En­ter­pris­ing babushkas of Ukraine

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - PETER O’DON­NELL

IT was 2008 and I had just taken my seat on the bus from Lviv in west­ern Ukraine to Prze­mysl in Poland when the el­derly women in the seat be­hind of­fered me a cig­a­rette. Well, to be more ac­cu­rate they of­fered me two car­tons of cig­a­rettes. To say I didn’t smoke didn’t seem equal to the of­fer and any­way I couldn’t speak their lan­guage. A shake of the head had to suf­fice.

Fur­ther down the bus, a man popped un­der a seat. He was ei­ther a heavy smoker or had other plans for those car­tons of cig­a­rettes. It proved to be the lat­ter. He was un­screw­ing the in­ner lining of the bus wall, fill­ing the cav­ity with parcels wrapped in black plas­tic and then re­plac­ing it. All soon be­came clear — he was the cap­tain of a troupe of smug­gling babushkas.

As we trav­elled west, new pas­sen­gers joined, mostly el­derly women and young boys. Each car­ried an overnight bag packed with cig­a­rettes, which they stowed in panty­hose and pushed into the ven­ti­la­tion vents and wall cav­i­ties above the over­head lock­ers.

On the Ukrainian side of the bor­der, a sol­dier boarded the bus, paced slowly along the aisle, then got off. The cap­tain mopped his brow. So far, so good.

Soon we were at pass­port con­trol and it was my turn to worry. I stood in front of the of­fi­cial’s desk so long I had to put down my day­pack. He punched the keys on his com­puter again and again and then wanted “more doc­u­ments, more pho­tos”. Was bribery in the air? I stood very straight and met his eye. “Sir, you have my pass­port, what more could you want?” I asked. It worked.

As the bus en­tered Poland a new tac­tic came into play. The sound was deaf­en­ing as sticky tape was un­wound on an industrial scale to tape the con­tra­band to bod­ies. Again I de­clined of­fers to be in­volved. The grand­sons were along be­cause their loose shorts and track­suits pro­vided per­fect cover. The babushkas? Well, I couldn’t look too closely but fig­ures took on a more am­ple pro­por­tion and they wad­dled rather than walked to the cus­toms hall.

The bus got a cur­sory once over. My lug­gage was sin­gled out for a thor­ough search. Noth­ing was found. We moved on to gen­eral de­light. The cap­tain beamed as the in­te­rior wall was dis­man­tled to re­trieve the hid­den trea­sure. Waist lines re­turned to nor­mal. The babushkas had taken Prze­mysl. The Rus­sian cap­ture of the great Aus­trian fortress there in World War I couldn’t have been bet­ter ex­e­cuted.

I spent the night nearby in the Pol­ish town of Zamosc where I con­tem­plated the twi­light fall­ing on the spa­cious Re­nais­sance plaza. But it was the en­ter­pris­ing babushkas I kept think­ing of and their in­ge­nu­ity in ex­ploit­ing the high du­ties on Pol­ish cig­a­rettes. When­ever I saw a passer-by light up, I won­dered if the fag was one of theirs.

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