“Mr. Rodgers, please empty your pockets and contents of your bags onto this table.”
I watched as the armed US Customs officer unceremoniously started yanking things out of my daybag in front of me.
The groggy effects of my trans-global flight quickly wore off when I found myself spread eagle with a man patting me down like I was a criminal. While he did that, his associate was flipping through pictures on my SLR camera. My passport had already been confiscated as well as my boarding pass for my connecting flight home to Kentucky.
“Sir, can you please type in your password?” One of the officers spun my laptop around to me. It had been booted without my permission. Beside me one of the men was swapping flash cards out of my camera and pouring over the pictures.
I had done nothing wrong and yet I was watching my privacy evaporate very quickly as pictures of my friends were scrutinized in front of me.
My wallet was emptied and even the picture of my niece and nephew that I carry was examined. I typed in the password and when Linux finished booting (I don’t run Microsoft) the officer gave me a dumbfounded look as if to ask “what the hell is this?” I tried not to laugh at his helpless expression when a second password prompt for X-windows came up.
It probably didn’t help my cause that the book I read on the plane and now laying prominently on the stainless steel table was “Hackers” by Steven Levy.
Rather than learn a new operating system on the spot he chose just to ask me if I had any pornography on my hard disk. I answered of course not and told him that it was highly illegal in the Muslim countries I had just come from. I had no idea it was illegal in the US as well?
“What takes you to so many countries, Mr. Rodgers? Did you work while you were there?”
I stuttered out that I had lost my job and been living out of savings – not entirely true but this probably wasn’t the time or place to go into the nuances of vagabonding.
And so for the third time in 5 months, I found myself somehow in hot water in an airport. Maybe I SHOULD start smuggling things, I would probably get less attention! I had been in my home country for less than 30 minutes and rather than a hero’s welcome for doing dangerous things abroad and living to tell the tale, I was treated guilty until proven innocent.
Unbelievable. Not what one is expecting after a full 24 hours of travel to the country where I was born.
Am I giving off some kind of Howard Marks air that attracts uniformed buffoons? I don’t even want to think about what is going to happen once I get a Colombia stamp on my passport next month!
It all started as I got into line to get stamped back into the US. I did as I always do and scanned the long queues for the older black gentleman that twice now has recognized me and said “welcome home buddy” as he stamped me in with an inky thump and my heart swelled with pride. Yes, I travel enough to recognize the border officials in Atlanta now!
The nice guy was nowhere to be found and I was put into a line with a twitchy young officer that nearly gasped out loud when he flipped through my passport trying to decipher the stamps. He would alternate between looking at me suspiciously and asking stupid questions like “Did you know they have quite a drug trade in Thailand?” Well, yes sir I did, they have one in California too.
He turned my passport to me with a finger on it and asked what one particular stamp was from 2006. I told him it was a permit to enter the Sinai peninsula in Egypt (it said “Sinai” in English below the Arabic).
What I wanted to tell him was that I learned in 9th grade geography that Sinai was part of Egypt and he, it pertaining directly to his job, should have known that.
He stamped me in anyway and thrust the passport rudely in my direction. I noticed that he wrote “ROVER” in capital letters on my US Customs form. Interesting. Normally I would have taken that as a compliment, and the words to my favorite Irish song Wild Rover came to mind, but just like I learned in the army, you never want to stand out from a crowd.
Sure enough, as I handed my customs card and boarding pass to a man at the next checkpoint, he saw the marking and I was conspicuously pulled out of line to be questioned and searched. I caught the eyes of a guy my age still in the line behind me and his expression said it all….. “Dude, you’re screwed!”
Here we go again.
Keep in mind that I was dressed normal, am a natural born US citizen, and have no record of any kind (the smart kids don’t get caught). In a nutshell, I was being treated suspiciously because of the amount of travel that I have done now. I was literally being treated differently because of the number of stamps in my passport, that is why they had flagged me in the first place.
No wonder we get a bad reputation abroad for not traveling as much as other nationalities do. What a mindset. Perhaps to become a border official you should be required to have at least traveled or lived abroad once in your lifetime? Not in America.
After thirty minutes of searching and literally making copies of my thumbdrive (full of personal documents) which I use to backup my laptop – they let me go. I had to run to make my connecting flight home. As I sat on the plane, the anger swelled up inside and it felt as if my rights had been violated. They cannot search your car or home without a warrant, but apparently that does not apply to data on a disk.
To be honest, I feel quite jaded and unpatriotic right about now and wouldn’t hesitate to relocate to a friendlier country tomorrow. Sure, they all have their problems, but damn – I was treated better in China, Laos, Egypt, Indonesia – places notorious for corruption and bureaucracy.
Even after taking an oath and carrying a gun 6 years for Uncle Sam, I find myself having to search pretty deep to muster up some love for this government.
So the lesson to be learned here from all my ranting is……never, ever travel next to me. 🙂
I think next time I’ll just fly into Mexico and swim across the Rio like everyone else – its a lot less trouble!