He looks at me wild-eyed as he realizes it’s a foreign one.
He stares back at my passport, looks at me once more and then runs away - with my passport.
It’s midnight. I’m on a train, somewhere between the Ukraine and Russian borders. It's June 1994.
Ten minutes earlier
The sound of the immigration officer echoes along the aisle as he moves through each compartment, stamping passports.
As he arrives at my cabin, a fellow traveller hands over his passport; it’s a Russian one and it’s red. Stamp.
The officer’s face transforms from confusion to horror when I surrender my passport for inspection. Mine’s blue; it’s a foreign one.
“Australian,” I explain. “My transit visa’s in there.”
Unfortunately, he speaks no English and I've got no idea what he's asking me in Russian, but I get the feeling he's not expecting any foreigners on the train.
There's an uneasy pause as he stares blankly at my passport again.
“I’m going to Bucharest,” I explain.
Open the damn passport and stamp the transit visa. I’m just passing through, for goodness sake!
Alarmed, I watch the immigration officer’s bulky figure disappear down the aisle, clutching my Australian passport containing several other crucial tourist visas.
Unthinkable scenarios swirl through my mind:
Should I run after him into no man’s land and risk being pounced on by vicious dogs?
What if he doesn’t come back with my passport?
What if I’m hauled away by armed guards because I should be flying, instead of taking the train across Eastern Europe?
Do I look suspicious at all? What would James Bond do in this situation?
It's the first – and only – time I’ve been separated from my passport.
I casually open my travel guide and glance at the number of the nearest Australian embassy. There are no suggested tips on how to handle passport kidnapping by border security.
I reluctantly decide to wait, nervously counting those long, drawn-out minutes. There really isn't anything I can do under the circumstances. I pat my money belt, knowing I've got a Greek passport as backup.
At least the train is still stationary.
“So, you’re a journalist?” the formidable young Russian military officer asks in perfect English.
“Err… ye-e-e-e-s,” I respond cautiously, noting that he’s returned with my passport.
Is this a trick question? How can he possibly know that?
After all, I wrote my occupation as English teacher on all my visa applications, from China to Russia, Romania and Bulgaria. There was no written evidence that I was a journalist – except maybe on my initial Japanese working holiday visa (and that was two years earlier).
“I’m … on holidays … and … just passing through.”
“Well, enjoy your holiday,’’ the officer says, and hands back my passport, with my transit visa stamped accordingly. “I’m sorry for the delay.”
Have you ever had your passport kidnapped?
Have you ever been detained at the border for any reason?