Friday, June 1, 2012

Stoned in Alexandria (T 9 - CZ & Egypt 1965)

(The ninth of my travellers’ tales, from March 1965)

We had talked our way out of Egypt with slightly forged currency-exchange slips (see the January 2012 post T-4) and out of Bulgaria with non-exportable local currency notes (March, T-6), and those successes must have gone to my head. But asking Czech border guards to let us cross into East Germany without an entry visa seemed reasonable enough on the face of it; a couple of months later the same sort of trick got us out of East Germany at Checkpoint Charlie (December 2011, T-1).

But this first time, two things worked against us. First, one of the guards spoke fluent English; second, we had way too much time to spare. Live and learn, I know, but the learning isn’t always much fun. I walked into the border-post with quiet confidence, and was carried out (figuratively speaking) like one of Muhammad Ali’s bum-of-the-month victims.

The English-speaking guard was friendly but disbelieving. “We can’t let you through without a visa. And we can’t issue you one. You will have to go back to Prague and get one from the East German Consulate there.” “Well, I’m terribly sorry,” I grovelled. “I thought we could get one here. It’s too late for Prague. The consulate will be closed for the weekend, and our visa for Czechoslovakia expires at midnight tonight. So, can you let us through, please?”

“No, I’m afraid I can’t," he chuckled. "You certainly can’t stay in this country with an expired visa. You can’t get to West Germany from here [I forget why], so what you have to do is drive to Vienna and buy a visa there. There's no other option.” I pulled out my map and measured the distance to Austria. “But it’s 200 kilometres away,” I said. “We’ll never make it in time!” He smiled and checked his watch. “Oh, I’m sure you will,” he said, “if you start right now...” Ugh! I had just enough sense to know that I was beaten – and I had no time to spare.

In the end, we made the Austrian border with twenty minutes to spare, after a nuisance delay by soldiers at a roadblock a few miles out. Westerners speeding towards the border a bit before midnight? Highly, highly, suspicious. In those days it was not unknown for young Westerners to try to smuggle refugees out in their cars. Even VW Beetles had enough room for somebody small and thin, buried under clothing in the front luggage area. Machine guns pointed at us from two feet away conveyed a clear message.

They checked every inch of the car while I explained the innocence of our mission to young conscripts who spoke and understood only Czech. For a shy farm boy brought up in a world without hand gestures, I had learned how helpful they were. In later years, my mother used to beg me to stop waving my arms around when explaining something.

Looking back, the Communist Menace was probably always exaggerated, just as the Islamic Menace is today. Linda and I travelled by car through every Communist-run nation in Europe except Albania. We hitched and bussed through nine Moslem nations plus the Turkish enclaves in Cyprus. Only on one single occasion on our travels did we feel genuinely threatened.

On that occasion, we got lost in a residential labyrinth in a poor area, and an impromptu gang of youngsters in Alexandria, Egypt began throwing stones at us. We represented the European invaders of 1956, to the uneducated stone-throwers - just as today, innocent Afghan wedding parties represent the bombers of the Twin Towers, to uneducated Americans.

An older boy happened upon the scene and led us to safety. And if he hadn’t come along, somebody else would have done. Egyptian cities are very crowded places. The mother of one of the kids would have slapped some sense into them, I expect. We weren’t ever in mortal danger, though it was a bit scary. Served us right for intruding, really. We had pushed our luck, which is always a mistake.