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Turkey 1km, Bulgaria - Near  the Turkish Border Captured November 2, 2006.

I spent my last Bulgarian Leva on the way through de-immigration, customs and taxes, and then learned I needed to pay $20 for a Turkish visa. I hadn’t thought about a visa since arriving in Europe, so it caught me off guard. Also, since finding and changing money hadn’t been a challenge, I was surprised to find there was no ATM at the Turkish border and that the exchange office would not purchase the only money I had; Lei from Romanian, a country only four hours away.

Desiree and I sifted through seat cushions and ash trays in the bus for loose change. With my hands full of coins, we went back into the dull building that reminded me of the vast and depressing waiting room of the DMV. I spoke to the exchange clerk through a mouse hole in one of the many giant glass windows that made a wall between the poignant open space and each of the small, dead fluorescent offices.

As I placed my handful of coins on the little space of desk under the glass, the mute clerk in a wrinkled business suit shook his head. I proceeded to sort defiantly.

British pounds? No.
Czech Franks? No.
Swiss Franks? No.
Euros? Yes, but we could only find nine of them. I was still short about $10.

“Are you sure you won’t buy Romanian?” I plead holding up twenty lire to his straight faced, merciless denial.

I tried driving back in Bulgaria to find to an ATM, but without any money they wouldn’t let me through. I was literally trapped between borders.

After a while of sitting with the engine off, thinking and quarreling with Desiree over my lack of options, we came up with the idea to ask someone if they would buy my twenty Lire. Almost immediately, we saw a car with Romanian plates. I suggested that we ask them and then sat there watching blankly as the man got out, dealt with the border guard, got back in his car and drove off into Bulgaria.

Some minutes later a black BMW SUV rolled past. Expecting my rigamortus again, Desiree hopped out and walked up to the guy’s opening window. She had told me once how when younger she was always the one to ask things of strangers. If I were alone, I wouldn’t have just sat there, but I suppose I’ve let her assume that role lately.

Once she had initiated conversation, I joined her. The man was a kind and pleasant young father who spoke very clear English. He had no Turkish currency, but plenty of crisp green US bills under a fat wad of multi-colored Euros and Romanian Lire.

Over the head of a toddler in pink who sat on his lap playing with the steering wheel of a vehicle expensive enough to buy five villages in her country, he happily traded us $10 for the twenty Lire.

After putting my passport and money through three separate mouse holes and standing with a practiced patience inside of two stale offices, I had a cheaply printed visa the size of a postage stamp and a passport page splotched with red and blue ink.

The foggy narrow road from the border winded like the Kangamangus through Turkey’s hilly northeast. After an hour, we came out of the clouds and found ourselves idling at a ticket booth in the onramp of the autobahn. Still not having any Turkish lire, I thought maybe it better to go back and try finding an ATM, but a queue of had already piled up behind us. Deciding to deal with it later, I took a ticket and kept driving.

The Turkish Autobahn was of Germany quality. We drove fast and far into a moonless, windy night. So fast and far that when I looked down at the gas gauge, I found my full tank to be near empty.

“Let me know if you see a petrol station. We’re really low,” I said to Desiree.

We watched the needle and the road, but nothing appeared, except for once in the distance when we saw would looked to be gas station, but it was too late. We had already past the exit.

“I didn’t see a sign, did you?” I asked her.

“No, there wasn’t one.”

I wondered how much gas after empty there was in an 83’ VW bus. Doubting I had the two gallons you get in cars nowadays, I pictured sleeping in the narrow breakdown lane of a highway being battered by cross winds that were becoming more and more aggressive.

Finally we spotted a glowing Shell station in the distance. The exit booth operator spoke no English. It took me unbuckling, standing upwards in my seat and pulling the white fabric out of my jeans pocket to get him to realize our predicament. Radioing to his seniors in the air traffic control tower that loomed over the row of brightly lit booths, he came back with one word.


Mine was in the back, but Desiree had hers out so we handed it over. Looking at the picture, he shook his head and pointed to me. Then holding both our passports, he directed me through the gate and off to the side of the road.

Outside the van, I paused for a moment in that sense of vulnerability one gets when standing still on a shockingly massive highway. With my hands in my coat pockets, I made a jog into the tower, hoping to find some sympathy upstairs.

I found only two men, sitting arms folded over the backs of wooden chairs, watching a soccer game on a small rabbit eared TV and not paying any attention to the row of larger, black and white monitors on the wall nor to the 27 year old tourist who had just stumbled into their office at midnight.

I flashed the MasterCard logo on one of my credit cards, but to no avail. As a repeat performance, I then pulled out some pocket lint to get my point across.

“Turkish money!” came one mans response.

“Is there an ATM near here?”

“ATM” he repeated, pointing onward down the highway and giving me less than half his attention. The other one kept with watching the game.

“Passport,” I said pointing back at him and then “me, ATM” I said pointing to myself and the highway.

He nodded and I was out the door.

The Shell station was empty except for three men working there. One attendant filled the tank while I browsed the Turkish junk food selection. Leaving our passports with a team of distracted toll booth operators who we couldn’t communicate with and who were hardly sympathetic to our predicament had me a bit uneasy, so as soon as I saw the man was done pumping, I moved quickly to pay.

Coming back from a row of little credit card machines behind the counter, the cashier looked me straight in the eyes and shook his head with a tight lipped grin, then slid a tiny receipt on the counter while pointing to the words “Transaction Denied”.

Wow, that’s strange I thought. Maybe my bank is blocking my card for security reasons.

MBNA MasterCard? Denied.
CitiBank MasterCard? Denied.
AAA Visa. Denied.
American Express. Denied.

One after another, the cashier handed the denial receipts to me.

“Is something wrong?” Desiree asked, having just come in after noticing things were taking awhile.

“None of my cards are working,” I said showing her my stack of little papers.

“None of them?”

“Yea, I tried five! None of them work!”

She tried her two cards and both were denied as well.

“You go,” offered Desiree.

I wanted to tell him to try one of the other machines, that he was probably doing it wrong, but I knew it was useless. Without even trying to communicate our predicament, I once again yanked out the innards of my pocket and then with a quick understanding look from Desiree, I pointed to her, to the ground, to me and to the highway.

“ATM? Kilometers?” I said in a rising tone with a bright brow, hoping to at least imply my words were interrogative. Walking backwards towards the door, I held up five fingers, then five more. The man was attempting to give me directions in Turkish. I nodded pretending to understand and made my escape.

There were no signs of life for the first ten kilometers, nor the next ten. I drove and drove, hoping for bright lights. The wind was gusting even stronger now, blowing me in and out of the lane. The van felt lighter, almost empty without her in it. I pictured getting blown straight off the road, over the guardrail and disappearing into the black ditch, the weight of the engine behind me crumpling the front of my upside down van against a tree, someone coming, eventually, maybe, to find me, half conscious with no passport, but obviously a Netherlander, and Desiree alone at the highway gas station all night with the three Turkish men and no passport and no money. Giving up on the long and unpromising highway, I took the next exit towards a dim town.

The road was broken like those in Eastern Europe, yet I drove quickly, watching the highway disappear in my mirrors. I drove and drove until I was in the midst of a dingy, poor and dark residential area. Stick-like people wandered about. I wondered where they could be going. There didn’t seem to be anywhere to go in the place, especially at that hour.

I suddenly felt alone again. There was something lighter about it. Uncomfortable, but lighter and good. Turning left, then right and u-turning, I played through the haphazard path in my mind as to not lose my way back. Finding the city center, I came upon a modern bank with a brightly lit ATM. No matter where in the world, banks are always clean and well lit. A bright shining symbol of fiscal vigor in even the poorest of places.

With the van in the street, idling and orange lights flashing, I choose a fat two hundred Turkish dollars and punched in my pin. With short, hopeful breaths, I watched the blinking screen.

Even inside that town, the wind was whipping and cold. I looked back at the empty, running van and thought about my small pack on the floor which I never leave behind. Without the pack, without my passport, without any money, outside the van even though only ten yards away, I felt even more vulnerable and alone. It was distressing, but exhilarating. I thought about how comfortable traveling had been lately and how I missed the feeling of being alone, on the edge of fear, constantly tested. How the van and being with someone was great and I loved it, but that there was this strange, almost sadistic desire to push myself into the most uncomfortable situations. While standing there, waiting, hoping in my right mind for the sounds of verification, I considered taking the money and just walking off, without my passport, without my van, without my friend, into the dark, strange place where nobody would understand me and the only choice I would have is to worry about every single second that went by, nothing before or after. It was the same desire that drives me to go the places I go and do the things I do, yet is never fully quenched because I’m psychologically shackled to responsibility and my ideals are infected with those diseases of success and security. I feared I would never find the freedom, the ultimate freedom, which can only come by giving up everything and going alone, with absolutely no plans or promises, into the strangest and scariest places one can find. Then suddenly, aptly, the gears inside the machine began spinning, counting the bills and with another reality jolting shock the small door flung open, the cash came out and everything fell back into place.

At a screaming sixty five miles per hour, I bolted back down the highway towards the gas station. I felt heavier and safer and the van felt less empty and better held to the road.

Inside I found Desiree sitting at a table with the three men, trading words over an English-Turkish dictionary. After paying for the gas, the cashier gave me a coffee in a small plastic cup, too thin for hot liquids. It barely held its shape and the heat burnt my fingers. We had laughs while struggling to communicate through one looked-up word at a time; the longest of which to locate was “maceraperest”, meaning “adventurous”.

“Maceraperest,” one of the men said to us again as we walked out the door.

Adventurous, I wondered?

Yea, I guess so.

3 Thoughts on “Maceraperest”

  1. UT Says:

    There’s a difference between adventurous and psychotic. Because you are not psychotic but can think adventurously you retrieved your friend so that you can live-on and travel well some more.

  2. Aunt Zeth Says:

    Are you trying to give your mom a heart attack?! She’s going to lock you in your room when you come home for Christmas and not let you out. -talk about an adventure.

    Be safe. Love, Aunt Zeth

  3. Suzy Says:

    You like the thrill of living on the edge huh? I can relate to some of what you said… its weird too, when you get back into a stable lifestyle its gonna feel soooo weird and out of place for you.

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