Life at the Borders

On 29 May 2014, I had to say goodbye to a dear friend of mine, one who had travelled the length and breadth of the globe with me for the previous 10 years, one who opened gates and granted me privileged access to the riches the world has to offer. For at the end of May, my 10 year Irish passport expired, and I had to hand it in to the Irish Embassy here in Vienna, where it was exchanged for a new one. They gave me the old thing back, but it was maimed at the edges, and stamped all over that it was now useless. My old passport, reference number p131248 was retired, and I would never travel with it again. I was always proud of this old, torn, stained passport as in the space of a few golden years in 2006-2010, we filled up all but three of its pages. Looking through the now defunct p131248, I realised that each stamp brought back some sort of a memory, and that much of my best travel stories occurred at borders, and at these borders is obviously where I used this old passport the most. Therefore the biography of my passport is a study in crossing borders and gaining access to new territories, and these events can often be as interesting as what is contained within the actual country of origin or destination. I thus present here, (in random order, just like they occur on the pages of my passport) a selection of border stories from my days with p131248. They do not attempt to describe the country we were exiting or entering, but merely different experiences in the ceremonial exchanging of one’s existence in one sovereign territory for another.

 pass

Prologue: The Origin Story

I originally renewed my passport in May 2004 as I needed it to travel abroad during the university summer vacation: I had arranged to move in with a friend in Deptford (just outside Greenwich), London for the duration of the holidays. While no visa stamp was needed to cross the Irish Sea, we do not have National ID Cards in Ireland, and therefore Passports are the only acceptable form of international identification for Irish citizens. Within Ireland, drivers licences are acceptable, but I didn’t have one, which is a clue to how I lost my previous passport: I had to bring it out with me every time I went to a bar as proof of age, in order to be served alcohol. This function would continue to be the primary purpose of my young passport for the next few years as I remained attached to the European continent. Still in infancy, its first stamp would come a year later as a result of an ill-advised Soviet-era tourist stamp at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin that cost €2. In all honesty, this stamp (like many a first, innocent experience) is highly embarrassing. And in retrospect, paying a random person to put a fake stamp in a passport is probably illegal, but I was young, it felt good at the time, and the besmirched pages of my previously virgin passport were now ready for the years and stains that were to come.


Sydney Kingford-Smith International Airport, AUSTRALIA: 8th September 2009

During my various comings and goings through Sydney Kingford Smith Airport during the Summer(actually their winter) of 2009, where I used my friends shared flat off Bondi Beach to ping around the Pacific through Fiji, South America and back again to pick up my laptop, what always struck me was how careful the Australians are to preserve their ecological habitat. This hits home every time you are on an international flight and approaching an Australian airport to land: the air hostess urges you to be calm while the pilot releases a visible gas via the ventilation system to kill off any biological matter that we may have brought with us from wherever we came from.

Even still, I did not appreciate the seriousness of the Australians in their endeavours until my final 2009 arrival in Sydney airport. I had just come from a tour of Bolivia, Peru and Chile, and was filling in my immigration card on board the flight. One of the questions queried whether the individual had been in contact with “foreign soil” in the previous two weeks. As I had just trekked Machu Pichu, I decided to be honest and ticked ‘yes’. On the ground at immigration, the border guard took one look at my card, one look at me, and immediately directed me over to a room I had not seen before, marked ‘quarantine’. There I stayed for the next two hours, and through the window of the room, I saw them bring my luggage, which the border control had collected from the carousel in order to (I assume) perform tests to make sure there was no ebola virus present. For me, I simply had to wait and answer questions about exactly what I had done or hadn’t done in the wild: the life extinguishing gas on the flight just before landing had neutralised me as a threat. I did however have to sign a release waiver that meant I was forced to declare myself to the Australian biohazard authorities if I felt sick at any point over the next two weeks. Upon signing, I was released into the wild again.


Mostiska, UKRAINE: 2nd August 2008

On an overnight train from Krakow to Kiev, we slowed to a crawl and eventually stopped at the western Ukrainian border at about midnight. Soldiers appeared marching through the corridors, opening wide the doors of every cabin, ordering them to be kept open. Eventually they appeared to check my documents, and cursed openly when they discovered I wasn’t Polish or Ukrainian like everyone else on the train. Speaking in my Michel Thomas Method Advanced Course (Disc 2) Russian, I told them I was Irish, handed them my passport and they started asking each other if they knew about the country. One of them then produced a laptop, and they went just outside the cabin. With their backs to me, I could make out the screen, and saw that they were on the Russian Wikipedia entry for Ireland, and heard them confirm to each other that Ireland was indeed in the European Union. To the relief of the whole train, which was waiting for me alone, I was deemed worthy and was handed back my passport.


Border Name Unknown,VIETNAM: 1st August 2006

Although by now I have given up on any ambitions to take up political office, I am as yet still unprepared to publicly disclose all the details about how myself and two friends crossed the border from Cambodia to Vietnam. All I can say is that we were each riding on the back of a motorcycle, were not fully lucid, and were very into Hunter S. Thompson at the time. Now that I am more mature, there is no way in hell I would do the same thing again.


Jakarta International Airport, INDONESIA: 6th August 2007

After a stint laying on beaches, climbing volcanoes and journeying through Java, me and a friend ended up flying out to the Philippines via Jakarta International Airport. The airport is a modern, fully policed and monitored building that befits being the main international airport of a country of nearly 250 million people, so you have to imagine a busy international hub just like in Europe or the US. Now Indonesia, just like many South-East Asian countries operates a tourist visa system where upon arrival, a “visitors card” gets placed in your passport, and this must be returned at the border upon departure. When I got to the passport check, I realised I had lost my visitors card. When my turn in line came I handed my passport to the border guard, and suggested that “maybe we could come to some arrangement”. He was visibly nervous, and kept looking around, to see if it was a trap. Eventually, he whispered to me if I was talking about giving him money (US$). I nodded, and asked him how much it would cost. He was very, very nervous now, and after looking around some more, said that it would take $100.

I don’t know what comes over us Westerners when we go to places with a different price level than our own, but there is always this righteous feeling that we are being ripped off, and that everything can be bargained for. So armed with this arrogance I told him that I didn’t have $100, and for my only possible way out of Indonesia that didn’t involve going to the Irish Embassy, I offered him $10, which I claimed was all I had. There was a long queue behind me, and people were starting to grow impatient, wondering what the hold-up was. Sweating profusely, he gave me back my passport and I slipped $10 into it, then gave it back to him.

I don’t like implying that I lived very dangerously on my travels: I got into some trouble in places and got away with some things, but really everything was above board. The incident leaving Indonesia from Jakarta International Airport in August 2007 however was probably the most serious misdemeanour that I am willing to divulge to the masses. While I did wonder what I would do if I got caught, I felt worse for the border guard. I made him risk his job and possibly a stint in jail for just $10. The incident stuck with me so vividly, as I tried to make clear from the beginning, because it took place in an airport comparable to Paris Charles-De-Gaul or Amsterdam Schiphol. The trappings of monolithic, modern structure, coupled with the familiar sight of red tape evasion. I know it wasn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things, I do still feel bad for the border guard though. Tourists are idiots, but “travellers” can be complete dicks.


Border Name Illegible,TURKEY: 2nd August 2008

Touring the rim of the Western Black Sea just as Putins tanks were rolling into the opposite coast in 2008, me and my regular travelling friends ended up on a bus from Varna, Bulgaria to Istanbul. Woken up at 02:30 at the border, all passengers were told to leave the bus and collect our bags. In the dead of night, we were then split into two groups, told to line up on opposite sides of the road, with our bags in front of us. We waited a half hour, then three men in uniform appeared, and walked slowly past each member of the group, with everyone forced to complete silence. I can only assume that this procedure was intended to make any smugglers betray themselves through telling signs of nervousness, as I must admit that I was extremely intimidated by the whole experience, and as it was my first time entering Turkey, it inescapably serves as a frame of reference for my understanding of the country as a whole.


Ben Gurion International Airport, ISRAEL: 24th June 2010

I was warned that there would be soldiers at immigration randomly picking people to grill over their intentions in Israel, yet I didn’t expect it to happen immediately after I left the airplane, and I didn’t expect it to come from a teenage girl carrying an automatic weapon. Such a sight become the norm during the next month I would spend in the country, but upon leaving the airplane arm and entering the airport terminal, I was then taken aside by this girl, who explained that she was carrying out a random check. She then began by asking me what I was doing in “our Israel”. This might have been a language error, or even a slip of the tongue, but it really sent shivers down my spine. I responded as if it was a normal question, described my itinerary and was waved through eventually. The message may have been unintentional, but it was still clear to me that I as an outsider in an inward-looking, insular nation, and this stayed with me for the duration of my visit, and always comes to mind whenever I think of Israel.


Los Angeles International Airport, USA: 16th February 2007

Flying last minute from Taiwan to New Orleans for Mardi Gras 2007, I had a stopover in Los Angeles LAX, one of the most horrible airports in the world. US immigration is rarely a pleasure, and this is even more true for a plane full of Taiwanese people, who were shepherded into a never-ending line where the border guard took five minutes to process one person. Instinctively, one of the border staff realised that I was different, and called me and a few other white people away to a new line. The others were American, so they were no trouble, but my European passport took a little extra time. The guy wanted to help me, but needed to go away for a minute to process my passport. He told me to stand to one side of a desk and that he would be back soon. Now, anyone who has been through immigration at a US airport will know that there is one cardinal sin above all others: standing still while not part of aa queue. Within 30 seconds of the border guard leaving, there were four armed guards around me telling me to get in line and back off away from the desk. I explained that I was waiting for the guard with my passport, and they started being more insistent, as only US immigration officials can. Eventually my guy came back and the heavies slunk away as suddenly I was part of an organised system again and all was well with the world and LAX. I was living in Taiwan at the time, which is a transition-dictatorship, yet with that nice US welcome I knew that I was now in something else entirely.


Multiple crossings, CHILE: 13th August- 6th September 2009

I feel I have to mention Chile, as it has the best visa stamp of all the marks in my passport. While some countries have their stickers (Turkey), and many Asian countries do love their full page tourist visas (Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam etc) , none of them thought of the beauty of a rubber stamp involving two different colours, representing that countrys flag. Nothing interesting happened at the borders, apart from the unforgettable journey along the land north from Santiago to the Peruvian border. With the Pacific Ocean to one side, and the Andes to the other, Chile is the only country I have ever been that doesn’t require a compass to decipher the way North. It’s a tiny sliver of land between the mountains and the sea, and as long as you know which is which, you will find your way home.


Border Name Illegible, CAMBODIA: 26th July 2006

My overriding memory of crossing the Cambodian border was an infestation of giant dragonflys while waiting to cross, and the poster of Steven Gerrard situated directly behind the main border guard. We also bought our visas from the hostel we were staying at in Thailand.


Various, TAIWAN: 30th October 2006-13th July 2007

Although I never had any problems getting in or out of Taiwan, its stamps scar my passport like no other, and thus no biography of my p131248 would be complete without mentioning its abusive, challenging coupling with the needy Republic of China. Advised by my employer in Taipei to enter the country under a 60 day tourist Visa (full page, with photo) and lie about my intentions in the country at immigration control, I then began the process of getting a work visa. Three months later, I was invited to get a single entry visa (another full page, with photo), that after a month long background check could be upgraded to multiple-entry. I passed that ROC test, and they took up another half page of my passport with this addition. During my stay there I left the country twice, which ate up another two pages. Taiwan changed the look of my passport forever, and was a guarantee for years to come that a border guard would ask me quite seriously why there were so many damn photos of me in there.


Epilogue

There was a point 5 years ago where I was worried that my passport would soon be full: by 2009, halfway through its lifespan, it had five pages left free, and it was a shabby, torn mess of a document that was scrutinised intensely by any official who had to examine it. My fears were unfounded, as my next five years saw little travelling outside of the European Union, and few stamps were again to grace those remaining pages. My last official border stamp came in June last year at midnight on a bus journey through Serbia. I was travelling through from Vienna to Sofia, Bulgaria, so the only time I actually stepped on Serbian soil was to walk through the border at Horgos and back onto the bus. It was a pitiful end to the career of such a distinguished travelling companion, but it had indeed seen its day. The pages were falling out, and the laminated photo page was so loose it looked like I had put it together myself. On my last time using it in an official capacity, in Dublin airport last Easter, I had to promise the border guard that I would get it renewed that very week. After I finally got it renewed (the ridiculous process of renewing an Irish passport is a story worthy of an entire blog entry here), I was returned my old p131248, with the words “cancelled” now stamped all across it. It shouldn’t have, but it bothered me that I still had three pages left free. There was a point not too long ago where I foolishly thought this almost-full passport defined who I was: the seasoned traveller, here is my resumé. I subsequently started a PhD and then that started to define who I was, with limited travelling time as a result. A few years into my PhD I am more mature and realise how stupid it is to have one thing define you as a person: one can be many things, be it a traveller, a scholar, a worker or whatever. I look back at my passport now and my three empty pages in p131248 are actually challenging me to improve on that score in my new passport, who I am not even on reference number basis with, yet. It is nothing but fitting that the legacy of passport p131248 is a provocation to get out there and fill those visa pages with all the ridiculous visa stamps that the world has to offer, and also with the stories that come with each and every one.

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