Before I saw my first episode of the TV show Locked Up Abroad, my biggest fear had been a paper cut to the eyeball, or maybe waking up with a scorpion on my face. But Locked Up Abroad redefined fear for me. I know one doesn’t just get locked up in another country. You have to actually be in another country, you have to do something wrong, and you have to get caught. I don’t really break the law in the U.S., and I’m not about to elsewhere, so I’m not really at risk. Yet my fear is real.
So a couple of weeks ago upon arrival for vacation in Auckland, New Zealand, as Customs agents picked piece by piece through my spouse’s and my luggage, which was by that point spread across multiple stainless-steel tables, I reminded myself: we’ve done nothing wrong, so we have nothing to worry about. I kept that cool even when my large suitcase tested positive for marijuana residue. I don’t use marijuana. I’ve never carried marijuana in that bag nor any other. And for the reasons I’ve now described, over my dead body would I bring marijuana on a plane to New Zealand. So I was good, despite the increasing suspicion we seemed to be facing.
I do composure reasonably well. That includes in high-pressure business situations, complex life decisions, even in family medical emergencies. It takes a complex code to get me to unravel. Yet next we fielded questions about our finances. How much cash do you guys have? How much money is in your bank accounts? What’s the limit on your credit cards? Of the two of us, they were clearly preoccupied with me. With his eyes, my spouse implored me to keep calm. We answered the questions honestly. I held onto my composure, if only by a thread.
When the drug dog came, frankly, I was relieved. “This dog,” I thought, “will absolve me of whatever they think I’m up to.” I stood for my inspection, and the pooch circled. But rather than dismiss me, he froze with his nose deep in my posterior personal space. The agent informed me that the dog had just flagged me for “white powder.” I took a moment to process the unthinkable. Then I mouthed, “You mean, like, cocaine?”, and he said, “Yes.”
The air rushed from my lungs. At that point, I had done well through an hour and forty minutes of interrogation. But the composure was over. The tears of fear and raw anger welled. Shaking and breathless, I stammered in terrified defiance: “I don’t’ … use marijuana! I don’t … do cocaine!! And I goddamned sure don’t carry illicit substances on international travel!!! I just want to get the hell out of here and go mountain biking!!!!”
The agent looked at me pensively, seeming to ponder my admittedly emotional reaction, then he and another walked off and talked to their supervisor. When the primary interrogator returned a few moments later, with a smile she told us to re-pack our things. “You’re free to go,” she said in a cheery Kiwi accent. “Enjoy your stay in New Zealand!”
So we went on and did exactly that. But that experience … I won’t soon forget it.