I’d better write this while its all still on my mind, because I’d prefer to just purge it as soon as possible. I’ve written before that all is not wine and roses when on the road this long – though many travel writers paint such an overwhelming positive picture about the glories, without ever mentioning the down sides. Maybe that is the way to get published and I’m going to have to wipe out these occasional down-side travel stories.
A couple of days ago was one of those simply annoying and aggravating travel days.
The day started in Aleppo, Syria. I was in the process of rolling through Jordan and Syria quickly, in order to get to Turkey. Originally, I had figured that I could catch a boat from Alexandria, Egypt to Istanbul or Greece – in order to continue my route to the northernmost city in the world, in Norway – but after research, I finally realized that was impossible. There was no way I could see to go by sea from Egypt to Europe. So I had to go overland quickly.
Around that same time, Aileen, a friend I met and traveled with for a while in Africa, decided that she’d had enough of the real world since she’d gotten home and wanted a week or two more of traveling. She wanted to go to Turkey. I was going to have to go through Turkey. The timing was good. She booked a flight.
She was arriving late in the evening on the 16th. I was leaving early that morning from Aleppo to meet up with her in a town called Groeme, in east central Turkey. From looking at the map, it seemed like a relatively simple travel task.
I asked the people at my hotel in Aleppo about buses from there to Antyaka, Turkey, which is about forty or fifty miles across the border. They told me that buses run pretty much all day, starting at 5 a.m. I got up around 5:30, walked to the bus station, and asked around at the various bus ticket offices about a bus to Turkey. They told me that there was one bus at 5 a.m. (that had left, obviously) and one at 2 p.m., which was going to be way too late for what I needed to do that day.
No problem. One bus company said that I could just take a taxi. This may seem odd, but distances in the Middle East are fairly short and I had already taken two of three taxis for similar distances (100-150 kilometers). I asked how much and was told 1,500 Syrian pounds (slightly over $30 U.S.). That seemed a bit steep, since the bus ticket was only 250 Syrian pounds. I told them so and they said I should wait and see if anyone else showed up to split the cost with me. Sounded reasonable, so I waited around for about forty-five minutes.
No one else showed. I then started asking other cabbies that were there how much they would charge me for the ride and quickly got a counter-bid of 750 Syrian pounds. I made sure that were talking about the same thing (going to the map and repeatedly pointing to the town in Turkey I needed to get to – making sure it wasn’t just a ride to the border). I felt assured they were going to take me all the way to Antyaka for half the price of the other taxi.
So I went back to the original taxi and asked to get my backpack out of the truck. The guy loudly said, “no, no” and pointed to the taxi and said something to the effect of “I am taking you. Your bag is already in my cab.” I told him that I hadn’t paid and that the other taxi driver was taking me right now for half of what he was going to charge me.
And he immediately cut his price to 500 Syrian pounds. Now look, I’m fine with the whole haggling thing. Hell, as a criminal defense lawyer, I had to constantly size up how much my prospective clients might be able to pay before quoting my fee. But its pretty annoying to have people quote you triple the price of what they will take. And I’m sure he was doing quite well at 500 – as quick as he offered it. I probably could have gotten the ride for 300 or so – twenty percent of the original price.
Mild annoyance, but now that I had the leverage, I made sure we were leaving immediately. For 500 pounds. Payable when I got there. Shortly after, two other guys piled into the back of the cab and we took off.
It took about an hour to the border. When we got there, me and the two other passengers went inside and got stamped out of Syria quickly and easily. On the other hand, the cabbie couldn’t get his car through customs. I never knew what was going on (no one spoke good enough English to explain), but the customs guys kept putting a rubber hose down the taxi’s gas tank, pulling it up, looking at it, and then yelling at the cabbie about something. This went on for a short while, and then the cabbie went off to talk to someone in the main building. Us three passengers were just left there to wait.
And wait. And wait. For about two and a half hours. Occasionally the cabbie would come out of the building and talk to the other two guys and make hand motions to me as if we were soon to leave. Then he’d disappear again and the three of us would just look at each other blankly.
First Syria didn’t want to let me in. Now they didn’t want to let me out. Make up your mind guys.
Eventually, the cabbie got some supervisor out of the building to come look at his taxi. The supervisor and some new assistant walked up with another rubber hose, talked to the cabbie, didn’t even put the hose in the gas tank, and let us go. Bureaucrats – gotta love ‘um.
We drove another hour or so to Antyaka and finally got there around 1 p.m. or so. At the beginning of the day, I’d figured on getting there around 10 or 11, so I was slightly worried about my schedule to get to Groeme and meet Aileen.
As we were pulling into the town, I told the driver a few times that I needed him to stop and let me change by Syrian pounds for Turkish lira somewhere. An official exchange bureau preferably. He told me “yes, yes – no problem” every time I asked. Lo’ and behold, we get to town, he stops at the place to let me out of the cab, and there is no exchange bureau anywhere in sight. He told me I could get a bus to the town I was going to across the street and I asked him again about changing my money.
He told me that he’d make change for me. I had 3,950 Syrian Pounds. That should have gotten me about 125 Turkish lira, according to the exchange program on my computer. He wouldn’t give me more than 115. I didn’t know how exchangeable Syrian pounds would be, the further I got away from the border area, so I accepted the screw-job and took the money.
The day hadn’t started off as the best introduction to Turkey. It was starting to remind me of my scam experience in Cairo.
I went across the street to buy my bus ticket. The bus was due to leave there at 3:30 and take about nine hours to get to the town of Kaysari, where I would get off and catch a mini-bus to Groeme. I was assured those mini-buses ran about every half hour and would be running that late at night. I bought the ticket and again went over it with the guy that sold it to me two or three times.
“So this bus leaves from right here (pointing at the parking lot) at 3:30, right?”
“15:30? (pointing to the line on the ticket that said that) From right here?”
“Yes. 3:30. Here.”
“Today, right? This ticket is for today?”
“OK, because I am going to walk into town to go to use the internet. I will be back here before 3:30. OK?”
I left my backpack there and walked into town to use the internet. I emailed Aileen to tell her that I was going to be in very late that night and that she might beat me to the hotel (earlier I’d told her that I’d get there way in advance of her). Checked Facebook, other emails, sports scores and such. Enjoyed the air conditioning in the café. Left at a quarter to three and got a sandwich on my way back to the bus station.
I got there right at three o’clock. The ticket guy and his co-worker were frantic.
“It LEFT??!! You are kidding me. Its only 3.”
“Bus here at 2:30. We looked for you. Could not find you.”
“You told me the bus left from right here at 3:30!”
I rarely get angry. I was furious. First time on the trip, I think, that I was screaming. I threw my small backpack down and had a semi-fit.
“No. Leaves from main station at 3:30. From here 2:30.”
“But you fucking told me it left from HERE (pointing at the ground and walking in a circle around where I was pointing) at 3:30.”
“No. We looked for you.”
“Well you wouldn’t have had to look for me if you’d fucking told me the right time the bus left in the first place.”
“Sorry. We look. You can take taxi.”
“Taxi to where?”
“To bus station. Leave now, you catch bus.”
“How much is the taxi going to cost?”
The bus ticket had cost 35 lira. Now, on account of their screw-up, the ticket was essentially going to cost 50 lira. Not a huge deal, but I was irate.
“Well, you should pay for the taxi. You screwed up. Not me.”
“No. We give refund. You can take bus tomorrow.”
“I need to get there tonight. And you fucking screwed up. You should pay for the taxi.”
“No. Refund. OK?”
“Well, you need to go now if you get bus.”
I wasn’t getting anywhere. And logically, I realized that it wasn’t that much money. If I wasn’t going to meet a friend – I’d have taken the refund and booked a ticket on the other company’s bus, which was leaving at 8 p.m. O’ well. I took the cab.
The entire next couple hours, I stewed in the bus. I read for a bit, but couldn’t concentrate. My iPod helped, but I just was going to be annoyed for a while about this.
To make matters worse, I wasn’t sure they sold me the correct ticket. In the destination line on my ticket it said “Trabzon” not “Kaysari.” I had no idea where Trabzon was, but on the other hand, I had looked at a map and knew that Kaysari was close to Groeme. I told the guys loading my back onto the bus that I was going to Groeme and asked if this ticket/bus was the right one. They seemed to say yes, but I wasn’t completely confident. On the bus, I asked when I would get to my destination, where I had to pick up a mini-bus, and they said about 1:30 a.m. I didn’t know if I would be able to get a ride that late. More stewing.
Then I looked out the left side of the bus and there was the Mediterranean. And in my last note in my journal about this particular ride, I wrote: “Totally unexpected. Smile. Guess it’s OK.”
Spoke/wrote a bit too soon.
About 10:30 that night, the bus made a stop at a bus station. One of the guys running the bus came all the way back to my seat and said, “You. Here. Groeme.” I asked if this was Kaysari. He said no, but I should get off. Groeme was as close to this station as Kaysari.
I was skeptical. I got off the bus and the young guy took me to talk to someone at this station. This guy also said that Groeme was as close to here as it was to Kaysari. By this time, they had gotten my backpack off the bus. I still was totally unsure. I asked if I could get a mini-bus from here and couldn’t get an answer. The new guy from the bus station told me to follow him and he would call a friend to see about a taxi.
No idea why I got off the bus. Of course, as we walk over to use the phone – the bus leaves.
Guy calls his taxi driver friend. Sure, he’d take me to Groeme. For 100 lira. Double the cost of the seven and a half hour bus ride I just took. I asked the guy to show me where we were on a map. He got out a map and showed me. Kaysari was a lot closer to Groeme than this town was.
I threw my second fit of the day.
“Why the hell did you get me off that bus? Was that bus going to Kaysari??”
“But Kaysari is a lot closer to Groeme than this town is – and there are mini-buses there to take me to Groeme.”
“You can get bus from here also.”
“8 a.m. tomorrow.”
“But I fucking need to get there tonight!”
I’d only been in Turkey for about half of one day, but I’d taken note of one tendency here: when you are getting screwed over (intentionally or not), they just tend to smile a lot and play dumb. They might not understand my English, but even if they do, they aren’t going to admit it. This was essentially the “not my fault – guys on the bus told you to get off, not me” defense.
In the final analysis, it was my screw up to get off the bus in the first place. But that wasn’t going to stop me from being pissed.
I ended up taking the taxi. I talked the guy down slightly, to 90 lira. When I ended up getting to the hotel in Groeme, the hotel owner had me give him the short version of the story. He ended up telling me that 90 lira was a fair fare from that town, but agreed that I’d gotten screwed by essentially getting kicked off the bus. He also said that particular bus company had done it to a number of people and he didn’t know if it was intentional on their part, or just ignorance of the shortest way to Groeme.
The company is Metro. Let’s just say, I won’t be ever taking them again.
Other than that – Turkey has been fabulous. The people are great. Scenery is spectacular. Costs aren’t too bad. Tons of stuff to do. I really like it here.
I just hate cabbies, immigration agents, and now, selected bus companies.
p.s. There is this law in Turkey that says that writing or saying anything “anti-Turkish” is a punishable criminal offense. I’m assuming that this post would not rise to that level, but I’m risking it anyway!
I have had both good and bad experiences with the kindness of strangers — this one was clearly on the horrible side.