I’ve never had a horrendous experience at customs, but it’s never fun, either. I don’t sleep well at the best of times, let alone on a bus or plane, the excitement of an upcoming trip makes me sleep less well, and flights are often rudely scheduled early in the morning. That means pretty much any time I hit a border crossing, my IQ has plunged to somewhere around my shoe size. My feet are big, but not that big.
I have the kind of face that makes little old ladies want to sit next to me tell me about their grandchildren, and the kind of heart that makes me want to plug into my iPod and stick my nose in a book so little old ladies don’t sit next to me and tell me about their grandchildren. For some reason, even though I am actually a nice (though not stranger-loving), law-abiding person, it irks me that I don’t look like I could have a dangerous streak.
Tiny men with giant guns dotted the La Paz, Bolivia, airport, and all passengers were escorted individually into what looked like department store fitting rooms. My guard patted me down so half-heartedly that I could have had an actual Bolivian duct taped to my body and she wouldn’t have felt it. After that, it was time to get my bags inspected. The guard there saw my passport and said with a big smile “Oh, Canadian!” before taking a cursory peek at what was on top of my luggage and waving me through.
What I thought: “Hey, I could be a drug mule!”
What I said: “Thank you, sir.”
Despite the reputations of our respective countries, I’ve had more problems with rude Canadian border guards and more kind experiences with American ones. The one jerk of an American guard I encountered really had every reason to deny me entry into the country, but he made damn sure I was suitably grateful that he didn’t.
Over 10 years ago, I lived in a tiny French town in New Brunswick. It was an hour in any direction to get to anywhere that had a movie theatre, or decent shopping, or anything but an Irving gas station and an incredible variety of bars. One of those directions was to Caribou, Maine, which had the benefit of having the only English cinema in the vicinity. My roommate and I crossed the border frequently, sometimes for a movie, sometimes just for a break from the tiny town, and the border guards on both sides would always give us a friendly wave on through. Caribou was also the home of my boss, who invited my friends and I to dinner one weekend. It was such a habit to go back and forth that it didn’t even occur to me as I grabbed my jacket and coin purse that I was crossing a border. I forgot to bring ID.
Very likely not coincidentally, the one time it was more than just the two of us, the one time we had men in the car with us, one of whom was black, we were stopped at the border, told to get out, our car was searched, and the guys were patted down. At that moment, I realized that I’d forgotten my ID, and that dinner was looking doubtful.
When I explained, the guard quizzed me ferociously about what we were doing in the US, saw that between us we had just about enough money to fund a jujube smuggling ring, and eventually decided to let me in, saying: “You should be grateful – if you were a guy, I wouldn’t let you go.” It was an idiot thing to forget my ID, and I’d like to think that in a post-9/11 world, I wouldn’t have (I’d also like to think he wouldn’t have let me in). Still …
What I thought: “Screw you. Don’t do me any favours just because I’m a woman.”
What I said: “Thank you so much, sir.”
In this post-9/11 world, my innocent-looking face hasn’t help much with humourless and stern border guards, and my tales of woe come mostly from my own country. Wait, aren’t we supposed to be the nice ones?
I’d been on a plane all day, then hopped a Greyhound from Seattle to Vancouver, arriving at the border bleary-eyed at about 2 a.m., when apparently the most disgruntled guards are on duty. They were quizzing the Korean students who were on the bus, shouting their questions louder and louder instead of rephrasing in simpler language, guided by that age-old wisdom that everyone speaks English, but foreigners are deaf. When it was my turn, the guard asked what my occupation was. I told him the name of the large non-profit organization I worked for at the time. He snarled: “I didn’t ask where you worked, I asked what you did.” I meekly told him I was in communications. “What’s that?” he snarled again.
What I thought: “Unless you think it’s code for ‘drug runner,’ maybe you could be a little nicer.”
What I said: “It’s like public relations.”
What I thought: “You could use some training in that particular field, by the way.”
The security agent opened my carry-on and found my open bottle of water.
“Prove its contents,” she barked.
I stared blankly at her, images of Bunsen burners and chemical equations running through my head.
What I thought: “Huh?”
What I said: “Huh?”
“Prove its contents,” she repeated.
How on earth do I prove it’s water and not vodka, I wondered, casting my memory back to high school chemistry and cursing the useless knowledge I gained there. My eyes began to search wildly for a fellow passenger who might be able to produce a Bunsen burner from their carry-on, when I spotted the other guard staring at me with a twinkle in her eye and miming drinking from a bottle. I gratefully took a swig of the water, finally understanding that the guards didn’t care if it was water or vodka, as long as it was potable.
See, it works for English speakers too – if someone doesn’t understand what the hell you’re talking about, rephrase, don’t repeat.