Happily, I added "cross a border illegally" to the dynamic list of my Acts of Spontaneous Ecstasy.
But, I would keep my illegal status a secret from everyone, the entire time I was in Russia. I would only ever tell two people - because I had to.
The first of these two people picked me up in his black sportscar among the green Altai Mountains which magically caught the sun's gold. It was late July, and I'd been standing on a road full of cows, south of the colorful shacks of Ust-Kan town.
This fifty-year-old Russian businessman asked if there weren't any problems with my passport, because the border patrolmen were going to check us. Kazakhstan, China, and Mongolia were near. I told him there were no problems. I figured he meant the patrolmen MIGHT check us, and I felt safe.
But, then, all of the sudden, we were stopped at a military checkpoint. Uh oh. We had to get out and show our passports. I told the businessman, understating the situation, "Mozet bit problem budet." (Maybe there's gonna be a problem.) "Uvidim," he said. (Well, we'll see.) As we walked from the car to the roadside office, I felt like I mightaswell have been holding out my wrists to be handcuffed.
But, maybe there was hope. What could I do in this situation? I could only do one thing: be very, very scared.
In the office, the businessman said he'd picked me up nearby. How I'd gotten there, he didn't know. I tried to speak, to act casually. But, I was shaking so much inside, that I could barely voice a three-word sentence.
The bordermen simply needed to record my information, since I was a foreigner. A bulky, but young, Russian soldier turned to my visa and began writing down the numbers on it. I'd made sure, using the "PhotoShop" computer program, to doctor all the numbers so they'd say what I thought they ought to say. The bulky soldier didn't notice my visa contained no hologram. To my great delight, he leaned forward to return my document.
Just as I was about to take it so we could go, a fat, bespectacled Altaian soldier wanted to take a look at it. Who asked him!? He said I ought to have a registration card, or something. He wanted to know: where was it?
The businessman made a move towards the door. And I thought I was going to be left alone, to try to sort out my huge problem.
Then, the Russian soldier, who seemed to be the leader, said to his Altaian cohort a phrase, a phrase of apathy, a wonderful phrase that would come to be a motto for me. "Kakaya raznitsa!?" (What difference does it make!?) Oh, I love that phrase! I and the businessman were out of there.
As we drove towards Ust-Koksa town, he pointed to tall fences enclosing wilderness. He somewhere owned his own tall fence. Inside were deer. And he exported the marrow of their antlers to Hong Kong and Seoul, for medicinal purposes.
I had been instructed to visit a "tamoznya" (customs) office in Ust-Koksa, by the soldiers. The businessman encouraged me to do so. Oh, I couldn't! I told the businessman my whole uncensored story. He said, when the time comes, he'll help me leave the border area. He said, "I like adventure." This businessman, tennis player, and amateur pilot had style.
In his home with a stylish, fine-wood interior, we ate a healthy dinner. Then, I was supposed to sleep. But, I felt very stressed. I soon scribbled out, "cross a border illegally", from my list of A.S.E.'s.
I spent very pleasant days in the mountains of the Ust-Koksa Region. The biggest negative of all was that I really, really would've liked to have spent more time here (with some girls I'd met), but I had an appointment with the businessman.
He, I, and his alcoholic cousin left Ust-Koksa one morning.
When we were one kilometer shy of the border control-post, he turned into a village. He pointed to a dirt road that led up a steep hill. He instructed me to run up that hill, run down the other side, run several kilometers further, and meet him again on the road, on the other side of the border control-post. He told me to hurry.
I left all my possessions in his car. He said, admirably, "Yesli budes saditsya v tyurme, budem saditsya ty i ya dva." (If you're gonna sit in prison, it's gonna be the both of us who sit in prison.)
I hurried. When I came again to the main road, I had to wait. The border control-post was visible near the distant, warm horizon. I waited, hiding in the tall grass, for a long time. Twenty minutes passed. Was he coming? Oh, I wanted my water bottle. Finally ... his black Mercedes came and let me in.
The businessman said the patrol-men sometimes look around with binoculars, but they weren't doing so on this day. I was still breathing hard. He learned how long I'd waited for him, and he said I must've flown. The cousin's self-confident, ridiculous voice said, "Ya bi toze letel, v etoi situatsii!" (I would've flown too in that situation!)
We helped the businessman buy several tons of honey, which he would send to Moscow and Belarus. The businessman drove me out of the Respublika Altai.
I didn't have any more close calls with the police during the next six months. However, while I was living in Tomsk, I couldn't help but feel a slight apprehension whenever I heard police sirens near my wooden house.
The second person whom I told my secret to was a lady who wanted to employ me at her university. She looked scared when I told her my secret. As a result, I became scared. And she said I couldn't teach at her university.
Shortly thereafter, a man at another university recognized that my visa was a fake. But, he mistakenly thought I'd BOUGHT the visa from a tour agency, not knowing it was a fake. Needless to say, I couldn't work at his university, either. I felt even more unsettled, and I wrote a poem about it.
"Dokument - samaya vaznaya vesh na svete." (A man's document is the most important thing in the world.) - a Soviet beaurocrat, a character in a Bulgakov novel
- Modern Oddyseus. I dodged another bullet.