May 24, 2023
We were headed north into Romania for several days before making a U-turn and heading back to Bulgaria to park the bike for a short trip home. Leaving Bulgaria and crossing into Romania, we experienced Self-Inflicted Border Crossing Screw-up #1. But first a little background…
At most border crossings in Mexico, Central and South America and Africa, there is a separate Customs or “Aduana” area where you must import the bike into (and out of) the country. This requires you to park the bike, fish out the title or ownership papers, and enter the building. A little paperwork later, and you’re usually free to ride away. The most often-asked question by the Customs officers is “La placa?” or the plate number of the bike. After doing a number of crossings, one tends to memorize the license plate number so you can repeat it. Alternatively, I take a photo of the plate so I can just show it to them, since I can recite the number in Spanish well enough, but not so much in Swahili.
So back to Europe. In Europe, most non-EU borders do not have a separate Customs office. You approach the border crossing at a small booth that looks much like a toll booth, with the Border Officer seated in the booth. You hand him your passport, then, on request, the title of the motorcycle, and he stamps your passport, enters the information on the bike into a computer, and hands you everything back. One-stop shopping. Easy. You ride away from the booth of the country you are leaving and repeat the process at the booth for the country you are entering, which is usually a short distance away; sometimes across a river, or just across “no mans land”.
In eastern Europe, we started seeing shared “Double Toll Booths”. These look just like they sound… the booth is twice as long, with two windows, one after the other, separated by about two or three meters. The first window has a flag over it denoting the country you are leaving, and the second window has a flag over it denoting the country you are entering. Officers from both countries sit in the same booth, next to each other. You hand your passport to the first guy, he stamps it, hands it back, and you ride/waddle up a few feet to the second window and repeat the process to enter the new country.
Here’s a photo of the dual border crossing booth, this one between Romania and Bulgaria. Normally there are cars, not just people standing at the windows, which is usually an indication that something has gone terribly wrong and you should pick a different lane. Or it could just be that these are single-occupant drivers and the window is on the wrong side of the car (a problem motorcyclists never have). Photo courtesy of Mircea Moira/shutterstock.com
I think our first experience with this was leaving Albania and entering Greece. After stamping our passports, the officer asked for “the document for the moto”. I had done a poor job of planning ahead, and the title to the bike was still locked in the pannier with all of our other paperwork. So I asked Diana to get off the bike and dig it out. As she climbed off, the officer in the booth said “No No. Wait.” We looked at him confused. He stood up, picked up his mobile phone, walked out of the booth and took a photo of the bike’s license plate, and walked back into the booth. After entering the plate number into the computer system, he said “okay, you can go”.
I made a mental note to take a photo of the plate and try this method at the next border crossing.
Border Crossing Screw-up #1
So as we approached the border to leave Bulgaria and enter Romania, I pulled our passports out and my phone, and thumbed through the photos until I found the photo of the plate number.
After stamping our passports out of Bulgaria, the officer asked for the document for the motorcycle. I handed him my phone, expecting him to be impressed at how prepared I was. Instead, he looked at me and laughed. Then he showed the photo on my phone to the Romanian officer in the other half of the booth, who had a similar reaction.
I was confused and embarrassed. I felt sure that showing him a photo of the number plate would work. As he handed me the phone back, I was about to ask Diana to climb off and get the paperwork out of the pannier when she spoke first:
“Your finger hit the screen when you handed him the phone and it swiped the photo.”
I looked at the screen, and realized my mistake: I had handed the border officer a nice photo of Tupac ShaCorgi, the dog we had been sitting in Larissa.
Just a heads up: showing a Border Patrol officer a photo of your cute dog usually won’t get you into the country.
I quickly swiped back to the photo of the number plate and gently handed the phone back to the officer. He noted the number and handed me back my phone, all the while still joking the the Bulgarian officer about my trying to enter Romania with a photo of a dog. He entered the required information into his computer, then passed my phone to his Romanian counterpart, who did the same.
Duly noted: know what you are handing the officer before you hand it over. Things could go bad. (As in, see Self Inflicted Border Crossing Screw-up #2, coming soon.)
As we rode off into Romania, I swore I could still hear those two guys in the little booth laughing.
Little did I know that the next time wouldn’t be so funny. That story is coming in a couple of posts.