Back in August, on a swelteringly hot day, Merlin and I walked out to Cinderella Travel in Queens, where a very nice Belarusian woman name Mirena helped us apply and procure our visas to her homeland. Ever since that day, we've been curious, worried, excited, anxious about our border crossing. This wasn't Russia, where our visas were checked along with all the other passengers on the Tallinn-Saint Petersburg Eurolines bus. We were driving our car with all of our belongings in it and a less-than-conversational grasp of the language. But these are the sort of adventures we've signed on for! Right?
Note: Obviously, we neither could nor wanted to take pictures of the actual border crossing process. So, instead, we've decided to break up the following text with photos of bus stops spotted along the post-border Belarusian road.
We slept in Latvia on Saturday night, wanting to arrive at the border bright and early the next day. We had read that the process took anywhere from three hours to three days and didn't feel like kicking things off at dusk. Sunday morning, we visited the town's tourist office for some directions to an automobile crossing point. You can't just drive up to where the two countries meet on a map and expect there to be a check point. She was very friendly and advised us that the closest border station got a lot of traffic. It would be worth our time, she said, to drive an hour or so North to another border point.
The drive was simple, down a straight and narrow road. It was incredibly foggy, so everything we approached was unveiled in a last-minute, dramatic way. We knew that we were getting close when a line of trucks with BY license plated came barreling toward us. We kept expecting to pull up to a queue of vehicles. Instead, out of the fog appeared a small booth with a red and white striped gate attached. We parked, got out and stood at his window in the light rain as he checked our passports, car title and registration. Then, he gave our pile of documents back and motioned us forward.
We passed under the lifted gate and pulled up into check number two. This took a little longer, but was basically the same thing. We handed over papers, waited, waited, got them all back and were motioned forward to another booth. One last check and we were out of the European Union. We drove a hundred feet or so of countryless road before the Belarusian checkpoint began to pop out of the fog. Two cars with Latvian plates were already parked at a curb alongside a row of one room huts.
The first hut had a sign that read "Passport Control." So, we figured we'd start there. I nestled our car title under the flap of my coat to protect it from the rain as we waited to hear the stamp stamp of approval. It's amazing how much relief that sound gives me at this point. It took a while, as expected, but soon we had our passports back in our hands. The problem is, we had no idea where to go next. From around the corner came a very tall, uniformed man who rattled off a few sentences in Russian of which we understood "car" and a pair of words that sounded like "transportation control." Our eyes darted ahead to scan the second, third, forth and fifth huts' signs. "Transportation Control" was the last one and we moved on up to it.
Unlike Passport Control, we were welcomed inside out of the rain and found a trio of older women in sweaters, drinking tea. We greeted them in Russian, which immediately made them smile. Then, we handed over our title and registration and watched as they each took turns looking at them. One began to laugh as another put her hand against her forehead in bewilderment. It's pretty safe to say, they had never seen American car documents before and we helped as best we could to point out the key information. We would need to buy Belarusian car insurance, something we knew ahead of time, but couldn't do it in that hut. After her directions bounced right off our blank faces, she smiled and walked over to guide us in the right direction.
The woman in the insurance hut was equally bewildered by our paperwork, but in almost no time at all, we received an insurance document and were told to go back over to Transportation Control to file it. Back we went, papers were filed and we moved on to the next stage of the process: Customs. Now, we have a lot in our car. A day earlier, we had tried to organize things as best we could, but three backpacks, two wet bags, two suitcases, two pieces of hand luggage, a ten, two sleeping bags and three or four sacks filled with books are only going to look so neat. The tall uniformed man who seemed to be directing the process walked over to our car and told us to open the doors, at least that's what we figured he said.He peaked in both front doors and then walked around to the back. I lifted the hatchback up to unveil our lumpy landscape of belongings. He called two other guards to come over and they all stood there, staring. Then, we were ordered to shut all the doors and follow him into the customs hut. We couldn't read the Russian form and he couldn't really read the English form, so we went through it all together. Then, we got back in our car and moved forward to one gate, got out, handed over papers, got back in and moved to a second where we repeated our process. At the third, a pretty young woman laughed when we began to get out of our car and waved us back in. "All done" she offered in English and raised the final gate.
Back in the car, GPSy echoed the sentiment of everyone we had encountered on our journey across the border. She threw her hands up in the air, shrugged, thought "what the heck am I supposed to do with this?" and figured that we are and would be fine. We drove forward, off the last road our GPS could identify, into the blank territory of Belarus.