Sunday, June 1, 2008

the $184 taxi ride (and other feats of endurance)

In Istanbul, we're marveling at the 36 hour timeline of events that finally and surprisingly brought us here. From noon Friday until midnight Saturday/Sunday, we endured sleeplessness, hopelessness, and visions of hitchhiking nightmares that we thought were sure to befall us. Triumphant after a day and a half of back breaking pack carrying, like turtles in a marathon, we finally closed the door of our Istanbul hotel room, and gloriously closed the door on this travel chapter. The point of this post is to tell the tale; to read about it may take you almost as much time as we spent living it.

Friday, noon
. We check out of our Mykonos hotel and, with our bags on our backs (and fronts), we brave the blustery island wind as we head down to town for lunch. Maybe we would have never moved on had we known what it was going to take.

2:15pm. In uneventful fashion, we board our ferry for a five and a half hour cruise back to Athens, Piraeus Port. The trip involves playing a lot of cards and sleeping on our arms. Let's go over what the plan was. Based on much internet research and some overthinking, we believed that we would take an overnight train from Athens to Thessaloniki, then catch another train on Saturday morning from Thessaloniki to Istanbul for arrival at 9:30 that night. It was almost that easy.

8:00pm. Back in Athens, the metro to the train station is cheaper and easier to use than we expect. We have an hour until the international ticket office closes (we didn't know that we actually had two), but inconsequentially we're above ground again in 20 minutes. The ticket office is easy to spot and unapologetic about being the bearer of some bad news.

8:30pm. There's now only one train per day to Istanbul departing in the afternoon? The man with alcohol on his breath presents us with a piece of paper outlining the schedule for traveling by train to Istanbul. There are indeed two options, but the sheet has been torn in half, and the other option (our method of choice) has been inexplicably and recently shelved--literally trashed. We talk to the domestic ticket office, she also talks to drunk international man, she talks to us again and offers no consolation, then we check with the bus terminal and consider spending $500 to fly instead.

9:30pm. Well, we don't want to unpack and pack again by staying in Athens, so we stick to our original expectation and purchase tickets for the overnight train to Thessaloniki. The one train per day schedule applies to the international leg from Thessaloniki to Istanbul. What this means for us is that now we'll have a 13 hour day in Thessaloniki before boarding a second overnight train at 8:00pm Saturday. We won't get to Istanbul until Sunday morning, but hey, here's to being cheap and on a budget and saving money by sleeping on the train two nights in a row.

11:59pm. On time--and prepared for the long road ahead--we depart. We make three Greek soldiers get out of our seats, but then befriend them and make good conversation in English for two and a half hours, then we sleep.

Saturday, 7:00am. Startled by our sudden arrival into Thessaloniki, we gather our stuff and squint at the dawn of a new day. Now what? We pass the international ticket window and figure that we'd be wise to check out the situation for our next night train. Maybe we'll bus it from here, who knows? The woman is kind, but provides only the expected information until, as we're walking away, she calls us back and informs us that there's a 7:15am train leaving for the Greece-Turkey border where we can then make a connection the rest of the way to Istanbul. Exactly! Why couldn't she have been in Athens last night to tell this to drunk international man? We're over Thessaloniki, give us two tickets.

7:15am. In hand we have our tickets and the following supplies purchased in a hurry: two chocolate croissants, one bag of oregano flavored chips, a 500 mL Coke Zero, and a pack of Werther's Originals. Ah, a balanced breakfast. There is no platform information anywhere, so we run to a station attendant and ask for the train to Pythion; Pythion, as we'll later learn, is a train depot, an outpost, in the farthest frontier of the Greek countryside. The station attendant doesn't even know our train, so he asks someone else who looks at us, says "Pythion?", and points to the same train we got off only 15 minutes ago.

8:00am. The train's rolling, but we're not quite sure about the direction in which it's rolling. Nonetheless, we have confirmation from four people that it ends at Pythion (well, at the Greece-Turkey border, at least). A man checks our tickets and sort of huffs and puffs as he says, "Istanbul?" He proceeds to tell us that there is no train to Pythion and that we'll need to catch a bus at the end of the line in Alexandroupolis, then he returns to checking tickets. What? Is he conspiring with drunk international man?

8:45am. My nails are nearly chewed off as the train clunks and clatters us toward our new destination, Alexandroupolis. There's a new ticket checker who's nicer and speaks better English, so we ask him about the Pythion situation. He only confirms our new reality, but adds that the bus is run by the train company and, even better, that it's included in the ticket price and should be waiting for us just when we arrive--brilliant!

Noon. We've befriended a Greek travel agent, and at this point, instead of pointing out the window at passing lakes and mountains, he becomes our interpreter. Another train attendant is trying to tell us in Greek that the train is running late and that we can't count on the bus to expedite us to our Istanbul train waiting at the border. We don't even know what time that train may leave, nor are we sure from where on the border this will take place, but we take his word for it. Oh yeah, and we're then instructed to get off the train at the second stop, where a taxi will be waiting to whisk us away to Turkey.

1:30pm. We don't really believe anyone or anything anymore, but at the same time we still listen to everyone. We're packed up as the train is coming to a stop in Komotini, and we follow the pointing fingers of men who may actually be trying to help us get to Istanbul. There's a taxi, backed in, trunk open, and an overweight Greek driver named Spiro (who speaks no English) becomes our escort. The best part about our upcoming ride is that, according to the train company, they were late, so they're paying for it.

1:37pm. We're doing 150 kph on a Greek highway with the windows down, and the jolly man behind the wheel is ecstatic because he knows he's getting paid today. Are we still in a hurry? We don't even know. We just keep driving, the meter keeps counting, and I keep pointing at our train tickets and saying, "Train. Istanbul." It's a beautiful day, and Spiro is blasting Greek music as we all snap our fingers to the beat. He points for me to mess with the radio station; I find Snow Patrol and give him the thumbs up, so he turns the volume way up.

3:05pm. We're passing through farmland when Spiro turns down a side road and reaches to remove his seatbelt. At this point we expect to be introduced to Spiro's friends and their weapons of choice for the quintessential crime, but alas, there are train tracks. Pythion! It's written on the station.

3:08pm. The meter is at just under 115 euros, but we don't care. All Spiro wants from us is a handshake. He walks us around the corner and introduces us to the Greek passport control agents who will stamp our pages for departure from the EU and the West. There are actually humans at this frontier station. It's old and quiet. All that's missing for the perfect scene from a country western movie are Clint Eastwood and some tumbleweeds. The train's sitting there, waiting, and it will leave on time at 3:30pm. We've made it! We even have time to stock up on supplies and relieve ourselves by trying our luck at the squatty potties. For the record, there is a second train from Greece to Istanbul, and you'll pay one third the price of a plane ticket for a ride and a better story. We had to hear one more train clunk and clatter on the tracks, only this time we were certain that the music was moving us to Istanbul.


Tatum said...

Wow! That tops the charts. What a great way to end the travel portion of your trip. I can only imagine how excited you two were to sit on the train to Istanbul :) Welcome to chapter two of your trip and we look forward to living through your experiences. love you guys!

Melissa said...

Wowsers, I try to put myself in those situations and goodness knows I don;t think I would have been snapping my fingers to the tune on spiro's radio... That is why I love you two! SO glad you made it:)Can't wait for more stories.

Wichit Maneevone said...

Wow! that all I can say. It is confusing of what truely happening with guy. Well atleast you both get where you want to go. Love, Dad

Renes said...

Friends! Gosh it's been awhile since I've made a comment. I was sick with the stomach flu a few weeks ago, and haven't had the chance to write, but I did read your post and saw the pictures with Joe's pop! Sweet time I must say! Now with this new post...all I can say is WHAT A STORY TO TELL! Some adventure! Glad that you guys made it to your destination! PRAISE THE LORD! As for the Phillips...we will find out the gender of the little one this Thursday! We'll let you know! Oh by the way, Chloe has learned to use a spoon and fork...of course rice is all over her face and all over the place! Love you!

Bill Maertz said...

Such a commentary Needs. You can change all you want; it has been such an experience watching you and Joe report this trip and your thoughts.
You can't change too much though;-)