I consider myself an upright law-abiding citizen. Except for one minor skirmish with the law as a teenager sneaking into the IRT subway in Brooklyn. A friend and I, squeezing through the turnstile on one fare, were snared by two burly cops hiding in a darkened cashier’s booth. The coppers were about to bust us, when we told them (truthfully) we were being inducted into the US Army the following week. ‘˜Patriotically,’ they let us go. That was the extent of my criminal career.
But in my travels in foreign countries, I have managed to run into trouble with local law enforcers frequently and embarrassingly.
There was the time I was bundled off a streetcar on Warsaw’s Marszalkowska Street by three Tram Inspectors who accused me of validating my single-use ticket twice to evade the fare. (Shades of my Brooklyn subway experience). No way had I done such a thing. The three plainclothesniks seized my little paper ticket as evidence and demanded I pay a 120 Zlotych ( $30 US) fine. Arguing with them in English and my defragmented Polish on a crowded Warsaw street was useless. But admit to something I wasn’t guilty of wasn’t my intention either.
I insisted we all go to the local Police station. Two of the men fanned out in search of a passing patrol car. Two police cars halted, but after short discussions, each car drove off. The Inspector guarding me explained with gestures that there was no room for us in the cars. I suggested we walk, but he refused; it was ‘too far.’
The minutes ticked by, the impasse grew. So did my suspicions. I asked to phone the American Embassy from a nearby phone booth. I had no coins, phone card or embassy phone number but that didn’t matter. I played my own charade. In the booth I dialed a number and pantomimed an indignant conversation.
When I emerged from the phone booth, two of the men had disappeared. The remaining inspector glared, and grudgingly dismissed me with a stern, finger-flicking warning, meaning ‘I’ll let you go this time, but if we ever catch you again’! Were they genuine Tram Police ? Who knew? In any case, extorters they were, for sure.
Taking photos in prohibited places got me into trouble more than once. Riding in a sputtering 3-wheeled betjak taxi across a vast open square in Djakarta, Indonesia, I asked the driver what was that imposing building on the square’s far side.
‘The presidential palace, Suh,’ he replied. I wanted to take a photo but at much closer range. When the driver told me he was not allowed any nearer, I clambered out and started across the square. Concentrating on my camera angle I suddenly became aware of the soldier guarding the entrance gate shouting and aiming his rifle directly at me.
I froze in my tracks. He gestured for me to approach him slowly. Photos were obviously taboo. I offered to surrender the camera to him, but he angrily indicated that I should enter a nearby guard post. Inside the little shack three soldiers were busy shuffling papers. They scarcely looked up, as I waited awkwardly. One of them finally noticed my camera and nodded knowingly, ‘Aha ! This what you were doing !’ he blurted, more in surprise than censure. These guys seemed uncertain what to do, bureaucrats at heart and eager to pass the buck. Finally one soldier took me outside and pointed to a long paved pathway alongside the presidential palace. ‘You go down to main entrance,’ he said. ‘They take care you there.’ Thus, I was ‘on my honor’ to turn myself in and report my crime to higher authorities.
Still clutching my camera, I was waved through the ornate main palace entrance by several soldiers who somehow must have thought this foreigner had official business inside. Or possibly the guards in the post had telephoned to report I was coming.
It was weird. Here I was now wandering inside the inner sanctum of the government in search of someone to confess my crime to. Eventually I was directed to a second floor office where a dignified gentleman who received me turned out to be the Secretary of the Cabinet.
‘How can I help you?’ he began politely. I told him about the camera.
‘Oh, so sorry,’ he said. ‘This soldier was being too zealous. ‘No photos, is true, but you were not to be detained. I apologize.’ The Secretary insisted his chauffeur drive me back to the square where the betjak driver was still waiting anxiously for me and for his unpaid fare. Grinning with relief, he joked ‘No prison today, Suh ?’
Many countries still treat cameras as lethal weapons. Seeking relief from the torrid West African sun one afternoon in Accra, Ghana’s bustling capital, I wandered down a shady side street, and peered into what seemed like a warehouse or empty garage. Propped against a wall was a startlingly huge rendering of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. With a bemused smile and her royal crown, Her Highness’ likeness looked like a giant movie poster. Great photo op, I thought. When I clicked my camera, two Johnny-on-the-spot security guards thought otherwise.
‘You’re under arrest,’ they barked in unison. While they phoned their superior for instructions, I timidly tried to apologize. But the rule of ‘detain first, find the reason later’prevailed.
In the 100-degree swelter I shuddered to think how much hotter the prison cell would be.
We three waited, in an intense silence, until a black van pulled up and a bemedalled Sergeant stepped out. He eyed me grimly and called the guards aside to huddle with them. Turning to me, he demanded, ‘Why are you taking photos here?’ I thought fast. ‘I am an admirer of the Queen,’ I offered.
‘Listen,’ he said, ‘Her Majesty is coming to Ghana next week on a State Visit and we must do everything to protect her’¦’ I wanted to ask how my photo might do her harm, but I chose to turn the other cheek. ‘I”m awfully sorry,’ I said. The ‘mea culpa’ stance morphed my image from dangerous terrorist into stupid foreigner. I was eventually dismissed, along with a long-winded reprimand to be more judicious where I focused my lens. I buzzed off before the sergeant could remember that the exposed photo was still in my camera.
In the days when the xenophobic Communists ruled Eastern Europe, it didn’t take much for even a naive foreign tourist to be viewed as a spy, saboteur, or black marketeer. I was constantly aware of being vulnerable to such suspicions in my travels through the Soviet Union, Bulgaria and Poland. In other Soviet bloc countries like Romania and Czechoslovakia, I may never have brushed up against the law, but the queasy feeling of being watched was always there.
Moscow was by far the easiest place for foreigners to ‘pick up a tail,’ as the expression went. Like the time my wife and I came down to breakfast at the Hotel National. Two obvious ‘apparatchiki’ followed us into the restaurant.. The night before we had driven with a Russian friend beyond the ‘Forbidden Line’ (an 18 kilometer ‘zone’ around Moscow — off-limits to foreigners). You had to credit their efficiency in tracking our movements. Their ‘tail’ continued over several days. But they made bumbling mistakes also.
Why did these two guys wear the same clothes every day, so that we recognized them so easily ? We even named one, ‘Charley Greenscarf.’ His gumshoe partner, unfailingly donned in his chocolate-colored coat, we called, ‘Brownie.’ I was almost convinced they wanted us to know we were being shadowed.
One exhausting afternoon, after trying to elude the stalking pair along crowded Gorki Street (‘Brod-vay’ to Muscovites), in the Moscow subway, and even in the Kremlin Museum. we decided to friendly-like turn around and amiably wave to them. The KGB-niks weren’t at all amused. Angry and embarrassed, they looked the other way. Hardly likely that they recorded this incident in their daily dossier. For three days we played cat and mouse games trying to shake them off.
They had their revenge at the airport. When we checked in to fly out of Vnukovo Airport our suitcases were thoroughly ripped apart, item by item minutely scrutinized; pants pockets ordered emptied, my wife’s handbag turned inside out, and passports checked for photo substitution. By delaying our flight’s departure for over an hour, we were now past midnight, at which our Visitors visas expired. Convinced it was a deliberate tactic, we expected the worst. Or was there yet to be a strip search before being hauled off to notorious Ljubjanka Prison ? But suddenly, from nowhere, a uniformed official appeared, muttered an order, and a cordon of agents hustled us out onto the waiting airplane.
WARSAW AIRPORT, Poland
Indeed once I was ordered to strip down. In Poland, at Warsaw Airport, the Communist police suspected I was up to no good in their country. I had visited Poland five years in a row, had acquired many friends and visited many cities.. To the U.B (Polish Communist Police), this was all surely a cover for ‘intelligence missions.’
Two Polish lady friends who had accompanied me to the airport to see me off to Budapest were shocked when they saw me taken to a private room for interrogation. My baggage was wheeled in also. Four inspectors surrounded me, eyeing me coldly. Two of them began scrupulously sifting through my suitcase and discovered my dog-eared address book. They promptly took it into an adjoining room. I wondered if they were going to simply browse through it, photocopy it, or confiscate it. I asked,
‘What are you looking for ?’ He did not reply, only gestured that I calm down..
The one officer who spoke English ordered me to take off my clothes.
At this point I explained slowly and clearly: ‘I am a writer about Travel. You must know that if I am asked about travel conditions in Poland, I will have to warn would-be visitors to Poland that ‘it’s possible you might be asked to remove your clothing at the airport.’ Two of the agents conferred momentarily. They then decided to settle for me to empty all my pockets instead. I tossed my wallet, keys, pen and a handful of small zloty coins
on the table. My address book now suddenly reappeared, and abruptly I was told I was free to go.
Hurrying across the ramp to board my ‘delayed’ flight, I spotted my faithful ladyfriends still waiting behind the chain fence to see the outcome of my situation. As I waved them goodbye, one of the inspectors caught up with me and insisted on returning the handful of zloty coins. ‘Souvenirs!’ he grinned.
My wife and I experienced a memorable escapade in Mumbai (once called Bombay) when we engaged in a practice so widespread in India at the time, that we never thought about it twice. Changing money on the ‘Black’ or ‘Gray’ Market depending on how you felt about it. In the shopping districts of Mumbai roving moneychangers were readily available. But the actual transactions were prudently made indoors. One such ‘street scout’ led Simone and me to the proprietor of a dress shop. After the shop owner and I counted and recounted the Rupee and Dollar notes, we thanked him and left.
At a corner newspaper kiosk a young vendor half-whispered, ‘Change money ?’
Simone, possibly planning a shopping spree, did a quick Dollar-Rupee deal with him for $20. We crossed the street and spent a pleasant half hour browsing in a well-known antique shop. We then headed for an art gallery opening a special exhibition that day.
On the street we soon realized that someone was determinedly following us.
A tall swarthy man in a crisp white shirt sidled alongside and flashed an Identity Card. He informed us he had seen our illegal exchange of currency at the newsstand. Simone and I simultaneously voiced the same alibi. ‘But everyone does it, since when is it illegal ?’
‘But it is illegal,’ he said and I will have to detain you.’
Simone and I started to walk away, explaining we were late for our art opening. She distanced herself from us, but the man walking briskly stuck close to me.
After several silent minutes, he said, ‘You look like a good man, maybe we can settle this problem without me arresting you.’ I reacted by asking, ‘Can I see that I.D. card again ? He flipped his leather wallet open for an instant, flashed the card and pocketed it again. Perhaps too quickly, but the photo was definitely of him.
We were nearing the art gallery when he said, ‘I will be waiting here for you, so please do not dally in there! He positioned himself at the gallery’s front door. Simone had already gone inside and was being warmly greeted by the exhibiting artist.
My first words to him were, ‘Where is the rear exit from this gallery?’ The puzzled painter frowned. Said he didn’t know. We dashed off in search and quickly found a chain link fence alongside a row of tables where patrons were having afternoon tea. To the consternation of the tea-drinkers we scrambled over the fence and landed in someone’s well-groomed garden. As we raced across the green lawn , an angry caretaker shook his fist at us, shouting ‘Get out of here ! Immediately ! We jogged along the nearest street and to our horror came out within sight of the gallery entrance where our pursuer was standing guard.
Two occupied taxis whizzed by us. Finally an empty one halted. We jumped in and fled the scene. Later when we regaled Mumbai friends with this story, they laughed knowingly. They were convinced the ‘policeman’s’ ID was nothing but his own railway commuter’s pass.