Last Bus to Istanbul

[Writer Interrupted: Not sure if it matters much, but I did not intend to have all three of my Istanbul posts published at once. I actually wrote this one weeks ago, even thought it was published. But I still don’t know how a blog works, all these options, and I apparently pushed one button when I was supposed to push two (I think, maybe three). Sorry]

10-04-2015

I will be leaving in a few days to visit a city that was a metropolis 600 years before Jesus was born, but I didn’t know it was going to take me 600 years to get there. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but getting there (if I actually make it) has taken me through so many loops and bureaucratic circles I could only summarize the whole thing as being kind of looney.

Quick History 101: Back in the day, it was called Byzantium, one of the most significant cities in history. But its fame really took off when it was reestablished as Constantinople and became the center of the known universe. It was the cultural center of the Roman Empire (330 – 1204) and then the Latin Empire (1204 – 1261) before the Ottomans took over and turned it into an Islamic stronghold and made it the epicenter of the Ottoman Caliphate, a status it held for 600 years. It was in Constantinople where the sultans ruled from golden palaces and lived the most lavish and brutal lifestyle ever practiced in human history. When the Republic of Turkey was formed in 1923, the city on the Bosphorus strait (basically the official border between Asia and Europe), was officially named Istanbul.

Now picture this: A poor kid riding his bike through mud and stupidity, a strangling chokehold that for him was the backwoods of rural Arkansas, just so he could sit in a tiny one-room library and read about Constantinople and the great empires of Europe, places for him that only existed, now and forever, in books he could never afford to own. And so how cool is it that he will be in Istanbul for four days next week? Just how fucking strange is this life I’m living? How much more fantastic can the tiny steps of one life come to be?

Well, just a few minutes ago I had to stop writing this post so I could respond to an email from the Athens Institute of Education and Research. They wanted me to confirm my acceptance of their invitation to present a paper at the International Conference on the Humanities and the Arts in a Global World. So, yeah, come January I will spend four days in Athens, Greece, perhaps the birthplace of human civilization.

And on Monday I will meet with a woman to discuss me accompanying her on a five-day tour of the former Yugoslavia Republic of Macedonia as a quasi-Goodwill Ambassador for liberal arts education. Later this week, I will conclude my plans to spend some of my Thanksgiving break with my good friend Pat MacEnulty in Rome, Italy. And when I make a very quick trip back to the United States for my son’s wedding at the end of October, I will visit Frankfurt and Madid. In other words, I’m not done yet with this poor-boy’s life. What did Robert Frost say: I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep?

But this is one of the reasons I moved to Bulgaria in the first place, a chance to see the world beyond the suburban strip malls of America. Just getting here was a trip and a half (see posts 1-3), and I’m still not official official (I get my residence card next week). The trip to Istanbul came about as part of a college-sponsored tour, but before I could confirm the reservation I had to find an out-of-the way travel agency (see my most recent post). Once I did push open that hidden door I encountered three very-busy women who had no idea who I was or what I wanted. That nobody spoke English only complicated matters, but I managed to get them to understand I was there for the trip to Istanbul.

“We have no more seats on the bus,” a very impatient woman told me through my Google translator. “Ne,” I said. “I’m the guy who got the last seat!”

After checking my passport they did indeed find my name at the bottom of their list. They made copies of my passport and told me the bill was 179 leva. I had anticipated that price and came with the necessary Bulgarian currency, but I also had been told by my school’s travel coordinator that I would have the option of paying in advance for several excursions not included with the tour price. I would need to pay for them in European Union currency, euros.

Before going to the travel agency, I looked up various options and the price for each in euros, scribbled them down on some scratch paper. I did some math in the margins, including currency exchange rates, and came up with a single figure, 118 euros, which I circled. Meanwhile, on the back of my notes I jotted down a few items I needed to pick up from the market.

When the travel agent asked me for 179 leva, I made her understand I also wanted to pay for the extra excursions. I used my sheet of notes, which was written of course in English and had several things scratched out, to help her understand which ones I wanted. She then told me I owed her 463 leva. She even wrote out this receipt:

20151004_100600

“Ne,” I said. “Euros, not leva.”

“Ne,” she insisted. “Leva, four six three.” She pointed to the receipt.

My translator helped me explain that I had been told the excursions were to be paid in euros. “I did not bring 463 leva,” I told her. “I brought euros.”

She spoke for a while with one of her colleagues who, armed with a calculator, gave me a new figure: 179 leva and 263 euros.

“Ne,” I said. “Ne 263 euros. I did not bring that much.”

By now everybody is getting pretty annoyed. I once again pulled out my notes and showed both of the agents my chicken-scratch mathematics. I pointed to the 118 euro figure I had circled. Both women then looked over my notes, compared the prices I had calculated for the various excursions – figures I had gotten from the official Turkish tourism website – and they decided I did not owe 263 euros after all. Instead, I owed 127 euros.

I decided that paying the extra nine euros was worth it if it meant me getting the hell out of there. I paid the bill and was folding up my sheet of notes when one of them stopped me. Through a little game of charades she made me understand that, under the circumstances, she was going to keep my notes. I hesitated for a second, thinking about why they might need a list of words and figures in a language they could not read, before I said “No problem.” It could be they really needed my grocery list on the back, and who was I to argue with that?

Armed with my sort-of confirmed reservation, I began working on getting a Turkish visa. I had been told that it would be very easy, something I could do online, but it was a Bulgarian who told me this. I should have remembered my mantra: In Bulgaria, nothing is what it seems.

The e-Visa system on the Turkey Bureau of Tourism website was pretty easy, ending with instructions for me to wait for a confirmation email at which time I could pay the $20 application fee. I was supposed to get the confirmation email within 15 minutes. When that didn’t happen, I applied again, thinking maybe I gave them the wrong email address.

Nothing happened, at least not that day. However, when I woke up the next day I saw that I had received this email in the middle of the night:

This e-mail message has been sent to verify the e-mail address that you have provided for your e-Visa application. Please ignore this message if you did not make such an application.
Please note that if you do not respond to this confirmation e-mail within 1 hour, your application will be cancelled. Likewise, if your e-Visa application is not completed within 48 hours, it will be deleted from the system. In these cases, you will need to create a new application.

So I completed another application. I got no response. And then I did it again the next day but, still, no response. On the official e-Visa website was a box it said I should use if I had any questions, so I sent them this note:

Hello, I have been trying to use your E-Visa system but once I submit all the required information I do not receive a verification email (or I receive it in the middle of the night and so I miss the one-hour window for confirmation). I am scheduled to arrive in Istanbul on Oct. 8. I am certain that I have been following directions and I have been checking my spam email folders. Can you please advise me on how I can complete this process? Thank you, Ronald Wiginton

The next day I got this email in response:

Sayın Ronald Wiginton,

For your further questions or comments, please use Contact Us form on http://www.evisa.gov.tr/en/feedback/

En iyi dileklerimizle,
Dışişleri Bakanlığı

Given that I had used the “contact us” form to explain my situation, I found it pretty odd that I was now being told I was using the wrong form and that, instead, I needed to use the ‘contact us’ form. So I did. Within a few minutes I got this response:

Dear Ronald Wiginton,

We need the applicant’s passport / ID card number to be able to assist you.

Best wishes,
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey

The “Contact Us” form had asked for a lot of information but my passport number was not among the pulldown menu options. However, I filled it out again and added my passport number. The next day I got this response:

Dear Ronald Wiginton,

Your email address may be preventing the emails coming from us. Thus, please either check and fix your email settings or make a new e-Visa application using a different and valid email address. If you still cannot get through please check with your email provider. You are advised to use an email account from hotmail or gmail.

Best wishes,
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey

Now I am really confused. They were contacting me through my valid email address to inform me they could not contact me at this address. Hmmm. I did appreciate that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey was continuing to offer me ‘best wishes,’ but what I wanted to do was write them back and say “what the fuck?” But, hey, what do I know about technology? So I created a new Gmail account, crossing my fingers in hope that it was valid enough, and applied for a Turkish visa for the sixth time.

Six times the charm, I guess. I got the confirmation at my new address, gave them $20.70, and within a few minutes I received an electronic visa. Looking at my official permission to enter Turkey, I wondered about all those thousands of Syrian migrants who are streaming into Turkey by the boatload. Perhaps they are having to enter the country illegally because, like me, they didn’t have a valid email address. Perhaps the world would run a lot smoother if everybody was issued a Gmail account at birth. Perhaps Robert Frost was wrong, maybe we don’t have miles to go before we sleep, just a few emails should do it.

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