Our Horrible, Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Trip Home

Quick note: There is still no news about whether we’re pregnant or not. This is just the story of our journey from Istanbul to Oklahoma on September 10, 2015, recorded for posterity. Fair warning: It is chock full of profanities.

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It started innocuously enough. Lufthansa, the airline we were flying with, announced a strike the day before our flight. I hoped they’d be done with it by the day of our flight – and in fact, our flight from Germany to the US was on schedule. Unfortunately, our flight from Istanbul to Germany was canceled.

We called Lufthansa, and they apologized and booked us for an even better flight at a more reasonable time with only one stopover instead of two. Turkish Airlines was going to fly us to Chicago, and United would fly us to Tulsa. Score.

After a leisurely breakfast with Ahmed’s sister on Thursday morning, we arrive at the airport two hours early for our 1:40pm flight. We even think about sitting down and having coffee somewhere before going through security, but I say, “Naw, let’s just get it over with so we can relax.”

By now I’ve been in Istanbul for five months and overstayed my three-month tourist visa. But that isn’t really my fault. The Turkish government had just rolled out a new system for granting appointments to extend tourist visas, and I tried for weeks to go online and get an appointment. Each time there was an error and it said to try again later. Finally we went to the ministry itself, in person, but they wouldn’t even let us in the door.

“Go to the website,” they said.

“The website doesn’t work,” we replied.

“Try again.”

“What if it still doesn’t work?”

“Just keep trying.”

So we tried and tried and tried and FINALLY one day it worked and we were able to get an appointment… in November. Long after we were going to have left. Ahmed said he read somewhere that that was no problem. As long as we had the paper that showed we had an appointment to try to get an extension, it should be fine.

Sigh… I should have learned my lesson in Russia.

So anyway, at the airport, Ahmed goes to the Turkish citizens’ line for passport control, and I go to the ‘Other’ line. It’s one of those long, windy lines with lots of switchbacks, but finally I’m at the window, and the guy looks at my visa and says, “You overstayed.”

“Yes,” I say, and explain briefly what happened.

“You have to go see the chef,” he says.

“The chef?”

“The chef du controle.”

The Turks have a long history of French influence, and you can find many French borrowings in modern Turkish. Luckily I’ve studied enough French to know this probably means the Big Cheese of Passport Control. “Where is the chef?” I ask.

“That way,” he says, pointing in a vaguely diagonal line over the heads of the people crowded in lines and toward the enormous hangar-like check-in lobby.

“Where exactly?”

“Go that way and turn left.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Just go that way and turn left.”

“Where? How far?”

“Just go that way and turn left.”

At this point he’s starting to get angry, so I just start walking in that vague direction until I find a small booth that seems like hopefully the right place (even though it’s not really where he said it was). I hand over my documents, explain again, and the man says, “Go to the police.”

“The police?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“You need to be punished.”

“Punished?”

“You need to pay.”

“How much?”

“Ask them.”

“OK. Where are they?”

“That way.” Again a vague point in a dizzyingly huge and crowded space.

“Where exactly?”

“That way.”

So I walk again, maybe two or three hundred meters, and ask someone, and they point me to the police. Keep in mind I’m rolling my carry-on with a heavy backpack on top of it, and as a potentially pregnant person, I’m really not supposed to be lifting or carrying anything, and I’m certainly not supposed to be stressed out. The reason I’m carrying most of our stuff is because it’s crammed full of supplements and drugs to support what we hope will be a pregnancy, and it would make a heck of a lot more sense for me to be carrying it than for Ahmed to be if someone stops us and asks us about it. Since I figured I’d be through passport control in five minutes, I wasn’t worried about it. But now I’m dragging it all over the place, through crowds, and it’s stressing me out and pissing me off.

Add to that the fact that my doctor had, to be conservative, put me on larger-than-normal doses of progesterone, a hormone that utterly robs me of my already tenuous ability to suffer fools and deal with bullshit. Not a good state of mind to be in when facing a full day of dealing with border control goons.

So I snake my pissed-off way through the (thankfully) mostly empty line to talk to the police. I have to wait a bit because someone is ahead of me and takes a while, but finally it’s my turn. I hand over my papers, explain yet again, and he hands it back to me. “I need a copy of your passport.”

“Um… Can’t you just make a copy?”

“No.”

“OK… How can I make a copy?” It wasn’t like I had a copy machine in my carry-on.

“That way,” he says, pointing me back to where I came from.

“Where?”

“Next to the café.”

“What’s next to the café?”

“You can make a copy there.”

“Where?”

“Next to the café,” he says, as if I’m an idiot.

This is fucking pointless. “Then I come back here?” I ask.

“Yes.”

“Will I have to stand in line again?” I ask, because sometimes if people make you go get something else, they’ll wave you back in since you already stood in line once.

“Of course.” Again, like I’m an idiot.

I don’t want to talk to this jerk anymore, but I also don’t want to walk all the way back to where I came from, ask around until I find the correct café, try to find someone who knows where the mysterious place is where people can make copies, figure out how much it costs, and figure out how to pay for it (I don’t have any Turkish lira with me).

I’ve already burned through forty minutes. The flight leaves in an hour and twenty minutes, and we’re supposed to be at the gate thirty minutes ahead of time, and I have no idea how long this is going to take or when or if it’s going to end, not to mention that even if it does end, I’ll have to go through the big passport control line again, followed by the security checkpoint, and meanwhile Ahmed doesn’t know where I am, and I have no way of letting him know, and I’m sure he’s freaking out, and I have no idea what kind of fine they’re going to slap me with, or if there’ll be some other ‘punishment’ as well, and if we miss this flight over something that’s NOT MY FAULT TO BEGIN WITH, I am seriously going to lose my shit. I’m kind of losing it already.

And all of that is, of course, entirely secondary to the fact that, if I am pregnant, this is not good for me or my embryo(s), and everything could be ruined by these thick-headed functionaries who have no idea of my situation and couldn’t possibly care less. And the stress of that takes all the other stress and ratchets it up by an order of magnitude. I really try not to let it get to me, and I really fail. At this point I almost wouldn’t blame a couple of beings, on their tenth day of gestation, from choking on all that adrenaline and jumping ship from this world. And that makes me feel really, really sad.

I soon see a storefront for Iranian Airlines, where a man is standing and looking very bored. Iranians are nice people, and I’m sure he has a copy machine. I walk up to him and say, “Excuse me, I need a copy of my passport to give to the police. Would you terribly mind just making a quick copy for me?”

“You can do that next to the café,” he says.

I nod slowly, and I must look like I’m going to cry, because he says quickly, “Here, give it to me. You just need one copy?”

I nod again like a little kid who’s just been told she doesn’t have to go to time out after all. He makes the copy in about five seconds, hands it back to me, and I give him my best grateful smile and thanks before heading back to the line for the police. I snake through the goddamn switchbacks again and wait maybe ten minutes to talk to the police again. They take the copy, look again at the documents, write a number on some kind of receipt, and say, “OK, now you have to go over there and pay.”

“What?! I can’t just pay you?”

“No, you have to go over there.”

“Where?”

“Where it says Information.”

“Where is that?”

“It’s over there. Why didn’t you just read it?” Again, like I’m an idiot.

Tears in my eyes (it’s now less than an hour until the plane departs), I stumble toward where he pointed until I find yet another booth. At least the fee is ‘only’ 233 Turkish lira. I hand over the receipt and my documents, and the man says, “Cash only.”

“Are dollars OK?”

“No, only Turkish lira.”

I take a deep breath to stop myself from strangling the man with his own tie.

“Don’t worry,” he says. “Just go to the exchange office. It’s right there.”

At least this one is within visual range. But I still have no idea when or if this shit is ever going to end. I feel like a rat caught in an endless maze. The poor guy at the exchange office must think I’m a nutcase. Through tears I ask, “How many dollars do I have to give you to get 233 Turkish lira?” Math is way beyond me at this point.

He taps on his calculator. “Eighty-two dollars.”

I hand it over, he gives me the lira.

I go back to the previous booth and hand over the lira. The man writes something on the receipt and says, “Now go back to the police and let them know you paid.”

I am too numb to do anything but walk back to the police line like a zombie, threading my way – yet again – back and forth through the switchbacks. The police look over my documents again, take my receipt, write me another receipt, and say, “Go show this to the chef du controle.”

I don’t have any heart to ask, “Then will this all be over?” I just turn to leave, but there are so many people in the way that there’s no easy way to get out with my bags. I’ll have to thread my way backwards through the switchbacks.

That’s when I finally have a panic attack. It’s funny the little things that tip the scales. I can’t do anything but stand there with my hand clutching my throat and breathe in and out, my heart pounding, waiting for it to pass. A man behind me asks if I’m OK, but I can’t speak. I hold up a finger to ask him to wait. After a minute or so I can breathe normally again. I thread my way backwards through the switchbacks and walk slowly and mechanically back toward passport control. I barely care anymore whether I miss my flight, but I know I should care.

Then I look at the long switchbacking line to get back to the passport control lines, and I just can’t. The coast seems clear, so I simply open up a divider rope and step through near the chef du controle’s booth, pretending like I know what I’m doing, bypassing the line entirely. No one stops me.

I get in line to see the chef, but he’s busy with some other guy who’s sweating bullets and obviously having an even worse day than I am. He begs the chef to have mercy, calling him “big brother” in Turkish, but the chef will not be moved. He begs and begs, and I’m rooting for him, but I’m also rooting for me to catch my flight, which is looking less and less likely. I still don’t know if the chef will even let me pass or if there’s some other punishment waiting. Meanwhile I know poor Ahmed must be absolutely frantic. I keep looking for him on the other side but can’t spot him.

But then I do spot someone – Ahmed’s sister-in-law and her husband and their two kids. They’ve apparently driven in all the way from Izmit to say good-bye to us. I wave to them, hoping I don’t look as psychotic as I feel, but I can’t go to them for fear I’ll lose my place in line. After a while they realize they can enter the Turkish citizens’ line and come closer, so they do. I know only enough Turkish to shrug and say, “Visa problem.”

Finally the chef dismisses the sweating-bullets guy and brings his attention to me. He looks at everything, gives me another receipt, and tells me to go to Line 1, which is in the Turkish citizens’ section. Which makes no sense. So I say, “Bir?” (‘One’ in Turkish.) He nods.

Ahmed’s brother takes my stuff and helps me roll it toward Line 1. We hug and smile and say good-bye, and they hand me an eight-pound bag of pismaniye, a sugary sesame candy that’s a specialty of their region. I take it and the rest of my luggage and get into Line 1. It’s maybe thirty-five minutes ’til our flight leaves the ground. I crane my neck again and finally spot Ahmed in the crowd across the room. He’s craning his neck looking for me in the ‘Other’ line, never suspecting I’ll be in the Turkish citizens’ line.

I jump up and down and wave my hands, and he glances over and sees me, and his face melts in relief. He runs over to the Turkish area, and I shout to him that his brother’s family is here, though of course he can’t come back out and hug them because his passport is already stamped. They all wave to each other, and I get to the head of Line 1, and the agent takes my receipt and stamps my passport, and I’m finally through. I take the bags through security, and Ahmed and I are reunited at last.

“What happened?” he asks. It’s clear he’s been worried sick.

“I don’t want to talk about it yet. Let’s just get on the plane.”

The plane is about halfway through boarding when we finally rock up. We settle in and watch Inside Out (which is awesome!) on our little personal movie screens, then he watches Mad Max while I watch The Other Woman (a nice feel-good girl power movie) and a couple other forgettable films.

The flight takes almost twelve hours and arrives in Chicago at 5:20pm, which is 1:20am in Istanbul. Bedtime. Neither of us slept on the plane (though I tried), and we’re both pretty sleepy. We have a two-hour layover, and Ahmed has a Green Card, so we assume we’re reasonably safe. We do the automatic check-in-to-the-country thing (which I’ve never seen before), and his receipt comes back with a big black X through it.

Great.

We head to the passport control line, and I sail through, but Ahmed is told to follow some guy. We try to ask what’s going on, but we’re given no further information.

So we follow the guy. He takes us to a waiting room full of maybe two dozen people, nearly all of them of South Asian or Middle Eastern descent.

No racial profiling here, folks.

There’s no apparent order to who gets called. They seem to simply pick passports out of a pile at random. They call for Mohammed, Ali, Ahmed (a different Ahmed), Ali Mohammed, Jafar… You get the picture. Flying while Muslim. On the day before 9/11 no less. Blegh.

The clock is once again ticking, and we know we still have to get our boarding passes and go through security again since we’re switching from an international to a domestic flight. Twenty minutes pass, forty. Our flight is at 7:30pm, and it’s likely the last one of the day. We have a hotel booked in Tulsa, the idea being to give us some space to RELAX upon reentry. But that’s looking more and more like a pipe dream. Not to mention, they have the power to deport Ahmed without any kind of due process if they feel like it. And we have no idea if there’s some kind of actual problem or if this is just routine bullshit.

Finally Ahmed is called, and he’s asked a few inane questions by a border guard I’ll just call Meathead. Ahmed explains why we were in Istanbul and I pipe in, “I might be pregnant right now, and all this stress is really not good. And we’re very close to missing our flight.” I’m trying to appeal to the guy’s humanity. Can ya hurry it up a little, dude?

He just looks at me with dull eyes and says, “They’ll rebook you.”

I want to say, “First of all, you don’t know that. They don’t have to rebook for shit that’s not their fault. Second, for all you know, they won’t be able to rebook us until the morning, which means we’re stuck here all night. Third, you’re really just punishing innocent people with Muslim names for no reason, and it’s fucking pathetic. You don’t even care if we miss our flights, or what that might mean for some of us.”

Instead I say weakly, “Well, it still means we’ll be stuck here for more hours.”

Meathead continues staring at me dully.

I say quickly, “Anyway, just…” I barely stop myself from saying, “Just do your goddamn job.” Instead I indicate his computer as if to say, “Carry on, by all means.”

Poor Ahmed. He’s looking at me like, “You’re not helping!”

Belatedly, I shut my pie hole. (I like to think progesterone has the effect it does to help the Mama Bear instinct kick in – you don’t mess with Mama Bear, right? I like to think that because it’s nicer than thinking it turns me into a giant bitch.)

Two minutes later – the whole damned “interrogation” only took about five minutes, after making us wait an hour, fucking pointless bullshit – we’re running toward the trains to take us to Terminal 2E, which isn’t the normal United terminal, but the TV screens say that’s where our flight is. Whatever. We get there and go to the United desk. No one is there. We ask a passing guy with a badge where they are.

He says, “After 6pm there’s no one here.”

“So how can we get our boarding passes?”

“You have to go to Terminal 1.”

So we run to Terminal 1 (Chicago’s airport is huge, mind you – these are not short distances) and find a lone woman at the United desk. She informs us that we’re too late to check in. The system is locked out. I briefly explain our situation and ask if there isn’t anything she can do. She starts tapping on her computer and continues for some time.

I finally say, “May I ask what it is that you’re trying to do?”

She says, “I’m trying to book you for a flight tomorrow.”

My heart sinks. Tomorrow. Great. “There’s no hope tonight at all?” I ask.

“I’m trying to book you for a flight tomorrow so you can get through security and catch your flight tonight.”

My heart leaps. “Oh, thank you so much!”

She hands us our boarding passes and we sprint back to 2E.

The TSA guy at the security checkpoint looks at our boarding passes and says, “These are for tomorrow.”

“Yes, I know,” I say. “It’s a long story. But it’s fine. Please. We need to hurry.”

He continues staring at them. “But they’re for tomorrow. I don’t know if I can let you in.”

“We have a 7:30 flight tonight. It’s about to leave. A woman from United gave it to us so we could try to catch our flight. Please.”

He calls a supervisor over. “Hey, can I let these people through? Their flight is tomorrow.”

She takes a look at our boarding passes, sees our frantic faces, and apparently puts the pieces together. “Yeah, after about 6pm it’s fine to let people through. Thanks for asking me, though!”

He finally lets us through and I announce to the people in line for baggage check, “Pardon me, but we’re about fifteen minutes from missing our flight. Would you terribly mind if we went ahead?”

Everyone kindly steps aside, and we put our luggage on the belt. But nothing is moving. A man is trying to push and pull a bag stuck in the machine, but it won’t budge. There are three more machines, and about six people standing around doing nothing, and I ask one of them, “Excuse me, can we possibly use another machine? We’re very close to missing our flight.”

The man working on fixing the machine says, “Just hold on.”

Five minutes pass, and it’s really like the Keystone Kops vs. The Machine. He keeps trying the same thing over and over again. It never works. Ahmed goes ahead through the metal detector to let the people at the gate know we’re on our way. I’m almost in tears again, and one of the agents says, “Come on through, I’ll make sure your baggage gets on the belt.”

Not really helpful. The belt is still not moving.

Five more minutes pass. Ahmed comes back, looking defeated. “They’re gonna close the gate really soon.”

We can’t do anything. Five more minutes pass. Finally they have the brilliant idea of just using another machine. Our bags come through and we sprint to our gate, which is not exactly close by.

Just as we arrive, a man emerges from the door to the walkway and shuts it. We can see our plane through the window.

I say breathlessly to the guy, “Hey, we’re here, sorry, TSA held us up. Is there any way we can get on that plane?”

“Sorry,” he says. “Captain’s orders. When the captain tells me to do something, I have to do it.” He says something about how even five minutes can somehow turn into overtime and cause delays and blah blah, but I’m not really listening. I collapse on the floor and just sit there, defeated. I give myself a few moments to let the sadness pass through me and then I stand up again.

“How can we get rebooked on another flight tonight?”

“That was the last United flight of the day.”

“Of course it was. What about on American or something? Can’t you rebook us to another airline?”

“You’ll have to talk to a United representative.”

He directs us to the right place, and we speak to a woman and ask if there isn’t anything she can do. She says there’s an American flight leaving in an hour, but she isn’t allowed to put us on it because United didn’t book our original flight.

“Is there any way we can get on that flight?”

“Since you originally booked through Lufthansa,” she says, “maybe they can do it?”

“Where are they?”

“End of the B corridor.”

It’s a long motherfucking corridor.

At this point Ahmed wants to just give up and get a hotel room.

I say, “Hey, we have forty-five minutes and no security checkpoints to get through. Those are the best odds we’ve had all day.”

So we run another mile or so to find the Lufthansa counter. No one’s there, but a large German man with a Lufthansa badge wanders by, and we explain our situation. He goes to the counter and starts tapping on the computer and talking to someone on the phone. He tells the person on the phone that we missed our connecting flight because our first flight was late. I don’t know if he assumed that or just said it to help us out, but we certainly don’t correct him.

He finally hands us two hand-written strings of numbers and says we can go to the check-in counter at gate H18 to get our boarding passes.

“And you should maybe hurry,” he says mildly. “It leaves in less than half an hour.”

We thank him profusely and run all the way back down the entire length of the B corridor, all the way to the H corridor, and all the way to our gate which is, naturally, at the very damn end of the long-ass H corridor.

(I had terrible shin splints the next day.)

Luckily there’s a ten-minute delay, and the plane is boarding when we get there. We’re home free. Finally.

Except the pilot hasn’t shown up. No one knows where he is. It’s burning up in the cabin (or maybe that’s just us, sweating from our half marathons), but the cockpit is locked so no one can turn on the AC. Twenty minutes pass. Forty. It’s not clear if we’ll actually get to Tulsa tonight. We start laughing. What the hell kind of day is this? Really?

Finally the pilot shows up, and there’s some kind of mechanical/paperwork thing, but that’s sorted out, and we’re in the air.

We land in Tulsa, pretty sure our bags must have come in on our United flight. So we walk down a semi-long corridor to the United lost luggage office and explain our situation. She tells us we have to go wait for our luggage at the American carousel before she can write up a report. Seems pointless, but OK. It’s now 11pm, which is 7am Istanbul time. We are wiped out. We walk all the way back down the corridor and wait for our luggage. It predictably doesn’t come, and we walk all the way back to the United office.

She asks for all of our information and enters it into the computer. Then she says, “Wait a minute, you came in on an American flight, right?”

“Yes. As we told you.”

“Then you have to file a claim with them, not us.”

“Then why the fuck did you waste our time, you dim-witted harpy from hell?” I don’t say. I want to, though. I’m kinda demented by this point.

So we walk all the way back down the corridor, back to American, and they take all our information yet again. Just our luck, some entirely new baggage tracking system had been rolled out just as our bags were being put on the plane in Istanbul. No one apparently understands the new system, so it’s not even clear what continent our bags are on.

Whatever. It’s almost midnight now, and we flag down a shuttle to take us to our hotel. Our room is sub-Arctic, with the AC going full blast, and I try to open the window, but it’s welded shut. I turn on the heater for just a little bit to keep us from freezing solid, and a toxic burning smell fills the room.

Choking, I call the front desk. As if it’s perfectly normal, she says, “No problem, I’ll get you booked into another room.”

The new room doesn’t have soap, but I don’t care. I wash myself with shampoo and pass out around 1am Tulsa time, which is 9am Istanbul time.

And that was our terrible, horrible, no good, very bad trip home.

Here’s the thing. If I’m not pregnant, I’ll never know if the stress of that day had anything to do with it.

If I am pregnant, it’ll just be one of those funny anecdotes about what we go through to have kids.

Here’s hoping it’s the latter.

Just to clear out some of the bad vibe cobwebs, let’s count our blessings here at the end, shall we?

  1. We did, after all, fly all the way from Istanbul to Oklahoma in less than 24 hours. That’s pretty amazing.
  2. The Iranian guy didn’t have to help me out, no matter how pathetic I looked. It was very kind of him.
  3. The United lady who tried to circumvent the rules and help us catch our flight didn’t actually help us catch our flight, but it was very sweet of her to try. And she did get us past the security checkpoint so that we could attempt the Lufthansa Hail Mary.
  4. The Lufthansa guy was an understated angel. He didn’t have to go right to the desk, tell a white lie about the cause for the delay, and get us free and timely tickets home, but he did. Bless him.
  5. Because we got the hotel room in Tulsa, we didn’t have to involve anyone else in our drama. We could just show up whenever and pass right out. That was a lucky break.
  6. Seriously: If you haven’t seen Inside Out, you should. Genuinely thoughtful and funny and gorgeous movie with a great and unexpected message.
  7. We did get our luggage back the next day (minus one wheel).
  8. We came home to a green and gorgeous Oklahoma September, and we made a huge pot of ginger curry chicken soup with wild rice and avocado. It was really good.

    kitchen

    P.S. Someone on Facebook asked, so here’s the recipe we followed for the soup.

    For stock:

    Sautee an onion and a half cut into chunks until translucent and lightly browned, add chunks of ginger and garlic, sautee a bit more, remove all from the pot.

    Lightly brown two pounds of chicken thighs (you can salt and season the chicken first, which we forgot to do, but it’s good either way), then add onions and stuff back in and cook on low (covered) until the chicken releases its juices (about 20 min).

    Add carrot chunks, celery chunks, bay leaves, parsley, sage, rosemary, cayenne, curry powder, and cracked pepper, cover with boiling water, and simmer for one hour. Remove chicken and cut into little chunks. Set aside. Let the rest of the pot continue to simmer for three more hours or so.

    For soup:

    Meanwhile dice another onion and a half plus about five carrots and five celery stalks. Sautee for a while in a second pot, then add finely diced garlic and ginger plus salt and cracked pepper (and a bit more curry powder and cayenne if you like, but keep in mind cayenne packs a punch) and sautee some more. Turn the heat off, add the chicken in, and just let it sit until about twenty minutes before you want to eat.

    At that point, strain the stock and throw the solids out under a tree for the rabbits. Pour the stock into the second pot with all the stuff in it, add finely-diced parsley, and simmer for 20 more minutes. Salt to taste.

    Add wild rice, sourdough croutons, garlic bread, and/or avocado chunks if ya like.

    Sounds simple when you write it out like that, but when you’re jet-lagged, it’s like climbing Mt. Everest. 😛 Totally worth it, though.

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