Unburied Nuts from 23rd August 2007: Border Crossing

It is the habit of squirrels to bury nuts in the ground and when they think the nuts have sufficiently “aged”, to dig them up again. On this flimsy pretext, I occasionally “dig up” an old post that I feel deserves to see the light of day again.   This story brings back memories of a different time and heart palpitations.

It was 1983. The Iron Curtain was still up. In Malaysia, the communist insurgency in the jungles was still a threat. The Republic of Yugoslavia was still one peaceful nation. That was the year that found me backpacking through parts of Europe. The furthest south and east that I went was to Yugoslavia and specifically to the Plitvice Lakes.

In preparing for this journey, many Malaysian friends warned me about visiting a communist country. Communism was very much the Boogey-man in South East Asia at that time with the fall of Vietnam, the cruel regime in Cambodia and the armed insurgencies raging in the jungles. A friend who made the trip earlier related how she was woken up in the middle of the night when soldiers boarded the train at the Yugoslav border. The soldiers entered her train compartment with force and before her very eyes grabbed a young man who was in the compartment and took him out without explanation. She recalled that the man was silent and appeared to be resigned to his fate and that was the thing that upset her the most about that incident. His resignation and his silence. No one slept for the rest of the journey.

So, it was with some trepidation that I found myself on the train to Yugoslavia. However, my experience was to be altogether quite different. First, there were my travel companions. I had booked a seat on the train but when I got to my compartment, I found one German backpacker and two large Greek women. This was a compartment that seats six people. The problem was that the two Greek women had baggage, bags, cartons of eggs, baskets of fruits etc, which seemed to occupy every seat and every baggage rack. After some mad gesticulation and the frantic waving of my ticket, they grudgingly moved their bundles of vegetables from my seat. Before I could celebrate my small victory, they started smoking in the non-smoking compartment and seemed to deliberately blow the smoke at me.

This rather uncomfortable travel arrangements did distract me from my anxieties but my heart began to race in anticipation when we finally reached the Yugoslav border and the train stopped to allow the immigration and border officials on board. I could hear compartment doors open and orders being shouted in a strange language. The opening and closing of doors grew louder until at last they reached our compartment. The uniformed official came in and demanded in several languages to see our passports. He looked at the German backpacker’s passport and seemed to return it with a little salute. However, he was less courteous with the Greek women and scrutinised their passports for a long while before stamping and returning them.

Then, it was my turn. I gave him my passport with a lump in my throat. He looked at in for a very long time. He flicked through every page and kept looking up at me. He said something but I couldn’t understand him. Then all of a sudden, while still holding my passport, he steps out of the compartment and takes out a whistle and let go three shrill blasts. To my horror, I could hear the sound of heavy boots running towards us from the front of the train.

Another uniformed man appears at the door. He is younger and clearly the first man’s assistant. He had with him a very thick file which I estimate had at least a hundred pages. The two men appeared to be looking through this file while constantly refering to my passport. Needless to say, I was feeling quite concerned. Well actually, close to hysterics. I thought to myself that they must be confusing me with some criminal on their “wanted” list.

This went on for a long while and despite the chill of the night, beads of sweat formed on my forehead. I notice that the German was trying to look disinterested and trying to distance himself from being associated with me. The Greek women on the other hand were smiling and seemed pleased at my discomfort.

After what seemed like eternity, the older man came up to me and said, “Show!” while proffering a small pocket atlas to me. I had a glance at the thick file they carried and it was a list and description of countries. I learnt later that the two border guards had never seen a Malaysian passport, that Malaysia was not in their checklist of countries nor had they heard of Malaysia. I had to show them where the country was on the map. The older guard asked, “Malaysia is real?” So in the end, all my tension ended in comic relief.

They stamped my passport and returned it to me but before they left, he took one last look at me, muttered “Malaysia” to himself and then disappeared into the night. My racing heart did not slow down until the train began moving again.


20 thoughts on “Unburied Nuts from 23rd August 2007: Border Crossing”

  1. Don’t think travel has improved; if anything gotten worse. Geography isn’t a big subject in schools now either. With all the changes in countries now it is hard to know where someone is or has been.

  2. OneStonedCrow,
    I was also traveling alone and had not told anyone I had gone to Yugoslavia as it was a spur of the moment decision. So I could have disappeared and no one would have known what happened. Such was the naivety of youth.

    You are right. The fear of terrorism has made travel even more complicated.

  3. Kathryn,
    Thanks for introducing the game to me. I spent a couple of hours on it. It is addictive.

    Secret Agent Woman,
    What were you smuggling?

    You made me think about coming out with a passport for the country Squirrelia. Maybe I could pass it off as a newly created ex- Russian or Balkan state.

  4. You were lucky it was ’83. Much more relaxed by then. But, from what I’m told, Yugoslavia was never really tough on tourists. The Winter Olympics and all that you know. The guy dragged off of the train might have been a criminal.

    My only run-in with customs was in the Bahamas. They wouldn’t let me leave because my papers were never signed upon arrival as I came by sailboat. Dang, had to spend the weekend in Marsh Harbour until the customs office opened on Monday.

  5. Omigosh. I would have been terrified. You are one brave squirrel…!

    Malaysia is real, and squirrels live there. 🙂

  6. Cool story My parents went there on holiday when it was stil a communist country.
    I went to to east Berlin behind the curtain which was a bit scary. I might tell that story on my blog one day
    You were not the first who got the date right but don’t go nuts I’ve got plenty of postcards so just email your adress to me on marja.blom@gmail.com

  7. Mr. C
    Good of you to sail into these parts. In those days, Malaysia was still facing a communist insurgency in its jungle and so the government was demonizing communist countries and warning us that we were risking our lives visiting such countries.

    Sadly, Yugoslavia was real but is now no more.

  8. Laura,
    Thanks. I have been following your helpful posts on environmental labeling. Very helpful.

    Yes, squirrels do live there and plan world domination from there! Bwahahaha!

    Your visit behind the Iron Curtain would be very interesting to read. And thanks for awarding a postcard for the second position too.

  9. Wow. That must have been scary. I can see how if for whatever reason you had never heard of Malaysia that the name would throw you. It does sort of sound like an illness.
    When I was a child in Dominican Republic for a visit, I didn’t have enough sense to answer “United States” when someone asked where I was from. I answered “Belfast” which was the name of our small community. Looking back I imagine all the foreigners we met must have thought I was from Northern Ireland.

  10. Normal… squirrels from strange countries always arouse strong suspicions… travelling squirrels are the most squirrely of all…

    PS Am still chuckling over the viking dating video… that is priceless !

  11. Mago,
    Sadly, Yugoslavia is no more.

    “sounds like a disease”? Are you thinking of “malaise”? I guess you are right. But back in the 1980’s not many people knew Malaysia. Many knew about Singapore and would nod their heads when I tell them Malaysia is north of Singapore.

    Squirrel profiling must stop! Maybe I can distract border guards with the viking dating video.

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