Saturday, June 02, 2007

Passport stamps and shady dealings

As I mentioned, I'm now in Budapest. To get here, I first travelled from France into Italy, Milan to be exact. There I inquired at the ticket office about how to get to Budapest as soon as possible. The ticket agent spoke French so things wet smoothly. I showed her my rail pass, and she made me a required reservation on an overnight train from Venice to Budapest, 2nd class seating, and she told me the time for the next train to Venice, for which I didn't need a reservation.

So I was on my train from Venice to Budapest, which they could call the "ticket-and-passport inspection" special. Honestly, after the first hour it seemed that my ticket was inspected every 20 minutes. I kept falling in and out of consciousness - I was tired from travelling plus I was in the middle of a head cold - and being awoken by seemingly a different ticket inspector each time.

Then we crossed the border into Slovenia. Here I should mention that my rail pass is not valid in that country, and that I also had no idea the train was taking that route. I was under the impression that we were travelling via Austria, and the woman at the train station had not mentioned to me that I would be travelling where my pass is not valid.

I was made aware of the problem by the Slovenian ticket inspector. He informed me that we would be travelling through Slovenia and Croatia, both countries where my pass was not valid, so I would have to pay a supplement of 30.10 Euros.

As soon as he said the price, my heart sunk, so to speak, as I was pretty sure I did not have that much cash in Euros. Since Hungary doesn't have the Euro, I hadn't stocked up on cash. I had a little over 27 Euros, and some money in pounds sterling as well. I informed the ticket inspector of what I had. He didn't seem keen to accept pounds, and I was about ready to try hawking my 5 pound note for 3 Euros (a bargain, since it's worth about 7) since there was a lot of English-speaking people on the train and odds were some of them were from the UK. Then the girl next to me piped up with "How much do you need?" She gave me 3 Euros, proving to me once again that in general people in the world are kind and helpful. I got a receipt from the ticket inspector, gave the girl next to me a couple of chocolate bars that I had as an attempt at repayment, and started snoozing again.

Then we crossed into Croatia, which meant passport inspection. The Slovenian border police checked out all passports carefully, holding them up to the light and comparing photos with faces. I actually appreciated having that done, because often police just look at the cover of my passport and toss it back to me, and I think what's the point of having all the anti-fraud measures on my passport when no one looks at it? My passport got stamped with an exit stamp (although I never got an entry stamp to Slovenia) and I thought that was cool, because I rarely get stamps and my passport looks lonely with all the blank pages.

I was musing on how I thought it was a shame that with the EU, you don't get passport checks all the time, when the train then had to make another long stop while Croatian border guards checked our passports. By the time I had gone through two more passport checks (leaving Croatia, entering Hungary) I had grown to appreciate the ease of travel permitted by the EU. All those stamps take time, afterall.

Getting into Croatia meant a new Croation ticket inspector, who when I presented him with my rail pass, seat reservation, and supplement receipt, sternly informed me that I had to pay another supplement of 20 Euros because I had only paid for Slovenia, not Croatia. The Slovenian ticket inspector had kindly not informed me that I would be in trouble once I got across the border if I was out of money.

I told the ticket inspector my situation - that I had no Euros and only British pounds. He frowned and told me he would be back. So there I sat, waiting for him to return and wondering if I was going to be put off the train at some one-horse Croatian town at 3am. I had 75 pounds, and figured that 20 Euros would mean 15 pounds, and I even had the proper note for it. The question on my mind is whether pounds could be accepted - I figured it should be do-able, since the Euro isn't even the currency in Croatia anyway, and the pound is a good currency to get hold of. I was also wondering if I would have to "top-up" my supplement to encourage the ticket inspector to accept my UK notes, and considering how much it was worth to me not to end up off the train.

I tried staying awake waiting for the guy to come back, and he passed me a few times but didn't stop. I thought that perhaps he had just decided to leave me and eventually fell asleep, stretched out from my seat to the empty seats that were across from me (the helpful girl and the two other people seated with me and gotten off in Slovenia).

I was awaken, quite gently, by the ticket inspector tapping on my legs while seated across from me. He said to me "15 pounds, I write, 10 pounds, I not write." He was telling me that he'd write me up a receipt fo 15 pounds, like I thought, but that he'd cut me a deal if we left no paper trail and he could pocket the money. I was a bit reluctant to accept the "no write" deal at first because then I wouldn't have a receipt to prove I had paid to a different inspector.

Opening up my wallet, I said "15 pounds?" and the man, quickly and hopefully replied in a quiet voice "10 I no write." I guessed from the expression on his face that he wasn't going to let me get taken advantage of by this situation. He was doing me a favour if I'd do him one. Since every ticket inspector had been only concerned with their own country so far - Italian train station woman didn't care that I'd need to pay more outside of Italy, Slovenian guy didn't care that I1d need to pay more in Croatia - I figured I'd be alright.

I gave the man his 10 pounds and didn't see him again as we soon crossed into Hungary. It was my first dealing with a public official that was of a... I guess you wouldn't call it corrupt, so of a shady nature. I now think that it was sort of cool, as I felt a real part of that Eastern European state culture that we all hear about.

The Hungarian police not only checked our passports, but a guard moved along the corridor of all the carriages with a step ladder and opened up all the ceiling pannels to look inside. On top of my under-the-table dealings of the night, that extensive search just added to the feeling that I was in a different world now. And I won't ever attempt to smuggle something into Hungary. Those guards were stern and big. One had legs as long as me.

I have 3 new stamps in my passport, I'm 27 Euro plus 10 pounds poorer than I anticipated being, and I was very glad to get to a hostel bed this morning and take a nice nap there instead of sitting on a train platform in Növere'sz vyl, Croatia (I would like to visit Croatia someday, but under circumstances of my own choosing). Still, it's not a trip that I'll forget.

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