As far as hitchhiking goes, it was the dream lift; Sofia to the front door in Munich without having to so much as extend a thumb. Talking to some local experts and consulting the map, it seemed that the drive could be done in less than 20 hours, which meant I could be sinking a Weissbier within two days, and earning some desperately needed cash within three. While the 20 hour drive was perhaps a little ambitious given the war that had just broken out in neighbouring Yugoslavia, the most direct route, it became totally unrealistic after spending 24 hours in No-Man’s Land between Romania and Hungary babysitting a middle-aged Filipina Moonie.
Hitchhiking with the Moonies
It had been an excellent summer – a month in Moscow nominally learning Russian, followed by a month in southern Bulgaria nominally teaching English with the Moonies – but now it was time to head in the gentle direction of home, via a month of hard work in Munich to earn money for the coming student year. Money was tight, and I had been fretting about how to get from the Bulgarian capital to Munich as I was now down to my last $30. By chance, I learned from one of the Moonie organisers over dinner that there was a camper van leaving for London in two days, and that he thought there might be room if I wanted a ride.
Perfect! A direct ride where I could relax with my thoughts and reflect on what had been the best summer of my life. My fellow passengers would no doubt be immersed in religious thoughts, and I would be a quiet passenger in the back, grateful for the free ride to Munich.
“Can anyone read Cyrillic,” asked Alex, the driver from the East End of London, shortly after we pulled out from the apartment where they had been staying in Sofia. It was 5am and I was one of eight people in the van, conspicuous by my lack of allegiance to Reverend Moon, but warmly welcomed nonetheless. As far as I could make out from the introductions, we had six Brits and a Filipino, which was further broken down into three married couples and Alex the driver, heading back to London to see his (Moonie) Korean wife.
Not famed for language ability, I wasn’t expecting any British volunteers to chip in with linguistic help, so I ventured forth, happy to put my Russian language skills to some use. I managed to negotiate our way out of the capital and we were soon heading north to the Romanian border. On the dashboard was a portrait of the Reverend and his wife, to whom we had all said a prayer prior to departure. They were a friendly bunch, but the constant references about their faith in the man from Korea, and their almost blind faith in everything he said and did left me somewhat grateful that our association would only last a day or so.
It turned out that all the couples had been introduced by the Reverend personally. He had deemed that the other was the perfect partner, and they had been united in matrimony in the infamous mass Moonie weddings. All professed to be blissfully happy, which seemed to be somewhat relative in the case of the Filipino wife, who didn’t seem to be able to communicate effectively with anyone, and whose husband did not seem the type who was proficient in any language apart from his native broad Geordie.
The journey to Bucharest was uneventful where we stopped for lunch. I was learning lots about the Unification Church and its contribution to changing global affairs, including helping Gorbachev bring down the Soviet Union. The more I listened, the more delusional they sounded, but they were pleasant enough and did not try and force their religion down my throat. I was polite and tried to feign sleep and willed for Munich to come into view.
The Popular Hungarian Border
The hitherto smooth progress ground to a grinding halt shortly before the border crossing with Hungary, and we joined what seemed a long queue, although it was impossible to judge how long, as it snaked round a corner. We sat patiently for perhaps half an hour without moving until I became restless and determined to at least find out what the problem was. Hopping out of our brand new white Mercedes van, a gift from some Unification Church fund, I ventured forth, happy to be away from the Reverend’s influence for a while, but keen also to find out how long this border crossing was going to take.
My research was more than a little disheartening. Walking past battered Golfs, Dacias and Yugos, as well as numerous trucks far too large for this relatively small road, it quickly became obvious that we were in for the long haul. I found a local who spoke German who told me the traffic was due to the problems in Yugoslavia – all the main transit traffic was now being re-routed through this border crossing, and the queues were endless. The border was more than two kilometres away. I asked him if he had any idea how long it would take to cross the border, and he nodded.
“About 24 hours.”
Hmmm. I needed a plan. We could pray to the Reverend, of course, but in case he wasn’t able to help, I had to come up with another way, or I could find myself indoctrinated and married to a woman I had never met at the next mass wedding.
Testing Moonie Flexibility
My news was greeted calmly by my fellow passengers and we paused in prayer for guidance and patience. Another hour passed, and I sense the patience wearing thin, especially after we saw a fat Mercedes on German plates overtake us and speed on past the static queue. I seized my moment.
“I have a plan,” I ventured innocently. “A plan to get us across the border within the hour.” The reception was enthusiastic and I proceeded with caution, choosing my words carefully.
“I am the linguist here, so leave all the talking to me. Basically we will put the first aid box on the dashboard. It has a red cross and so we say we are doctors working in an orphanage in Bulgaria. We have a brand new white van which we can say has been donated by some NGO and we have to get back to Vienna as soon as possible to pick up emergency medical supplies as some of the children are in seriously poor health, and they are depending on us. A small white lie to get us to the border. I can sweet talk the guards, all you have to do is pretend you are sleeping or do not understand. What do you think?”
There wasn’t a lead balloon big enough to greet my idea.
There was an embarrassed silence and, I sense, a little internal praying for inspiration. I bided my time and waited for the next car to fly by, before working on Alex, sensing he was the most willing of an unwilling crew to give it a go.
“What have we got to lose? At the very worst, we will be sent back to where we came from. We are not hurting anyone. And while that guy said it would be 24 hours, who is to say it won’t be 48? Or more?” Feeling as though I was making progress, I went for a walk, leaving them to debate. I came back ten minutes later to a beaming Alex, who greeted me with the thumbs up.
We Stop for Nobody
“Ok, great. So all we need to do is put the first aid box on the dashboard. Oh excellent, there is a red cross sticker inside. Let’s put that on the bonnet,” and I attached it before there was any hint of objection, “and let’s get moving. Just pretend you are tired nurses and doctors, don’t speak and we will be fine. And Alex, just drive, as fast as you can, and stop for nobody. Repeat nobody. Leave the talking at the border to me.”
“Okay,” he shouted jubilantly, the adrenaline pumping. “This is going to be fun.”
We pulled out and went round the bend, taking the curses of stranded drivers in our stride. Frustrated horns blared at us, but we had a clean run. We were doing perhaps 60 km/h and the length of the queue quickly became apparent as we had travelled for more than a minute and there was still no sign of the border.”
“And stop for nobody, ordered the boss,” laughed Alex, clearly enjoying his moment of fun.
“Yeehah,” proclaimed an enthusiastic voice from the back. I was pleased with myself, we were going to make it, and I would be in Munich tomorrow. I was enjoying watching Alex driving – he was clearly rediscovering a freedom from an earlier life. Until a sudden frown invaded his face.
“Shall we stop for him?” I turned from Alex’s face to the objection of his attention.
Ah. A Romanian policeman, left arm right raised motioning for us to stop, right hand on the trigger of his handgun.
“Yes, perhaps for him.” Shit. And I could see the border as well. We stopped amid frantic praying and panic in the rear – they hadn’t been in so much trouble ever.
Linguistic Challenges Part Two
“Let me do the talking. We will be fine,” I said, with more confidence than I possessed. If they sent us to the back of the queue, we could be here for a week.
“Guten Tag, Sprechen Sie deutsch?” He looked quite fearsome.
“Rumunjski.” Hmmm. He must do a little Russian, good Communist comrade and all that.
“Rumunjski.” Perhaps a little French; Romanian was odd for the region in that it was a Romance language.
“Rumunjski.” This was going to be tough, as the only word of Romanian I knew was ‘strigoi’ meaning ‘vampire’ a useful piece of info I had picked up in Transylvania the year before.
I could feel the faith of my fellow passengers waning. But I also felt the fruits of the team’s praying efforts as an irate Romanian got out of his car and came over, cursing us in German.
“Who the hell do you think you are, and what makes you think you can jump the queue,” he spat at me in German. I put my vampire speech in my back pocket – it was always going to be a tricky one.
“Hello and please don’t be angry with us. We are just some exhausted doctors and nurses working 24 hours a day to try and save some sick Bulgarian children,” I began, pausing for effect to see if he was in any way placated. He was. “And we need to get to Vienna urgently for more medicine or some children might be in serious danger.” His anger turned to grave concern and he explained all to the police officer who, unbelievably, waved us through with the flick of a handgun. The border guards had seen the confrontation, and we managed to negotiate our way through the Romanian border control.
I was elated, they were elated and, while I was ready to take all the credit, the real hero was on the dashboard in front of me.
“The power of prayer,” exclaimed one.
Whatever. We were there, and I was much closer to Munich than ten minutes previously. We approached the Hungarian post in fine spirits, and I handed over the seven British and one Filipino passports. The second serious frown of the day seemed to eclipse Alex’s, as the border guard scrutinised the Filipino passport.
The Benefits of Filipina Friendship in Hungary
“Where is the visa?”
“We were informed we didn’t need one for transit. We are passing straight through Hungary to Munich.”
“She needs a visa. She must return to Bucharest and buy a visa on Monday morning when it opens,” this being a Friday afternoon.
It turned out we were in quite an interesting situation, one which would take some special prayers to get us out of. Seven of us were free to proceed, leaving the Filipina lady behind, which would have been harsh. However, the suggested course of returning to Bucharest was not very practical for, while she could re-enter Romania with no problem, we Brits had used up our single-entry transit visas by entering No-Man’s Land, and so a Monday morning trip to the Romanian Embassy in Budapest would be required.
I sat in utter disbelief, the freedom of Munich once more cruelly snatched from me. The ensuing praying did little to add to my mood. Eventually, it was decided that I would stay with the lady, while the remaining six would enter Hungary and try and get some assistance from the Unification Church, Budapest branch.
No-Mans Land on a Friday Night in August
Terrific. Stuck in between Romania and Hungary with a woman I could barely understand who was praying to a man I wanted to strangle was not part of the plan. I watched in frustration as car after car passed through the border, noting in amusement the cartons of cigarettes and bottles of whisky that were proferred in exchange for a cursory glance at the contents of a car.
Time passed, and I hoped that my continued presence in the general vicinity might make them take pity on me, but I soon realised there was no possibility of that when I came across an Iraqi lady with no papers who had been there for three days; headed for London, it seemed her tactic of wailing uncontrollably was not enough to sway the Hungarians.
With a change of shift came renewed hope, and I approached the guards again with renewed hope. They listened, they inspected the passports, she prayed, before we were offered a glimmer of hope – a visa was indeed possible at the border. I relayed the good news to my Filipina lady, who in turn relayed her thanks to the object of her prayers. I asked how much.
“A thousand dollars.”
More time passed, and the British contingent returned with nothing positive to report. We sat, we prayed, we waited, we listened to the Iraqi wailing. And then the most depressing moment of all, soon after we passed 24 hours at the border – the car in front of us in the queue pootling through.
Eventually, the first shift came back on and, whether due to divine intervention, boredom or the chance of an easy buck, we managed to negotiate a visa for $100. It had been possible all the time. We drove on, exhausted but free at last, and ever closer to Munich, when Alex pulled up the van in the first village in Hungary and announced:
“Brothers and sisters, what we have just witnessed is truly a miracle, for which we are truly grateful. Let us pray now.”