Worst travel mistakes of the 2000′s: Diplomatic Dipsticks


As we take time to count our travel sins of the past decade, I get all teary-eyed and indecisive. Where to begin? Couldn’t we just say “Iraq” and be done with it? And are we including food mistakes? ‘Cuz I got some real doozies: how about shrimp ceviche from a quaint Mexican beach cafe or fresh cut watermelon in India? Uh, those would be travel mistakes, no? But like, since we’re trying to refrain from the scatological (are we?), I choose to relate the following story of which I may or may not have played a small cameo role:

Once upon a time, there were two young men working in Brussels, preparing to embark on a business trip to poor, struggling, deprived Eastern Europe. Filled with kindness and goodwill, the two decided they would add a charitable purpose to their journey by driving across Europe in their vehicle–a beige, 1975 Mercedes with a good 250,000 km under her belt–and filling it with used office computers to give away to the lesser half of the digital divide.

in order to ease their way through the red tape of certain notorious Eastern European countries, the boss of the young men lent them a pair of expired diplomatic license plates, which (in Euro-capital Brussels) tends to grant you permission to do whatever you want: park on the sidewalk, speed a little bit, drive like a maniac, etc. So, the young men screwed on the two red license plates and set off on their grand cross-European adventure.

Feeling confident with their special diplomatic status, the young men parked in the city center of lovely Budapest for a break. They wandered about for hours sightseeing and upon returning, discovered not one, but TWO parking tickets fluttering from the car’s windshield wiper. As they wrung their hands with worry for this small misfortune, a Hungarian policeman approached them, pointing out the fresh car ticket and asking for additional information. Immediately after that, a second Hungarian policeman approached from the rear, pointing to the second parking ticket.The young men stood back and watched with awe as the two Hungarian policemen began to argue with each other. Both policeman had issued parking tickets, both wanted glory for punishing the foreign offenders and yet, upon closer look, they had in fact issued tickets to two different cars. The pair of diplomatic license plates were actually different number plates gleaned from different cars, and each cop had recorded only one of the numbers on the ticket. It was also soon revealed that both were expired plates. The young men could not respond to the policemen’s inquiry as to the actual registration number for their car. This led to the car getting towed to the outskirts of Budapest and a thorough search being conducted during which time, a dozen computers were found stashed in the backseat and trunk of the car.

To make a long story short, it was something of an international incident that required some top-level EU intervention to resolve. Anyone who traveled in Central and Eastern Europe in the early 2000s will remember the huge stolen car rackets that pervaded and made it nigh impossible to rent a car. After this little glitch, it was a miracle that the car was eventually released back to the young men and they were able to drive back to Brussels.

And so the moral of the story is: When in Budapest, make sure your back matches your front. Always.