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23 - Into the Arabian Night

Below them, on a khaki green sea, a tiny warship plowed a straight line through short period, whitecapped waves. Although their airliner sliced through the rarefied air at a much greater velocity, the ship, on the surface below, appeared to be in a hurry to get somewhere. Elena gazed down at it. From its outline, she assumed it was a battle cruiser of the Russian Navy. She pressed her face to the tiny, cool window beside her, desperate for one last glance; consigning to memory a final symbol of the country she was fleeing.

Translated excerpt from Talking to the Moon by Elena Ivanova

Southern Ukraine from the air
A last glimpse of Ukraine. An industrial port on the outskirts of Odessa.

* * *

On arrival in Istanbul, we had the Turkish visa kiosks all to ourselves. It was totally weird. The clerks -- officials, I suppose -- weren't overtly evil or opportunistic. There were no bulletproof screens; no sliding trays; no machine gun wielding greeters. In all honesty, the kiosks looked a lot like themepark ticket booths.

We sidled up to our corresponding kiosks. I went to one for Westerners. Elena to one for those from the Commonwealth of Independent States a.k.a. the CIS: a kinder, gentler, rebranded Soviet Union. I paid my money and got a few self-adhesive, ADMIT ONE for-a-month stickers in my passport. We weren't in the country yet, and already the twenty dollar bills were falling like autumn leaves. Elena got some visa stickers at her kiosk, and ta-DA, we were in Turkey.

She ran her fingers over the Turkish visa stickers. "I can't believe this is real. That it isn't going to be taken away."

"I can't believe they didn't run your passport against a database!" I didn't see scanners or terminals in the kiosks. Maybe the airline submitted passport numbers ahead of time. It was disturbing. Things aren't meant to be that easy. Every step we took deeper into the airport felt like a trap. Like we were blundering into the western pedestrian tunnel at the Kyiv train station.

"Two stickers. Meg, do you have the same?"

I gave her my passport. "I don't know." I was preoccupied with directional signage. Customs. Baggage pickup. Onward flights. I just wanted a lounge, anywhere to sit and ponder our next move.

"Oye, Meg! You have three stickers."

"... And you don't!?"

"Just two!"

Russians only get two months. Big spenders: Westerners like me, get three. Bit of a blow, but infinitely better than a one way trip to a crazy house or a headfirst plunge through an icefishing hole in the Volga.

Elena Ivanova leaving the former USSR
Elena asked Meg to take this photo as they left the airspace of the former USSR.

* * *

The pressure was off. Or that's what the sympathetic ganglia of my paleomammalian cortex decided. There's this wicked metabolic trick the autonomic nervous system plays on migraine sufferers. It initiates an attack, not as the tension builds, but when it eases. Just when you think you're going to make it, get through, maybe be okay, that's when it hits, and it hits hard. Letting down your guard can be crippling. It's subconscious payback for getting wound up in the first place.

Seeing those Turkish visa stickers in Elena's passport and hearing not a word of Russian or Ukrainian was an indescribable relief. My autonomic nervous system, which somehow kept it together until then, demanded payback. Several auras -- warning signs -- flashed in my visual field. It was a matter of minutes before I'd be doubled over, vomiting in pain with the likes of a headache defying literary description.

I stopped, took a deep breath, released it slowly. Counted to five.

"Meg?"

Blink, blink, blink. "Damn," the auras were spreading. "I need a dark, quiet place! Lounge, restaurant, open source software convention -- somewhere dark and deserted."

She looked at me funny. Asked in Russian what I was talking about.

"Let's stick with English. Russian is too conspicuous." I blinked hard enough to evoke tears. No dice. The auras were getting bigger, bringing smashed Christmas lights to mind. My vision was already compromised. My brain was making up missing data from a visual cortex starved of oxygen. It filled in the blanks with shattered stained glass. In minutes, arteries that had gone into spasm would dilate in a crippling overreaction. I would be left with a headache from hell. Over the years, I've found that meditating to relax the blood vessels in my brain before they did so on their own, was about all I could do to lessen the oncoming avalanche of pain. "You're going to have to find the Turkish Airlines or Star Alliance in-transit lounge."

"Lounge is in transit?" Elena was out of Russia for only the second time in her whole life. She didn't have a clue.

The Istanbul airport was under construction or siege. At any rate, the part we were in was metastasizing. Monster hubs are like that, always being taken apart and put back together. The corridors were a plywood labyrinth mined with construction debris. Workers drilled into concrete. Halogen lamps punched new auras into my visual field. I walked with my eyes closed. Opening them just a crack when Elena yanked my arm or shrieked a warning.

The Black Sea from 10,000 meter
The Black Sea from 10,000 meters.

"Meg, what is it: star alien sea yeh?"

"A great movie by Ridley Scott." For the life of me, I didn't know what she was on about.

She smacked a crude, plywood sign. The words "Star Alliance Lou" were spray-painted in screaming, atomic orange. The sign had either fallen prey to a reciprocating saw or there was a special toilet for code-share passengers. Regardless, it was good enough for me.

I peeled off my tall-boots and did my damnedest to recline on a rather utilitarian divan. With gloves over my eyes, I imagined myself in a rowboat, drifting on the glassy surface of Jasper's Pyramid Lake. Deep breaths and I could smell the mountain air, the pines, the heat of a summer afternoon just before the zenith.

Then I was hard-focusing on Elena's deeply concerned visage.

"Shush, don't get up." She held a finger to my lips. "Men asking to me, we to have sex for money?"

"You have got to be kidding!" I half croaked. The auras were gone but despite my frantic meditation the headache was brutal. I assumed Elena was referring to a quartet of well dressed, youngish men talking loudly in an Arabic sounding language. "Why would anyone ask that?"

"Men spoke to me in English. Asked to me if you are alcoholic. I tell to them, in Russian, that I am from Russia and can not to speak English. I did not want to speak with such men. Man told to me, Russian girls in Turkey, they have sex for money. Told me to have sex with him for money."

That got me up. Taiko drummers hammered at my temples. I spotted the tall, dark and sleazy gentlemen pretty much by their volume and behavior. "Who wanted sex for money?" I demanded.

Elena went white as a ghost. One of the gents strode toward us, a firm handshake at the ready. "Ah, you do speak English! Let me introduce myself. I am Akhmed..."

I left his hand sticking out in empty space. "I'm sorry, you are mistaken, sir. We are not working girls. We will not take offense, but I'm not sure our husband will not be offended by your offer."

"You are married? To the same man?!" He uttered profuse apologies, bowing in supplication. A nervously whispered conference with the other young gentlemen had them bolting for the exit.

Mercifully, our onward flight wasn't for hours. All we knew was that it was someplace as far away from Russia as we could get by commercial air-carrier. Somewhere in southwest Turkey. A place on a map with a three letter airport designation. A town called, Dalaman. I lay back down, covered my eyes and imagined us flying southwest into the gentle, Arabian night.

freighter tracking toward the Bosporus Strait
On descent into Istanbul, a freighter tracks toward the Bosporus Strait.

* * *

We had to make a run for it. Bloody typical, given how things were going. Both of us had fallen asleep in the lounge. Sprinting for our gate, I heard the "final call" for our flight. My ankle was reminding me of its celebrity sprain from months ago, but the headache was a clear winner in the pain race. "Paging Dalaman passengers..." Oh. My. Dog! They were freaking broadcasting our names! They might as well have taken out a full page advert in the We're-Gonna-Getcha Times. The boarding agents waved us down the flyway and we barreled onto a waiting Boeing 737. Business class was empty. I flopped into the first seat I came to.

Elena looked past the heavy drapes demarcating business class. She scanned the jam-packed economy section for familiar faces. I hadn't asked her to. Come to think of it, I hadn't even thought of it. I was thinking more about the throbbing ball of molten lava in my brain and how to keep from retching. Still, I had tears in my eyes. Maybe it was a reaction to the pain.

"Nobody on this airplane is looking like Russian." She flopped down in the seat beside me, placed her hand on mine and asked, "How is your headache?"

I smiled and closed my eyes.

On final at Istanbul's Ataturk International airport
On final at Istanbul's Ataturk International airport, Elena snapped this photo as her last look at the Black Sea.

* * *

It was dark when we landed.

The Dalaman terminal, like the one in Istanbul, was undergoing some kind of post-apocalyptic renovation. It was cavernous, dark and desolate. The night poured in through huge openings in the glass walls. A clammy breeze smelling of flowers wafted through the place. Other than a couple of baggage handlers in yellow coveralls, our fellow passengers were the only other people there.

Bleary-eyed, they gathered around a single baggage carousel. Some, including the pilots and flight attendants, simply vanished into the warm, black-velvet night through open wall panels. It was like Second Life but with way better graphics. Compared to the chaotic immensity of Ataturk International, it was disturbingly quiet. Eerie. Sounds were swallowed by something vast. It could have been the night itself. Maybe the throbbing in my head was dulling my senses. I'm not sure Elena felt the same, but I enjoyed hearing a language I didn't understand and wasn't afraid to overhear.

The baggage arrived. The passengers left. We held back, coming to grips with where we were and what to do next. A trance state: asleep on our feet, eyes wide open, too tired to blink. We were the only people left in the terminal. Beyond wide-open, glass doors was a passenger pickup and drop-off area. It was badly lit and barren. No shuttle buses. No taxis. No cars. Nobody at all. I wandered back into the terminal. "Hello? Aloha, anybody here?"

I noticed an old-fashioned, yellow phone attached to a pillar. It was missing the dial and numbers. The sort of phone you might have seen in the old days labeled TAXI and positioned near the supermarket exit. This phone wasn't labeled. I lifted the receiver and waited. About to drop the receiver into its chipped chrome cradle, I heard a tiny voice rasping from the earpiece.

Elena Ivanova in ambient light actually smiling
On final approach into Dalaman, a much-happier Elena.

"Hello? English?" I asked.

"Yes please, speak English. You want taxi?"

A modern van the color of the phone pulled up. A tall, dark skinned, older man, whose voice I recognized from the yellow taxi phone, got out and opened the side door for us. According to him, there was no way a couple of hip, fun seeking, young women would hang around Dalaman. He implored us to heed his sage advice, "Do not waste your precious holiday in this dull town."

"Is there a seaside town with hotels near here?" I asked. "Maybe someplace with apartments for rent?"

"Ah, the Turkish Riviera, such beauty, such luxury, but not so close to here." He pulled out a map and showed us the various places we could end up. We settled on the closest viable port, a place called Marmaris. Among the many virtues of this mythical, seaside paradise was that it hosted cruise ships and ferries to Greece. Our driver was deliriously happy with the distance and frankly, so was I. Using cash to get that far away from any airport meant our electronic trail went dark in Dalaman.

We each claimed a bench seat of our own and bedded down for the drive. I awoke, off and on during the night. The dry, tortured, mountain landscape sliding by my window was mesmerizing. I longed to see it during the day or even right then, but exhaustion and headache had me down for the count. The next time I opened my eyes, we were pulling up at an apartment-hotel near the historic heart of Marmaris. The sky was just beginning to lighten over scrub covered hills that seemed close enough to touch.

scrub covered hills of Marmaris, Turkey
The scrub covered hills of Marmaris.

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