White Rock school teacher – and avid traveller – Audrey Painter shares a summer adventure in Eastern Europe that began with an invitation from an former student.
(Second in a three-part series)
Special to Peace Arch News
I was on a train in Hungary between the towns of Subotica in Serbia and Budapest three summers ago with my former student from Semiahmoo Secondary, when two things happened that put us in grave danger.
I had solemnly promised Kristina’s Serbian grandmother that I would bring her home safely. A train trip sounded so easy.
Two separate pairs of unfriendly border patrol officers had stamped our Canadian passports on the Serbian border. In Hungary, officers wearing different uniforms, stamped them again.
Crisis #1 struck.
Kristina, 19, opened her passport to look at the three stamps.
“Oh, no! I have my mom’s passport.”
“Wrong passport! Grabbed my mom’s.”
We were horrified.
“Fake sleeping, Kristina! Close your eyes.”
Kristina slept when the next Hungarian officers stamped both passports and left.
Crisis #2 hit us immediately after realizing that we had a small passport calamity.
“Somebody at our door wants to come in,” Kristina whispered.
“They can’t.” Our compartment door was locked from the inside.
The next moment, a woman in her early 60s and a thin young man, who looked like her son, came in.
Our suitcases, shoes, lunch boxes, books, backpacks, water bottles and expensive camera equipment lay scattered in the first-class compartment.
The man pulled out an extremely long screwdriver. I grabbed a tablespoon as a weapon – I was not going to be murdered without putting up a fight.
The woman gave us a warm smile. They were dirty, dressed in tatters with something in their eyes that I had seen before in South Africa: Cruelty. Fearlessness. I smelled danger.
I faked a smile and put down my tablespoon. Both intruders laughed.
The woman opened several large canvas bags. The man stood on the head rest and unscrewed the cover of the air-conditioning unit in the ceiling. He crawled into the hole and his legs dangled in the air.
Something emerged from the roof. Blue cigarettes boxes were taped together and formed meter-long strips. The mother grabbed these, pulled out a knife, cut them into portions to fit in the bags. Her eyes were cold and her toothless smile gone.
They were smugglers.
Both the mother and son were small. I was terrified of them because they were armed and dangerous.
I wanted to run to the corridor and yell, “Help! Smugglers!”
If the police arrived, Kristina and I would have to explain why she was in Hungary on her mother’s passport. So I sat still, watching them without moving my head.
Five of these packages came down.
Friedrich Nietzsche had said: Even curiosity and terror grow weary. That day I understood what he meant. We got used to the idea that we were with smugglers and sat peacefully, watching them.
The train slowed down to stop at the next station. There had been police on all the previous platforms.
Within seconds, I closed the curtains of our compartment window and became an accomplice. The mommy-smuggler laughed and she made large, approving hand gestures. The swinging knife was overly visible and petrifying.
At that very instant, we became comrades. It’s different from becoming friends. Being comrades is a temporary relationship. Comrades have the same goal and help one another to escape from jail or to overthrow a government.
My goal was to help them finish. Quickly.
When Comrade Son found a strip, Comrade Audrey took it from him and passed it along. We used comrade body language – showing goodwill, teamwork and a willingness to succeed. It was a perfect arrangement that worked for all of us.
When I handled the first strip, I knew the goods were too heavy for cigarettes. It was drugs. I passed it to Comrade Mama with trembling hands and dismissed the idea.
There were more than 20 strips in the roof. I lost count after a while, because I was working. We passed through two more stations – where the train stopped for a nerve-racking eternity.
As suddenly as the smuggling had started, it ended.
The woman counted the boxes and yelled something. Her son fell from the roof, replaced the air-conditioning cover, both waved goodbye and they left.
At first, Kristina and I did not say a word.
Then we laughed. Hysterically.
We talked about Crisis #1 and #2—laughing until we doubled over.
It was not funny.
• • •
The visit to Budapest was fantastic. It is a stunning city and we walked on the banks of the Danube River with all the other tourists under the summer night sky.
A Hungarian, about the same age as I am, sang me a love song in a romantic little restaurant, where he played the violin.
I heard a tourist choir sing Ave Maria in the Matthias Church and it was so beautiful that I wept. We saw all the sights and we lived safely in Mrs. Kereksne’s funny little boarding house, close to the Parliament buildings.
We saw Hungarian dances at a street festival.
At the magnificent Opera House, we sat outside, on the steps, listening to a opera singer practising for the evening’s performance.
• • •
Today, in my home in White Rock, I wondered why the smugglers did not kill us.
We had been witnesses… No, wait, wrong word.
Did becoming Comrade Audrey save our lives?
My comrades and I, we really got that little job done efficiently.
In The Smuggler’s Den. Behind those handy thick, blue curtains.
NEXT EDITION: A Passport problem.