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Balls To The Baltic - Latvia or Bust



Diplomatic Wrangling to get Two Clowns Over the Border

We couldn't head directly up the Baltic coast, as that would mean heading through the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad Oblast, for which we'd have needed a visa. Lithuania joined the European Union in 2004, which meant no need for such paperwork, but a slight diversion on our journey. It was late in the evening, and we’d just driven down some of the worst roads in Poland (occasionally the tarmac reached the edge of the road) as we finally saw the huge white lights of the border crossing into Lithuania. Another leg completed. Or so we thought.

I was driving, in a right hand drive van, so Jonathan got the pleasure of handing over the passports to the border guard. He checked the passports, and then checked us, and then said in strong tones with heavy accent "Auto Passport". Jonathan looked at me, I looked at him with my best 'I have no idea what's he's taking about’ face, and Jonathan looked back at the guard who said the same thing again, only this time louder, because he was after all talking to foreigners, "Auto Passport!". This went on for a few more iterations. There was a queue of traffic building up behind us. Finally the border guard decided enough was enough and simply stated loudly and firmly, whilst pointing in the direction from which we had just come, "Go!!!"

One thing I came to realise about Jonathan over the few weeks we traveled together, is that he is (very sensibly I'm sure) more than happy to do whatever he is told by anyone carrying a gun. I'm more of the, 'but this is Europe, of course they're not going to shoot us' mentality (it's quite possibly my last words will be "of course he won't fire"), but a look at Jonathans face made me think, that maybe this is still an Eastern European mentality, and it would be wise to do as we've been asked / told.

As we turned around, you could feel the sense of disbelief in the van. This was the only way through. If we were going to get to Latvia, we had to go through Lithuania. We've just driven all this way…. across six countries. They couldn't possibly have turned us back. There was no way this could be over. I was a bit miffed. Jonathan looked utterly crestfallen.

There was a cafe / motel at the border crossing and we could stop and gather our thoughts. Neither of us could believe what had just happened. There was no other way through. Trip over.

Because Jonathan was aware of how much planning had gone into this trip, as much on the Latvian side as on his part, this hit him a lot harder than it had me. I was seriously upset that they'd put an end to our adventure, but Jonathan knew how many people we'd be letting down if we didn't get there. I think it was that reason that I bounced back a bit quicker than he did. There were after all, people we could call. We could find out what an 'auto passport' was. Maybe we could head back and get the ferry after all, although that would take days. We were supposed to be meeting the Mayor of Liepaja tomorrow. Maybe we could play a little political poker - “I'll see your border guard and raise you a Mayor”. To be honest, I didn't really fancy our chances on that one, as it seemed hard to imagine the Mayor making the call "It is of the utmost diplomatic urgency that you let these two clowns through". Although I should point out, I'm not a clown, I'm a juggler. We needed to stop, gather our thoughts, and see what our options were. We at least needed to make a few calls, and see if anyone could tell us what an ‘Auto Passport’ was.

So we had a coffee (that cost about tuppence) and then made a few calls (that cost about the price of being mugged due to call roaming charges). We called Katriina, who was our contact in Latvia to let her know we had a problem. We called Clive in Germany to see if he could check the internet and find out what an 'Auto Passport' was.

We decided it was best to wait until there were no more cars at the crossing, and then walk up and talk to the border guards.  We could find out if there was a way around this without blocking anyone else getting through, and hence miffing them. We also decided we'd get them in a better mood if just one of us went up, rather than a pair of unshaven long haired clowns (ahem) who probably smelled like they'd been driving in a van for about thirty hours.

I didn't realise at the time exactly how much Jonathan was afraid of people with guns. He admitted afterwards that he was completely ‘bricking it’ as he walked back up the floodlit road to the crossing. It was about half an hour before he came back. I sat and twiddled my thumbs, I wrote down notes of what we'd been up to. I tried to think of things we could do. Mostly I just waited.

When he came back it still wasn't good. I’d hoped for the big smiley face of a man who’d solved the problem. Instead, I got the sad faced clown. He'd managed to find out (the guards had a picture) that an 'Auto Passport' was a car registration document, which was at least a step in the right direction. We know knew what it was that we still didn't have. Maybe we could fax them a copy. Nope, he'd already asked that, it had to be the original.

We got a phone call from Clive telling us that he'd been on the internet and what we needed was a car registration document. It's funny to say it, but even though we already knew what we needed, it was just nice to know that there were other people helping us fight our corner. We were stuck, if not in the middle of nowhere, certainly on the edge of somewhere, and whilst tired, and frustrated, that was very good to know. More to the point, Clive had dug out the embassy numbers for the British embassies to both Poland and Lithuania. We weren't quite sure how this would help, but they might just know something we didn't.

Then we got a phone call from Katriina. Could we get the phone number for the border guard? She had someone who could speak Polish, and we might be able to work out a little more.

So Jonathan took the long walk again, and was gone another half an hour. They hadn't wanted to give him the number at all. Eventually they had and having passed this on to Katriina, needless to say it still didn't get us any further.

What we had found out, although this is mostly speculation, is that there was a problem with people stealing cars from Poland, and taking them across the border to Lithuania. This explained why you needed a registration document and why a car tax disc wasn't enough.

Jonathan told me the following story afterwards. When he’d gone up the last time, the Polish border guard had gestured that if the Lithuanian border guard would let us go through that they (on the Polish side) wouldn’t have a problem with it. With a positive bounce to his step, as this after all seemed like progress, he’d started to walk over to the Lithuanian crossing point, when he’d heard a voice tell him to stop. Looking up, he’d seen the Lithuanian border guard, so had started to walk over to talk to him. At which point the crossing guard had reached to his holster and unclipped his gun. At that point, Jonathan (soiled his trousers) very slowly turned around, and come back, and decided that enough was enough.

It was gone midnight and we'd been there about three hours. It was time to take a break. The motel here was closed now so we decided to head back to the last town we’d passed and see if we could find a hotel. We were down, but felt there were still options. There were things we could try to get through the border, and if the worst came to the worst, and they really wouldn’t let us through, I suggested we could go on a busking tour of Europe. Well, those countries that would let us in anyway.  At least that might bring a little joy to the whole situation. That was still the second choice though. Anything other than achieving what we set out to do was always going to be a bit of a disappointment.

The last town we’d passed was Augustow, which was about an hour back down the road. So we headed back along the worst road in Poland (occasionally the tarmac reached the sides of the road) in search of a hotel. We found one a little before we reached the town (and it’s driveway was even worse than the worst road in Poland) and we headed in, stored the luggage, and then went to find the bar for a quick drink to relax a bit and slip our brains back into neutral before hitting the sack. Needless to say, the bar was now shut, so we headed back to the room and decided to sample the gift the folks from Xantern had given us. It's called 'Underberg', and comes in a big tin, about the size of a litre bottle. The first surprise was that it in fact contained eighteen little bottles, all individually wrapped. The second surprise was the flavour.

It tasted like cough medicine. It tasted like the kind of cough medicine that you're supposed to rub in. It says on the side of the tin 'Worldwide after a good meal'. I couldn't help but think that it was probably only consumed 'worldwide after a good meal' by bulimics. To say the least, it's an 'acquired' taste. In the same way that petrol probably is. I've been known to say that any alcohol is still alcohol and therefore sacred. The original quote that came from is 'any book is still a book and therefore sacred'. This stuff was right up there with reading the phone book for fun, while bashing yourself over the head with the collected works of the Encyclopedia Britannica… whilst smashing yourself over the shins with the bookcase… which has nails sticking out… into your testicles). I will say one thing for it. I've not laughed so much at alcohol for a very long time, and while we tried to finish our little bottles (we both failed) we were in fits, which I'm ninety nine percent sure was as much laughing out the evenings frustrations as anything to do with the booze. I think it was a better present than anyone could ever have realised.

I’ve since been told that it’s generally used as a cure for hangovers … I can see how that would work, as it could almost be enough to make me give up drinking.



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