Border Crossings Can Be Fun-Filled Educational Experiences, Say Sam Manicom. It All Depends On How You Approach Them…
OK, so perhaps I’m perverse, but I actually like dealing with border crossings. Take the eastern border between the Sudan and Ethiopia, for example. Within a few kilometres you ride from rolling sand and thorn-bush desert tracks, onto a gravel road through hilly, forested land. So much of this border makes instant sense as a result, but it’s one of the few I’ve seen that does. Compare it with the border between Kenya and Tanzania and you’ll see what I mean. Like many borders, this line on the colonialist’s map slashes through a layer of common sense that was in place for generations, splitting tribal grounds and leaving families divided.
There’s little rhyme, but there are many man-made reasons for the location of most borders. Regardless of where the line is, and the reason for its being there, crossing one can be like riding from one world into another within just a few metres. The language may be similar, but the accents can be poles apart. People often dress differently, skin colours can change, and sometimes even the smells can be unique. Each border is an exclamation mark at the end of a country, and a tingle of anticipation for the next.
The Early Bird
For a successful crossing, it’s a good start to arrive early in the morning. This gives you the whole day to deal with the officials and their paperwork. If you’re early, you won’t be dealing with officials who have already been hassled all day by other travelers, and you’re far less vulnerable to bribery requests because there’s no end of-day time pressure on you.
Try to find a town close to the border and stay there the night before you do the crossing. This means you’ll be fresh and it’s easy for you to get to the border at opening time. Borders often close at night and have differing opening times so ask the locals. Be sure to fill your fuel and water bottles, and get yourself stocked up with easy-to-eat food such as peanuts, biscuits and boiled sweets – a godsend if the crossing turns into a long one and a good way of making friends, especially when you realise that officials often can’t afford to buy sweets and biscuits for themselves.
The longest border crossing we ever had was between Ecuador-Colombia. It took seven hours. A small percentage of that was sheer boredom, but most of it was fascination at what the officials were going to do (or not do) next. We spent the rest of the time chatting with other people heading through the border, and the money changers. These guys are often complete rogues and are excellent to chat with as a result. Sometimes their slight of hand antics are as top rate as the best magicians! Probably ought to count your fingers as well as the folding stuff if you end up making an exchange with them…
I know that many travellers worry about border crossings. They approach each with trepidation and I’ve seen mannerisms change completely. No longer is the traveller the fun-loving adventurer who will have a go at almost anything. They can become a person who is suspicious of everyone.
You do have to be on your toes at a crossing, but I think a laid back attitude laced with respect is the best way to go. Some prep for a crossing is vital. Find out which crossings are the least used. They are often the easiest and the most fun. Why? Because the officials there are far more likely to treat you as an interesting event in their day rather than yet another hassle. Hunt out officials as soon as you can. Don’t fear them, but treat them with the respect of a handshake, a smile and a greeting, and they will often welcome you as an individual rather than a wallet on two wheels. It’s also well worth finding out how to say hello, please, thank you and goodbye in the language of the country you are rolling in to.
There have been lots of occasions where this approach has had me whizzing through a crossing at a rate of knots. And sometimes I’ve even been invited round the back for a coffee, a chat and even a beer. I’m often amazed by how many border officials are bike fans. When you get talking, even if it’s just a few words and then sign language, many of them really only want to talk bikes. The paperwork is just something that has to be done as quickly as possible.
Paying For It
Sometimes, though, being friendly and polite doesn’t cut it. I did one border crossing in Africa and things went pear shaped pretty quickly. The immigration officials were fine, but the customs officer was having a really bad day, which he took out on me and my wallet. Officials in many third-world countries often earn buttons, have families to support and so on, so it’s no wonder really. But this guy had a serious attitude and no way was he going to stamp my carnet until I’d paid him.
The value he wanted was $20 – a week’s food money for me. It seemed there was no way I was going to get away without paying a bribe this time, but I suppose there’s stubborn streak to me and I dangerously let this take over. “I’m not paying you a bribe. I do not have to pay anything more than the usual fee. If you won’t stamp my paperwork as you are required to do by your government, then I must find another way.” I told him. The no-man’s land between the two countries was just a hundred meters or so of wind-blown scrub with a two-lane dirt road running through it. “If you won’t do your job and insist that I pay you extra, then I will put my tent up by the road. I have plenty of food and water. Every time an official looking vehicle comes though, I will stop it and explain to them that there is significant corruption at this border.”
Daft, eh? And he called my bluff. So I went ahead and put up my tent. When the first posh-looking black BMW saloon car rolled out across no-man’s land, the sight of my little encampment was enough to make it slow down. I indicated that they should wind the window down, and so they did. They listened, said nothing, and drove on. Leaving me thinking, ‘hmmm, perhaps this isn’t such a good idea…’
Several cars later, however, a border guard came running out to me, pointing into the new country and shouting, “OK, you go!” So I loaded up the bike, one of the officials stamped my carnet (with rather bad grace, I might add) and waved me away. I rode out, stunned at what had just happened and giving my guardian angel a huge pat on the back. As you can imagine, I never tried that one again!
Other ‘games’ to look out for at crossings are those to do with documents. A friend of mine was stumped at the border crossing into Congo. He handed over his paper work for inspection, as requested. The immigration officer leafed through it until he came to Ian’s yellow fever certificate. In full view of Ian, he took that out and put it on his knee under the desk. “No,” the official said. “You cannot enter. I do not see your yellow fever certificate here.” The official then advised that for a fee he’d arrange for a new document to be made out. With no choice at this border, Ian handed over the fee and was told to come back in an hour. His new certificate was, of course, his original one.
Border towns can be enthrallingly fascinating. I’ve met some real characters in the local eateries, smugglers, escapees from the law, runaway husbands, merchants and truck drivers. The latter are great people to link up with if you can. They have a wealth of information about the crossing and the likely mood of the officials. They will know a good food stall, the condition of the road onwards, petrol availability and so on. They are usually great fun, too. Buy a beer or three for them and their stories can have tears rolling down your face. Some of these guys are great observers of life. On several occasions I’ve actually been helped through a border by them the next day. Talking to local truckers will also help you to think about how many miles you intend to ride each day. This often changes from country to country. 250 miles in India is a very long day. 100 miles in North Africa can be as much as you’ll want to handle… Picking the truck driver’s brains helps you to start working this out.
If you’re staying overnight in a border town, it’s worth being a bit vigilant. Get your bike off the street, even if it’s just into the reception area of the hotel you’re staying in. A little gift for the watchman, like a bunch of bananas, goes a long way. If you go exploring, hide all visible wealth, and obviously, get in before it gets dark.
Bike Border Prep
When you’re getting ready to do your crossing, have a bag just for your paper work. An A4 plastic zip wallet is ideal for this. The only other thing you need to keep to hand is your journal, if you’re writing one, as borders are a great opportunity to catch up with your travel notes.
When you’re packing your bike the morning before a crossing, have anything you can’t do without packed firmly away, even if it’s not the order you’d usually pack it in. Stash the bulk of your cash money so it’s well out of sight, too. I’ve only once been asked to strip off and open up my luggage. With my loot out of sight I wasn’t bothered by this, just fascinated by the guards’ reactions to what I was carrying. The only dodgy moment was when the officer found my container of mixed herbs. He was delighted! He thought he’d caught me smuggling dope. Another official soon put him right though, telling his colleague he had no sense of smell!
The best approach is to park your bike in full view. The reality is that most people are honest, however poor, but don’t put temptation in their way. I’ve never had anything nicked from my bike. Knobs and switches diddled, but no theft. My mate Pete once came back to find someone had put his bike into first gear, so that’s worth checking, too! Pete was the source of great entertainment as a result.
At many crossings you’ll be mobbed by young men offering to help you through the offices and the paperwork. They will want paying, of course, but they can make your life a lot easier. I don’t see this as bribery, by the way. To me, they are just making a living. But how do you pick a good one from the throng of eager faces? Not easy when they are all pushing against you and you are battling to stop your bike toppling over under their weight.
Take control of the situation. Pick a couple of the lads and tell the crowd that you’ll be picking one of the ones you have chosen. The others will usually scoot off then in search of new opportunities. Look hard at the lads who are still with you and listen carefully. Get them to talk to you one at a time. Then just go with your instinct. I never choose the pushy ones, but prefer the one who is shiny eyed, more respectful to me, and rather more on the quiet side. Do make sure you agree his fee first.
The weirdest thing about using these lads is that sometimes you have to hand over some of your paperwork to them. When it goes out of sight, I always have a sinking feeling. Will I ever see it again? I’ve never been let down. Having said all of this though, Birgit and I usually try to work our way through the crossing ourselves. When other people doing their paperwork see you having a go for yourself, they’ll often help you along. With no time pressure and a fascination for what is happening, the adventure is usually a mix of temporary confusion and fun.
Each border is an exclamation mark at the end of a country, and a tingle of anticipation for the next.
Be on your toes, but a laid back attitude laced with respect is the best way to go.
Sam’s Top Border Crossing Tips
Be very careful with taking photos at borders. Most second-and third-world countries are incredibly edgy about you doing this. On my eight-year trip I sneaked just three out-of-focus shots. I’m happy with that. I’m not in jail and I got into the next country.
You usually buy this at the border. There will often be a shack or a tatty office selling insurance that I suspect has no value other than to appease a policeman if you get in to trouble. Sometimes you have to ride to the next town to buy it. Only once were we required to then ride back to the border to show it.
That’s passport, carnet, inoculation certificates, your bike registration documents, your driving licences and plenty of photo copies of the lot. You’ll need ‘em. Border crossings are black hole for paperwork copies.