Travelling Journal: 1978 1. The wrong side of things

Fast forward 3 years, same time of year, mid-April, last day of holidays.

6 hours I’m waiting here, stuck on the side of the road. I’m hitch-hiking back home. It’s hot and I’m on the main road crossing Yugoslavia from end to end, about halfway between Zagreb and Belgrade. It’s in the hell of nowhere: just a large cement road and trucks, one after the other.

Holidays are finished, I’m a bit frustrated, nothing happened as I planned. We left Strasbourg, 2 girls and 2 boys. The plan was exciting: 2 weeks of holidays in Bosnia and on the Dalmatian coast. Sea, sun, you got the idea. The deal was that we would go hitch-hiking from France to there. Boys would hit the road separately and the two girls together. We split right across the bridge on the Rhine. Both girls got a lift at once, we had to wait a couple of hours: predictable. The problem is that we never met them again during the holidays. We had meetings arranged at the post office of Sarajevo, next day and again next day, then every two days. I hooked with the other guy accidentally after a week; the girls never. We kept leaving messages, we could only see once a piece of paper wrapped with nothing on it.

I was just 18 years old, officially an adult. I have my new passport in my pocket. I proposed the three others to follow me in Bosnia to get a bit of Ottoman culture. I knew the place quite well, having spent summer after summer in the region with my father. I could speak some Croatian, I had several friends.

Bosnia was a nice place surrounded by mountains, like the mark left by a saber. Turkish culture resisted here since the time the Ottoman armies retreated from Vienna. As a kid, the exotism of the place impressed me. This time, I was less impressed and I could feel the varnish was thin.

Where I was hitch-hiking now, was not so nice. It was an ugly countryside, flat, few industrial building. The place was called “Gradiska”, “Border”. How could someone name a place like that a border? It’s right in the middle of the country. I’m a specialist in borders and I can tell you, it didn’t look at all like a border.

Occasionally a soldier was hitch-hiking next to me. He didn’t care raising a thumb or displaying a sign. Trucks instantly stopped to pick him. All the trucks belonged to state own companies. No way I could get a lift from them. My only chance was to get a tourist car. People going home. Perspectives were grim, I though: It’s Saturday 4 PM, most of them are already gone.

So I was there, frustrated, bored, and a bit anxious. In less than 36 hours school was starting again. It was the last 3 months before the major exam in the life of a French Student: The “Baccalauréat”. Depending on my grades my future was drawn. This was the last stop before the final rush.

I was also a bit anxious that once the sun would set, my odds to get a lift were even dimmer. Strange enough on the other side of the road, traffic was more intense and I could spot several tourist cars. In the life, we are always on the wrong side of the road, I thought. Good things always happen to the people on the other side. I’m sure that if I was hitch-hiking on the other side I would be luckier.

Proof! let’s give it a try! I thought defiantly and I crossed. #LetsDoThis

I was now in the middle of Yougoslavia on the wrong side, raising my thumb. A car stopped at once. A dark green Volkswagen combi, covered with the dust of the road. Freaks brothers kind of. Inside a charming couple, just older than me. It was my first encounter with the mythical “Deutschen Fahren Süd” archetype. German taking a long leave of their country to enjoy the sweetness of south. The girl arranged a seat for me on the bed, moved the clothes aside. I was part of the family. They were driving non-stop across all Europe as quickly as possible without spending much. They have been working hard and saving for months to get enough to spent 6 months in Greece.

We went quickly through Belgrade and reached Nish. The ambiance in the car was pure bliss. They were so happy, it was communicative. Jim Morrison was singing. I quickly forgot what I just did and just enjoyed the moment. After, the last hilltop, we were now heading toward Greece. The sun was there already, rising on the horizon, waiting for us.

A bang surprised us: the gear box just broke. It took hours until they realized there was no way to repair themselves. A repair shop came to bring us to a garage and here came the sad part: The guy was asking a steep amount of money to repair. The couple talked and talked because it was changing their plans. They couldn’t stay as much as they planned.

Meanwhile, I was staying a bit away, letting them decide and also starting to think about what I should do. My plan was to go to Istanbul and get a real glimpse of Asia and Turkey. Forget the edulcorated experience of Bosnia and live a real adventure. I was also taking a calculated risk.

First the coming examination. Younger, I have been the last of the class but now after a few years of effort, I was the first in almost every subject. I was sure to get my “baccalauréat”, the real challenge was to get it with a mention and get an entry in “Math-Sup”.

Second was how late I could be. It was now Sunday evening. Courses will resume in a few hours. Late for late, I could take the occasion. I had a reputation of being late, often oversleeping and joining the class late. The group was nice, friendly, not competitive. Nobody would do an unpleasant comment.

Third was money. I was short: It was the end of my holidays, I spent my residual cash buying the usual gifts for relatives. I had: A note of 5 French Francs ( 1 USD) and a note of 10 German Marks ( 4 USD). Not much for being traveling 2000 km away from home.

It was starting to be freaking :) yet I decided to go.

The car was finally repaired. I did the check of the work. I was studying Math and Mechanical Engineering. I worked for Mercedes-Benz and car repair shops during my holidays). It was OK, we could go.

We drove through the night and reached Thessaloniki by 7 AM. The sea was almost coming to the road, it was a busy and sandy morning, not very pleasant. My companions were not happy and not smiling anymore. Jim Morrison was not singing. They were a bit disgusted by the incident, a bit tired of me also. I knew they would have preferred to be just by themselves. I was in the middle of the way. We reached the entrance of their paradise before Kavala. They stopped, I took my bag, thank them and walked away.

I was now on this narrow part of Greece between the sea and Bulgaria. I could read the signs (Maths uses a lot of Greek characters) but not make sense of them. My goal was clear, but the situation was far from being clear. After the first souvlaki of my life, it was much better. Greece was like a new country in 1978, people were happy, willing to share their enthusiasm. I got a few lifts of just a few kilometers every time. People were not traveling far. I was picked by Greeks working in Germany. I understood quickly that my plan of going to Turkey didn’t have their approval.

Here I was again, waiting for hours in the sun when a huge Blue American car stopped in front of me. I had already seen one or two in my life, but this one was blue and gorgeous. The automatic glass went down and inside was a guy. A small guy, dark skin, a suit. The car, the suit and the guy looked at odd. He was authoritative: “Jump in, I can’t stop long”. I made a super fast call to my intuition coprocessor who issued a clear to go signal. I open the old door and sat in the car and we went.

The guy was driving like mad. The car was taking all the width of the road. He was horning all the girls on the side of the road. We crossed towns after towns without slowing down. Xhanti, Komitini, Alexandropolis: Turkey was next.

And he stopped. No problem with the car, nothing. We took a Greek coffee. He was speaking constantly, a continuous flow of words. Greece was nothing for him. Turkey was great but he was from Pakistan and Pakistan was everything a man could dream of. He was driving this car he bought in Germany from a US soldier. He had a word for everything. Greeks were like this, German like that. Islam was so great although he was not following the rules. His aim in life was enjoying friends, good life, girls, alcohol and Pakistan. He was in love with Pakistan.

During all the trip, he kept pouring into me his opinion on everything and his total love of his country. He was depicting the places, Karachi, the food, the villages, the mountains, the life in the cities. He explained how the life so cheap. As a proxy, Istanbul was also a great place. He started to describe to me everything I could see tomorrow. Sultanahmet, the great blue Mosque. He gave me the price of tea ( 1 lira = 2 cents), the hotel so cheap ( 12 lirasi = 20 cents), Turkish massage for just 10 cents. The food: delicious. A dream come true. I didn’t plan this trip at all. I never read anything on Turkey. Nobody I knew has ever been there. I had absolutely no idea what Turkey could look like.

I understood that the reason of our break was not to make my education on Pakistan and Turkey but to wait for dawn. We were going to cross a war border with a real DMZ and I felt he was a bit anxious.

We went and crossed the greek border. Greeks were more interested in me. Who was I, what did I do here. We could get our passport back and leave. They opened the door and we crossed the DMZ in the dark. It was about 10 PM.

He stopped, he turned to me and said:

– Can you drive? Do you have a driving license?

I didn’t, I passed my driving license way after, I’ve always been against driving cars.

He was annoyed. He insisted a bit, to make sure I was not lying. I started to fret. We were surrounded by miradors, the army. I couldn’t leave him there, the place could very well be mined.

Never mind, he said and proceeded to the first post.

That was fast. They talked in Turkish, hastily for 10 minutes.

Next we drove the central building. Everything was dark, obviously my driver knew the place. They also knew him. Talks started about a “carnet”. this French word came suddenly in the discussion again and again. There was a problem with the carnet. Another word was coming again and again “Backshish”. This was Turkish to me. The building was ugly, green, open from everywhere to the night. Mosquitos all around us.

Voice calmed down, they didn’t seem angry anymore. Both my driver and the customs officer went to the restroom each on their side of the separation and came back. Everybody was smiling, we left.

Last check post. Just a single soldier with a huge gun. This one was young, fresh from his countryside. He was very unhappy because he knew very well that he lost an opportunity to make some extra money. He was pointing his gun at us. My driver made an attempt to start, the soldier became angry. The air was thick with fear.

The driver turned to me:
– I have no money left. I gave everything to the officer. Could you lend me some money?

See the option: either I help him or I stay here. If he gets into troubles, I don’t even know where we are on the map, and I don’t have a map. Getting out of here is not going to be easy. This guy who looks very much like a car smuggler is the only person I know.

Should I trust a car smuggler to be an honest and dependable person?

– I have 10 DM I said,

Ok give me your 10 DM, tomorrow we go to the bank and I return them to you.

I didn’t believe him at all, but I handed him my last money.

I had 5 French Francs left. Nothing.

He gave the money to the soldier.

We could go.

We were now driving toward Edirne. 2 AM, a huge road was open in front of us, straight, absolutely no traffic. A few monkeys distinguishable in the dark.

He was again the king of the road, shouting, singing, he was exuberant.
He promised me that we would stay in his home, with his friends, that I was welcome for my stay. He claimed, he was grateful that I helped him and that made us friends forever. He would take care of everything.

There were 2 more hours of drive. Policemen stopped us and let us go after a bakshish in Turkish lira. I understood that everything was fixed like this in the life of this man. Laws just had a cost.

He explained to me that we just smuggled a car in Turkey. It was a major offense, totally prohibited because we escaped the taxes: about 5 times the catalog price of the car. He didn’t say it, but I understood that if I had accepted to drive the car, I could have spent time in prison while he was going away with the car. He bought the car $600 and was going to resell it tomorrow for 10 times more. I still doubt that he really bought it. Why not stealing it when you are it?

We reached Istanbul, he drove to a place next to the sea. We left the car.

We entered a large villa. A few men were waiting for us, guns everywhere. A much older man looked like the caid. He asked why I was there, why he brought me here. He didn’t look happy that I shared their hideouts. The driver told him obediently that I would leave early in the morning, and that was all. I’m still unsure if they envisioned another way to get rid of me, sooner, faster. They prepared some food for us, very spicy meat with flat bread. I had my first real Pakistani meal among a group of gangsters with a real talent in cooking. A couple of women heavily painted shared the meal with us. The ambiance was friendly and joyous. The driver recalled again how we passed the border. They asked my version and enjoyed it.

They found a bed for me, I slept at once after two nights awake.

I was 3000 km from home, with no money, nobody knew where I was, staying with outlaws, with a major exam in a few weeks.

I was happy, I was free, I was an adult enjoying life.

“I don’t know where I go, where I sleep
Why should I have fear, I have nothing to loose.”

Yes, Etienne, you are true.

Via @sensor63 #DigiWriMo

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