Wow! My time here was certainly a unique and interesting experience.
I think to myself as I race through the streets of Saint Petersburg, hoping not to miss the bus that is set to take me across the border to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. I am ten minutes away from the station. The bus leaves in five.
It’s time to say goodbye and continue along on my…
My backpack springs from my shoulders as I run, feeling strangely lighter than when I had first left home a couple weeks back.
The largest country in the world certainly has a way of taking you way out of your comfort zone. Simultaneously, making you feel infinitesimal, making you feel dwarfed by its class, structure and grandeur.
Prior to travel, I had heard so many bizarre stories about traveling in Russia.
Except for that time I walked around the streets of Moscow for hours searching for the train station unsuccessfully, with no one around being able to assist or speak English (full details to follow shortly in an upcoming blog post), I experienced no other issues and managed to have an excellent time here.
My confidence is soaring.
I get comfortable and use the wifi on the bus to check in with new-found friends and family back home. I relive some of my tales over the past few weeks.
“We adopted a crazy boy! I’m glad you finally managed to experience Russia, you’ve been meaning to go there for ages! Wish I had your life ;)” my homeboy, Rid1 replies.
I also receive some words of wisdom from my parents…
“As long as you are safe, have a good time, take care and keep in touch.” Dad responds.
“Travelling is often said to be a fountain of experience, knowledge and wisdom! Combine this with the adventure and challenges you face and what it does for the one travelling and for one’s growth. You are certainly having a roaring time. Take good care and enjoy yourself thoroughly!” Mum advices.
Little did I know that I was minutes away from yet another challenge.
My comfort and confidence is short lived at the Russian-side of the border. Let’s call this “the day Russia didn’t want me leaving its country.” And no, not even the good kind.
So we arrive at the border between Russia and Estonia. The bus driver utters something in a language I have absolutely no comprehension in. I see everyone getting up and slowly moving off the bus. I also notice them taking all their belongings along. Accordingly, I follow suit.
We wait in single file as each person passes through passport control. One by one. Few get questioned more than others, but nothing too serious. They all pass through just fine.
Then comes my turn
I am last in line
I open my passport to the Russian visa and hand it over to the officer on duty, noticing his olive green and gold uniform as I do. A typical soviet-looking man in his late forties, three deep scars running across his forehead.
He pages through my document as is customary. It’s unfilled. Clean. Empty. It’s a brand new passport. My previous passport was overloaded with stamps and visas from all of my travels, primarily over the last year, and needed to be replaced. It now rests proudly in a box along with some of my other favourite travel memories.
I’m expecting to receive my document back at any point and eagerly wait to get through. He scans my passport and furiously types something into his computer, in-between glancing at me and then at my passport photo. Back at me and then at my photo. I continue looking straight ahead. I’ve got nothing to hide. It’s unbearably hot, yet the officer is fully covered in a long-sleeve navy shirt buttoned all the way to the top under a woolen jacket. Sweat droplets form around the scars and drop to his desk, thankfully missing my passport every-time.
He continues to glance my way and then at my photo. This has gone past the point of being a normal control checkpoint.
I realize something’s wrong.
I continue to wait. Patiently, without saying a word.
There’s nothing else I can do.
He stands up, my precious passport in hand, switches his office light off and steps out. He has now entered my personal space, that invisible barrier over which one loses comfort upon unwanted entry. I’ve read about this on National Geographic. The animal will continue moving away so as long as unsolicited advances remain a threat.
I step back ever so slightly; stopping myself from stepping as far back as it would take to regain some personal space. Face to face, I observe the eyes of an angry man who doesn’t sleep much. Puffy and indiscrete, surrounded by wrinkles searching for an escape route.
“ч-то ваша цель?” He commands, continuing to face me in the most confrontational manner.
“I’m sorry. I don’t understand.” I reply, shrugging my shoulders in response, looking around for anyone that might be able to translate.
The building is a typical Soviet-style compound, devoid of any interior filling, save for the tiny office to my right and three green doors that lead to another location on the opposite end of the building. Huge glass windows run along its length. Eight cameras scan this entirely.
“You speak E-e-e-nglish?” He barks.
“Yeah I do.” I reply, my eyes now fixated on the emblem below his right shoulder, trying to recall where I had seen this symbol before.
“What is pur-r-r-r-pose?” His accent deep, thick and unequivocally Russian.
“Tourist.” I reply. “Travelling,” added for emphasis.
I’m left standing all alone as he paces away without saying a word. He makes his way through the last door in the corner of the building.
“Now what?!” I ask myself. “Is this really happening?”
I scan my surroundings. Outside, cars are searched as they make their way across the border. Officers with guns march to and fro. Sniffer dogs move about methodically.
Minutes later he returns.
“Other-r-r-(r) documents?” His thick Russian accent rings in my ears.
“What type of documents do you require?” I ask and proceed to pull out a folder containing all my documents. I find my student card, bank statement, travel insurance, flight itinerary, Russian tourist voucher and hand it all over. After paging through these documents, he returns all, except the student card and walks away.
After what feels like an endless wait, yet probably no more than 15 minutes, he returns, this time bringing two female sergeants along with him. They speak amongst themselves as they take turns glancing at my passport and then back at me. Passport. Me.
I feel like I’m back in a model casting call again.
“Ha! Russia’s next top model?” I deliberate silently “… and I didn’t even bother combing my hair this morning.”
“Maybe I should turn on the charm.” The internal dialogue continues.
“… At least you brushed your teeth. Smile.”
“This is no time to joke!”
“Humour is I all I have right now!”
Again they leave and I’m left alone, having absolutely no clue as to what’s going on. “If only I could understand what they were saying. Could the problem be my passport photo?” I ask myself. It can’t possibly be. It’s a brand new passport. I just took the picture six months back.
Friends back home constantly joke about how different I look every time we meet after an extended period. I know that the way I look is constantly changing, but not that much that it warrants additional questioning, right?
It doesn’t help that I don’t quite resemble my student card photo anymore.
I’m reminded of a conversation with one of my best friends, who I had initially met in Lisbon. We take a break from the sights of Portugal’s Capital and stop by at a delicatessen just off the main square. While thoroughly relishing the local pasteis de nata, I show Isabel my passport as promised.
“Wow. You travel a lot!” She exclaims, as she flips through and notices the multitude of stamps, encompassing four continents. This was my previous passport.
“You look nothing like this!” Isabel remarks, stopping at a photo on one of the visas. She continues on. “You don’t look like this either. And certainly not like this one. There’s only a slight resemblance here. Nope, not like this”
“Hahaaa I am an international man of mystery.” I reply coyly.
“I’m sure we’ll cross paths in a year’s time and I’ll just walk straight by, not recognizing you!” she comments as she continues to page through my passport.
My thoughts are interrupted by a large noise outside. There is no laughter here.
What could the reason for this delay be? My visa is valid for another two more days so it can’t be that.
Could it be the problem of not being registered once in the country? A concept that probably doesn’t even exist in reality yet is flaunted all over the net.
[Side note: According to Russian law, every foreigner should have their Russian visa registered with immigration authorities within 7 working days upon arrival in the Russian Federation . Some say this is done automatically. Some say this is only a requirement for those on business, not tourists. Some state that the registration needs only to be done if staying for more than 7 days in one particular place. As you can see, there is a plethora of contradicting information. My local embassy agreed that it was not necessary as a tourist, and so I decided to “take that chance” and not bother with registering]
Has this decision come back to haunt me?
I simply continue to anxiously wait.
The officer returns, this time with yet another female constable and they continue to discuss something in Russian all the while looking at my face and back at the photo on my passport and my student card.
“Ah, it would seem like I made it to round II of Russia’s next top model!” I silently joke to myself.
This goes on for a while and gets old-really-quick.
Seriously, is this really fucking happening?! I haven’t done anything wrong.
It takes all my willpower to stop the rebel in me from questioning this authority.
I bite my lip and contain myself from questioning the absurdity of it all. Those who know me well know how hard this was for me to do.
“Ok. What’s the worst that could happen?” I ask myself, trying to assess the situation and calm myself.
So I’m not allowed to exit the Russian Federation. Then what happens? Do I contact the embassy and explain my situation once back in St. Petersburg or Moscow.
A comforting thought is that I’ve JUST been in contact with my family back home. So if anything happens and I “disappear” they’ll have a trace of our last point of contact.
Except for the occasional image of being trapped in Russia, forced to roam the country forever, I am surprisingly calm throughout most of the ordeal. I take three deep breaths and release all the anxiety and stress of the situation, simultaneously surrendering to come what may.
The other people traveling on the same bus get restless and keep glancing my way through the windows, wondering what’s happening. All the while, I make sure to keep one eye fixed on the bus, hoping that it doesn’t spontaneously leave.
When the officer reappears this time, he’s in conversation with the bus driver and I pick up the word “baggage” amid a string of incomprehensible disputes. I’m asked to fetch my luggage from the bus. I confirm with the driver that the bus is not going to depart without me and once back in the office, I’m told to remove e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. I open it up and grab whatever I can, placing it on the table alongside, knowing that I’ve got nothing to hide. I was however, concerned that the spirulina tablets I placed in packets instead of the bottle it came in to save space, might be suspected as something more. Fortunately, they simply brush this off as I pull it out.
“How much cash you have?” He enquires, once the backpack is vacant.
“Rubles? Err…” I empty my wallet and show him the 900 rubles I had remaining. “I also have a bank cheque card.”
“Ok. Ok. Go!” He declares abruptly.
“What?” I ask startled, trying to confirm that I had heard him correctly.
“Go!” he articulates, handing me back my passport, he’s eyes directed at the bus outside.
Again, I observe his eyes. But this time it remains just that, the eyes of a man. I notice his humanity. I grab all my stuff, shoving it back into the backpack and head out.
On the other side, at the Estonian border, it’s a relatively quick stop. The officer here is meek and friendly. I get asked a couple of questions. They call to confirm my reservation for my night’s stay in Tallinn. I had made the reservation under “Rai” and not my full name according to my passport, which required additional clarification.
But moments later my passport is stamped and we continue along.
Back on the bus, I breathe a sigh of relief.
– I’m pleased to be on the move again.
– Glad to have experienced Russia.
– Excited at the rest of my upcoming travels.
Following my heart.
Having no idea where I’ll land up.
Travelling on a whim.
Searching. Learning. Growing.
“It’s going to be one incredible adventure!” I ruminate, noticing the changing landscape surrounding the bus.
“You must certainly love travel a whole lot to put up with all of this?” I ponder silently.
“I was born for this…!”
Have you ever experienced any problems at passport control or with any other authorities during your travels? I’d love to hear. Let me know in the comments.
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To many more (mis)adventures,
✈ ✈ Rai
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