During the recent media circus over the pat-downs at U.S. airports, I had a wave of memories wash over me. I've had enough airport experiences, many of them in foreign lands, to honestly think that having somebody's hand in my crotch wouldn't be such a big deal.
My favorite was after I had been in Nepal for a month of trekking. I'd been in the sun for a month, my hair was long and frosted, and I was wearing a tie-dye T-shirt and sandals. On the flight from Kathmandu to Bangkok, I was strangely bumped to first class, where the attendant asked if I would like beer, wine, or champagne. My response: "Yes."
I kept the party going in Bangkok, and by the time we landed in Japan, I was not only experiencing deep culture shock — traveling from medieval villages to uber-tech Japan in less than 48 hours — I was also tore up pretty good. And my passport told the Japanese customs people that the drunk, tie-dyed longhair before them was coming in from Thailand.
What followed was such a thorough search that it would have uncovered elicit postage stamps. Every article of clothing came out of my luggage, every pair of socks was separated and turned inside-out, every button was unbuttoned. But what made it weird was the whole thing being done in a polite, respectful Japanese style and with white gloves.
They actually repacked my luggage, improving on the job I had done, and apologized to me the whole time. I was swaying, trying not to pass out after a three-country bender. Had I known I could get away with being felt up, I would have pounced at the chance.
Coming into Canada once, after a week of backpacking — and no showers — my buddy and I were questioned by the authorities, while dogs sniffed around our pickup. While we were inside, being questioned in separate rooms, a VW busload of hippies was seated in the lobby, and we passed the hour or more making jokes about sitting on the Group W bench. We were having so much fun they let us go with good wishes.
Going into Mexico is about as tough as going into Arkansas. My friends and I rolled into Tijuana (for no morally acceptable reason, by the way) after having this conversation with the Mexican authorities:
"Que tiene?" ("What do you have?")
The opposite was flying out of Pakistan. You carry your luggage into the airport, where it and you are thoroughly searched. Then your luggage goes to the screeners. After it's screened, you reclaim it and carry it yourself to the tarmac, where dogs sniff it (and you) before it goes onto the plane, where you're patted down again. And we couldn't take batteries onto the plane. The reason was never made clear.
Another favorite was arriving in Egypt years ago. It's an interesting enough experience, but knowing no one adds a certain something. When my host tracked me down in the airport, his greeting — almost in one, continuous word — was: "Hello, great to met you; welcome, let's go to the duty-free store."
I'm not much of a shopper, but it was his country. So we got into a long line, which consisted entirely of Egyptians holding cash and foreigners holding passports. I inquired about this and was told that Egypt is essentially a dry country, but foreigners can buy booze at the duty-free store. Not only that, but a bottle of Johnny Walker was about $100 on the black market but about $15 at the duty-free shop. So my arrival was a cause for celebration, and, in fact, a decent-sized party was waiting for us at home.
The champagne didn't make it there, and Johnny Walker has probably never caused such a stir. Those folks were sure happy to see me! And by the end of the evening, I was about ready to start grabbing crotches.
I went to Italy last year and came back with ... well, let's just say that I violated the ban on importing meat and cheese. Grossly. And I could have avoided duty on wine and olive oil. The whole thing about visiting agricultural areas and staying on farms? It didn't come up, and here's why: Those folks in customs waved us through. I had two stuffed duffle bags, a big "Nada" on my customs form, and all I got was a half-attentive nod. At that point, a little physical contact would have almost been comforting, just to know they're paying attention.