Enterprising babushkas of Ukraine
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.