a travel story

May 14, 2007 3 a.m. Berlin, Germany.

We board in a thunderstorm. Lightening streaks across a black sky, brightening the tarmac briefly.

As we taxi toward the runway, a camera attached to the front of the plane shows our progress on screens in the cabin. Yellow lines on the tarmac roll under us, there’s the flicker of lights, and then we are airborne, the screen suddenly dark as we lift into the night.

Improbably, in what seems like just a few minutes later, orange streaks the clouds. As we gain altitude, the sun rises.

It’s 4 am.

We’d planned to visit Germany for two weeks, but just before we left, we decided we needed a bit more relaxation in our vacation, so I booked us on a cheap(ish) charter flight from Berlin to Iraklion, Crete. We would spend a week in Crete, then a week in Germany. The catch was the flight left at 3 am. When I saw “03:00” online, I thought it might be a typo, so I called the airline, Condor Air. (Their slogan, on their English language web site, was “Born to Fly,” which I thought was hilarious and repeated often throughout our travel preparations and the flights themselves, which Billy tolerated somewhat patiently.)

A nice German lady answered the phone. I told her about the flight we wanted to take. I said, “What time does this flight leave?”
She said, “It leaves at 3.”
I said, “3 am?”
She said, with absolute seriousness: “Yes, three in the morning.”
I said, “That’s pretty early.”
She said, again completely deadpan: “Ja, I think you need to go to the airport at about midnight.”

So: We left our house in San Francisco at 6:15 am on Saturday morning. We arrived in Berlin at 8:30 am on Sunday. Somewhere in there we were missing a night’s sleep. We went to my dad’s apartment to take naps. I couldn’t fall sleep. Billy slept 5 or 6 hours. I eventually slept three. We got up, had dinner at a potato restaurant. (No fear of carbs here! This is a country I can get behind!) Stopped for some excellent ice cream. Stayed up until midnight, though both of us were ready to go to bed. Instead, we got on a subway train, and then another, and another. We arrived at the Schonefeld Airport in the former East Berlin at 1 am.

I felt like I was unknowingly playing a part in a sci fi movie. Beams of light from the airport shot out over a deserted parking lot. The terminals were empty, hulking warehouses. The only passengers were those bleary looking people waiting for our flight. We lined up for check-in as if booking passage on a space cruiser. There were no computers, no self-check-in options. Just two lines. We waited. I got hungry. It was dinner time, back in San Francisco. I found a café that was open, and all they had was bread and coffee. I gulped down a dry croissant, and skipped the coffee, hoping for sleep on the flight. At 3:15, they let us walk out onto the tarmac in a thunderstorm to board our Condor jet.

Three a.m. marked 37 hours since we’d left San Francisco. Neither of us slept at all on the three-and-a-half hour flight.

The Mediterranean glittered when we landed in Crete, and I felt the warmth of summer air when I got off the plane.

Inside a smoky terminal, we got our bags, then moved with determination. We would catch a bus into the city, then walk a few blocks to a regional bus terminal, and hop on another bus to Rethymno, where we had booked a room for that night. Sleep!

Billy was wavering toward hiring a cab from the airport to the bus station, but I prefer to take buses and travel the hard way (also the cheap way). In retrospect, our confusion at finding the airport bus terminal should have been a signal that we were too sleep-deprived to be doing the independent traveler thing. We wandered around staring open-mouthed at the taxi stand and a few tour buses that had pulled up out front. It took a long time to notice the city bus stop across the parking lot.

Each of us traveled with a backpack and a messenger bag. We wrestled these onto our backs and marched over to the stand. We bought two tickets. Minutes later, we boarded a bus, and the driver took each of our tickets and ripped them in half. I stuffed the remainder into my pocket. I remember feeling oddly comfortable in my bus seat, as if I knew my way around this city I had never been to before. I did not scramble to follow our progress on my map. I assumed the bus route would end where we needed to get off.

These were mistakes I attribute to sleep deprivation. And a vague paragraph in my Lonely Planet book. The book said the bus would stop at a large plaza near the old city walls, and it did. Except that we did not get off, and the bus kept going.

Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. Morning commuters crowded onto the bus. It was, after all, only 7:30 am. I looked at the map and saw that we seemed to be moving away from the plaza. I said (too calmly) “I wonder if that’s where we should have gotten off?”
Billy said, “I don’t know.” His exhaustion was making him think slowly, too.
We were so tired that our inaction felt very comfortable. Like a nap.
Except that we knew we were making a mistake. We just couldn’t find the energy to stop it from happening.
I thought of asking someone, but couldn’t seem to speak or feel a reason for urgency. More people boarded the bus, until we could no longer see much of our progress outside the windows. The bus kept going.

Finally, after seeing the same bus line out the window across the street going back the way we had just come, we resolved to get off. I stood, awkwardly dragging my bags and pushing through the passengers, who glared. The doors opened, I stepped out. I turned around to see Billy behind the glass. He’d been unable to get through the crowd quickly enough. The bus pulled away. I watched as it turned off the road we’d been following for some time. It might have been an on-ramp for a highway, and I closed my eyes, hoping that it was not.

I was too tired to panic. It was hot, and my pack was heavy on my back. I began to sweat. I looked around. We had gotten off the bus in what seemed like an industrial part of town. There were auto repair shops, office furniture dealers. It was dusty. For some reason I was wearing jeans, and this seemed very stupid, for they were heavy and too warm. The road I stood next to was busy, but I saw no taxis. My lack of sleep jumbled my thoughts, and I had to fight to organize the information:

I am alone.
There are no taxis.
There are no tourists.
I know where we are trying to go, Billy does not.
Billy has a working cell phone, I do not.
I have a guidebook, Billy does not.
Neither of us has had a night’s sleep in more than 40 hours.

This last thought, more than the others, worried me, because I knew that I was not capable of handling the ordeal of finding Billy if he did not return soon, without getting some sleep. I paced along the road, my backpack hot on my back, and a few women waiting for the next bus stared at me. How long should I wait here? I wondered. What if he didn’t return in an hour? Two hours? Would we both think to go back to the airport and meet there? Would we go to Internet cafes and try to connect that way? And this, heretical thought: If I didn’t find him by the afternoon, would it be wrong to check into a hotel and get some sleep and then try to find him after that?

Just then an emaciated beagle puppy appeared and sniffed at my feet, wagging his tail. He was dirty and sad and pleading. He was more than I could handle just then, with the heat and lack of sleep and Billy lost on a bus, and I had to turn away.

Something on my bag was digging into an unprotected spot on my lower back, where there was little extra flesh to absorb the prodding. I felt the bruises forming. I squinted at the sun and watched the cars buzz past. I thought: How long do I wait?

But a few minutes later Billy marched over the hill on the other side of the street. I could tell by his stride and the way he held his head straight that he was annoyed and determined to get to where we were going. There were no crosswalks or stoplights and I had to jog across the road, dodging cars.

Neither of us voiced the what ifs. We were too tired for that. We stood at the bus stop for a moment looking at a map posted there. A man approached us and pointed out the plaza we had missed. We asked him where to get a new ticket, and he shrugged, then (kindly) asked another woman waiting for the bus. She shook her head. The man shrugged again, then suggested the newsstand across the street.

So we braved the cars again, breathed the dust and smog and lugged our bags to the newsstand. And old woman was inside, her wares obscuring all but a small hole through which to pass money. We pulled our ripped half tickets from our pockets and displayed them in our palms, thrust into the hole. Tickets?

She shook her said and pointed to a sign, which we could not read, but which said, presumably, “We have no tickets.”

So we crossed the busy road again, and began walking uphill in the direction we wanted to go. We stopped at newsstand after newsstand. No tickets. We weaved across the street and back again in our quest. Our bags grew
heavier, the sun grew hotter, my hip bones grew more bruised. At one store, we watched as an old man in front of us
in line bought up the last of the tickets the store had. When it was our turn, the proprietor shook his head sadly.

As we trudged up the street, I heard the words of my boss, a frequent Crete visitor who’d cautioned me before I left for Europe: “Get out of Iraklion as soon as possible,” he’d said.  I’m trying, I thought. I see what you mean, I thought.

I wanted to keep an open mind about the place, but the dust and the heat and the narrowed eyes when we asked for tickets were taking their toll. At one point, Billy asked if I thought we were being refused tickets because we were tourists. I said no, because I prefer to believe people are honest, and because I could believe that every newsstand was out of bus tickets, if only because I had once gone to at least five stores in San Francisco before finding one that wasn’t sold out of MUNI passes.

By the time we reached a store that had tickets, we’d probably carried our bags a mile. I was thirsty from the dust and the heat and the plane rides, and my desire for water felt more pressing suddenly, than getting bus tickets. We got both.

“That sucked,” Billy said, as we waited at the bus stop. I nodded, gulped my water.  “It makes for a good story,” I said. Just then I felt strangely exhilarated by our adventure. Here was travel, and I had been missing its uncertainties.

Soon we boarded another crowded bus back toward the city center. We knew we sought a plaza, and, not knowing what the place looked like from our reversed direction (still we had not learned to ask) we got off the bus too soon. “There’s no way I’m looking for more tickets,” Billy said, and I was too tired not to agree. More walking with heavy
bags.

In fact we were not far from where we needed to be, but our exhaustion kept clouding our judgment. We could not seem to read our map. We overshot the bus station and had to walk some more. We were both so tired and exasperated that by some tacit agreement, we did not speak unless it was absolutely necessary.

Later, finally seated on the bus to Rethymno, we traced the same exact route out of town that we’d taken that morning. I watched as the bus stop where the beagle had been whizzed by. We’d spent three hours stuck in a hot, dusty loop.

I listened to my iPod, drifted nearly to sleep but never quite. My lips tingled I was so tired; my eyes blurred and my contacts stung.

Soon we were out of the pollution of the city, our bus winding along a highway high above a sapphire sea. Craggy peaks on our left, the sea on our right, below. Oleander was aflame with pink blooms along the road. The soil exposed on the hillsides was the color of time.

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4 thoughts on “a travel story

  1. Billy seems awfully good-natured to go along with the bus ride and then march back to find you after you got off and he didn’t. Then again, what could he have done?

    You know, this reminds me, there’s got to be a way to travel where the traveler doesn’t stand out like a sore thumb. I mean, notwithstanding the language barrier, I’ve always wondered how to fit in more. Either we end up looking like youth hostel travelers with our backpacks or like tourists with our Samsonites. Maybe there is no way to avoid standing out when one first arrives where one’s going.

  2. It’s so true. Even without luggage, travelers tend to stand out. Even when we don’t obviously look different from those in the country we’re visiting, we dress differently and we act differently, even if it’s only in subtle ways, like standing in the wrong place on the train, or not knowing that restaurants are closed on Sunday nights … yeah, that’s probably the subject of another post.

  3. It’s really tough to not look like a tourist. Between looking with interest at things the locals take for granted, constantly checking the street signs when you’re walking (or – heaven forbid – a MAP!), and generally not walking purposely to get someplace, you’re sunk before you begin.

    I’ve told you this story I’m sure, but I bought a bunch of not-obviously-American clothes (linen long pants and shirts, leather sandals… nothing with a logo on it…) for our trip to Turkey several years ago. One of the best things about the trip was walking down a street with souvenir vendors either side and seeing what language they would use to try and get us into their store. Most of the time, we got hailed in english, but we got a lot of french, german and even danish (Danish!) one time. I had to ask the guy about the danish, because I couldn’t place it.

    It’s amazing how much something as simple as not wearing shorts can change people’s view of you.

  4. I know! Not wearing shorts makes a huge difference in most places. Although, man, it sure is a lot hotter.

    FYI- I’m going to start calling you: “Will, the great Dane.”

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