Against all odds, Verla materialized in the lobby of the Celal Aga Konagi Hotel in Turkey’s Istanbul, not far from the Topkapi Palace and its cinema-nurtured legacies of sultans, harems and rubies the size of grapefruit.
It took her 26 hours, more than a thousand miles and a $4,000 cab ride from Munich, Germany.
But there stood Verla Shirley-Chaddick of Rio Vista, Calif., reporting on time to join our group, clearly primed to absorb the Istanbul’s oncoming marvels. Turkey relishes its sagas of the Ottomans. None of them could possibly have outperformed this one. A day earlier the clouds of volcano ash threatened to maroon her in Munich, which is a chummy place to be marooned if you like to hoist a half dozen mugs of Beck’s finest. But it was going to be a miserable downer if you were headed for Istanbul and all of the airlines in sight were locked in for days.
But here suddenly in the Istanbul hotel was Verla, who had flown to Europe separately, connecting with our Minnesota-bred clan of eight in time for Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, the Topkapi, the-bigger-than-Yellowstone Grand Bazaar, and after that Greece and the Aegean islands.
As the group escort I welcomed her with astonishment. “Are you some kind of extra-terrestrial to get here from Munich?”
“No, but I can tell you all you want to know about bad roads in Serbia and Bulgaria.”
Verla Chaddick is a retired school teacher and guidance counselor, heavily involved in international goodwill projects and a personality of effortless engagement. Somewhere along the line she had signed in on the wisdom of an anonymous philosopher: “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room.”
But the skies from Munich to Istanbul the skies were quarantined. After deplaning in Munich, she looked for a cab driver outside the terminal. Three of them had fares. One of the drivers directed her to a distant Mercedes-Benz, operated by a 37-year-old Turkish driver, Salim, who carried a Turkish passport and a green card.
‘Sure, let’s go’
Verla Chaddick made some hurried assessments. “My first judgment was that he was tan and well dressed. He was married with two children. His parents and a brother also lived in Munich. He spoke adequate English and he said he could take me to Istanbul. We talked price. I had Euros, American money and a credit card. He kept asking me if I really wanted to take a taxi to Istanbul, and I said, ‘Sure, let’s go.’
“By then I decided this was a guy I could trust. He spent a lot of the time talking about his kids and raving about his wife’s beautiful hair. He offered me his cell phone so I could call my daughter and my travel agent in the states, and I stopped worrying.
“He called his brother to fax his Turkish military papers to the Turkish border, proving that he had served, otherwise he wouldn’t be able to leave Turkey to return to Germany.”
The guy was chivalrous as well as savvy. He said there might be danger and told her to ride in the front seat to give the appearance that they were traveling as friends. He was worried about thieves and hijackers and possibly corrupt cops at the borders.
So now she had buckled in for a ride that would take them from Munich in southern Germany through Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and one or two of the Balkans she still can’t identify.
They drove over Alpine passes and through great stands of snow-dappled fir. They passed carefully tended farms and cottages on the slopes, scenes and sped past scenes that took her back to Heidi. They crossed the high pass from Austria to Slovenia in falling snow and raced down roller-coaster roads.
Verla began clicking off the time increments when they got past seven hours. “19 miles to Istanbul, she announced…” Her driver, she noticed, was drinking the caffeine-soaked Red Bull to stay alert.
“I learned that we were not going to stop to eat and sleep very often or at all, and I thought, ‘Hmm, easy for him. He’s wired on Red Bull.’ We drove through scattered villages and past small farms that seemed to grown leaner as we advanced through the Balkans. At the border crossings Salim always handed my passport along with his to give the impression that we were companions.”
In the early hours they drove modern highways and Salim floored the gas pedal as they raced southeastward, sometimes beyond 100 miles an hour. The good surfaces ran out after five or six hours. To pass the time the driver became guide and historian, identifying the scenes of battle from wars big and small, how those wars had inflicted cyclical poverty on the people and deepened the distrust and hatreds.
In the deepening dark, he was wary of the miscellaneous shakedown traps. “At the Bulgarian border we had to produce our passports at least four times. We stopped just over the border to use the bathrooms. Salim said it was a safe place to rest because of all of the Turkish trucks waiting to cross the border. On the road again he said he was worried about being forced to pay ‘corruption money’ to the police. And about then we were stopped and accused of ‘speeding.’ He argued strenuously. They said the problem would go away if he forked over 400 Euros [more than $500].”
He paid. The tension mounted. She felt vulnerable but the driver lifted her spirits by stopping at a McDonalds and linking up with another Turkish driver who was returning to Istanbul from a vacation in France with his wife and children. “Salim laughed at the ironies of it: ‘You are eating in an American McDonalds in Bulgaria with Turk in a Mercedes and another in a French car.'”
She marveled at the Turkish cab driver’s quiet sense of stewardship in protecting the safety of his American passenger. “Whenever we stopped and I was in the car, he locked the doors. Once when we were at a border stop he forgot to lock the car. He was scrambling around dealing with green card issues. From a distance he saw a man approaching the car. I heard the locks click. He had used his remote. When he saw that I had left my passport on the seat of another cab we shared, after we arrived in Istanbul, he picked up my passport, scolded me for my carelessness, put my passport in his hip pocket and kept it there until we were back in the car.”
So now she was safe, if somewhat dazed, in that historic crossroads of East and West, where for centuries armies, empires, popes and potentates had clashed for power. And the thought it was a good idea for Verla Shirley-Chaddick of California and the Turkish cab driver to discuss the fare.
“At the beginning he thought it would be something in the range of $2, 500,” she said. “However, at the end of the trip, based on mileage, tolls, border fees, what he lost for allegedly speeding, this estimate was low. I agreed to pay more, nearly $4,000.”
It was exactly the price of a ride to Aunt Emma’s in the suburbs. What she is saying in retrospect is something like this: If she was going to make that tour of Istanbul, Greece and the Aegean, what kind of price do you put on a taxi driver’s civility and care? Add the wild and zany adventure of it, definitely on the edge and a cinch to outlast the sight of that gilded palace of the sultans.
“I’ve already invited Salim’s family to visit our place,” she said back in California — where Salim, the professional Turkish cab driver, will undoubtedly learn to drive from scratch.