“What you got in there?”
“Candy?” I said, trying to think of something his dog might be interested in.
“Oh, you’ve got more than that.” The officer’s tone had that confidence of an adult speaking to a child who didn’t know how horrible they are at lying. It made sense because his drug-sniffing dog had just rubbed its head all over my backpack.
“No, I don’t.” My tone was that of a child that was confused about the question.
He was an unaffecting man: light hair, blue eyes, shining ivory skin. His voice was light and high, unlike the power-hungry-and-bored types I’m used to with cops and airport security. I handed him my passport and customs papers. He ran through the basic questions.
“Where’ve you been?”
“Bogota, Colombia.” I’m screwed.
“What’re you doing traveling through Colombia alone?”
“I was with two of my childhood friends,” I stated, puffing my chest.
“You stay in hostels? Or hotels? Or with friends?”
“Hostels,” which I thought was pretty obvious what with my Australian outback hat and my cargo pants that unzip at the leg to turn into shorts.
“Use a log of drugs?”
“Any in the bag?”
“People smoking around you lately? Maybe left a scent on your clothes?”
“In the last year, yeah.”
A second drug-sniffing cop dog, followed by a different officer, rubbed his head against my backpack. My mind wandered while my lips answered the white bread cop’s questions automatically. I look so guilty. That’s two dogs. It’s not a fluke any more. I don’t have any drugs… do I? How hippie do I look right now? My hair’s pretty short, that’s good. I did get drunk last night. Just a little drunk. Did I do any drugs too? No. Definitely no. When did I last get high…? Can’t remember. Not this year. Have I had any drugs in my bag lately? No…
“What else is in the bag?”
I ran down the list for him and myself: “I’ve got Advil, ibuprofen prescription strength, diarr—“
My Mr. Rogers cop cut me off with a wave of his hand, and his tone turned serious. “Now, I’m going to ask you a question,” he said while making notes on my customs report, “and I don’t want you to answer until you’ve heard the whole question.”
I met his level of sincerity, putting my hands behind my back and looking dead into his eyes. “Okay.”
“We know you have drugs. If you tell me now—if it’s just a little, no big deal, it’ll be all right—but if you make us find it ourselves, it’s not going to go well for you. Now, what do you want to tell me?”
“I don’t… I don’t have any…”
He seemed so disappointed, and he made me feel bad for letting him down. “You sure you don’t want to change your answer?”
“I don’t do that stuff. I’m sorry.” I couldn’t meet his eyes anymore. I felt like I needed to give him some sort of explanation. I grew up in a liberal city, where casual drug use is generally accepted by the people and the police. I suppose I rebelled against my city by flat out refusing to use any drugs or alcohol as a youth. And now I’m too old to be rebellious, but also too old to be interested. So, I’m comfortable around drug use but not tempted to indulge. I wanted to explain all this to the cop, maybe it would help make him feel better. But he was staring at me with a coldness, like he was my father and he knew I hadn’t practiced my clarinet today, so all that came out of me was: “I’m weird.”
“Okay.” He relaxed. He gave me my passport back. “Let me ask you something,” as if he hadn’t already been doing so, as if now we were speaking off-the-record. “I hear hostels are a bed of drug use, just constant drugs and smoking, just drugs everywhere… Is that true?”
You hurt me, Dad. I told you I was staying in hostels. I told you that. And I told you I practiced my clarinet. I told you, I don’t have any drugs. That hurts. That genuinely hurts.
“No,” I said, almost in a whisper. I furrowed my bro and wandered off. He told me to have a nice day. That was weird, I thought. And he just let me go? Like that? Just because I said no? So, weird. I guess he could tell I wasn’t lying.
I picked up my checked bag off the carousel and went through the customs line. I handed the customs officer my passport and customs card. I said nothing. He said nothing. He pointed me to line B. Line A was for “Nothing to declare”. I have nothing to declare. I should be in Line... crap.
It moved slowly. Some people had a happy conversation with the officer and got on with their day. Some people had a long, unhappy conversation and still got on with their day. Some people had their bags emptied. The man in front of me had a backwards cap and a lower lip stud. “Have you ever done drugs?” they asked him. “Ever?” they asked him. “Step over here,” they told him. He had two American passports. “We’ll have to keep this,” they told him.
I have two passports. They’re for two different countries. I have dual citizenship. They have two different names on them. As a kid, I legally added a middle name in the US but not Norway. They have two different birth places on them. It was a bit too much for some Norwegian government administrator to fathom that I’d been born in a country that wasn’t Norway. But they also couldn’t figure out which town in Norway I could’ve been born in and in a panic they typed in “USA, NORWAY.” Entering Colombia I made the decision to explain that I’d been born in a small village in Norway called Usa, which most certainly doesn’t exist since “usa” is not a Norwegian word. But you didn’t know that, did you? And neither did that Colombian immigration agent. Since then, I’ve made the Norwegian embassy aware. They said to bring in the passport. I said I was in Colombia.
Now I’m in US customs and have two passports with two names and two birth places and two dogs that know that there are illegal drugs in my carryon bag. I am so screwed.
A new agent approached and called me over. “You have drugs?”
“Oh, well the dogs say you do and the dogs are never wrong.”
“Oh. Okay. Well, I don’t.”
“I’ve got to search through your bags.”
I had nothing left to lose. It was time to put all my cards on the table. I took a deep breath and put my most innocent face on, “Do you have to,” I asked, “because today’s my birthday.” I had a longer speech prepared involving a pretty white girlfriend and family who hadn’t seen me in months waiting outside for hours due to my delayed flight, but my mouth went dry. The agent didn’t look up.
“You been around a lot of drug use? People smoking around you?”
“Not a lot. But in the last month or two, sure.”
“When’s the last you washed your clothes?”
“I… don’t know.” I’m a traveler. I only have one pair of light pants and one light hoodie. I wore them every day and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d washed either one. “Maybe two months ago?”
He looked up at me. He was a relaxed man, a few inches shorter than me. Graying curly hair and an attitude of general nonchalance that would’ve matched my own on a normal day. This day, of course, I was wound up like a jack-in-the-box and trying to act like your perfect, cookie-cutter suburban neighbor. He unzipped the first zipper on my checked bag then hesitated. “If I open this up… can you pack it again? Because I know how hard that is.”
What do I say? Do I say no? Is this a test?! Honesty is always the best policy, right? “I can. It’ll be difficult, but I do this a lot.”
He continued, pulling out the first item of clothing. He paused again. My jeans were hanging halfway out the bag’s small opening like a Kleenex waiting to be plucked. “Which bag did the dogs mark?”
“That one,” I said pointing at my other, smaller backpack. He sighed.
He seemed to talk to himself. “Ugh… No, I gotta do ‘em both anyway.” He yanked the jeans out. I undid the dozen or so buttons and snaps and zippers to help him along. “You see that kid?” He pointed at a black South American man in his late twenties sitting in the far corner of the room typing on his macbook. “He’d forgotten about a ziplock bag of marijuana. Just enough for one and a half joints.”
“What’s going to happen to him?”
“He’ll just get a fine.”
“Oh, that’s not so bad.”
All the electronics and papers and items of value in my bag are wrapped individually in opaque plastic bags. As he picked them up, I told him what was in it. He checked the first one. The rest he squeezed then put aside.
“Mind if I sit down?” I asked.
He stopped what he was doing. “Are you tired?”
I became flustered. “Can I sit on this?” Pointing to the counter my bags were on. “Is that okay?”
“Why? Are you tired?”
“I was sick this morning,” which was true. I woke up with a need to vomit, which I soon fulfilled. But I didn’t like standing because I was nervous and scared and wanted to try to relax.
“Yeah, sure. All right, I need this,” referring to my American passport. He hadn’t found my Norwegian since he didn’t bother opening my wallet.
“I have to write a report.”
“What does that mean?!” I had visions of the no-fly list.
“I have to say that the dogs smelled drugs and a search came back negative. You can pack your stuff back up.”
He didn’t even empty my carryon, choosing to give it a hearty squeeze instead. That, apparently, was enough.
This piece was originally published on the Yeah, Let's Go There blog.