From Stories for My Daughter
I was in the Peace Corps in the late 1960s, stationed in a little fishing village near Singapore, a big duty-free port. Soviet ships stopped there, and the rubles their sailors left in the economy could be bought for about three cents, while on the world market they were worth more than a dollar. After my commitment to the Peace Corps, I planned to go from Singapore overland through 12 countries to the North Sea with my then-wife. I decided to buy $60 worth of rubles to make our visit in Russia more affordable. My roll of 667 ruble notes was the size of my fist, making a bulge in my pants pocket. I put our Soviet visas into a pouch that I wore around my neck. As we made our way to Russia, the pictures got peeled off both visas. Because they were official documents I went to the Soviet Embassy in India to have them repaired.
Our early January flight to the USSR was from Kabul, Afghanistan. We stopped by the Peace Corps office in Kabul, and as I was leaving I saw a bulletin board covered with pictures of volunteers who were serving time in Soviet prisons for smuggling in rubles. I had hauled this fistful of rubles all over Asia and thought—well, actually, I don’t remember what I was thinking—but that roll of rubles stayed in my pocket.
We arrived at a massive unheated stone terminal building in Tashkent. An army officer wearing a fur hat with a big red star looked at my visa and glared. “This is not joke. This is official Soviet document.” I had no idea what he was talking about. He held up my visa and twisted its six folded pages so I could see the picture on one side―mine—and the exit visa picture on the back―a woman. I protested that the Soviet Embassy had mixed them up when they put the pictures back on the visa. “Are you saying the Soviet Embassy made a mistake?” he growled. Without further ado, we were taken to a bench and told to wait. Finally, a young army officer who had been translating at customs walked by, and I asked him what was going on. He motioned for me to follow him.
We went downstairs into a little room with one bright light hanging from the ceiling and a small desk with two phones, one red and one black. Then a guy in a Dick Tracy trench coat and hat arrived. He stood back in the shadows and started questioning me as I stood there under a glaring light. Then he stepped forward and put his hands on my shoulders to search me. As his hands came down my torso I realized Siberia was only a few seconds away.
So I pushed him back. “Look,” I said, “This was a mistake by your embassy. But if you want us to miss seeing your beautiful country, just send us through to Finland. But don’t give us trouble because they made a mistake.” He was taken off guard and jumped back. He picked up the red phone and called someone. They spoke for about 10 minutes, and then he said something to the young army officer, who signaled for me to follow him back to customs. We were checked through, got our papers back, and were directed down a long hallway, where I could see the Intourist bus waiting.
With great relief we hurried down the hall. Suddenly a door swung open and the young officer stepped out in front of us. I about fainted. He looked both ways and when he saw no one could see him, he got a big grin on his face, winked, and said, “That was very funny joke. Ha Ha!” and waved us on.