An important part of travelling, at least if you wish to go international, is crossing borders. This can be as easy as smiling and blowing a kiss at the border patrol as you drive across a European boundary, or as hard as kneeling in the mud in the middle of the night with three AK47s pointed at your back, and not all of them will be as easy as the first option when you have travelled extensively. Here are a few stories I’ve collated from crossing the threshold.
USA – Los Angeles Airport (LAX)
This one actually starts a little while before I made it to the airport. I was in New Zealand, and I went to a travel agent and told them that I wanted to go to Canada, but that Canada was very far away and that maybe there were stops on the way I could squeeze in. They told me that there was a deal on a trip around some of the national parks around California, Arizona and Nevada, and that after that I could simply work my way up the West Coast of the USA to get to Vancouver. To get me the deal, they had to sign me up to a youth discount programme which entailed me getting a youth travel card which was listed in my flight details. Easy as.
I had been told that the border security in America was quite strict, so I went fully prepared. I had printouts of my entire travelling itinerary with me, I had all the visas fully sorted and electronically listed with my passport, and I had my other passport on hand for reference sake, and I had a positive and professional mindset ready to approach a professional keeper of the American law. Little did I know, I was about to meet one of the biggest assholes I have ever had the pleasure of crossing paths with.
The queue to the security desk took well in excess of ninety minutes, towards the end of which my patience was beginning to wear a little thin, nevertheless, when the time came to talk to the guard, I approached with a smile and my passport in hand. I gave my British passport to the man, who scanned it into the system and checked the details. He asked to see a record of my flights in and out of the country, which I handed across without complaint. He asked me what I had been doing in New Zealand, to which I told him that I live there and showed my other passport. He then took a minute, switching between all the documents before him, before asking me if I was a student.
I told him that I wasn’t a student, and then he asked me why I had “youth discount” written on my itinerary, so I explained that I had signed up to a youth discount plan by my travel agent. At this point he legitimately responded with “I don’t know why the fuck they would give you a fucking youth discount if you’re not a motherfucking student”. I was shocked, and couldn’t respond for a few seconds, during which he high-fived the guy sitting behind him. He then proceeded to tell me that my dual nationality offended him, and that I should have more concrete proof that I was going to leave America other than just a flight out of Vancouver as he thought I was coming to America to steal the jobs of American citizens. I know, he was the best border control agent, the best in the world, and nobody did border control better than he did, and let’s face it, I definitely sound like a wall climbing Mexican when I speak in English I MEAN COME ON! Just to clarify, I’m not calling Americans racist, I’m just calling this asshole one.
I don’t know what prompted him to stamp my passport, but I got into the country. In comparison, when I got to the Canadian border, the officer gently asked me where I had been and what I was doing. He then told me “Welcome to my home, I hope you have a wonderful stay”.
I smiled, feeling relieved. “Do I get a stamp?”
Turkey – Istanbul Ataturk Airport
Sometimes, being a dual citizen has its benefits. If I were to enter Turkey on my British passport, I would have had to pay a fee for a temporary visitor visa waiver thing, albeit minimal. By entering on my New Zealand passport, I bypassed this and had read that all I needed was a stamp from the border control officer. Hesitantly, I approached the border control desk, New Zealand passport in hand. I gave it across, and waited patiently.
My New Zealand passport has undergone a fair bit of wear a tear due to some wet camping nights, some time in my pocket and, on one occasion, a quick spin in the washing machine (not something I recommend). As a result, the logo on the front has completely worn off, apart from the part that says “Aotearoa”. The security guard looked at it with a slightly befuddled look on his face, and asked me “Where are you from friend?”
I suppressed the urge to dramatically announce I was from The Land of the Long White Cloud. “New Zealand.”
“Oh, right.” He turned to the officer next to him and, in English, asked “Is New Zealand actually a real country?”
“Yeah, it’s like part of Australia or something.” What?! We may have a hobbit infestation and zombie sheep, but that’s just rude! I’m pretty sure that’s the most offensive thing you can actually tell a Kiwi. Hands off Australia, pavlova is ours.
“Alright then.” And he stamped it and waved me through.
Later on, in Turkey, I was travelling between Istanbul and Ankara on a public bus, which I guess is not so popular among the tourists, but for such a low price one can travel all over the country, and better still they provide what seems like an endless supply of biscuits, snacks, coffee, water and that all amazing Turkish tea, and on one occasion a guy who wanted a selfie with me… We were stopped at a security checkpoint on the road, and a police officer came on the bus as I was brushing biscuit crumbs out of my unkempt beard. Due to some lessons I had learned from previous trips (as you are about to find out) I had my passports with me, and while the officer punched in the identity codes of all the Turkish citizens who simply flashed an I.D card, I waited. He got to me and asked for I.D, so I gave him my passport, to which he also asked me where I was from, and after I told him that I was from New Zealand his face dropped and he simply said “Oh”. I don’t think he knew what to do, as he simply returned my passport, looking like a rabbit staring into the headlights of it’s imminent cadence, and let me carry on with my journey.
I have saved the best story until last, and honestly, it still gives me chills to think about this one.
I had travelled through Ecuador to the Colombian border by bus, and on the day in question, I went through a long queue on the Ecuadorian side where they checked all of my details and stamped my passport. I then went to the Colombian side across a big bridge and underwent the same ordeal, talking to some overly friendly Australians in the queue and feeling once more like a Dutchie in a sea of Germans. I then thought that I would have to endure some arduous baggage checks and potentially quarantine, but I simply got on a bus after a difficult goodbye, and went to the nearest city, where I would catch the overnight bus to Bogotá from. I booked my bus, threw all my luggage and belongings underneath the coach and departed for the capital. It was all so easy.
Now the south of Colombia is where most of the problems with the Guerrilla have been, and while things are a little uneasy since the declined preposition of a peace treaty, things are a lot more tame than they used to be, and there isn’t really any dangerous unrest as it is not in the Guerilla’s interest to create more conflict. That said, if there are any problems, violence, kidnappings, drug routes, or indeed Claudia, the south of the country is where they are likely to be, and so there are still army checkpoints and police patrols controlling the area. They also know that on all of these buses, people have been crossing borders and may have potentially skipped immigration, so they check this too. I, the gringo estúpido, did not think about any of this at the moment of putting everything, passports included, under the bus.
So naturally, when the bus ground to a halt just after 11,00pm and two armed men got on the bus demanding to see identification, I panicked. I was positioned somewhere near the back, and while they worked their way down the coach taking everybody’s documents, I tried my best to remember how I would possibly say in Spanish “my passport is in my backpack under the bus, please don’t shoot me!” I pushed aside my amazing sense of humour and all thoughts of “Esa no es mi cocaína!” and formulated something understandable, that was greeted with a stern nod as the guard lifted his gun at my chest and gestured me off the bus.
A third guard opened the luggage compartment of the bus just as the second guard came off the bus and they all stood around me, weapons in hand, as I scrambled to find my backpack in the mud. The second problem was that I had put my passports in my backpack within my backpack (backpackception is a thing for me, but I have found that three levels deep creates a certain amount of unstableness in certain gun related situations) and so it took a lot of time to get it out, which can only have made them more suspicious. They were very lovely about the situation, and I’m sure on any other day I could have sat down and had a pleasant drink with them, I just didn’t want to disagree with them as they were pointing rather scary guns at my back. I have never since gotten on a train or bus for a long distant travel without sufficient I.D to hand.
My advice for anybody approaching a border is to check the requirements for the visa you require based upon the passport you are using, and check it thoroughly to ensure that you are correct, and to complete all the necessary steps to allow for an easy and seamless border crossing. I also recommend that you have your passport in a quick and easy to access location, and printed proof of your flights out of the country, even when travelling by bus and train. Also, ensure to sell all of your cocaine before you get to the airport.
– Tom @ indieroad