Thursday 14 August 2014

Turkish Delight: Preface

Our Turkish Airline Plane crossing Afghanistan

Istanbul: First Look
(I traveled to Turkey for vacation during first half of July,2014. Following is an account of my experiences en route to Istanbul and onwards. This is the first installment of the series, focusing on the planing and visa phase of the journey. I hope you enjoy it.)

Life is a sequence of births and deaths. Moments are born and moments die. For new experiences to come to light, old ones need to wither away. 

Elif Shafak


I was not supposed to be in Istanbul in the summer of July, 2014. There was no such plan beforehand. I wanted to travel abroad and my eyes were set on Europe as the possible destination. My sister lives in Germany and I wanted to visit her and my nephew. I filled the application form for Schengen visa and obtained requisite documents (Passport valid for at least three months after arrival, health insurance, hotel booking, bank statement, air ticket, employers' certificate etc). With one eye on Europe, I submitted the documents at the Dutch embassy (as it is considered the most lenient embassy). I had planned to visit Amsterdam, stay there for a day or two, move towards Germany and spent two weeks there, followed by a week in Greece. I was quite confident about getting the visa. 

Almost two weeks after the submission, I was taking a class when my phone buzzed. I couldn't pick it up at that time so I called back. It was a call from the Visa service and they told that my passport had arrived and I should come and collect it. I thought I had made it. The visa center is located almost a hundred kilometers away from my city and it takes almost two hours by car to reach there. I applied for leave from college and drove towards the visa center the next day. I had to wait for almost two hours until I got my passport back. When my ticket number appeared on the electronic screen, my heart skipped a beat. Hoping for the best, I approached the relevant counter and received my documents, clad in a white bag. I opened the bag to find my passport and a few printed pages. I went out of the visa centre and started looking for the visa stamp on my passport, full of excitement. 

There was no additional stamp!!! I thought I might be wrong I checked the pages again, and again, and again. Couldn't find it. It was at that time that I took a peek at the printed pages. The first three pages were in Dutch so I couldn't understand what they meant. The last page had a summary in English. It said that my visa application had been rejected because I had failed to demonstrate enough resources to sustain myself during my intended stay in Netherlands and that I had not given any proof that I'd come back to my country. I was devastated to read this. I realized later that I should not have mentioned my salary at the medical college along with my father's bank statement (thus creating a financial disparity). I should have mentioned my contract with the medical college to prove that I intended to come back to Pakistan. Fortunately I have a Dutch friend, who helped me understand the rejection document and filed an appeal on my behalf (I haven't heard back from the Dutch Foreign Ministry about that appeal till now). 

There was no way that I was spending my holiday time rotting away at home. Something had to be done and it had to done fast. The first three options that came to my mind were Turkey, Malaysia and Dubai. I had been to Turkey before and had enjoyed the trip immensely. Malaysia is a beautiful place to go and Dubai has a lot of glitter/fancy places. I could easily get visa for either of these countries. The factor that helped me decide easily was the timing of my trip. The medical college was supposed to be closed during Ramzan, for summer vacations. I figured that Dubai, being an Arab country, would not be too attractive an option. Malaysia had recently been in the news for some repressive laws against its minorities. Turkey was the best option, considering these facts. I had a very important exam to tackle on 4th of June, so I postponed my efforts to get a Turkish visa.

 As soon as I was done with my exam, I focused all my attention on obtaining a Turkish visa. I got inoculated against Polio as soon as possible (as it has been made mandatory for everyone traveling outside Pakistan to be inoculated against polio by World Health Organization. Turkish visa application required me to possess passport with validity of at least 6 months after my arrival. My passport was due to expire in 4.5 months. I was informed that I won't get visa until I fulfilled this criteria. I visited a passport office located on the other side of my city (to avoid the congestion at the main office) and applied for urgently renewing my passport. On my first visit, I forgot to take along my original national identity card (I had a copy of it but not the original one at that time). I finally managed to go through the whole process on the next day. Meanwhile I tried to obtain the documents required by Turkish embassy. 

My passport arrived the next week and I left off for Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, the very next day. I had prior experience of the workings of Turkish embassy so I was confident of getting visa on the same day. I reached the embassy almost an hour and a half in advance. They are supposed to start working at 9.30 am but they don't typically begin before 10 am. I got ticket number 7. I was ushered in around 11 am. The visa officer asked me a few routine questions, and when I told him about my previous visit to Turkey, he was satisfied. He collected visa fee from me and asked me to collect my passport at 4.30 pm.

I went to Islamabad city and met a few friends working there. A lawyer friend of mine wanted to have lunch. He arrived 30 minutes late and we only reached the restaurant at 3 pm. It was located almost 10 kilometers away from the diplomatic enclave (In Islamabad, most embassies are based in a particular area that has been cordoned off and only diplomats can enter it. For visitors like myself, there is a bus service that takes people to different embassies and later collects them. The last bus to depart the bus station leaves at 4 pm). I got free from lunch around 3.30 and asked my friend directions to reach the bus station as soon as possible. He told me that there were two ways, the shorter one involved crossing the constitution avenue (which houses Pakistan's Parliament, Supreme Court and President House) while the other way was long. 

I decided to try the shorter route but was stopped at the first check post. The traffic police guys said that I won't be able to cross the constitution avenue because of heavy security measures. I asked one of the cops the route towards the enclave. He guided me to the road that was supposed to take me nearer the enclave. It was 3.37 pm already. I fastened my seatbelt and rammed the accelerator as hard as I could. I was terribly panicked and drove very fast. After taking a wrong turn, I eventually reached the road that went to the enclave. I parked my car in a hurry and ran towards the counter to get ticket for the bus. It was 3.59 pm. I was the last passenger on the bus going across diplomatic enclave that day. 

I was one of the three passengers on that bus. We reached the Turkish embassy around 4.15 pm. Just like the morning, the embassy staff didn't start giving back the passports on time. We waited there, with baited breath. The clock struck 5:00, then 5:15, then 5:30. I had brought along a pamphlet on "political economy of Milk and its distribution in Pakistan" which I finished till 5:00. We were not allowed to bring mobiles to the embassy so there was not an awful lot left to be done. The first person to be called for collecting passport went in at 5:35 pm. My turn came at 6:00 pm. I boarded one of the last buses to exit the enclave and reached the bus station. I was finally relieved.

I hung out with my friends that day and drove back to Sialkot, my home town, the next day.

(To be Continued)

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