I Promise, I’m Not a Drug Smuggler
Thanks to what has become my own travel story from hell, my current travel fear revolves solely around having the right entry visa in my passport. Let me go back to the beginning.
At age 22, and as a relatively inexperienced traveler, armed only with my best friend, a small piece of luggage, a tin of Coca Cola and a packet of Marlboro lights, I found myself running across the Greek/Albaninan border after having being accused–in a foreign language–of being a drug smuggler. I can neither confirm nor deny that it may have had something to do with me offering to pay the border police for entry into Albania. Perhaps this initially aroused his suspicion! But the real reason for my ordeal, and one my fellow South Africans will relate to, was because of my South African passport and the lack of a correct entry visa ensuring that I was not allowed to enter the country.
The cold, grey room was filled with empty faces clutching their belongings and the view from the window was reminiscent of a wasteland straight out of a Clint Eastwood movie.
The truth was that I had no idea that I wasn’t fully prepared for my European adventure. As far as my research had shown, I had to apply for a Schengen Visa–which I had done and been granted. Perhaps this may have been a little naïve but hey, I was 22 and carefree. Everything was going spectacularly well.
London, France, Spain, Italy, and Greece had all been incredible destinations. I had climbed the Eiffel Tower, sipped wine in Lyon, strolled Las Ramblas, visited the Vatican, explored the Colosseum, and drifted in a Gondola along the timeless canals of Venice. Athens and Mykonos had been real treats but what I was really looking forward to were the cobblestone streets and crystal clear waters of Croatia that I had heard so much about. This was going to be the highlight of the trip before heading to Austria, Switzerland, Germany and Holland.
By this point, I had been travelling for about three weeks by bus with a reputable travel company. I was the only person in the group travelling on a South African passport, and it had become somewhat of a joke that I was bound to get called out for something. But up until this fateful day, my good old South African passport and visa hadn’t let me down.
Needless to say, it wasn’t that funny when, after travelling for 12 hours from Greece to reach the infamous Albanian border, I was called off the bus and questioned by the Albanian border police. My heart was pounding and as I grabbed my friend for support, I fumbled down the stairs and found myself in a tiny hut made of corrugated iron. The cold, grey room was filled with empty faces clutching their belongings and the view from the window was reminiscent of a wasteland straight out of a Clint Eastwood movie.
After attempting what can only be described as an interpretative dance, I offered to pay the scary border police officer for my entry. But to my dismay, he point blank refused. We waved goodbye to our bus as it drove off into the distance, leaving the two of us standing in the dictionary definition of no man’s land.
I didn’t have stamps in my passport. This was very difficult to explain to the police. How had I travelled from country to country? The reason was actually simple enough–no passport stamps had been collected as we’d travelled through Western Europe by bus and therefore our movement hadn’t been tracked.
Were we going to be arrested? Would we spend the next 30 years in a cold, damp prison cell teaching our fellow inmates how to sing Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” (ala Bridget Jones)?
The border police took my passport and disappeared for what felt like hours into an ominous back room, leaving me and my best friend, who stood in solidarity beside me throughout the entire ordeal, in what felt like a jail cell. A young girl who was also waiting for some approval kindly told us in broken English that because I had no stamps in my passport, the suspicion was that I had been moving through Europe illegally, possibly with some form of contraband or illegal narcotics in tow.
When the officer finally returned with my passport, we followed his direct instructions–picked up our backpacks and literally ran across the border. This border was no more than a strip of sand, demarcated with barbed wire, and so we made our way back to Greece. And there we sat, on the welcoming Greek pavement, drinking coke, smoking Marlboros, and waiting for the bus to arrive to take us back to Athens.
The Greek officials also questioned our lack of stamps and almost refused to issue us with bus tickets. But eventually, we boarded the bus and then welcomed the heavenly luxury of a hot shower and an air conditioning. After a stop in an obscure Greek town, called Yanana, we finally made our way to Athens.
Were we going to be arrested? Would we spend the next 30 years in a cold, damp prison cell teaching our fellow inmates how to sing Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”?
We called our parents to alert them as to what had happened, laughed at the days’ ordeals, and breathed a massive sigh of relief. I also thanked whatever higher power had been looking after us that day for my travel buddy who had stood by me the entire time. And then we slept.
The following day, we bought tickets to Austria and eventually made our way to a country that would accept my Schengen Visa. We joined the rest of our group, ready to experience our itinerary’s remaining destinations.
Seven years later, I still haven’t been to Croatia. Neither has my loyal friend. But we will get there together–with the correct visa in my passport. I cannot wait!
Photo credit: Nikos Koutoulas