Eventually getting to Nowhere

Slow but steady, my boreal route goes on; but for the past few days, despite being so close in time, I’m mixing up in my head some towns and landscapes, some places and shops, as nothing special seems to be taking place; and only with some effort and the help of the map I can undo the mess and sort out the threads: one from Ristijärvi to Taivalkoski, another one from here to Salla, yet another from Salla to Sodankyla…

Barca a orillas del Siikalampi, en Taivalkoski
Boat on Siikalampi’s shore, in Taivalkoski

Taking the Suomussalmi route I arrive to Taivalkoski after one hundred miles of same thing as the previous days, though not exactly: of late I’m running across more and more reindeer on the roads, traffic being so little–despite being high season–that the animals graze fearless on the very ditches; they’re totally at ease in this fenceless country, where no artificial obstacles impede anybody’s way, and quite often Continue reading “Eventually getting to Nowhere”

Rider of the lost Lats.

Gods felt generous yesterday and gifted me with an endearing and warm experience in Panevezys; but a veteran wayfarer like me knows well that there aren’t two days alike along the road, and that there’s no wisdom in trying to tread twice the same track. We must linger not on the stage of our memories, lest they lose their treats, same as the image is lost on a piece of film that has been twice exposed.
Despite my efforts for dodging the cities, all the roads around this area lead to Riga, and I haven’t had a choice. From Panevezys I’ve taken a secondary route northwards that goes through Birzai, a quiet small town by a lake, where — being close to the border — I thought I’d find some place where to exchange my remaining Lithuanian Litas into Latvian Lats; and there has been a funny tale attached to this endeavour.

Curiosa casa de madera en Birzai.
Typical wooden house in Birzai.

Wherever I go in Lithuania I can’t but admire, or even envy, the authenticity and beauty of the houses, and this life style that still preserves fresh the taste of the past century. Continue reading “Rider of the lost Lats.”

Sejny, border lands

Chance has had it so that, aiming for a secondary border crossing to Lithuania from Bialystok (where I stayed the last few days), I ended up in the small town of Sejny (ten kilometres away from the Baltic country) the very day of their local annual holiday.

Desfile de majorettes. Sejny.
Parade with majorettes. Sejny.

It’s been fun to watch the parade with majorettes –something I haven’t seen since my early childhood– and the local wind-percussion band behind, and to loiter around the fairground, on the esplanade by the monastery’s church, nosing about the stands that offer traditional Polish food, while on the stage nearby a nostalgic flavoured musical group plays songs of unmistakably slavic melodies. Clic on the photo below for a short charming video.

The Polish stretch of the Camino de Santiago goes through Sejny, and I find it odd that, rather than naming it in Polish (Droga Świętego Jakuba) they use the Spanish expression Camino Polaco, meaning Polish Camino. These Poles have funny criteria when it comes to translations or adopting foreign words. Recently, for instance, I heard of a new street they’ve named after the Star-wars hero Obi-Wan Kenobi, but only after declining it to genitive the Polish way, which results in a bizarre Obi-Wan Kenobego street.

El Camino de Santiago en Polonia pasa por Sejny.
The Camino de Santiago in Poland goes through Sejny.

Borders, always defended with such a patriotic zeal and often at the expense of so many lives, aren’t but the fancy outcome of changeable laws that only seldom reflect a social reality.
Sejny was founded during the early middle ages by Baltic tribes, then was disputed along the late middle ages between Lithuanians and Teutonic knights, and only much later, on the XVIIIth century, Poles came claiming rights over this land and fighting battles to get it. Also the jolly Sweds were here, devastating the town to its ashes; and Prussian imperialists as well, and so did the omnipresent Russians.
It was finally the whiny Polish who got away with it after WWII; but at some point of history all the aforementioned nations have claimed these lands, and despite Sejny being a small town, economically irrelevant, it has been for centuries the scenario of struggles and victim of destructions, shifting hands quite often. Such is the doom of border lands. On the other hand, I find it quite meaningful the fact that, after every devastation suffered, it was the monks who –with their humble and patient work– brought it up again, settling down and rebuilding their monasteries where fear of war made the population run away.
On a side note, it’s irksome to see this modern fashion of Church-hating visceral Antichrists want to annihilate our religion (our culture!) and erase from our societies all traces of it, ignoring that their very selves would probably not exist had it not been for Christendom! Or as if they could change the past by modifying the present, such an Orwellian idea…

Peculiar monasterio fortificado de los Dominicos, único edificio que sobrevivió a la asolación sueca.
Peculiar fortified Dominican monastery in Sejny, the only building to survive the Swedish devastation.

The hotel where I stay in Sejny, despite the evident signs of having been updated, still preserves some of its original 70’s flavour in style and furniture. Clean and decent, I find the price ridiculously low, telling of the neighbouring Baltic countries.
On the next morning, the first thing I do I buy Lithuanian currency, which gets done painlessly in one of the several kantors (exchange offices) existing in town. Poland is one of the best countries I know for currency exchange, as there is never shortage of kantors, which don’t charge a fee and have a quite fair margin, sometimes as low as 0,2 %.
Despite the similarities of most Western countries, every time I cross a border I feel some excitement, as of a surprise anticipated. What shall I find behind?, how the roads will be?, how are the people’s lives?, what’s their language like?, will they be friendly or hostile?, shall communication be easy..?

Cruzando la frontera lituana.
Crossing the border with Lithuania.

The border where I’m crossing to Lithuania is totally devoid of police or customs officers; only the facilities are there, and they give me a foreboding of poverty… But I’m leaving it here for the moment. Whatever I am to find in Lithuania, that will be the matter for my next chapter.

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The stupidest tour of my life

Had it not been so distressing, this day could have even passed for funny; and I actually hope that later on, looking back, I’ll be able to laugh at it. But, for the moment being, I can only feel the frustration.
So, I had bought an airplane ticket to Hong Kong for visiting my girlfriend–or, well, sort of–in China. She lives in Shenzhen, right across the border; for you should know that, however much the Chinese government insists in Hong Kong being part of China, the truth is–well–not at all. Hong Kong has its own and very different government, police, borders, laws, currency, traffic rules, economy, and so on. And of course there is a border -and a very strict one, for that matter- between China and Hong Kong, besides immigration requirements being totally opposite in both countries. Europeans, for instance, don’t need a visa for traveling to Hong Kong, where we can stay up to three months as tourists with just the passport, whereas for China we need to apply for a visa in our originating country, and it will be issued -quite easily, that’s true- for a maximum stay of thirty days, single entry. But what’s even more bizarre: though Chinese citizens can, same as westerners, enter Hong Kong without a visa, they’re not allowed to stay longer than a week! So, that’s how much Hong Kong belongs to China…
But, being adjoining cities, international flights to Shenzhen are twice as long and five times as expensive than those to Hong Kong, therefore the obvious move for any westerner aiming the former city is to fly to the latter one and just cross the border. Which is what I did–or, well, sort of.
My girlfriend–we can call her Willow–was to be at Hong Kong airport for picking me up and leading me through the border crossing process. And indeed, there she was. For making things easier and faster, we took the expensive way: hire a shared private car from the airport terminal straight to one of the borders and, actually, across it. It’s a neat service that saves you the hassle and the queuing; or, at least, you can sit at the car while waiting. The driver collects all the passengers’ passports and hands you the immigration form for you to fill in along the thirty minutes’ drive. We headed for the Shekou point, across the bay bridge. Once there, we came to a first booth from the Hong Kong migration authority, where we officially exited this country, and took us only five minutes. Then we had to queue about twenty minutes in the nowhere land for passing the China migration. In none of the booths you need to leave the car: the officers check the passports and visas, and verify the faces through the car’s open windows. After that, the driver dropped us, along with our luggage, at a bus stop by a large building.
Usually, when you’re in a foreign place and led by a local, you don’t pay much attention to the particulars about directions or orientation: you just let yourself be guided. And that’s what I did. Willow led me to the building and we lined up in a queue, which I assumed was customs, as there were the standard green and red big arrows with nothing to declare and goods to declare written on them. Once we passed this, to my annoyment we had to wait yet in another queue, for new checks, stamps and whatnot. However, knowing how much of a hassle Chinese bureaucracy is, I was not really surprised. As a matter of fact, everything so far had gone too smoothly to be true; so, I meekly assumed that this was the real China playing tricks on the enduring victims.
But the last straw was when, after being examined with a kind of pistol pointed to our forehead (maybe some health inspection) and being asked if she was pregnant (as she’s not your typical skinny Asian) we still had to go through a fifth set of booths. What the hell? It was the most bothersome border crossing evar. I had never known anything the like before, in all my travels. Anyway, what else can you do but to submit to the procedures, however stupid they might seem?
When we finally we exited the building, we saw ourselves in a broad open area with a row of bus platforms, all of them signaled with big “Hong Kong” letters. Not a single bus to Shenzhen. The only sign to Shenzhen pointed to a wide corridor leading inside the building we’d just came from. And here’s where I started losing my patience and arguing with Willow. She suggested we followed the arrows with Shenzhen on them, and I protested that it didn’t make sense, because they led to the same building–only a different entry–we had just abandoned. ‘There has to be -I stressed- some way to the city.’ Unfortunately, when she asked an employee, he confirmed that Willow was right: the only way to Shenzhen was through the building. So, there we went again; but only to, at the end of the corridor, come across to–guess what? A sixth set of booths!
That was really too much. Way too much. Something was definitely wrong there. It’s impossible you have to pass six different checks (leaving aside the health inspection pistols) for crossing the border from Hong Kong to China. And, as I was thinking this, I suddenly realized what had happened: we were back in Hong Kong! By going into the building after the car dropped us, my girlfriend–or, well, sort of–had actually led ourselves through the inverse process, bringing us back again to square zero. I took a deep breath, in order not to be  rude with her, and, gathering up all my weakened spirits, I accepted my fate and prepared to cross the same borders for a third time and return to China, where the expensive but truly efficient car service had put us two hours ago.
But now, upon inspecting my passport, the migration officer told me: ‘sorry, sir, but your visa is a single entry one; you can’t get into China’…
And this is how I did the shortest tour of my entire life, and probably one of the shortest in the Universal History of Traveling. Trying to explain to the officer that we’d had just made a mistake, that we didn’t really mean a five minutes’ visit to China, or asking him to turn a blind eye on our little mistake, was useless. My visa -he made us understand- was expired, utterly and irreversibly void, and even if he let me pass, the Chinese wouldn’t. We asked him, what can I do now? Get a new visa, was the laconic answer.
Thus McFate tripped up my trip and, in this unbelievably stupid way, my holidays in China were ruined–or, well, sort of–before even having started. Little I knew then, though, that such a setback was only the first in a series of mishaps, some pretty whimsical, that conspired for the most absurd 24 hours ever.
But I’ll tell you about that in the next chapter. Enough misadventure for today.

The Decalogue of illegal immigration

Affricans assulting Spanish border's fence
Affricans assulting Spanish border’s fence

1. For admitting inmigrants in Spain, first we must make sure we want them. We don’t need more unemployed people. Charity, well understood, begins at home. Let kindness to the next not turn into lack of kindness to ourselves.
2. Once we’re sure we can provide for them, welcome those who come in legally. We should flexibilize these legal channels, but never reward those who want to skip them.
3. Attack a cop is considered a crime in Spain. Any alien who crosses the border assaulting our policemen becomes a criminal right away. We don’t need more criminals in Spain.
4. It’s governmental demagogy to blame human trade syndicates for the assaults to our borders. Those who destroy the fences and attack our officers are not the gangsters, but the allegedly exhausted, hungry, weakened and dying inmigrants.
5. It’s too easy to act generous with public money. Those in our society who feel more inclined to pity and charity and want to share our wealth with the aliens should take them in into their own homes, and provide for them at their own expense until the aliens could live on their own; health care and education inclusive; but such a burden should not be imposed onto the rest of tax payers. Altruism should never be a duty.
6. The problem of Spanish borders is a Spanish problem, not the EU’s. We don’t need other countries’ permission to protect our frontiers. Most illegals entering Spain remain in Spain, they don’t spread throughout Europe. Climate is better here and, besides, where else would they be more protected and spoiled?
7. If we really wanted to help those Africans, we’d start by lessening the pressure on their natural resources. Otherwise means hypocrisy. Less consumption and waste in Western countries: this is the only consistent way of helping the Third World. But then there is no economical growth! Both things cannot coexist. Let’s make up our minds and behave accordingly.
8. Philanthropy and solidarity with the agressive inmigrants assaulting our borders means severe and contradictory lack of philanthropy and solidarity with those much more numerous who, just because of they’re weaker and more needy, could never set to Spain.
9. If we have to accept inmigrants and we truly mean to be humanitarian, we should fly ourselves to their countries, pick the poorer ones, then bring them home and host them, instead of waiting here for the brutest to arrive and reward their audacity and their aggressivity.
10. Finally, let’s take off our hypocritical mask. Let’s acknowledge the truth: few among us care about those blacks who died by Ceuta, those who died when sailing dinghies, those who perish along the desert… Few among us really want those aliens here. Let’s stop acting compassionate and moved by their wretchedness. They wanted to get in illegaly; they perished; too bad.