“You have to leave tomorrow. There’s a chance the other faction of the government will take control of the border and your exit visa will no longer be valid.”
The land border was the only exit we had left. During a political crisis the airports had been shut down. Other borders were shut or went through territory too dangerous to traverse as Westerners. We had been stuck in-country for a while, hunkered down as we watched political powers slowly tighten the grip on the region we were living in.
One colleague wisely counseled us in that season, “There’s a unique stress to being stuck out of country, and there’s a unique stress to being stuck in. Which one can your family better handle right now?” It was time to risk the stress of being stuck out.
We handed off our responsibilities to local believers and partners and consulted maps together. The tense uncertainty of our ability to return meant it was a sweet goodbye with the little core of our local church plant. Early the next morning, we set off.
The journey to the one border crossing left meant a six hour drive through the mountains, then leaving our vehicle with some friends. From there we would take a taxi one hour to the border, go through the border processes, and then drive another two hours to an airport city in the least unstable country of our region. We looked forward to a two-night rest in a hotel once we got there. We would need it to be ready for the long flights back to the US with two small children.
The drive through the mountains went well. It was spring and the bright green carpet of grass was already creeping over the mountains. We drove by ancient cities and villages I still hope to visit someday. Everything was strangely quiet for the six hour drive. The vehicle drop-off went well. The designated taxi was waiting and we made the trip. So far so good. Now for the border – the most unpredictable part.
Had the other faction taken control and would they block our exit or fine us? Would the border even be open? Would there bathrooms – or chai?! I had crossed this land border once before, but that was ten years previous. We were at the mercy of our taxi driver, who thankfully was very adept at shuffling us and our documents from one window bureaucrat to another. He also had TV screens for the kids in the back seat, which played several Tom and Jerry episodes in a loop. This would prove to be remarkably helpful as we jumped back in the car and drove to join a massive line of vehicles. After managing to pull into line, we sat. And then proceeded to sit for seven hours.
It wasn’t that we were totally still. We probably moved about one centimeter per minute. In front of us was our country’s security checkpoint, then a bridge across a river – maybe 100 meters long – and the neighboring country’s security checkpoint on the other side. We thought we had gotten there with plenty of time, but before we knew it the afternoon was spent and the sun was setting. The only exit left was one massive bottleneck.
We sat and sat and inched forward and sat some more. We made it through our country’s security checkpoint without too much trouble. No sign anywhere of the rumored takeover. Sometime after sunset we made it onto the bridge itself. An encouraging development, to be sure – until our three year old daughter needed a bathroom. There was no way back. And we couldn’t access the bathroom on the other side of the next security checkpoint, down at the other end of the bridge. So we tried, in vain, to create a shield with the car door and to help her relieve herself there on the pavement of the bridge. What else was to be done? We had at least another two hours to go sitting on this bridge. However, the strangeness (security spotlights and all) was too much for her three year-old-system, and in spite of her full bladder, she simply couldn’t go anymore. My wife decided to see if we could get an exception for a cute kid desperately in need of a potty. She headed off toward the end of the bridge with our daughter in tow, and was able to make eye contact with a female border agent standing at a side door – who mercifully gave them illegal bathroom access. Technically that toilet existed on the territory of a country we had not yet been cleared to enter. But common grace still exists, and cute kids can secure all kinds of exceptions in Central Asia.
We had a lot of time that day to be still and notice our surroundings during the seven hours it took to cross that river. We started noticing something curious. Some people were milling around up and down the bridge by foot. As they would pass our vehicle and others, some would tap twice or three times on the metal siding of the car. It wasn’t aimless. It was some kind of pattern. We started noticing small packages being slyly passed up the line of vehicles and individuals ducking behind cars as the security spotlight hit, and running up behind the next car once it moved on. We were witnessing a robust yet seemingly common-place smuggling operation. All the taxi drivers – judging by the tapping system – seemed to be in on it. Including our own.
We had been clear with him that as Christians, we were not going to be able to take part in any cigarette smuggling that is typically expected of taxi border passengers. Taxi drivers will stuff passengers’ bags with bulk cartons of cigarettes and have the passengers claim them as their own. In this way the drivers and their associates are able to buy cigarettes cheaply on our side of the border, and sell them for a profit on the other. We simply would not participate in the part where we said they belonged to us, we had insisted with the driver. And he assured us that he was OK with this and wouldn’t try any funny business with the smokes.
Late at night we finally made it to the security checkpoint. I checked our bags as they were taken out of the trunk. No bulk cigarette packages. But I did notice some had appeared in the trunk. Fruit of the car-tappers, no doubt. We shuffled our bleary-eyed children away from their hours of Tom and Jerry on repeat and made our way to the X-ray machine. As soon as we put our bags on the belt, a young man ran up out of nowhere and placed the cartons of cigarettes alongside our bags.
“What are these?” the security agent asked us.
“These belong to them!” said the young man.
“No they don’t, I said in the sister dialect of the local language.”
“These foreigners don’t understand our language,” he said, “I assure you these belong to them.” And he smiled at me with a please play along now kind of look.
“No,” I said, “these are not ours!” I was grateful that these sentences were more or less intelligible across the dialects. A look of worry flashed on the man’s face as a couple of burly security men came and hauled him off. The security officer attending us just shrugged. I shot a look back at our driver who was scratching his head some distance from us, trying not to look disappointed that his sneaky plan had failed.
Around one in the morning we finally made it to the hotel where we were staying, after leaving our house around 5 a.m. the previous day. We slept hard.
Upon waking and heading down to the breakfast buffet, we immediately felt the stress lifting now that we were no longer in a country under political siege. I sipped my Americano and enjoyed the bright light coming into the hotel dining room. After the long season of security crises and our crazy border crossing day, we could now breathe deep for a little bit. Then it was off to the US for our first trip back since moving overseas.
My wife was staring at me. She started mouthing some words. I am positively terrible at lip reading, so after I tried and failed to understand what she was saying, she gave up and just blurted it out.
I nearly dropped my coffee. And that’s how I learned about our third-born.