Crossing Borders 3: Seven Time Zones, No Airplanes

Third in a three-part series of border crossing adventures

Having crossed the Atlantic four times, most memorably in 2012 with a new passport, I have a dream to cross the Pacific Ocean by ship someday.

Another wish was to go from the USA to Kazakhstan, halfway around the world, without boarding a plane. Though I didn’t quite make it, I did cross seven time zones before setting foot in an airport. While a friend was lamenting her upcoming 17-hour flight, I was happily anticipating my 29-day journey.

Empty passports in hand, my wife and I began by leaving on a midnight train to Florida, hopping on the Silver Star on a warm May South Carolina evening. No one weighed or checked our luggage. No one frisked us.

People complain about rail travel, especially Amtrak, but we were pleasantly rocked to sleep in a roomy recliner, followed by one of my favorite travel experiences, breakfast in a railroad dining car (French toast and maple syrup – yum!). Backing into Tampa station in a giant Y-shaped turnaround, we dropped off passengers and continued south through Florida’s swampy flatlands to the water city of Ft. Lauderdale.

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The next dawn found us heading to Holland America’s ship Noordam, our home for the next 17 days. Though airplanes have names, people rarely notice them. Ship names, however, have distinct personalities and become etched in our minds. Dockside, we showed our blank passports and climbed aboard.

Blessed with beautiful weather, we enjoyed calm seas, sunny days and unique ports of call such as Ponta Delgada (the Azores), Lisbon, Cadiz, Malaga and Barcelona. A special highlight was enjoying an Italian dinner at sunset while sailing through the narrow strait separating the islands of Corsica and Sardinia—not something usually experienced on a red-eye flight!

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Barcelona’s Parc Guell

Most modern travelers cross borders without realizing it. We fly over them while sleeping. Then we land in the world’s great cities and step off a plane into the beating heart of a new country. Sometimes, we cross them by rail or ferryboat. Rarely do we cross these ragged edges on foot.

Arriving in Civitavecchia, near Rome, we jumped ship and walked into Italy, crossing an invisible border without even showing our passports. We had traveled 19 days and still had no entry stamps. After sampling pasta cooked in a flamed cheese wheel, we headed north by high-speed train and dashed through a tunnel across another border into Austria. Still no passport checks.

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My wife loves the film Sound of Music, so we played the parts of Rolfe and Liesl, singing our way around Salzburg to the Do Re Mi song. Next up on our itinerary was the Railjet, a pleasant daylight train that whisked us farther eastward to Budapest, Hungary. We still hadn’t boarded a plane since leaving our little house in Lexington, South Carolina.

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“I am sixteen, going on seventeen…”

We had planned to continue our overland journey to Kiev and beyond, but transit visa and train ticket costs finally stopped us in our tracks (my eldest foster daughter advised, “Pa, I wouldn’t ride five days from Kiev to Karaganda!”). After enjoying the “Paris of the East,” we headed to Budapest airport for our first flight. It was here, seven time zones and seven international borders later, that our passports were finally checked.

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The Blue Danube winding through Budapest

“When did you enter Hungary?” said the airport agent, flipping through our still shiny and completely blank passports.

“Two days ago,” I replied.

“How did you get here?” she continued investigating.

“On a train from Austria.”

“How did you enter Austria?”

“On a train from Italy.”

“How did you enter Italy?”

“By ship from America.”

This was obviously so uncommon a story it had to be original. Unlike the immigration official in Crossing Borders 1, she didn’t ask to see my collection of used tickets. Shaking her head, she gave me my first passport stamp and waved me through.

Across the border.

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