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Boarder Crossing Bungle

Dear Rudy,

Afghanistan has always been an exciting and mysterious place, but it was even more so in 1974. That's when my family and I learned the hard way about the difference between clearing immigration at an international airport and clearing immigration on the far fringes of nowhere.

In July of that year the five of us -- including children ages 16, 15, and 12 -- returned home to the United States from the Philippines following a three-year stint with the Peace Corps. As is often the case with Peace Corps folks, we decided to take the long way home. That meant going west through central and southwestern Asia, rather than going east across the Pacific.

Well into our trip, I read about a local bus route that went from the exotic Pakistani city of Peshawar along the route used by explorers and traders to Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. Early one morning, we joined a busload of Pakistanis and Afghanis for the seven-hour trip through the Khyber Pass, the Kabul Gorge, and the desolate, arid wastelands of southwest Asia. Our traveling companions were demonstrably curious about the strange family that shared their bus, but they were gracious and friendly. We had no doubt that this would be the high point of our trip.

It soon became the low point. We had surrendered our Pakistani visas when we passed over the dry riverbed that marked the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, not knowing that we would desperately want them back within the hour. The officials at the tiny customs shed on the Afghani side became very agitated when they inspected our passports and found no Afghani visas. They did not seem to understand that I expected them to issue the visas on the spot.

I reached for my trusty travel guidebook, which was the source of my information, to help resolve the situation. It was then that I reread the words "tourist visas are readily obtained at the international airport in Kabul." Suddenly, with a great sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, I understood the obvious: 'International airport' meant 'international airport' -- not some remote frontier post where one is more likely to find smugglers, brigands, and stateless nomads than a wandering American family.

In the end, I retrieved our luggage from atop the bus, absorbed the puzzled looks of our former companions, and with a very annoyed wife and three perplexed children began the uncertain walk back across the bridge to Pakistan -- a country we were no longer eligible to enter.

We had no valid visas, no local money, no knowledge of the language, no friends who could help, no prospects other than a 50-mile walk back to Peshawar. Public transportation was a rare commodity, and the likelihood of another bus that day was nonexistent. Dad, the great trip planner, had failed.

My wife and I have very different recollections of what happened next. I recall that after walking back to the Pakistani side, I left my family in a secure place and went in search of assistance. When I saw a vehicle with UNDP (United Nations Development Program) insignia on it, I approached the occupants, who turned out to be Americans. Flashing my Peace Corps credentials and pointing to my forlorn family, I talked them into giving us a ride back to Peshawar where we could book a flight to Kabel.

My wife remembers it this way: She says I panicked and lost it completely, totally unable to do anything constructive. It was she who shepherded the children to a secure spot, she who saw the UNDP vehicle, she who told me how to handle the situation, and she who saved the day. The children, claiming diplomatic immunity, refuse to be drawn into the discussion of whose memory is correct.

As things turned out, we went on to have a marvelous 10-day excursion to the distant corners of Afghanistan, one of the most 'foreign' yet most interesting countries on earth. Bu that's another story.




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