The Journey series
This week's Mustard Seed sees me reach Athens.
I felt back on familiar ground in Istanbul. My sister and I spent several days there during our eastbound journey. I headed toward the minarets of Hagia Sophia. They led me to the Lale Restaurant and Sammy, the waiter we befriended.
Istanbul straddles the European-Asian boundary. It's the funnel that converges travellers in both directions. Lale Restaurant was an essential stop for both the backpack crowd heading east and the carpetbag veterans returning. English was the prevalent language.
I marveled again at the difference between the two groups. Slacks, polos, and insecurity versus loose cotton clothes, matted hair, and henna tattoos. I hadn't been all the way to India and my experiences were far from any Beatles' Nirvana, but my time in Asia left its own indelible impression. This time, instead of being an east-bound backpacker who found those others strange, I found both groups foreign.
As I sat sipping my Turkish coffee I was approached by a Sudanese gentleman. Abdul introduced himself and explained he was a ship's radio officer. During a recent stop in Beirut his friend had been shot and taken to a hospital. He stayed behind to help his friend who eventually died. Abdul spent all his money on his friend's hospital bill and was now desperate to get to Athens where he could catch another ship. He suggested that, if I loaned him seventy-five dollars for the ticket, we could catch a bus that evening. Once in Athens, he would go to the shipping company he worked for, get an advance, and repay me. He promised that if I would help him he would say many prayers for me for the rest of his life.
Despite Sammy's warning, I felt Abdul was sincere. I agreed to meet him back at Lale Restaurant at seven-thirty. We met, had a quick coffee, and left for the Beyazit bus depot. I bought two tickets and we boarded the bus to Athens. A young American backpacker arrived a few moments later and sat in a seat ahead of us. He very obviously hadn't bathed recently. Abdul and I moved two rows back. As the bus filled, the seat beside the American remained empty. The bus filled to capacity. The last passenger to board paused looking at the empty seat and the man beside it. He huffed, closed his eyes, and then squeezed himself in between five others in the very back. The bench was clearly not built for six men, but none of the occupants moved to the only empty seat on the bus.
About three hours later we approached the Greek border. Abdul asked me to let him hold my money. He explained that he would have to show that he had money or he would be turned back at the border. "What about me?" I asked. "Won't I need to show money?"
Trepidatiously, I let him hold my money. The customs agent boarded the bus and asked to see our passports. He stamped them as he went by with nothing more than a quick glance at our faces. He had no questions for any white people – not even the smelly young American. Surely enough, my friend and the two other coloured people on board were led off the bus for further questioning. When they came back Abdul returned my money and thanked me. He said without that money he definitely would have been denied entry. He also told me that, during the course of their interrogation, he learned the fellow detainee sitting five rows ahead of us was a doctor from India and the one across the aisle and two seats behind was an engineer from America.
About nine hours later we arrived at Station Kifisou in Athens. Abdul would go to his shipping office and I would find accommodations. We agreed to meet at Athena's gate at one o'clock. Abdul headed off and I headed to the tourist brochure rack. I discovered there were several budget hotels near Athena's gate so off I went. The first two hotels I tried had no rooms available. The third was Sammy's Place, owned by an American veteran. I paid for a room for two which would be available for check-in after four o'clock. Task accomplished, I took a leisurely stroll to Athena's gate.
Abdul was not there by one. By one-twenty I began to worry. By one-thirty I was down right anxious – seventy-five dollars was a huge amount of money in my situation. Abdul did not arrive until two. He apologized and explained that he would sail the next day and had needed to meet the ship's captain. Abdul repaid his loan and treated me to lunch at a nearby café. We sat and chatted until four before heading to Sammy's Place.
When we arrived Sammy took one look at Abdul and announced, "He can't stay here."
"Why not?" I asked.
"You're black!" I replied.
"I'm the owner," Sammy explained. "If I let him stay here all my guest will leave."
Neither reason nor protest could dissuade Sammy. He refunded our money and we set off to find a more accommodating accommodation. Eventually we found a small pension run by a seventy-five year old French woman who preferred the Greek climate. The next morning I checked out of the pension as I knew I needed to preserve my funds. Abdul apologized that he didn't get enough of an advance to give me any money. He accompanied me to the youth hostel before we said our farewells. I couldn't afford to stay there either, but I was sure someone there would know of cheap transportation toward London.
Inside the hostel I found a notice on the bulletin board about the Magic Bus – fifty US dollars, Athens to London non-stop. I jotted down the address. I found 24 Kidathineon Street but it didn't seem to be the Magic Bus office. After searching about the building I found a Magic Bus poster taped to a door. It had a felt-pen arrow pointing up drawn on it. I opened the door to expose a very steep set of stairs. I tried the doors at each level as I climbed only to find them locked. After four stories of creaky stairs, I saw another Magic Bus poster on the door. I entered, and after a brief discussion handed over fifty dollars to a clerk. The man at the desk wrote my name on a list and handed me a little slip of paper. He told me where and when to find the bus. I had only to survive three days in Athens without spending any money and I'd be on my way.
Next week: Magic!
Peter T Elliott