The terminal was damp, cold, dark and foreboding. Frankly, it felt like we were in a film noir movie, but we did not know at the time that it was going to get worse. It was 10 p.m. on a Sunday evening and we were waiting in the Kaliningrad, Russia, bus terminal for a 10:45 overnight bus to Vilnius, Lithuania.
Two Russian policemen approached me and asked to see my “papers.” After a cursory look, they escorted me into a small cinder block “interrogation” room, which could barely contain the three of us and my backpack. They proceeded to examine my passport and visa and question me about drugs, my reasons for being in the city, and any people I met with while there.
They told me to empty my pockets and wallet and conducted a body search. One scanned my money with a blue light gadget while the other opened and emptied my backpack. I managed to convey that I wanted them to do one thing at a time, because I was certain part of their method was to distract the “victim” while one of them helped himself to any cash and valuables.
It felt like they were harassing an American for sport and that this was a shakedown for a bribe. Probably because we were the only Americans (or tourists for that matter) in the bus/train terminal, we were targeted. Since we couldn’t appeal for help from the police for protection against the police, the only recourse would have been the American embassy, but there was none. There was no authority we could go to for assistance.
As a point of clarification, I want to note that we have had very satisfactory trips to other parts of Russia, including Moscow and St. Petersburg, and were treated well by the authorities as well as other people.
My wife, Katrina, was told to wait outside the interrogation room while I was questioned and searched. She and I were both afraid we were going to miss the bus to Vilnius, which made only one trip every 24 hours. This, of course, added pressure to the situation and made it more likely we would cave in and offer them whatever cash it took to get out of there. Time pressure was undoubtedly part of their plan.
The police and I could not speak each other’s language, but I did manage to communicate a little white lie to them, saying I was an acquaintance of the general manager of the major hotel in the city where we were staying. I had seen his name on a business card at the hotel and, fortunately, remembered it. There was an immediate change in their attitude and behavior when they thought I knew someone in the city to whom I could report their attempted shakedown.
At that point, I was released just in time for us to catch the bus. But we didn’t relax until the bus actually left the terminal and then the province.
The policemen stood below the bus window staring at us as the bus pulled away.
Katrina later said, jokingly (I think), that she was tempted to take a souvenir photograph of the two policemen and me as we came out of the interrogation room, but thought (correctly) that they might not appreciate the humor.
She also pointed out the positive—I would have another interesting travel story!
We later discussed whether we should stop traveling to potentially dangerous places. The answer was, and is, “No.” It’s all part of the excitement of travel.
Besides, if we started excluding destinations because we might run into a problem, we might not have many to choose from.•
Basile is an author, professional speaker, philanthropist, community volunteer and retired executive of Gene B. Glick Co. His column appears occasionally. The next one will appear Oct. 29. Basile can be reached at Frank_Basile@sbcglobal.net.