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Previously in Atlantic Abroad

The Price of Devotion (Jeffrey Tayler, India, December 22, 1999).

Israeli Forms of Identity (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, December 1, 1999).

New Year's and Nothingness (William Tyree, Indonesia, October 27, 1999).

Searching for El Chapareke (Jeff Biggers, Mexico, September 29, 1999).

Opium in the Naga Hills (Rahul Goswami, India, September 1, 1999).

A Saturday at the Auction (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, August 4, 1999).

The Bulls of Goa (Rahul Goswami, India, June 16, 1999).

The Sacred Grove of Oshogbo (Jeffrey Tayler, Nigeria, May 26, 1999).

Hotel Alf (Akash Kapur, Poland, May 12, 1999).

Strolling Moscow's Broadway (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, April 28, 1999).

Uygur Luncheon (Jeffrey Tayler, China, April 14, 1999).

Onion Logic (Akash Kapur, India, March 31, 1999).

Dreamcasting Japan (Trevor Corson, Japan, March 17, 1999).

Talmud in a Taxi (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, March 3, 1999).

A Place of Healing (Jeffrey Tayler, China, February 17, 1999).

The Tiger Queen (Akash Kapur, India, February 3, 1999).

Holiday Moscow (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, January 6, 1999).

The Long Arm of the Chinese Law (Jeffrey Tayler, China, December 16, 1998).

Panama by Panga (Benjamin Howe, Panama, December 2, 1998).

For more, see the complete Atlantic Abroad Index.

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Midnight Express

January 5, 2000

Just before midnight my train, the Carpati Express from Warsaw to Bucharest, stopped at the border between Hungary and Romania. For ten minutes nothing happened; I sat in my compartment and stared out of the window at the ill-lit platform. Then a pot-bellied customs official with a red face walked in and yelled at me to open my bags.

"Pistolet?" he asked.

"No," I said. "I have no pistolet. Only clothes and a sleeping bag."

"Lei?" he asked, referring to the Romanian currency.

"No," I lied; I had been forewarned about corrupt border officials.

"No pistolet, no Lei," the man muttered. He stamped my passport and slammed the door on his way out.

For a while everything was still again. I complimented myself on my smooth treatment of the border guard. I mocked the travelers I had met whose horror stories about Romanian corruption had prepared me for the worst. Nothing is ever as bad as you fear, I thought, and leaned back in my seat.

I opened the window; it was cold outside. I looked up; the sky was overcast. I could not see the moon, only the rings of the moon -- purple, green, and yellow as they broke through the clouds. The platform was empty save an old man in a tattered hat leaning against a lamppost. He was singing; his voice was tired and raspy. He was holding a liquor bottle. Every time he took a sip, his words were drowned, and the night was returned to silence.

There were footsteps in the corridor outside my compartment, and I left the window. A military man, dressed in camouflage and armed with an automatic rifle, walked in. "Touriste?" the soldier asked. I eyed his rifle nervously.

"Yes," I said. "Tourist."

The soldier rested his rifle against the door. He pulled a wad of bills out of his back pocket. "Money change?" he asked. I wasn't sure if it was a request or a demand.

I had been traveling for twelve hours; I was crabby and tired. Still, in no small part out of deference to the man's formidable pistolet, I mustered every bit of sweetness in my aching body and declined. "No, thank you," I said. I smiled politely.

I was relieved to get rid of the soldier, and relieved when, a few minutes later, the train began moving. Soon after leaving the station, though, the door once again slid open, and two policemen in blue uniforms walked in. They shut the door, locked it, and pulled the curtains. I stood up. They signaled that I should sit down, and sat themselves on the bench facing me.

"Passport," one of them demanded.

I watched as they leafed through my passport. They were both young, perhaps in their mid-twenties. One of them was growing a thin mustache; the other, with his pointed nose, narrow eyes, and bushy eyebrows, bore a resemblance to the pictures I had seen all over Prague of Franz Kafka.

Kafka asked what country I was from. "America," I said, pointing in some confusion to the passport.

"Kapur, Akash. India?" he asked, fingering my Indian visa.

"Yes," I said. "My father is Indian."

"India," he said, shutting my passport with some energy, "is problem."

"No problem," I said.

"Big problem," he countered, and his friend nodded in agreement. "India is problem," Kafka repeated, and I could swear I detected jubilation on his face.

"You have Lei?" he asked.

"No Lei, no problem," I replied, trying to keep a smile spread across my own face.

"Yes, yes is problem," the policeman said again. "India is big problem." He stood up. The train suddenly lurched forward, and he lost his balance. He fell back onto his seat. I caught his friend suppressing a laugh.

Now Kafka was all business. He took a notebook out of his pocket, and began entering my passport details. He was slow and methodical. He kept repeating the word "India," as if it were some terrible curse. Occasionally, he looked up from his notebook with a menacing glance. The whole exercise was clearly meant to intimidate.

It might well have been effective, too, except for one detail: I had seen the cover of his "official" book, and it was a picture of a woman's breasts.

The breasts stoked my courage. I did what every guidebook warns never to do in the face of official harassment: I lost my temper. I yelled that I was a guest in his country; he should treat me better. I said I was tired. I pointed to my watch. I said, "Finished. No problem. Finish."

Kafka shut his notebook. They both stood up, and I thought for a moment I was in trouble. I had visions of being hauled off the train and dragged into some anonymous interrogation room; I assumed there were plenty of bored thugs eager to employ the skills they had acquired in the days of totalitarian rule.

Then Kafka extended his hand and said, "Welcome to Romania." It all happened very quickly. I shook his hand in bewilderment.

He opened the door. On the way out his friend made a conciliatory effort. "Marlboro?" he asked, but this time his voice had lost its threatening timbre. We were all friends now.

"Sorry," I said. "I don't smoke."

"No smoke," Kafka said, and he pushed his friend out of the compartment. "No Marlboro is no problem."


Akash Kapur is a Rhodes Scholar at Nuffield College, Oxford, and a co-host of "Stop the Death Penalty," an online petition against capital punishment in the United States.

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