Monday, November 23, 2009

Visa Run 2009

Bayramı begins on Thursday - a black day on the calendar if you are a cow or a sheep in the Muslim world. Or a vegetarian. Or by caring human beings. And what now seems a long time ago, with the prospect of these five days of merriment and death a scant 106 days away (and counting), Mr. This Cat's (Not) Abroad and I came up with the rather brilliant idea of spending Islam's Festival of Death in the Greek city of Thessaloníki (also known as Salonika or Saloniki) in Macedonia. The city, it seems, has much to recommend it:

a) it's in Greece where the chances of watching cows running down the street in a futile attempt to escape their executioners would be minimal, if not nonexistent
b) it was reachable by a groovy overnight train
it's touted as "Greek's Hippest City" by no less than the city itself
d) it's a UNESCO World Heritage city with 3000 years of history, with relics from its Roman, Byzantine, Jewish and Ottoman past.
e) it's the birthplace of Atatürk and therefore, a worthy place of pilgrimage.

And in spite of the fact that one of our most educated and erudite students (a judge, no less) told us that
Thessaloníki (also known as Salonika or Saloniki) was a 3rd World City in a 3rd World Country not worthy of being in the EU (= sour grapes), we made further enquiries. We booked a hotel. We were excited.

But because this is
Byzantium Turkey after all - the cradle of red tape bureaucracy - all of our best-laid plans inevitably went circling around the bowl when, after five dozen or so nagging reminders to my Place of Questionably Gainful Employment about my work visa (i.e., where is my work visa?) finally bore spoiled, rancid fruit (i.e., we don't know). This, two weeks before my residence permit was set to expire. This, three months after Mr. This Cat received his work visa. So, to recap:

a) After 9 months of waiting, I still had no work visa and the likelihood of it ever surfacing was finally recognized as, well, unlikely,
b) I would be here illegally in two weeks,
c) I would have to do a border run.

Although my Place of Questionably Gainful Employment suggested that I do my border run before the residence visa expired (i.e., losing several days of work), we decided to do it during Islam's Festival of Death and pay the hopefully minimal fee for overstaying my welcome by 4 days. Our decision then was to scrap Thessaloníki (also known as Salonika or Saloniki) and head to Bulgaria, the border run favoured by most Illegals in Turkey. We made the decision to accept this Plan B with more grace than we usually do and actually got a little excited at the prospect. We chose the city of Plovdiv - the country's 2nd largest city and home to ancient Roman ruins and craploads of casinos.


And because
we would be travelling at the beginning of Islam's Festival of Death - not unlike travelling on Christmas Eve - we decided to take the (soon-to-be-dead) bull by the horns and go into Istanbul and buy our tickets in advance. We patted each other on the back. How proactive we are! we said to each other (pat-pat). Even though our buying tickets early is truly unnecessary (pat-pat). I mean, who goes to Plovdiv? Who goes to a city which sounds like the plop-plop sound human excrement makes when it hits the water? We even prepared a note with our travelling dates and our destination to facilitate the ticket-buying process (pat-pat).

So Saturday afternoon, we take the bus to Istanbul. Our spirits are high. We would pick up our tickets to Plovdiv (plop-plop) and then do some shopping. Such fun we will have! we said (pat-pat). Along the highway into the city we pass cramped corral after
cramped corral, packed pen after packed pen of Doomed Sheep, and not too surprisingly, our spirits fall.

I made a vow, I said to Mr. This Cat. (Specifically:
I will never be present for another Eid)
I did too, he said.
Fuck, we said.

We pass the last of the Doomed Sheep - fruitlessly wishing them a speedy and painless death - and get off the bus. Soon we are at the train station which houses The Most Unhelpful Tourist Bureau in the World. Fortunately, we don't have to avail ourselves of its stellar services today, and we approach a wicket.

Do you speak English? we ask what looks to be a Nice Woman.
A little, she replies - which in Turkey means a fair amount, while in Italy it means absolutely none at all.

We show her the note we have prepared and Mr. Cat starts his spiel and shows her our prepared note. She lets Mr. Cat finish his spiel and then points around the corner.

International tickets, she says.

We round the corner where there is a sign for international tickets, as well as several ticket windows for international tickets, several desks - presumably to accommodate those agents who sell international tickets, but no agents. And no lights on.

We wait. Eventually a man appears. Eventually a man appears who does not seem to be as nice as the Nice Woman. We choose to not enquire into his ability to speak English as he works at the international ticket counter, so he undoubtedly does. In a very short time we would learn that his repertoire of English is limited to the word no.

No, as in, we'd like tickets to Plovdiv for the 26th of November.
We hand him the note. Perhaps this will help.
It's full? Sold out? we ask.
He nods.
Mr. This Cat and I look at each other rather
desperately. A Plan C? Do we have a Plan C?
What about the 25th?
He nods.
And a train back on the 28th?
And a train back on the 29th?
Fuck, we say.
Mr. This Cat and I look at each other rather desperately. A Plan D? Do we have a plan D? We don't have a Plan D. We feverishly send each other telepathic thoughts: How are these trains sold out? Who goes to Plovdiv? Who goes to a city which sounds like the plop-plop sound human excrement makes when it hits the water?

I look at the hand-painted sign on the wall with its international (this is, after all, the international ticket counter) destinations.

How about Thessaloníki (also known as Salonika or Saloniki) on the 26th?
The 25th?
He nods.
Returning on the 28th?
He nods.


So there you have it. Mr. No takes out his pen and a ream of carbon paper (!) and, considerately assuming that we want first-class compartments, writes out
our tickets - tickets which we cannot for the life of us read - but which we sincerely hope are for the 12 1/2 hour overnight train Thessaloníki (also known as Salonika or Saloniki) ... for my border run - an escapade whose tickets cost three times the price of tickets to Plovdiv, the city which sounds like the plop-plop sound human excrement makes when it hits the water. Yes, in three days, we will be hurtling through a countryside ankle-deep in the blood of sacrificed (killed) animals on our way to a 3rd World City in a 3rd World Country not worthy of being in the EU. We are excited. What can go wrong?

We are excited. What can go wrong? ... did I just write that? Really, we should know better.


Snowflake said...

I'm getting scared. I've never witnessed one of these Festivals of Death but since I am currently in a country of more than 80% Muslims and I'm seeing herds of Brahma bulls and goats (no fences) under the highway overpasses, I fear I will get the chance this year. I don't want to venture out on Friday. Will there be blood everywhere???? I try to avoid all types of pain and suffering in live animals - what am I to do???

This Cat's Abroad said...

I'm sure those Brahma bulls & goats are doomed doomed doomed. The harbour below the old city of Rabat, runs red with blood. But you're in Jakarta ... who knows? I'd just expect the worst and stay indoors and don't look out the window.

Barbara said...

Uffff...I do hope you get to Greece okay! And don't listen to your student, 3rd world city in a 3rd world nation. Tell him to grow a pair and see if he can get this country into the EU and until then, to keep his mouth shut.

We're going to Selcuk for the Bayram, which I am hoping, because it is a touristy city, will be lacking in dead animals. God, I hope so.

Snowflake, your best bet is to -- in all seriousness -- stock up on groceries for the entire weekend so that you don't have to go out, prepare some loud music that you can listen to just in case you can hear some animals and download some movies that you've been meaning to see.

This Cat's Abroad said...

Barbara, that very thought (re: Thessaloniki & Greece being 3rd World destinations and growing a paid ...) crossed my mind. What a knob.

Enjoy Selcuk - we hope to visit there in the summer. I will cross my fingers that it's Death-free

Snowflake said...

Barbara, thank you for the recommendation. In order to earn my pay (and buy numerous copies of Stealing Fatima's Hand), I will be traveling to and from work - Friday through this a 3 day ordeal? My new Muslim techs act like it's no big deal, they give the meat to the poor you know....Hell, who in this country isn't poor?!?!

This Cat's Abroad said...

You're working over the Eid? Your Place of Gainful Employment is open? I'm rather on the shocked side. I wouldn't even go near a window during Eid. Barbara is right, I'd bunker down with supplies of Pringles, gin & tonics, and downloaded films. Skip work & I'll send you a free copy of the book ;)