Border process was very smooth. Tour leaders were expecting some hassle as they had experienced this in the past and were anticipating something similar. As it was, we were in and out in a jiffy.
The frontier was a bit more like ones I know. The different countries had separate complexes and there was a no-man’s of sorts, although you ramble back and forwards between them.
There was an official gate and even a barrier but it was raised. There were no armed guards visible. I was bitterly disappointed. I was hoping for a Berlin Wall experience. Now, the Berlin Wall is my type of frontier.
Years ago, around 1985 or so, I went to Berlin with my then partner, Steve. He did his MA in Wittgenstein and spent a year in Köln. He made some friends there. One of them was a German woman who now lived with her boyfriend in Berlin and invited us over to stay with them for a week. Their apartment was in the Ku’damm, a radical rundown area with huge rooms and high ceilings with excellent German workmanship throughout. It backed onto the Berlin Wall
For those of you young enough not to have been around when the Iron Curtain split Europe in half, Berlin was divided into West and East Berlin and was also stuck in the middle of East Germany, the Deutsche Demokratik Republik commonly called the DDR or GDR. It was a seriously scary police state with a huge repressive arsenal of informers, interrogation centres, prisons etc. The main way in and out was by air and people were regularly shot for trying to escape. A road corridor was also possible with an armed convoy from border to border.
I remember catching the U-Bahn (or S-Bahn, not sure which) from West to East Berlin. Once the train crossed under the Wall, all previous stations were sealed off and not in use. There was only one exit station and that was like being in the middle of an army camp. All the security and passport checking was carried out there. I still remember the eerie feeling of passing through deserted stations which still had old advertising posters from World War 2, and the early occupation, in heavy old fashioned Gothic typeface. There were several vopos or Volkspolizei on guard duty at each station. Vopos were the much hated state security police.
Following security screening we were allowed into the east but not before we were obliged to change 25 Deutschmarks into Oostmarks at a 1 for 1 official exchange rate. The black market rate was 10 times higher. Not that you spend them anyway, there was nothing to buy. It was like going back to the 1950s. It was unbelievably grey and depressing. The contrast between east and west couldn’t be more pronounced and I understood immediately why people took such huge risks to escape from this totalitarian state. I have sympathy today for the poor desperate people trying to escape from the war, hopelessness and poverty of North Africa or the Middle East. It’s the same old sorry process. Indeed, it occurred for centuries in my own country and in my own lifetime.
I’m rambling again!
On the way back from east to west, I exited through Checkpoint Charlie. First stop was the Vopo who checked my passport. Now, in those far-off innocent days, the Irish passport was very simple. It was just a cardboard cover with regular printed pages. The photo was just stuck on with glue and stamped with an ordinary ink stamp. Very simple and very forgeable. Apparently, intelligence agencies such as Mossad and the CIA were forging them quite a lot.
So, little old me meandered along to this praetorian guardian of the GDR and presented my ‘ah sure it’ll be grand’ passport. I could easily have been a spy or an escapee or even Jesus himself trying to flee the christians. This enormous brutish scary Vopo looked at my passport, looked at me, looked at my passport again, put it down on the desk and just stared at me. It was extremely intimidating. I guess he was trying to break me, should the passport be false. I knew he had the power to make me disappear into the vast prison system of the GDR or worse. Anyway, after what seemed like hours, he waved his hand at me and barked Raus or Out. The word sounds awful in German. I gladly escaped and entered the American section and caught the eye of a cute young American soldier. Such things used to happen, back in history. I wished he would interrogate me instead but this was sadly not meant to be.
Kenya was different.