The Great Reunion

1 June 2011

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Olumpos Beach

After deciding to leave Istanbul and its cold, rainy unseasonable weather in the first week of May, Diego and Molly enjoyed two straight weeks of stunning coastal scenery and sunshine in Olympos and Kas Turkey. We had managed to have daily communication with Aurel, via text message, skype, and email, riding from afar the rising and plunging emotions as we observed the ever maddening struggle to get out of Afghanistan and into Iran. Even in such a serene and beautiful setting as southern Turkey, the emotional ups and downs took their toll at times. It’s not easy to explain, but the feeling of watching vacation days mount one on top of the other without end rather than disappearing in the sweet psychology of not quite enough is frustrating at best.

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Stil, Olympos and Kas are gorgeous and the site of many ancient ruins as well as one of the original Mt. Olymposes from Greek Mythology. The scenery is truly epic.

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We were amazed and elated when the “I’m in!” text message from Aurel came through on Wednesday morning. And when Aurel was finally on his way with the truck across Iran, we sat down to count the days we had to find our way to Van, Turkey to meet him. We were in a state of shock after so much build up, to know that the trip might actually be happening.

We also had a very important and challenging task that Aurel had delegated to us a few days before when he discovered the oil leak: find a VW parts store in Istanbul and a way to get the parts we needed so that when we met Aurel at the Turkish border, we could fix the various problems with the bus before setting out across Turkey. The parts were specific, a list of over 10 pieces and seals that had to be the proper size and match the year of the bus. And we needed to find a VW club or mechanic in Van willing to let us use tools and space to pull out the engine and replace the damaged parts.
After finding a list of mechanics in Van we thought calling around to see where they bought their VW parts might prove the most successful.

But how do you do that with baby Turkish and no specific vocabulary? You beg the hotel manager to make the calls for you after an elaborate and gesture filled (because his English is pretty minimal) speech about your situation and adventure, complete with pictures and maps and tangents of all kinds. But if you are really lucky, I mean like touched by some kind of VW guardian angel, a young engineer from Istanbul vacationing with his engineer girl friend will over hear your embarrassing over excited oration and say,
“Excuse me, can I be of some help?”

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At first you will wave your hand in a diminutive way, not wanting to be interrupted by the always abundant and well intentioned Turks always coming out in mass and wanting to “help.” But quickly it will become clear that Semih is no ordinary guy. He’s a wealth of technical knowledge and expertise who fell from heaven at the most apt moment possible.

Semih and Seda spent over 5 hours with us, making calls, researching parts, and ultimately helping us procure the 400 lira worth of seals and pieces we were going to need. The parts were not available in Van, and we had a chilly interaction at best with almost every mechanic we spoke to. None of them were interested in helping us fix the engine. For some reason they were not thrilled at the chance to work on a 55 year old dinosaur of a machine. It was a can of worms they were not even vaguely interested in opening.
We found the parts at a store in Istanbul with a store owner sympathetic enough to our cause to put them in a box and ship them next day to Van. Because we needed seals and rings that had to match the exact sizes that the pistons and cylinders had been worn down to over the years, the shop owner agreed to send us a lot of different size options for all of the various parts. He also promised we could return the mis-matching extras when we came through Istanbul. A miracle!

After a very long day of phone calls and logistics to find the parts and a place to ship them to in Van, we took the 5-hour minibus ride along the ever winding Turkish southern coastline from Kas to Antalya.

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We spent less than 8 hours in Antalya followed by a 7am flight the next morning to Van, a city as far east in Turkey as it is possible to fly.

Aurel had sent word of his arrival at the junkyard a few kilometers from the Turkish border in the middle of the night. (see previous post for more details) If all was to go well, he would get through into Turkey early that morning and make the 220 kilometer drive to Van from the border while we flew toward the same city. We had pipe dreams of Aurel and the bus rolling in to pick us up at the arrivals area in the Van airport, but when we touched down at noon, there was no sign of Aurel. Nor was there any sign of an arrivals terminal, just a long strip of runway and a dilapidated, half finished box of a building claiming to be an airport. It was reminiscent of the Kabul airport in 2006!

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Armed with way too much luggage (tents, sleeping bags, pillows, clothing, camera equipment, etc), we tried to figure out what would be the best plan of action.

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There were the parts that might have already arrived at the cargo office in Van. We could search for a hotel to leave our things? Molly tried without success to call Aurel’s Turkish cell number in the hope that he might have popped the Turkish sim card into his cell phone and that he might be close enough to Turkey to get signal. Diego pulled out his camera and started filming in the harsh, over exposed light of the outskirts of Van. It looked like a scene from the movie Traffic, as if someone had decided to put a yellow filter over the sky.

Finally we agreed to try to find the cargo office and pick up the parts, and on our way we received a call from Aurel. He had arrived at the Turkish border crossing at 8 am, all his papers had checked out, the bus had been checked with a high tech scanner that gave a three dimensional x-ray picture of it’s contents, but just as Aurel’s final paperwork was being entered into the border computer system, internet went down. He was lead to a waiting area and had already waited 4 hours by the time he had the idea to try his Turkish sim card and call us.

Poor Aurel! It took another 4 hours before internet finally appeared, at which time he was motioned over by the border patrol, and he waved right through. ‘That’s it?” He thought. It was almost too easy at that point!
The drive to Van from the border was 220 km, but the bus was still leaking oil at an alarming rate. It chugged along at 40-50 km an hour, and Aurel stopped every 20 minutes to refill the oil reserve. He rode up and down over the mountains, the little Combi struggling to make it in the high altitude. In some places there was even snow still on the ground around them. And when it began to rain at one point, Aurel had to wipe the windshield with the arm of the disconnected windshield wiper by angling it out the driver side window. (Unfortunately one important part is missing in the wiper motor so there is no automatic windshield wiping system)
While the combi and Aurel made their way slowly to Van, Diego and Molly were dragging heavy luggage around the charmless city streets looking for the Cargo company that had our parts. We finally found the correct office where the parts were supposed to arrive, but Molly’s meager Turkish was not handy enough to explain the situation. “Box—come today—one day—Istanbul—one night—Van—here—now? The women looked at us blankly. “Box—small—company—car things—airplane (zooming noises)—yesterday—today—here?!”

Finally the woman managed to understand, took our name and searched her computer for information on our package. It was in the system, but it wasn’t in Van, nor was it in Istanbul, nor had it made it onto an airplane. It was in a Van, on it’s way by road to Van, somewhere in the middle of Turkey. “Why?!” The woman shook her head. “But Airplane—money!—a lot of money!” The women shook her head again and shrugged. We looked around the dusty, rather horrible streets of Van. “Cargo car—here when?” Her response, “Parsembe” (Monday) That was two full days away, two days that we could potentially make it 600 or so km away from what was proving to be a city we wanted to get out of as soon as possible.

In the end Molly and Diego spent 8 hours in Van waiting for Aurel to make it from the far east. We camped out in the lobby of a dirty, 70’s style soviet hotel with low ceilings, bad florescent lighting and a TV blaring Turkish soap operas.

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We got a call around 7pm that he was passing through the city’s outer border, and we rushed out to the busy street waiting impatiently for a sign of the Combi. It was Diego who spotted it, bobbing up and down over the badly paved road toward us, smaller and more boxy than either of us had remembered. Aurel had the windshield open so he could see more clearly, a huge smile across his face. We jumped and hopped and did all kinds of dances. It was a scenario that none of us totally believed would actually come true.

Aurel was dusty, dirty and thrilled to be there. Molly was amazed that after almost two months he was actually there in front of her.

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Diego was filming the reunion while a crowd of men and boys gathered around the bus, touching it’s every feature, peeking into open windows, trying door handles, and making a commotion that was drawing in more curious people by the second.

After a trip to the hamam (Turkish bath house) for Aurel, and a tour of the bus’s new kitsch features for Molly and Diego, the three of us set out to find some dinner and a place to sleep and more importantly to celebrate the true beginning of our collective adventure.

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