Border Crossing

on Thursday, August 23, 2007

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.


Molly said...

You were very brave to venture where no Malaysian had gone before!

Janice Thomson said...

Wow now that's what you call a thrilling adventure. Imagine having never heard of Malaysia! But then not so strange considering all media including books was carefully controlled by the government. The photos from the link are so beautiful Lgs. What a great tale!

Claire said...

That's a funny story LGS. When I was in high school visiting my Italian relatives, we took a day trip to Yugoslavia. The border guards carefully scrutinized every detail of my cousins' Italian passports and barely glanced at my American one. I always wondered about that. Those Italians can be sneaky I guess ;)

Open Grove Claudia said...

WOW! I was terrified by the Italian border patrol - and they were allies! How scary. It makes you wonder where those men are now. They are probably web programmers (Monster does much of their programming in Prague).

I'm glad you made it.

Josie said...

LGS, what a wonderful story...! It's like a scene out of a movie. Omigosh, you must have been scared out of your wits! I find it hard to believe that they had never heard of Malaysia.

Well, you lived to tell the tale another day :-)


Jocelyn said...

...and, admit it: you, on some level, appreciated the overbearing normalcy of the Greek women.

Or maybe not.

Great story--so well told. And you taught those guards something!

meggie said...

This post made me laugh. I guessed what was coming though, so didnt really think you were in any danger. I hope you enjoyed your visit?

Odat said...

oh wow...I would have been shaking in my boots too...glad it worked out for

the walking man said...

Isn't adventure why you went on the road in the first place LGS? The thrill of those heart pounding moments that you live through to become an old codger to have stories to tell your grandkids?

besides squirrels like all rodents have collapsible skeletal structures and you would easily have gotten away, if you didn't stop to munch from the smoking womens fruit.



Anonymous said...

Fascinating and frightening story lgs.:)

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

Thanks. Brave? More like young, reckless and foolish. :)

They knew as much about Malaysia as I knew about Yugoslavia at that time. Plitvice is beautiful. I have lots more photos. I may post on it again.

Yeah, I too noticed the uneven response by Border Guards depending on the nation of origin of the passport.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

I'd like to think that the man is retired and has fulfilled a long time desire to visit a strange little place in Asia called Malaysia.

Train traveling certainly was thrilling. I haven't even told you what happened on the way out of Yugoslavia....ah, but thatis another story ;)

I was reading your post about traveling alone in Ireland. Traveling alone certainly opens up opportunities for adventure, doesn't it?

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

I am distressed that you saw through my narrative and guess that I was safe. I shall try harder to have you think I was in mortal danger! Haha. Anyway, it was a great visit. I wish I had stayed longer.

I think you would have liked the country as it was then. I enjoyed it and it was worth the little scare.

What you said about seeking adventure was quite correct but I honestly thought that I might just disappear without a trace as my family would not hsve guessed I was in Yugoslavia.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

Thanks. It was frightening.

tsduff said...

Gosh, after recently riding on the night train from Rome to Paris, and then on to Amsterdam, I can relate to the 6 passenger sleeper compartment. Our party of 4 people was joined by two other men, one from Morrocco, and one from Egypt. Although we didn't suffer the rousting you had to deal with, and the fear, we (at least I did) find certain things to be uncomfortable culture-wise, such as I know Muslims have different laws regarding women so I went to bed in my bunk extremely early, covered completely up on the top bunk and felt very awkward!) You wrote a fabulous story of your trip... I love traveling through stories like yours!

...Kat said...



smetimes our fates can hang by a thread and

Sincerity said...

Oh... my... goodness!

I would have been so frightened! But what a relief it must have been when you finally learned the true reason for their confusion! :)

I once took a train from Lancaster, PA to Philadelphia and because I switched purses before leaving, I forgot to include my driver's license.

I spent the whole trip terrified that the conductor would come and ask to see proof of identification. I kept thinking of how to explain my situation. But wouldn't ya know... the conductor only asked to see our tickets! He always asked to see identification, but not that day. I was praying so hard... maybe that had something to do with it? :)

leslie said...

LGS, Just brilliant! I hope that you have seen my 'border crossing' post.
Your story has far more drama!
Makes me want to study geography that much harder! Saw a great exercise in geography on another blog, and can't remember where. Will recall, and will comment. Good practice.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

Wow. You are very culturally sensitive. That's very nice of you. But not all Muslims hold to such strict rules and certainly reasonable ones understand that they have to compromise with others while travelling. Still, your gesture was probably appreciated.

All that drama.....but kind of funny now.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

I too was praying. I am sure prayer helped you that day.

I just read your post of the same title. It was wonderful. I love the tale. I have left comments for you at your post.

eastcoastdweller said...

Lone Grey: As a wise soul said on my blog re blogging, we are all mini-ambassadors for our beliefs, our countries, etc.

You were a good, brave ambassador for Malaysia at a time when most people in the Western world ever had never heard of it or simply lumped all SE Asians together as "dirty communists."

I like you more with each post that you write!

Camplin said...

What a great story, enough to make a grey squirrel white.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

Wow. I have to live up to some high expectations now! :)

I still have all my dark hair intact but I am coming to an age where it will soon either turn white or drop off. I await and see.

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