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Passport mistake leads to subterfuge

Jan 1, 2003

While cruising Turkey in December, my adventure suddenly turned into a nightmare. Because of a mistake by the customs official, I was not allowed to leave the country. After two weeks of pleading my case, and with the prospect of extensive legal costs, I decided to resort to subterfuge and sneak out of the country. The experience was costly to my pocketbook and my health. And it reduced me to feeling like a criminal.

Few people are aware of it, but all persons entering Turkey with a boat or motor vehicle get their passports stamped with a special stamp. They are not allowed to leave Turkey unless they leave with that boat or vehicle. In other words, you cannot bring a boat into Turkey and simply get off the boat and fly home. The reason for this practice is to prevent vessels or vehicles from being sold illegally in Turkey. The stamp in my passport included the name of the boat, Meteor 42.

As a licensed delivery captain, I had agreed to skipper a 120-foot passenger hydrofoil from Kherson in the Ukraine. The boat was part of the extensive fleet of variously sized hydrofoils that are being sold off at fire sale prices by the impoverished Ukrainians.

We had traversed the southern reaches of the Dnieper River from Kiev to Kherson, along the northern shore of the Black Sea westward to Odessa, past the expansive and fertile delta of the Danube River. We proceeded southward along the western shore of the Black Sea past Romania's ancient port of Constanta to the southern shore and the entrance to the Bosporus River, which separates Europe from Asia.

At the southern end of the Bosporus, we entered Istanbul. Things started going wrong while clearing into Turkey at Istanbul. The customs official inadvertently stamped my passport as the owner of the boat. However, I was the captain, not the owner. Various officials in many ports tend to call all owners "captain." I can still hear him shouting at me, "Captain, sign here, Captain, sign here."

Subsequently, the owner and I decided to go our separate ways. Unfortunately, he left without clearing out. And I was trapped in Turkey.

Hat in hand, I began pleading my case to any officials who would listen, including those from customs, immigration, the port captain, the harbor master and the coast guard. They paid scant attention to my letter from the Atakoy Marina manager, advising that the vessel had left Turkish waters bound for Greece and requesting that my passport be put in order. Documentary proof of vessel ownership could not be produced since the vessel was owned by a numbered company whose owner could be identified only with the permission of the said owner, who was then on the high seas.

My only legal option was to go to the court to prove my case. But this promised to be too expensive and time consuming. The cost of hotels and restaurants was mounting rapidly. I considered bribing my way out (when in Rome do as the Romans do), but my law-abiding nature rebelled at using this tactic.

A phone call to the Canadian embassy in Ankara, the Turkish capital, produced this rather mystifying response from an embassy official: "I am not allowed to tell you this but I am going to give you the phone number of a man in the import/export business and he will tell you what to do." His advice was to simply "lose" my passport and get a new one without the dreaded "do not leave Turkey" stamp in it. But this would require going to the police and swearing to the lie that my passport had been lost. The problem was that, if the police discovered that my lost passport contained that dreaded stamp, I could be in even worse trouble.

Flying to Ankara, I received more advice from a newspaper reporter I met. He covered the Federal Justice Department, and I felt that if justice were served I would be set free. I later learned that, while justice was eventually served, it was not served by the judiciary but, quite the opposite, by my own subterfuge.

Being a journalist, he was a good listener and, being desperate, I was a good host, pouring freely of my finest Ukrainian cognac. Intrigued by my story, he soon swept into action, jabbing out the phone numbers and tracking down his connections in positions of power. "Why should this poor fellow be kept here," he asked, "when we know the boat is gone?" After half a dozen phone calls, he winked at me, "everything is going to be all right." The prospect of an immediate and legal solution to my problem brought indescribable joy to my heart.

But after another few calls we realized it could not be done.

I had come to know this reporter. He was street wise. He knew the ebb and flow of the country. With his aid, we began to plot my escape. There were three possible scenarios: "Lose" my passport and fly out; escape from the south coast to a Greek Island; or bribe my way out. I must confess, with my newfound ally, I found this all intensely interesting and challenging.

The best way out seemed to be through the "lost" passport. Thus, the next morning found me at the federal security police headquarters prepared to tell my lie. The interview took place in a basement room, where I faced a lone policeman. Over his shoulder I could see a line of jail cells with their forlorn inhabitants. I thought, "There, but for the grace of God, go I."

He took my statement, asked a few questions, made out the all-important police report, and gave me a copy. Nothing was said about the dreaded stamp.

The embassy, forewarned, acted with unusual speed and issued my clean passport next day.

A day later I was at the Ankara Airport three hours early. As I sat facing an inscrutable customs official I was cold and sweating. It was the time of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca; everywhere were men in scruffy white linen, women in nondescript costume, great bundles of shapeless carry-on baggage. They began pressing toward the gate, first slowly, then more insistently, eventually crushing through the gate, where a panicky stewardess jumped, waving her arms and screaming at the top of her voice to "Get back!"

Amid the hubbub, I suddenly found myself walking toward the customs man. I presented my clean passport with my copy of the police report. The report was necessary to explain the missing entry stamp. He took the documents and disappeared into an adjoining room. Ten minutes later he came back with the world's most unexpected smile. "You may pass."

My greatest regret was that I had not been able to pass the time basking in the warm sunshine of the south coast. Rather, my time was spent in Ankara, which has a population of about 10 million, and extreme air pollution made worse by the coal burning furnaces of the old town.

The two weeks in Istanbul and Ankara had cost me $1,500 for hotel and meals and another $1,500 for additional air fare.

Lesson: You never appreciate your freedom until you lose it.


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