Thursday, 11 March 2010

America and the Gun Case

All told I'd been either inside an aircraft, or a departure lounge from 1pm Monday to 5pm Tuesday so i was not in the best of spirits. At times like this its not a good idea to start answering back to a US Customs official but i couildn't help it.

A few years ago I was doing some wildlife conservation work in an African country which shall remain nameless which had the authorities found out about could have resulted in a whole lot of trouble. Taking advice from a contact there, he advised that I should pack my belongings in anything that looked like a gun case, since looking like a professional hunter would elicit the least amount of suspicion. I duly procured a solid square travel case with locks and metal bindings, and was merrilly waved through at customs. So I dug it out again on this trip, mostly because it would ensure that all my camera equipment would be lkess likley to get squashed. No-one batted an eyelid in the Southern Hemisphere, but on arrival at JFK it was a whole diffent story.



"Whats with the case?" said the customs official.

"Sorry?" I said, completely failing to comprehend

"The case. Whats with the case?" Pointing at it, snatching my passport away,and refusing to maintaining eye contact all at the same time.

Now call me a pedant, but how are you suposed to answer a question like this? If I was in a restaurant, i might ask the waiter "What's with the steak and kidney pie?" and he might reply along the lines that it was with cracked potatoes, mustard gravy and with an underlay of distressed morels. I might then have to ask him again what that was but you get the idea.

So how to answer this. I did consider "Well with the case today we have another case, a black Samsonite jobbie, in which are my clothes, a Camel shoulder bag of which i am very fond and a baggage trolley, if we're being completist."

I decided against this. I think I just went to something like "errr...."

He tried a different tack. It didn't help.

"Did you register this on departure?"

"Departure? From where? Zimbabwe? Why would I need to register it?"

It was only then that I realised he must be thinking it's a gun case. this despite the fact that the label on the front said "Orient Express suitcases - For the discerning traveller" rather than "Large Elephant Gun".

His final throw of the dice...

"What's inside the case?"

Hallelujah. Praise be. The guy has asked a question I can answer.

"Oh its just camera equipment. I've been in Africa taking photos for the charity I work for."

For the first time the guy fixed his friosty eyes upon me

"So why didn't you tell me that in the first place?"

As the words came out of my mouth it did strike me that they perhaps were not the most conciliatory ones I might have uttered. But I said them anyway.

"I didn't thnk it appropriate to volunteer information to a question I was not asked."

"You're not from here, are you?" Said the customs official, and for a moment I saw a world wearyness in his eyes before he handed my passport back seemingly with considerable relief and said simply. "Go."

When I got to Boston, I found that the locks on my case had been cut off, and inside was a pre-printed note from Homleland Security. Translated from its original it basically says "Hi there. We broke into your case because were'd allowed to and had a good rummage round! Too bad about your locks, but just make sure you know, we're not liable. If you want to tips on packing your bag better (because yours was inept) then visit www.tsa.org.

I'm glad I'm going home this evening. Its been a very long trip.

5 comments:

KD said...

Sorry for your troubles in the US. I'm sure they see and hear all kinds of stories and security has been heightened for a long while. Hopefully everyone else will be nicer.

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