STRANGE CUSTOMS: Yep, packed it myself sir

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STRANGE CUSTOMS: Yep, packed it myself sir

My father always used to say that, as far we know, we’re only here once so we might as well look around. And so I have -- with increasing urgency as I have become older. I call it cramming for my finals. You never know, there might be a God who could ask, “So, what did you enjoy most in the world I created for you?”

So my passports have carried stamps from China and the Solomon Islands, Vietnam and Taiwan, Indonesia and the United States, and plenty of other places besides.

Some years go I recall being asked one of those questions about my favourite place in this wonderful country. My frivolous reply was never published, I suspect because I said, “The departure lounge at Auckland International Airport.”

I think some took that too seriously.

But, unapologetically, I like to travel and inherited that calling from my parents whose early peripatetic existence filled me with childhood memories of growing up in a caravan camp in Edinburgh, opening my eyes once to see the Mannekin Pis in Brussels, and singing The Ballad of Davy Crockett at the top of the Eiffel Tower.

Late in life my mother and father were heading off north of Chiang Mai in Thailand, and packing their own food to take on a tramp steamer around the Pacific.

They would tell me of whales in the mid-Pacific, and a corrugated iron shed-cum-restaurant with appalling food but a great atmosphere somewhere in Thailand called Dim-Bam-Boo’s. I’ve always remembered the name and one day I want to go there too.

I have been lucky enough to travel for my work but most of my journeys -- to the surprise of my journalism colleagues who often assumed I was a highly favoured and well-funded travel writer -- have been at my on expense and purely for pleasure. However for a while it was in the nature of my job to travel regularly between New Zealand and Australia, often just for a day or two of interviews.

I mention this because an odd thing happened recently. I arrived back in New Zealand and walked straight through Customs. This had happened only twice before that I could recall, both times when I had young children with me.

Every other time I have endured the customary questions, “Did you pack the bag yourself sir? Are you carrying anything for anyone else?”

This is fair and these people are doing their job, and so I politely anticipate all this and answer courteously. I have tried declaring and not, and patiently endured such questions as why I might have wanted to go to Vietnam (“Because it’s there?”) or whether I took drugs in Amsterdam (“Yes, because it is not illegal. But if you are actually asking if I am carrying any in my bag …”)

Often I have ended up waiting off to the side of other passengers, just me and a few unhappy looking women from Thailand, and have usually waited an hour while my tiny bag is scoured again and my passport taken away for further fruitless scrutiny.

DSC01789In my experience drug dealers and parrot smugglers don’t look like me -- and I’m weary of having to apologise for a passport which has been well used. I thought that was what it was for.

I assumed my passport must have some invisible stamp on it. Or was it the hair? Or the t-shirt?

So I asked once and was told I had been taken aside for “acting suspiciously by the baggage carousel“. I pointed out quietly that I had just flown direct from London and was in no position to act any other way than very tired and I really just wanted to go home. It made no difference, the process still took an hour. And yes, I did pack the bag myself. And no …

Because of the many rock’n’roll interviews I was doing in Australia I would flit back and forth often and one time went over for 24 hours on two consecutive weekends; the first to interview a genuinely pleasant Billy Joel and the second for a perfunctory chin-wag with the former members of Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.

By coincidence I encountered the same young Customs guy both times on the way back. He was polite, liked music, and seemed to have read my work in the newspaper which at that time came with a photo by-line. So we chatted on both occasions.

But even when I came back from the Led Zepp interviews and we talked about how cool they were he suddenly stopped, pulled himself up inside his uniform and went through is whole routine: “Did you back your own bags, sir?”

The peculiar thing is that I have never been stopped at any other border, just the one in the place I like to call home.

More often than not I have actually been welcomed in foreign parts, most memorably by a very large black woman at LAX who, on learning I was going to be interviewing Arnold Schwarzenneger, insisted I give him her love and offered me her card to pass on to the big man.

Yes, in one terrifying incident my 17-year old son was hustled away by security police at Rome’s Leonardo DaVinci airport with automatic rifles shoved into his throat for carrying a key-ring made of a fake bullet.

And the last time I left Hanoi it seemed harder to get out of the country than to get in.

When it was clear I wasn’t going to find unwanted currency in my pockets -- only the Vietnamese might want something called “dong” -- the dead-eyed Customs guy casually ran a long fingernail under the cover of my passport and detached the photo. I snatched it back, made a lot of noise and belted off for the plane.

But even as I settled in to my seat sweating with anger and fear I knew my damaged document wasn’t going to give me trouble in Bangkok, but figured it would mean being detained for an hour in Auckland.

resized__300x465_large_9781869417093And it did, despite the explanation, and talking about having three kids, a job I wouldn’t jeopardise, because it was there, and so on.

But the other night I walked straight through.

As I made my way to the taxi at 1am I couldn’t believe my luck. I went home and soaked up some duty-free to celebrate. But one nagging thought kept coming back.

Man, these guys are slipping.

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This piece originally appeared in my first travel collection, Postcards From Elsewhere of 2005 (happily now all sold out).

It was the final piece in that collection, the punchline as it were.

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These entries are of little consequence to anyone other than me Graham Reid, the author of this site, and maybe my family, researchers and those with too much time on their hands.

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