Friday, March 20, 2009

The Border Crossing at Prezemysl

My heart sank when I saw the crowd of nearly 200 people, mostly old women, waiting patiently to cross the land border into Ukraine. It was already nearing sunset, and it would take us hours to get across.

We had arrived at the Polish town of Prezemysl by train from Krakow, and had been hoping to reach the tourist-friendly town of Lvov, by nightfall, after clearing immigration into Ukraine.

Just as we reached the end of the long line, we noticed a border patrol official at the very front waving us over, asking to step forward. To our surprise, the whole sea of babushkas parted for us obediently, and like Moses we walked ahead.

We had been promoted right to the head of the queue, and none of the others seemed to mind. Once we were inside the small building for exiting Poland, we were handed paperwork to fill out.

Looking out the window, I started to understand what was happening. On our way here from the railway station, we had seen several of these babushkas selling one or two bottles of vodka to young men in jumpsuits who were buying them up in large numbers. I even saw one babushka reach inside her dress and pull out two bottles from somewhere near her waist. She collected some money and turned back.

Every lady we saw was holding one carton of cigarettes. I had read that things were a lot more expensive in Poland compared to Ukraine. Vodka and cigarettes especially had big price differences.

And so, all day long, these ladies were crossing and re-crossing the border, to bring and sell vodka and cigarettes to eager buyers on the Poland-side. The transaction only took a few seconds, and then they went back to standing in line for the slow trip back. Since we were genuine tourists, we had been allowed to preempt these regulars, without having to endure the wait.

This constant flow of people moving goods because of the price difference reminded me of how the yachts crossed the locks at Lockport or Sault Ste. Marie. Due to the water level difference, all the water wanted to rush in one direction, and the locks served as gates to let the crossings happen in an orderly manner.

In the land between the two countries, there were two parallel corridors, separated by barbed wire fences. One corridor (ours) was for people heading to Ukraine, and the other one was for people heading the other way, to Poland. I saw one lady on the Ukrainian side of the fence, trying to toss a big box over the fence to another lady who was on our side.

I stood and watched. It was a shrink-wrapped box of cigarettes, smaller than a carry-on sized suitcase. I counted 20 cartons of cigarettes. 20 per pack x 20 packs per cartons x 20 cartons in one box = 8000 cigarettes. Boxes like these were entering Poland one at a time. (Lung cancer in a box, anyone?)

Rather than crossing two buildings in each direction for one round trip (leave Ukraine, enter Poland, sell, leave Poland, enter Ukraine), these resourceful ladies had figured out a way to meet here, exchange goods and head back the way each had come.

The level of commerce here was unlike any we had seen in other borders in Europe or Asia. I was tempted to linger, watch and learn more, but it was getting late. My wife had walked ahead.

After a few more minutes of paperwork at the Ukrainian side, we had entered Ukraine. Our destination for the night, Lvov, was still 2-3 hours away, and so we hurried on to catch the yellow bus that was waiting.

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