In Which I Prove Once Again That God Watches Over Fools
Link to Part One
Link to Part Two
The flight from Colombia to Miami was without incident, if you don’t count the time we had to put on our seat belts as we flew over Cuba. This was to keep us safe in case we were hijacked and forced to land in Cuba. I know I felt stupid safer, much in the way I felt protected from nuclear holocaust when we practiced Duck and Cover in elementary school; or how secure I felt years later when told to use duct tape and plastic sheeting to shield my family from chemical weapons: the federal version of security. But I digress.
While we were in the air, the attendants gave everyone a slip of paper on which we were to declare the purchases we were bringing into the U.S. I had two vases and three ruanas, a kind of poncho made of llama wool. One of the older gentlemen in our party was carrying my quart of anisette, since I was underage in Florida. (Well, I was in Colombia too; but since I wore makeup and shaved, they assumed I was 21. Worked for me.)
We claimed our luggage and lined up at customs. It was a huge room, with what appeared to be grocery lanes in reverse spread across the width. There must have been at least twenty lanes, every single one of them attended by a female agent. Huh.
I ended up in line behind a tiny, white-haired, 200-year-old Colombian priest. When he approached the customs agent, he handed her his claim slip. It was blank. She did not speak Spanish and he did not speak English. So of course she spoke very SLOWLY AND LOUDLY so that he would understand. She asked him if he had anything to declare. He frowned and then smiled, motioning that he did not comprehend.
In this era of travel, there were no mechanical detectors of any kind. Customs was conducted with various means of poking: luggage, clothing, orifices, whatever. The agent opened the priest’s small suitcase, poked through the clothes and asked him again about claims. He blinked and smiled, casting his eyes about looking for help.
I decided I could use my new but admittedly weak Spanish skills to assist. I asked the priest if he had any gifts for family or friends in his luggage. He said no. I iterated the conversation to the customs agent and she closed his suitcase and sent him on his way. She gushed her thanks to me as I set my suitcase on the counter.
The agent was so grateful that she didn’t even open my bag. I handed her my sheet; she glanced at it, handed it back, and motioned me on with a sweep of her arms. I proffered the coat I was carrying in my arms.
“Noooooo, nonono! You just go right on ahead!”
“Go on!” she smiled. “You’re done!”
I met John in the terminal. He watched my bags while I went into a phone booth and extricated the baggie from my bra. He offered his cheerful thanks and went on his way to a different flight. The rest of the gang was gathering, but one of the ladies was missing. The principal oboist for the symphony orchestra, she had been in line with one of our classmates. What was the holdup?
Apparently she had failed to claim a pair of gold earrings on her duty sheet. The agent found a receipt for them in her luggage and asked her where they were. They were in her money belt under her dress. She was escorted to a small room where they conducted a strip search. Yikes.
That was when it sank in what I had risked, for something that wasn’t even mine. What an idiot I was. There but for the grace of God…
It reminds me of when I and a couple of friends were abandoned in Daytona Beach in the dead of night, sixty miles from our hotel. But that’s another story.