Hooray! This is the final teaser from the book. If you want the whole book full of enjoyable goodness, there’s a book release party on April 29 — message me for details. If you don’t live in Istanbul, you can still order it for $15 dollars from the “book” tab up there on this blog. This story is from when me, Harriet, Jari and Kenny were all in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, trying to come back to Istanbul on the bus in March of last year.
On our last day in Bulgaria, we wanted to do something different, something out of the city, before we had to spend the evening and most of the night cramped back into a bus. We hired a guy to drive us to an abandoned parliamentary building of the old communist days built atop a mountain. I’d heard about the magnificent Buzludzha before coming and seen its picture on a lot of “can’t-miss” lists about travel in the Balkans. It looked like a giant UFO with a control tower.
“The profits from the entire country for a whole year went into building this,” our guide and driver Velin told us while we drove up the side of the mountain. We took some photos at a huge introductory monument of two fists holding torches with Buzludzha dotting a nearby peak, then drove the rest of the way to the peak and parked. It had snowed the day before, and while walking up to the structure from our car, I could hear the snapping and dripping sounds of the snow melting off the tree branches. On the mountain plateau, Buzludzha filled our vision.
We crawled in through a small opening at knee height. We were in a wide, dark chamber, full of rubble and wreckage. Velin pointed us to a staircase free of debris, and we ascended to the parliamentary chamber. We emerged into the light – an enormous amphitheater, decorated with 360 degree murals on the walls, portraits of great communist leaders, the workers, and a bunch of grasping hands. The ceiling and walls had collapsed or fallen in some places, and snowmelt dripped from a hundred feet up to the pit below. The wind had sculpted ice into feather-like shapes on the twisted iron and concrete. Jari was struck with a revelation.
Outside we walked around the circumference of the thing. I dropped my phone while taking a picture, and the screen shattered and went totally dark. Oh well. Velin stopped us at the base of the tower and pulled out some headlamps.
“You’re in for a treat,” he said. “We get to climb up the elevator shaft.”
We broke in by squeezing in through a half-open door and climbed a long, near-vertical staircase, to a ladder. We turned our headlamps upwards and saw it led to another platform, another ladder, to another platform, and then to darkness.
“There are 31 ladders,” he said. “The 29th is missing a step, I think. Watch out for it.”
We swallowed and went up in the dark, ladder after ladder after ladder, our hands going numb on the cold dirty metal. Some of the flat rungs were rusted through in places, or were covered in pieces of broken things. At the top we clambered through a hatch into a machine room, a sort of clocktower chamber, but most of the mechanisms were gone. Tiny snow drifts had gathered in corners where panels of glass were missing, or had been broken, and the weather could come through. We were at the bottom of an enormous red star window stretching three more floors up into the tower. We climbed a series of workman’s staircases and looked through the red star window at the mountains below. Buzludzha. A communist UFO on top of the world. It remains one of the best places I’ve ever gone on vacation. Velin made us take a selfie on top of the tower.
While we were climbing down the elevator shaft in the dark, I realized my knee was pulsing. Something felt really wrong. When we got back to the car I rolled up my pant leg. My knee had swollen to twice its normal size where the mystery bugs had bitten into me. It was freakish. We all shrieked in horror and delight and also a little bit in concern, and Velin offered to call someone he knew at a pharmacy down in the village for some ointment. We accepted. While in the village he suggested we swing by a local winery and we eagerly said yes. For a pittance we acquired six plastic bottles of delicious homemade Bulgarian varietals.
Meanwhile, Kenny had been texting Harriet all day long. He was also on a visa run and had gone to Serbia to see his girlfriend, who lived in Switzerland but had joined him in Belgrad for a weekend vacation.
But Kenny seemed to think he couldn’t get back into Turkey. It was unclear what the problem was, but we told him to try at the land border, as the sleepy agents on the Edirne frontier may be more amenable to letting him in than the overworked airport passport guards. So he’d hopped on a night bus to Plovdiv the previous day, and was rolling into town just as we were rolling down the mountain from the UFO. We met him at our hostel. He seemed a little shell shocked.
The story emerged that Kenny had drastically fucked up his ikamet. He’d had an appointment scheduled for back in October, but skipped it because he’d been hungover. When he’d shown up the next day, they turned him away and told him to go in and out of the country for a new passport stamp, and then he’d be eligible to get a new appointment. He had done this once before, been fined, and figured he was alright. But unlike the last time he’d done this run, he’d been given an entry ban at the border as he was leaving the country. Three months.
We weren’t sure he’d get through, but we booked tickets anyways for all of us via our hostel receptionist and took a cab to the bus station. As it’s never clear which rules are actual rules, and which rules are subject to spot interpretation, it’s always worth a try. We bought one last street beer just to savor the pleasure of being able to drink for super cheap and out in public. The bus pulled up and the swarthy sweating mustachioed Turk driving the bus came out, swearing and spitting at us, telling us we couldn’t bring beer on the bus.
“We know,” we told him, “we’re just trying to savor the moment.” Like most interactions with stupid people we’ve had in Turkey, he completely ignored or misunderstood us, and assumed we would bring the beers onboard unless he yelled at us some more. Sigh. We waved him off, promising to get rid of our beers. We examined my knee one more time, monstrous of size and color, and goosed it around. The others pulled up my shirt and pulled down my pants to rub the boil gel on my swollen bites, drew the outlines of how much it had swelled with a sharpie, and then defaced it with a doodle of a penis. There I was, hunchbacked and pockmarked and naked and diseased in a Bulgarian bus station. It had been a great vacation.
We got to the Bulgarian/Turkish border late at night. We had to cross through the car booths on foot and hand our passports up one by one to the border guard. Harriet went through first, legal residency in hand, without issue. Then he scanned Kenny’s passport. He frowned and made him stand to the side. Then he scanned mine. He saw that I’d paid a fine, frowned, and pulled me to the side. Then he scanned Jari’s. He saw that Jari had an ikamet last year, but didn’t have one now, and pulled him to the side too. We protested that we had legal visas, and he looked at the three of us, frustrated and confused. He told us all to go wait outside building B-3.
We waited in agony trying to lighten the mood with dark jokes, until the cop pulled us inside. What do we show them first? The visa paperwork? Our old residence applications? My last entry fine? My expired residence card? What do we tell them, what do we withhold? As in all dealings with the cops, we would pretend to speak no Turkish. It never helps.
He took us in to the office. First he demanded me and Jari sign the dreaded ten-day paper. It permits you to enter Turkey on the condition that you apply to get a residence permit within ten days – and if you don’t get an appointment within ten days, you get an entry ban for five years. Both Jari and I again tried to protest that we’d come in on valid tourist visas, but he said “It’s your choice! You can, turn back now! Not come back for five years! Or sign.”
“This is a lie,” Jari said. “I can’t sign a lie! I have a valid visa.”
“Jari,” I said, pulling him aside. “We look guilty by association, next to Kenny and his entry ban. Just sign the thing. We’ll do our residencies later.”
“But how can I get an appointment when I already have one?” he pressed.
“Get another one? I dunno man. Just sign the paper. In a contest between us and stupid people in power, the stupid people in power are always gonna win.” We resigned ourselves to our fate, and signed.
Kenny tried to show his Turkuaz Medya badge, which indicates that he’s working for a pro-regime media organization, but the police guy told him it was final, he was banned for three months, no way in. Kenny gave me and Jari and Harriet hugs.
“Best of luck,” he said. “I’m on my way back to Plovdiv to try and apply at the embassy for a special consular visa exception. You’re in charge of the show now, Harriet,” he said. Harriet was aghast. We left him there in B-3.
Past the passport control, the customs guy opened our bag, and found all our vice and contraband. I don’t know what the legal import limits are on wine, pork and pornography, but I do know we were way, way over the line.
“And what are these?” he said, holding up the six-inch thick stack of pornography from the trash.
“Documents,” we said.
“And what are these?” he said, holding up the six bottles of homemade booze.
“Water,” we said.
“And what are these?” he said, holding up the heavy grocery bag of pork products.