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A True Story of Love, Survival and Freedom

Chapter 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 the 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, shrouded in smog, provides Elena this sepia-toned, last look at her Slavic homeland.

Clearing into Turkey was an entirely different affair, than clearing out of Ukraine. Then again, come to think of it, getting into Ukraine hadn't been that hard. Neither was traveling anywhere on earth, Ukraine included, on my own -- specifically -- without Elena. We were the first ones off the plane, so the visa seller kiosks were all ours. Friendly clerks, no bulletproof Lexan, no metal trays, no shakedown infrastructure -- as far as I could tell. The kiosks reminded me of themepark ticket booths. It felt like getting into Disneyland.

Each of us sidled up to our relevant booths. I went to the kiosk for Westerners. Elena went to one for citizens of the Commonwealth of Independent States a.k.a. the CIS: a reincarnation of the Soviet Union. We paid our money, got a few self adhesive ADMIT ONE for-a-month stickers in our passports, and ta-DA, we were in Turkey.

Elena stared at her passport, running 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 through a database!" I couldn't recall any scanners or terminals in the kiosks. Maybe the airline submitted passport numbers ahead of time. It just couldn't be that easy. Every step deeper into the airport felt like a trap; felt way too much like blundering into the western pedestrian tunnel of the Kiev train station, all those weeks earlier.

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

I handed her my passport. "I don't know." I was preoccupied with a multitude of direction signs to customs, baggage pickup, onward flights -- somewhere to sit and figure out our next move.

"Oy, Meg! You have three stickers."

"… And you don't!?"

"Just two!"

No, it wasn't an oversight at the visa kiosk. Russians only get two months in Turkey. Bigger spenders -- Westerners, like me, for instance -- get three months in which to empty their wallets. Bit of an unexpected blow, but infinitely better than a one way trip to a Russian crazy house, or a headfirst plunge through an icefishing hole in the Volga.

Elena Ivanova leaving the former USSR

In the rarefied air, up above the smog of the Danube delta, Elena does her level-best to smile -- in this shot she wanted taken as their aircraft left the airspace of the former USSR.

The pressure was off, or so it seemed to my subconscious mind. 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 lets up. Just when you think you're going to make it, get through, maybe be okay -- that's when it hits, and hits hard. Letting down your guard can be crippling. It's subconscious payback for getting wound up in the first place.

I'd have to say, there'd been a bit of tension happening in Ukraine, and then a whole lot more, getting out. Seeing Turkish visa stickers in Elena's passport, and hearing not a single word of Russian or Ukrainian, in earshot, was an indescribable relief. My autonomic nervous system, which somehow got me through all that, was demanding 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 which defies literary description.

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


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 me the Russian version of WTF I was talking about. Probably awestruck by the swirling, multicultural conglomerate of humanity that makes up the Istanbul hub.

"Let's stick with English. Russian's too conspicuous." That time I blinked hard enough to evoke tears. No dice. The auras, getting bigger, brought smashed Christmas lights to mind. My vision was already compromised. My brain was processing missing data, from a visual cortex starved of oxygen, by filling in the blanks with shattered stained glass. In minutes, arteries that had gone into spasm, would dilate in a crippling overreaction, leaving me with a headache from hell. Using meditation to relax the arteries, before they did so on their own, was the only way to lessen the oncoming avalanche of pain. "You're going to have to find the Turkish Airlines, or Star Alliance, executive class, in-transit lounge."

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

The Istanbul airport was under construction, or siege. At least, 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 one eye closed, the other fluttering open a crack, only when Elena yanked my arm or shrieked a warning.

The Black Sea from 10,000 meters

The Black Sea from 10,000 meters. Elena, alone with her thoughts, snapped this picture while Meg slept.

Finally, she yanked me to a stop. "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. Even with my eyes open.

She smacked a crude, plywood sign, on which the words "Star Alliance Lou" over an arrow -- in screaming, atomic orange -- had been spray painted. The sign had fallen prey to a reciprocating saw, or there was a special toilet for Turkish Airlines, code-share passengers. Either way, it was good enough for me.

I peeled off my winter 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 Pyramid Lake in Jasper, Alberta. Deep breaths, and I could smell the mountain air, the evergreens, and the heat of a summer's afternoon not quite at its zenith.

Something, like fifteen minutes later, I was focusing on Elena's visage, mere inches from mine.

"Pssst, don't get up." She lifted the gloves off my eyes, held a finger to her lips. "Men asking to me, we to have sex for money."

"You have got to be kidding!" I hissed. 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? It's because I'm lying here, desperately trying to kill this headache, right?"

"I do not think they know you have headache. 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, have sex for money, with him."

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. We are not working girls. We will not take offense, but I'm not sure our husband won't."

"You are married? To the same man?!" He uttered profuse apologies and beat one heck of a hasty retreat, bowing in supplication, like one of those perpetual, bobbing glass bird toys you see in greasy spoon diners, and brake and muffler shops. I’m guessing the lads decided they were late for their flight wherever, because a nervously whispered conference resulted in the four of them bolting for the exit.

Mercifully, our onward flight wasn’t for hours. I could nurse my hurting brain. Onward to wherever better described our own destination than the lads. I’m sure they knew where they were going; we sure as hell didn’t. Dalaman was nothing but a name with an airplane pictogram on a map. A place with three letters we could get to by commercial carrier. It was also as far from Russia, and as close to home, as we could get without leaving Turkey. I lay back down, covered my eyes, and imagined us flying southwest through the Arabian night.

freighter tracking toward the Bosporus Strait

On descent into Istanbul, Elena was enraptured by the sight of this freighter tracking toward the Bosporus Strait.

We had to make a run for it -- pretty typical for how things were going. Something about the two of us falling asleep in the lounge. I heard several "last call" announcements for our flight. My ankle was reminding me of its celebrity sprain from months ago, but the headache was a far more immediate problem. "Paging Dalaman passengers..." Oh. My. Dog! They were using our names, in the whole airport! 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 ever thought of it, 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, but seeing Elena cluing in, standing watch, and knowing I could lean on her, felt overwhelmingly good.

"Nobody on the plane that I know, or that looks 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 she took her last look at the Black Sea.

It was dark when we landed. I knew nothing about Dalaman, how big it was or even where it was. Did it have a train station, a seaport, hotels? Did anyone speak English?

The terminal, like the one in Istanbul, was undergoing some kind of post-apocalyptic renovation. It was architecturally reminiscent of a car dealership: glass curtain-walls capped by a slab roof. Inside, 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 signs of human life.

Most of our bleary-eyed, fellow travelers gathered around a single baggage carousel. Others, including the pilots and flight attendants, vanished into the warm, black-velvet night through open wall panels. After the chaotic immensity of Ataturk International, the quiet was unnerving. Sounds were swallowed by something vast. It could have been the night, itself. Maybe, the throbbing in my head was dulling my senses. All I know, for sure, was that there was a complete lack of bombastic, Russian expletive filled insults among the background murmur of voices. I enjoyed hearing a language I didn't understand, and wasn't afraid to eavesdrop on.

The baggage arrived. The passengers left. We held back, kind of shell-shocked. Wordlessly taking it all in, coming to grips with where we were and what to do next. Either that, or just kind of asleep on our feet, eyes wide open, too tired to blink. It looked like 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 private cars, nobody at all. The few cars scattered throughout the lot looked like they hadn't moved in years. I wandered back into the terminal. "Hello? Aloha, anybody here?"

There had either been, or was going be, a row of rental car and traveler service counters. At the time, they were just empty booths, but jutting from a pillar near them, I noticed an old-fashioned yellow phone. It was missing the dial and numbers. The sort of phone you see near supermarket exits back home, and labeled TAXI. This phone wasn't labeled. It could have been for code-yellow aviation emergencies, for all I knew. I lifted the receiver and waited. Nothing, not even a dial tone. I waited a few more seconds. Then, about to drop the receiver into its chipped chrome cradle, I heard a tiny little voice rasping from the earpiece.

Elena Ivanova in ambient light actually smiling

On final approach into Dalaman, Meg gets this ambient lighting, artsy shot of a much-happier Elena.

"Hello? English?" I asked.

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

"Please, and a driver who speaks English."

A modern van, the color of the phone, but in much better condition, 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. The question of "where to?" hadn't come up until then. According to our cab driver -- who had an astonishingly thick, black mustache and disturbingly platinum hair -- there was simply no reason a couple of clearly sophisticated and fun loving young women would hang around Dalaman. He implored us to heed his advice, lest we waste our precious holiday in his dull town. Sure, we could find a hotel, or two, frequented by traveling salesmen, but that was about it.

From the look of the airport and its lack of activity, I figured he was probably right. "Is there a seaside town with hotels, anywhere near here?" I asked, in English. "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, what caught my attention 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.

In the taxi-van, Elena and I each lay claim to our own bench seat and bedded down for the drive to Marmaris. I awoke off and on during the night, to gaze in awe at the dry, tortured, mountain landscape, sliding by, lit by a sliver of moon and starlight. I longed to see it during the day or even right then, but my exhaustion and headache had me down for the count. By the time the van pulled up at an apartment-hotel near the historic heart of Marmaris, the sky had started to lighten over scrub covered hills.

scrub covered hills of Marmaris, Turkey

The distant, scrub covered hills of Marmaris.


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