Once at the Milan airport, a group of armed soldiers waved Jamey and me over as we were about to exit the immigration area. They spent a minute rifling through our bags until one of them pulled a Ziploc full of white powder from my roller bag and held it high, maybe like Tony Montana did in Scarface.
“It’s Tide-Plus-A-Touch-of-Downy-Powder-Laundry-Detergent!” I blurted out.
But they didn’t speak English, so I resorted to using my extensive mime skills–pouring imaginary detergent into a washer, turning the dial, mimicking an agitator, reenacting the spin cycle, and so on.
By then the soldier had opened the Ziploc and smelled the distinctive April fresh scent.
Since no one had yet invented cocaine laced with the smell of springtime, I’m guessing he realized I was simply a traveler with good hygiene practices, and he sent us on our way. But I’ve used Tide liquid ever since.
Encountering authorities is bad enough in my own home country, but it’s super scary having to deal with this in another country with another language and often some wonky laws (or absence thereof). I’m no dummy—I watch “Locked Up Abroad” on the National Geographic Channel, and know for certain I don’t ever want to be in a Pakistani prison. That’s why I don’t even jaywalk or litter or sneeze without covering my mouth when I’m in foreign locales. But I have had my moments…
One afternoon when I was a high school exchange student in Peru, I set off my own to do a little souvenir shopping at the central market. This was one of those noisy, colorful, odiferous, maze-like markets full of exotic produce and dried beans and unrefrigerated meat and live guinea pigs (don’t ask) and clothes and knickknacks galore. I bought a few things, including a bouquet of flowers to take back to my host mother.
On my walk back home I cut through the main plaza which seemed unusually busy with crowds of people. “Another festival?” I wondered to myself. They held a lot of festivals in this country. But unless there was a festival that involved protesting students throwing stones through the windows of the university, and military helicopters hovering overhead, and swarms of soldiers surrounding the plaza (all which happened within seconds of my arrival), I was most definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time. One of the soldiers eyed me suspiciously as I made my way out of the main square, but I think in his estimation, a skinny, 16-year-old gringo holding a spray of powder pink carnations and lemon yellow Gerbera daisies didn’t pose much of a threat to the safety and security of Trujillo, Peru. He let me pass and I sprinted all the way home, thrilled that I wasn’t put in the clinker with the stone throwers.
Another time, during a backpacking trip through Europe in college, my friends and I arrived in the Athens airport and saw a poster advertising cheap flights to Egypt. We didn’t hesitate a minute, immediately dashing over to the EgyptAir ticket counter. Three hours later we were landing at the Cairo airport, where I envisioned us deplaning and seeing the pyramids in the distance and camels carrying turbaned riders and a King Tut impersonator (I had an active imagination).
Instead, we walked down the plane stairs into a Soul Train-style line of soldiers holding rifles with very long bayonets attached. Next, we were herded into the immigration room to show our Egyptian visas which, oops, we forgot to get before we left Greece. So we were hauled off to a room where an official looking immigration guy with a distractingly large mustache eyed our passports, page by page, without saying a word.
After a few moments, he looked up and said, “Do you know Cincinnati?” Now this was probably the last sentence in the world I expected an immigration official to mutter at this point. I was expecting more like, “Do you mind trying on this prison uniform to check your size?” or “Have you ever heard of waterboarding?” So the Cincinnati question was good.
“Yes, of course!” we answered enthusiastically. “Great city!”
“My brother lives there,” he explained proudly. Fortunately I had been to Cincinnati on a quick weekend trip a year before to see a Reds game, so I tried to recall everything possible about this city. I told him that it was the chili capital of the world, but their chili was weird because it was poured over spaghetti. I think he actually smiled for the first time (I think, because his massive moustache hid the lower portion of his face), so I kept the Cincinnati trivia flowing (e.g. Doris Day was born there, it was called the Paris of America in the 1800s, etc.).
It seemed to do the trick because he began to joke with us, waived the mandatory rule about changing $150 into Egyptian pounds, and gave us a visa stamp on the spot. Whew! Now on to find that Tut impersonator!
On another occasion, we were at the airport departing Dakar, Senegal in West Africa after an adventurous trip to the nearby Cape Verde islands. My three travel mates, including Jamey, zipped through the immigration line ahead of me and were out of my sight. I slipped my passport into the opening of the glass window of the immigration officer. He tried scanning my passport numerous times and, for whatever reason, the chip was not scanning.
I could tell he was growing frustrated with each swipe. Now, instead of swiping
continuously with the same negative results, he could have simply typed in the nine digits and been done with it. But no, this very high strung, on edge immigration officer in army fatigues kept swiping, over and over, his blood pressure rising by the second.
“YOU NO GO! YOU NO GO!” he screamed at me with eyes bulging, as everyone around took a step back from me.
Of course my travel companions were probably already at the gate, and everyone around me now was Senegalese and thinking I was a member of a drug cartel. My minimal French was not going to get me out of this one.
So, as I learned years earlier, when facing a crime, use theatrical mime. So I pointed to
his computer, then my passport, then mimicked someone typing. However, this seemed to enrage him even more, although I wasn’t sure if it was because (1) he understood my professional level performance and didn’t like people telling him what to do, or (2) he just didn’t understand it and was angry at himself for not taking that mime class at school, or (3) he just wasn’t a mime fan (many people aren’t, I hear).
Finally, the immigration officer in the next booth intervened, took my passport, and scanned it at his window—where it worked just fine. As I hightailed it out of there, angry officer was still seething and saying many loud things in French that I know weren’t happy thoughts.
More recently, we traveled to Uzbekistan to journey along the old Silk Road route. On one in-country flight we were dropped off by a driver at the local airport at 4:30 AM. First, we waited in a slow moving line outside of the airport where the police checked our passports. Then we trudged through a parking lot to the front of the airport where another line slowly snaked inside where they were screening bags just inside the door. As we waited, groups of locals kept butting in front of us, so the line barely budged.
Once inside, we waited in another “line” (it was actually what we commonly refer to in America as a “mob”) to get our tickets. Again, many local folks were weaving in front of us, so I finally waded through the crowd and got to the counter where I secured our tickets. I was a little sweaty at this point, and nervous that we would miss our flight.
Lo and behold there was yet another “line” to get into the security area. There were no officials herding this crowd, no rope barriers, no stanchions—just a mass of people trying to enter a single door. As Westerners commonly do, we went to the end of the mob and patiently waited while local after local cut to the front and elbowed their way into the door. We were going nowhere fast, and our flight time was getting closer.
I felt my anger growing, much like that Senegalese immigration officer (he would have handled this crowd, I’m sure, but his head would have probably exploded). So I took action. I formed a human barrier using my body and roller bag, and a German guy joined in. This temporarily stooped the line cutters, though they were none too happy. They stood three inches from my face, staring right at me, then began laughing and saying (most likely) nasty things about me in Uzbek (it’s not the most attractive-sounding language anyway, and it sounded worse coming from these bullies.
We finally made it through the door. As we were waiting in line for the single x-ray screening machine to scan our bags, I told my friend to pose while I took her photo with my iPhone, carefully making sure I got the line cutters in the background so I had visuals for what I knew would make a good travel story. But they caught me red-handed, and knew they had been in the shot. And they started yelling.
We hurried through the scanning area and just as I was looking for a spot to hide, an airport official (also with a huge mustache) grabbed my shoulder. The line cutters were screaming and yelling at him while pointing at me, and he looked none too thrilled. I checked his hands to see if he had a taser or billy club, but so far, so good.
He explained in broken English that the line cutters were upset I took their picture. I tried to explain I was just taking a picture of my friend, but he wasn’t buying it. He asked me to show the pictures on my phone, and then said sternly, “DELETE THEM.” He made me delete them as he watched, and I tried to do so very cooly so he wouldn’t notice my hands shaking.
After that, the line cutters were smirking and laughing as we walked away to our gate.
So maybe I pressed “restore deleted photos” a short time after that. But for sure I didn’t have to join a Uzbek chain gang.