Travel Gone Awry: Security Threat


After last week’s heavy dish about spending money on travel, I thought I’d offer some lighter fare for this week’s Correspondence. Forthwith, my first installment of Travel Gone Awry, stories of some of the ridiculous, bizarre, or otherwise unexpected things that happen while traveling. Although we’d all like to have our travels go off without a hitch each and every time we head out into the world, sometimes things veer off course. Fortunately, these experiences also make for the best stories.

I’ve crossed the borders of many countries, including a few with very dubious and/or ambiguous customs rules. But in all my travels (knock on wood), only one country has ever given me any trouble going through the usually rote customs barrier.

Oh, Canada.

I’ve always been intrigued by the silence that descends when a planeload of weary travelers enters the customs hall of a foreign airport. Even I, with a crystal-clean, felony-free background, find myself treading more softly there. So when I got to the front of the customs line at the Jean Lesage International Airport in Quebec City and saw that the next available customs officer was a young woman, I was a little relieved. Here, I thought, is a friendly face.

She, unfortunately, did not feel likewise about me.

Our exchange proceeded thusly:

Her [all business]: You are here for business?

Me [upbeatly friendly, as American travelers are supposed to be]: No, vacation.

Her: You are traveling with someone?

Me: No.

Her [suspicious]: No? You are not traveling with someone?

Me [thinking, did I not just say that?]: No.

Her: No. You are traveling alone.

Me [starting to get confused by the double negatives]: Yes.

Her: You have friends, family in Quebec?

Me [with a smile]: No, just me.

Her [now seriously put out]: You do this often? Travel alone?

Me: Yes.

Her: [silence]

Me [suddenly feeling the need to elaborate]: Oh, you know, I’m single, and it’s hard to find people to travel with. [Weak laughter.]

She stared down intently at my passport. I could almost see the wheels turning in her head: “I really don’t want to let you in, but the rules won’t technically let me keep you out, and if you end up being a terrorist it’s going to be on my head, so why are you making my life so difficult?”

And I was thinking, “Lady, a year ago I didn’t even need a passport to enter this country.”

Nevertheless, her obstinacy was starting to freak me out. As the last of my fellow passengers filed through customs and away into the terminal, leaving me alone with my tormentor, I ran through scenarios in my head: Would they make me sit in the airport for three days until my return flight, like some Tom Hanks movie? Would I have to pay an exorbitant fee to change my flight to go straight home? Can this woman in a bad blue uniform really deny me my relaxing three-day weekend in charming Quebec City? The look on her face said, Yes, she can.

Being a frequent solo female traveler, I know that I am something of a statistical anomaly. I didn’t realize I was also a threat to national security.

But finally, after several very long minutes (Einstein was spot-on with that relativity business), she gave up trying to think of a valid reason to detain me and grudgingly stamped my customs card. Balance was restored to the travel universe, and my weekend in Quebec was otherwise lovely.

It occurs to me as I write this that I have not, coincidentally, been back to Canada since that trip. I hope the incident didn’t go on my permanent Canadian record. I’d really like to see Toronto.


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