The bus ground to a squeaking, jolting halt just outside the Ukrainian border. The engine was switched off, as was the faux aircon removing any semblance of air circulation. It was 11am, hot, humid and getting hotter. We waited… and waited… Eventually after about 45 minutes, a Ukrainian immigration official stepped onto the bus. A palatable sense of anticipation began to melt into the heady atmosphere of BO and humidity. He then stepped off again.
It was another 15 minutes before there was any further activity. Then without warning, the engine switched on, there was a light puff of air suggesting the blower was back on too and we lurched forward through the first barrier, into a big open shed. Then stopped again. Engine off.. well you know the drill. Again we sat. Tania was fidgety; worried about making sure immigration put an exit stamp in my passport.
“I will check when they come on” she said.
Then he did come on. A young man so authoritative that Tania’s voice completely dried up, in itself an event so rare, it should be broadcast live. He took her passport then mine, checking the picture with my face, he had the look that only an immigration officer can achieve. The one that says, I have control over your destiny and if you piss me off it’s 10 years in the salt mine for you. Passports collected, he departed. Tania found her voice again.
“I hope he gives you an exit stamp!”
He did, it was another hour before I knew this, because this was how long it takes Ukrainian immigration to stamp 40 passports. One every 90 seconds or so. By now, it was midday, hot as hell and people were getting agitated. Because we were in a secure border zone, no one was allowed off the bus.
The official returned, gave all the passports to the driver who then proceeded to give them out, one by one, checking and calling each name. With a certain amount of inevitability, he started with the people at the back, who then had to fight past all the other passengers, standing in the aisles gasping for extra air or trying to coax blood back into their numbed buttocks. Eventually Tania took control, grabbed the passports from his hand and started her own distribution service.
The driver fired up the mighty German engine, vaguely engaged some cogs together with an alarming crunch and off we set. We must have travelled at least another 2 minutes before the bus ground to a halt again and our oxygen supply was cut off once more. We had arrived at the Moldavian border. It was a much more modern border post than the Ukrainian side and within minutes an impeccably dressed young immigration officer stepped on the bus and explained that he would collect passports for stamping. This was all too much for a Russian babushka sat behind me, she virtually erupted in a tirade of anger aimed directly at the Moldovan. Now, I don’t speak Russian but Tania translated his very calm and considered reply for me.
“Lady, if you do not calm down, I will turn this bus around and send you all back to the Ukrainian border. You will wait there until you are calm enough to return”
The babushka’s lips had just begun to formulate a reply when with all the synchronicity of a well rehearsed orchestra, 20 other passengers yelled “Shut up woman” She did, the immigration officer collected the passports and a brief 20 minutes later we were off, rolling into Moldova on the smoothest road I have yet experienced in the former Soviet Union.
TO BE CONTINUED