Travel: Break for the border

We asked readers to nominate the scariest frontier crossing. You responded with hundreds of tales of fraught frontier formalities
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The Independent Culture
WHAT AN irregular lot you are: the post-bag is bulging with tales of bureaucratic hot water and cold sweats at frontiers. Thanks to all who took part; here is a salutary selection. These three writers, together with readers who wrote first-rate accounts that we just couldn't squeeze in, win the latest edition of Wanderlust magazine - plus a unique passport- cover guaranteed to smooth your progress across (almost) any frontier.

East Germany-Poland, 1975

I had gone through the Iron Curtain at the age of three illegally, a scary, thrilling escapade. My mother and I escaped through the forest from Czechoslovakia into Austria. Border guards on motorbikes searched the forest with huge flashlights, but missed us as we hid quivering behind tree-trunks.

Now here I was in 1975, a quarter-century later, on a bus from London to Warsaw travelling with my three-year-old daughter. It was a very chilly dawn. The sight from the bus window looked like a Cold War movie set. I was very nervous.

We had to pass up our passports to the bus driver. I noticed as I handed mine in that it was damp. I must have spilt something on it during the night. One of the border officials took the bunch of passports and took them up some steps to a room. "This shouldn't take long," the Polish bus driver said cheerily. We shivered and waited.

The driver couldn't understand what was taking them so long. Finally, the border official marched into the bus and started yelling at the driver, waving one of the passports. After a lot of gesticulating and more yelling, the driver turned to us and said, "you're not going to believe this, but someone passed in a wet passport. The East Germans regard it as an insult to their government and won't let the bus through until the passport has dried!"

Someone piped up: "Who handed it in?" Ashamedly, I owned up, mumbling something about my child having spilt water on it. (How low can you sink when passing the buck?) "Then go and sort this out - if it wasn't for you we wouldn't be in this pickle!" I felt the accusing eyes. With a feeling of dread, I stood up and walked to the front of the bus.

I stepped off the bus and walked into the glare of the spotlights and across the Tarmac. I felt I was going to my execution. All around were guards, machine-guns at the ready. I flashed back to that dark night in the forest 25 years earlier. I entered the room and saw two officials with the pile of passports, the wet one on top.

I mimed that it was my fault, how it had nothing to do with insulting the East German government and could they please let us through? They started shouting at me in German so I yelled back in English. If I was going to be shot, the least I could do was shout back.

After more gesticulation and toing and froing, they finally shoved the bunch of passports at me, marched me back to the bus, yelled at the driver that they didn't want this sort of thing happening again and ordered us to get on our way. As the bus started to move, the passengers cheered. I stumbled back to my seat.

Dr Eva Chapman (nee Prosikova)

Chad, 1984

I was travelling overland from London to Nairobi via West Africa in a Bedford truck with nine other people. We had spent a lot of time, and money, getting the necessary visas in Algiers. Eventually, a charming official processed our applications, charged us $50 each and issued the visas.

Apart from getting lost in the desert around the dried up edges of Lake Chad and ending up in a refugee camp, all went well until we took the wrong fork in the road and ended up in Sarh where we were arrested at a police roadblock for having forged visas. Six or seven extremely young and well- armed soldiers piled into the truck to escort us to the Minister of the Interior, who lived some 150km away. The road was extremely rough; though the soldiers were not threatening, we thought there was a very real risk of being accidentally shot or bayoneted when we drove over a pothole. The Minister of the Interior told us that the Embassy in Algiers had closed some years ago. We were to remain in the compound until the matter could be investigated. He was extremely hospitable, was not amenable to our discreet offer of a bribe and seemed pleased to have someone to talk to in the evenings.

We were generously provided with food and drink and our two days there would have been quite pleasant if we had not been so apprehensive about how long the investigation would take. Luckily for us, on the third morning two French journalists were brought in, having been arrested for having no passports and photographing the refugee camps. Our "crime" could not compare to this and after exchanging tokens of mutual esteem (the Minister's gift was a goat) we were escorted to the Central African Republic under armed guard and expelled from the country.

Jane Bryant

Spain-Portugal, 1990

Driving from Seville to Lisbon, there used to be 5km of "no-man's-land" between the Spanish and Portuguese customs posts. Now that we are all Europeople, there is a modern road and a smart new combined border facility shared by the revenue-men of both nationalities.

On my last journey through by British-registered car, for technical reasons I had to establish my date of arrival in Portugal. Having initially been waved through by the Spanish funcionario, I therefore intentionally stopped at his Portuguese twin's sentry-box, only some 10 metres further on, to ask for an entry-stamp in my passport.

Curious to know why I wasn't hightailing it out of there like most other people, the Spaniard left his position to catch up with me and overhear my conversation with his opposite number.

Upon grasping my intent, he placed a firm hand on my shoulder and insisted that I return with him back to Spain, where he carefully and deliberately impressed my passport with a salida (exit) stamp, saying: "How can you enter Portugal unless you first leave Spain?". Politically correct and geographically correct.

Terry Eaton

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