Saturday, 27 January 2018

Life and Death On Holidays

Chuck wasn't going to do something this week - but then I checked and found a Flash Fiction email in my inbox. He asked for a travel woe story... so I did one which scared the crap out of me! It happened during a stop-over in Hong Kong in 1997 to the UK. This is exactly how it happened... and it was a few years after I had studied secretarial law and scored a job at an insurance company. To this day, guns freak me out.

“Take it off! Take it off! Take it off!” the customs officer pulled and yanked at my medical bracelet on my arm, screaming at me, as though I had something to hide.
And I screamed back in pain, “Hey! It’s attached you know!” But she kept screaming that same phrase, not listening, not caring if she bruised me, broke the skin or broke my arm... she just wanted that bracelet. In the end, I shouted: “Hey! Lady! Get off me!” I shoved her and she let me go, her hand on her gun, ready to do something – anything – to me. I just stood there, took a breath and said quietly, “It’s a medical bracelet and it’s got a monkey grip; that’s why it didn’t come off.”

Her face was blank for a moment before she signalled for me to walk past four other guys who were silently scared and looking at the floor, past a table on my right with four piles of papers, and pushed me onto a box. A wand had materialised out of nowhere into her hand and she ran it over my body, up between my legs – shoving it painfully hard into my groin – and then over my boots and making me stand on one foot then the other to go over my feet. She went up my legs again and pushed it between my thighs again, pushing harder this time, glaring at me; trying to shove it through the crotch of my jeans.

“You having fun there? ‘Cos that fuckin’ hurts.” I snapped.
She yanked the wand away and looked to the other customs officer at the other end of the room, who was going through my backpack. He was throwing my belongings onto the counter without any carefulness, when he came across my medication of Tegretol. 
This drug is for Epilepsy; a medical condition I have and I don’t go anywhere without my prescriptions or my medicine.
Immediately these two were yelling and screaming in Chinese that I was something illegal, something I’d never be in my life, something they didn’t bother to translate until the very last second when she shoved me towards an unlabeled door and ordered me inside to strip down. 

They were accusing me of being a drug mule!

“What!” I turned, “I have Epilepsy. That’s my medication, and if you don’t believe me, I have letters to say so.” I pulled on the collar of my t-shirt to pull out my money belt (which held my boarding pass, passport and the letters I’d need to get me through customs from all my doctors).
“Hands where I can see!” she screamed.
I looked up to find a gun pointed me.
I froze; staring, “I want to see consulate representative, now.”
The rest of the world fell away for a few slow moments while I felt as though I filled my pants; and she ignored my request.
I thought I had stopped breathing for a moment, until I found myself taking a breath, “What are you doing?”
“Hands where I can see!” her hands shook. She’d never shot a gun before let alone pointed one.
“Is the safety on that thing?” I asked. 

I know, I know, stupid to ask, but really, I wanted to know if I was going to get my brains splattered against the wall behind me by a nervous customs officer who didn’t know what they were doing.

She twitched, the gun moved: “What!”
The four guys looked like they were going to crap themselves on my behalf and the rest of the passengers through the window (yes they could all see what was going on) started to turn their children away and turn their backs.
They didn’t want to see this – and no, I didn’t want them to see this either.
“Listen, can you please put that down, you’re making everyone nervous, not just yourself.” Tears blurred my vision as I tried to think what to do, and realised she wasn’t being realistic about this, “You think I’m a drug mule; I’m not.”
“You have Tegretol! It’s date rape drug. You are criminal!”
“I take it to control my Epilepsy.” I said, “If you let me... oh for shit’s sake.” I looked at the other customs officer, “Look in the front pocket of my backpack and you’ll find a letter. Read it out aloud.”
He searched the backpack and found the letter and read it out aloud, and began to smile, “Dr. Appleton! We know him. He fly here all the time.”
I let a sigh of relief: “Good... he’s my doctor.” Walking up to the desk with the female customs officer shadowing me, I smiled, “Can I have my stuff back?”
“Yes. We keep your contraband.”
“But the letter...”
He nodded, “It is contraband.” He shoved my bag with all my belongings over to me and looked towards the next person, “Welcome to Hong Kong Airport...”
I turned to the other four guys, “What are they here for?”
The female customs officer turned, looking at them, “They are English. They go home.”
“Guys!” I called out to them, “Where are you from?”
They all hesitate before answering one by one:
I looked at her, “They’re Australians.”
“They redheads... they English.”
“Lady, you’re a racist.” I packed my bag again to find a tin of loose leaf tea was missing, “Where’s my tea?”
The man at the desk turned, “It’s marijuana. Illegal.”
“It’s Aussie Loose Leaf tea, properly packaged and sealed. Give it back!” I ordered. The female customs officer fingered her gun again, “Oh jeez... okay, look the bottom of the tin and you’ll find an international phone number. Call it.”
The man did as the female customs officer stepped closer to me, ready to arrest me, shoot me, or ... whatever she was going to do... she was one nervous Nelly. 
When the guy was talking on the phone, it was obvious, he had never tried calling the numbers on the tins of things he had confiscated before.
I put my hand out for the phone, “Here, I’ll talk to him.” The phone was handed to me and I chatted to the shop owner of Australia House across the satellite, who thought it was the dumbest thing he’d ever heard that customs took a tin of tea off me without even testing it! But he took a piece out of them nonetheless before hanging up on them and I got my tea back – but not my Tegretol.
My friends who had gone before me in line (fortunately I hadn’t flown to Hong Kong alone) had packed a plastic bag in their onboard luggage and bagged up my stuff in it and stuffed what we could into my back pack.

The four stranded Australian guys got their papers back and were permitted into the country. And they asked me what they could do to thank me.
“First of all, we make a formal complaint about those two morons.” I said, “They’re a danger to the Hong Kong security system here. I nearly got killed all because I was going to pull out my money belt.”
We found the main desk and filled out the necessary forms, signed them and handed them in. This took half an hour to do. The head of security called in the two from that gate and fired them immediately; and asked them where my medication was. They handed him a box they kept confiscated items.
Pulling out my medication, the older man handed it back to me, signed it out, and gave me grim smile, “Such a pity not that many people do what you have done.”
“What’s that?”
“You stood up for your principles. You knew you were in the right, and even when your life was threatened, you stood your ground. It must have terrified you.”
“It did. But I knew I was right. But why didn't they get my consulate representative?”
He turned and glared at them, "She asked for a lawyer?"