The April Create travel challenge is bringing back memories.
Border Crossings, Part I
The Create travel challenge is inspiring. It occurred to some of us Researchers that together, we had many, many tales to tell of odd encounters when crossing borders. This is made even better by the variety in our ages. After all, crossing the border between Iraq and, say, anywhere, would have been a different proposition in 1970 from now. Ditto the question of getting across the Balkans, but for different reasons.
Here are some border crossing tales from h2g2ers.
Dodgy Travel Agents
This reminded of arriving at the Pan Am check in desk at Honolulu Airport only to find out the dirt cheap standby tickets to Sydney that two travel agents in the UK had assured me where available had been discontinued six months before. This meant I had to decide between the humiliation of returning prematurely to the UK having set out on a world tour having been to just one country, or purchase a ticket to Sydney so prohibitively expensive I would arrive in Australia without the sum of money required by the terms of my working holiday visa and risk a stay in a detention centre until someone from the British Consulate lent me the fare back to the UK, deportation and my passport number going on a world wide warning list for ten years.
The helpful guy on the Pan Am desk said he could arrange for me to go on a flight that arrived early in the morning just as customs and immigration were changing shifts so I could (hopefully) slip through undetected. Forty hours later having endured long anxious waits at Honolulu and Aukland and a terrifyingly turbulent flight over a cyclone I arrived at the predicted time; unfortunately my pack had split open – one of my boots went to Melborne – and by the time I had retrieved my scattered underpants, dirty socks ect. from the carousel everyone else from the flight had gone and it was just me and the toughest looking guardian of "the lucky country's" borders. Fortunately he mistook my stumbled answers and terror for extreme fatigue – I had been awake for more than two days – but I was certain my luck wouldn't hold. Then the gods of the road smiled on me and the bedraggled passengers from a flight from Bangkok began emerging from the baggage reclaim area – these were obviously of far greater interest to the immigration oker than a scuffy bushed pommie galah who had just arrived from the States. Even then it took several seconds for it to dawn on me that he had shoved my passport into my grubby hand, said "Welcome to Australia, mate" and turned his attention and rubber gloves onto far more likely prey, and several minutes to realise, as I stumbled out into the brilliant sunlight, that he wasn't going to do to me what some English magistrate had done to his ancestors two hundred years before...........and all because of two travel agents who couldn't be bothered to check their facts.
Amsterdam to Athens – By Bus
Peanut found the Amsterdam-to-Athens run less than 'magic'.
It was begining of June 1991. I got a ticket from Amsterdam to Athens. I admit to being out of touch with the news for a while. Long trip that took us through Yugoslavia. It was mainly back packers at the back of the bus, a guy from Israel, AWOL from national service and another from Greece also not keen to do his.
As the pickups went on, it became a mix of families, older people, all from various ethic, cultural and national backgrounds.
It was an annoyance that on such a long trip that the loo was 'out of order' particularly as scheduled stops with facilities were ad hoc
The reason for this became more clear as we passed through Yugoslavia, there were stops that armed men would flag us down on the main road with home made placards, board the bus, glare at passports, question people and these stops weren't without some tension. The bus driver would then have a conversation with them and after retrieving a stash of Marlboro from the loo and we would continue on our way.
Bizarrely the driver keep chiding us for not getting our stash out and partying as it was after all the 'magic bus', tut, youth of today.
We're glad you got there in one piece, Peanut.
sprout brings us this tale of East Bloc sport fascination.
It's from about 1986, when I was 12 or so. The whole family was going on an exciting trip to visit my uncle, who was in the army in West Berlin. So we took the boat to Hamburg, very civilised, almost a cruise, and then set off down into Germany. At some point we went through the border, and headed off into East Germany. Now the deal with the motorway was that you had to do the section to West Berlin in not less than two hours (speeding) and not more than three hours (spying!). So my Dad drives down the Autobahn, very carefully, but gets there a bit early, cue some quite slow driving, mild panic, anyway we end up by arriving at the border post.
The border post is staffed by Russian guards, very exciting. We'd been told if we got stopped to ask for a Russian officer, so we were almost reassured. My Dad gets out the car, I remember the soldier saluted so my Dad did too, too many years in a military school. We lads sit inside trying to look solemn. And there's a bit of a delay, the soldier walks round the car, looking Inside. And then he calls my Dad over – slightly more panic – have we got forbidden goods, are we off to the Gulag – if I'd have known I'd have brought warmer socks – that kind of thing. He's pointing at something in the car, and saying a word in Russian, but our Russian isn't much cop. And then it clicks – he wants the football magazines on the back shelf! Much relief, magazines handed over, we get passports stamped and off we go into West Berlin. My brother got over the loss without too much grief, and the soldier (who couldn't have been older than about 18) got to read about Bryan Robson when he got off duty.
The epilogue is that we went through Checkpoint Charlie on that trip, but I can't remember a thing. But I'll never forget the great football magazine confiscating incident.
Some yearnings are just international, we guess.
Speaking of the East Bloc…
This brings me to my story. (Dmitri Gheorgheni.)
Never fall asleep in Budapest.
I did – the train was stopped for an hour – and I woke up to 'e occupat?', which is Romanian for 'is this seat taken?' I woke up enough to mumble 'ne occupat', and sat up more politely as my previously empty compartment filled with happy, pretty young girls who were on their way home from a holiday in Hungary. We chattered all the way, and they recommended a hotel in Arad.
As we neared the border, there was frenetic activity. They had contraband: hair dryers and such from hedonistic Budapest. Would I please, pretty please with sugar on top (you can say that in Romanian, and it sounds very nice), hide these things in my luggage, which they would not dare to search? Feeling nervous but gallant, I did so.
Sure enough, the man at the border wasn't interested in my luggage – except, of course, for my guitar, for which I needed a receipt. Something about a ban on the exportation of musical instruments. The shock came when the lady showed up to exchange currency for me.
The year before, a film had come out, called Love at First Bite. It was a silly farce about Dracula, and it had offended my Romanian professor no end. He swore there was no resemblance between the Communist country portrayed in that film – in which they confiscate Dracula's castle for a home for gymnasts – and his beloved homeland. But here, right in front of me, was proof that truth was stranger than fiction.
The woman exchanging money was the same one in the film. I swear: she had the same suit, shoes, and eyeglasses. I could just hear her saying, 'Next week, Comrade Count, we come with trampolines and Nadia Comeneci!' I managed to stay calm, but after a 30-hour train ride, my sense of reality was a bit loose.
It didn't help AT ALL when I got to Sighisoara, the birthplace of Count Dracula. It seemed his castle had been turned into a training home…for gymnasts…
Solnushka Makes Plane Gestures in Russia
It seems a lot of us are familiar with Eastern European bureaucracy. Solnushka has one from Russia.
I used to have to go over the Russian border on a regular basis. I still twitch when I think about it. The queues at the airport. The... queues. The QUEUES. The fact that everybody else I knew had got shaken down while doing the annual visa renewal pilgrimage to Talinn. The anticipation of waiting for my turn! Fun times.
Actually, my most fraught experience was the first time I left Moscow. At that time, which would have been '96 or '97, you had to go through passport control to leave, as well as enter the country, and you needed, or at least I needed, a special exit visa stamp. So I've checked in, and I've stood in the passport control queue for a looong time, and the flight time is getting nearer, and then I get to the front, and the woman in the booth looks at me, looks at my passport, looks at me and then asks if I speak Russian.
Which I don't. At all. Even after ten months (don't judge me).
Well, the border guards didn't speak English either, but getting escorted past all the curious foreigners in the queue into a little room to the side by unsmiling Russian people doesn't actually need any words.
It turned out that the stamp I was supposed to have was the wrong stamp, or the non existent stamp, or something (I translate roughly from the fluent gestures employed by the official in the room). I was to wait for the man who had the right stamp to come and service me. And so I sit. And sit. And sit a bit more. And eventually I am so worried I will miss my flight that I actually try out my Russian, liberally backed up by the use of mime. Yes, I did stand there in a little room with a bunch of Russian border guards doing plane impressions.
They weren't impressed, but the man with the stamp did eventually arrive, do his thing and I was fast tracked through passport control.
I sprinted off to the gate. There was another queue. I was so rattled that I, the Brit, brazenly queue-jumped. The shame.
And then realised that not only had most of these people witnessed me being taken in for questioning, but that I had worried needlessly and all of them were getting on the same plane as me anyway.
OK, that's needlessly long, but hey, I HATE travelling.
That's okay, Solnushka. We suspect the wait was needlessly long, as well. We're glad your fellow passengers didn't shun you as a dangerous criminal.
A Glutton for Punishment
That's KB, who once…but let him tell it.
I think the oddest border crossing was when I was trying to take a lot of sausages out of Germany, and the woman in the airport wouldn't let me. Which is fair enough – the rules are the rules. But then she switched to English, and got bossy and stroppy, so I calmly and slowly ate them all on the spot instead of putting them in her wee bin. Pride is a terrible thing! I left with my stubbornness intact, which is more than I could say for my digestion.
We only wonder: Weisswurst or bratwurst? Or good old Thuringian sausage?
There are so many good stories, we've got to open another page. Click on the plane below to read more exciting tales.