To a first time adventurer, crossing a border can be an exciting prospect. You get a new stamp in your passport. A first taste of a new place.
When you visit a new country, not knowing any of its rules can be scary. But the border is a place where rules are most often explicit, spelled out in large bold letters. Queue here. Do not cross the yellow line. Place your thumb on the scanner. Even if you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s easy to figure it out.
Once the process loses its novelty, you begin to dread it. Eventually something sours the experience. Maybe it was the time you were crossing the US border to Canada in your car. The tough official with an air of suspicion asking you twenty questions, trying to trip you up. Where are you from? What’s your occupation? Where you do you buy your groceries? Where did you meet your girlfriend? Open up the trunk of your car so I can have a look. You realise that all the explicit rules make you powerless. That you have to play to the whims of the border agent.
Maybe it was the time you arrived in Thailand after 22 hours of flying, only to find that only two customs agents were working. Having to stand in a queue for three hours, inching your way slowly forward. Every time you fly into a country you’ll remember it and you’ll become a person who sprints from the plane the moment it lands. Desperate to be at the front of the line.
Or maybe it was flying out of Tel Aviv in Israel. Having your passport thumbed through methodically, having to explain every stamp and where it came from. A young man in a military uniform pulling open your rucksack, taking every item out of it and throwing it on a table. Being taken into a backroom where you’re told to unbutton your trousers so they can check you have nothing stuffed down there. You not sure what. Drugs? A gun? Maybe an explosive? They refuse to say anything. Just give you orders. In that moment you belong to them.
It was Israel where my worst border experience took place. I’d spent a few days in Dahab in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. On the shores of the Red Sea it’s a haven for snorkellers and lazy travellers. I didn’t even touch the water, I was just there escaping the noise and smog of Cairo. It was the off season and the cheapest place to while away a few days reading books, eating and doing little else.
Soon bored began to set in, so my friend and I decided we’d head to Jordan, or more precisely Petra. It was easy enough to reach from Dahab, via a bus and a few taxis. The only issue were the borders. Jordan and Egypt don’t share a border, to get to Jordan via land you need to pass through Israel’s most southern point, a tourist resort named Eilat.
Passing through another country should give a sense of adventure, but in this case it was just a nuisance. Israel is somewhat shaped like an ice cream cone with the far south being a mere 9km across. What this means in simple terms is, in order to get from Egypt to Jordan (or vice versa) you need to go through Egypt for a grand total of 20 minutes. The border crossing takes much longer making it an inconvenience.
Coming into Israel from anywhere is intimidating – but on the Egyptian border the agents seem strict. Armed men and women dressed in uniform patrol the queues holding automatic rifles. You’re herded into a line where you wait for a customs agent to sneer at you. You hold your breath, hoping there’s not some issue or that you don’t warrant enough attention to be pulled aside. You feel guilty although you’ve done nothing wrong. Part of you gets paranoid that you have done something wrong without knowing it.
Leaving the country is a different matter. The border is a small dusty building in the desert. Bringing people into the country is a matter of intense security, keeping the country safe. Allowing people to leave into Jordan is an after thought. But still, I was nervous. How would the Israeli officials treat me upon leaving?
My friend Chris and I had managed to pick up another traveller as often happens. A large Australian rugby player named Curtis. He was also going to Petra so we decided to share a taxi. I hoped this new friend wouldn’t bring a cloud of suspicion over us.
At the border, we were the only people there. Great, straight to the front of the queue. Things were looking good. Curtis went through first without any issues. Just a quick glance at his passport, an exit stamp (showing the same date as the entrance stamp we’d picked up 30 minutes earlier) and he was on his way. Similarly Chris was through straight away. No issues. Then it was my turn. I stepped up to the window.
Picture a border official. It’s possibly a middle aged man. A manic grin on his face. He’s sweating profusely, his shirt unbuttoned. He has a thick mustache and his shoulders are large. His eyes shine with mischief. You know he’s going to take great pleasure in ruining your day. He wants you to know how much power he has over you so is irrationally cruel.
The border official in front of me was nothing like that. Standing before me was a teenage girl with long frizzy ginger blonde hair and a cute smile. Immediately, I was caught off guard – I had no idea how to address her. I handed over my passport and said “Hiya!”
Her eyes lit up. “Awwwwwwwwwwww. What did you say?” “Er…hiya?” “Awwwwwwwwww! Oh my god your accent is adorable. Say something else!” “Um. Like what?” “AWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW! It’s so cute.”
I wouldn’t be lying if I said I am (and was then too) somewhat of a stranger to female interest and flirting. I prefer to spend a lot of my social time alone, so really I’ve never become confident with talking to women. I’m also terrible at picking up signals. I’m sure I’ve met a few girls who’ve liked me, but I’ve never realised it. Even as blind as I am, I couldn’t fail to see that this border agent had some interest though. This didn’t bolster my confidence though. Instead it made me feel awkward.
At the best of times I didn’t know how to talk to a cute girl. Now here was a cute girl that was also a border official. How did I react? Did I attempt to flirt back? (Impossible.) Or should I just grab my passport and try to run over the border? I started to panic. Nothing in life can prepare you for such things. I was struck mute. Staring up at this girl who was grinning at me. I said nothing. Thankfully she took control.
“Can you tell me your name, please?” “Daniel Baird?” “Mmm, say your surname again?” “Baird?” “Ohhhh, say it again.” “Baird.” “Again.”
Baird, Baird, Baird. Each time I repeated my name she would let out a squeal of pleasure. She sighed, putting her hands on her chin. Staring right at me. “Tell me a story.” Was this a test? Was I on a hidden camera show? Had my friend slipped her a note saying, “My friend will feel really uncomfortable if you’re overly nice to him.” What if I didn’t tell her a story? Would she have me arrested. “Er. S-so. What type of s-story?” “Awwwwwwww! You’re so sweet.”
She turned in her chair, calling over another border agent, another teenage girl. “Hey, listen to this guy, he’s so cute!” My face started to go red. I hoped they wouldn’t notice, which made it go redder as tends to happen. “Say your name again!” “Daniel Baird” “Where are you from?” “Newcastle” “Awwwwwwwwwww!” Her friend just nodded, looking unimpressed, “Cute” without a hint of emotion. She went back to her seat.
“So when are you coming back to Eliat?” “I’m not…” Smooth. She looked down, stamping my passport. “Oh, you should definitely come back! I’ll be waiting!” She giggled, still holding onto my passport. I decided I’d give her some hope. “Well, I might in a few days.”
In another life, I would have done just that. Met the girl again. Fell in love. Had little ginger blonde children with frizzy hair. But instead I grabbed my passport as soon I was able to and sprinted away from the girl, not even saying goodbye. I just wanted to run away to Jordan.
As I walked away to catch up with Curtis and Chris, the border’s loud speaker crackled. The girl’s voice rang out, “Come back here, Daniel Baird! Daniel Baird! Daniel Baird!” I just kept walking, hoping I wasn’t breaking some law by ignoring her calls.
Not many people can say they’ve run away to another country to escape female attention but that’s what happened. As I caught up to Curtis, he slapped me on the back. “Good on ya, mate. Fucking bonzer.”
We walked along a road to the Jordan side of the border where we were met by a sweaty man with a moustache. He stamped our passports without a hint of humour and overcharged us on our visa fee.
I was relieved. It was business as usual.