Custom Worries

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June 26th 2016
Published: June 10th 2017
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Geo: 45.3441, 19.0109

While we sleep at night, the boat calmly and surely makes its way forward, heading northwards on the Danube. I awoke to a continual, peaceful scene, verdant foliage on the far bank as we leisurely rolled along. It was very early, not yet 5AM, but again the sun was shining; what beautiful weather we have had here! Soon little villages appeared, then bigger buildings, and I knew we were soon to dock in Vukovar, Croatia, where the boat would pass through customs. Once we were secured, I quickly dressed, wanting to go out for another delightful early morning walk at my own fast pace, not hampered or hindered by people who move along slowly and gracelessly, and yet who do not like anyone passing them by. Plus I enjoy moving quickly; it is hard for me to go slowly, unless I'm doing yoga or tai chi, or reading, outside in the sun, or in front of the woodstove in winter.

So at the front desk I picked up my boarding pass, and then looked at both exit doors, one on either side, and there was ... the river. Stymied for a second or two, I heard the person who had handed me my boarding pass say, "You cannot go out." Then why had she given me a boarding pass? Going through customs can take over an hour; I had forgotten this. And this evening when we cross from Croatia into Hungary, we are told there will be a face check, each one of us scrutinized against the photos in our passports. All of us women looked at each other and wondered if we still looked the same as in those photos! Longer hair, shorter hair, different hairstyles, contacts or glasses: would we be recognizable? Here in Eastern European countries this could be worrisome. So there is a shadow over the day, at least for some of us women.

Vukovar, in the easternmost part of Croatia, is known for receiving the worst artillery shelling of the Croatian-Serbian war, and for being the first major European town to be almost entirely destroyed since WWII. The water tower still stands, chunks of it missing, pocked by bullet holes; it is a wonder it is still there. Birds make their homes there now, so this water tower continues to be of use. Vukovar has been partially rebuilt, but there are many unoccupied bomb-damaged buildings, houses, schools, piles of rubble alongside new construction. But the town looks empty. There were a few men fishing in the river, and even fewer mothers taking their children for a walk. In every country we visit we see only men in coffee shops; the women are all working. It was the same here, but it is Sunday morning, and the Croatians had just lost an important Eurocup soccer match to Portugal the day before, so our guide suggested that maybe these events had an effect on the human emptiness. Bullet holes were everywhere, much more so than could be seen in Bucharest, in Revolution Square. But the siege here lasted almost three months; Romania's came after a bloody day or two.

Back on the riverboat Aria, I had time to shower, change clothes, and do a daily laundry before all passengers were called to the front desk for the unsettling face check. I had known our boat had entered Hungary when I saw their flag being hoisted up at the bow, but there was no demarcation in the river. One ripple we were between Serbia and Croatia, the next splash and we were in Hungary. Without a chart or GPS, how could one know? But of course all the boats have automatic instruments and controls. The captains know.

So we were called, level by level, to the front desk to pick up our passports and stand in a snaking line to be judged. The official didn't even look at me; she just leafed through my passport, found a blank page, and stamped it. Good thing I had gotten a new passport 1 1/2 years ago; my old, dear, additional pages added, very well-used thick passport had shown my travels to Egypt, Turkey, China, Nicaragua, Mexico, India, Ecuador, Peru, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, etc., etc., etc. Even in the Boston airport I had once gotten pulled out of line and questioned because I had travelled to Egypt. I can't imagine how long it might have taken to explain that my travels to these countries were because of my love of adventure and exploration -- to this Hungarian official, or if she would have believed me. Perhaps I am a very suspicious looking person, or at least my travelling to suspect countries could be thought to be. But this time it turned out to be just fine. Breathing commenced again.


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