Time the chuck “Get Deported” off that ever-growing life list of things I wasn’t really aiming for. Actually it’s a bit of a surprised that it’s never happened before. I guess Turkey is the first country paying enough attention to say, “Oooh no no no! We don’t want you here!” But rejection still hurts. So this story is about that: getting deported. And about hitchhiking, because that’s what I’ve been up to lately. Also as little geography lesson sprinkled in. But mostly, it’s just about how abhorrently stupid ‘borders’ are.
Thumbing out of Erzurum was cold. Damn cold. Possibly dangerously cold. It was 15 below, my eyelashes were frozen, and wind was somehow whipping through even my boots. The problem with hitchhiking in this kind of weather is that there’s a natural need to cover every inch of skin – which makes you look like a bandit. And nobody wants to pick up a bandit. So I was kind of stuck, peeling and re-applying my shell like some fast-stripping burka-babe stuck on repeat. Trying to show just enough skin for a ride and not a follicle more.
Finally it worked, and being a good Turk my driver warmed me in a mountaintop tea hut where old mustaches in traditional cloths clustered around a stove playing backgammon. I had hitched this road once back in September and remembered it being one of the prettiest I’ve ever seen. Now, cloaked under glowing gold snow, the arid peaks and dramatic canyons did not disappoint. But it was slow going. Short rides, long waits, and I had to tespy-battle a cranky old man atop a desolate mountain pass. It wasn’t until late afternoon the dust and ice of the mountains gave way to the lush green of the Black Sea, where tea plantations stretch up into the hills and drape themselves in salty fog, and the sun was floundering on a watery horizon by the time I reached the Georgian border. I was let down, as usual, because every time I get to a border I expect one side to be bright solid pink and the other all yellow like it was on my 5th grade world map. But it never is. Because real borders don’t look like that. Because real borders aren’t really real…
Anyway, real or not, I shouldered my bag and waded through the angry shuffling penguin-people to the fake border guard who took my fake passport, entered it into his fake computer and gave me a fake look of surprise. “Yeah, I know,” I nodded and was flagged into a side room where a young officer was busy stealing large amounts of money from a very sad lady.
“You over-stayed your visa,” he said when it was finally my turn. “By more than a month!”
“Yeah, I know,” I said.
“Why did you do that?” he asked. “Do you want The Deport?”
I had spent all day, all week maybe, carefully rehearsing what to say – I planned on feigning to not understand the 90 in 180 day regulations, to play dumb and hope for the best – but here at the critical moment I botched the game and just bristled at authority like I always have. The truth spilled out:
“Because I don’t believe in visas or borders and I think this is extortion.”
He scratched his head and smiled at me. Actually, up to this point in the story I have misrepresented him as speaking much more English than he really did. In fact, he couldn’t understand anything I was saying. So I continued:
“I don’t think I owe you or anybody else money just to exist in a place, and I think I have the right to put my body wherever I can manage to put it without permission. Your border sucks and you smell like fish.”
He smiled. “Do you like Conan O’Brian?” he asked.
“What?” I was thrown off guard. Was this some kind of a trap?
“I like Conan O’Brian,” he said. Nope, no trap here, just a weird border guy who likes Conan O’Brian. “Okay, pay this or I’ll give you The Deport.” He handed me a piece of paper with an astronomically large fine on it (although, bizarrely, is was still less than the fee for the residency permit which I had refused to get in the first place…). I informed him that even if I had that kind of money, which I didn’t, that I refused to pay on principle. He sighed, stamped my passport and banned me from coming back to Turkey.
Banned. Deported. 5 years.
I blasted into the Georgian side of the imaginary line like an angry goat. “Out of my way! I’m an international fugitive and I claim asylum! Refuge me – don’t Tom Hanks me!” That night I hiked the 5 miles into Batumi, collapsed on the beach and slept like a pissed off baby.
And here we switch for a moment to a geography lesson: because who among us has ever heard of Batumi, Georgia? Yet in my relatively informed opinion – Batumi Georgia is the most bat-shit insane looking city on the planet. It’s like a Soviet lunar colony inhabited by wine-drunk architectural Jetsons. The weather makes no sense: “Warm? Cold? Who knows! But we got palm trees, oranges, a soggy beach and snow on the ground!” Thanks to a city ordinance declaring that everything must be “weird”, its like Gaudi got 1950’s-futuristic and designed a budget commie wack-ville which is now being eaten by vines. Of the top 10 most bizarre buildings I’ve ever seen, all of them are in Batumi Georgia. Then somebody decided it was a good idea to put ping-pong tables and cages of chirping birds everywhere, big fat pelicans waddle around and I shit you not the tree squirrels have big furry rabbit ears. Bright Caribbean colors and streamers of laundry, but the streets are dominated by dumpy drab commie-clad Georgians… oh yeah, that’s the other thing that makes Batumi too bizarre for words: Georgians. I have a strange suspicion that because nobody ever told me what a “Georgian” looked like, my imagination got to decide. And my brain chose to populate the whole country with identical big-nosed Robert Deniro look-alikes. So you got this bizarre cartoon town with no weather, and all these big-nosed Robert Deniros wandering around speaking squiggly nonsense and honking their noses like muppets.
But I didn’t have time to enjoy Batumi’s various oddities on this particular trip: I had a date with a donkey on the other side of the country. I made good time, catching rides with a French-speaking big-nosed Robert Deniro, a couple big-nosed drunk Robert Deniros, and a girl big-nosed Robert Deniro. A big-nosed Robert Deniro guitarist with sparkly eyes picked me up, but his old Soviet clunker broke down horribly moments later and we had to flag down a big-nosed Robert Deniro trucker to pull us off the road. I hopped in with the trucker..
Between rides, I had a lot of time to hang my thumb and stew over the idiocy of borders. For one thing, I thought, borders lie lie lie lie. All the maps I was ever taught to take as truth show divisions between nations as crisp defined lines. But as I locomote myself around that fictional world-view, I’ve been shocked to learn just how many of those alleged boundaries are disputed, weird, or otherwise not as crisp as a map would have me believe. We all know Palestine and Kashmir, but in my small travels I’ve encountered Turkey squabbling with Greece over land on the Aegean and a Catalan separatist party in Barcelona. The absolute absurdity of cycling “out” of Serbia, with military guards interrogating me, “You’re not going to Kosovo, are you? Because Kosovo doesn’t exist, you know? This is all still Serbia, we’re just stamping you out now because… well… because we feel like it, that’s why!” and me shaking my head “No no no, of course not! What’s Kosovo?” only a few meters from the Kosovar checkpoint with absolutely no other place I could possibly be heading. Or the frustration I felt when I lived in Cambodia, locked in conflict with Thailand over ownership of the ancient Preah Vihear temple complex, until they finally just blew it up like bickering babies. On Turkish computers I couldn’t look at my own blog because I used the word “Kurdistan”, and now hitching across Georgia (with no map, as usual) I’m struck with the sudden thought, “Uh oh… I hope I’m not going to end up in Abkhazia or South Ossetia…” I was wondering around in Batumi and bumped into the Adjara embassy. Adjara? What’s Adjara? “Well, it’s a small autonomous republic inside Georgia. Actually, you’re in Adjara right now.” Oh. The Balkans are one giant disputed territory, right now I’m applying for visas with questions like “Have you ever been to the Karabakh lands of Azerbaijan now occupied by Armenia?”, I have stamps in my passport from imaginary places which don’t let me in to other imaginary places, I’ve gone hundreds of mile out of my way around closed borders, and my head hurts staring at maps of the Uyghur Autonomous Region and Tibet. But it’s not just an inconvenience for me– these ‘borders’ make people go insane trying to grab them, hold them, change them and avenge them. Armenian genocide in Eastern Turkey, Chechnyan terrorists just up the road, ethnic cleansing in Abkhazia, Russian bombs in South Ossetia, and swastika graffiti in Tblisi saying “Georgia for Georgians!” : these are all thing happening now or recently within just a few hundred mile radius of where I am! And it’s not because this is a particularly fucked corner of the world, it’s because border wars are being fought all over the world. People are killing each other over imaginary lines drawn in the sand! They’re not real!
Maps can’t even conclusively tell me what continent I’m on right now – I’m stuck in the little grey-zone between the Black Sea and the Caspian, ringed by the highest mountains I’ve ever seen in my life, and nobody can tell me if it’s Europe of Asia. Well – the secret is – the is no such thing as Europe or Asia… it’s all just one big landmass and it doesn’t have red, purple and yellow lines all over it.