Tuesday, December 18, 2007

passing on the left

Marta at the Kosmonaut reception desk was looking at us with a skeptical look in her eye and the hint of a curl in her lip. "Why do you want to do that?" What we wanted to do was walk across the border from Ukraine to Poland. There's only two reasons to do it – (a) for the hell of it, and (b) to smuggle cigarettes. Since we weren't strapped for cash (yet), we wanted to do (a).

The easy way to get from Ukraine to Poland is to catch a train. The only inconvenience there is that they'll need to change the wheels on the train because track widths between the countries are different. I've not done this, but I'm told it involves lifting the entire train, passengers still inside, and can possibly take several hours to complete. Walking across isn't necessarily more convenient, and neither were we really doing it just for the hell of it. It's an opportunity to witness and be part of a process that defies logic and common sense, that to the naked eye appears to be mayhem, yet continues to happens all day, every day. It requires a re-interpretation of everything you thought you knew about how to behave at a border crossing, and people who are impatient, easily frazzled, or claustrophobic shouldn't do it at the risk of disintegrating into a meltdown. But for those who are patient and can have a sense of humor about ridiculous situations, it's totally worth doing, at least once.

The first thing we did is catch a bus from Lviv to Shehyni, a close to two hour bus ride that inconceivably costs only $2.00. Once on our feet, we walked past the line of parked cars waiting at the gate. Parked. Motors off. People sitting inside staying warm. No indication of when they'll be able to proceed. Finding the pedestrian path, we encountered the first confusion – which line to get in? There were two, monitored by guards with humorless faces, each leading to a bungalow that looked like it wasn't going to stand up to the first good storm to come along. One line was longer and had inexplicable breaks in it, also monitored by a guard. And then there was an open door over to the left, which we presumed was for people entering from the Poland side, but that assumption wasn't stopping the occasional person from walking through, and not coming out again. Poking our heads in, we decided it definitely wasn't the way to proceed, and returned to the lines. Showing our passports to a guard, he indicated the end of the first section of line leading to the bungalow. I avoided looking at the people standing in the line behind us. Who knows how long they had been standing there, and we just slid in in front of them, easy as pie. At least the guy shod in shiny army issue boots was on our side.

With nothing much to do besides stand, we began speculating on how long it would take us to exit Ukraine, pinning it at about an hour. After about twenty minutes, the same guard who had told us where to stand came up again – from where he had been standing ten feet away the entire time – and motioned us to go to the very front of the line. Not convinced I was doing the right thing, I turned back to him, but he continued motioning with his hand, keep going, keep going. I gave the people at the head of the line a sheepish smile, expecting angry faces at our blatant queue barging, but they were smiling at us, laughing, making room, and telling us something in Ukrainian that we obviously didn't understand. I think they were telling us to go into the second line, which we couldn't do at that point because it was on the other side of an iron fence, but it was also the line that was next admitted into the customs shack.

The door into the bungalow had a plexiglass window, and for about forty minutes we watched the mass inside slowly dwindle as they were herded through the exit turnstile. We also figured out that the people who were sneaking through the exit door were taking the extreme short-cut to the head of the line, since more than one reappeared before us, on the other side of the door. If only we had investigated three feet further before turning back. Finally a guard opened the door and as fast as we could we squished into the room. The turnstile and customs windows were a supreme example of non-design. Two manned windows, side by side. One in front of the turnstile, one past it. Anyone standing at the first window blocked the turnstile; anyone needing to get to the second window either had to squeeze past, or crawl under. Anyone with a rucksack either blocked the turnstile or was unable to pass. At this point I should mention that out of everyone there, Iain and I were the only ones carrying more luggage than just a day or tote bag. In a moment of serendipity, we ended up at the windows in such a manner that we didn't have to resort to tossing our bags over heads or holding up the line. Thanks goodness for small favors. Iain landed with the agent who was steadily munching potato chips, pulling them one by one from a bag he had squirreled away under the desk. He also noticed the passport of the woman in front of him, where page after page was a series of exit and entry stamps, neatly side by side. I got the agent who didn't know that Americans don't need a visa to enter Poland, which is a good indication of how many westerners pass through this checkpoint. I didn't get what he was asking me because I couldn't hear through the window, but Potato Chips leaned over and presumably told him to look it up on his computer, and shortly after I was out the door and in that limbo land where you've exited one country but haven't entered another.

At this point we were in a fenced corridor leading to the entry to Poland. There were strange and puzzling sights to behold. An old guy with crutches trying to peel back the fencing and crawl under. A guard running up and yelling at him. Discarded, empty cigarette cartons littering the side of the walkway. People walking back from the Polish entry, on the other side of the fence, and passing packs and cartons of smokes to people heading towards the entry. It was cold day, but bright, sunny, and surreal. It had taken us just about one hour to exit Ukraine, and approaching Poland, EU Poland, we figured the process would be a little more streamlined. We were wrong. The crowd at the Poland entry was like a herd of dairy cows waiting to be milked. Anyone who has been through a European airport will be familiar with the standard passport lines, one for All Passports, and another for EU/EEA/CH. Under normal circumstances I always have to go through the All Passports line, but this wasn't normal, and required a liberal interpretation of posted signage. Several hundred people were in the All Passports line, and if I joined them, I would be there for hours. Getting into what we thought was the EU line, a young guy took one look at us with our rucksacks, shook his head, and indicated that we should be in the next line, over to the left, across the metal barricades. Turns out we were in the All Passports line. Backtracking out, we found the way to the EU line barred by a locked gate about one and a half meters tall. I've held all along that travelers should only take as much luggage packed in such a manner that would allow them to jog a couple of blocks, or run the length of a train station platform. I've now amended this to include scaling gates at border crossings. Once over, we walked forward to find a guard who had to have known we hopped the fence, yet calmly just looked at our passports, asked us a few questions in perfect English, and waved us through.

The next room was the continuation of the lines from outside, and again we lost which was the end of which in the squish of humans. Yet another guy, who seemed slightly crazed with breadcrumbs holding court in his moustache and beard, grabbed us and very insistently pushed us again to the left, into the EU line. I think he was either deaf, dumb, or both, since he didn't seem to be able to communicate with anyone in line, let alone us. Even though there were a number of people in the line, he insisted on shoving us up to the front, physically planting his hands on our packs and pushing us through the crowd. I tried offering some apologies to one obviously annoyed girl, but strangely, everyone was letting us through. I finally figured out that probably most of them were Ukrainians who were themselves skipping the All Passports line, and were just stepping out of the way to let through the people who should be in line legitimately. Despite vocal protestations and vigorous hand gestures from our friend, I didn't crash my way all the way to the head of the line, and we had about 25 minutes standing within eyesight of the single agent that was checking passports. Not that I wanted to be there all day, but it was another opportunity to observe the nuttiness of the place. A number of angry shouting matches broke out, but each time the tension was broken by rowdy laughter and happy voices. A few people from our line approached the customs agent with cash in hand, but it never changed hands. They just held it in plain view. One girl was holding a $100 bill, which I'm guessing is way to much for an average Ukrainian to be shelling out as bribe money. No idea what that was about. Another woman approached our line from the Polish side, had a conversation with a woman standing next to me, and then tried to nonchalantly enter the line, only to be snapped at by a guard sitting out of sight. She backed off and exited through another doorway that she had been heading to in the first place. The kibosh was firmly placed on whatever little conspiracy they had going. By that point some people had managed to sneak ahead of me in line, and we were getting tired of standing there, so made a determined attempt to get to the front. Once we stood our ground it was easy, since others just stood out of the way and let us pass.

There was one more hurdle to face after the passport check – the agent who was searching everyone coming though. Everyone else was having their bags tossed and being patted down (hint – if you crush the corners of cigarette boxes before taping them to your body, it's less likely that they'll be discovered). The agent looked at my passport, looked at my rucksack, looked at me. "Do you have any cigarettes?" "No." And I was through. No bag search, no patdown. Had I known, perhaps I would have smuggled a few cartons across myself for cappuccino money.

The preferential treatment we got from the guards and locals was completely unexpected. For them, the crossing the was just what they did for a living, and as grueling as it appeared to be, it was just another day at work. Given the amount of people there who must have been bored to the point of catatonia, it was all well-behaved, everyone patiently waiting without trying to muscle their way around or through. And they collectively agreed that there was no reason for travelers to endure the same rigmarole, and actively made sure we were on the path of least resistance.

Before I started writing this I was thinking that the process runs about as smoothly as an abandoned vintage automobile that has raccoons nesting in the engine block, but after a moment's reflection realized that's not true. It runs about as well as a outdoor drainpipe in winter that's had a vat of molasses poured into it. It runs not well, but eventually, with an air of controlled mayhem according to enigmatic rules. Iain and I tried to figure out the economics of all of it. Cigarettes are cheap in Ukraine. The brand we saw everyone smuggling (L&M) costs perhaps $1.00 a pack in Ukraine. Figuring that they would sell for $2.50+ a pack in Poland, the most anyone could profit off one carton of ten packs is $20.00. Generously assuming that everyone manages to smuggle in a second carton, that's $40.00 for one day's worth of work, which seems totally not worth it for the hours spent in line, day after day. We made it through in only two hours, but that was getting preferential treatment and steered into the fast track. Everyone else faced an wait of at least six hours, maybe even double that. But if that's all you got, I suppose it's better than nothing. On December 21st, Poland will join the Schengen area of Europe, and I'm wondering if this is going to drastically impact this business. Ukrainians who have so far been able to pass freely back and forth may now need a visa to do so, the cost of which may be prohibitive, if one can even be secured in the first place.

1 comment:

DMBY said...

This sounds really fascinating and at the same time, something that would drive me ABSOLUTELY bonkers. I get very anxious and crazy when there is that kind of disorganized chaos. At the same time it would be so cool to be in between two countries. So thanks for taking one for the team and sharing this with all of us.