Monday, January 18, 2010

The Customs Warehouse

By Claire
There is a law in Turkey that states that if you bring a vehicle in, you must leave with it. Since we were planning to fly to Egypt from here, this meant we had to figure out what to do with the camper. Chuck’s passport is stamped with information about Homer so there is no way we can just leave it at a campground or in a parking lot and fly away. I worked on this problem for a year with no results, including phone calls and letters to Turkey. We received an outdated booklet of what we could bring in to the country: one typewriter, 5 CDs, one rifle, etc. To make a long story short, we talked to the Tourist Information guy in Kaș who was not particularly helpful. I think he just didn’t know. Frustrated and anxious, we decided to ask Mehmet. He wondered why we hadn’t talked to the Customs Office right next door to the Tourist Information Office. We rushed right over and found ourselves being helped by 4 people. The TV was playing some kind of soap opera and the guy at the front desk was playing Solitaire on his computer. We asked if anyone spoke English and another guy jumped up (he was fiddling with his cell phone) to get The Boss.

The Boss was out having tea. I guess there isn’t a lot of Customs work going on at this time of year. The Boss spoke excellent English and explained to us that there is a Customs Warehouse at the Airport in Istanbul where we must store the camper. While the Solitaire guy looked up information on Google, a secretary looked up the phone number of the Customs Warehouse. The Boss started calling but couldn’t get through. Googling continued at a rapid pace, two guys were leaning over the desk, the soap opera was blaring but none of the numbers worked. Finally, the guy playing with his cell phone got through and handed his phone to The Boss. Everything is now understood and we feel as if we can really do this. The cost is 8 TL per day. We simply drive to the Customs Warehouse—signs prominently posted along with the airport signs—and go in and do the paperwork. They will put a stamp in Chuck’s passport allowing us to leave for the month. We’ll see how it all works out. We shook hands all around; it was quite an experience having the entire office working on our problem.

So here’s what happened:

Driving into Istanbul, we knew we were lost when we saw the Galata Bridge to our left—the one we were supposed to be on. We drove further and further, completely bypassing Sultanahmet, the area in Istanbul where our hotel is located. Oh well, we thought, we can just go ahead to the airport and find the Customs Warehouse first instead of dropping off our bags at the hotel. So we drove and drove. And drove. The first person we talked to, a policeman at the airport, gave us some directions and off we went. We drove into a place with all kinds of posters with military guys with machine guns so we were kind of nervous about driving in. Turns out it was only next to some kind of park, with a traffic guard. That guy got on his cell phone to find out where the Customs Warehouse was. He gave us further directions and off we went. Along the way we came to a split road with no idea where to go, so we just sat there talking, arguing and debating. A very nice man came to my window and asked if we needed help. Of course we did! I had written down the Turkish words for Customs Warehouse and handed it over. He told us straight, then right, then 3 roads, then left and then it would be there. Off we went. We drove and drove but never found anything.

We stopped someone else and showed them the words and they had us turn around and go back. In the meantime, we saw a sign with the word Gümrük, Customs. Off we went. Chuck got out and talked to someone at length but this was just for long haul trucks. We’re not sure why but it wasn’t for us. We drove back the way we had come and to make a long story short, went through the same exercise all over again, four times, asking different people. We circled the airport and the general area for 5 hours! This included a stop at a Customs Office near Turkish Cargo. Everyone was at lunch but one man helped us (he didn’t speak English), leading us to another building where he found someone who spoke a little English. That man called someone on his cell phone who talked back and forth to Chuck and the man, trying to help us figure this out. Unfortunately, to no avail. Pretty soon, the original man rushed in with his cell phone and handed it to Chuck. It was a woman who spoke English and tried to help; turns out it was this guy’s daughter. We are to come tomorrow at 9 am because they are closed today, Sunday, and it is in a different building. We think we are to do the paperwork with her father but we’re not sure. We thanked everyone then drove off to find the actual building that was pointed out to us somewhere in the distance.

We circled around this area for 3 or 4 passes, asking again, finally being stopped at their World Trade Center by a guard who tried to help and then ran over to a car talking to someone. That man came to my window and spoke excellent English. He offered to lead us to the place! Hooray! Off we went following close behind, watching his 5 year old daughter bounce around in the car. By now we knew this route very well. Of course, he pulled up to the place we had left, the place near the Turkish Cargo office. He works there but didn’t know anything about the Customs Warehouse. We never did find the correct building and decided to just cut and run to our hotel and deal with it tomorrow. We were exhausted, hungry and frustrated.

Finding our hotel was another challenge. I’ll spare you the gory details of narrow, cobblestone streets but do know that Chuck continues to be a hero at difficult driving. A taksi driver came over to Chuck’s window and asked if we needed help (in Turkish). Fortunately, I had a little brochure of our hotel that we had been given by Mark and Briar back in Greece. We handed him the brochure with the hotel name and address. He didn’t know where it was either but ran off for help. Soon, he explained that he would lead us, so with his flashers going, we followed. After a couple of stops along the way to ask, he led us to the front door. We have never been so happy to be where we were supposed to be! Chuck gave him 5 TL just as Haran greeted us with “Are you Mark’s friends?” We were helped inside where it was warm and beautiful and proceeded with the details of checking in and figuring out the Customs Warehouse Problem. I was so mentally overwrought that I told Seda we would like to pay in Egyptian Pounds. They both assured us they would help and plan to call a few people or get a taksi driver to take us. They also looked it up on Google Earth for us. I think we’ll sleep on this and deal with it tomorrow.

We are staying at Saruhan Hotel, €28 in the off season, with breakfast included. We love it! Tea and coffee whenever we want it, a beautiful terrace room with a view of the Sea of Marmara. It is a family run hotel and we have been fortunate again to be welcomed by very kind, helpful people, Huran, Ebru and Seda. We are so happy to be here. I just wish I could function better. I guess stress is a factor to mental decline.

Our room with balcony, free Wifi and Satellite TV. We even watched BBC World News. Nothing but bad news and disasters. Some things never change.

That was yesterday. Today we enlisted the help of Ebru who found the number and called the Customs Warehouse. They gave her directions and she wrote them down. We were skeptical after our experience yesterday but what could we do? We drove out of Sultanhamet—I won't go into the details of how difficult that was—just know that with road construction and narrow, one-way streets jammed with traffic, it wasn't pretty. My hat is off to Chuck. Following the directions we naturally ended up exactly where we were the day before (again and again and again....). We talked to the guard near the World Trade Centers who spoke no English and after some time, he agreed to get us a taksi to lead us. The taksi driver called the Customs Warehouse, using the number we provided (note: always carry a notebook and pen). They apparently directed him and off we went. The first thing I noticed was the sign to Florya, a place in which we spent most of the day yesterday.

Along the way, the taksi driver stopped to make another call (could he be lost too?).

We took off again and he pulled over in front of a road that was one way, merging onto a 3-lane highway. He got out of his cab, called them again, then came over and told us (in gestures and Turkish) that he would walk around and see if he could find it. He returned after about 10 minutes and indicated that we would have to turn around on this 3-lane highway and drive the wrong way, through some construction to reach the site. We found it! Cost of the taksi? 15 TL. Satisfaction with finding the place? Priceless!

The Customs Warehouse with the infamous World Trade Centers on the left.

For the next 2 hours we saw 11 people, received about 15 official stamps, many photo copies were made, and almost no one spoke English, except Deniz, the woman who did most of the coordinating of this bureaucratic debacle; she spoke basic English and was very helpful and friendly. The problem was, there was no apparent sequence for the process and we went back and forth and in and out of 6 different offices. Red and blue tape on the floor would do wonders for this place. We suspect they use the same flow chart as the officials at the Turkish border.

Meanwhile, someone came in and motioned for Chuck to move the camper so they could move their car. He came back looking upset and told me that in his haste to get out of the guy's way, he pulled forward and didn't see the overhang. Crash! I tried to reassure him but of course, we were both thinking this could be a disaster. I went out to try and assess the damage while Chuck continued with the paperwork shuffle from office to office. The dent in the top isn't too bad, hardly noticeable, but the first thing I saw was that the skylight cover had been ripped off and shattered. Naturally, it was raining and now we had an opening to the sky.

Finally getting all the paperwork done, we adjourned outside for the inspection of the vehicle. While Chuck dealt with Necip, the inspector, I tried to figure out what we could do. The biggest problem was access to the roof. We tried and tried to explain to Necip that we needed a ladder, looking the word up in the dictionary, showing him the open skylight, but he wasn't getting it. Out of nowhere, two guys wandered up, one speaking almost perfect English. Sükrü translated back and forth and Necip went into action. He found a forklift then called a colleague (keep in mind these are guys in suits), who came and drove the forklift over to the camper and hoisted Nejat up to the roof. I stood by with duct tape, paper towels and the lid to our laundry box which happened to be a perfect fit. Sükrü and I watched the action and I asked him how he happened to speak such perfect English. He told me he is a recent graduate from Istanbul University in Economics and is looking for a job but the economy is so bad he hasn't had any luck.

Sükrü, on the right, translating for Chuck and Necip.

The driver of this fork lift has a private office and wears a suit. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw that he was driving the fork lift.

Nejat repairing the ark

What an amazing guy! Nejat was extremely careful not to do damage to the roof and spent quite a bit of time up there carefully positioning and taping the plastic lid over the opening. Chuck tried to give him some money but he waved his hands "no!" touched his heart and walked away. I looked back as we were walking and he blew me a kiss! Later we tried to find Sükrü so we could give him some money but he was gone. We couldn't believe we were finally free to go and enjoy our time in Istanbul.

Back in the office, I asked Deniz how we could get to the Metro and she suggested we take a cab to the metro station. She called a cab, which we shared with another office worker, and we enjoyed a very successful journey home. In fact, we met two very nice boys, ages 15 and 14, who escorted us to the tram station for the third leg of our journey.

We decided to make the most of what was left of the day and do one thing. We chose the Blue Mosque and set off in our rain gear. Tourists that we are, we were spotted and stopped by a nice man who offered to lead us there. We decided to just go for it, knowing that there would be a catch. Sadik pointed out some sights, explaining the history, then took us into the Blue Mosque, giving us a guided tour. It was absolutely fabulous and we had so much room to move around. Winter is really a great time to visit. Afterwards, he asked if we would come to his place for tea, no obligation. We accepted, and enjoyed Turkish coffee for Chuck and apple tea for me and talked about carpets and ceramics, of course. Austin was brought in for the sales job but our story is that we live in a camper and don't have a house at home but also live in a camper there. He didn't look exactly crestfallen, but I noticed a slight sag to his shoulders. We had a nice time, said our goodbyes and made our way home.

In front of the Blue Mosque

Hagia Sophia

We had missed lunch again so Ebru gave us directions to a place serving "Turkish food like you find at home." She even put on her jacket and took us there. What a great meal, ending with Turkish coffee.

The day is done and we are glad of it. It ended on a positive note and we met many interesting, helpful people today. We have 5 more days here before we leave for Egypt and will have another 3 when we return at the end of February. Travel is not for the faint of heart but it doesn't require any special bravery either. No matter how difficult some days are for us, we will never forget this experience.

Of all the things I've lost, I miss my mind the most. ~ Mark Twain


tanialil said...

Phew! Just reading this post made me exhausted. Glad you can now get onto enjoying your stay in Istanbul.

Chuck and Claire said...

We're completely recovered now and loving Istanbul. In fact, we're feeling pretty mellow.

Anonymous said...

As fascinating as your stories are (!!) I always find myself eager to see what quote you place at the very end. Sort of the "icing on the cake." Where are you getting all of these fabulous quotes?
Sheila Haddad

Chuck and Claire said...

I love quotes too (obviously) so I did a lot of searching for them before our trip and keep my eye out for good ones along the way. I'm glad you like them!