Sunday, February 8, 2015

An urban cycling adventure for a good cause

Precariously balanced on the back of a creaky tandem bicycle, I skated one foot along the curb as we wound our way through narrow roads clogged with cars and pedestrians, drawing curious stares, pointed fingers, and open laughter at the outlandish sight of bikes trying to traverse one of Istanbul's most bustling neighborhoods late on a Saturday night.

Ready to roll in Kadıköy
Inside a popular local soup joint, it was brighter and warmer, but equally busy, full of people downing hot bowls of mercimek çorbası before or after a night on the town. Our soup, however, was brought out from the kitchen not in bowls but in a large insulated container, ready to be packed into a specially rigged trailer on the back of one of the bikes in our odd little convoy. Then it was back out into the chaotic streets of Kadıköy, darting through traffic to reach the ferry terminal.

Across the Bosphorus in Karaköy, we met up with two more intrepid souls who had ventured out on a bitingly cold February night to delivery hot soup to the city's homeless. "I came the first time out of curiosity," one of the riders told me. "But the night had such a good feeling, I keep coming back."

After donning orange florescent vests, we headed back out into the night, this time on wider streets with faster traffic. Not much of a cyclist -- hence the tandem -- I felt my chest tighten every time a car zipped by closer than it needed to, or startled me with an unnecessary honk. I tried to keep focused on the reassuring tinkle of the bell on the bike behind us, and take heart from the cheerful demeanor of the only other person riding on the back of a tandem, a blind man who is a frequent participant in this unusual initiative that aims to make cyclists, the disabled, and the homeless more visible on Istanbul's streets.

Pouring bowls of soup to serve in Aksaray
Fear eventually gave way to exhilaration as we sped through the night, wind on our faces and legs pumping hard. We hopped off at ancient archways, mosque courtyards, metro entrances, and underneath highway overpasses -- anywhere we spotted someone huddled under a blanket or warming their hands around a fire burning in an empty tin olive-oil canister. Most welcomed the meal, and the chance to tell someone their story, though a group of homeless children alongside a busy boulevard ran away as we approached.

In the wee hours of the morning, the soup pot empty and our hands aching from the cold, we parted ways. As I walked up the hill towards home, I passed a building I've walked by hundreds of times without a second glance. For the first time, I noticed the alcoves created by its exterior architecture -- and the pile of blankets inside one of these niches, wrapped around a solitary sleeping figure.

READ MORE: My story about the two-wheeled soup-delivery initiative Engelsiz Çorba was published by GOOD magazine on March 13, 2015.

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