Saturday, August 4, 2012

Permission to travel (T11 - Russia & Syria 1960s)

(This is the eleventh in the series of travellers’ tales for my grandchildren) 

If we’d known, we’d have slept in! As it was, we were showered, breakfasted and packed, ready to hit the road at nine o’clock. Our next mandated sleeping place was a 250-mile drive away – say six or seven hours without pushing, with time for coffee-breaks. Our Russian visa (USSR, at that time) limited us to specific roads and specific accommodations on specific dates.

After three nights in a cabin at the Moscow camping ground, using up some of our illegal roubles (see my T-4 posting in the archives), we were ready for the road to Minsk. Finding our exit blocked by roadworks was a serious setback. If we didn’t make Minsk that night, we would be in breach of our visa, which might have meant all kinds of complications. Grading the road between us and the highway – well, OK; spreading tar for half a mile in both lanes, with no way around, was a ridiculous thing to do.

I conveyed my opinion to the foreman, and begged him to stop. No can do, squire. Orders are orders. They had to finish the job today. We wouldn’t be able to leave before about 5 o’clock; the tar ought to be dry by then. We discussed this for a while, man to man: he in Russian, I in English, assisted by vigorous hand-wavings. In the end, he conceded that his orders didn’t actually specify that both lanes must be done at the same time. (Gad, these Westerners! No wonder they’re winning the bloody Cold War!)

That still left two hundred yards of slow-drying tar on both lanes, and one lane tar-free after that. We waited as long as we prudently could before crossing our fingers and crawling gingerly over it at nought miles an hour. But of course my little white Beetle picked up a million black specks before we reached the graded part. I tried hard to undo the damage that night, but you can never get all of that stuff off once it’s dry. Ach, it could have been worse.

Russia was the only country that limited our travelling freedom to this degree. Every nation has its restricted areas, but nowhere else did we have a rigid itinerary and schedule. Usually, we got our visas either a day or two before entering a country or at the border on the way in. Russia required a bit more notice than that.

However, it wasn’t always wise to get a visa too soon. Linda accidentally got herself locked out of the entire Arab world when she applied for a Syrian visa in London six months ahead of time. A few days after we began travelling together (see T-2, Zorba), I noticed some Arabic writing in her passport, put there by the Syrian Embassy in response to her application. It sure didn’t look like a visa; but what else could it be?

The British Consul in Istanbul (whose terms of reference included helping Australians, since there was no Australian Consulate there) translated the words for us. “The Republic of Syria, mindful of its moral duty to support its dispossessed brothers in occupied Palestine, does not issue visas to persons intending to visit the Zionist entity calling itself Israel.” Or words to that effect.

Oh dear! No Arab nation would ever issue a visa in the face of such a note. Either we abandoned our travel plans for the Middle East or... well, or not, as it happened. The British Consul, gallant fellow, issued Linda a UK passport good for twelve months, and we mailed her Australian one back to London.

So we did our Middle East thing – and never even made it to Israel after all. We only spent a few days in Syria, on our way from Palestine to Lebanon, and we bought our visas at the border-crossing while the bus waited.