Typecast as a Drug Mule
“Ma’am, would you mind stepping over here so that I can test your bag?”
The only time I get called “ma’am” in my life is when my bag is about to be tested for drugs.
I went willingly, a little annoyed. I have no drugs, I have never had drugs, and I would never bring drugs on a plane. That’s like wearing a Nazi costume to a dress-up party party: you technically probably could do it, but it’s essentially best for everyone if you refrain.
Arriving at Sydney and changing planes to go to Canberra, I was stopped again.
“Excuse me, ma’am, would you mind stepping over here so that I can test you bags for explosives?”
Holy shit! Dude, if there are explosives in my bag, even I wanna know about it.
“Sure!” I said, perhaps a little too enthusiastically, practically throwing my bag at him.
By the time I was stopped again at Sydney heading back to Wellington a week later, I had had enough.
“Ma’am, please step this way and read this card which explains your rights,” the big Australian official told me.
I didn’t even read the card. I stood silently while they checked my bag, knowing they wouldn’t find anything. By the end of the inspection, I was determined to get someone official who knew me, like my mum, to write me a hand-written note saying that I would always be drug-free on international flights. She could even stamp it with a little “Mum Approved” stamp.
The first time this happened to me, I was twenty and had landed in Vancouver.
Canadians are so nice, eh. They’ll be so good to you, eh. They love their Kiwi’s eh.
I had all of those stereotypes swirling in my head as I entered their arrival terminal full of large wooden Indigenous art pieces, while I waited for my suitcase, and while I was strolling away with my suitcase, about to enter the country that is essentially New Zealand on steroids.
The lady took the tall slim declaration card, saw the number that was scrawled on it, and indicated for me to walk into a different queue, away from the stream of people heading out the door.
That number should have been my first red flag. The passport officer asked me all the usual questions but didn’t smile at any of my lame jokes. I always get nervous if I can’t make someone smile.
Remain calm, I told myself. You have nothing to worry about.
I walked into a room where there were other people patiently waiting in a line. Some standing, some sitting. There was one middle-aged Indian man, two Asian girls about my age, and a middle-aged Caucasian man at the front of the line. The passport he was vehemently holding told me he was from the Czech Republic.
I took a seat and waited. And waited. Moved up the line. Another pair of Asians came in behind me. And waited.
I had seen Border Control growing up. I remember the officers going into the corners of people’s bags and finding, what looked like to me, breadcrumbs. They would be tested and they were actually drug remnants. That night I went through my schoolbag and vacuumed it out, digging into the corners like my dog digs for his bone: head down, tail up.
My face would flush at the memory, my anxiety telling me they’d find breadcrumbs, but then my zen voice reminding me I didn’t have anything. You don’t do drugs, remember? It was a nauseating see-saw, continuous back and forth. I sang myself Hey, Jude, my comfort song.
Don’t make it bad.
The space was open. There was only a small hip-height metal barrier between those of us waiting in line and the large tables with laminated photos of fruits and meats taped to the corners. There were descriptions and explanations underneath the photos in at least four different languages, Chinese, and Malay being two I could recognise. On the other side of the tables were offices with the metal blinds drawn. The door told us that only the police went into those rooms. And perhaps people who were in more serious trouble.
You were meant to go out and get her.
I had no idea why I was there, what they were looking for, or how long I would be there. I’m a young blonde student, coming back from exchange in Europe, heading home, and would only be in Canada for three days. What could possibly be suspicious about that?
The minute you let her under your skin.
There were three male police officers and one female, all white like me. I hoped I would get the female officer, but instead a stocky male officer indicated me to follow him to one of the white tables.
He asked me questions about what I did, where I came from before landing in Vancouver, what I was doing, what I planned to do in Canada, how long I was staying, where I was going afterwards, and on and on it went. I couldn’t tell what was worse: the constant waiting and riding that sickening see-saw, or the incessant questions that never stopped and didn’t seem to have a purpose.
Then you begin to make it better.
Halfway through questioning, he asked to search my suitcase, which I allowed him to do. With his latex-gloved hands, he messed up the hard packing I had done thirty hours earlier, moving things around, gently squeezing clothes, touching the corners of my suitcase. No breadcrumbs.
I looked over at the Asian girls, both of them were looking at another male officer in utter confusion. The Czech man was having a passionate conversation with the female officer. He was eventually taken into one of the drawn metal blind rooms. The Indian man was still waiting.
“Okay,” my officer said suddenly. “You can go.”
He moved to leave, not even offering to help me repack my stuff.
Not a very nice Canadian.
“So… was this just a random check?” I asked him.
He paused. “Yeah.”
I repacked my bag and left the airport, thinking about how weird the entire experience was. When I arrived at my hostel, I had a message waiting for me from the uni friend I had made in England.
“Hey, hope you arrived safely!” Raj had messaged about three hours earlier.
I was honest and told him about the experience, but finished with, “Even more reason why I should ask Mum for that note.”
“Haha,” he typed. There was a lull of two minutes. “Now you know what it’s like to be Indian.”