Border crossing is an art, Sowerby finds

Just six days after the horrific World Trade Center attacks in 2001, my wife Lisa and I were scheduled to fly to Miami. We weren’t sure about taking a trip in the days following the destruction, but finally agreed to go.

I had a hard time getting to sleep the night before. The unlikely event of ending up on a hijacked airliner wasn’t the cause of my insomnia, though. It was the reception at the U.S. border when we presented passports with current visas for Pakistan and Iran. A recent family vacation in Cuba didn’t seem an asset either.

With absolutely nothing to hide but dry mouths and kinked stomachs, we approached the immigration officer.

“Where do you live? Where are you going? Who do you work for?”

His questions were fast and furious as he thumbed through our passports. Then, as if a switch had been flipped, he smiled and wished us a pleasant trip.

Border controls have always been something I like to view in the rearview mirror, especially during those timed endurance drives that have taken me through some of the world’s most desolate border posts. The sweat begins about three hours from the frontier, then things get quiet except for isolated bouts of small talk punctuated by nervous laughter as we reconfirm our papers are indeed in order.

Thoughtful interior goodie placement is advisable. Fish out a pack of Marlboros and put them on the dashboard in plain view. Make sure the registered owner of the vehicle is driving. Tidy up the interior and hang an attractive souvenir pen out of your shirt pocket. Keep the carton of Marlboros and the case of souvenir pens out of sight.

Approaching the post, remove sunglasses so they can see you have eyeballs. Be friendly, but not overly. Attempt a word or two in the local language. Once cleared, move away slowly, nod a lot and smile. Bid farewell and make sure everyone, including the guy with the 50-calibre machine gun, understands that you are movin’ on. Adjust the rearview mirror so you can see the post disappear. Grin.

I’ve never been good at assessing when a bribe might be in order, beyond the ones I offer my kids when good behavior is essential. Once after a lengthy delay at the Romanian border, I clued in after an officer mentioned the expensive operation his child needed.

Another time former partner Ken Langley and I took action after being stonewalled for hours by the Turks at the Iraq-Turkey frontier. They expressed zero interest in our attempt to set a world record for the fastest time from the southern tip of Africa to the northern tip of Europe. Nine bullet holes in our GMC Suburban from an ambush in Kenya didn’t impress them either. Nor did the fact that we had just driven through the Iran-Iraq war.

Finally one of them advised a donation might hurry things up.

“How much?”

I was assured $50 would be sufficient.

“Do you take travelers checks?”

He eyed the “Thomas Cook Travellers Cheques” logo on the front fender. There was a bullet hole through the word “Cheques.”

Our new acquaintance smiled and agreed to accompany us down the road where the transaction could be finalized. This seemed strange but, since it was in the direction of Istanbul, we agreed. A few minutes later we pulled over, cut the lights and stumbled down an embankment.

At the bottom we were led to a shack and introduced to 10 or 12 Turks. They were sitting on the dirt floor in dim candlelight cleaning rifles, drinking mint tea and cracking jokes we couldn’t understand.

We declined an offer of tea and hard biscuits in favor of getting down to business. I offered the travelers checks while Ken engaged two gentlemen who could speak reasonable English.

The apparent boss, a massive man dangling a cigarette between a gap in his teeth, advised the “donation” was now $100.

This seemed unfair but, given our surroundings, I felt obliged to agree and produced five $20 checks. I countersigned the first one, which Mr. Big carefully examined under a flickering candle. I knew it was too dark to see clearly so I held my breath and signed the last four with an incorrect signature.

I passed on offers for more tea. Ken cut short his fellowship and we wasted no time getting up the embankment, into the Suburban and off into the darkness. I told Ken about my ploy to mess up the accounting system back at the bribe shack.

“Shouldn’t have done that, Sowerby.” He looked nervous in the faint glow of the dashboard lights. “Those guys were telling me about all their relatives that live along this road.”

Just as I was getting a little nervous about the warning, three people holding machine guns waved us down from the side of the road. If they were bandits or the aforementioned relatives and we stopped, there would be trouble. If they were military or police and we didn’t stop, that was trouble too.

Ken pulled up right beside them. They were young soldiers looking for a drive.

“Nah, not tonight.” I choked out, as Ken drove away.

It was quiet in the truck the rest of the night, except for some small talk and the odd bout of nervous laughter.

Garry Sowerby, author of “Sowerby’s Road; Adventures of a Driven Mind,” is a four-time Guinness World Record holder for long-distance driving. His exploits, good, bad and just plain harrowing, are the subject of World Odyssey, produced in conjunction with Wheelbase Communications. Wheelbase is a worldwide provider of automotive news and features stories.

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