A United States customs worker in the Bush Houston International Airport points to a white-countered window where a middle-aged woman, appearing to be of Asian descent, sits patiently behind a counter. One of the uniformed customs agents scans over me with inquisitive eyes and blurts out in the most humorless of tones, "Sir, please step to window number 2."
"Righty-O, Captain," I sarcastically whisper, only to humor myself on how serious these people take themselves.
I walk across the freshly buffed linoleum floor and arrive at window number 2, where the female customs official seemed ready to pry her fangs into fresh meat. You see, I was in South America. Which just so happens to consist of a large majority of countries whose governments publicly oppose a large majority of United States government influence. What a pity.
Of course, after traveling for nearly 5 months, I arrived at the counter in fresh South American attire: a scruffy, unmanageable beard, wrist beads from a Peruvian shaman, a native knitted Bolivian Indian shirt with cross-stitching down the front collar, gecko-green Peruvian hand-stitched pants, and my half-shoe, half-sandal zapatos called Sanuks (check ‘em out!). I was quite proud of what I had done. I mean, nearly 6,000 kilometers of traveling by bus – the least I could do was show some traditional South American cultural fashion.
She gives me a look as if I am Tarzan’s son, just returned from the Amazon, smuggling an Ecuadorian anaconda, Pablo Escobar’s second cousin’s narcotic supplies and Uruguayan government contraband.
I hand her my passport and U.S. Immigration form and wait for a quick response motioning me towards freedom and throwing out a "Look dude, you’re cool, please go." She looks them both over in a flash. Then, stepping out from behind the counter, she gives me a look over from mangled shoes to split-end hair.
She sits back behind the counter. "Ahhhhhhh, Colombia. Oh, and Bolivia? Really," she blurts out in a sort-of question.
"Yep, that’s what my stamped passport says," I reply, damn well knowing this woman is beginning the heckling process.
I ask if there if anything wrong. With no answer she gives me another, "Ahhhhhh, Peru. Interesting. Hmmmmm, I see," in the same wisecrack mumbled rhythm. She then responds to my question by leaning back in her office chair, letting out a sigh, and a series of endless questions directed towards myself.
"What motivation did you have on your trip?"
"To see culture."
At this point I was heated. Every other passenger on my plane who happened to be ahead of me in line had one or two questions thrown at them and then they were waved off. Her interrogating techniques were breaching my livelihood as a young man on a cultural quest through South America. I thought I’d play along.
"How much money did you earn a month while saving up for your trip?"
"A lot. Enough to travel on," I retort back.
"You worked at a sushi restaurant, you say. Well, why did you work at a sushi restaurant and what did you do at the sushi restaurant?"
"I like eating raw fish and I served raw fish to customers who wanted raw fish."
She scribbles a little something on her notepad. "What did you spend your money on while you were in South America?"
"Coffee, assorted fruits, and of course tango lessons," I shoot out in a snippy reply.
I answer all these questions and many more, giving just enough information to answer the questions she was trained to ask in a Bush Houston International Airport. When it came to the question of whether I had worked for money in any of the countries, well, let’s just say I had to give a well-rounded response in the steamy form of B.S., entirely skipping the part about teaching English to South American youths along the way.
Her questions finally end and now I feel like the woman knows me better than my own brother. I do also like boxer briefs over boxers, in case you wanted to know, lady!
She slaps my passport up on the counter, followed by my United States Customs immigration form. I am about to snatch both of them off the counter, when she pulls out a massive Sharpie marker and writes "C-1" in thick black capitals in the upper portion of my form.
I don't think of anything when I see the "C-1."
The label doesn't spook me at first. It just seemed like a label the customs official writes on every person's customs form if they’re arriving from an international flight. My initial conception of the "C-1," however, soon turns into dense, cloudy skies. The woman signals me to the left and immediately I notice the lack of participants from my flight going towards the left. This is the part where the hairs on your neck start reaching for the sky.
After winding through switchbacks of black airport line dividers and around an opaque white wall, I arrive at Secondary Customs.
In this separate search unit of the airport stood three uniformed security officers, all with freshly shaven flat-tops and greasily shined black boots.
Well, if I was honest enough not to get me in trouble and answered all of their questions like a coherent, law-abiding citizen, this would all be a walk in a very small park. Paranoia hits me, followed by self-loathing. Maybe I am guilty, I think.
Now the time has come: I stroll up to a counter dragging my feet in hesitation for a moment that shouldn't be happening; three pairs of watchdog eyes follow me like I've got something they want. A younger gentleman sporting a fresh-out-of-boot-camp look glances up from his counter. He looked quite bored as I walked over, but once I arrived, his eyebrows perked up.
"Heya there son", he blurts out in his best Houston accent.
"Hello," I retort back.
I initially want to give this guy a whole bunch of attitude for hassling me. I mean, I was clean as a whistle. Clean as a six-year-old going to school with a sack lunch and L.A. Gears. They weren't going to pin anything on me, only poke me with never-ending questions a higher-up government official had created in hopes of catching bearded scoundrels who looked like they had been living the good life for far too long.
Well, sheeit, I was guilty: the good life was still pumping through my veins. This man had probably spent the last five months sitting behind a booth, cleaning his fingernails with his new Swiss Army knife, sucking on some dip in his side cheek and reading the latest addition of Guns and Ammo while his wife nursed four kids at home in a small, weathered one-bedroom trailer. What the heck, I'll throw him a way out of his boredom, let him test his skills, and maybe he'd get a promotion out of the whole fiasco.
He puts on a pair of rubber gloves and gives them the ol' snap-a-roo by pulling on the ends, quite similar to the style of a doctor telling you to spread ‘em and cough.
"Hmmmm," he says. "Says here son that you were in Bolivia."
"Yeah, it does say that," I say.
"What business did you also have in Colombia?"
"Well, first of all I don't do business. Colombia was nothing but what Epicurus would call pleasure. And Bolivia was ice-climbing and saturated with shamans.” This thought doesn't actually leave my mouth, but hovers in the back of my head like a hot cannon waiting to explode onto the target.
"Oh, just traveling," I tell him.
"Traveling. Well, what do you mean by traveling? What did your travels entail?"
Now I begin to heat up. I start giving him the most simple and at times one-word answers to satisfy his questions.
"Walking and taking pictures in beautiful landscapes," I tell him.
"Yeah but how much walking did you do and was the camera in your possession at all times?"
He seemed under the impression that I would tell him my life story and since I was not motivated to do so, he seemed to think I was toying with him. I knew this from the sight of the flesh on his face, going from pink to ripe-tomato red.
He's already asked me twice in ten minutes if I brought back any tobacco or food products into the country. I tell him "no" both times. Hmm… maybe he thought I’d switch my answer, so he asked me the same question twice. But then again he could have been a rookie, stumbling over his own interrogation questions.
He pulls out a book on Peru, turns it so the spine is sticking up to the ceiling and flutters through all of the pages in hopes of some sort of contraband falling out.
"How was this book?"
I retort back, "Well, I was in Peru and this book is a book on Peru, so it was quite informative."
"Really," he says.
"Yeah, really," I say.
Through the small spikes of his flat-top I could now see small beads of sweat forming on his scalp. Each time he leaned back down to pull something out of my bag, a small bead would slide through the symmetrical spikes and slip down through the cracks in his lined forehead, hoping to find something to reiterate how important his job really was to the national security of the country.
After rummaging through colorful knitted Bolivian socks that hadn't been washed since I last needed them for a towel in a rest-stop shower, a metal maté straw used by Argentineans to drink their tea (yerba maté), a rusted metal compass, and my daisy duke cut-off jean shorts, still starched by the salty Caribbean sea, he looks at me and says, "Son what are you going to do with your life in the next couple of years?"
I puff my chest out, give him a mad-dog stare and say, "I’m going to Harvard Law School next year."
"Really? What field of law?"
And I tell him well, since I've been young, my motivation has been vehemently driven in the direction of stopping police corruption, corruption within the ranks of all government officials, from congressmen to government anti-terrorist teams (such as the one you are on buddy!), and the defense of minorities of the world!
Flabbergasted, he quickly shoves all of my dirt-covered belongings and tells me I can go.
"That’s it – you don't need anything more? No more questions. Are you sure?" I fire back with slanted eyebrows.
He stares the other way.
"No, you're fine. Please go," he quickly mutters under his breath.
I suppose this was a case of cultural fashion, not racial profiling.