Thursday, February 28, 2013
The Day I Almost got Myself Added to the Infamous "No Fly" List
Travelers gain a lot from their travels due to their interaction with different cultures and the many opportunities to have new experiences. Sometimes these experiences are good, even life-changing. Some are so bad that they are best left forgotten and never spoken of again. Others are so bad that they are forgotten about for a while only to be dredged up years later when they can finally be laughed about and even turned into a blog post to share with the world. With all the planning I have been doing for my upcoming trip to Costa Rica and Panama and the realization that I will be dealing with the headaches that come with flying and navigating large international airports, I have been recalling (and finally laughing about) an experience I had while traveling a few years back.
Although a number of bad things happened on that trip (food sickness, heat exhaustion, a run-in with some unfriendly locals and a drunken, cranky travel mate), the final hurrah to the end of a trip that almost saw me brought back in a body bag actually occurred on Canadian soil; it all came to a screeching halt at Pearson International Airport in Toronto on a journey that began only a week earlier on the Riviera Maya, Mexico. That was the day I almost got myself put on the infamous “no fly” list.
That last day in Playa Del Carmen was a strange one. My travel partner and I were not seeing eye-to-eye (I was feeling more like a babysitter to a drunken teenager than a travel partner), I was so sick I could barely move and all I wanted to do was lay on the beach and sleep all day rather than get on a 4-hour flight to Toronto where I would have to wait another 12 hours in a crowded, noisy airport with an adult baby in tow. We arrived very late at night and fortunately things were quiet in one of North America’s largest airports; but that was about to change.
My first mistake was trusting my travel partner when he said it was ok to pay a middle-aged Chinese couple who could barely speak English to keep our luggage in the back room of their small shop so we wouldn’t have to lug it around with us. As I found out later, this is never a good idea and almost cost me my luggage when it was all said and done. With our luggage stowed away in this (probably not very legit) makeshift storage area, we set out to find a place to rest for the night. One of the final games of the Stanley Cup Playoffs was airing so, of course, he wanted to plant himself down somewhere where he could watch the game. None of the televisions were on in the main area of the airport so we made our way to security to go inside our gate, assuming we would be able to leave again in the morning to get our luggage and come back. We had legit onward tickets to Halifax and Sydney and the man checking us through security looked at them thoroughly (or so we thought) before letting us through. My travel partner planted himself in front of a working television where he watched the game and I dragged my sick self a few rows down and snuggled up with my travel blanket as best I could on the hard, cramped seats.
Hard as it is to believe, I did actually fall asleep in that uncomfortable position but somewhere in the middle of the night, I was awoken by someone shaking me and removing my blanket to expose me to the freezing cold air that is common in airport terminals. Who could possibly steal a blanket from a sick girl? You guessed it! When I stood to inspect my surroundings and catch the thief red-handed, my (selfish and probably still drunk) travel partner was curled up on a bench a few rows down…fully wrapped in that blanket that had been keeping me warm only a few moments earlier. Fully awake and in shock at the scene before me, I finally tried to take the blanket back from him but to no avail. He just tugged back and than tucked it underneath himself so I would not be able to retrieve it without actually knocking him onto the cold floor, which did cross my mind. In the end, unable to fall back asleep, I decided to head to the main entrance of the airport, outside of the gate, to get some fresh air. I always thought that as long as you had your ticket and documents with you, you could come and go through your gate as much as possible. This is true…if you enter your gate in the allowed time period. The security guard let us enter much earlier than we were supposed to. I wonder how he is doing serving fries at MacDonald’s because I am sure that after his major security slip that night, his career goals of moving up the airport security ladder at one of the busiest airports on the continent slipped into oblivion.
For such a large airport, it was eerily quiet and there was hardly anyone around. Little did I know, the powers that be were already onto me and my every move was being watched. I found a door that I thought would lead to the main area of the airport but it didn’t budge. I pressed buttons on elevators that didn’t move and finally found one that brought me down a few levels to a hallway with a few doors. Panicked set in when I was unable to get back on that elevator and unable to open any of the doors except one…I walked through and was greeted by three burly security guards who blocked me from going any further. They had spotted me “acting suspiciously” on the security cameras. I knew I was in big trouble when they lead me to a small interrogation room where some very stern immigration officials waited. Everyone has heard of these rooms; now I can say I’ve been in one and it was not a pleasant experience.
The first thing they wanted to know was if I was traveling with anyone else. I led them to my still sleeping-like-a-baby travel partner who, in his permanent *sshole state, started to yell, curse and act like a lunatic. All I could think was “great, now we’re in really deep…way to go idiot”. And back to the interrogation room we went…two potential “terrorists” and our captors. I should also mention that by this time, it was about 2am and only a mere few hours away from having to catch our flights back to the east coast and our luggage was still downstairs in that shady storage room. That was the first thing they asked about; if we just spent a week in Mexico, where was our luggage? Our response did not go over very well with them. Neither did our answer to “how did you get into that gate so many hours before your flight departure”. I feel like I handled myself pretty well. I was cooperative, I showed my documents when asked, I answered all questions truthfully and to the best of my knowledge. Dumbass (which was a more suitable name to call my dimwitted travel partner by that point) again began to raise his voice, refused to answer simple questions, refused to show his passport without seeing proper “badges” and made a total idiot out of the both of us which was not good for our case. Trying to calm him down was no good. He was acting like someone who was drunk or high on drugs which resulted in more searches, more questions and more waiting. We were coming from Mexico after all so by that point, we were no longer potential terrorists, we were potential drug traffickers.
The guards wanted to know 3 things; how did we get into that gate so early, where was our luggage and what was I doing “acting suspiciously” in the middle of the night in an area of the airport I shouldn’t have been. I answered every question as best I could. The young man working security looked at our tickets, sent us and our belongings through the security screeners and waved us through. Our luggage was in a storage facility near the food court on the first floor. And I was not acting suspiciously; I was trying to get outside to get some air. Time was ticking quickly and my only hope for catching my flight back home was that the severe thunderstorm brewing over Toronto would delay my flight. Fortunately it did and after a few more hours of being grilled with question after question, all I wanted to do was go home and crash for a week. We went through security screening together and I had just enough time to turn to my (former) friend and bid him adieu and leave him in total shock over my hasty and cold goodbye before boarding separate airplanes to different cities. I have not heard from him nor seen him since.