A damp November wind howled as we zeroed in on the border post. This would be a tough one. After all, in 1980, tension at any frontier of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, more commonly known as East Germany, was world renown. The scene was right out of an Iron Curtain spy novel and what loomed seemed about as festive as an advanced calculus exam.
Great coated, chain-smoking, heavily armed border guards looked more like something from a bad Halloween party than the reality that faced us on Day 42 of our attempt to establish a new driving record by circumnavigating the planet in 77 days or less. My partner, Cape Bretoner Ken Langley, had been hounded with dysentery flair-ups since India, a 10-day lifetime ago, and bone deep exhaustion was playing its hand on my health.
It wasn’t just six weeks on the road that was zapping our stamina and motivation, but the months of fundraising and preparations that had gone into the go-for-broke road trip. And with an $18,000 flight bill to get us and our Halifax-built 1980 Volvo station wagon over the Iran-Iraq war warping our credit cards, the operation seemed as much ‘broke’ as ‘road trip’.
Indeed, it was a dark and stormy night as jagged bolts of lightening pierced ominous black clouds creating a scene reminiscent of the cult film Rocky Horror Picture Show.
At the post a young immigration officer demanded $6 American for the necessary entry visa. No other currency would do, exact change only. Ken fished into his passport folder and pulled out his last six one dollar bills and handed them to the officer who took money and disappeared inside a dingy administration building.
Fifteen minutes later, looking quite perturbed, Corporal ‘No’ handed back the passports indicating it would be impossible to process the visas because one of the bills had a small tear. That was it, we’d be spending the night in purgatory until the currency exchange opened in the morning. There were no smiles at the border of the country that brought the world the Berlin Wall and one of the strictest communist regimes ever hatched.
I thought back to the situation just six days earlier when we pulled up at the inspection shack on the outskirts of Multan, Pakistan. A friendly officer had greeted us on a first name basis.
“Mr. Ken, Mr. Garry, your escort is waiting.”
As we tailed a pair of police motorcycles through Multan hundreds of school children who were lining the streets waved and cheered. It was not only the highlight of our attempt to break the around the world speed record, but one of the proudest hours of my life. Friendship, when least expected is a wonderful morale booster. And when the city’s mayor and councillors held a reception and bestowed ceremonial neck garlands upon us, the city was ours.
As is the way with the highs and lows of such an expedition, things deteriorated that night in the port city of Karachi where plans were underway for an airlift over the Iran-Iraq war that had broken out that week. The only accommodation option was a palace of squalor on the fringe of the Karachi airport. From there we couldn’t venture anywhere without offers of everything from heroin to hashish, even a baby at one point. It was an unnerving sleepless night trying to protect the Volvo innocently parked outside in the mayhem.
But now it was East Germany and as we were settling in for a long night Ken remembered the American silver dollar an Australia journalist had given us for good luck. He dug into his shaving kit, flashed it to the immigration officer and we were waived on to customs. One more line-up and we’d be on our way.
Ken was working on routing while I maneuvered the Volvo through the maze of buildings, barbed wire and control towers. The place was swamped with busses and trucks and our sponsor decaled Volvo was as obvious as a streaker at a temperance convention.
Stress was building, not that we had anything to hide, just a product of sleep deprivation and our desperation in trying to enter one of the strictest bastions of communism in what looked like free enterprise on wheels.
Ken remained calm though. What a team! One is about to crack while the other chills, like a good cop bad cop routine. I suspected he was daydreaming about Radka, the fresh faced Czechoslovakian hitchhiker we had picked up that afternoon outside Prague.
While I had done my duty behind the wheel Ken seemingly had fallen in love with the ravishing beauty spending the afternoon figuring out Radka, who only spoke Czech, had a license to drive a farm tractor.
As Ken read and I sweat guards leaned a ladder against the side of the one of the trucks in front of us. Then a massive Alsatian Shepard dog climbed it and sniffed its way around while another put his nose to work on the under carriage. I thought about the Volvo parked for the night in the drug-infested world on the fringes of Pakistan’s Karachi airport, then about the drug smuggling movie Midnight Express. The sweat started pouring off me imagining a Karachi drug lord planting something for his connections in Western Europe under the Volvo. Or even the lovely Radka being a spy bent on putting a stop to our capitalistic venture.
“Ahhh, dddog.” I choked even though aside from a few cans of goat cheese we had nothing that I knew of to hide.
Ken muttered something and went on reading.
“Dddddog” I said it again as the ladder-climbing canines nosed their way through the truck in front of us. Ken’s response was the same while I fought the eibbi-jibbsi and the dogs sniffed their way past the Volvo to the truck behind us.
An hour and a half later, maneuvering the gloomy winding road to Dresden I teased Ken about tractor toting Radka. We were in a good mood, a usual affair when a communist border post is behind you on an over budget around-the-world escapade that can only be rectified by getting the job done so our capitalistic system can advertise, pay a royalty and get you out of the hole that the Iran Iraq war put you in. No sweat!
“Ahh, and you were so cool about the dog.” I complimented my soul mate and driving partner.
“Yeah, it was cute. But what was the big deal about that poodle gawking out the window of the Bulgarian tourist bus parked beside us.”