Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A short excerpt from Walking Backwards, a travel memoir by Mark Frutkin (Dundurn Books)


Istanbul, ancient Byzantium, fabled Constantinople, Gateway to the Orient. We have arrived at last in the city of multiple names. But why is it snowing?

I stand in line in the vast echoing space of the main train station of Istanbul with the two Michaels: one of Irish descent, the other Lebanese, and like me (at that time), both American citizens. It’s January and, outside, a wet, heavy snow settles on the city. All three of us wear backpacks in which we carry, along with our own clothing, a bolt of new cloth each—fine English wool—that a young, engaging Jordanian we met on the train has asked us to carry through Turkish customs for him.

“You are Americans; I am sure they will not bother to check you,” Ahmed had pointed out with confidence, soon after ingratiating himself with us by pulling out and passing around the train compartment an expensive bottle of Johnnie Walker scotch.

As soon as we had arrived and disembarked in the station, Ahmed had disappeared.
The slow stuttering line in which we stand consists of several thousand travellers, and extends for half-a-kilometre through the station. No sign now of our new Jordanian friend with his preternaturally wrinkled face and his wide generous smile. His gentle charisma dovetailed perfectly with our trusting natures and, innocents that we were, it took little to convince us to carry his three bolts of cloth. Each bolt was about thirty inches long, twelve inches wide and two inches thick and we had stuffed them into our packs without hesitation.

From my place in line, I figure that Ahmed has been swallowed by the crowd, a chaotic mix of poor families, old men and women, young children hanging off their mothers, soldiers, gypsies. We are the only obvious North Americans in the station, surrounded by a sea of Turks, Bulgarians, Yugoslavs, Jordanians, Syrians and other Middle Easterners. Few Western tourists come to Istanbul in January. As I wait I begin to wonder where Ahmed has disappeared to. As an uneasy feeling begins in the pit of my stomach, I try to control my mounting panic.

The line inches forward, approaching half-a-dozen long wooden tables that stretch across the room. Behind these tables stand the customs officials, appearing stern and serious in their too-tight uniforms. As we wait, we notice that the officials are scrupulously examining everything. They empty cheap suitcases and sacks, demanding to see the contents of every parcel and package. We notice that one customs official has uncapped a tube of toothpaste, which he is squeezing, scrutinizing the paste as it oozes out.

“What could they be looking for?” we ask each other. “No one smuggles drugs into Turkey. Jewels? Diamonds? Gold? What?” We give each other uncomprehending, worried looks.

The line lurches forward again in fits and starts and still there is no sign of Ahmed. Now we are swivelling our heads back and forth looking for the Jordanian to come join us at the last minute. Why has he disappeared? I wonder. I’m sure he’ll find us, I think, with an entirely unjustified faith. At the last minute, I’m sure he’ll come running up and go through customs with us. Where the hell is he?
The family of four in front of us is called to the customs table. The three of us wait, clutching our American passports like drowning men holding to bits of grey-green flotsam.

We are next in line. There is no sign of Ahmed.