The Border Run (1 of 2)

I no longer have interesting days. My life is one big habit. Wake up, eat, read, write, blog, coffee shop, gym, eat, shower, drink. In a life of routine, nothing sticks out until something goes wrong. You don’t visit your normal lunch spot and get blown away by a new taste; no, you get burned when the trainee messes up your favorite sandwich. You don’t go to your gym and see it packed with beautiful girls who are staring at you. Instead you find it crowded with guys who are using the squat rack to do shoulder shrugs. We have all made a deal with life to give us consistently alright days instead of experiencing the extremes of suffering or amazement. Nothing interesting happens within your routine.

Holders of American passports in Poland have to make a border run every 90 days. Luckily I was living in Lublin, only 60 miles from the Ukrainian border. I’ve heard nightmare stories of long waits at the border so on day 85 I planned for the worst in having to stay overnight in a Ukrainian village in order to successfully get my passport stamps. I left my apartment at 11am and was prepared to come back the following afternoon.

At the bus station I bought a ticket to the town of Łuck (pronounced Woosk in Polish), about 100 miles into Ukrainian territory. The ticket lady said that I wouldn’t be able to return until the next morning. Ticket in hand, I waited outside the platform.

A week prior I had prescribed myself a one-approach-a-day diet. My game was getting rusty from spending too much time working in front of my laptop. The diet was meant to force myself to change my normal routine. In what I figured would be a long day without seeing many women, I would have to do the approach right then on the platform to get it out of the way.

I saw a pale girl standing with her luggage, bundled up in heavy winter gear. I had no idea how her body was, but her face was pleasant. She looked straight ahead at the platform, and the only sign of life was her exhale into the unbearable Polish winter. I walked up to her slowly and with a croak in my voice I said, “Excuse me, do you speak English?”

“Yes, a little.”

“Today I have a ticket to Łuck, but I’m going only to get my passport stamped. Do you know if I can get off at the border and then come back instead of going all the way there?”

“I really don’t know.”

“The ticket lady said I wouldn’t be able to come back until the next day, though it would be nice to return today. I’m sure it has to be possible.”

“I’ve never had to go to the border,” she said.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

She told me the name of a village. She just finished her exams and was going home to visit her family. We talked for a while until she asked where I was from. Her eyes lit up when I said America, remarking how “far” I was from home. The conversation eased into a legitimate pickup.

“My bus is about to leave, but it was nice talking to you,” she said.

“Yes it was. Too bad you’ll be out of Lublin for a while. We could meet up for a drink.”

“Actually I’ll be back next week to finish writing some papers.”

“Then let’s do it.” I took out my phone and got her number. I tried to scope out her ass as she boarded the bus but her coat covered it.

My bus loaded after hers and I sat in the back. It was a Ukrainian bus, not Polish, so it was old and tattered with a musty odor. I’m sure someone had urinated on the bus during its lifetime. Half the people on it were speaking Polish and the other half Ukrainian or Russian.

I saw a butterface up ahead with gigantic breasts and my mind started drifting towards sex. She knew she had the goods because she would hang a leg over her armrest into the aisle. Then a blonde girl boarded the bus and sat opposite of my aisle. She was just my type—petite, long hair, chipmunk cheeks. She put on earphones as the bus rolled from the station. I got a sense she was Ukrainian, which meant she likely didn’t speak English.

Every day, as part of my routine, I go to the coffee shop around 5pm for two cappuccinos. I didn’t want to miss it today, but it seemed inevitable. What if, though, I somehow figured a way back the same day? A couple days before I had researched the border crossing by asking a few Polish locals for information, but they never had to make border runs before. There was nothing on the internet about it.

If I got off at the border, wouldn’t there be frequent buses going the other way? Couldn’t I just pick one and buy a ticket? There had to be a way. I wished I had rented a car instead—I could have done it easily at a cost of less than $100. It would be a waste to stay overnight in Ukraine, so halfway through the short ride to the border, I made a decision: I was coming back today to have my two cappuccinos like usual. Now my mind shifted in thought. Instead of wondering if I could do, it started thinking how to do it.

I remembered when I traveled to South America and easily met people who could break down border crossings with great detail, suggesting the pros and cons of one crossing over another. They’d stop short of naming specific guards you’d want to deal with. There was also Lonely Planet to hold your hand, with clear detail on all crossings and timetables for buses. It made failure almost impossible even for the most retarded of travelers.

I had no information. No firm details. As we approached the border, I craned my head into the aisle. There was the blonde with chipmunk cheeks, still listening to her music, and then four men sitting behind her. Loudly I said, “Does anyone speak English?” The four guys shook their head while the rest of the bus gawked at me. Then the girl, very meekly, said, “I speak English.”

I told her about my situation and if I could get off at the border to return. She said she didn’t know but I should ask the bus driver. I went up to him. He didn’t speak English so in Polish I asked, “After the border, I can get off?” He said, “It’s possible.”

The girl was surprisingly eager to talk to me. She was from Łuck but studying in a small Polish town. Her major turned out to be English. My luck. For the next half hour, we talked about Ukraine, America, and Poland. I was one of the first Americans she has ever met. My long-winded routines were getting silence until I remembered I have to ask Ukrainian girls simple questions. I did and the conversation flowed better.

If I brought her to America as a wife, I imagined how I’d have to constantly protect her from thirsty dudes. She’s a complete unknown in her country and in Poland, rarely getting a second look from men, but in my mind she was a prize, with an elegant manner and classic style of beauty. We exchanged email addresses, a pointless enterprise, but I have no doubt than within four years, when she turns 24, she will marry an average man with an average job and make him above-average happy. If only marriage was in me, I would have long ago found such a girl, but here I am crossing borders in the middle of nowhere to stay in a country where I was enjoying not much more than casual sex.

We arrived at Polish customs and gave our passports to a Polish officer. Twenty minutes later the passports came back freshly stamped and we proceeded the half mile to the Ukrainian border. The Ukrainian agent talked to no one except me, asking in English what the purpose of my stay was. “I just need to cross the border and go back,” I said. She didn’t say anything else.

Next to our bus was the customs line for cars. I saw how quickly they were clearing the border and I again wished I had rented a car, but I also noticed something else: the drivers were bribing officials. It was a scripted routine where the driver would get out of his car then give a handoff to the official while popping his trunk. About half of the drivers did this. If I did have a car, I’m sure I would mess up the protocol.

The passports came back and the bus started moving again. I said goodbye to the Ukrainian girl and walked up to the front. They stopped the bus and dropped me off. I crossed the street and saw two buses whose signs said they were going to Warsaw. The bus drivers were milling outside, waiting in a massive line to get into Poland. I asked them in Polish if I could buy a ticket. They said no.

I shuffled to the side of the street. It had snowed a couple days prior so there were puddles of black slush that I tried to avoid. I looked into Ukraine and saw nothing but a gas station. There were a few dozen men in black coats just standing around. Other men lingered outside their cars, smoking cigarettes. There were grandmothers with push carts approaching random cars and buses, probably looking for a ride. All the while, Ukrainian agents in furry hats were yelling at people to go this way or that, a far cry from the friendly scene on the Polish side. Most everyone stared at me as I walked around like an idiot, trying to figure out what to do.

For two months I studied Polish for a couple hours a day. The only thing that kept me going was the belief that all this work would pay off when I met a beautiful girl in a club who didn’t speak English. That didn’t happen. I felt like I did all that studying for nothing, but on this day on the border I would use everything I had learned.

I approached a group of three guys and asked them in Polish how I could cross. They asked me to speak in Russian and I tried, but what came out was half Polish and half Russian.

“You need a car to go across,” one said. “Walking is not allowed.”

“But I don’t have a car,” I replied.

“So go by bus. Look, there are two buses right there.”

“I already asked but they said no.”

“Did you ask in Polish or Russian?”

“Polish,” I said.

“You have to ask them in Russian. The buses are coming from Ukraine.”

I walked again to the bus drivers and asked in Russian, but the answer was still no. I went back to the guy. He said, “They think you have contraband.”

“But I don’t have contraband. I have my lunch and a laptop.”

I was thinking of offering the guy and his friends money to drive me across, but what would stop them from robbing me blind? I don’t believe they came to the border to rob a naïve tourist, but I didn’t want to give them an easy opportunity with little chance of getting caught.

A pair of Ukrainian agents came by and dispersed us. As I walked away, one looked at me and yelled, “Passport!” He flipped through the pages and gave it back. I asked him how I could get across and he pointed to a car. The other agent said I have no choice but to go to Łuck and then come back.

I looked again into Ukraine, focusing on the gas station. There were no taxis. I had gotten myself into a predicament.


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