Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Adventures in Monotony

The process of traveling can become mundane and monotonous, but it doesn't have to. To change things up, I picked this trip to write from the third-person perspective. From your own travels, you're probably familiar with most of the elements, like the departure, the journey, and the exchange of paperwork to get visas to travel. But have you ever viewed these events like a scene from a movie?
Prologue
On  October 8th, 2017, the United States suspended visa services in Turkey, and Turkey responded in kind. The measures would apply to e-Visas, visas issued at borders and visas in passports. On November 8th, 2017, the United States resumed visa processing at its embassy in Turkey on a limited basis, and Turkey reciprocated the move and announced a resumption of limited visa processing at its diplomatic missions in the US. During this tumultuous period, it was still possible to get Turkish visas at non-American missions with one exception: the Turkish mission to Cyprus, located in Nicosia. Doing so would tacitly acknowledge the legitimacy of Turkish mission, which refers to itself as the "The Embassy of Turkey to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC)", which is problematic because the TRNC is unrecognized by the international community.

The Departure
At first, he could see nothing. The room around him was shrouded in a man-made darkness owing its existence to the shuttered windows. His eyes slowly adjusted to the dim glow from his watch as he fumbled for his glasses to read the time. 1:54 a.m. "It's time to get up."

With six minutes to go before the alarm would chime, he arose from the bed while his dog stretched into the space that he'd occupied only a moment earlier. "Enjoy the warmth while it lasts," he thought to himself. "I'll be taking you outside before I leave." As the initial icy blast of water from the shower hit his outstretched hand, it dawned on him that he'd forgotten to flip the switch in the hall that activates the hot water heater. The water could barely be described as tepid by the time he'd finished bathing, and there was only the slightest haze on the upper part of the mirror as he shaved himself in its reflection. Grasping nothing as his hand followed its muscle memory in reaching for his toothbrush, he remembered that what he was looking for sat downstairs in the bags he'd packed only a few hours earlier.

It was almost 2:20 a.m. when he opened the front door to be greeted by the damp embrace of the cool outside air, still heavy from the recent rains. The tiled stairs of his government housing were slick beneath his feet as his dog strained forward against her leash as they headed toward the gate.
He welcomed the uninviting yellow glow from the street lamps beside the road they followed, walking over the uneven stone pavers that formed the sidewalk. He'd been caught out in the darkness before, when the city would cut the lights in the pre-dawn hours to save some money. While he knew almost every pothole and puddle from his daily morning runs with the dog, the uneven edges would still trip him up when their shadows blended together.

He returned to his house about 15 minutes before the cab to the airport was due to arrive. After kissing his children and wife goodbye as they slept, he sat downstairs and mentally rehearsed today's plan just like he had so many times before. The headlights of the arriving taxi gleamed through the slats in the shutters, and he was outside with his bags before the driver could call him. Only a few minutes before 3 a.m., they were off, hurtling through the darkness on desolate roads to the airport 40 kilometers away.

The Journey
It didn't have to be this way. There used to be a fully operational international airport in Nicosia, before the conflict that divided it and swallowed the airport in a demilitarized zone administered by the United Nations. That was decades ago. The airport has long since been abandoned, its planes slowly decaying on the aprons where their last passengers had disembarked generations earlier. A child on that flight could easily be a grandparent now, assuming of course that she hadn't become a casualty of either the ensuing conflict or the ethnic cleansing that occurred after the coup. People are still looking for the missing.

It wasn't even 3:30 a.m. when he asked for the receipt for his 50€ cab fare. Walking past the armed guard at the entrance to the modern terminal, he proceeded to the check-in desk that was already open. Out of curiosity, he attempted to check in on the automatic kiosk, but was thwarted when his booking number was not found. Unsurprised, he joined the line of 16 other men that had arrived before him. There was only one woman in line, an older woman with silver hair in a pixie cut, and she carried herself like Dame Judy Dench returning from holiday. The other travelers were dressed like he was, practical and comfortable, with a single carry-on to cover their short business trips. Zagreb. Athens. Rome. He probably would have heard even more destinations in Eastern Europe if he hadn't been summoned to the next available agent.

Handing over his distinctive black diplomatic passport to the agent prompted the recipient to check the destination before making a quick phone call for clarification. Hanging up the phone, the agent asked if the proper visa had been acquired for entry into Greece -- one of the few countries in the Schengen zone that requires visas for American diplomatic passports. Of course, all of his paperwork was in order and he had his boarding pass in hand while the travelers ahead of him we're still confirming their details.

The automatic gates accepted the bar code on his ticket, admitting him into the passport control area. Only one of the 24 booths was staffed this early in the morning. The line moved quickly, and he soon found himself approaching the security component of this travel triathlon. The clothing he wore had been purposefully chosen to eliminate false alarms, and his jacket now carried the items he'd previously stashed in his pockets. Deftly removing his computer from his backpack, he laid it in the gray plastic bin beside his plastic toiletry bag in a habitual motion that he'd performed more times than he could count.

While waiting for his turn to pass through the metal detector, it occurred to him that the plastic bag now entering the scanner contained none of the items that require additional inspection and his rote adherence to the process was superfluous on this trip. Smirking slightly at this revelation, he advanced at the guards' direction through the electromagnetic gateway and reclaimed his gear from the conveyor belt. Fumbling with his loaded jacket, it was not his most coordinated transition out of security, despite how well he had prepared everything in the utilitarian security trays.

But "grab-and-go" was sufficient this morning, and he donned his jacket and backpack while rolling his carry-on into a duty free sales area which could have inspired some of Stanley Kubrick's more distopian visions. Devoid of shoppers, the surrounding air choked him with a sickly sweet perfume that magnified the surrealist fluorescent glow emanating from within the stark white furniture. Momentarily disoriented from the frontal assault on his senses, he made his way to the airport lounge he had access to as a membership perk associated with the credit card he'd had stolen four months ago.

The lounge was more vacant than the rest of the airport, as the previous flight departed over an hour ago and the next one wouldn't leave until an hour after his. Sipping a cappuccino that paled in comparison to the ones he'd had in Madrid only three days earlier, he sat alone in the lounge and watched the departure screen refresh itself without updating any changes to the flight information except for the time remaining until the gate opened for boarding.This purgatory continued for nearly 45 minutes, concluding when he decided to head to the gate with four minutes remaining in the countdown clock.

Arriving at the gate just before boarding began, he joined the line behind a German soldier. Judging by the light blue and white patch on his shoulder, he was part of the contingent assigned to the UN peacekeeping force. Fittingly, one of the straps on his rucksack was worn to the point that it showed signs of fraying, but still appeared strong enough to carry it's current load. The UN presence in town is persistent if subdued. The white trucks and vans blend in with the work vehicles traversing the city, save for the block-lettered "UN" painted in black on the doors and hood.

The plane departed at 5:40 a.m. and he was catching up on his lost sleep by the time the wheels had retracted inside the plane. Not long after, he was jostled awake as the drink cart collided with his right knee, which had been forced into the aisle when the seat in front of him reclined, removing whatever space remained after his large frame had wedged into the tight economy class seating he'd been assigned. The bald spot on the head of the passenger reclining in front of him was nearly obscured by the back of the seat, but that didn't stop the light from the cabin from reflecting off of it like a landing beacon.

His eyes were still blurry from his recent slumber. The crick in his neck began to throb, rebelling against the lack of support it has been receiving over the last week of travel. While towering head and shoulders over the general population often has its benefits, one of the more painfully obvious drawbacks is that these airline seats are not built to accommodate people his size. His head followed his eyes as he looked left and then right, before finally nodding up and down to assess his degree of discomfort against his general fatigue before he closed his eyes again with the hope of finding a little more rest before the 105-minute-long flight lands, only to hear the captain's voice squawking over the intercom to initiate preparations for landing.

The plane descended through a layer of clouds hovering over the Aegean Sea. Above, the early morning sunrise was beginning to cast a rosy-purple hue across the gray-blue clouds. Below the clouds, the world still slept, disappearing into fog that encroached from the horizon.
It was a quarter past 7 am when the plane landed in Athens. Disembarking out of the rear of the aircraft, he boarded the bus to the terminal and leaned against the cold glass window to watch the sun rise beside a small hill in the distance


The Exchange
A herd of weary travelers spilled out of the crowded shuttle bus as it opened its doors at the arrival terminal, jostling him as he made his way to the passport control desk. The resounding thud of the stamp crushing his freshly issued visa was the signal that he could proceed in his mission. After a quick glance at his watch and some mental calculus, he opted for the three-day Metro access card for 20€ less than the cost of cab fare one-way from the airport into the city. The train pulled into the departure terminal a few minutes after his cab would have joined the morning commuter traffic, which was moving at the same pace as the train he rode in. The only misgivings he had were that the metro also began to fill up with commuters on the ride into the city.

Exiting the metro at 8:45 a.m., he followed the plan and proceeded to the strategically located hotel where his colleague was to deliver the official paperwork for his upcoming appointment. At check-in, the desk clerk passed him the the documents but could not assign him a room, as none had been vacated by ten minutes to nine o'clock in the morning. After six hours of economy-class travel, he still needed to change into the professional attire expected at the embassy. Revising his plans, he quickly detoured into the hotel health club to change out of his travel clothes before ditching his baggage in the hotel storage room. Ready for the day, he walked south along the bustling avenue.

Waves of vehicle exhaust mixed with wafting cigarette smoke in the crisp morning air that swirled round him, pushed by the lumbering buses and two-stroke scooters that wove effortlessly among the cars. The sky was overcast, casting a grayish hue over the city. Halfway to his destination, his phone rang. His local contact sounded distant on the other end, but he could make out an urgency in her voice. He looked around for a quiet space to talk as her faint voice was drowned out by the din of traffic, its echo magnified as it reverberated off the galvanized metal construction barrier wall constraining the sidewalk to his left. The Turkish Embassy had just called to ensure that all of the forms have been properly submitted, but the implication was that they hadn't.

The bad telephone connection coupled with the language barrier made it unclear if the call was simply a friendly reminder for an action that was previously accomplished, or rather a legitimate concern that would invalidate the entire purpose of the trip. He was confident that all the forms had been submitted, but conceded that the online application process was fraught with errors and it was entirely possible that a glitch had occurred somewhere in the system. A flurry of emails from his smartphone to various contacts yielded nothing as he stood at the corner of the block and glanced between the device in his hand and the large Turkish flag waving against the blue sky halfway down the block.

"Early is on time, and on time is late," he muttered to himself as he stood before the large wooden door at a quarter to eleven--fifteen minutes early for his appointment--and pressed the doorbell. He'd already walked around the block once to buy some time, but with the variety of embassy security guards stationed nearby watching for anything suspicious, he opted not to circle back around a second time. He couldn't see anything beyond the wrought iron bars that decorated the door's fenestration, but then noticed the reflection of the camera above the intercom box to the right of the door.

The intercom crackled: "Hello? How may I help you?" said the disembodied voice that caught him slightly off guard in its courteous tone. "Hello, I have an 11 o'clock appointment for a diplomatic visa." he spoke calmly into the intercom while looking at the camera now trained on him. "One moment, please" came the response, this time sounding a little more business-like.

After waiting just long enough to begin wondering if he should re-engage the intercom, he heard the bolt to the door being thrown back and was now face to face with a man in a crisp white shirt and coal-black slacks that matched his impeccably knotted necktie. "Please, come in." the man said and gestured up a half-flight of stairs to an elegant wooden room.

Stepping onto the plush crimson carpet runner in the foyer, the host led him up the white stone stairs where a woman was standing -- waiting. She introduced herself and gave leave to the host, who returned to his duties behind a computer screen at a desk on the far side of the lobby. As they sat on an elegant sofa which rested upon on a sprawling Turkish carpet, she requested to review the files which he had faithfully carried and collected on his journey.

With the documents in hand, she offered him a choice of tea or coffee while he waited. He initially had no preference and responded with the first option he was given: "Tea," he said and she nodded to the man behind the desk as she walked towards the far corner of the room. But then, remembering that there is a reason Turkish coffee has its own description, he spoke up again and said "If it's not too late, can I change my request to 'coffee'?"
She paused, and as she turned back towards him, asked "Turkish?"
"Of course," he replied. She extended her hospitality further, "With sugar?"
To which he replied "A little bit, please." She glanced at the man behind the desk and spoke a few instructions in Turkish that seemed inaudible, but the expression of the man at the desk changed from mild confusion to one of purpose.

With that, she disappeared behind a carved wooden door, and the man behind the desk brought out a demitasse of Turkish coffee in fine china bearing a golden star and crescent.
The woman returned only once to clarify whether the assignment was temporary or permanent. At some point, he became aware that the man behind the desk had Bruno Mars' Uptown Funk playing in the background, which reminded him of his children dancing during their Family Vacation to Turkey.

It was 11:20 a.m. when the woman returned with his visa in hand. He rose, setting aside the issue of Cornucopia Magazine which he had flipped through several times after reading an article entitled "Lawrence of Anatolia." She showed him the visa in his passport and wished him safe travels as the man behind the desk showed him to the door.

Everything had come together faster than anticipated, so calls were placed and plans were made to begin the preparation for the next trip. Destination: Adana, Turkey
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2 comments:

  1. Thanks for the blog! I read it often as I am on the FSCE Register currently. I have a family with young kids and I refer to your posts to see how family life is as a foreign Service Specialist. I really appreciate your insight and you sharing your experiences. I'm not holding out much hope right now, because of the hiring freeze, but I am still hoping for a call. Thanks Again.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Congratulations on getting on the register! There really seem to be a few phases of being a Foreign Service parent, and they each have their challenges:

      Baby through daycare (0-3);

      Pre-school (3-5)

      Elementary (Grade 1-5);

      Middle School (Grade 6-8);

      High School.


      But once you're hired (think positive!), there are lots of formal resources at State and informal groups where you can probably find the answers or find someone who can point you in the right direction.

      Delete

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