The time is spring 2009. The location is Warszawa, Poland. Got out of my bunk at around 11am, to do load in.
Tour had not been doing *quite as well* as we’d all hoped for, but we were making the best out of it, every day.
During Cradle of Filth’s show (the main act, I was there with Turisas, added to the bill as “special guest”), I was called to the production office for a production meeting.
Next day, we’d be doing a show in Minsk, Belarus. And for all of us, except Turisas’ tour manager, this was uncharted territory. So we were doing the “Hmmm. Not been there before. Don’t know what to expect” dance.
But soon after, we got to the heart of the matter.
TM: “I want you to travel with the truck driver, to guide him through customs, as the truck will do its border crossing at a different station than the busses will. It’s an ATA carnet, so it’ll be a stamp out, and a stamp in. Belarus does ATA carnets now.
It’ll be easy, and take about three hours, where the busses will take about two hours. You’ll get on the truck here in Warszawa, it’s only a few hours to the border, and we’ll wait for you after the border (we’ll be crossing somewhere else), where you jump back on the bus, and we drive in convoy to Minsk, where 4000 screaming kids will await our arrival.”
Me: “But it’s mostly main band’s gear on the truck, I can’t account for all that. What if they ask what is in case so and so? I won’t know what’s in it. Or what if an item isn’t on the list?”
TM: “Everything on the truck is on the carnet, and everything on the carnet is on the truck. And they won’t ask you to point out items on the truck, they’ll just stamp the documents. And if they do ask (but they won’t) to see this or that item, just point at anything.”
Me: “Hmmm… I’d rather not, it’s not my gear, I can’t account for it.”
TM: “I’m not sending one of my guys with the truck, they stay with the band. So you’ll be going.”
It’s 1am, and off we go. The truck driver, and me. The bands set off as well, but we’re not going in convoy this time.
About 2,5hours later we get to the Polish border, and get to the customs office, to get our ATA carnet stamped, doing a “leaving the EU”. It takes about 45 minutes, and since it’s the first time I travel with a truck performing this operation, I’m not quite sure what to make of this timeframe. I actually thought it went a bit slow, as the night clerk had to get his supervisor in, since they weren’t quite sure which part to stamp, which to keep, and which to return to us.
But on we went… travelling a few miles in no-mans land, where I took some surreal images of a morning-dew-and-mist-during-sunrise scenery, while we drove over an elevated barbed-wire-lined road.
And there it was, the first signs in Cyrillic, with a very noticable lack of Roman fonts, so no language that I could make much sense of. I could at least pronouce most of the Cyrillic words, and then hope they’d have homophones in other languages that made a bit more sense.
It’s about 4.30am now.
First guy at a muscle-powered gate waves us through, and points ahead. Sure, it’s not like we’ve got anywhere else to go.
We get off the truck, and walk into what I’d expect an old post office in Belarus could look like; hard, cold, grey, and a budget-version of ‘efficient’. Several counters behind glass panels surrounding an uninviting central courtyard, all of these counters with Cyrillic texts above them. Again, nothing in Roman font. Two floors of this, and no clue where to queue.
Several mis-queue-ings later, we get to a counter that seems to be staffed by an official translater! We struck gold! Someone who could acknowledge understanding us, and vice versa.
So we’d need to go to a few counters, spread out over both floors and be on our way again.
Get road permit stamped, get carnet accepted, get carnet stamped, and off we’d go.
But here comes issue #1:
The carnet we were carrying had a total weight of about 14 tons; so we needed a special road permit from the ministry of transport, since we were ‘heavy transport’.
The fact that we were driving a 7,5tons truck (with total weight somewhere around said weight) did not matter.
Us: “How do we get that permit?”
Them: “From the ministry of Transport, before attempted entry.”
Us: “Oh… Poop… It’s saturday…”
Guy behind us: (with very thick Dutch accent) “Ai haff wan of thoas permits, joo kan haff it.”
Us to Them: “Can we? Would that work?”
Them: “Not really, but ok, go ahead.”
We now carried a document that stated we were working for a Dutch livestock transport company, to grant us access as “heavy transport” over the Biellorussian roads.
First hurdle miraculously cleared. Now off to the actual customs office.
They didn’t understand the ATA Carnet, but more importantly, they told us, they were supposed to enter each of the 389 separate items in their computer, for them to be allowed to clear us, as we’d be “importing” these items.
Telling them the purpose of the ATA carnet (we’re actually not importing anything, nor exporting anything either on the way out; it’s only somewhat of the diplomatic/customs version of a hall pass), and the fact that Belarus acknowledges the document, did not cut any wood. So we had to wait for a clerk to be freed up, to do the grunt work.
And we were to wait.
Let’s get a drink then, shall we?
Oh, wait. No local currency. And actually no place to buy drinks, or food, in sight either.
Let’s just wait, then.
It must have been about 10.30am by then. So, almost 24 hours awake for me, about 13 for the truck driver (he’d been sleeping the sleep of the innocent while we did the show in Warszawa the night before), and about 6 hours spent at Belarus customs.
We went to the next desk in the mean time, to actually get someone to look at the ATA carnet itself, while the inidividual items were being inserted into their computer system.
These guys in uniforms (the others in the customs office were all in civilian) were supposed to be the ones who’d know it all, and most importantly for us, be attributed with the super power of “placing stamps”.
We were not so lucky yet; they first needed clearance from the guys entering the data, but they’d be inclined to stamp the document for us, once that was done. While they admitted to not knowing what to stamp, what not to, and so on.
And we were to be patient, and wait some more.
All this time, we had been escorted by the translater; made us feel like we were two dignitaries from a far away land, being shown the customs of the local indigenous tribes on one of our field trips.
Ok, some more progress was being made. All items had been entered into their system, and while they would need to look for the corresponding tax code for each item (obviously a chicken does not have the same code as a guitar, nor does a turnip match that of a flight case filled with riser wheels), we’d need to go to the truck with the main customs supervisor, to have him see the truck and its contents.
He was not joking when he suggested we empty the truck, allowing him to check all items.
Luckily the translater (and the tired looks on our faces) managed to persuade the supervisor to only do a spot check.
Ok, truck door opens, and with ATA carnet in hand, the supervisor points at one of the first items in sight; a Wholehog III lighting console, with appropriate logo’s and texts on the flightcase.
So I go through all items in the carnet, looking for it, while the TM’s words “every item we carry is on the list, and each item on the list is on the truck, so shut up, and just do it” resounded in my head.
Going over the list a second time, and a third time… Am I really getting that tired that I can’t spot an item on a list anymore? Bugger…
I decide to call the TM and ask him what is the corresponding number on the list. He makes some thinking noises, and then says “it’s probably not on the list”, but we should continue looking and he’d call us again if he’d found it.
In the mean time I start getting a bit worried. And so did the truck driver.
The guy in the uniform was getting a bit impatient, but wouldn’t quite execute us on the spot just yet. He then pointed at another item on the truck, the next item he could see.
It was a coffin. Not something you’d want to be seen travelling around with, and then expect people to not question your (and its) purpose.
Ok, now we’re looking for two items on the list, and this damn coffin seems to be “not on the list” either. I now hear a funny TV voice over voice uttering those words, as if we’re on ‘Wheel of Fortune’ and have just asked for the letter X.
This is getting more and more painful now, as we’re clearly losing this battle; and the TM had – while I called him the second time – admitted that neither of these two items were on the carnet.
The words “impounded”, “no-mans land”, “goodbye” and “stale bread” repeatedly echo-ed, and echo-ed some more.
Luckily our translater saw the urgency of our situation, and clearly was on our side, so she suggested us we would point at a few random items when the assistant supervisor would come to check the truck’s content, as she had just managed to convince the supervisor to take a break and get some coffee.
And we would do just that. The assistant pointed to the Wholehog III “console” and we pointed at the corresponding item on the list, an SD8 “console”. Clearly a match. Without a doubt.
I don’t remember what we pointed at to justify the coffin’s being on our truck, but then things got slightly easier; he pointed at a stack of four guitar flight cases, and we pointed to a list of six corresponding items on the list, and said he was welcome to check them individually for matching serial numbers if he wanted. Which he didn’t.
He pointed at a big red trunk, which I happened to know, as it was the band’s wardrobe case “big red stinky” (yes, the name made total sense), and we were off the hook.
Second hurdle cleared, even more miraculously than the first one.
Oh, might I remind you, that by now it was alread 1.30pm?
Back to the Bureau of Manually Inserted Items, then.
Not even 20 minutes later we had received the “all clear” from them, after they’d painstakingly managed to find 389 corresponding tax codes for our 389 items.
Off to the guys in uniforms, to get the infamous stamp on our ATA carnet.
We were told to go to another desk, a bit further down the hall again, to get a certain document. They knew what we needed, but they couldn’t explain what the document actually was; it would be written in Cyrillic, and the translater had just gone for lunch, after having escorted us for the last five hours.
Armed with that last document we returned to the stamp-wielding uniformed people, and were ready to get stamped, and stamped, and stamped…
And we did.
We were – just before we were to set off – advised by our translater that we’d still need to get a few technicalities out of the way after having entered Belarus, but before we’d be on the highway to Minsk. Getting two of our documents stamped, get weighed on a scale, and pay someone 5eur after showing the weighing result document.
So we drove off, at 4.21pm. Boldly going where no man went, as close to warp speed as our truck and the Biellorussion allowed us to.
Only 180km to go, for a show that originally had a 6pm doors, but we’d manage somehow, and postpone doors for a while, allowing for the crew to setup for a make-shift, and downgraded set. We were sure the Minsk audience would not like us any less for not having all stage props set up, as long as we’d play our music.
Having done the three things the translater instructed us to do, we were finally on the highway (to hell?), attempting warp speed, to give a few extra minutes of set-up time to the crew who would obviously be waiting for us to arrive.
Calling the TM to advise them of our arrival time, and have local crew be as ready as they’d ever be.
His answer however, was a bit odd; the bands were not in Minsk, and not planning to, either.
And we were to turn around as well.
And we’d meet them at a truck stop just before leaving Belarus again.
The show had been cancelled.
So, we turned around, and want to said truck stop. We had some late night snack, breakfast, lunch, dinner all wrapped into one stale sandwich and a can of coke, at about 7pm saturday evening while waiting for the busses to arrive.
They were actually not planning on stopping there very long, so i would actually need to rush on and off the bus to get some personal items, for the next bit of the trip; and “at some point” after the border, jump back on the bus.
You remember the “heavy transport” permit we’d picked up from the Dutch guy?
To somehwat validate an English driver and like truck to bear that document, and me being Dutch, I was to travel along the border again, and also to guide the truck driver through yet another interesting border crossing, and see if we could now leave the country in less than the twelve hours it took us to enter it.
We arrive back at the customs office, from the opposite side, in a large queue of trucks, all waiting to enter Poland. And so were we.
After several hours of queueing, it was our turn, and we got back to the stamp-wielding people’s desks, waiting to have all our paperwork either be undone, or processed again.
You should have seen the looks on our face when the guy behind the counter asked us in English (yes, we could actually understand him. Or were we just so used to their language already that we’d picked up on it without knowing?) “what we were carrying”.
We answered that we had musical gear and equipment, and that we had attempted to do a show in Minsk, but returned several hours later, job not done.
He then stared at us in amazement; partially for our story, and partially because he told us we had been cleared into the country as “travelling empty” (he then explained that was what the document in Cyrillic was for).
Would we be impounded after all? After all this nonsense? So close to actually having made it? Really?!?!
The truck driver nearly lost it; can you blame him? After all those hours? We’d been in/near the truck and customs offices for over 24 hours already, by this time. Without sleep.
It apparently didn’t matter that much in the end, but we still had several interesting discussions about the actual use of an ATA Carnet, and other ways that could’ve been used to clear us in/out of the country, like “plomb”-ing, or have customs officers at the venue to oversee outr actions, etcetera.
But all is well that ends well, we were cleared out of Belarus again (this time in ‘only’ six hours), and our way into Poland was a breeze with a mere 20 minutes spent at their customs office.
Since it was almost 5am now, and opted for a power nap.
He hadn’t had ‘quite the required amount of rest’, even though our 12 and six hours spent at the customs offices could technically have been sleeping time, as the truck clearly had not moved all those hours.
By 6am we’d set off on our way to Bratislava, Slovakia (did I tell you that I would not be able to get back on the tour bus until then, as they’d cleared the border in only two hours, and decided to drive on, to get a bit of a night off in Bratislava?)
Feeling sorry, and ‘partner in crime’ at once, i had refused to use the driver’s bunk while he’d drive another 900 kilometers.
Not even 15 minutes after we’d set off, we were pulled over by Polish Police (beautiful alliteration, don’t you think?) for driving without our headlights engaged.
Us: “Sorry sir.”
Officer: “Is that” – pointing at me – “your second driver?”
Us: “No!” (I had already made my passport disappear as my name was on one of the tacho discs)
They also checked our tacho discs, and.. .shh. don’t tell anyone, my name was one the current disc. The truck driver had wanted to pull out the disc, do a magic trick, and give one of his own, but overtaken by sleep – surprise – had handed mine after all.
A bit of a dicsussion about having started our shift 15 minutes early, but successfully (and incorrectly) countering that with “yeah, but we didn’t start driving at a logical time, just spin the disc around a bit more so the image matches that of a more logical starting time, and then it makes sense again” got us off the hook again.
With a stamp on the tacho. That is as good as wearing the King’s seal while travelling across a barbarous country; no one can harm you. And your possible past sins are forgiven.
As we could not drive as fast as the highways would take us, we’d actually decided to take the shortcut (shaving about 2 hours off our trip), which would aslo be the way more scenic route, straight through the Tatra mountains.
Along the way, before hitting the Slovakian border we’d been pulled over twice more by Police to check our documents.
It was a sunday. Was it wrong to drive a truck on a sunday in Poland, did the Polish police have a “check all trucks” day, or were we just that lucky?
To sort of allow us to do a 900km shift inside our allowed time slots (including me being reported as the second driver), we’d needed to use the “remove this one fuse while in a traffic jam”
Come to full stop, pull out plug (defusing speedometer), drive at 0km/h = equal to not-driving = equal to resting time. You get the jest.
One of the times we were pulled over was while driving in that mode; so we had to perform said magic trick there.
Come to full stop, using speed-of-light manual action to open fuse box, slam in fuse again, close fuse box cover, open door, and slowly take out tacho disc.
It never dawned on them that we’d been pulled over cruising down the highway while doing 0km/h; (nor the even more mysterious blast of having driven at light speed, result of having had to perform the magic trick while not being completely halted, sending the speedometer to the max for an instant) they were silenced by the stamp on the back of the disc, and waved us on.
And then the scenery went from beautiful to stunning as well, as we’d indeed left the highway, and were gently pushing on through the smallest of villages in the Tatra mountains, on our way to Slovakia.
Cutting the rest of the trip a bit short, we’d arrived at Bratislava at said address at around 2am Monday morning (we’d left Warszawa 1am early Saturday morning, and I’d not slept at all, and the truck driver had done 3 of 4 catnaps that can not have been longer than 45 minutes each.
Being told by a casually-relaxing-after-job-done technician at the venue we’d arrived at, that we were at the wrong address, because there would be no show tomorrow (show had been moved to other venue in Bratislava) was the last drop…
But in a very “ah well, whatever” kind of way, we’d actually decided for the less violent option of actually sleeping it off, and try to find the venue next morning.
Sleeping in the passenger seat on a truck is not exactly something I’d recommend, but it was more comfortabe than expected, or was that just because I’d not slept for so long? The math section of my brain had tallied up about 63 hours by then.
Next morning we found the venue, I did a bit of acting, to visually display our trip and the troubles we’d been through, by crawling on hands and feet with tongue hanging from mouth, and heavy panting, from where we were parked to the front door, and then had a word with the tour manager.
I think I remember him saying something that resembled “sorry”, but i’m quite sure it was actually me just pretending that was what he had meant to say.
I said I was going to charge him for the ‘small amount hours of over-time’, and he didn’t wave it away, but I could clearly tell he wasn’t going to pay me.
So I decided I’d just let it go, and just pretended it had never happened, or make it into a best-selling novel one day; had some breakfast, and started working.
After all, it had been over 60 hours since I had last seen the Turisas equipment.
I think I’m sure I made all of this up, must have been a bad dream… a very bad one…