A welcoming smile greeted me through the glass, the face of the Kazakhstan immigration officer lighting up as if I was a dear friend. Striding out to meet me, he grabbed my hand warmly and invited me into his office.
Offering a chair, he asked if I was tired and pulled out a bottle of cognac, suggesting a drink to strengthen my spirit. Expressing gratitude, I politely declined the drink, explaining that ten in the morning was a bit early for me.
Reluctantly replacing the bottle in his desk, he asked if perhaps I might have a small gift for him? “A what?” I asked, my Russian barely coping with the conversation to this point. “You know, like a birthday gift,” he replied hopefully.
Shrugging sadly, I confessed to being gift-less, while wondering if this was a less-than-subtle way of asking for a small bribe. But his smile remained warm even while he accepted my regrets, and he did not press me (unlike other bribe seekers I have encountered).
At last he turned to my passport, slowly leafing through all the visas and stamps that filled nearly every page of my extended Canadian passport.
This seemed a bit over-zealous to me. After all, barely an hour ago this same man had, efficiently and without fanfare, given me an entrance stamp into Kazakhstan, followed a few minutes later by an exit stamp when we discovered that my taxi driver had forgotten to bring his own Kyrgyz passport. This had the irksome consequence of preventing his entering Kazakhstan.
This was a dilemma, given that I had hired the taxi to drive me from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, to Almaty, Kazakhstan. And now here I was on the Kazakh side of the border, and there was my driver and his taxi on the Kyrgyz side, unable to cross.
What to do? The poor driver was obviously embarrassed and ashamed for causing me such inconvenience. Why rub it in? With a resigned shrug I smiled, confessing in a classic Russian phrase, “It’s life, it’s normal!”
Thus my short-lived entrance stamp was immediately followed by an exit stamp.
My taxi made a u-turn in the custom’s shed, and back we raced to Bishkek to retrieve the forgotten passport.
Only later did it dawn on me that my return to Kyrgyzstan was technically illegal, given that my single-entry Kyrgyz visa had been ‘used-up’. Fortunately the Kyrgyz border officials were, to put it mildly, less exacting than their Kazak colleagues. As we re-entered the country, I was not even asked for my passport.
And so here I was, an hour later, greeted like a long-lost friend by the immigration officer, who now wistfully pored over my passport page by page. As a wave of impatience began to stir within me, it struck me that he was savoring my many visas, dreaming of travel and perhaps imagining what it must be like to be such a privileged Canadian with so many options and opportunities.
His eyes and demeanor were certainly not those of someone looking to find an excuse to make life difficult, and my heart went out to him. Wishing I had one of the little Canadian flag pins that I sometimes travel with, I thought of my nice but unremarkable ballpoint pen. “For me?” he asked, as I extended it to him. “Why not?” I answered, only to be a bit embarrassed by the boyish enthusiasm of his “Thanks!”
With a long sigh he concluded his perusal of my passport and provided the second entrance stamp. Once more we shook hands and I returned to my taxi to complete the five-hour journey. I don’t expect to see him again, but I was touched and grateful for the brief human connection he allowed. And I sincerely hope he gets to do a bit of travelling.