On the flight from Cape Town, sleep had not come. We’d planned the morning – find the quickest, cheapest way to reach Sultanahmed, the cultural heart of old Istanbul, and kill some hours before the connecting flight to Kennedy Airport at 1.30pm. Now we’ve landed, disembarked, ready for the loathed airport slog.
We trolley-push our way past the hordes.
A hand stops us.
“Where you headed?” It’s a hirsute man in a dark uniform.
“USA passengers over there please.”
“Over there”, a young Turkish man asks for our passports and our Esta, an electronic travel authorisation required to enter the US on a British passport. I’d been amazed, a month earlier, how easy it had been to obtain online. I proffer the printed document, smiling.
But Young Man frowns.
“I just need to confer with my supervisor,” he says, and goes over to an older man at a computer. They frown and mutter, glancing at us. Young Turkish man beckons. We go over.
Older Turkish man says, “Where did you get this?”, eyeing the Esta as if it were white powder found in luggage.
“Well, yes, you can only apply for an Esta online.”
“How much did you pay for it?”
“Oh, about … about 100-and-something dollars. Um… $110 a think … um, why?…”
“A hundred and ten dollars! No, sir, no, it shouldn’t cost much more than about 10 dollars. Look here,” he says, and I peer at the screen which shows a website’s home page. “This is what the website should look like. Is this the site you got it from?”
I’m chilling to the marrow. In a second he knows, Young Turkish man knows, Di knows, I know. I’ve been had. I’m a gullible fool. Hooked, lined, sinkered. Sunk.
It’s 5.30am in Istanbul. Our connecting flight is in eight hours.
We don’t have the document to enter the US.
We need a computer. There’s a bank of them in the HSBC premium lounge. We are not HSBC premium sort of people. But Young Turkish Man has advised us to talk our way in, get online at one of their computers, and apply for a new Esta.
“Try to use the correct website,” he offers helpfully as we trudge off, the trolley now feeling twice its weight.
But there’s a new problem. I had cleared out the credit card before leaving Cape Town and put everything on a Mastercard travel wallet. But the (correct) website would not accept this for payment. (What’s the point of that? It should work for any transaction.)
So I buy a $15 phone card with about 50 numbers on it to be dialled before the actual South African number I need to call, to get the credit card and personal details of a family member so that I can make the $14 (it turns out) payment.
Yes, not $110.
I can sense my brother-in-law Jules’s tension at the other end of the phone as he asks, “Are these people legit? You’re at an airport you say?” He’s imagining a gang of hoods with knives to our throats. “Are there heavies with you? Are you free to speak?” For the next three days he’ll be on tenterhooks wondering whether we’re in cement at the bottom of the Bosphorus or whether there’s any money left in his account. We’re not sure which would be worse for him.
He goes online, somewhat grim, and pays money into what he hopes is not another fake online account. It works. In the HSBC Premier lounge at Atatürk, boxes tick, an Esta is issued in my inbox, it’s printed out by the lounge receptionist, and we breathe.
It’s 7am in Istanbul.
I have fresh print-outs of the (correct) Esta, we find a bar lounge and order coffee, and with it the waiter puts down two red table-mat hearts.
It’s Valentine’s Day.
Thoughts of finding our way into Istanbul long gone, we pass the time, finally make the flight, clutch hands as we take off on a flight that hours earlier we thought wouldn’t happen. Europe and Ireland pass below us, the Atlantic washes away earlier worries, sleepless hours pass, and Maine is looking like a glacial paradise down there. We’ve been too wired to sleep. Neither of us has ever been to the US.
And we’re still not convinced that the Esta will get us through customs. What if some detail is wrong? What if the crooks were the airport officials, and the original document had been the correct one? What if this one is the knock-off?
By the time we land it’s night again and a shuttle drops us at our Manhattan hotel. A shuttle that we only got an hour after landing, and which then traipsed all over Manhattan, dropping other passengers, before delivering us to our hotel in Midtown Manhattan.
Next morning we’ll wake up and walk the 200 paces to Times Square. Looking up, breathless, we’ll see the tickertape above the ABC studio. Oscar Pistorius held for murder. But that’s tomorrow. Exhausted, we find our room, oblivious of what is happening in a house in a leafy Pretoria suburb.
We shower and change, get out and find an Irish pub, and it’s 9pm in Connolly’s, a family-owned ode to the Emerald Isle. Pouring wine, the waiter smiles.
“Happy Valentine’s Day,” he says in a rolling brogue, placing Valentine’s hearts on the table.
We clink glasses. What time would it be in Turkey, we wonder. We check Di’s watch which is still set to Turkish time.
It’s 5am in Istanbul. DM