Hong Kong Diary
On the Border:
Or, Hermes Help Us Cross
In Greek mythology, Hermes is the messenger of the gods. He is also the patron of boundaries and of the travelers who cross them, of shepherds and cowherds, of thieves and road travelers, of orators and wit, of literature and poets, of general commerce, and of the cunning, thieves and liars. He is invoked by Homer as one “of many shifts, blandly cunning, a robber, a cattle driver, a bringer of dreams, a watcher by night, a thief at the gates, one who was soon to show forth wonderful deeds among the deathless gods.”
I have a confession to make: In all my years of global travel, the prospect of a border crossing still manages to strike fear, if not dread, in my heart. Maybe it’s the time of year, or maybe – for global travelers of a certain age – it’s the time of man. But whatever it is, it increases my paranoia, like looking in the mirror and seeing a police car. Or, for recovering Catholics everywhere, like that sense of squirming at your desk, aware that you’re guilty of something – but what? No matter: Sister surely knows.
In fairness, most modern border crossings are uneventful, even perfunctory. You hand over your passport, the customs agent stamps it, hands it back with a grunt, and – viola – you enter a foreign country.
But still that frisson stays with me at crossings, especially when traveling alone. Even though a passport verifies identity, it can also confer a certain anonymity in the transit from one’s own grid, through a checkpoint, and onto an entirely new set of coordinates. That is, if the border is ever reached.
I recall a frantic bus ride in 1999, traveling alone in Honduras, struggling to stay ahead of Hurricane Mitch as it barreled across the campo with its sights on El Salvador. The sun was still shining but rivers were rising in advance of the drenching rains behind us as Mitch bore down. Our bus had been stopped twice before we reached the El Salvador frontera, by fourteen-year-old national ‘guardsmen’ with carbines as long as they were tall. Each time, a group of guards boarded the bus to inspect documents with haughty distain, while others checked exterior luggage holds for any desperados using the impending storm for cover. Each time, they left empty-handed.
There were more fresh-faced guards when the bus finally reached Honduras customs on one side of a stone bridge over a Mitch-swollen river, with El Salvador customs on the other side. But this time they confiscated all passports. I could only watch from my window seat as they trudged across the bridge and disappeared with the only earthly evidence of our existence in that particular place at that particular time.
I sat alone on the bus, imagining headlines in the Herald Tribune like:
American Businessman Vanished
Last Seen On Bus Bound for El Salvador, But No Record of Entry
Missing US Man’s Passport Found Behind Campero Chicken Outlet
East L.A. Dumpster Diver Makes Gruesome Find
On Anonymous Tip, Police Drag River for Remains
Professor Likely to Miss Sunday’s Big Game vs. Cowboys
After forty harrowing minutes, the passports were returned without explanation or apology. Our bus was waved across the doomed bridge and we rattled over the swollen river into El Salvador, Hermes be praised.
But oh, the separation anxiety: Consider for a moment that a passport is likely a traveler’s most valuable possession. That is, unless you are a diamond smuggler or drug mule, in which case you probably have someone else’s passport anyway. And a US passport is the most valuable of all. So call me crazy, but I try to keep my own passport with me at all times, except when asked nicely for it by teenagers with guns the size of Archimedes’ lever.
And speaking of crazy, I also have my own standard protocol for the typical passport exchange, one meant to ward off evil spirits, build goodwill, and perhaps bond with the man in the little glass booth, hands-across-the-water style.
First, I place any required customs entry forms between the pages of my passport where other pertinent travel documents – travel visas, health declaration forms, etc. – may be attached, for the customs agent’s convenience.
The next step cannot be stressed enough: I never approach until summoned. No matter how tight the time between flight connections, or how desperate the need for a toilet, I wait for that bored flip of the hand, that little wave meant to – what? Lull me to sleep? Create an opening for fools to rush in and flout the sovereignty of the state on whose very threshold I stand, and mock the authority of its minions? Hermes help us!
Hah – no worries here. Once summoned – and only then – I calmly stride forward and hand over my passport. (What a perfect term of such simple evocation:passport. It is in itself a pass, one that allows you to pass through the portalahead, often at a port!) The next step is most crucial: I make solid eye contact with my inquisitor, and then crisply look away, eyes right, to permit the little martinet a good long profile look. Then eyes front again, hopefully in time to witness the furtive flips through the pages for a fresh field to plow, a clean slate to befoul.
Photo: Hannah Ray
Once, as my trusty old US Passport #XX-8100 neared the end of its useful life, I applied the usual protocol when entering China from Hong Kong in the Guangzhou-East train station at the terminus of the KCR railway line. I strode forward on command, and did my best eyeball routine with snap and aplomb. But when I brought eyes front again, I found the agent performing some routine of his own. He looked down at my passport, then up at me, and back down, again and again. Exasperated, he finally demanded:
– Sir, is this your photo?
Now I ask you, what kind of a question was that? I admit the photo in question was nearly ten years old at the time, and not the most flattering likeness to begin with. (Another quirk of mine: you should always look your absolute worst in passport photos, drivers’ licenses, and the like, for that is how you will invariably appear when you most need a proper ID.)
I gulped, but was not giving in an inch to fear. And luckily his English seemed pretty good. ‘Well, that used to be me’, I said breezily, and flashed my most winning smile. He shot me one last incredulous glare, then slapped a sloppy stamp on a crowded page and threw the passport back at me, bored anew.
I was in. Hermes be praised.
A wag once quipped that travel broadens the mind – until you can’t get your head out the door. And then, no amount of banging that head against the door – nor wildly waving a US passport in a functionary’s face – will get it to swing wide.
A common method of transit between Hong Kong and China is by private car or coach, especially for foreigners. These private vehicles are issued a chip-implanted medallion by both sides that works as a sort of cross-border EZ-Pass, logging trip counts, verifying legal compliance, billing tolls and the like. All transactions are on an immediate debit basis, so it is the responsibility of the vehicle owner to ensure the medallion’s account is current. At the checkpoint, travelers hand over their passports but remain in the vehicle with windows rolled down and van doors thrown open for visual contact while documents are scanned and – hopefully – returned.
There has been a great deal of expansion of China-HK border crossings of late, to accommodate traffic spawned by relaxed travel restrictions on both sides. But back in the day, the options for crossing were limited, and hour-long delays were common, even with a private car. So a crossing – especially from China to Hong Kong – was always viewed with a special kind of dread, no matter the relief at leaving China.
And so it was, on one fateful return to Hong Kong. A vanload of guilo (yours truly and associates) was hurtling toward Shenzhen city’s Lo Wu checkpoint when our driver made an unscheduled stop in a very sketchy part of town, around the corner from the vast customs facility that straddles the Shenzhen River border. Your plucky Professor occupied the rear berth of a battered Jinbei van, China’s twentieth-century answer to the ox-cart (and about as comfortable) for preferred multi-passenger carriage.
Embedded in the van’s rear section, I had a birds-eye view of what followed: Our driver navigated his way down a tiny alley that ran roughly alongside the high walls of the Immigration hall. He stopped just past a t-intersection where a man stood waiting with a golf bag at his feet. Our driver darted out of the van and threw open the rear hatch. There went the golf bag with woods, drivers and the like clattering to rest in the Jinbei’s wayback already bulging with luggage. No words were exchanged between the two, no papers presented, just your everyday golf bag hand-off.
The bag now sat atop our luggage as if it belonged there. And just like that, the mystery duffer disappeared into the sweltering crowd, the hatch was slammed shut, and back to the border we went.
Except: now we carried with us an item of unknown provenance, just minutes from a border crossing where we were a potential subject to vehicle search. Thoughts raced: vehicle search? Hell, what about cavity search? The gut lurched: interrogation under hot lights; rubber hoses and cattle prods; falcons and snowmen…Chinese water torture. The mind reeled: what manner of contraband was in that golf bag? Holy Hermes – had we just been visited upon by the ancient trickster himself?
What happened next, dear reader, may strain your credulity, but I must report that your ever-unflappable Professor went completely ballistic. From my cramped back seat I began a nonstop stream of invective – oaths, threats, dire predictions, and a not-so-subtle invocation of Hermes himself. OK, there was nothing subtle about any of it, but after all, the driver was Chinese and spoke no English so I hadto shout. In addition to ratcheting up the volume I threw some universal hand gestures toward his rear-view for good measure, plus body language I hadn’t used since my Philly corner-boy days.
My fellow travelers – Westerners all – cringed while I alone attempted to stop the madness and save our skins. They actually ducked under the verbal barrage booming from the back seat; they later admitted to wondering if it was me or the golf bag that would need to go.
Meanwhile, the driver, unfazed, made his way into Lo Wu customs and picked a line of cars to join, where would sit for about forty minutes. We were now in the system, with no turning back. Finally spent, I made a phone call of last resort, to my colleague Sugar, a.k.a. the Taiwan Tornado. Sugar had made the arrangement for the car transport on my behalf – she knew the owner, who was the driver’s brother-in-law as it turned out. I put my mobile phone on Stun and held it to the driver’s ear, so Sugar could shout the translation of a fresh batch of my oaths. Yep, the old double-team, with both barrels blazing.
The driver twitched a bit, and inched ahead another car-length toward customs.
With everyone braced for the worst, we finally reached the front of the queue. The driver nosed the van to a scanner device, waited a moment for verification, and…nothing. No green light, no passports requested – nothing, except that in the next instant the van was swarmed by border guards, shouting for the driver to get out of the vehicle. He complied at once, at least proving that I had softened him up for them. We shrank in our seats, and I furtively placed one more call to Sugar who translated overheard snippets of the heated exchange taking place outside.
Yes, he’s quick on his feet, but Hermes also has a long reach, and a wicked sense of humor. As it turned out, we were being prevented from crossing the border because the vehicle’s medallion had insufficient funds for the number of passengers inside. In other words, we couldn’t even attempt to cross the border. No passports were proffered, nor would any luggage be inspected, and no record made of any attempted crossing. We were shuttled aside to let the next hundred or so cars pass, indifferent to our plight, and waited until the brother-in-law arrived an hour later with a valid vehicle.
All the while, our driver squatted silently by the van and chain-smoked until his relief came, at which point he threw open the wayback hatch to transfer the luggage – including the golf bag. I clawed my way over limbs and briefcases and sprang out of the van. His hand was on the bag’s strap when I intercepted him, so I clamped onto his wrist and puffed myself up like a Komodo dragon. He paused for a moment, then released the strap with a nod and silently loaded the other bags under everyone’s watchful eyes.
We hit the checkpoint and this time we sailed through, Hermes be praised.
Yes, travel does indeed broaden the mind, albeit forcibly sometimes. No amount of personal quirks or protocols can ever reduce the inherent risk each trip holds, just as no potential risk should prevent us from taking that first step of a journey, or from enjoying the many pleasures that await a traveler. And it helps to have Hermes on your side.
Safely back in Hong Kong, I checked in to my hotel and calmed myself with a cold beverage. I rang Sugar once more, and asked what she thought might have been in the golf bag: Opium? Smuggled gems? Endangered panda testicles?
– Oh, no, she insisted. No such things happen in China today.
– Maybe, Sugar allowed thoughtfully. Yes, it is possible there was a large sum of money inside, due to the new restrictions on currency exchange.
– Or golf clubs, she finally concluded. Yes. Golf is very popular in China today.
Hermes be praised.
The Professor, as he is known to legions of business contacts throughout Asia, has been traveling to Hong Kong and elsewhere in the region since late in the last millennium. He is a native of Philadelphia, PA and maintains his permanent residence there. His poetry, fiction, interviews, and articles have been published by Philadelphia-area newspapers, magazines and anthologies, and he is currently planning another trip abroad. He is shown here at left, about to join the Maclehose Trail in Sai Kung.
Articles by the Professor
Column: Hong Kong Diary