After a year of traveling, Dutch writer Niels Gerson Lohman wanted to visit New Orleans, the city that his father – who died a year ago – had a great love for. The U.S. customs officials thought different.
After a year of travelling, I had planned a last, short trip. I was going to take the train from Montreal to New Orleans. The travels I had been undertaking earlier this year had brought me to places that were meant to form the background of my second novel.
This trip, however was for my dad. He, a trumpet player, loved New Orleans and had died a year ago. It felt like the first sensible trip I undertook this year. I had been searching for ways to forget about the last hours at his deathbed. He had been ill for fifteen years and his body just would not give up. It was a violent sight. I had decided the trip to New Orleans would put an end to those memories.
Usually, I barely plan my trips in advance. But this time I had booked everything: my train tickets, hotels and my flight back to Montreal, from which I would depart back to Amsterdam. In total the trip was supposed to take three weeks. The confirmations and tickets I had printed and tucked away in a brown envelope I had bought especially for the trip. I like things to be neatly arranged. At home, in Amsterdam, my house enjoys a slight version of OCD.
The first part of the trip, from Montreal to New York, is known to be one of the world’s prettiest train routes. When we had just passed the sign ‘Welcome to the State of New York’, the train pulled over for a border check. I put the brown envelope on my lap. On top of the envelope I filled in my migration form with utmost dedication. I love border crossings. Forms don’t lie.
The customs officer walked by and asked everybody on the train a few questions. Where they were from, where they were heading. The usual stuff. Everybody who was not a US or Canadian citizen was to head for the dining car to fill in an additional green form.
An officer held up the coat and barked: ‘Who takes a coat to the US in the summer?!’ I answered it would keep me dry, in case the New Orleans levees would break again. The officer remained silent. He dropped my coat like a dishcloth.
In the dining car sat a cheerful looking family from the Middle-East and a German man with a mouth in which a small frisbee could easily be inserted. I took the seat across the German, who had already filled in his green paper, and started on my own, dedicated, hoping to impress him. He was not throwing me friendly looks. The customs officer took the German’s papers and welcomed him to America. They switched seats. He put his hands on the table and looked at me. We must have been of similar ages. He had a goatee and slid my passport towards him like it was a small gift.
I had not finished my novel yet, but my passport was complete. It was filled with pretty stamps. He did not like the stamps.
First, he saw my Sri Lankan stamp. The customs officer raised his eyebrows.
‘Sri Lanka, what were you doing over there?’
‘Surfing. Travelling. My best friend lives there. He is an architect.’
The officer flipped on, seemingly satisfied. Secondly, he found my stamps from Singapore and Malaysia.
‘What were you doing over there? Singapore and Malaysia? Aren’t those countries Islamic?’
Looking over my shoulder, his eyes searched for his colleague’s confirmation.
‘Malaysia, I think so, yeah. But not Singapore. It’s a melting pot. A very futuristic city. Airconditioned to the ceiling. To Singapore I went mostly for the food, to be honest.’
‘Nothing. And how about Malaysia?’
I explained flights departing from Malaysia were cheaper compared to Singapore. That I only went there for a few days, but also, a little bit, for the food. The customs officer went through some more pages. Then he found my Yemeni visa. He put my passport down and stared at me.
‘What the hell were you doing in Yemen?’
‘I went to the island Socotra, it’s not on mainland Yemen. It’s a small island closer to Somalia. A very special place, some call it ‘Galapagos of the Middle-East. I think 85 percent of the plants and animals there, are indigenous.’
‘Weren’t you scared?’
‘Yeah. I was scared. When I was at the airport in mainland Yemen. That entire area is now taken by Al Qaeda, I believe.’
The customs officer was looking at my passport no longer. If he would have leafed through, he would have found Sharjah, Dubai and Abu Dhabi stamps.
That was the first time I had to open my suitcase. Six customs officers went through my two phones, iPad, laptop and camera. In my wallet they found an SD-card I had totally forgotten about. They did not like that. By now I was the only one left in the dining car and the centre of attention. I had put a raincoat in my suitcase, because I’d heard New Orleans tends to get hit by thunderstorms in the late summer. An officer held up the coat and barked:
‘Who takes a coat to the US in the summer?!’
I answered it would keep me dry, in case the New Orleans levees would break again. The officer remained silent. He dropped my coat like a dishcloth.
The raincoat seemed to be the last straw. The customs officers exchanged looks.
‘We’d like to ask you some more questions. But the train has to continue, so we’re going to take you off here.’
I looked out of the window. We weren’t at a proper station. Along the tracks were piles of old pallets.
‘Will you put me on another train, afterwards?’
‘This is the only train. But in case we decide to let you in, we’ll put you on a bus. Don’t worry.’
I started to worry. I packed my suitcase as quickly as possible and was escorted off the train. There were three officers in front of me, and three behind. My suitcase was too wide for the aisle, it kept getting stuck between the seats. I apologised to the train in general. While I struggled, the officers waited patiently and studied the relation between me and my suitcase.
Outside, we stopped in front of a white van. The officers permitted me to put my suitcase in the back and I was about climb into the van, when the they halted me.
‘You are not under arrest. There is no need to be scared. But we would like to search you.’
‘I’m not scared. But it’s kind of exciting. It’s like I’m in a movie. You’re just doing your job. I get that.’
To me, that seemed the right attitude. They searched me for the first time then, just like in the movies. Before I climbed into the van, I had to give up my phones. I seemed unable to close my belt by myself, so an officer helped me out. This is when the sweating started.
In a little building made of corrugated tin, I opened my suitcase once more. Behind me, there was a man in tears. An officer was telling him about the prison sentence the man was looking forward to. He had been caught with a trunk full of cocaine. The man kept talking about a woman who seemed to be able to prove his innocence, but he was unable to reach her.
After that they searched me again. Thoroughly.
Just like in the movies.
In the room next to me they tried to take my fingerprints, but my hands were too clammy. It took half an hour. An officer said:
Another officer confirmed:
‘Yeah. He’s scared.’
I repeated, another attempt to be disarming:
‘This is just like in the movies.’
But border patrol is not easily disarmed.
In the five hours that followed, I was questioned twice more. During the first round I told, amongst others, my life’s story, about my second novel’s plot, gave my publisher’s name, my bank’s name and my real estate agent’s name. Together we went through all the photos on my laptop and messages my phones had been receiving for the past months. They wrote down the names of everybody I had been in touch with. In my pirated software and movies they showed no interest.
During the second round of questioning, we talked about religion. I told them my mother was raised a Catholic, and that my dad had an atheist mother and a Jewish dad.
‘We don’t understand. Why would a Jew go to Yemen?’
‘But… I’m not Jewish’
‘Yeah, well. We just don’t understand why would a Jew go to Yemen.’
Again, I showed them the photos I took in Yemen and explained how nice the island’s flora and fauna had been. That the dolphins come and hang out, even in the shallow water and how cheap the lobsters were. I showed them the dragonblood-trees and the Bedouin family where I had to eat goat intestines. They did not seem to appreciate it as much as I had.
‘You yourself, what do you believe in?’
I thought about it for a second and replied.
Obviously, I should have said:
‘Freedom of speech.’
When I’m supposed to watch my words, I tend to say the wrong ones.
The last hour was spent on phone calls about me. Now and then an officer came and asked me for a password on my equipment. By then, the cocaine trafficker had been brought to a cell where they did have a toilet. I continued my wait. An officer, who I had not seen before, flung the door open and asked if I was on the Greyhound heading to New York. I shrugged hopefully. He closed the door again, as if he had entered the wrong room.
Finally, two officers came rushing into my waiting room.
‘You can pack your bag. And make sure you have everything.’
They gave me my phones back. All apps had been opened. I had not used my phones that day, but the batteries were completely drained. Because I was soaked in sweat, I attempted to change shirts while packing my bag. It seemed like I had made it.
‘How much time do we have? What time will the bus depart?’
‘We don’t know.’
To punish me for my pride, they booked me a very Christian B&B. That night I slept between piles of bibles while a bleeding Christ watched over me.
I was unable to find the entrance to my clean shirt. I held it high with two hands, as if it was a white flag.
‘So… What’s the verdict?’
‘We are under the impression you have more ties with more countries we are not on friendly terms with than your own. We decided to bring you back to the Canadian border.’
They brought me back. In the car, no words were said. It was no use. I was defeated. To the Canadian border they said:
‘We got another one. This one is from the Netherlands.’
The Canadian officer looked at me with pity. She asked if there was anything I needed. I said I could use some coffee and a cigarette. She took my passport to a back room and returned within five minutes, carrying an apologetic smile, a freshly stamped passport, coffee, a cigarette, and a ticket to the next bus back to Montreal.
I have been cursed at a Chinese border. In Dubai, my passport was studied by three veiled women for over an hour and my suitcase completely dismembered. In the Philippines I had to bribe someone in order to get my visa extended for a few days. Borders, they can be tough, especially in countries known for corruption.
But never, ever, will I return to the United States of America.
While I was waiting for the bus to Montreal, I realised they had not asked me why I wanted to go to the US. Exhausting the last few bars on my phone’s battery, I called my friends back in Amsterdam, asking if they could book me an place in Montreal. To punish me for my pride, they booked me a very Christian B&B. That night I slept between piles of bibles while a bleeding Christ watched over me. It was sadism of a type I could appreciate.
Niels Gerson Lohman is on Twitter