How To Survive A Border

Many travellers worry about border crossings and approach them with trepidation, but borders shouldn’t be feared – quite the opposite. Crossings are usually a buzz because each is an opportunity to learn and to people-watch. Follow a set of basic rules and you can relax and enjoy the experience.

Find out which crossings are the least used and aim for them. They are often the easiest and the most fun. The officials there are more likely to treat you as an interesting event in their day.

It’s also worth finding out how to say hello, please, thank you and goodbye in the language of the country you are rolling into. You do have to be on your toes at a crossing, but I think a laid back attitude laced with respect is the way to go. Hunt out officials as soon as you can – don’t be surprised if you find them in an unmarked hut. Treat them with the respect of a handshake, a smile and a greeting, and they will often welcome you as an individual rather than just another hassle.

Try to stay the previous night at a town close to the border. This means you’ll be fresh and it’s easy for you to get to the border as it opens. Borders are usually closed at night and have differing opening times, so ask the locals. By starting at opening time you have the whole day to deal with any stress and paperwork. And you are far less vulnerable to bribery requests because you haven’t put yourself under end-of-day time pressure. I don’t like paying bribes. One of my dislikes about doing this is that each time a bribe is paid, the next traveller to arrive is likely to have double trouble.

One thing to do before morning is to fill your fuel and water bottles, and stock up with easy to eat food such as peanuts, biscuits and boiled sweets. If the next day turns into a long one you’ll be grateful, and as the day progresses, sharing your goodies can make you friends.

Besides such practicalities, these border towns can be fascinating. Do get your bike off the street though, even if it’s into the reception area of the dive you are staying in. The people you can meet in the border eateries can be real fun. You’ll be mingling with smugglers, escapees from the law, runaway husbands, merchants and truck drivers. On several occasions truck drivers have actually helped me through a border the next day.

This last town is also a great opportunity to get rid of excess local currency, and to buy some for the next country. This means you aren’t so vulnerable to the money sharks at the border crossing itself. These guys are often complete rogues and sometimes their sleight of hand antics are as top rate as the best magicians. Do keep enough cash for any likely official exit fees though. These could be up to $20.
When you are getting ready to do your crossing, you can make life easier for yourself. Have a bag just for your paperwork. I use an A4 plastic zip wallet. That’s passport, carnet de passages, inoculation certificates, your bike registration documents, your driving license and plenty of photo-copies of everything. Border crossings are black holes for paperwork copies.

At many crossings you’ll be mobbed by young men offering to help you through the process and the paperwork. They will want paying of course, but they can make your life a lot easier. I don’t see this as bribery; to me, they are just making a living. Having said that I try to work my way through everything myself and when other people doing their paperwork see you having a go, they often help. Waving arms will usually direct you to vehicle disinfection stations, if they exist.

If you’re leaving your bike unattended while you deal with the officials, don’t put temptation in anyone’s way. The reality is that most people are honest, however poor, and I’ve never had anything nicked from my bike. Knobs and switches diddled certainly, but no theft.

You can usually buy road insurance at the border. There will often be a shack or a tatty office selling what I suspect has no value other than to appease a policeman if you get in trouble. Sometimes you have to ride to the next town to buy it.

Fear border crossings? No point at all. You’ll be surprised at how much fun they can be, how many surprises they can hold, how much you can learn, and how many amazing people you’ll meet.

For up-to-date news on specific border crossings, remember to check Horizons Unlimited.