When Georgia at GingerBeirut invited us Lonely Planet bloggers to submit a rubber stamp post to the fourth Blogsherpa carnival, I took a while deciding which bureaucratic experience to share. I’ve had a few memorable ones, but which one to choose? Crossing into that peculiar non-state Transdniestr (surprisingly easy)? Being refused entry into Guinea Bissau for not holding a European Union passport? (I had to hitchhike back to the Gambia on my own).
In the end, I decided to go way back – to a time when Europe was a divided continent and the Berlin Wall its most evocative symbol. We were three kids on a road trip and the prospect of visiting East Berlin was very exciting.
Travelling to Berlin from Hamburg, required passing through the somewhat ironically named German Democratic Republic (DDR in German). Crossing the West-East border, we were excited to be behind the Iron Curtain for the first time. Our imaginations were in high drive; we “saw” Stasi agents lurking in the fields along the road. Combine harvesters were tanks, we were certain (hey, we were city kids). Power lines were high tech spying equipment.
But that got old. After a couple of hours, we were slightly disappointed with the ordinariness of it all. On the surface, Eastern Europe was rather like Western Europe.
In Berlin, we again crossed the border. This time at Checkpoint Charlie. Today a museum, 20 years ago it was perhaps the most infamous symbol of the Cold War, of the divided city.
Entering DDR required changing money. 25 West Mark (about 20 USD), exchanged to East Mark, at the highly inflated rate of 1:1. Trouble was, it was all but impossible to spend 25 Mark on a day-jaunt to East Berlin. After a solid meal and heaps of beer, there was still plenty left. Shops were filled with basic food stuffs: pickles, flour, sugar, long-life milk; nothing that would make a good souvenir. The light-weight aluminium coins were in themselves the best souvenir, we decided. That presented another challenge: taking East Mark out of the GDR was illegal. We had of course heard horror stories of people who had attempted this and been caught by the East German border police, with dire consequences.
Furthermore, East Mark could not be exchanged back to West Mark. At the East German border post, we had to hand it over. But there was a choice: either simply forfeit the money – or get a receipt and collect it if we returned within a year. Of course, we would then have to exchange another 25 mark to enter anew. Financially, it was a no-win situation.
We decided to risk smuggling out the money. I’m almost sad to report nothing happened. No gun to temple, no strip search. I still have a few East Marks. Somewhere.
Read more cool rubber stamp stories at Lonely Planet Blog Carnival #4, hosted by Georgia at GingerBeirut.com.