Caught At Borders: Berlin Logs Team Gets Stuck
The current political climate has meant that there’s been plenty of horror stories of people stuck trying to cross from one country into another. And while next month’s issue will address the political side of borders and what the refugee situation means for Berlin and those struggling to cross over into Europe, this month we’re thinking a little about our own border horror stories.
Whenever you open a newspaper today, you will find a story about borders. Refugees crossing the borders in the Balkans and onto Northern Europe, Donald Trump asking to build a wall on the US-Mexican border or Victor Orban trying to build a similarly grotesque fence on the Hungarian-Serbian border, the list goes on. Many people in Europe regard the Schengen Area as one of the great achievements of European unification, enabling millions of its citizens and residents to travel between countries without being asked for their passport. Yet, despite this shining example of a borderless world, many of us still regularly encounter borders, border officials and all our fellow travellers waiting in line to cross into different countries. We were interested to hear about different experiences some of our writers had at borders. We simply asked them: what was your most memorable border experience? The results were a mix of the hilarious, the uncomfortable and the ridiculous, but they all served as a reminder that this is a world which treats its borders seriously.
“The most arduous border crossing I’ve ever encountered happened while trying to come home. I had spent a month studying Spanish at the University of Havana, which was exciting, informative and filled with many different cultural experiences. My grandmother was born in Cuba, but I’d never before had the opportunity to visit the beautiful Caribbean island.
When flying home via Houston’s George Bush Airport, I freely stated that I’d been to Havana, and was immediately ushered into secondary customs inspection and grilled by officials, who, after finding all of my required paperwork in order, began to disparage Cuba:
‘It’s a pity how corrupt that country is, and how Castro has so recklessly wasted all of their resources,’ the agent fatuously claimed.
‘Have you ever been to Cuba?’ I asked.
‘No, of course not.’
‘What you describe sounds more like U.S. policies than anything I observed in Cuba.’
This perceived insubordination enraged the authority, who proceeded to search all my belongings and my person, making every possible effort to humiliate me for subtly challenging his ignorance. During my travels, I’ve occasionally been eyed with suspicion, but have never felt more abused than when just trying to return to the United States.”
Rhonda Winter, US citizen.
“In my life I looked into the eyes of many border officials. Most of them hardly paid any attention to me. Some looked at me suspiciously and flicked through my passport many times, before finally swinging their stamp of approval. Some probably expected a bribe while doing so. When I got to the border control at Tbilisi airport, I didn’t expect much. Georgia, as a country eager to join the European Union, dropped visa requirements for EU citizens years ago and, since a major anti-corruption campaign, is said to have efficient and clean public service. So I was a bit confused when the official started to go through all the pages of my passport, apparently looking for something.
Having thoroughly reviewed my identification, he finally stamped the passport, reached for a bottle of wine, handed it to me together with my passport, and with a big smile and said, ‘Welcome to Georgia’. He was the first border official that left me with a bottle of wine, speechless and with a little tag telling me all I needed to know about great investment opportunities in the most liberal country in the Caucasus.”
Niklas Kossow, German citizen
“I sensed something was up. The passport made an irregular beep every time it was brought across the scanner. The man behind the desk eyed me up with increasing suspicion. His gaze fell upon me, then shot to that on my passport. Rather sheepishly, I watched on hoping that with the next swipe I would be permitted to pass customs.
It beeped once more this time forcing him to reach for the telephone and dial. He muttered something incomprehensible into the receiver only for a man moments later to arrive and usher me through to another desk, this one without queue.
The security officer made me confirm my name and details on the passport. Then, as though it was out of his jurisdiction reached, for the phone and began to make a call. This time I was able to hear my name being repeated over the line. Then something strange happened. The phone was passed over to me.
A woman’s voice, stern and controlled, began to interrogate me. ‘Liam McGuckin, your visa expired two weeks ago, why are you still in the country?’ I was shocked. How had I been so unaware that I was here illegally. The more I repeated my confusion over departure dates the more ridiculous I sounded. Eventually, and after much squirming I was allowed to pass, although not before being made to feel like a disobedient child. The woman ended the call with a warning, and told me firmly never to do this again. I won’t.”
Liam McGuckin, British citizen
“Trekking in the lower Himalayan ranges in eastern India is a lot of fun but that also means following routes that keeps crisscrossing the India-Nepal border. This can be a very irritating and frustrating experience sometimes.
There is hardly any mobile connectivity in the border regions so travellers have to depend on the very few telephone booths in larger villages on the way. On one of my many hikes in the Himalayas I had to make a call home to check on my ailing grandmother. The place where I stopped for a cup of tea and a bite to eat said that there was a working telephone booth in a nearby village – which turned out to be a three hour hike. This village, called Tumling, is on the India-Nepal border. A triangular column in the centre of the village marks the border. When I asked around for the telephone booth a shepherd pointed me to a shanty a mere 10m from the border, inside Nepal. I had to call a number in India which meant that a difference of 10m made me pay an international calling rate – which was seven times the normal rate. But there were no telephones on the Indian side of the village so I had no other option but to pay.
I made the call and took out my wallet to pay only to be told that the shop only accepts the Nepali currency and not the Indian one. I had not expected this to be an issue 10m from the border but it apparently was. The only solution was to go to a money changer whose shop was right next to the telephone booth and exchange the currencies at a very unfavourable rate.
The Himalayas are majestic and breathtakingly beautiful, but these small things make life so much worse while travelling through the Himalayas. Thankfully, I did not have to face any such issues throughout the rest of my travels.”
Tathagata Sarkar, Indian citizen
“The spring break of my junior year at university a friend and I were coming back from a bout of ruinous debauchery across the border in Canada, the generally more lax version of the US. We were correct in this assumption, but the culture shock we experienced on the way back home was encumbered by an uncalled for level of security. After we answered the usual questions, we were met with a long pause.
‘I’m going to need you to open up your trunk for me,’ the meaty officer told us. In the rearview mirror I could see the back of his reddened neck squeezing out over the collar of his blue shirt as he walked with self-important swagger to the trunk. He asked some more vague questions about what we were doing during our time spent in Canada. ‘No, the only food we brought back is this apple. No, we didn’t buy anything worth over $1,000 while we were there.’
As he unzipped my suitcase and began shuffling through its contents, I said to my friend with raised intonation: ‘I hope he’s having a good look at all my dirty underwear.’ Although he must have heard, he continued unabashedly looking at what was indeed a suitcase mostly filled with undergarments (I was packing light), he looked up, ‘I’m just going to get to the point ladies, do either of you have bricks of heroin in this motor vehicle?’ God Bless America.”
Lily Cichanowicz, US citizen
By Niklas Kossow and Sarah Coughlan.