The Journey series
This week's Mustard Seed wraps up the series about my European and Mideast adventure in the late seventies.
Safely aboard my Skytrain flight, I was eight hours from New York. From there, I would be twenty-four hundred miles and who knew how many hours from Vancouver. Worry would resolve nothing, there was no entertainment on this bare-bones flight, and the food I had needed to last several days, so I slept.
But I didn't sleep long enough – I woke up hungry and, despite willing not to, ate my remaining food. I landed at JFK still hungry. After passing through Customs, I went to the tourist bureau in search of a means home. As luck would have it (I was still wary of providence), that was the last day of Amtrak's Ninety-Nine Dollar Ticket To Anywhere Sale.
After paying for the shuttle to Grand Central Station, I had exactly one hundred dollars when I arrived at the Amtrak ticket counter. That day's train had already left but, as long as I paid on that day, a ninety-nine dollar ticket would get me to Vancouver. The next train left at nine the next morning.
My dollar and I wandered about, able to visit only the parts of New York within walking distance and only from the outside. Late that evening a man approached me. We chatted. I didn't learn much about him, but he patiently allowed me to vent much of the stress that had built up through my travails. Just before ten, I found he had subtly led me to the YMCA hostel. He paid the clerk twenty-five dollars for me to bunk there over night. He wished me a safe trip home, said good night, and left.
I woke much more relaxed the next day. As I made my way back to Grand Central Station, I found a diner that offered a ninety-nine-cent breakfast before seven a.m. It was six-fifty-five. Two eggs over easy, bacon, toast, hash browns, and coffee. I lingered over that breakfast as long as I could, knowing it would be my last meal until I arrived in Vancouver three and a half days later. Too many cups of coffee later I made my way to Grand Central just as they announced the platform for my train.
As I approached the platform, a tourist headed the other direction handed me a Robert Ludlum novel. "Here, I've finished it," he said, "Maybe you'll enjoy it."
I thanked him more than I could express. The next three days would pass faster with entertainment. Reading would also offer a needed distraction from the hunger headed my way. I rationed the pages to ensure the book would last the full trip. On the second day a young woman sat across from me. "Where are you in the book?" she asked.
She had just finished reading it. We discussed the book for a bit and mused about its premise – up to the point that avoided spoilers. We then chatted about each other's trips. Jill had been visiting a friend in Chicago and was heading back to Portland, Oregon. When she learned of my plight she invited me to dinner in the dining car. I promised to repay her once I accessed my money in Vancouver. "No," she insisted. "Come visit me in Portland and you can buy me dinner."
I agreed and she gave me the number of a friend through whom I would be able to contact her. She had a chef's salad and I had a Salisbury steak. We shared a bottle of wine. After dinner we returned to our seats and continued our conversation. I'm not sure which of us fell asleep first. I declined her invitation to breakfast the next morning. She returned shortly before noon and not long before Seattle where she changed trains to head south and I remained aboard to head north.
I arrived in Vancouver shortly after ten p.m. With only one penny, I couldn't afford to call anyone or take a bus so I walked three miles to my mother's house. A block before arriving, my cat ran up and jumped up to ride my shoulders the rest of the way. I approached to my mother's barking dog. My mother and one of my sisters were surprised and excited to see me. No one expected me back for at least a year. My mom made tea and we had a bit of a celebration which woke my youngest sister.
She poked her head into the living room. "What are you doing here?" she asked, squinting her eyes against the light.
"Well don't make so much noise. I'm trying to sleep." She headed back to her room.
The next morning I retrieved my car from the friend I'd lent it to, went to the bank to withdraw some cash, and reclaimed the room I had been renting before I left for my journey. I called up my previous employer who was anxious for me to start working there again immediately. We were so busy that I wasn't able to go to Portland to meet my obligation to Jill for over a month.
When I finally did arrive in Portland I called the number Jill had written down for me. Jill happened to be visiting that friend when I called. Jill said she'd love to get together with me for dinner but she had a previous commitment with another friend. "How about tomorrow?" I asked.
"No," she insisted, "he won't mind if you tag along."
She told me where to meet her and when. She had herbal tea and biscuits waiting for me when I arrived. She showed me the hanging baskets she'd made to sell at the local flea market and we discussed our activities since parting. Time flew by and before Jill was ready her friend knocked on the door. She opened it.
"Hello, Kerry," I said to everyone's amazement.
Kerry and I had been on the same Magic Bus trip from Athens to London. I didn't know Kerry lived in Portland. As far as I know, Kerry and Jill were the only two people I knew who lived in Portland. I'd been half way around the world and back only to find out just how small the world truly is.
Next week: We'll See.
This week's Mustard Seed begins in Athens. I had a ticket and a three-day wait for the Magic bus that would take me to London. I also had just over two hundred US dollars. I knew Freddy Laker's Skytrain would get me from London to New York for ninety-nine of those dollars. I could only trust God that the balance of my funds would see me from New York to Vancouver and cover any essential incidentals.
I must admit my trust in God arose more through necessity than faith. Not wishing to strain God too greatly, I decided to eschew restaurants and hostels. The more money I had in my pocket when I reached New York, the better God's chance of getting me home. My faith was not getting any stronger as I wandered the streets of Athens that evening.
As it grew darker and colder, I noticed an orange flickering glow in the distance. As I approached, I saw it rose from an oil drum. Several men stood about it. I waved at them as I approached. "Kalispera," I said.
"What do you want?" they responded.
"May I share your fire?"
They shuffled over to make room for me. I gleaned from snippets of English that they were unemployed seamen. A bit later on I heard "Abdul," "Lebanon," and "radio officer."
"Are you speaking of Abdul whose friend died in Lebanon?" I asked.
It turned out they were. They all knew Abdul. When they found out I was the one who helped him travel from Istanbul to Athens the whole conversation switched to English. It turned out there was quite a community of homeless African sailors in Athens. I was invited to stay with these men in their cave until my Magic Bus departure. There was plenty of fruit, vegetables, and salted fish to share. Men came and went as ships arrived and departed. My second visit to Athens was much different from my first. The circumstances were much better for the first, but the people were far better in the second.
At the appointed time, I rendezvoused with the Magic Bus, presented my scrap-of-paper ticket, and boarded. I put my bag in the overhead rack and sat. A girl a little older than me arrived a little later and asked to sit beside me. She was so loaded down with bags that she obviously needed help. As I was busy hoisting her backpack and satchel into the overhead rack she snuck into the window seat. She tucked one shopping bag under her seat and another between her feet. I didn't think it fair, but I wasn't about to start our three-and-a-half day journey with a spat.
I soon learned that she was returning to London from a visit with her mother who had retired in Greece for the better weather and lower cost of living. Liz was a regular round-trip passenger on the Magic Bus. The two bags stowed by her feet were full of sandwiches and pastries. We got out to stretch our legs and mingle with the other passengers whenever the drivers stopped, and her two sacks contained more than enough to feed us both for the whole trip. Liz fed and entertained me the entire way. She also provided detailed instructions to get to Gatwick airport from where the Magic Bus dropped us off, and tips for catching the Skytrain to New York.
Liz handed me a parcel of food as we said goodbye. I boarded the bus to Victoria Station where I would catch the Gatwick Express train. Once at the airport I rushed over to line up for my Skytrain ticket. Even though the booth wouldn't open for hours, the line was already long. Without Liz's warning I would have arrived later to a sold out flight.
Once I safely had my ticket I relaxed enough that I could sit and think. I realized I had been so busy following my plan to get to New York that I hadn't worried about the New York to Vancouver leg of my return home. Past New York I had no plan – and, pre-internet, no means of finding the information I needed to make any plan. I decided worrying wouldn't help – I'd just leave that part up to God. It was only then that I began to recognize how great a role God's providence had played in my journey ever since I fled Iran.
Next week: North America.
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!
This weeks Mustard Seed begins to recount how my meagre budget stretched from the Iranian border all the way to Vancouver, BC.
According to the plan my sister and I conceived before leaving home, our van was our means of transportation for a meandering round trip from London to Iran, our lodgings along the way, and the bank in which the funds to see us home from London were locked. Those plans changed. My sister sat safely home, our van sat abandoned in Iran, and I sat on a rock barely free of Iran.
I took stock of my assets – a small satchel of clothes and toiletries, $365 US currency, and my wits. Even if I could afford them, there were no taxis, bus terminals, train stations or airports anywhere near the Gurbulak border crossing. There was also nowhere within miles to find food or shelter. Staying put was not an option. That left two alternatives, walk or hitchhike. Walking did not preclude hitchhiking so I walked, sticking out my thumb each time I heard a vehicle approach from behind. I walked until well after dark before anyone stopped.
I greeted the transport truck driver with one of the two Turkish words I knew, merhaba – hello. I have no idea what his long reply meant. I did understand the gesture he finally offered for me to board. I used my other Turkish word, tesekur – thank you. Once underway I asked, "Istanbul?"
He shook his head and replied, "Ankara."
Ankara was about three-quarters of the way to Istanbul and, I reasoned, offered better prospects for continuing my journey than did the middle of nowhere. As we went along he learned I spoke English and only two words in Turkish. I learned his two words of English – no English. I introduced myself with gestures and he replied in kind that his name was Ahmet. Completely disregarding our language barrier, he spoke non-stop as the truck rumbled on. He would often peer over with a look that was clearly a search for any sign I might have understood his rambling. Undeterred, he continually pointed out the window at one thing or another and, I suppose, explained something about whatever he had pointed to. All I could do was nod. He had a stash of sandwiches under his seat from which he'd draw and share one occasionally. We'd stop for gas and he'd return with two coffees. I'd offered to pay but he'd decline.
The next evening we pulled in behind a warehouse. "Ankara," Ahmet said with a big smile and a degree of finality.
I thanked him and attempted to exit. He shook his head, waved his hand, and patted the dash. I understood he wished me to stay in the truck. I didn't have any urgent plans so I waited. Ahmet disappeared into the warehouse for several minutes before returning with another man. He motioned for me to come out. Ahmet introduced Deniz and, nodding, said, "Istanbul."
"Merhaba, Deniz," I said as we shook hands.
Deniz patted his chest with both hands. "I Istanbul," he said. Ahmet motioned for me to follow Deniz.
Deniz had a bright red truck with yellow flames painted around the grill and blue pompoms strung across inside the top of the windshield. There were lace curtains, tied with tasseled cords, bunched up in the corners. Pictures of, I assume, his family were plastered to the dash, sun visors, and roof of the cab. The austerity of Ahmet's truck hadn't struck me until I found myself amidst the adornments of Deniz'. I was sure the frilly bits were his wife's contribution. I found myself contemplating the décor of Deniz' cab in contrast to the sandwiches under Ahmet's seat.
Deniz played Turkish music over the radio and sang along in a not unpleasant voice as he drove. We stopped once for gas. He too returned with a second coffee for me, again refusing reimbursement. Despite the strong Turkish coffee and rather lively tunes, my fatigue overtook me. Deniz shook me awake in Istanbul outside the bus terminal. We shook hands firmly. He smiled and waved as I got out. I made it to Istanbul. I was back in Europe without even the smallest dent in my budget.
"Tesekur, Deniz," I said. I also offered another silent tesekur to Ahmet.
Next week: Bus Trip.
Peter T Elliott