Be it Europe, Africa or the Americas travel is fun. Fun interspersed with really annoying challenges, quirks and irritations. None more so than when crossing frontiers.
One of those foibles is meeting mini dictators who have the power to decide your future. I refer to border guards. After years of studying this phenomenon I think I have finally cracked the formula that determines how this species functions:
10 = complete asshole. 1 = reasonable (very reasonable doesn’t exist on this scale)
Rules, Rules, Rules and More Rules.
I ‘ve often been asked what tips are there for crossing borders. There are no hard and fast rules. You can have prepared a really elaborate plan only to be nodded through. Or you can have no plan and be nodded through – or of course, not! Frontier guards globally all have one thing in common; they are annoyingly capricious.
Whatever you do you must maintain your calm throughout. Even with the most ridiculous and banal questions you must remain unruffled. If you Lose your temper, you are doomed! Obsequiousness helps and a little grovelling also (not too much or it can turn into a parody).
The occasional Sir or Ma’am can go along way.
Many countries demand a fee for crossing borders. Usually, for reasons I can never fathom, in $US, even when they have a perfectly adequate currency of their own. Always carry a small stash of $US in small denominations and when you receive a receipt for $10 having just paid $20 don’t question it – choose your battles, because this is one you won’t win!
Most importantly you must always remember you are trying to get into THEIR country and they have the absolute power to deny you, so don’t be a smart ass.
Now a few cases of more gentle border crossings, ancient and modern. Examples of more extreme crossings will come at a later date.
Border crossing office floor plans
Recently crossing from Honduras to Nicaragua at a small country border post I was the only gringo among a smattering of people crossing on foot. I always try to get the attention of female officers not for any dubious misogynistic reasons but because they are generally more friendly and empathetic. I got a morose man – refer to formula at the top.
With my passport open in his hands and the answers to the usual futile questions staring him in the face he asked what my plans were. I told him I didn’t have a plan beyond my next hostel (already booked – learnt that lesson a long time ago) but make things up as I go along on a daily basis. That went down like a fart in a space suit, even when I grovelled.
But my usually convincing grovelling was to no avail this time. He slammed the window down in front of me. Me one side, my passport the other. Now what? He returned after awhile with a more senior officer who told me I had to come up with a detailed plan for the next month.
I thought, “Are you fucking kidding me?”
I always carry a map with me – luckily as mobile phones were banned at the crossing. With the map and a notebook I was able to come up with a plausible plan. I had to do all this sitting on the floor of the immigration office. They approved my plan; I paid the fee, got the all-important stamp, got my passport back and left rejoicing. I reneged on the plan in less than 24 hours.
One definition of a white lie: umm, bullshitting?
A few years back I did a road trip around North America with my very good friend Anne. At our first entry to the USA we knew the process would be long as I had to get a US visa. The procedure while indeed lengthy was actually quite smooth.
Now, Anne, reading this, will insist that it was to do with the meticulously prepared dossier, about the size of a phone directory, she’d prepared for our trip around the US. The same meticulously prepared dossier that when Anne showed it to her flat mate, and me, we had rolled around with laughter at the absurdity of it. That same meticulously prepared dossier that when viewed by the border agent elicited the response:
“I wish everybody would present us with a meticulously prepared dossier like this. It would make our lives so much easier.”
Passport stamped and we’re in the Good Ol’ US of A. As we left the desk I said to the agent:
“In a way I wish you’d never seen that meticulously prepared dossier because when we walk out of that door all she’ll do is look at me and say, ‘I TOLD YOU SO’.” And she did. Ad fucking nauseum.
In fact years after she still reminds me of that meticulously prepared dossier phrase. Many, many more times than I’ve written it in this short tale. Even when I called her a few days ago telling her about this article she just couldn’t resist reminding me of that fucking meticulously prepared dossier. We never did stick to that meticulously prepared dossier.
Loose lips sink trips – (I know, bad pun)
At one point we again crossed from Canada into the USA. I’ll be deliberately vague with details as we may want to repeat this process!
We seemed to be breezing through the obligatory Q and A session. The agent then asked: “Have you ever been arrested?”
You have to realise that Anne and I had not practiced for this scenario. “No, of course not, never!” we both declared with barely concealed shock and righteous indignation.
We were both totally on cue and by god we were good.
As the agent handed our passports back there was an embarrassed look on his face when he realised he’d dared to question the propriety of this upstanding older couple in their upmarket car.
The green light came on, the barrier lifted and I quietly said to Anne, without a hint of irony: “Which of the 39 arrests in 13 countries do you think I should have told him about?”
“None of them,” she replied through gritted teeth, “We would have been there for weeks dealing with the paper work.”
Revenge is a dish best served cold
Just once, and only once, was I able to get exact my revenge on all those Gestapo thugs masquerading as immigration officers. Several years ago I had to return to the UK to visit my mother who was unwell.
I’d had a quite stressful journey at short notice and I arrived at Heathrow in quite a foul mood. Holding my full UK passport I proceeded to a desk saying British passport holders. Here I was confronted by a pimply and sallow youth in uniform – OK I accept this does sound a little discriminatory but I was at that tender age where I was beginning to realise all police men looked way younger than me.
I presented my passport and there then ensued the following conversation: “What is the nature of your visit sir?” “I beg your pardon?” I replied. “What is the purpose of your visit to this country?” he insisted. I started to see red. I said, “That is non of your business.” He said, “It is our business, please answer my question.” I’m now seeing darker red. I further responded with, “I am a British passport holder and I don’t have to justify why I’m arriving in my own country.” He then said, threateningly, “Sir, if you want to make life awkward for us we can certainly make like awkward for you.”
I think I had steam coming out of my ears by this stage.
I said, “I suggest you call your superior.”
For the longest time he sat there staring at me, then he pressed a button. A short time later another older officer appeared. As the story was explained I could see the senior man first closing his eyes, opening them and then rolling them. Finally he took my passport, looked at it and then handed it over to me with a, “Thank you sir, I hope you have an enjoyable stay.”
As I walked away from the desk I turned and said to both of them but directing my gaze at the young guy,
“By the way, the reason for my visit is to see my sick mother.”