Thursday, 15 November 2012

From Latvia with love

On New Years Eve 2005, whilst under the influence of a cocktail of festive drinks, I stared at myself in the mirror and vowed to travel to at least one foreign country every month, for the period of the next twelve months. When I am drunk, I can often be found conversing with myself in the mirror, although this was the first time that I had made a resolution of such nature. The next day, I flew to Norway.

We're privileged in England. Totally blessed to have the diversity of Continental Europe, right there on our metaphorical doorstep. In the time that it would take an American or Australian to cross their state, province or territory, I could have flown anywhere in Europe. And this is the thought that was going through my mind, as I stared at my own reflection, club music booming away in the background, on that wonderful New Years Eve. 

Maybe I would spend February living la vida loca at the carnival in the Canary Islands, March watching the Pope giving his Easter speech at the Vatican, April celebrating Queen's day in Holland ...... and so on and so forth. The possibilities are endless, and all it takes is a good imagination and a bit of money to make your dreams become reality.

By the time January 2006 had ended, I had already made a second jaunt to foreign pastures. This time to Latvia, a place that I had been to a number of times already, and a place that I would see a further six times over the course of the next few years. It was in Latvia that I conceived the idea of cigarette smuggling. A master stroke which would finance my trips abroad, at the rate of at least one a month for the next two years.

The previous year I had met a Latvian lady whilst on a side trip from a stag night out in Lithuania. I decided to go back to Riga (Latvia) in January to visit her. At £22 for a return flight from Liverpool to Riga, it would be the behaviour of a fool not to, right? It was on this trip that I noticed that a carton of 200 Marlboro light cigarettes retailed at 5 Lat (£5). The same cigarettes would cost at least £48 in England - the ticking of my brain could, at this point be heard resonating around the supermarket. Deep inside the internal mechanisms of my mind, a plan was hatching.

My first smuggling mission was a tentative toe in the choppy waters of tax evasion. There was no forward planning, no secret compartments and no real thought process at all. It was a case of purchasing as many boxes as I could fit in my bag and chancing it at customs and excise. Of course, my anus was twitching like a 12 year old girl on Jimmy Saville's knee, but nothing a few drinks didn't cure. My mission, although only small scale, was a rip roaring success. At either £25 or £30 a carton the profit margin was high.

February saw me in Holland visiting friends that I made when I lived there for 5 years between 1996 and 2001, and then later on that month it was back to Latvia to attempt a full scale ciggie mission. I flew to a snow covered Riga on a Thursday evening, with an empty rucksack and returned to Liverpool on Sunday evening with a rucksack containing 35 cartons of Marlboro lights (that's 7000 cigarettes). My outlay was £175, my return over a thousand pounds. The smuggler in me had been awoken.

With full intentions of getting some winter sun in March, I travelled to Southern Europe and Morocco. Flying to Seville for a few days, along with my friends I got a bus to the coast and took a ferry across to Morocco for a few hours and then on to Gibraltar. This trip warrants a story of its own, and saw me upping the ante in my illicit smuggling practices.

My travel funds depleted it was back to Latvia in April for my 37th birthday and to fill my bags with 37 cartons of cigarettes, to celebrate this fact. My smuggling confidence was increasing with every trip, but come my Sunday night return the tension was high, as I passed through customs undetected. If I could have bottled my adrenalin I would have been able to increase my profit margin tenfold.

I don't wish to bore you with my tales of free travel, each trip warrants it's own story anyway. But over the course of the next two years, I was to visit Greece, Portugal, Tunisia, Germany, Hungary, Belgium, Finland, Poland, France, Spain, Holland, Lithuania, Ireland and Morocco. Most of the places I visited at least twice, and this was all funded by a further 6 trips to Latvia

You may be wondering how I managed to find the time to make so many trips. Here is the second piece of genius. You see, I worked for a logistics company, supposedly using my Dutch language skills to liaise with offices across Europe to get computer parts to breakdowns as fast as possible. As this was a 24 hr operation, we were given split shifts, including weekends. If you worked the early shift on the weekend, you would be given Monday and Tuesday off in lieu. If you worked the late shift the following weekend, you would be given Thursday and Friday off in advance of the weekend that you were about to work. On top of this we were also given 30 days a year to take when we wanted. It did not take a genius to work out that if I did two consecutive weekends, I could use one of my annual holiday days to also take the Wednesday off. This gave me a 5 day slot of time during the week to go gallivanting around Europe and beyond.

My trips were made even easier by the fact that I worked on a small team and we could easily swap and change our dates as we needed. At weekends we were lucky if we got one order, which meant I could spent more than 15 hours researching where I wanted to go next. My colleagues thought that I was crazy to sacrifice my weekends for work. I thought that they were crazy for not realising their potential to travel. Needless to say, all our needs were satisfied. It was my colleagues in fact that made up most of my customers. And they usually paid me up front.

Why did I not caught? You may ask. Indeed, this is a question that I asked myself on many an occasion. But like anything else, you do it once and get away with it and before you know you feel invincible. I am sure Jeffrey Dahmer started off with much the same thoughts. I smuggled cigarettes for two years and never got caught, he ate male body parts for thirteen years and eventually got caught. That's the way the cookie crumbles.

Why did I quit while the going was good? This is a story in itself, which I'll save for a rainy day.

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