morning. Even at 9 a.m., it was already almost 80 degrees Fahrenheit outside. None of us had showered in over a day.

Inshallah, we are here,” Abdul announced, only the third time I had heard him use any English. “Allahu Akbar.”

I turned to him as I stepped off, and repeated in common courtesy, “Allahu Akbar (God is the Greatest).”

(To be continued…)

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