Once upon a time, a time when credit cards and ever generous spending limits fell freely from the sky, I was a pampered traveller. I thought, then, that I was well-travelled, trundling from one attraction to the next.
A successful internet business allowed me an unfettered, carefree existence. All of the dull chores were contracted out: accounting, customer service, shipping, everything. Life was grand. Then.
Unbeknown to me a cancer was festering. Pasty faced tax collectors, ghouls in cubicles, re-assessed several years of tax returns. They wanted money. They sent me letters. I ignored them. I do not correspond with fascists. This was a shakedown. Justice would prevail. I was sure of that.
Like sneaking thieves in the dank, dark hours they seized my bank accounts. Credit cards, debit cards, PayPal … all shot dead. Once seized you can kiss your money good-bye. Forever.
A panicked call and teary pleadings upon the tender mercies of the revenue service yielded a rude rebuff: ‘We do not care.’
‘But you are leaving me stranded in Turkey!’ I whined.
‘That is not our problem,’ a voice with a heart of stone coldly informed me.
‘You left me with nothing. I will probably die here.’ Notice of my impending death went unheeded. There was a pause.
‘How do you intend to pay the balance of $8,613.26 outstanding?’
‘Sir, you owe a debt to …’
‘You fascist whores! You have murdered me!’
I tend to get emotional when dragged onto the gallows.
‘Sir, do not talk to me like that.’
Click. The trap door dropped open. I was hung. It all happened so fast.
In an electronic instant my wonderful life was eviscerated — my entrails lay scattered on the floor before me. Fear does strange things to you: internal doors slam shut; your mind stalls; you vomit. An inert irresolution whelms you. I have been raped and abandoned in Urgup by my protector nation.
Twelve days remained on my 90-day Turkish visa. The cave house I had rented, a well appointed two-bedroom suite carved into a cliff-side, was pre-paid for the next five days. That left seven days to get … where? Do what?
I was thirty pounds overweight. Pudgy and soft. The only hardship I had experienced in my travels was a cancelled flight. And a tepid cup of coffee.
Approaching family for money was out of the question. I would rather die. Well, that puts suicide on the table. Apply for repatriation? Endear myself into the hands of my tormentors? Suicide is looking better. At least I have an option.
The first step in any crisis is to tally your assets. Three hundred US dollars were squirreled in a deep folder in my wallet, a small emergency fund, and the grand sum of 104 Turkish Lira. About $70. It wasn’t much. And it had to get me back to the West.
I do not know why I thought the West would save me. It was, and is, a false conceit. But that is where my head was then.
The sun drenched Greek Islands appealed to my romantic notions of a blissful demise. I would build a beach hut, sing and dance around a camp fire and catch fish for sustenance. These idiotic thoughts comforted me until the early morning hours. That is when my demons emerge from dark shadows to haunt me with spectacles of ruin and shame. Shame. That is the worst of it. This new chapter will always be a secret. Even in death. I can not bear the thought of my corpse being rolled over and exposed to the mutterings of a gathered crowd: ‘Stupid bastard. He fucked up his tax returns. Look at him now. What a loser.’
Know the ground ahead is a wise adage for any campaign. A step into the dark could have disastrous consequences. Scoping the road ahead was no guarantee of disaster free travel either. Mine was a preposterous mission. A fugitive’s scattered flight.
A Google search of ‘travelling broke in Europe’ yielded Wade’s Vagabond Journey site. Lots of information on sleeping rough, hitch-hiking, walking. A training manual. Even how to prep road kill for a tasty delight.
Central Turkey, Cappadocia, in particular, is replete with empty caves. These were the abodes of early Christians, fugitives, too, on the lam from overzealous government officials. Some caves were churches and are decorated with murals of Christ and his cohort of apostles. Holy rollers would gather in these caves and thump out hearty renditions of first century gospel tunes. The faces on these murals were scratched out after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, before Jesus dusted off his sandals and moved to Rochester.
The more I read about the Greek Islands the less desirable they became. Ferries are the inter-island mode of transport and they are expensive. Flee to the wrong island — a bleached and desiccated pile of rocks — and I would truly be congressed.
Schengen is another problem. I will need more than ninety days to recover. There is the dim possibility that I might still have a future and grossly overstaying my fugitive sojourn would seriously impact any future travel.
What I sought was a friendly place where I can disappear for a while. My unjust ‘debt’, this wrongful conviction, would have to be paid in full before I would be released back to a normal life. Whatever that is.
Cyprus, a divided speck of rocks in the far eastern butt of the Mediterranean Sea welcomes the moneyed lawless with open arms. Perhaps I can slip in.
The UN border in Nicosia, between the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and Greek Cyprus (officially the Republic of Cyprus), is still contested. Greek Cyprus does not recognize this border. They do not stamp passports. There, in Cyprus, I can fall off of the radar.
I will skulk southward from cave to cave to Cyprus.
* * * * * * *
Loneliness is the bane of the solo traveller. It can grind you up. My first night in a cave brings the crushing weight of my demotion from pampered tourist to penurious traveller fully home. I chose my cave poorly. It is littered with garbage and someone had shat in the vestibule.
Human shit is foul. Unlike animal waste that enriches soil, human shit poisons it. And the air.
The crepuscular closing of a day used to be my favorite time — the golden hour. Now a new fear taunts me. Snakes. Are there venomous snakes in Turkey? I do not know. Scorpions? I know that there are scorpions here.
The rule in every survival guide is to set your bed off of the ground. The ground is where all the action happens at night. Nasty action. Vile, slithering, murderous. Reptile lust. I am sleeping on the ground. The pile of shit is only a few feet away — a large, curved turd plopped atop a small one.
It is getting cold now. Freezing cold. A fire would be nice, but I forgot to pack matches or a lighter. And a blanket. I do not have a blanket. ‘You fucking idiot!’ I condemn myself. ‘You’re too fucking stupid to live!’ I scream. Extreme loneliness and madness are betrothed partners.
* * * * * * *
Six days remain on my visa. Six days to traverse the Anatolian Plain and hump it over the Taurus Mountains to Tasucu, where I will catch the ferry to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
Every penny will count. Coming up short on the ferry fare would be an unspeakable predicament. I will have to hitchhike and walk. A 200 mile march. Forty miles a day that would include an allowance for a fuck-up day. Those days are guaranteed. ‘O Fuck Me’ would be my marching song. I will sing it with glee and it will put a bounce in my step.
Even … especially … in the most dire of circumstances hygiene is critical. No one wants a malodorous body funk in their car.
The third day sleeping rough is the great divide; the veneer of a civilized, fussed appearance gives way to the rumpled fashion of a roughed up mugging victim. By the fifth day one has the look of a madman. A cop will always accost a mad man; thugs prey upon the mad for cowardly sport. It is a universal impulse. Hygiene is critical. Better a plunge into a freezing river than the wallop of a cop’s baton.
Buses. They are an inexpensive, efficient mode of transport in Turkey. They serve snacks onboard buses from a trolley rolled down the aisle. For me a bus ticket might as well be a thousand bucks.
Buses keep stopping to solicit my fare. They disrupt the rhythm of my outstretched thumb. ‘No thank you. I am okay.’ Bewildered faces press up against the windows: ‘He is nuts.’
The afternoon sun is piercing and my gut is twisting in insect agony. There is no shelter, no trees, nothing on this highway. Only dust and rocks. And more buses than cars. They approach in clumps and every time a bus stops the few cars in the motley group accelerate down the highway. Always I am left behind.
The first day of hitchhiking fares miserably. Nine hours in this fierce sun; total distance travelled: maybe a centimetre. Affixed to my little piece of hell I cannot help but think of death. It is not that I have lost the will to live, only that it is easier to consider myself as already dead. Being dead is a strangely liberating acceptance.
A trail of ants rendered in the dust by my boot attract my gaze. I scatter them, killing several of them. It is a senseless slaughter driven by boredom. Interesting: Ants retrieve their dead.
I look back toward my cave — the cave with the mute pile of shit for companionship. Day one on the road and I have used up my allowance of a fuck-up. A new plan is demanded. I will walk southward at night toward Kayseri and sleep only when needed. I must make Kayseri by daybreak.
It is in the spirit hours, the deep chasm of night when I should be at peace walking along this highway, that I am tormented the most. I grieve for my lost life; the little luxuries. A cold beer and some chips. I like chips with hot sauce and pepper. Coarse ground pepper. A hot mug of coffee would be nice on this cold night. I am almost out of water. Soon I won’t even have water.
When I get to Kayseri I should email my sister and ask that she wire me money. No. I cannot do that. I am the successful brother. The blow to my pride would be too much. Pride. It is the hard casing capping shame. Shame pulls me down; hate pushes me forward; this is an anguished march; I am a lonely ghost on a lonely highway.
A car pulls over in a fog of dust and stops. A ride … I have a ride! Heavens rejoice!
Suha, a hotel proprietor, is driving to Nigde. His cook quit in a temperamental huff and Suha is going to Nigde to both interview and ingratiate himself to a local celebrity cook. He is doubtful that he will succeed.
I am happy for this conversation and soak up every word and phrase. He asks why I am walking alone on the highway. It is almost sunrise.
‘I like to walk at night. It is my way of exploring things.’
He looks at me sideways wondering if he has picked up a madman. I assure him that I am not mad. But I wonder if perhaps I am.
‘Tourists do not go to Nigde,’ he tells me.
‘I am not a tourist.’ Well, not anymore. I have been rudely demoted. Shunted out from my gilded bubble, evicted like a silent movie widow from the warm hearth of home onto the cold, mean street.
Suha senses my plunge into self-pity and asks if he can help. ‘Do you need a room in Nigde? I would be happy to pay for you.’ I want to accept, but I cannot. This is my private purgatory.
‘It is good for me too,’ Suha tells me. ‘Islam is kindness and Allah favors the traveller.’
‘You have done enough for me. Thank you. I have money, but I am on a spiritual journey.’
‘You are a religious man?’
No. I am an ambiguous atheist. I want to believe — in something. I cannot tell Suha this. Nor can I confess the details of my predicament. ‘I am seeking peace.’ Suha smiles. This is as close to the truth as I dare. I haven’t a clue as to what I am seeking. Peace would be nice though.
Nigde is an agricultural town. I buy a couple of litres of water and a bag of apples. It is an extra ten pounds to carry. Suha goes out of his way and drops me off on the southern outskirts and tells me that he will pray for me.
Three days are left on my visa. Transport today has been two rides. Both on the back of tractors. Both trundle at little more than walking speed on the highway’s shoulder. The breeze cools and presses my sweat soaked shirt into my back. It is delicious. I munch on apples and skip the cores onto the pavement. It is a metaphor for something. I guess.
A large blister has formed on my heel and I am limping now. I will have to pop it soon and hope that it doesn’t get infected.
* * * * * * *
The Taurus mountains, like a playground bully, tower over and menace me. I have to cross them, some how, some way, and I have only two days to do it. It is a logistical fix: they are impossible to hike — I waited too long to attend to my blister and the covering skin has torn away — every second step incurs a jolting knife cut of pain.
If a ride does not materialize by mid-afternoon I will have to flog down a bus. The bitch of it is I only have three C-notes, a poor negotiating stance. But if I overstay this visa … I cannot allow that … Suha is praying for me … I will take whatever help I can get now.
A thought unsettles me. I do not know how often the Turkey to Cyprus ferry runs. I assume there is a morning and an evening sailing. I assume. I do not know. Maybe it only runs twice a week. Maybe once a week. Pray hard for me Suha. Pray hard for my nonbelieving fat ass.
A propane truck stumbles to a stop. I am unsure if this is a ride. Truck companies usually have rules about no riders. A thick claw-like hand emerges from the side window and beckons me hither. I hither toward it as fast as my pulsing wound allows. Mine is an awkward gait. Like a badly animated cartoon.
The driver is thickset, muscled by years of physical labor. I do not know his name. He does not speak English. I am grateful for both the ride and the silence. I marvel at the scenery. I am blessed. A lucky boy.
Up, up, up we lumber. Gears grind. We are the big boy on the road. Even buses give way to propane trucks.
At the apex of the winding mountain highway my blessed joy turns sour. On the descent the drive accelerates. Within seconds this propane truck becomes a missile — a large, explosive weapon in the hands of a maniac. That is not true. This maniac is steering with his wrists resting on the wheel.
We overtake slower, saner trucks on blind curves. My terrified heart clambers out of its chest cavity and positions itself in my gaping mouth. It wants a better view. My rectum twists itself into a knot. It cannot bear to look.
Four days ago I accepted being dead, but not a crispy critter. Where the hell are the police? I am Satan’s unwilling co-pilot. He offers me a cigarette. I do not smoke. It isn’t good for you.
Satan deposits me, his blanched and shaken seed, at the Silifke bus station. I have had enough of rides. At least for today.
Tasucu, the ferry terminus, measures a scant 15 km from Silifke on the map. There is a bus leaving at three o’clock this afternoon. With overdue luck I might make the evening sailing. If there is one.
‘How much?’ I ask the lady at the ticket counter.
‘Thirty five lira,’ she tells me.
I must have heard that wrong.
‘Thirty five lira,’ she tells me again.
‘It is only 15 km away. Are you sure?’ I am befuddled.
She laughs: ‘It is ten hours. Only one ticket left.’
‘That is a lot of money for me. Can you sell me a ticket for twenty lira?’
She does not laugh. Nor oblige. She is not an angel. Thus far I have travelled 200 miles for less than five dollars — on apples and water. Grudgingly I pony up the thirty five lira.
‘Ten hours. Are you sure?’ I ask.
‘Maybe more. Maybe fifteen hours. Maybe never.’ She enjoys taunting me.
I wonder why she said maybe never. ‘Is this where the bus went off the cliff killing all those Russians?’
‘You will be on another bus.’
‘It is good to know that you have spares.’
She winces. She does not like bedraggled smart asses.
* * * * * * *
There is no bus stop in Tusucu. You and your luggage are thrown off the bus which charitably slows to a roll. There is no here except for a couple of expensive looking motels.
It is two o’clock in the morning. I settle as best I can onto a bench. Relief and worry simultaneously eat at me: relief that I have made it to the border in time to exit Turkey; worry about crossing two borders with only $300. My appearance is not natty. I am rumpled and my hair is greasy. Border guards instinctively clap eyes on disintegrating travellers. There is always one vagabond who is frog marched to the interrogation room.
This schedule cannot be right. The schedule board affixed to the door of the ticket office claims that the next sailing is at 13:30 Wednesday. My visa expires today, Monday. Wednesday means I will have overstayed by one day. Or is it two? I cannot count, my brain is going into shock. The visa sticker in my passport says three months. Not ninety days. March has 31 days. May has 31 days. I am pretty sure of that. Think, you dumb bastard, think! I cannot think. Panic is bubbling up. Okay, it is three months. I will be okay. I hope.
The ferry fare to Girne is fifty Turkish lira. Fourteen lira remain in my pocket. That should be well enough to get a local bus to Nicosia. Once I cross into Greek Cyprus my lira will be worthless.
An half hour past noon on Wednesday a madding crowd carrying bundles and luggage swell into the waiting area in front of the immigration exit control booths. I position myself in the center of this mass deluding myself that I am blending in. An obese Turkish boy throws a punch toward my genitals. The porky bastard’s fist is poorly aimed and strikes me in the hip. I want to smash his double-chinned face into my knee. Doing so would draw unwanted attention. The corpulent thug spies a more suitable victim. A girl. He slaps her. She fires back a smart jab bloodying his nose. The little swine howls. You go, girl! Hit him again!
The border guard is an excitable sort. He examines my passport. He turns to a calendar on the wall and counts. He counts off the days twice. ‘Two days. You have overstayed two days.’
‘No, no,’ I protest. ‘My visa says three months.’
‘Two days,’ he counters. ‘Stand over there.’
I stand over there. A trim officer with an Ottoman posture, he is about my age — a coeval — escorts me to a small office and motions for me to sit down. There are reams of forms to process. I glumly watch him filling in little boxes and smartly checking off notations. Documenting the details of my crime require the help of an assistant.
I venture a small protest: ‘My visa stamp says three months. Not ninety days.’ There is no response. Another form is reached for and begun. ‘This is not fair.’ The assistant makes a telephone call. The tone of the ensuing conversation is serious.
‘Sign here, please.’ I am handed my confession.
‘Is there a fine?’ I ask. A stupid question that is akin to asking if hanging hurts.
‘Yes. Three hundred and seventy lira.’
What an ass I am; pretending to believe that I am already dead. Now I am truly finished. It is one thing to push forward spending nothing when you have money in your pocket. It is quite another when what little you have is ripped away. Everything changes. You are now imprisoned in a moveable cell, exiled from the human race, an execrable mutt.
The remaining crumbs of my life are surrendered. In exchange for my $300 I am given a grievously slim sheaf of Turkish lira and a receipt … a fist full of chicken shit to carry me forward into the Mediterranean Sea to Cyprus. Pray Suha. Pray that this ferry capsizes and sinks.
To be continued …
Read part 2 at Without A Dime In Cyprus, Vagabonding The Hard Way.