The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.
It took an entire day to get on board my ship, starting in an office in Odessa then another office, where I met Daniel, a cool fellow my age who is traveling from his home in Hong Kong to London, through Siberia, by train, with a folding bike that he uses in cities. We were the only regular passengers on the Sea Partner, a huge cargo ship and truck ferry that was our home for three days.
After a wild taxi ride to the port, we finally found our dock, a shipping terminal where the closest thing to information was a little sign language from a longshoreman. Finally a bored young fellow with five words of English motioned us to follow him. Then, over the course of several hours, three different kinds of security and customs officers checked us out and asked me to open the mandolin case. Three times I complied, then played a couple of bars of “Sailor’s Hornpipe”, which cracked everybody up every time. They recognized the melody! Customs man got the biggest laugh, though, when he turned to Daniel’s bike case and said, “Piano-forte?”
Eventually we got to the last official, a tall, good-looking, heavily armed blonde lady in camo fatigues who cranked up a 25-year old computer and, after much delay and ceremony, stamped our passports, giving us permission to leave Ukraine.
In-between we were left in the sun on the crumbling concrete pier, dodging forklifts and trucks. No cameras allowed.
The Sea Partner
We finally boarded and found our cabins, and watched as a dozen trucks drove onto the lowest deck (there were nine decks aft and six fore decks). The drivers came up to the lounge, and I never saw a tougher-looking bunch of characters; Turks and Russians from thirty to sixty with tattoos and scars, wild hair and mustaches, gold teeth here and there, knives on their belts and evil eyes for me and Daniel. They took tables, set up games of dominoes and backgammon, and opened bottles of vodka. Hi, fellas!
The ship got under way just after sunset. A harbor pilot boarded from his little vessel to guide us out to sea, then hopped back off to return home when the ship captain took over.
The Cute Little Pilot Boat, 30 Feet Long
For three days we crossed the Black Sea, with calm seas, nice weather and other ships always in sight. Daniel and I took our meals together and got to know each other. A government administrator a few months from retirement, with two grown daughters, he has lived his whole life in Hong Kong. This was his first adventure. He speaks perfect English and we plan to meet again in Hong Kong.
As I expected, the truckers turned out to be a bunch of sweethearts. I broke the ice with some fractured Turkish and Russian. Soon they were sharing their candy and taking photos of each other wearing my hat. Vlad confessed to speaking a little English, and Yunos invited me to stay with him in Turkey. Translating Turkish to Russian, then to English, we got each other’s stories. Good men, hard workers. One was bound for Iraq, another for Tajikistan.
On advice from Yunos, Daniel and I arose at 5:00AM to witness our entry into the Dardanelles, the historic straight that separates Europe from Asia. Here the Silk Road from China, the Spice Road from India, and the sea route linking the Danube River (and many other rivers) with the Mediterranean Sea and the world, all cross. It was beautiful, with green hills topped by elaborate Mosques, ruins of Ottoman forts and castles, waterside mansions with huge yachts docked in front, and porpoises jumping alongside the ship. The waterway was busy with ships and boats of all sizes and descriptions; as we approached Istanbul it became a crazy scene thick with ferries and fishing craft, launches and yachts, huge tankers and container ships, sailboats and speedboats. Absolutely mad.
We docked. Daniel and I said goodbye to the truckers and crewmen, and we were handed over to Ahmed, a driver and “agent” (of what we never learned). He held our passports, which we had given up upon boarding, over my ineffective objections. Ahmed was handsome, nattily dressed, and can-do. We stuffed my bike and Daniel’s, all our luggage and us into a little sedan, and went on a wild ride through Istanbul (including a ferry ride and a bridge from Asia to Europe). We wound up at a gigantic customs building, where Ahmed arranged to have my passport disappear into a maze of offices and come out later with a Turkish visa. The entire bill, taxi and all, was $20. Ahmed bowed and left. Daniel and I said goodbye and I once again found myself alone and on my bicycle in a strange city.
Istanbul is mad, crazy, insane, wonderful, dangerous, delicious, huge. Everybody is buzzed on the strong tea they serve in little glasses. Men from the tea shops run all over downtown with steel trays with glasses of tea, keeping the taxi drivers, store clerks, cops, bank tellers, and construction workers, everybody, slurping tea with sugar. They collect empty glasses on the way back without breaking stride.
Starbucks and McDonalds are deserted; the tea shops are full. They all have men smoking hookahs and playing dominoes and backgammon, noisy with the tiles slapping. The best bread since France, and the rest of the food is outstanding.
The traffic is beyond description. Aggressive (but not angry) drivers, lawless (but skilled) driving; it is dense with every kind of vehicle, plus throngs of pedestrians, pushcarts, vendors, double/triple/quadruple parking, loading and unloading, Gypsy cardboard carts, beggars, hawkers, hookers, cops and robbers. I had to go ten miles through this shit to find FedEx. The street kept changing from Times Square to the Cross Bronx Expressway (with pedestrians) to Canal Street to an alleyway to a bombed-out, long-forgotten construction zone and back again. I didn’t see a single other bicyclist, and I nearly got killed a dozen times.
There are miles and miles of street shops selling absolutely everything, stall after stall, carts, storefronts, kiosks, stands, guys carrying trays on shoulder straps. You could build a ship or furnish a skyscraper or supply a movie set, any movie, with the stuff I saw. Neighborhoods are devoted to sewing machines, tools, restaurant supplies, power equipment, fruit, phones, auto parts, office stuff, you name it. I found a store that sells goose down (five grades), duck down (four), and chicken feathers. A good part of downtown caters to the maritime trade, with separate shops devoted to rope and cable, brass fittings, pumps, bearings, boots and gloves, books and charts, radar and sonar, GPS, sattelite phones (I want one), anchors and chains, everything.
I got my visa stuff mailed and wound up in a hostel in a tourist area near the biggest, most historic mosques and ruins. It’s big, maybe fifty blocks of hotels, hostels, restaurants, shops, bars, tea houses, and art, antique and carpet dealers. These Turks! Waiters stand outside waving menus and greeting everyone (the streets are packed with tourists). “Hello! Welcome to Istanbul! Table ready! Best in town! You like beer? Wine? Meat? Tea? Pastry? Here’s my card! Please come back! Best in town!” Every shoemaker and trinket seller has a smile and a sales pitch, bowing and gesturing toward his goods. There is good healthy food for sale from street carts: corn on the cob, roasted chestnuts, watermelon slices, all kinds of nuts and fruit, orange juice fresh-squeezed while you wait. Tea and coffee from big brass wood-fired samovars. Dried fish and delicious olives.
I spent a morning cleaning my bike at the hostel, then rode all over town looking and eating. I can’t say ALL over, because this city is huge, five million people. But I got into ten different kinds if neighborhoods, mazes of cobblestone streets older than Jesus, hearing the call to prayer coming from mosques, back where the people live, far from tourist land, where no English is spoken. I’m exhausted.
Tomorrow I’ll load up the bike, do more of the same, then head out into the countryside in the evening, go camping. I’ve got two weeks to ramble before returning to Istanbul to pick up my visa and passport. Then it’s back to Ukraine to resume my eastward route into Russia. I’ll try to post once or twice in the meantime. Please send me an e-mail. It’s lonely out here sometimes.