A crumpled pile of Mathieu is sitting outside the row of shops and cafes on the run up to the Turkish border. At first I don’t even recognise him – partly because he’s so unlike his usual smiling cheery self, partly because he left the camp in Bulgaria a full 24 hours before me and was heading in the direction of France… “Mathieu – is that you?! What are you doing here?!”
The whole sorry story comes out. He left the camp with two friends heading to Germany and was persuaded to take a roundabout route via the Turkish border in the hope of getting a straight lift to Germany. Well, they got one, but just as Mathieu was climbing into the truck, the driver changed his mind and said he would only take two people. So his friends waved goodbye and set off for Berlin, leaving him to catch the next ride… only there was no other ride, and despite seeing three other pairs of hitchhikers get rides head of him, despite sleeping on a cardboard box behind one of the cafes, despite being up again with his thumb out at the crack of dawn, and despite now being on first name terms with all the restaurant owners on this road… Mathieu is still here 25 hours later.
Borders are funny places. Sit for ten minutes and a group of stray travellers forms, all from different countries and heading in different directions. Many are from the No Border Camp, like us. Determined to see Mathieu off before I leave, I swap my pre-arranged lift on the other side of the border with another traveller and poke my thumb into the blazing heat. I will get him a lift… After an hour Mathieu is smiling again, relieved that at least it’s not just him. Me and a young blonde girl from Germany, also from the camp, switch places – taking breaks in the shade between shifts. The sun really is scorching. I take a final twenty minute shift and start counting down how many more cars I’m prepared to see roll past me. I’m just about to call it quits when a car stops. The car full of Turkish men seem a little put out that actually the ride isn’t for me, but for my male friend. I tell them what a wonderful person he is, hug him to show we’re really good friends, tell how he spent last night on the cardboard box behind the cafe, and eventually they cave in – “tamam, we take him.” “Yay!” “But where are they going?” asks Mathieu. “Who the fuck cares? – just get in the car quick before they change their minds!” – There he goes, smiling and waving. I’m so happy I could cry.
My hitching buddies now consist of the blonde girl from camp and a random guy from Mexico we met on the border. We crossed the border on foot and now wait in the thin strip of shadow created by a lamp-post, shuffling backwards every couple of minutes as it moves around us like a sundial. A guy stops and agrees to take us, all the way to Istanbul!
Istanbul welcomes me back with open arms. There are many people here from the No Border Camp, and I seem to bump into them all every time I walk down Istiklal Caddesi. There are still a lot of Rainbow people too, just returned after the 66 day sema recently finished in Yalova. I find them playing music as I’m walking with some activists and suddenly all my worlds collide – how strange to see these people here on the streets of this city, playing this music I was whirling to – what – a month ago? It seems like a decade!
I’m staying with Helene, the original initiator of the continuing weekly vegan potlucks. It’s good to always make sure I’m here on a Sunday, when deliciousness occurs. This time a few of the Noborderers attend too and we all scoff our faces with humous, ciappati, stuffed tomatoes, chocolate walnut cake (made by me), and the biggest bowl of fruit salad I’ve ever seen.
I arrive at the Iranian Embassy looking something of a hippy-muslim-punk hybrid: not-quite-ankle-length orange skirt over stripey trousers, a-symmetric zip-up green jumper – holes in the sleeves carefully disguised with rolling technique – and a blue, orange and white headscarf. I feel certain they will see through my disguise.
The guys with the Australian passports in the queue in front of me used the same dodgy online visa agency as me. One is told his visa isn’t ready yet, despite having applied a week before the other. Mine seems to be ok, but I’m given another form to fill out anyway – the one I was trying to avoid by using this service. £52 wasted then! I have to wonder who is this Iranian woman, with the Hamburg address and Swiss bank account? The instructions for the bank transfer came with the same warning twice in capital letters, highlighted in red: Due to embargo on Iran, please do not mention Iran in your transaction. Do not mention Iran, do not mention visa, nothing at all, just your own name.
I reach the front of the queue for the second time and am given a slip of paper with an account number on it. The man tells me to take it to the bank over the road and pay €100. Ok, bit weird, but I go dutifully over the road and take a ticket from the machine before sitting down on a plastic seat among lots of other people. Slowly it becomes apparent that we’re all here for the same reason, only most people are Iranian themselves or dual nationals. The bank must be in on the swindle! Soon the Australians from the queue arrive and we discuss our travelling arrangements (they are cyclists) and wait for the numbers on the screen to go up. Finally I get to the counter and give the man my debit card. But now of course, the Embassy is shut…
The following day I’m back at the embassy the minute they open, handing over my receipt for the money. The man takes my form and passport and tells me to come back in two days… two days?! What on earth did I pay that woman for then? The strange thing is that it’s not possible to get a visa for Iran without going through this palava.
Finally I’m leaving the Embassy for the final time, passport in hand, new shiny Iranian visa inside. However, my plans have changed…
At Antalya airport a snaking queue of mostly British voices welcomes me. They are all complaining – the queue, the heat, the other tourists – “our holiday would’ve been great if it weren’t for all the bloody Russians!” I look at the floor, embarrassed that I’m the one he’s speaking to – that I somehow prompted this. “Them bloody Russians don’t give a toss about anyone, pushin’ and shovin’…” Later, his eight year old son is running around, tired and restless at 4am. He bumps into someone by accident – “Oi! You gonna be a Russian when you’re older are ya? Are you gonna be a bloody Russian?”
My first flight in eight years. I wasn’t missing much. Bureaucracy, secuity, controls – everything moulded, plastic and sterile. We are shepherded into lines, scrutinized, ticked off and stamped.
The clouds look beautiful at dawn.
When it’s time for the individually packaged food portions to come out, the vegan one I ordered especially over the phone is missing. Nothing can be done: it’s egg, or hunger. I choose hunger over egg, but not without regret.
We soar over an endlessly billowing white carpet as specks of pink and then orange appear. As we drop below, everything turns grey and the concrete down there glistens. “Not quite what you’re used to”, says the man beside me, whom I’ve not yet spoken to. It’s a funny thing: wherever I go, people assume I’m from somewhere else.
Oh my god, I’m in England! I’m in England and it’s 7am. Now on the ground I wait for a bus. The hunger cuts deeper, the clouds sway open and sunlight trickles through. Birmingham. I order a medium soya latte at the nearest coffee shop and get out my laptop. It’s the biggest coffee I’ve ever seen – have portion sizes grown while I’ve been away?
Epilogue: an email from Mathieu
A little tiny word before to go to work: I made it!
The people you stopped for me…. haha, they drove me 90km, and then dropped me on the side of whatever Bulgarian “highway”, by the bushy side road …. I had a hard time, even a finger from a driver, but I made it to the border of Serbia at night. And day after have been horrible. Woke up at 4, no cars, no truck, no one to stop for me. At 12:00 I sent a message to my boss saying that I won’t make it, asking for the money to cover my way back by flight. Right after sending I was on the side of the road and a car stopped. It was like:
“Hey, where are you going?”
– Don’t know, Belgrade?
-… what ’bout you?
– “ho, Germany. Stuttgart”
So I had a 1700 km ride, 20 hours, 180km/h, only slowing down to avoide the speed controls …. The night after I was in Lubeck.
You rock and I think you’re awesome.