My in-van daytime playlist for the last week has consisted of exactly 2 things: Blood For Blood "Revenge On Society", and Chuck Ragan "The Blueprint Sessions". However, on the long, dark, over-night drives there's been no music. Instead, Dave and I took turns watching the show True Blood. I caught 2 episodes of this HBO masterpiece on the plane and downloaded the entire first season as soon as I could after landing. In short (for those who don't know): it takes place in present day America (outside of New Orleans, LA) and everything is normal, except that vampires are not only real, but have blended in with mainstream society- drinking synthetic blood, dating mortals, and demanding equal rights (the right to marry, etc) We've gone through all 12 episodes in 7 days and my mind is so fully immersed in vampire lore that I've been dreaming nightly of encountering the unexceptional undead- vampire grocery clerks, vampire border guards.
The appearance of vampire guards happened a few days after we crossed the Russian/Ukrainian border, which was far worse in its reality than any nightmare I've had about it since. We had been warned by several people that this border was exceptionally corrupt, but I really wasn't sweating it after we crossed the Finish/Russian border with such ease.
I should have sweat.
We had decided in advance that I would be the one to deal with the border guards since our driver at the time was a bit of a pushover (Don't get me wrong, he was a nice guy, just without a single assertive bone in his body. The day before the Ukrainian/Russian border he got pulled over for a bogus "speeding" charge and police demanded 5,000 rubbles from him. The real charge for a speeding ticket is 500 rubbles. Our driver handed it over [from our/Dead Vows money, btw], while our pacifist tourmates looked on saying "I'm sure he's doing everything he can," and I was trying to claw my out of the van- slight cultural difference?) I was confident that if I was present there was no way that a single rubble would leave our pockets. I'm from Philly, a Russian border guard ain't got shit on the folks I encounter on Girard Ave.
After a long wait in line our van was lead to a private garage to be searched. My impression of our assigned guard was that he wasn't crooked, just worn down, frustrated, bored, and all those other things people feel when they're at work. This was comforting. I wasn't worried about an extortion. However, while he may not have been a badge-toting criminal, he was set to do his job. Everything had to come out of the van.
Dave hopped out to be the silent unloaded while I played guide. The guard spoke no English and I no Russian so questions, orders, and explanations were all done in pantomime. I strummed to explain the guitar case. He cracked a slim smile before ordering Dave to open it. He pulled out a bag of merch. I pulled at my T shirt and told him "promotional". He nodded that he understood. Everything went smoothly in this fashion until we got to my bag.
See, this is a very long tour, and thus, I have like 4 months of birth control with me. The guard had pawed through my shirts, shorts, undies, laughing and joking with me, but horseplay ended abruptly when he found my stash of pills. He plucked out one pack and raised his eyebrow in what I understood to be a, "gotcha!", then spoke quick, harsh words into his walkie talkie. Oh shit, seriously?
Before we left America, NPR ran a piece about the top 3 countries that imprison people without explanation, contact to their families/lawyers, or trial. China was #1, Russia was #2, and somewhere else was #3. Russia was definitely #2 though. This is all I could think about as the border guard held my Sprintec is his suspicious, terrifyingly authoritive grip. I am going to jail in Russia as a drug smuggler. Will it be a co-ed jail? Think they have vegan options for inmates?
In a well-concealed panic I pantomimed, speaking english slowly and clearly with each movement, as if somehow my diction would make the guard bi-lingual. I pointed to my uterus. "NO BAY-BIES." He stared at me blankly. I motioned toward my crotch. "GIRLIE MED-I-CINE." Nothing. I mimicked giving birth. No reaction. More slightly obscene gestures. "NO PREGNANT. U-TER-US. I AM A GIRL." and finally, when all else had failed, I pulled a tampon out of my bag, motioned toward my birth control, the tampon, and the part of my body where all my lady guts are contained, trying to tie it all together for him. My heart was pounding in my chest. A line of sweat glistened on my brow. It was, I can say confidently, a really great performance. But award winning as it may have been on a stage, it was completely lost on that guard in the Russian border garage. The birth control backup he had radioed for came in, rugged, thick, with a permanent frown on his mean face. Undaunted, I tried my "it's birth control, I'm not a smuggler" routine on him but he walked away in the middle of it with a sample of my medicine, I assume to be tested in some sort of lab.
Drug dogs come in to sniff our shit. A young and nervous guard in camo fatigues came in and started going through the same things the other guard had just gone through. The guys had gotten out of the van at this point and everyone was trying to pat the drug dog (me included), and we got yelled at. The pooch was led to my bag and I was relieved to see that they had brought an intelligent creature in to investigate my case and clear my name.
Guard #1 called me over to the van. Time to go through our backpacks. Before we had gotten to the border I took all of the money (our money and the tour money) and hidden it underneath some baby wipes in a dirty old plastic case. "There's no way they'll look there," I had assured Dave. Guard #1 pointed to the baby wipe case. I took it out, opening it voluntarily to show him it contained ass-wipes. He motioned for me to lift the wipes. Damn it. Under the wipes I exposed a very large chunk of change. This time I was the one with the poker face and he was the mime. He motioned at the money, then me. Was it my money? I shrugged a "sort of", then motioned that it was every one's money, but I was the caretaker. He looked unconvinced. I flexed like a bodybuilder, then dusted off my shoulders to show that I was the one in charge... no big deal. (Of course, this isn't really true- Dave is the tour manager, he and I make Kingdom decisions, and Johannes takes care of his band's matters.) This amused the guard. He laughed, shook his head in a "damn crazy kids" sorta way, closed the case, and set it back in my backpack.
Behind the van, the human drug investigator had come back with the results. Surprise! I was not a drug smuggler.
On the floor camo guard was going through our merch bags, taking out shirts, checking out designs.
Annoyed, I walked over to him. "What are you doing?"
He glanced up at me for a second then continued digging through our shirts. I touched his wrist.
"What are you doing?"
He pulled out one of every design, in every color, with no regard to size, and no regard to my timid interrogation. On a dirty bench he had a pile of Kingdom shirts- long sleeves, tanks, everything. I pulled up the youth size shirt. "This for you?" He stared at me. I held it up as if I was looking at him wearing it, then motioned that it was very small, and then laughed at him for taking it. He started to smile, but stopped to continue looting our merch bags.
I shifted over to Gabi, our driver. "What the fuck is he doing?"
"We told them promotional, so they want their share of free shirts."
Thankfully, that was the worst of it. (They also took 4 or 5 Dead Vows cds)
We reassembled our van, got in, and let out a collective sigh of relief. That wasn't so hard. We had been warned that this border took 6 hours to cross and we had made it in a stressful but record breaking hour and a half. We pulled out of the garage and drove past the guard station. Suckers!
Happy chatter filled van. "An hour and a half!" "Dude I bet that fat guard is taking that Kingdom shirt home to his kid." "Think they're listening to the Dead Vows CD right now?"
Another few feet on the road and we were stuck in a line very similar to the one we had just waited in.
"Hey uh.... guess what? That border was just to get out of Russia... we haven't even crossed into Ukraine yet."
Five and half hours later we set wheel in Ukraine, with only a single fabricated law infraction and 20 euro fine because of it (we were charged for not having a Swedish sticker on the van.) We finally set off for our first Ukrainian show in Cernihiv, so happy for the border to be over that we didn't care that we were dirty, or starving, or so dehydrated that we were turning from human hardcore bands into 80's claymation pop sensations, The California Raisins. This carefree attitude took over the van for a solid 10 minutes, until we got pulled over for "speeding". The cops told Gabi we had to follow them, and we drove right back to the edges of the border. Inside, they demanded a bribe. Gabi, thinking on his feet (learning a thing or two from the 5000 rubble experience), gave them Hungarian money (Forints), claiming that he was giving them 20 Euros worth (when really it was about 3) They accepted.
A long, irritating road lay ahead of us and I went to sleep to put myself out of my thirsty misery. Fuck the Russian/Ukrainian border.
A few days later we played with Have Heart in Romania. Guess where they had just come from? The Ukrainian border! After 6 hours they (as well as Shipwreck and Rise and Fall) were turned away for "having too many nationalities in van" (we had the same number when we crossed, so it was obviously a bogus charge.) Fuck the Ukrainian border!