United States Immigration

The Day US Customs Found A Bullet In My Pocket

Derek Popular, Travel Tales 392 Comments

United States ImmigrationOn the flight from Delhi to Washington D.C., I spent a good two hours staring at the customs form that I was required to fill out. I had completed every section of the form, except for one. I just wasn’t quite sure if mentioning Pakistan and Afghanistan in the box that asked me to list the countries I had visited was such a good idea. As I wrote down the other countries I’d been to on this trip – Australia, Singapore, Thailand and India – I seriously wondered if I could get away with not listing the other two. (Of course, I wasn’t about to risk it and so I wrote them all down in the end.)

Several hours later, on the ground in Washington D.C., I approached the Immigration Counter and handed over my form. The Immigration Officer swiped my passport, glanced at his computer screen and almost immediately stamped me back into the country. But just before I started to walk away he asked, “So you went to Afghanistan and Pakistan. How was it?” The only reply that I could muster up was a quiet, “Very interesting.”

He then called the next person in line and I turned away, relieved beyond belief at how well that had gone. Of course, that relief lasted a mere six seconds, right until the moment when a Customs Officer approached and asked me to step over to one of the inspection tables.

The following hour and a half of my life is a period of time that I will never forget and truthfully, never really want to endure ever again.

MY FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH A ONE-SIDED MIRROR

Interrogation Room

After another quick swipe of my passport and after reading the words “Pakistan and Afghanistan” on my form, the young Customs Officer immediately ‘invited’ both myself and my trusty backpack into a small interrogation room for a chat.

Once inside the room, the Officer began to inspect the contents of my backpack. First, he opened the front pocket, and immediately became suspicious of a collection of books that I had purchased in a bookstore in Delhi. There were five books packaged together, each containing the sayings and lessons of a different spiritual figure who had influenced India, including Buddha, Vivekananda, Nanak Dev, Gandhi and yes, the Prophet Mohammed.

Of course, the Customs Officer ignored the other four books and while holding up the book of quotes from the Prophet, proceeded to repeatedly scream “Do you believe in the words of the Prophet Mohammed?” over and over again while standing one foot away from my face.

Every time I tried to mention the other books, and the one time I tried to ask why that question was even relevant, I was immediately cut off and told to be quiet. So in the end, the only reply I gave to his question was, “What?”

THE INSPECTION CONTINUES…

The next problem began when the Officer picked up one of my pairs of pants and a shiny, unused bullet fell out of the front pocket. And while I will admit that the appearance of a bullet is always somewhat suspicious, I honestly felt that the additional screaming that was thrown my way as a result of this discovery was more than uncalled for. Without asking any questions at all, the Officer simply acted as if he had found a piece of evidence that undeniably linked me to terrorism.

As a side note, the bullet was given to me as a gift by a child who had taken me on a tour of his neighborhood on the outskirts of Kabul. I had been walking around on my own when he suddenly came out of nowhere, grabbed my arm and stopped me from walking up a hill that turned out to be littered with land mines. This kid had practically no possessions to his name, yet he wanted to give me a gift for spending some time with him. And so he gave me a bullet that he had found and had always kept with him for good luck.

After the bullet, came the burqa. I had purchased a deep blue burqa one day in Kabul in order to show my friends and family the reality of what it’s like to wear one of these things. As the Customs Officer pulled it out of my backpack, he demanded an explanation and even suggested that I had used the burqa in order to move undetected throughout the tribal regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. As his suspicion grew, so did my confusion at the manner in which this interrogation was taking place.

THE BOX OF CANDY

Osama Bin Laden Kulfa Balls

Up until this point, I had really hoped that the Officer would not look in the side pocket of my backpack. But when he began to unzip the zipper, I had no choice but to take a deep breath and prepare for his reaction.

In that pocket was a box of candy, although this was no ordinary box of M&Ms. It was a box of “Osama bin Laden Kulfa Balls” a popular hard candy that can be found throughout the tribal areas of Pakistan. And on the front of the box, one finds an image of Osama himself alongside a tank, missiles and fighter jets. Naturally, the Customs Officer wasn’t too thrilled with me having this item in my possession and he again made the grand assumption that this box of candy linked me to terrorism.

I could arrest you right now! Do you want me to arrest you?“, he started to shout repeatedly.

Eventually, I just gave up trying to offer my explanations and stopped answering his questions altogether.

In reality, I have no idea why I bought that box of candy, other than it grabbed my attention, I thought it was interesting and I wanted to take one home. It really was that simple.

A QUICK FLIP THROUGH MY JOURNAL

The next item to be closely inspected turned out to be my travel journal, the 300 pages of which were full of descriptions about the places and people I had met along the way. I wasn’t worried about him reading my journal at all as it certainly didn’t contain anything that this Officer could interpret as suspicious.

So I thought…

Here’s a tip. No matter what the reason, don’t ever write “You can get rid of your US citizenship by going to an Embassy and telling them that you don’t want to be a citizen any more” in your travel journal!

The Officer had opened my journal up to a completely random page and the line above is exactly what he found written. It was perhaps the only line in the entire book that could possibly have made my current situation any worse. Lucky me.

Before I continue, let me be clear. I was in no way at all implying that I was interested in getting rid of my US citizenship. Not even close! I had simply jotted down something I had read in an online article about the rules of citizenship in different countries. Unfortunately, I wrote down that one line and nothing else as I was in a rush that day and had to leave the internet cafe to catch a bus. I meant to go back and write more about the article I had read, but I never did.

And so there it was, alone on a random page of my journal, just begging the Customs Officer to get fired up once again. I certainly wasn’t surprised when he proceeded to read the line out loud a few times, get right in my face and scream, “Tell me now! Tell me you don’t want your US Citizenship and I’ll take it away from you. Right now!

After trying my hardest to convince him that I did not want to lose my citizenship, the Officer suddenly left the room, returning a few minutes later with his Supervisor. Then, both men spent the following hour asking me a barrage of rapid-fire questions that included, “What do your parents do for a living?”, “Is that your natural hair color?”, “How did you obtain your visas?” and “Were the people of Pakistan friendly?”

“WERE THE PEOPLE OF PAKISTAN FRIENDLY?”

Pakistani Man

Really?, I thought. You’re really asking me that question?

Well, I could have just said “No, they were all mean and nasty to me” but there was no way I was about to do that to the wonderful people I had met during my travels. The truth is, almost everyone I met showed nothing but remarkable hospitality, kindness and generosity at all times. Almost every day during my visit, dozens of Pakistanis would politely approach me, shake my hand and inform me that they are not terrorists and that they do not support Osama bin Laden. They would then ask me to please return to America and tell everyone I know that Pakistanis just want to live in peace like everyone else. When I tried to explain this to the Officers, they once again ignored me, refusing to believe that there could possibly be even one decent person in that region of the world.

At one point, frustrated by the lack of training/knowledge of the people put in charge of protecting the US borders, I literally pulled out my guidebook and gave them a lesson in geography and in a sense, in reality as well. I showed them excerpts of the guidebook that spoke of friendly locals, must-see highlights and a generally safe environment for travelers. I also attempted to explain that my goal in traveling to this region was to educate myself, not to try and gain admission into a terrorist training camp.

Eventually, in a calm voice, the supervisor asked me one last time whether or not I “believed in the words of the Prophet Mohammed.” (It was as if all Customs Officers had memorized that exact same line.) When I told him that I’m not a very religious person at all, he stood up and much to my surprise, informed me that I was now free to go.

THE AFTERMATH

Through a friend of the family who used to work for the FBI, I later learned that as soon as I had left the Customs interrogation room, the local FBI office in Savannah, Georgia (where I was headed to visit my mom) had been notified of my arrival. As a result, the FBI then tapped the home phone at my mom’s house.

Further, for two years, I was given a private pat down and screening every time I went through security at a US airport. And whenever I returned from overseas, I was forced to go through a 30-minute, overly thorough inspection that involved dozens of questions, a ‘test’ about my previous travels and even a complete inspection of all my computer files.

The good news is that one day, it all stopped. Just like that I had apparently been removed from the list as a potential threat and I’ve never been inspected since.

However, I now realize that I should be enjoying these hassle-free Immigration & Customs experiences while I can, because I have a feeling that after this upcoming trip to the Middle East, I’m going to find myself right back in that interrogation room.


Do you have any Customs or Immigration stories to share?

Photo credit: Pakistani man – babasteve
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Comments 392

  1. Irvan

    That’s one crazy experience! I know I shouldn’t laught but I can’t help my self after reading the way you tell your story..

    Just courious, how is that Kulfa Balls taste?

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  3. rob janssen

    you didn’t
    make it very easy on the bordercontrol.
    They have to look for cleus and you gave them some….the bullet would have you get arrested in many countries

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  4. Rainiero

    Wow quite an experience! Happened to a friend of mine when we went to Cuba, I went though customs and he came out almost one hour later, he then told me he had been interrogated by 4 different officers, each time with a higher rank from what he thought. But it happened in Cuba! Quite an experience…

  5. Gav the Nomad

    Wow! Seriously insane story. I’ve found it really interesting to observe how different customs officials react around the world to things. In the US or UK you’re likely to wind up in jail. In a place like the Philippines it would be met with a shrug, filling out a form and perhaps a small ‘fee’to get you moving along.

    The world is wonderful, and culture shows up in everything, even security apparatus! lol

  6. Vinz Salvador

    Wow! That’s pretty scary. I’m sorry but I was laughing while reading your experience. Good thing they stopped on checking on you every time you’re at Immigration. 🙂 🙂

  7. Nomadic Soul

    I couldn’t help but laugh uncontrollably throughout this post. I’m sorry. It was a very good read and I cant believe this happened to you. Your a true traveller! I really enjoyed this !!

  8. Christy

    That is one of the worst experiences one could possibly go through.
    It’s like a series of unfortunate incidents; one after another, as though bad luck just poured on you.
    I am so sorry to hear about that, I won’t even begin to say how I understand the situation.
    I have heard of friends going through the inspection and interrogation process (well, because my country was kinda linked to terrorism as well, due to the Muslim status, though really, we are all anti terrorism, I can assure you that), but this is nothing compared to their experience.
    This whole terrorism thing is just throwing people off, and I’m sure we can understand from the customs’ point of view; their reasons for concern.
    (I’m not too inclined to agree on the generalization of the Pakistanis in general, because I think that’s just too biased).

    It must have been a terrible experience, I just keep gasping when I read your misfortune.
    It was just like Murphy’s Law; anything that could go wrong, just would.
    I gasped, shook my head, and I admit, there were times the way you wrote it, I just almost laughed, but then I thought it was mean and I didn’t.
    Sorry, I didn’t find it funny that you had to go through an experience like this, but it was your writing that was just amazing (it’s true!)
    In all, I will keep you in my prayers that you won’t have to go through this whole thing again after your Middle East trip. Look forward to read about it!

  9. Kim

    Seriously enjoying your blog.

    And of course, who wouldnt want those kufa balls?? hahaha!
    Of all the notes you wrote in your travel journal, he had to see that line!!

  10. Ryan Lekan

    Thank you for your blog. I love reading it and researching it. In March I’ll be leaving for a 2 year trip of working and being a tourist, part of it in that area of the world.

    I guess since you are traveling to the middle east and with your experience of the Pakistani people, you would gladly go back to Pakistan and Afghanistan. I would love to travel to those two states but, of course, being a citizen of the US, I am bombarded daily with how unsafe/inadvisable it is to go there.

    What do you think.
    Thanks,
    Ryan

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Ryan – If it were me, I would visit Pakistan or Afghanistan right now. I went several years ago and while it was still quite dangerous, I think the situation might be worse now in terms of foreigners being targets. I don’t think it would be wise to go there at the moment.

  11. Landon @ Uneven Sidewalks

    Awesome experience! I just laughed right now and my wife thinks I’m crazy! The grandkids will love to hear that.

    You’re did have all the flags of a pretty suspicious backpacker packing a bullet and some pretty heavy propaganda… Keep practicing the straight face for your next interrogation!

  12. Abbby

    Wow! You know, I understand that terrorism is an important issue that the US government needs to be concerned about, but I really feel like there should be better ways to go about looking into whether or not people are terrorists than locking them in a room and screaming at them… Frankly, that sounds terrifying… You always kind of hope that you’re safer from potential persecution in your homeland than anywhere else, but clearly that’s not always the case. Sad.

  13. Anna @AnnaEverywhere

    OMG! That’s a story! And I thought I was unlucky when they took me to the interrogation room after I came back to the US a week after I left, this time with 2 big suitcases (I was moving to London via California), and noone believed me…

  14. Yassine Laaroussi

    Since I had a pretty similar situation, I had to read this, I know exactly how must that felt like man, only difference was that I am Muslim, at the time I had a beard not for religious purposes, you can imagine how bad the questions were, questions as bold as , Do you have a problem with america? why are you growing your hair and beard as oppose to my passport photo? Why are you going alone?
    they were surprised by the fact that I was only going to New York for a weekend and coming back to Montreal (where I live) and the three different tripods I was carrying with me didn’t help, neither a paper of prayers I’ve had in my wallet since I was a teenager.
    I remember on my flight back, the airline agent called my name just to check I was boarding the plane, that was definitely an order from the US customs

  15. Kathy

    Hahahaha this is priceless! I have never had this experience, the worst I had was an officer who felt he was a comedian. On seeing I was South African and a vet nurse working in a zoo, he asked if I had any whale blubber… I had just come off a 12hr flight and was a little confused… eventually he chuckled and said “to feed all the animals at the zoo”…. ummm yeah sure of course.
    The one who gave me heart palpitations was the one who queried how I got my green card, that feeling of guilt that always comes with going through customs had be completely tongue tied… again he just laughed and told me he was kidding…
    why do they seem to see me as an amusement???

  16. Nomad Revelations

    WOW man! what an experience!!! I have no words, either tell you that I actually laughed at your situation, or, that I felt sorry that people like you pass thru all this. Either way, definitely a good read! I’m gonna take and share it! enjoy the world. hug from Rio de Janeiro…

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  18. Gabriel

    Generally speaking, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are the absolute bottom feeders of federal service. I grew up in South Texas and both ICE and Border Patrol recruited heavily there. I remember running into guys that when we grew up in high school you would wonder if they would even graduate or avoid ending up in jail and then 4 or 5 years later there they were, working for either one of those agencies. To sum up most ICE/BP agents are poorly educated, disrespectful, and ignorant about any customs/culture/history outside of the particular area that they either grew up in or currently preside in.

  19. Aidan Lyons

    That’s super rough. I can’t even fathom how scary that’s got to be. Especially when presumption of innocence seems not to factor into their decision. While there are a few elements there that could be contrived as suspicious, you would actually have to be suspicious for a legitimate reason. Keep up the great writing

  20. Stacey

    That is insane!

    It’s hard, because when you write it down I can laugh, or roll my eyes at what those guys were sayign to you but when it’s actually happening to you you can’t laugh at them. They’re right in your face, screaming.

    I think you might be on some govornment lists after writing this on the internet, much less your travel plans!

    Crazy world we live in…

  21. Wes Groleau

    “Do you believe in the prophet Mohammed?”
    “Why do you call him a prophet?”

    “Were the people of Pakistan friendly?”
    “Friendlier than you guys.”

  22. Chase

    I had a similar experience. While I was in college I was fortunate enough to land a contract job installing water filters in hospitals around the world. Part of this job involved using my personal laptop to program the computer within the controls of the filter. One of these jobs required me to go to Kenya for the sole purpose of programming the filter. A team before me had done the actual install. This caused me to be on the ground in Kenya for less than 24 hours. At this point in time my mother was running a business where she would buy hand crafted jewelry from women in Africa, sell it in the states and then send all of the profits back to the women she had originally purchased the jewelry from. While I was there she asked me to pick up two suitcases full of beads and necklaces from one of the women she did business with. I received these suitcases with no issues. (Before leaving I went through the suitcases just to be sure there was no illicit material inside) I then boarded a plane back for California. On my trip home I discovered I had a 14 hour layover in Amsterdam. I decided taking the train in to town because that was way better than hanging out in the airport for 14 hours. As I was filling out the necessary entry papers to re-enter the the US of A I was honest on my paper work saying I had entered Kenya for less than 24 hours on business as well as Amsterdam for less than 12. As a college student I’m sure I was the textbook example of a drug mule. The customs agent was less than pleased with my paperwork. After once glance he called over another agent who immediately escorted me to a private room. I was then met by three other agents who proceeded to pull my luggage apart piece by piece. After questioning me about the large amount of “resallable goods” I was bringing into the country, they called in their supervisor. They proceeded to have a pow wow in the corner of the room. In the bits of whispered conversation I was able to pick up I heard one officer say “this is why we are paid the big bucks” and another say “it’s all quiet for months and then something like this happens”. After waiting for upwards of three hours they finally released me to catch my flight that had left hours ago, but not before confiscating my luggage telling me I could “retrieve it from customs after it had been cleared”. Needless to say for a few years after this incident I found myself the victim of many “random” inspections any time I tried to go through customs. At one point while checking in for a flight from Paris to LAX with a good friend of mine, the gate agent proceeded to put a green sticker on my friends passport and a red sticker on mine. I asked her why I got the red sticker. She looked around to see if anyone was listening. After determining we were relatively safe from eavesdroppers she whispered “it means you’re suspicious”. All this to say I found myself on some kind of watch list for many years any time I flew.

  23. An

    Hi Earl. I really like how you present this info as this is sensitive issue. Well done! Wish you have pleasant and easy journey always. Thanks.

  24. Jonny Jenkins

    This is absolutely wild!
    Being a Canadian and crossing the border many times whilst growing up, later whilst going through adolescent rebellion and now as the remarkably *ahem* mature person I’ve become, I’ve had issues with having an alarm clock go off while trying to find my guitar in a restricted area that subsequently put people in ‘bomb scare’ mode, had a wallet found in the vehicle of an unknown person that turned out to be wanted for narcotics trafficking and been stopped for the typical, trying to smuggle (apparently) firewood across the border (been caught on that one multiple times unfortunately)…

    But having a bullet found is just incredible… don’t know if I ever can (or want to) compete with that…

    Although I do have this fun-loving uncle that got the entire border crossing shut down one time as he came up as being ‘radioactive’…

    Ahhh… the stories that those border guards must be able to tell.

  25. Daniel

    The sad part: I bet some will say that, in the name of our national security, this is all acceptable.

    Keep traveling, my friend!

  26. Kara

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article and laughed very hard.

    I was flagged/interrogated/searched by US customs too- for writing a magazine article entitled: “How to Smuggle Drugs Across the Border” which was clearly a satire. Ohhh that Osama bin Laden candy <3

  27. Graeme Voigt

    WOAH! That is insane! It’s such a shame though… the way all these laws and regulations work. I know bad things happen around the world all the time, but with things like this, it seems a bit’ extreme some times. I’d love to visit Middle-Eastern countries – as you know, they would be amazing. Yet the average person can never wrap their heads around why you would want to go there… let alone customs officers! I can only begin to imagine how frustrating this must have been for you!

  28. Chris In Cleveland

    Considering the recent flap over how we treated a diplomat (google “indian diplomat strip searched) can there be any doubt that not only is this story possible but PROBABLE. You could have blinked wrong and gotten a colonoscopy….(google woman billed for medical search). That other Chris must be ‘blessed’.

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  30. Nomad Capitalist

    This is why people are leaving the United States. Who cares where you travel? I spent 10 days in Italy once and got screamed at in secondary inspection. “Who goes to Italy by themselves?!”, I was asked. Apparently not the former Wendy’s workers who would be in the bread line if it weren’t the government’s generosity.

    Sorry to hear about your experience. If you had been Norwegian, Liechtensteinian, etc., it wouldn’t be an issue.

  31. Danik the Explorer @ daniktheexplorer.com

    Great blog, and I had a similar experience in Israel with their border control. IM a UK passport holder, had german passport stamps in my passport (I collect stamps from everywhere I went), and got asked questions like ‘Have any of my family were involved in the Nazi German movement from 1939-1945’ and ‘Do you intend to go to Palestine’ (which I replied No, but I did anyway). 20 minutes later, I was through. Ugh!

    At least my experience going through Boston Logan (the only time I been to the USA so far), was much more pleasureable. 😛

  32. Michael

    My poor Hindu friend, Srinivas, gets the ‘ROYAL AMERICAN CUSTOMS TREATMENT’ every single time he files to his native country, India, from the US. EVERY TIME.

    This ridiculous self-righteous bs happens EVERY SINGLE DAY.

    It’s become like junk mail to US Mail Carriers; job security.

  33. mike dawson

    Danielle,
    TSA agents are much like prison guards. Low wage low effort thinkers many of whom are there because they like to push people around to make up for their own insecurities. Same mentality you get from many cops.

  34. jamesk

    Hi Earl,

    Funny story, but also quite frustrating.
    The “power” these TSA folk assume is frightening. I’ve never had quite as nasty an experience as this one, but I’ve been to the US four times, and twice was on the receiving end of some random employee’s bad day.
    And, sadly, it’s actually turned me off ever returning. It got so frustrating that I decided “fine, if the US doesn’t want my Euros, I’ll spend them somewhere else.”

    Obviously, the US isn’t as highly reliant on tourist dollars as say, Ireland, but the airport is the first place of contact for many visitors, so a little more decorum could be used.

    “Do you believe in the words of the prophet mohammed?” That’s just absurd. Does saying “yes” confirm you’re a terrorist? These people need to, ironically, travel more of the world and get their heads outside their little US-centric bubble.

  35. agirlnamedwander

    Earl chooses to spend a lot of his time offering advice and experiences to help others. It’s disappointing that you have to be so critical Chris.

  36. WishfulWanderer

    I can’t believe Chris thought you made this up. I’m an American citizen, an unexceptional middle-aged woman. While I was going through security at a domestic airport (in the US but near that suspect Canadian border), a TSA agent who wasn’t paying attention to her surroundings walked backwards, tripped over me, and fell. She became enraged at me, had my bags searched, confiscated some legal items, and then put a tail on me for the rest of my time in the airport. I was then stopped and searched prior to every domestic flight I took for years after, until, like you, I was apparently dropped from the list. Agencies that have as many employees as TSA and Customs will always have some losers who abuse their authority.

  37. Petra

    I thought about going to the U.S. next year or so, but this story makes me doubt whether this is a good idea. Maybe not.

  38. Jo (The Blond)

    It’s really sad that people, who guard your borders are quite frankly uneducated. I understand that you need to be extra careful these days, but a box of candies and a piece of burkha doesn’t make anyone a terrorist.
    It’s scary what kind of country the US is slowly becoming.

  39. Shelley

    Scary and frustrating. My friend was stripped searched and questioned in a layover in LA on her way to Toronto, for over in hour after a work trip to Bangkok. The Officer just couldn’t understand why she had made such a short trip to Thailand (5 days for a work conference). She must be smuggling drugs. She also looks young too, even though she was in her late 20’s. She was humiliated and brought to tears.
    I was questioned rather suspiciously in Montreal once, because I had been to over 20 countries in a relatively short amount of time (3 years maybe). I was asked the name every single country in the order I traveled. Nothing as crazy as what Earl went through, but it leads me to believe every single word he said.
    I have another Indian friend who has longish hair and travels a lot, he is a Christian with a regular Christian (Timothy), but still is treated so badly while he travels. He refuses to even go to America anymore, and he is a popular Indian classical musician. Endless stories and I can go on and on…
    My husband is a Muslim from India, and I am worried about him traveling by himself. I told him to expect more scrutiny, and it makes me sad to have to say that to him. Though, like many others here, I refuse to travel through America anymore. The officers scare me, and I find the questioning unnerving. When my husband comes we’ll choose a flight that has him lay-over in Dubai and that goes straight to Toronto!

  40. Cody

    It’s a really great post. I can see this from both sides. Those officers are, as many officers, and police, and military are, trained to be paranoid and taught how to intimidate. Those are the tools they have to carry out their jobs. And they are, as they should be, more afraid to let someone go free who might be a danger to other people.. than they are worried about your individual civil rights, any kind of basic human respect, or even acting with common sense.

    You did not help the situation by not thinking about it first, and taking with you so many things to make, well, anybody, suspicious. Even I’m a little suspicious of you now, hehe.
    He is asking you if you believe in the words of the Prophet Mohammed because they were trying to figure you out. From the evidence they gathered, they could think that you are just thoughtless and a bit naive or you have extreme Islamic beliefs and have rejected the U.S. and possibly planning to do something bad. They don’t know you like you know yourself or like your friends and family know you, so they are very cautious. But I think you already understand that.

    Unfortunately propaganda and the media go a very long way in influencing people who don’t know any better. Some people also prefer to hate than to think.
    It’s true that the majority of the people in the world are not extremists or jihadists or dangerous. They are just normal, even humble, people trying to survive, make a living, and feed their families. The enemy is the “us versus them” mentality, and that mentality exists wherever you go. The good thing is that you can also find open-minded, friendly, good, and helpful people wherever you go as well. My favorite part of this post is how the little boy from Kabul had, well, saved your life, as you were about to wander up a hill that was littered with land mines. That’s not the kind of wandering I think you wanted to do there. Thanks for the post, Earl. Keep up the good work.
    Did the bin Laden candy taste good? Classic, man, really classic.

  41. John Sheehan

    This is absolutely one of the funniest travel stories that I have ever seen or heard. I would have told him to “F” himself, but I’m older (65, a veteran and a retired government employee).

    For the record, having had many “adventures”, I believe every single word of your story.

    I know people who work for the now named Homeland Security. A number of the people working at the lower pay grades are not that smart or worldly. If you file a complaint, it will go in their record. Also, suppose that you were a Muslim, you could have filed a complaint under Title VI for religious discrimination.

    Ps. I have a few good stories myself. I’m currently in the Philippines.

  42. Gemma

    Wowee, I was literally holding my breath in parts of this story! Scary!
    Great that it all worked out fine for you – and I guess it makes a good story now!
    G.

  43. Hissy

    I’m a Canadian citizen and recently flew with my common-law partner from Canada to Cancun via Houston. At Houston Int’l, we walked up toether to the Customs Agent with our passports and form, only to be yelled at that unless we had been legally married “IN A CHURCH,” we should NEVER try to enter the US as a family unit. We had to re-do our papers and go up separately.

    I’m female, my partner’s male. Sure, I understand that different countries have different rules, but surely the guard could have been more tactful. As it was, it was was both humiliating and insulting. I can’t even imagine how the guard would have treated us if we had been a same-sex couple. And this leads me to another question: how do legally married same-sex couples enter the US? Do they have to go up separately?

  44. Gina

    I loved reading this story! But I am sorry you have such a horrible experience. The worst time I’ve had when coming back into the US, is fighting with custom agents about the amount of money I own. I lived in Japan for 9 years and therefor they said I was considered a non-resident and they wanted to tax everything I was bringing into the US. I asked for supervisor and politely pointed out that citizenship trumps residence. He agreed and sent me on my way

  45. Nim

    A really big star from India was subjected to such torture because his name had a ‘Khan’ in it. And believe me this guy is bigger than Tom Cruise! I’m trying to understand what you must have gone through it. Cheers that’s in the past now!

  46. Kat

    Hey did you get your bullet back? After reading the entire thing which I found to be hilarious and just incredible that you were put through that, the bullet was still in the back of my mind. It would’ve meant a lot to me thats why I ask!

  47. Izy Berry

    You’re story is a bit scary, luckily haven’t experienced that and I never want to experience that! I am glad that everything stopped and all went back to normal.

  48. ourjourneytothesea

    This is such a great story. Funny, but sad at the same time. I personally think you are crazy for travelling through an international airport with a bullet in your pocket haha. Those customs officers get up on their high horse over the tiniest little things sometimes. It doesn’t even need to be a bullet, or Osama candy.

  49. Tanya

    Hello,

    I’m actually not surprised AT ALL by this.

    First I’d like to mention that I’m a Canadian citizen that’s traveled to the US on my own more than a few times either by myself, with friends, or with school. I was 21 at the time this happened.

    As a student, I decided in 2012 that a cheaper way to travel might do my wallet some good considering I was attending a private college. As such, I decided to to the US by bus and than return by plane. I bought my plane ticket with air miles points so it was even cheaper.

    I get to the boarder in the bus,get in line whatever and then get to the counter. The guy hassled me for about 10 mins at the counter as to why I was going by bus and then return via plane… he didn’t understand the concept of CHEAPER TRAVELING. And this is after the fact I told him I worked as a public security officer for two cities back home.

    Anyways, 15 mins later Im back on the bus. I don’t know what he put in my file, because next thing you know when I’m returning back to Canada they searched my backpack after it had just gone through the xray scanner. There was only my laptop and a book inside but still. This wasn’t the first time I was bringing my laptop along, but it was the first time they searched me =/

  50. LeslieRI

    So is this a USA thing? And is it searching with attitude or just the attitude that is so awful? I’ve had some training in dealing with angry people and I would think the TSA would too. And one thing you wouldn’t want to do to an unstable person like a terrorist is escalate the situation. Intimidation and fear are bully techniques, a sure sign of insecurity, no pun intended.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Leslie – I had no problem with them searching my stuff and asking questions. I would do the same if I was in their shoes and I came across myself. But that attitude and clear lack of cultural awareness is the part that was so unfortunate and it made me think that there is very little training taking place for these customs agents. Surely their techniques are not the best way to deal with potential threats.

  51. Danielle

    Earl-
    I’ve lived in the middle east my whole life but my whole family is American including myself. Even though I travel twice a year from where I live now in Louisiana to the UAE to visit my parents, I got stopped coming back to New Orleans this Jan at JFK and was interrogated for half an hour. I am a 21 year old college student so I was pretty shocked. I have an American passport. One TSA agent actually asked me ‘where I got it’. After we all figured out that I had no evil plans the same man told me it was dangerous for me to travel to the middle east by myself ‘where the arab men could take advantage of me’. Nothing like a little misogyny mixed in with your daily dose of blatant racism. At the risk of being ‘invited’ back to the little room I told him that I have experienced more unwanted advances in the US than ever have in the UAE. He replied with ‘watch it, nobody likes a girl with a smart mouth’…seriously!?!? The thing is I have had some perfectly wonderful experiences with TSA agents who helped me retrieve a stolen camera (yes, someone stole my camera FROM SECURITY) so just like in every other job of power there is going to be some sad sack who talks before thinking.
    Anyway, Great post!

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  53. Simon

    That really riled Chris up ey? I got my bags turned upside down and emptied in LA because I had a layover before Canada. I’d come from Fiji… Questioned for about 30 mins and then allowed to pick up all my stuff and repack it all… while they said hurry up. They couldn’t understand why I had come via L.A. I told them I couldn’t explain why British Airways fly like this either.

    Still there are some masssssive tools that work in airports all over the world

  54. Melody

    oh, I know exactly how you feel. I spent some time in Middle East for a business trip a few years ago. I have very very dark brown hair, and had a pretty dark tan when I got done with my trip, seeing as I had spent about 2 months there. I was in a damn interrogation office for 3 hours. It was the first time I had ever been out of the country in my life, and I was obviously on a business trip *sigh*. Very VERY frustrating.

  55. Luke

    You probably know this by now, but only a federal judge can revoke you citizenship. Further it is illegal to be stateless. From talking with my lawyer friends who have knowledge of immigration cases I’m not surprised by the story. But if they are suspicious they will keep you while they run your name against a bunch of databases. If you are an american citizen, probably would the best thing would be to ask questions, and then ask if you are free to go or if you are being detained. If they are not detaining you, then they have to let you go. And, obviously in the future it would be a better idea to not carry bullets in airports.

  56. jonny

    I certainly haven’t had any experiences as shocking as this one (good read, by the way), although I have heard countless tales of passing through American Immigration being a nightmare. Even when I was in transit in Houston airport on my Mexico City-London flight, the guy at the desk hounded me for filling in the wrong form as a British citizen, and how I could be committing a felony etc., and I wasn’t even trying to get into the damn country! It smacked of unnecessary abuse of power. I dread to think how your experience would have been, Earl, had you been travelling on a non-American passport!! By the way, I just discovered your website last night and am already hooked on your stories. Nice work, buddy.

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  59. Charles @ The Barefoot Nomad

    That’s a crazy story Earl and I don’t doubt a word you said. Years ago a bunch of friends and I decided to cross into the States for a getaway weekend. We were all 18 however drinking in the US was 21 so we weren’t expecting to be able to hit the bars or anything. As we drove across the border I guess our ages were suspicious so they pulled us over. They went through our car with a fine tooth comb including using mirrors to check underneath and dogs to sniff around.

    They then proceeded to look through every article of clothing and all our bags. One of the “nice” men found an expired copy of my older brothers drivers license in my wallet. How it got there, “cough cough”, I don’t know but the border guard wasn’t very happy with me. After 15 minutes of yelling and lecturing I was let go to join the rest of our group and kept going. We were an inch away from being refused entry into the States and the only thing they found on any of us was that piece of ID that was not only expired and had no picture on it, but my brother wasn’t even 21 yet so it was pretty much useless regardless.

    This was a decade before 9/11 and I’m a guy who lived 45 minutes from the US border his whole life. Glad you made it through safely and I don’t wish what you went through on anyone that doesn’t deserve it. To this day I still get nervous whenever I fly into the US or have to go through American customs. I can cross over into a country where every one and their dog are holding Uzi’s and sawed off shotguns and I won’t even break a sweat. Maybe that was their whole point. Good post.

    1. Earl

      Hey Charles – I tend to agree with that last line you wrote and sadly, I hear such stories as yours all the time. Many of my Canadian friends are always nervous about crossing into the US (even though they have nothing to hide) and many will pay more for airfare just to avoid having to change planes in the US.

      1. Patricia

        When I was married years ago to an American citizen, while I am a Canadian citizen, my husband asked for information from the US Govt. We were being married in Canada and the US Govt told him he could bring me over no problem and he could take care of the paperwork once we came to Chicago. At the border after our marriage, they denied me entry and walked me back to the Canadian border at gunpoint. I was obviously upset, we had our marriage certificate, a car full of wedding presents and they were worried about me, a Canadian, like I was a threat. They told us we were certainly given some bad information about entry and that they couldn’t do anything about it, all the while treating me like I was some kind of criminal. We hit the US Embassy in Toronto to see what we could do and someone was kind enough to tell us where we could see an immigration judge but asked that we not tell anyone where we got the information. We hauled ass down to Detroit and met with this man who took pity on us and gave me a humanitarian visa to enter the US so that we could then file paperwork for a green card, which we did immediately. I cross the border all the time to see my family and have been asked numerous times why I haven’t taken out US citizenship. Like that is any of their business, I have a green card, I don’t wish to take out US citizenship and shouldn’t be harassed because of my choices. I don’t get the attitude of some border patrol because I am a Canadian. Most of the time it is fine but there is one or two… When were denied entry all those years ago and had to cross back into Canada, the border patrol attitude of those people was welcome sir, come live here. We are not as heartless. Go figure. I am leaving in a couple of weeks for a week in Scotland and I travel on a British passport as I was born there, I cannot wait to come back to see what happens. Kinda scares me. Travelling should not make you afraid of returning home.

  60. Rahul

    I believe such experience is possible , have read some other similar stories also…

    Liked what I read …U had an awesome 🙂

  61. Bradord Rogers

    I was going through UK customs when the officer asked me how I finance my travels. I said from my IRA. This, understandably raised his eyebrows. I hadn’t been aware until then that the acronyms for individual retirement account and Irish Republic Army were the same. A quick clarification and I was on my way.

  62. Ro

    I am a US greencard holder from the philippines. I get asked almost everytime I come back from my international travels. No idea why but i thought maybe bec customs wonder who is funding me travels? Bec Americans are so narrow minded about travlling the world, they assume u have to have tons of money to do so while in fact you dont. I used to think that bec im a non US citizen that this could be the reason but after reading this, I guess it doesn’t matter. Im in canada now and canadian customs also detained my why im travelling here for 30 days… My work is online so I can do it anywhere in the world and i have airline benefits. I know customs are just doing their job but until now, I have no clue why they keep detaining me everytime. Weird but true… While your story is much colorful, I knw this detaining shit is true. If you have a very strong accent they treat you badly. I have a US accent but I have seen customs treat non english speaking people badly. This is bad! If only I can record it for you all to see but I cant so its my word against theirs.

  63. Johnathin

    Just so you know, this kind of thing does happen. For instance, in Vancouver they killed a guy because he was holding a stapler and couldn’t speak English. And we’re talking the US here. (No bias, cough cough).

  64. Iain M.

    Wow Chris! Neat that you had a decent experience at airport security! But here’s a shocker: Every single customs agent/ security personnel at every single airport is not going to behave identically. Your assumption that this story is fabricated based upon one trivial experience that you personally had is totally asinine. I am not from the US but I have certainly experienced some customs agents who very intentionally attempted to intimidate, posture, and belittle me – until the point that they were satisfied that there was absolutely no justification in continuing their behavior and begrudgingly allowed me to pass. Frankly, the customs officials in question could have simply seen this as an opportunity to practice in case of the real thing. Who knows? I know a few people who have wound up on lists for little to no reason and it has resulted in significant disruption to their travel schedules.

  65. Chris

    I dont believe half of this. I have been around the world and have always written where i have been on my paperwork, and never had a problem, really, he got a foot away from your face and screamed “Do you believe in the words of the Prophet Mohammed?” you should be ecstatic, since you could sue for millions. But since its a fake story, probably wont go so well for you…. and they freaked out about the candy? Really? Doubt it. I once accidentally forgot a set of ornamental knives in my carry on. They pulled them out of my bag and then asked me a few questions, i explained and she said she could either throw them away, or I could go back out and mail them to myself, and then re enter security. Point being, please dont make up stories about our airports being this giant horror show. They arent pleasant experiences for the most part, but just stop and think for one second about how privileged you are to be able to just jump on a plane and go wherever you please.

      1. meelash

        Come out of your bubble. Every time I come back from Pakistan, my luggage gets searched in customs multiple times. Maybe, you’re confusing domestic security with international.

        Nothing about this story is unbelievable to anyone that flies from the middle east or the indian subcontinent with any regularity.

    1. Dalia

      Going to have to Iain on this one, Chris. Not everyone is as decent as we’d like them to be, and no two people are the same for sure.

      Try coming home after a 17 hour series of flights and being held in Customs for 8 hours because you looked “suspicious” or a member of your family seemed “dangerous”.

      Some things seriously aren’t fair to all of us, I suppose. And that, I speak from experience. Not only in the U.S., but even in other countries, such as Egypt (which is a whole other story on its own).

    2. Lauren

      Chris, interrogations are constantly going on like this. They take you to a private room. You just apparently got lucky! Besides, why would Earl lie about this? Go find someone else to bother! Thank you Earl for allowing us to ‘travel’ through your experiences. God bless!

    3. Ella

      I don’t want to take any sides, but Chris, any argument that relies on the TSA being reasonable people is doomed to failure. I once spent 45 minutes at a TSA checkpoint, on a domestic flight, while my eleven year old sister (petit, blond, traveling with her whole family, ELEVEN) had her cast for her broken arm tested for bomb residue. When my mother touched her hair to comfort her, she got pulled aside as well.
      The hostility was simply incredible. And nearly everyone who has traveled has these stories. This story, while out of line, doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility.

  66. Patrick

    This is some really good info! The good and the bad.

    I’m American and my wife, Michele, and I are making final preparations to start our travels around the world (in large part thanks to Earl) with our 16 year old son. We wanted to give him the opportunity to see all these places as a way to broaden his horizons and hopefully give him an education that’s filled with wonder and amazement.

    Our first stop will be to Ecuador to continue our work on our online income generation for a few moths, then into Thailand to continue it some more, if needed at that point.

    I expect it to take us a year or so to get things rolling in to the point we can pull in the kind of money Earl does, but we will work at it as hard as it takes to make it happen.

    We want to spend some time in Bali, and the Philippines and who knows where else, so it will be the life of traveling from place to place, plop down, enjoy the locale, work like crazy to make money to continue the traveling to the next place.

    I do admit that I am very nervous about making this life style change. I have lived in the same house now for going on 7 years and the thoughts of a life with no ties is a bit intimidating. Never knowing where we will stay next, always wondering what lies ahead.

    We will be leaving with about 10k in the bank and we will be doing as much Virtual assistant work as we can get, along with the site work and all the stuff we have planned for that.

    Thanks for sharing all that you do Earl, it’s helped us down a path that will be an experience that few people in our modern world ever get to live!

    -Patrick

    1. Earl

      Hey Patrick – It’s so great to hear stories such as your and it seems that you already understand that even though some solid effort is required, the lifestyle you want is more than possible. I certainly look forward to hearing how it turns out! And once you arrive in Ecuador, after a very short time, I’m confident that all of your fears and worries about the transition will suddenly disappear 🙂

  67. Teddy

    How did Pakistan and Afghanistan receive you at the airport Earl? You said that the locals were very kind but how were the government officials?

    1. Earl

      Hey Teddy – No problems at all, but I didn’t fly in to those countries. I crossed overland from India to Pakistan and from Pakistan to Afghanistan as well. But both times I was welcomed and didn’t have a single issue at the borders.

  68. Chael

    And I thought I had it bad sometimes. I think the day I return back to the US after a visit to the middle east, I’ll get it even worse; my travel style is vagabond, hitchhiker, wanderer, often pennyless. Ugh. But, this serves as a good warning.

  69. Sirdalmi

    Well… yeah.
    Earl, you were pretty optimistic. The bullet, the book, the burqa and the sweets. In a movie it would seem too much !
    I’m a white girl travelling alone and it’s always for me ! Double security check, the torn apart suitcase lining and broken lock, take off your shoes, what’s in your toiletry bags and so on…
    But I’ve never been anywhere near what others had to go through. I do believe, however, that it’s way too much to ask people who they will meet, how they know that person, where they will stay and what they’re going to do.
    If you’re up to no good, you would have all the right answers to look harmless. But if you don’t have a plan and land in a country where you don’t know a living soul… it becomes tricky to justify why you’re there.

    Anyway, all those stories, especially yours Earl, make me think of the movie Harold and Kumar escape from Guantanamo Bay. The crazy officer could be real… which is rather scary >_<.

  70. Joel Bruner

    What a story man! This sounds quite intense… like just about the worst thing that could happen in a US Imm. setting. But dude Ill tell you this, at least you were in the US! The stuff that can happen when youre in Africa…

    Well written too! Now I also find myself wanting to visit Pakistan more than ever. Im sure it is quite a place, and all the Pakistanis Ive met have been super friendly!

    Take care man! God bless

    1. Earl

      Hey Joel – I’m sure there are plenty of places around the world where this situation could have been much worse!

  71. Kit

    OMFG just another reason I hate US immigration! I’m a white English speaking Canadian girl and I was harassed for 7 straight years crossing the US border. I haven’t got a criminal record nor have I ever done anything illegal, wrong or suspicious to deserve that kind of treatment. I just rubbed someone the wrong way one time, and it haunted me for a long time.
    I cannot stand ignorance and a lot of the people that work the border are power happy jerks… unfortunately there is nothing you can do. Those bastards have so much authority it would be hard NOT to have a swollen head. It’s just too bad that having a job in the arena of intercultural awareness DOES NOT ACTUALLY REQUIRE YOU TO BE INTERCULTURALLY AWARE. B.S… grr… Great blog though. Great blog.

  72. Nuo-ya Li

    Wooza!

    I was in situation back in 2005/2006 when I went back China for exchange. While i had no problems getting into the country, they would not let me out again!
    They were suspicious of my Australian passport. The officials thought it was a fake. It was made worse that I only had a debit card in my name and no another photo ID. They asked for a driver’s license and not understanding you need to be 18 to get that.
    It was a crazy time.
    In the end, I did the ‘asian’ thing: called my grandfather to get him to pull some strings with the local government.

  73. Raquel

    Incredible. I am form Spain, and I am sorry but the story is ridiculous! it is surreal, why are they so stupid, I am serious, what is wrong with those police officers?. I am soo sorry you had to go though that. And it not some of their actions kind of illegal?

  74. Christine

    WOW! That is quite a story. Yor posessions that followed the discovery of the bullet were like the perfect storm! I am now officially frightened that those guys are carrying guns and are in charge of my security, so thanks for that!;-) I tend to be the ‘random check’ person. Traveling for work with colleagues, I was the only one who was ever checked for bomb residue or had to unpack and repack my bags. They always laughed about it. I believe with my pasty white complexion and honest face I am the perfect defense to prove they are not racial profiling. LOL! Who knows! There was a time when I was returning from Korea with a carry-on filled with pottery and my hard drive and all chargers, etc. The man flipped out screaming, “Who’s bag is this,” in such a nasty tone as he threw it up on the top of the x-ray machine, and of course it was mine. A bit nervous due to his reaction, I raised my hand and took responsibility for the bag, and what surprised me was his complete and immediate look of relief and change in body language and tone. He explained that the bag came up flashing ‘Organic Matter” and all he could make out on the x-ray was all the wires everywhere (I can see that would cause some concern). He did his job and swabbed all for explosive residue, while explaining each step kindly to me. I have always wondered what that check would have been like if I had darker skin or were a man in a turban though. We live in a crazy mixed up world, this is true, but it is amazing in so many ways and travel is worth the hassle! Thanks for the story, no matter what hassles or frustrations I have through airports and customs I will always remember this story and think, “it could be worse!”

    1. Earl

      Hey Christine – I have a feeling that the situation would have been MUCH different for some people. Glad you only had a scare and were not detained or anything like that. And I certainly hope you continue to be detained-free when you return home after your future travels 🙂

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  78. Tigsy

    Hi Earl,

    I’ve traveled to the US and Asian countries (Hong Kong, Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines, Laos and Cambodia) and I’ve only met one asshole of a customs officer and that was in America, “Land of the Free” LOL.

    Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of things American I like including a lot of the people but the TSA agents, and a bunch in US gov’t, are such pricks.

    Los Angeles 2009:

    I hold a US green card after living in the US over 6 years. Upon returning to the US after a holiday in Asia, I apparently filled out the form wrong. On the question “Where was your passport issued?” I wrote down “Los Angeles, CA” because that’s where my Filipino passport was issued and it says so right there on my passport: “Issued in Los Angeles, CA”.

    Turns out my answer was wrong because I was supposed to write down “Philippines”. They phrased the question wrong! I got my passport from the Philippine consulate in LA so it was just some misunderstanding.

    I explained this to the customs officer and he wouldn’t even listen to me. He went on to say in an arrogant tone “Do you know it’s wrong to impersonate a US citizen?”. I didn’t want to argue so I just replied politely, “OK, so I filled it out wrong. Honest mistake.”

    He let me through but before I left his counter he had to add the totally unnecessary comment,”Write down US only if you become a citizen in the future…that is, if you do!” with a smug look.

    I had the opportunity to apply for a US citizen last year and the chance is still there. I’m opting out. Not just because of that incident but many more related to the American government and the way those in power mistreat even their own people. I’ll keep my Filipino passport, thank you. Sure, we’re a poor country but we know how to talk to other people with respect! And I prefer to live in Asia all my days anyway.

    That and I won’t have to pay US taxes EVER which end up as salaries to these assholes!

    Great post, Earl =)

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  80. Brian

    I think you staged all that so you had a nice article to write in your blog. I mean, seriously? How dumb do you have to be to have that stuff in your bag? Interesting story, nonetheless.

    1. Earl

      Hey Brian – That theory would make sense if I had a blog back then but that was a few years before the thought of having a blog even came into my mind 🙂 And you can call it dumb if you’d like, means nothing to me…

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  83. David

    I can see both sides. Don’t bring a bullet through customs – that should be a no-brainer. Bringing in anything Osama-related is going to get some questions. Culturally insensitive at the very least to do that in the USA.

    That said, I’ve heard enough customs horror stories to turn me off from ever going to the USA. No big problem, there over 150 others still to visit…

  84. 50+ and on the Run

    Hey, I once had a TSA agent take my tweezers and a lip gloss. Really? I was still muttering about it when I rummaged thru my backpack and realized I had totally forgotten to leave my (tiny) pocket knife out of my pack. oops.

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    1. Kayla

      Aww, I promise, that’s only a stereotype, and though there are crappy stories of customs, most of the time it goes just fine. I promise, not all Americans are arrogant, just like not all Europeans are arrogant, not everybody from the Middle East is a terrorist, not everybody from Central and South America does drugs… the list goes on. Really, we’re just people, like everybody else in the world, just trying to make a living and take care of our families.

  87. Chris

    Well, here’s my horror story: I am 67 and have had an artificial right knee for 3 years. The first time I went through the scanners after the nmew knee was at Reagan. They were unable to determine what was setting off the gate scanners, so I helpfully volunteered, “Right knee.” This was a huge mistake! I was then subjected to “intensive” pat-down, which includes fondling of the privates and extensive questioning as to motives for travel, etc. I was completely cooperative. But I was also advised that my name would be put into a data base to “ease” my future travels. That turned out to be a lie. My name was put into a database that requires “intensive screening” whenever I fly.

    When I fly, I always just keep my mouth tightly shut. The TSA agents are unable to detect the artificial knee and are nable to determine what sets off scanners, gates, and wands. And I leave it that way. BTW an artificial knee is about the same composition and bulk as a handgun. I usually answer their questions with either “Yes.” or “No.” or with another question. If they ask, “Did anyone else have possession of yout bags?” I just ask, “Such as?” And they say something like “Your wife?” and I then say “No.” They are too poorly trained to see that they just got zero information.

    I have writing to the TSA about it and received only a form letter thanking me for “assisting in their process.” I have written my Congessmen, only to be told that they cannot intervene in the TSA process. In short, there is no way to remove your name from their databases. Period. I was even shown my entry, which states, “Cooperative but possible deceptive. Contraband.” by a Delta agent (wearing a Sikh turban) at Heathrow.)

    These people are spending billions of dollars on “security” that is nothing more than theater. But the more sinister problems is that they have a strangle hold on the country’s transportation system. This would be extremely useful politically should push come to shove.

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  89. Jalal Hameed Bhatti

    Thank you for this very candid post and thank you for telling the world that Pakistanis are friendly – it is only those paid mercenaries who have tarnished the image f Pakistan. I have shared the link in my blog so that my viewers/readers too read your account.

  90. MdAmor

    About 20 years ago I was on a business trip working in the UP of Michigan. I decided to drive into Canada for the day. I went over the bridge and stopped at the Canadian border. A nice woman asked me why I wanted to enter. I told her that I wanted to take a drive around. No problem. When it was time to come back I saw a couple hitchhiking at the bridge. I gave them a ride and went to the US side. They were teens from France. At the USA border they got out and were led to the walkin center. From what I could tell they were immediately allowed to enter. I pulled my rental car up to the gate and the woman took my drivers license. She looked at it (Florida state DL), pointed to a garage door and told me to drive in. When I got in the building they pulled down the door. It was a small building with pull down doors on both sides. The next thing I know is 2 military men with M-16’s come out and completely search my car. I had an expensive piece of electronic test equipment in the car, but nothing else. I thought that they would take it! Luckily after about 45 minutes they let me go. I will never forget how 2 hitchhiking young foreigners that spoke little English entered the USA with no problem, but me a 30 something USA businessman got totally harassed!!!

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  93. Payman

    I’ve been all over the world and the only place on the planet where usually, immigration officers treat people like animals have been in the US. It’s such a pity as the US is a great country to visit and ever since that, I have decided to completely boycot the US. Not worth the hassle. Even when flying to Asia or South America, if I were to get a ticket with a connection in the US, it would be 3-400 cheaper than a direct one from Canada, but I gladly pay that extra 3-400 and avoid the US altogether. I’ve always been treated with respect and as a human being anywhere else except the US. These ignorant animals of TSAs are not giving a good image of their countries not making people want to visit the US. Such a pity as it’s a great place with great people. Such a pity and such a waste as I’d love to visit more frequently and even toyed seriously with the idea of making Miami my part time residence. But that’s not going to happen with the hassle that is going and leaving the US.

  94. becky

    I spent 4 years with DHS, at a major airport(not there any more)
    and am surprised to read so many females claiming males either did their pat down or wanding (on the 3 year old girl)
    unless things have changed, here in the states the policy is the Agent must be the same gender as the passenger, no exceptions.
    Since this is the DHS policy, I’d definitely demand answers as to why they didn’t follow policy and procedure.
    I wasn’t TSA so please don’t bounce on me….
    I’m sure most of us have security stories from all over the globe…
    But like I said….take a copy of their policies and procedures (it’s online) and if they try it again, I’d think you’ve got them by the balls

  95. Kendall

    I had a small confrontation in the Bogotá airport. When you enter the airport, even if you come in via another flight, you have to walk outside and then come back through their security, which is manned by military personnel. Each gate in the terminal is a separate room, with another security check before you can enter. In Colombia, they do not allow passengers to bring water on to the plane. Even unopened bottles of water purchased in the terminal. You can, however, bring open bottles of alcohol onto the plane. This was the last leg of nearly twenty-four day, and I was very tired. When they wouldn’t let me bring water on the plane, I argued, in my broken Spanish. This, of course, did not go over well. As I began to attract the attention of more military personnel, I decided that as a sixteen year old girl, it probably wasn’t really in my interest to spend the day in the airport holding cell.

  96. Sebar

    Recently I found myself in a similar but not as serious situation when I traveled to the US to visit my girlfriend in NYC.

    I already was used to my picture as well as my fingerprints being taken upon entering the US. The last time I entered the US though it was in the Midwest, and I was treated very nicely and respectfully.

    This time I arrived in Newark and I think the two points that caught the customs officer’s attention were me giving him a honest answer to the question how I was doing (I’m sorry, but I’m German, and if somebody asks me after a 8 hour flight how I’m doing, I’m gonna tell them that I’m tired) and at which exact day (!) I last entered the US. Obviously I did not remember that exact date. He then asked me a bunch of pretty personal questions about me and my girlfriend (how we met, how long we where together, how we earned money, her race (!), how I could afford to travel to the US as a student (!))… After I answered all of his questions, the guy shouted out “ESCORT” and a big, black guy escorted me to a room in the back. In this room I was not allowed to use my cell (i.e. to call my girlfriend to tell her, I was gonna be late)… I was in that room with about 15 people… most of them were black or at least pretty brown. I was the only white person in that room, apart from some of the officer’s. The officers basically did nothing and talked about private stuff and baseball for about 15 minutes until they called up the first person in the room to ask him some ridiculous questions… Everybody in the room was allowed to leave. Then it was my turn to be asked the exact same questions as at the customs desk before. After they guy put a stamp into my passport and told me I was OK to go, I asked him why I was asked these questions, but the guy just replied to me that “everybody is suspect to suspicions” and that I’d “better leave now”… So I did… My suitcase was the only one left on the belt and my poor girlfriend had to wait 90 minutes for me.

    Once again: I’m a German student, now suspicious stamps in my passport, no legal record or anything like that… ALSO: If you want to enter the US you have to fill out something called “Visa Waiver” where among other ridiculous questions you’re asked whether you ever killed a jew… I was born in 1988… WTF!?

  97. Ju

    well, i know this post is getting old but it’s funny (and comforting) to see that i’m not alone. To make it short: Last week i left France to spend 1 month in Vancouver, Edmonton, Banff and Jasper, Canada. I was supposed to meet up with a friend in Edmonton but before catching my flight i had to go through the immigration office. They basically asked me where i was going, the purpose of my trip and where i was staying. Being honest i answered that i was meeting a friend who was supposed to show me the area and that i would left her to go on on my own. Unfortunately (for me) she happens to have 4 kids and i am 15 years younger than her. The lady officer basically told me what i was “stealing a canadian citizen’s job” because i was going to look after the kids and that i needed a work permit. She gave me no chance to answer or to explain what i was really going to do and she gave me two options: 1. being heard by the immigration board… and maybe facing the 1 year prohibition to come back to Canada (they win most of the time), and 2. withdraw my will to enter the country and go back to my country that day( and paying for my own flight) or the morning after. I really didn’t want to get into trouble ( i’m just a student trying to discover new places) so i accepted to leave. I understand that governments want to protect their job market… but in my case, it was so unfair. If i could write the whole story i would entitle it ” How to lose 2000$, 2L of tears and a month of fun in five minutes” . PS: I’m a student, 50$ notes don’t grow on trees in my world.I had to work like a dog to pay for my flights.

  98. Cindy in the Netherlands

    My son and I moved to the Netherlands when he was 16. My son is a really good kid, very anti-drug and even volunteered on Friday nights here at a local youth center. When he turned 18 he decided to move back to the States. While living here he had started dressing pretty gothic, black clothing, army boots, dying his blond hair blue or black and sometimes wearing a little eyeliner and black nail polish. It was just his way of self expression. I knew that an 18 year old young man flying alone from Amsterdam to Atlanta would be prime target for the customs agents so I suggested that he wore some “regular” clothing for his flight to, hopefully, lessen this chance. He was having no part of it. Sure enough, he gets to Atlanta and is searched three times by customs. They only found his clothing, some book and video games and a stuffed rabbit that he had gotten in his very first Easter basket!! On a return visit to the Netherlands, I picked him up at the airport and lo and behold, he was dressed in jeans and a polo!!

  99. Sundus

    Aww I just read this, good to know not all Americans think us Pakistanis terrorists. Hope you had a great time in Pakistan! My cousin missed 2 flights at the US customs because they kept checking her bags and etc many times. Lol an 18 year old international college student would totally be a threat. -.-

    1. carolyn

      There are unfortunately a lot of Americans who are still knee-jerkingly suspicious of anyone who “looks Muslim” but it is getting better. We’re trying :/

    2. Kirstin

      I promise not all US citizens are like these TSA agents. One of my best friends is Afghani, and he is farther from a “terrorist” than many Americans I know. Please don’t think the worst of all of us- the government and its agents are not representative of the entire populous.

  100. Mack Reynolds

    wow, this is ridiculous. i was getting scared as i read the piece. good suspense writing. that’s pretty shitty of people. it kinda gets outta hand i think. i’m glad you made it out, and that they didn’t physically harm you.

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  102. Kasey

    I grew up overseas and went to boarding school for high school, so I traveled all the time. I had the same passport from when I was 5 until very recently, so its full of visas from all the countries Ive lived in or visited, like Nepal, Vietnam, Nigeria, Venezuela and Indonesia. The last time I flew into the States, about a year ago, I filled out my customs card, marking that I had just recently been to Holland, Germany, Bulgaria, Russia, Spain and Portugal with my friends as a graduation trip. I was in line with a friend, who happened to be Spanish and she and I were chatting in Catalan because Im awful at it and she always helps me. I guess a customs officer heard us talking and laughing, because we both got pulled into separate rooms. Now my passport is fat, because Ive always just gotten extensions put in it instead of getting a new one, because I travel too much, so I got grilled on that. I was grilled on why I traveled, on where I went, and why I went there. Mind you, Im an 18 year old girl, with a heavy Southern accent, freshly graduated from high school, traveling with just one other female friend, who was taken two hours earlier. I got a pat down, from a male officer, who spent a little too much time checking the pockets of my jeans and the underwire of my bra. After the rather invasive pat down, and another 2 hours of being yelled at, I was told that I was “a bad American, and should stay the fuck out of the country” and let go. Needless to say, my family, who was waiting to pick me up, freaked out. Luckily we have a family friend who used to be rather high up in the government, so we contacted him, I told him what happened and now I have a special stamp inside my passport that lets me zip through customs and TSA screening. As for my friend, she got a female agent, who was of hispanic decent. They apparently had a lovely little chat about my friend’s live and my friend was let go after about 30 minutes. C’est la vie, no?

  103. Cara

    This story makes me want to punch someone in the face. How many overly-suspicious and judgmental ignoramuses are working in the U.S. Customs department of the major U.S. airports? I mean, seriously! Could they not actually use their power of LOGIC and determine the difference between someone who actually posed a threat, and some guy who purchased candies with Osama Bin Laden’s face on the box?! It makes me sick to my stomach that they are actually getting paid to act like complete flaming imbeciles.

  104. Mark

    International travel is very inconvenient at times. However, I would much rather these border agents cause a relatively minor inconvenience for you by checking into every suspicion than to look over an actual threat because it is disguised well. These agents know common habits and practices of suspicious persons. It’s generally a good idea to not make yourself a target. Ex: Don’t carry weapons/ammo (lets agents know you’ve been in contact with someone who has weapons), don’t buy bin Laden propaganda candy and expect to not be questioned, and your tip of no anti-American sentiments.
    Anyway, even though I completely agree that customs can be very inconvenient, apparently their tactics work. I can’t recall any terrorist attacks on US soil since 9/11. I’m grateful for their diligence and promise to never cut corners even though it may be the easy thing to do.

    1. Pam

      They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety. I respectfully disagree with you Mark, candy, souvenirs, and books are no where close to legit reasons to detain people in any country, especially a land built on the principles of freedom. As for your ideas of anti-American sentiments, please take a quick look over some high school history books.
      Thank you for posting this Earl, the rest of us out here on the internet appreciate your blog entries and grounded thoughts.

    2. Magic Travel Andrew

      “I can’t recall any terrorist attacks on US soil since 9/11”

      Correlation is not the same as causation. It’s impossible to know that the lack of attacks is due to airport security. I’m sure the people managing the security processes are keen to take the credit for it but unless there has been a known terrorist who definitively stated that they cancelled planned attacks because airport security is just too tough its all speculation.

  105. Maggie B

    Thanks for the great story! US customs can be extremely frustrating and stonewall the hell out of your day. It’s an unfortunate product of the environment. They’re trained to be suspicious to the utmost and in the end they’re just as terrified of you as you are of them (that’s how I see it, anyway). With those assumptions about terrorism, everyone just turns into an asshole.

    When I was flying out of PDX Portland I had forgotten my cell phone and borrowed a man’s phone to call my dad so he could rush it over before my flight. Nothing of particular interest happened with security other than when I asked a woman attendant sitting at a desk by the gate to the outside if I could leave the terminal briefly. She didn’t look at me and I, wondering if she hadn’t heard me, began to repeat my question until she turned her head sharply and snapped, “Ma’am, you can’t talk to me!” I was 18 at the time and had no what proper procedure was in an airport, so, as she continued to sit at her desk and stare straight ahead at the leaving gate (that was her “job,” apparently. What the hell?), I walked cautiously through the gate to see if she would do anything.

    Anyway, it wasn’t a dramatic tale of interrogation like many of you have experienced. I’ve only been through airports probably fewer times than I have toes and fingers, but the air of distrust and suspicion never goes away. I never got to fly through airports pre-9/11. Didn’t they used to be, you know, nicer?

  106. Kerry

    I can’t believe there are so many stories about ignorant Customs officers! I feel like I would have a larger issue with religious interrogation than the rest, though. Especially after Osama, I’m guessing that airport security is going to be off the wall now.
    I do have a less-serious story, though. When I was ten, I went with my family on a Mission trip to Honduras. While going through customs, one of the officers took out my beanie-baby kangaroo. At first he was, like, playing with it…making it dance or something. It was all in spanish, and I was really confused. But then, he took it away, and was putting on rubber gloves. He went into another room with some other men. I didn’t get why a 10 year old, traveling in a group of families (who all look touristy) would seem suspicious, but my parents thought maybe they were looking through it for drugs or something. 30 minutes went by and the guy never came back. We boarded the plane, and went home. I loved that kangaroo toy, dammit.

  107. Li

    I had a similar experience to this! A few years ago, I was flying out of Sky Harbor airport to study abroad at Trinity College in Ireland. I was around 14 at the time and it was my first time leaving the country. My younger sister was around 3 or 4 and tearfully requested to accompany to my departure gate. As we walked through security, the metal detector went off as she passed through it. I watched as the TSA officers approached her and gruffly said, “You need to come with us.”

    Obviously they weren’t going to take my terrified 4-year-old sister away alone, so they told me to follow them as well. First they took us into the private screening box off to the side; they scanned me first, then told my sister to step into the box. Confused, she faced the wrong way; when they told her to lift her arms, she spun around in a 360-circle and put her arms up like a ballerina. Granted, I understand it can be frustrating when you can’t get someone to do as you ask, but she was a toddler and clearly had no idea what was going on, and the unclear commands kept confusing her. One TSA officer overreacted and started screaming, “TURN AROUND! FACE ME RIGHT NOW! PUT YOUR FEET ON THE MAT!”

    My sister, who has never responded well to loud voices, began to cry, and unthinkingly I grabbed her protectively. The TSA officer instantly barked, “Don’t touch her! Ma’am, I need you to step away right now.”

    I reluctantly did so, and he proceeded to scan my little sister. His handheld metal detector kept going off, even though I was sure that she didn’t have anything metal on her. She was wearing a Hello Kitty dress, for God’s sake. My sister was still sniveling, and I noticed that the metal scanner kept beeping around her legs. After the officer determined that there was nothing in her pockets, I pointed out, “It could be the metal buckles on her shoes.”

    Apparently something in my tone sounded edgy and suspicious, because he looked at me and his mouth turned into a grim, flat line. He said coldly, “You’ll need to come with me.” So he brought my four-year-old sister and I into an interrogation room and proceeded to grill us about where our family had come from (our parents immigrated legally from Vietnam) and the history of their political allegiance, as far as we knew it. He kept implying that we were Communist or had Communist ideals–despite the fact that I was FOURTEEN–and despite the fact that, ironically, my grandfather had been the only senator in the capital to oppose Communists at the time, and was thrown into prison camp for his trouble when the Communists took over.

    Then he kept making vague references to the IRA in Ireland and whether I might have any sympathies with them; I didn’t know who the IRA was, thinking they were a business company rather than a rebel movement, but because he kept speaking so loudly and because my sister kept crying, I never thought quickly enough to give him a clear, well-spoken answer. He kept banging on the metal table too, which frightened both of us, and my sister became inconsolable. She kept saying, “I don’t want to go to jail,” which for some reason made him think that we were legitimately hiding something or had something wrong.

    Eventually he let us go. We’ll never know what caused the metal detectors to go off, and my sister doesn’t seem to remember the incident, but I learned that day that certain TSA officials will dog you for anything, even the most obscure suspicions.

  108. Bungle

    Don’t get complacent, the UK also has its fair share.
    I used to live in Paris, working for a games company and while I’ve had a beard for many years I shaved my head every so often instead of going to a barbers.
    So here I am 5 months on the job I head home for a visit, I take the Eurostar and the trip is fun, I spend the last 30 mins amusing some tourists with impersonations of the various accents you get in UK.
    So I am walking up to customs (and they are very relaxed on Eurostar) when this guy asks for my attention, asks me a few questions, he is a little suspect by my changing accent (from welsh back to normal). Then he asks to see my ID, I show him my passport and he asks for more, so I show him my driver’s licence and still he wants more, so I ask him for his warrant card (note for UK: the police will often have IDs round their neck, or on lapels, they still must carry their warrant card and cannot enforce the law without it; legally).
    So he flips it out and I look at it, and then give him all the ID I have (like libary cards from when I was 15), he takes it all and my tickets and leaves saying “Wait here.”
    Naturally I am feeling relaxed as I know I am innocent, so I call my dad and say “It’s so funny I am being stopped as a terrorist” to which he replies in concern, how did I know it was a real cop. “I asked to see his warrant card.” I prompted, his repose scared me “Do you even know what a real one looks like?”.
    So I hung up and ran out of the area, rushed up to the first bobby I saw (Nb. “bobby” is a uniformed policeman), and blurted out “Omg I am so dumb, I just gave away my passport, all my IDs, and tickets to this scammer. Can you help?” He quickly assertained what I was talking about, at which point his fail fell.
    “Do you realise how many laws you have broken when you left the area?! He was CID* and you left when being questioned.”(*Plains clothes policeman, also known as special branch)
    “Can I go back then?” I queried.
    He looked stressed and said “No, you can’t go backwards through customs.” but on further thought decided to ignore his own admission and escorted me through the one way opening doors, muttering about how he was now breaking laws and would be reprimanded.
    As soon as we passed the search area, a hidden door opened and the officer who had taken my ID came out in a fury
    “How dare you leave?! You are being held under the Terrorism Act! You are in so much shit!” (For the record, unless they say “you are being held under the Terrorism Act” you are not, in fact if they don’t say “you are being held” or “must wait here” then you are under no obligation to do so, though if you do leave they might haul you in, so you better be able to prove they didn’t say it.)
    So I was escorted into the hidden door, my bobby, legged it while he could, I was moved into a room with a mirror(yeah right) and told to wait. When asking if I might sit (gonna be very polite now) I was told to stand in the corner, which I did for about 5-6 minutes when someone stopped by to ask why I was standing in the corner and to sit down “silly boy”.
    So I sat and asked if I could read my book, of course the answer was no.
    It was then (I guess) about 45 minutes till they came back to me, time to let me sweat it out. Unfortunately for them I had been up all night packing and cleaning my flat, chatting on the train, this was my first chance to sleep in about 38 hours; I took it. With hindsight I guess that helped me a lot.

    They woke me up with a large book hitting the table, so cliche, and proceeded to question me at length about where I had been for 5 months, whether I had changed religion, or rather a “major” change and despite my friend’s comments I decided saying “yes i converted to Catholism” would not go down well.
    They searched my bags very thoroughly and kept up the questions. For my part I kept up a “stream of conciousness” replying as soon as the words hit my head, I was too tired to do otherwise.
    The only real 2 snags were my talcum powder I had in my bags and that they had never heard of Blizzard or World of Warcraft, thus were unsure where I had been for 5 months. (On this I now always make sure to have buisness cards and better yet, some merchandise with my company name on it so I can show them something).

    This all lasted about 2 hours, by the end of which they were laughing at their mistake. They returned all my ID and escorted me from the secure area. Ironically when returning to Paris I ran into one of them and pointed out the lack of knowledge vs fake IDs/Warrant cards, he was non-commital in his response.

    I have subsquently been stopped a dozen or so times, though with hair it is less often, the most amusing event of all was the last time I came through from Paris, in a rush to catch a connecting train when I was pulled aside and asked if they could ask me some questions. I replied in an exasperated tone “oh no! not again!” at which point he waved me on.

    In retrospect or for others info, the important things to remember (that I learnt) is that anyone with ID stopping people while in a secure section of an international port/station/airport is very likely to be real or caught very quickly.
    Also real terrorists when escaping will always get the local police involved and not just leave 😀

  109. Wendy

    I’m Canadian, and have crossed the border into the states possibly a million times, especially on family vacations. On a recent study abroad period, I got a chance to run into the customs officers of a variety of countries, all European. Even as a Canadian, and as a kid travelling with her parents (and once my darling great grandmother), the American officials were constantly on alert. I’m sure they were easier on us than other people, but there was always this uncomfortable feeling that one time we were going to be the ones having our car searched and played 20 questions with. I know crossing back into Canada, or flying for that matter, was always more pleasant because I knew Canada’s border guards, though vigilant, were incredibly approachable. I have a million stories of conversatiosn with guards, beyond the usual “where have you been” that were way off topic. And in other countries? Nothing but the same pleasant treatment. The US needs to learn that while vigilancy is important, scaring the hell out of citizens and visitors is not a way to instil security in anyone. Or make friends.

  110. Ben

    I am an Irish citizen, and a few years ago was working as a chef on a yacht. Now, this position, as we travel in and out of US ports, namely MIami, Fort Lauderdale and the US Virgin Islands, we must have a B1B2 visa.

    We’re in Ft Lauderdale for several months, in the shipyard. I have my girlfriend fly up, and we get an apartment, and a car, a lovely little ’92 red BMW with low suspension and tinted windows, and some little electronic problems.

    We drive all the way to Canada, on the way back through the Buffalo crossing, I’m presenting the customs officer with an Irish passport, a B1B2 visa, a US Virgin Island Drivers License, a Florida license plate with tinted windows that don’t open, as they electric windows have all died.

    That was fun.

    Three days ago, I was travelling from Bahamas into Miami airport, and it was awful, I was told I was probably carrying money or drugs for someone, that i was surely seeking work in the US, that my paperwork didn’t match up, that my story was made up. I was asked what I was driving, who’s car it was, what license i had, where i was going, what my mothers status in the US is, what i do…. What I do, a chef says I. Now, this goes onto my history, an old Japanese visa, what did I do there asks she, I worked in a French Restaurant, for Gordon Ramsay says I…….. Now, she’s a little sweetheart, who thinks I’m just wonderful. We spoke for several minutes about the celebrity chef before i was allowed go.

    I’m getting sick of this…..I’ve entered the US no less than 50 times, I’m not interested in working here, really, I’m not. And i’ve not even a parking ticket in either the US or Ireland or anywhere. Please, leave me alone.

    Thanks

    B

  111. Market.Travel

    dude…a bullet? seriously?? oh man. you shoulda put that in a pocket of some jeans inside your bag…at the bottom! it is absolutely ridiculous that they would grill you like that simply based on the countries you’ve visited. it is even more disheartening to hear how uneducated, ignorant, and prejudice people are at U.S airports. I got stopped a couple times, once in LAX and once in Dallas, and being of Indian descent was given the 3rd degree in Dallas, so i know exactly wut you’re talking about. But, remember next time, that most of us are smarter than some of those highschool dropouts they have protecting our borders!
    Hope your next trip…well, I hope your next return to the U.S. is much less eventful!

    1. Mario

      Actually, the US Customs and Border Protection have an extremely stringent selection process, and it is very difficult to get hired as an agent. Their standards are very high. Perhaps you should actually know about them before denigrating their standards?

  112. Rudy

    One time, flying back from the Dominican Republic with my mother, I was asked as to how it was possible we were “visiting family” being that we had a German last name. Really? You can’t have family around the world now? I’m with my 72 year old mother… We make a great terrorist team! It is very unfortunate how ignorant and uneducated some of the people taking care of our borders can be (“if you are Puertorican, how come you don’t have a Puertorican passport?” REALLY?) instead of thorough. I’ve found that Latin America has more security getting into an airport than the US. 3 sometimes 4 different check point where your passport and/or bags are reviewed. I actually think we have a lack of security. (I once had an M80 in my back pack getting into Mexico, which was quickly discarded upon realizing I had it… no one else noticed… after going through the x-ray machine.) I don’t mind wasting time for our security. I do mind wasting time dealing with someone uncultured and lacking the sufficient knowledge to perform the job they’ve been hired for. Would truly love to see the type of preparation required for these TSA security guards who swear they’re CIA special agents.

    1. Donald

      I can respond to this, Those TSA agents at most of your airports in the U.S. are ‘Screeners’, just that, nothing more, nothing less. At least that’s what the detailed job description says.

      @Earl: As far as reading this post is concerned, I know I am not even gonna bother taking a trip to the Middle East if that is what you had to go through. Not to put race into it, but I’m a black male, and If they are going to grill you like that then I know they are going to try and hang me. IJS. That literally made my blood boil and almost made me cry. But I dig your courage to want to go through that again. Kudos my friend.

      1. Earl

        Hey Donald – It’s interesting actually because this story above happened after I visited Pakistan/Afghanistan but after my trip to Syria, Lebanon and Iraqi Kurdistan in 2010, US immigration and customs didn’t ask me a single question. They saw that I wrote those countries on the customs form but just let me proceed. So you never know how it will go!

  113. Dylan G

    Dude, you had a BULLET in your pocket after coming back from afghanistan and pakistan. While it is very true that the OVERWHELMING majority of Muslims are good, loving, caring people just like Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, or whatever, SOME of those “muslims” use their religion to falsely justify mass murder. Many of those few happen to reside in the countries you visited and came back with a bullet from. Being interrogated sucks, but that’s the kind of thing that just MIGHT keep one of those douches from killing thousands of people. It’s surely over the top the way you were treated, but do you really think anyone should be surprised by it?

  114. Ben

    Nice story! Came across this from stumpleupon..
    I had a bullet keyring, which was clearly just a novelty item, and not a “live bullet” which I had attached to my keys in my bag at the Copenhagen airport. After getting my bags scanned I was called back, and they searched through my bag and found the key ring. After a short questioning I was forced to sign a declaration that I had taken a bullet/firearm into the country, and they removed it from my possession. I was told if I did not do this I would be taken for further questioning, which would have meant missing my flight, so I just signed the paper and angrily walked along!
    Airports suck! Although the security is necessary a lot of their procedures are ridiculous, to say the least.

  115. Will

    It is a shame to think that we are fighting for freedom, but our own citizens have to go through such ordeals. We should be “free” to travel wherever we choose as long as we abide by the law of the lands we visit.

  116. Amanda

    thats awful. since when it is a crime to enjoy the world outside of the US? i am embarrassed for our law enforcement.

  117. moon man

    I’ve lived through the bullet in my pocket. Luckily, I was in Alaska, and a lot of hunters go through that airport, so they gave me a warning and a nice letter a few months later.

  118. Tom

    Highly amusing, my favourite recollection of the joys of customs were travelling internally within Malaysia. Whilst in Penang I purchased a Playstation 2 Gun for my son to take back to Kuala Lumpur, no amount of explanation to the customs officers that most guns are not made of cheap plastic, with blocked up ends and PS2 cables hanging from would persuade them to let me take the childs toy onto the plane, as quote ‘I may use it to hold up the plane’

    One could take a view that any plane which allows itself to be held up with a commonly recognised PS2 plastic game controller actually deserves everything it has coming to it 🙂

    1. Earl

      Hey Tom – That’s too funny. Although, consider yourself lucky because if you were trying to bring that back into the US or trying to get that on a plane over there, you might have been tackled to the ground and thrown in a cell:)

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  120. katja

    geeeezus christ, early! thanks so much for sharing that story, it’s insane and a good lesson. i’m glad you got out of it with much issue, i can 100% see how this could have happened to me in the exact same way.

    best of luck to you on your future travels!

  121. Ted Nelson

    Holy cow, welcome back to the good ole USA. Sorry that you had to endure that. It is so crazy they kept asking you that dumb question. It is not illegal to believe in the words of the Prophet Mohammed.

    1. Earl

      Hey Ted – It sure was crazy and really caught me off guard when they started barking that question.

      Luckily, after my latest visit to the Middle East, they didn’t really ask me anything and let me go without inspecting my possessions!

  122. Sabina

    I somehow laughed all the way through this, although the stupidity and aggressiveness of the guy you were trapped in the room with were pretty frightening. I swear only out of the US do these stories come of the ridiculousness of airport security. Maybe I’m wrong, though, and other countries have even more terrible horror stories about airport security. I don’t know of any, but I guess in some countries airport security can also be bad, right? I’m pretty widely traveled in the Middle East and I clearly bore the airport security in Middle Eastern countries to death. I have never been so ignored. They don’t even look at me while I’m passing through the metal detector. It’s great. They realize that some white American chick isn’t a terrorist. Like you, I’m not so sure what the US will think of me the next time I arrive. After my first two trips to the Mid East, though, they didn’t have a problem with me. Here’s hoping they, like Middle Eastern security, will think I’m boring when I re-enter the US the next time. Because I am!

    1. Earl

      Hey Sabina – Well, the funny thing is that when I just returned after my latest trip to the Middle East (Syria, Lebanon, Iraq), the immigration officer simply asked me, “How was it over there?”. I replied, “Quite good” and that was it. Not another question was asked and when I showed my customs form to the customs officer (which had the countries listed on it), he let me go without having my bags inspected. Go figure.

      I certainly hope you have the same luck when you return as well!

      And you’re right, I don’t think I’ve ever heard these kind of stories happening at any other country’s airport security either…

  123. Usha

    The only time I was interrogated was in Singapore, for bringing in Chewing gum. Actually the word the officer used was “smuggled”. lol.

    On a serious note, what you went through was just insane. :s

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  126. Matt

    Earl,

    Great post and absolutely appalling treatment you received. I recently had a similar experience. I went to pick up my gf from the Seattle airport. She was flying in from Beijing for the third time on the same Visa. # hours later I find her in tears crying after the interrogation and they are sending her home. The poor girl never hurt a fly in her life yet they used threats of never being able to see me again to coerce her into making false statements. and I thought China was supposed to be the evil government. Needless to say I am moving back over to Beijing and I don’t blame her for never wanting to come here again.

    There is absolutely no moral justification for anyone to initiate force against another in any situation. I am deeply ashamed of how representatives of our country treated this visitor.

  127. david

    Hi Earl,

    This is such a great story and so well written! I couldn’t wait to read what they pulled out of your bag next. I’m sure the experience was not fun while it was happening, but it does make a good story, and I’m glad things are back to normal for you at the airport.

    I have to thank Aaron’s Worldwide Adventures for highlighting this post in his last Friday Five. I’ve read and enjoyed other posts by you but hadn’t seen this one yet. Now I’m going to have to go and read a lot more of your older stuff. (I want to read more about the boy that gave you the bullet).

    BTW, I would have totally bought the Osama candy too. I’m not so sure about the burqa though. How did that work out anyway? Was anyone back home willing to put it on?

    1. Earl

      Hey David – Thanks so much for the comment and glad to hear that you found this story through Aaron’s post! As for the burqa, nobody really wanted to put it on but it did help show others how restrictive they really are. Few people realize that you can barely see out of them at all and that they literally squeeze so tightly onto the woman’s head. It was definitely an eye-opener!

  128. Helena

    Even though I have not had any similar experiences enterering the US as a european, I alway fear it. After at least an hour waiting in line with jetlagged kids the tension build up as you get closer to the counter. At this point I make sure a have blondes in the line front of me. Sad to say, but being blonde as a a foreigner almost always makes my life easier.

  129. Rease

    This makes me so sad for our country. I am so glad you met so many wonderful Pakistanis and were willing to stand up for them. I just cannot believe the ignorance that exists in the US.

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  131. Magda @DestinationWorld

    This story in unbelievable! Threat of being arrested simply because you had some candy and burka in your bag? That’s so over the top. And the phone wiring thing is every weirder. At least you know where the taxpayers money goes……

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  133. Jacelyn

    Hi Earl,

    Great write up! It was very interesting to read and I am glad that you are no longer on the ‘watch list’. I know that the US immigration is quite strict towards people from Asia and the middle east, but to their own citizen? I would never know that going back to your own country can be so difficult.
    And you blog certainly reminds me of my trip to Australia, when my friends and I were questioned from ‘what do we want to do here?’ to ‘where did you study in your primary school?’ I mean come on, do you really wanna know?? Anyway, that is not my country so fine, though more respect will be appreciated 🙂

  134. Yasser

    I have Visas from Iran, Syria and Lebanon in my passport and without fail, I get “randomly” selected for extra security checks every time. This time around at immigration the guy openly told me that as long as I had those visas in my passport, I should expect a 2 hour immigration procedure every time I come to the US. I have been lucky though…They were always polite throughout the interrogation sessions. Nice story btw.

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  136. sniggity

    I used to work for T.S.A. in Dulles Va. and that being an international arrival airport, we had a LOT of customs officials we had to deal with. Well, one day, I was walking through the customs area with my badge on and they stopped me and asked me why I didn’t have a Customs logo on my badge. I had just started about a week prior and knew nothing about this logo at all. He started grilling me, “where do you work? Why are you in this zone? Why is your badge wrong?” and I finally shouted back at him that I was new and if he had a problem, he could ask my supervisor (who was right through the doors behind me) and finally the other guy with him stated something about T.S.A. not having the proper badges because of some administrative problem. so he just said “have a nice day” in a really shitty tone. So yeah, customs people are real assholes when they want to be. They are overly suspicious people. I liked your story though and sorry you had to go through that. Read up on the law and see what you are allowed to do in those situations.

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  138. Nik

    I’ve had my fair share of troubles with the immigration officers as well.

    But let’s pause and think for a moment – you could hardly have been more suspicious. Sure logically a terrorist would be pretty dumb to bring Osama candy – then again, how should they know you’re not a dumb terrorist.
    Also clearly border guards aren’t exactly rocket scientists – and they get off on a power trip very easily. They ask you “trick” questions someone drills into them in training, and if you give the “trigger” response, then you have a problem.

    So the fact that they did take you aside and searched you, and suspected you – that’s IMO OK. If they don’t ask questions of somebody with a bullet and the book of mohammed, who are they going to ask questions? The fact that they screamed and generally made asses of themselves – uncalled for and there should be a way to file a complaint. A very scary experience, and I can totally relate.

    On the matter of complaints – I once asked a customs officer if I could file a complaint that they took my Cuban cigars. He said: “Sure, but if you do, we’ll put you on a blacklist, and that will ensure you’ll be thoroughly searched every time you arrive in the USA”.

    All in all, there need to be ways to hold customs and borders officers accountable for their behavior. These guards are responsible for a lot of negativity against the USA, someone needs to get them in line.

    1. delia

      I would say that there is on very large difference between your experience with Cuban cigars and the authors’ experience: possession of Cuban cigars by an American citizen is illegal, as well as bringing them in to America by anyone. Owning a book of the words of the Prophet Muhammad is not illegal. The bullet may be against airline regulations, but i’m honestly not sure.

      It all does add up to a grim picture, but I wish we didn’t have to expect the lowest common denominator of people who are supposed to keep us safe. He definitely hit triggers, but I think we need to reevaluate the triggers, like in last year’s case of a student getting stopped because he had Arabic flashcards (he was a white US citizen college student studying Arabic) and being demanded things like “who did 9/11?!”

      it just seems like there’s too much fanatical ignorance in our TSA and border control, and that’s scary.

  139. Rohit Nallapeta

    Not being a citizen of US and not being a follower of the religion of Islam (which I happen to respect like any other religion) I think this guy/ you did everything possible to freak out a customs officer. The reason I say this is you don’t expect every custom official to have traveled the world and be aware of the actual culture. They only know what they have been told along with what they have heard, which is to say that they know nothing (unless each custom official has had a state department course on countries).

    For a country that has been deeply scarred by a terrorist act all the officials know of is to look for some tell-tale sign of association. Those tell-tale signs as in your case may be completely bogus but they don’t draw the distinction.

    I agree the experience is bad and system doesn’t see the difference.Let me point out that I don’t support this behavior any more than you do but with the current situation I cannot blame them too.

  140. meelash

    You should never give in to this nonsense. It is the DUTY of every American to stand up for your rights and refuse to answer these unconstitutional questions. Right that are not stood up for will not last.

    Here is an example:
    http://nomadlaw.com/2010/04/i-am-detained-by-feds-for-not-answering-questions/

    and here is why you should never– NEVER– talk to the police, no matter how much you feel like being polite or how innocent you are of anything:
    http://www.tuccille.com/blog/2008/07/eight-reasons-even-innocent-shouldnt.html

  141. Mark

    if this is how we treat caucasian U.S. citizens returning home, I can’t imagine how we treat foreigners.

    this kind of behavior is the ultimate recruiting tool for terrorism. by treating everyone as an enemy, we will lose all of our friends.

    shameful and disgusting.

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  143. Ron

    I think what I would do in this situation is probably solve it with documentation. I’d want to collect everything I purchased and put them in one bag, with labels as to what they are, date of purchase and why etc. Don’t give them any reason to look at anything and question why it is there. Don’t give them any reason to have to waste time looking for evidence and playing mind games. Keep a detailed printed log of your travels with you. Prepare answers to common questions ahead of time. Their job is to sit there and harass you like an asshole until you say something to give them probable cause to arrest you. The more evidence you can give that you’re a normal person, in theory the faster you should move through the screening…

    1. Earl

      Thank you for sharing that advice Ron. Those are some solid ideas and I absolutely agree that such preparation would completely alter the situation. That is something I should try for this current trip I’m on…

  144. Nuno Moreiras

    WOW! The whole history is hillarious!! What a nice welcoming party! ahah

    But c’mon Earl… Osama bin Laden Kulfa Balls?!?! that was really pushing the line for the poor poor customs gentleman lol

    peace!

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  146. D

    Good lord man! That’s actually my chief worry about traveling. I worry less about losing my belongings and my personal safety than random and confusing run ins with the law. It’s funny that the more likely the problem, the less it bothers me.

    Glad you (eventually) made it back to “boring citizen” status.

  147. Daniel

    Once i had the sense to forget about a little ziplock bag of white washing powder in the front pocket of my backpack while i was flying into Singapore from Taiwan. Imagine a similar predicament to yours, but from the perspective of a 16 year old boy going to meet his father in Singapore, and being yelled at in a language he doesn’t understand, while armed guards stood outside. A wonderful way to start my visit! (I’m an Australian by the way, so thankfully there was an English speaking staff member that helped explain my situation, but only after a long while of chaotic yelling). Still, your interrogation takes the prize.

  148. Matt K

    I understand why anything with a picture of Osama Bin Laden would be suspicious, but I think a huge number of Americans would buy that candy, including Islamophobes. It’s just such a funny product. Osama Bin Laden talks about how evil the West is and ungodly in their devotion to material things, yet here is his image on a box of candy. He may not approve of the product, but it certainly undercuts his message.
    I also understand why they may be trained to check out anyone who has visited Afghanistan and/or Pakistan more than the average person, but it sounds like they lack common sense. You had a multi-religious set of books, including one about Mohammed and one about Buddha. The Taliban destroyed some important Buddhist statues in their own country.
    I’ve heard several horror stories about immigration harassing and even detaining people for no good reason. I’m glad yours has a somewhat happy ending. Good luck in your future travels!

  149. Baigy

    That was an excellent article you have written, Earl.
    Just beautiful, and I am extremely glad that you have shown the world that Pakistan is not a terrorist country but a country where people are friendly and nice. You have proven yourself to be a class example of how a human being should be

  150. sadie

    Hi Earl. I read your story with interest. I was a teacher in Pakistan during the year it tested its nuclear missiles in about 1995. That was also the year Americans were evacuated from Pakistan. It was after the bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and before Clinton’s retaliatory air strikes. While the people I met in Pakistan were gracious and welcoming, I always felt I was being looked at with hatred by the locals. I even bought myself a burka because at every stop light my car would be surrounded by local men who would disrespectfully, blatantly stare at me. This is very non-Islamic, as I’m sure you know. Perhaps it didn’t help that I lived between the Iranian embassy and the Iranian minister’s home but I never felt safe and I’m sure moreso because I am a woman. Anyway, I didn’t evacuate with everyone else since I don’t “do” 5 a.m. which was when the planes were leaving and I stayed there for another four days before I got on commercial planes to come home. When I arrived at the airport, disheveled, exhausted, two screaming cats with me, I handed over my passport and said I’d just been evacuated from Pakistan. I was told “Welcome to America” and sent on my way.

    Sadie

  151. Jeff F

    Having gone through a ‘talk’ with these guys before (although not as thorough) I feel your pain.

    You have to admit though that there was no way they were going to let you through without a discussion. You’d been to a couple of countries they don’t really like. You had a bullet. You had Osama Bin Laden candy. And a burka. This was like their dream come true traveler. You know the ones they stay up at night thinking about. Reminds me of the time when I was coming back from Mexico while I was in high school. My spanish teacher a buddy and I had spent three weeks driving through the country. When we got to the border check point it was then that I realized the ‘doper’ magazines my buddy was carrying probably weren’t the best idea. As far as I knew we were clean-I didn’t do drugs, was pretty sure the teacher didn’t but wasn’t a 100% sure of my buddy Bobo. The border agents spent over an hour tearing into our luggage and my teacher’s VW Rabbit (this is 1978). They didn’t find a thing. Not even the 20 or so switch blades we were bringing back in to pay for our trip. Talk about being a sweating 17 year old wreck.

    This isn’t to say that the agents were justified in their behavior towards you-they weren’t. Just that you kinda had it coming.

  152. Ben

    Hi Earl,

    Thank you for an interesting and well written post. I’m pretty sure what i’m going to write now will outrage a few people but it seems people on both ends are blowing things way out of proportion. While I agree the U.S. is in a state of paranoia regarding Muslim/terrorist countries and I certainly agree that it might be “frightening” to sit in an interrogation room for a couple hours after visiting one of these countries, I truly believe this necessary. while I believe that the majority of people in Pakistan/ Afghanistan etc are peace loving, friendly people, the truth is that out of the few terrorist attacks that occur around the world, the majority of these attacks are because of people from Muslim countries. Now I am NOT saying Muslims are terrorist’s, just that terror attacks are usually carried out BY Muslim extremist’s. I live in Israel, a country that defends itself non-stop from these attacks, 24 hours a day 7 days a week. We have a civilian armed guard at every door of every shopping mall in the country. While this is a nuisance most of the time, it is a Necessity. It is Necessary because we know what could happen and has happened if we dont put a guard on watch. While being detained and interrogated in an airport after visiting a said country is not fun in the least, think how many REAL terrorist’s HAVE been caught thanks to this. Airport security has no way of reading minds, and most likely if asked directly once, a real terrorist will never admit he is one, so I know it sucks big time but this is the world we live in, and I would appreciate it if everybody would stop crying at a measly few hours of being interrogated. I truly believe that anybody affected by 9/11 or any other terrorist attack would not complain at all and would actually be rather happy that there are people out there working behind closed doors looking out for our safety. I think this post is way too long now 🙂 so I’ll stop here but I have a bunch more I could say regarding this.

  153. Kris

    Makes me sad that b/c of a small group of radical individuals, America and the world now has a stereotype for an entire race.

    Thank you for this great article and telling the world that no matter where you are from, there still is peace, love, family, and kindness.

  154. Broughin It

    It is truly amazing who is in charge of our boarders, out of all my many foreign travels the U.S is by far the most time consuming to get back into. You’ve got a great tale and told it well. Thanks

  155. Sofia

    Crazy! I’m glad you’re writing about this to show people what’s going on, and to bring up the issue on the ignorance and lack of knowledge people have about Pakistan and Afghanistan.

  156. Melody

    I’m so sorry that all of that happened to you. I WOULD like to know how in the hell your choice of religion is relevant in any way. Isn’t that one of our constitutional rights being violated by them even ASKING???
    I understand homeland security, I REALLY do, but sweet Jesus this was completely and utterly OVER the top!
    You really do write quite well. I hope you continue to share here following your next trip. I’m also glad to hear reports of friendly and hospitable people in the places you chose to visit. Too many of us are prejudice in this country. While I love the country I live in, I DO NOT love all of the hatred and prejudice that lives here too.

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  159. Becca

    I’m really just in a little bit of shock–it just seems so absurd! Doesn’t anyone use logic anymore? I can think of a million responses to them picking up one book of five and asking your religious beliefs, all of which just make me feel more baffled. It’s almost as if we just want EVERYONE to be a terrorist so that we can get our “look, we’re catching the bastards!” quota up.

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  161. Guy

    Interesting Read! A very interesting story. If you were inclined to do so, there are a few human rights active groups in USA who might be able to use your material to further their case for the respect of individual rights in USA, and to stop the government from abusing its citizens.

    a few possible places to start googling are:

    free talk live
    complete liberty podcast

  162. Alex Van Colen

    Amazing story.
    The thing that amazed me the most must be the question if pakistanis were friendly. Of course there is a portion of the population that aren’t that friendly but doesn’t that go for all countries ?

    Keep up the good work on informing people.

    1. Earl

      Hey Alex – Yeah, that question was absurd. But clearly, common sense was not a part of this interrogation process!

      Thanks for the comment!

  163. Norbert

    Wow! a situation I would never like to be in, but I’m glad you are spreading the word on how intolerant things are turning here in the U.S. and how friendly people can be in Pakistan. We cannot generalize saying a whole country is bad or terrorist just for the actions of some of its residents.

    Not sure how far the word has spread but right now, here in NY, this case of intolerance with the middle east is happening… full force… with the mosque that is set to be built near the WTC. Again, generalizing and making wrong assumptions that mosques = terrorists.

    Great post Earl!

    1. Earl

      Hey Norbert – It’s interesting that you brought up the mosque issue in NYC. After returning from Mexico a month ago, all I heard about was this mosque that was going to be built at ground zero. And then after I did some more research, I discovered that the plan is to build it near (3 blocks away) ground zero! It’s amazing (and sad) how things get twisted in order to fit an agenda.

      And yes, assumptions are very dangerous, especially when people don’t acknowledge that they are assumptions, and believe them to be absolute fact instead.

      Thanks so much for the comment!

  164. Sparky McBiff

    Most Americans are woefully ignorant about how authoritative and fascist their country is becoming.
    I travel the world but the USA has by far the most authoritative and frightening border agents and because of that I (and many many others) refuse to enter the US anymore.
    The secret government has been hyping this fake “war on terror” as a means to clamp down and control their own citizens.
    The removal of citizens rights and freedoms under the guise of “protecting them from terrorists” is a farce that many many people are waking up to.
    Your experience at the border should be an eye opener to you.

    1. Earl

      Hey Jasmine – You’re right, I’ve heard much crazier and unfortunate stories about foreigners who’ve had to deal with a Customs interrogation when entering the US. I can’t imagine what that must be like for them. Being a US citizen at least gave me some rights that apparently foreigners do not have while at the border.

    1. Earl

      Hey Suzy – Thank you for sharing the link to your post, it’s quite interesting indeed. I think the officers tend to act knowing that a little fear will generally cause someone to answer their questions. For me, it was the confusion that resulted from their questioning that made me hesitant in answering everything. But I like the idea of asking the officer what your rights are before they start questioning you. That is something I will definitely do next time (unfortunately I have a feeling there will be a next time!). And if they don’t tell me my rights, at least I now know what they can and can’t ask me.

    1. Earl

      Hey Christy – In the end, upon returning from that part of the world, if you don’t have anything to hide then nothing more than some screaming and questioning is going to happen. Even with a few suspicious ‘souvenirs’ there’s not much else they can do. Definitely don’t let that deter you from visiting such a culturally-rich and fascinating part of the world!

  165. Shahzad Qadir

    I loved your story! Very entertaining. I’m a Pakistani and it truly warms my heart when a foreigner paints Pakistan and its people in a positive light. I wish you all the best with your future endeavors and keep up the good work!

    1. Earl

      Hey Shahzad – Thank you for commenting! I can honestly say that my visit to Pakistan was one of the major highlights of my 11 years of traveling 🙂

  166. Annie

    Wow Earl. I don’t even know what to say, what an crazy story!

    I have to say that in recent years as wars have waged and racism, terrorism and discrimination have yet again become all too common, I have only become more curious. I always feel that it wouldn’t be safe to travel there as an American (especially a solo female traveler) but yet know deep down that there is no way these people are the monsters that others rumor them to be. The worse things get, the more I want to see for myself the hospitality and gentleness in these countries.

    I hate to be the one to say it but from this story alone, as well as many others over the years, it looks like the real monsters are the ones that see only what’s on the news and choose not to see for ourselves.

    What an ordeal, but it’s an inspiration that you are still traveling and that you endured the security checks and never let any suspicion stop you! And good on you for not being afraid to bring home the items that meant something to you from your travels. People that don’t travel just don’t understand the importance of those memories… 🙂

    1. Earl

      Hey Annie – Thank you for that great comment. You’re absolutely right in thinking that most of the ‘rumors’ or news items we hear often do not portray people in any way that closely resembles the truth. And the only way we can convince ourselves and others of this is to brush aside the travel warnings at times and explore the world with our own eyes. Otherwise, we have no choice but to be influenced by what we hear and read and form our opinions based upon this information.

      I also like what you said about bringing home items that meant something to me. That is exactly why I brought them back with me as they are constant reminders of everything I learned and experienced.

      Have a great week Annie!

  167. Theodora (Travels with a Nine Year Old)

    Jeez. Now imagine what it would have been like if your skin had been a darker shade of pale…

    The thing that really, really horrifies me about your experience is that he treated the potential that you believed in Islam as an indicator of terrorism. I thought your Constitution guaranteed religious freedom?

    And this was DC?! A truly terrifying story…

    1. Earl

      Hey Theodora – That is definitely the root of the issue and the main reason why I didn’t want to answer his questions about religion. It really appeared that if I had said “Yes”, the situation would have become even worse. And of course, that bothered me greatly.

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  171. Gray

    Wow, what a great story, Earl! Although I’m sure it wasn’t any fun living through it. I have to say, I’m not in the least bit surprised they gave you a hard time. It’s the world we live in, my friend. Is it right? No. Is it reality? Yup.

    1. Earl

      Hey Gray – It is indeed the world we live in, can’t argue with that. That’s why I now know what to expect even though it’s so disappointing. I see you’re off to Paris in a month, sounds like a wonderful trip in store for you!

  172. Lauren

    This was a very interesting and sad story. As someone who has just returned from that area of the world, i understand the honesty and hospitality that EVERYONE has. Further, I completely understand everything you had in your possession. Also, this is a BLATANT violation of your fourth amendment rights as a US Citizen. Have you though about filing a lawsuit, not for your own gain, but so that this ridiculously judgmental and racist behavior will cease?

  173. Aly

    WOW! One of the best posts I’ve read! Paranoia combined with ignorance is such a sad and dangerous combination. I’m glad you were able to finally get off the list, though it sounds like you might be headed back that way again 🙂 Hopefully things will be better now. Either way the trip sounded like it was worth the confrontation in the end!!

    The only thing close that we’ve experiences was when we bought suitcases off the streets in Colombia a few days before flying out of the country and got pulled over by the Colombian police at the door of the plane. They brought over several men and started poking holes all throughout our bags with knives, we were terrified that white powder was just going to come pouring out of the seams or something!! Luckily they let us go, and next time we might pay more than a couple bucks for luggage!!

    1. Earl

      Hey Aly – The trip to that part of the world was absolutely worth the Customs ordeal. I’d do it all over again without hesitation!

      And your story sure had the potential to turn out terribly. Who knows if it really happens but we do hear stories about drugs being planted on foreigners in some parts of the world. I’m pretty sure that such a situation would be infinitely worse than anything I had to deal with.

      I appreciate the comment!

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  175. Dina

    Hi Earl, this is the best travel story ever (competing with some others of yours)!
    So, did they confiscate anything? That Osama candy package is hilarious, will be too bad if you can’t keep it. I guess the bullet has to stay at home, eh, can’t carry it around as lucky charm longer…
    Even though they let you leave because you are not religious, I’m a bit annoyed with so what if somebody a muslim (believing in Prophet Mohammad’s words). I think relation between human and God is so personal. Discriminating based on religion is something I hate. I was a part of the minority in the past, and it’s not nice to have other people treat me differently.

    1. Earl

      Hey Dina – In the end, and much to my surprise, they didn’t confiscate anything. I even got to keep the bullet for some bizarre reason. They put everything back on the table and told me to pack up my stuff and leave. And so I did…

      And I of course agree with everything you said about religion-based discrimination (or any discrimination for that matter). I really wish I had been able to respond to their questions in a way that better expressed my disappointment in what they were implying. Unfortunately, the confusion did not allow me to do that…

    1. Earl

      Hey Nancie – Thank you for wishing me ‘good luck’! It’s not a bad idea to start collecting some extra luck even now, before my trip begins 🙂

  176. John

    What the pigs did to you was intolerable, stupid, etc. However…Were you really surprised at their (over)reaction?

    These fools have a job that consists of checking paperwork and looking at countless individuals on a day-to-day basis. Nothing of consequence really happens in the vast majority of time they spend at their monotonous work.

    Then you arrive, fresh from “TerroristLand” with “subversive literature” and live ammunition to boot! I’m certain all that was on Officer Porkrind’s mind was it was his time to be a STAR.

    The rest of your possessions could be easily explained away…but a bullet…c’mon, man.

    You set yourself up to be a victim. Great story, btw.

  177. Mark Tisdale

    This is seriously insane! Unfortunately, at the same time, it doesn’t surprise me. The personnel in immigration/customs in the US have been uniformly surly whatever one I’ve gone through. No other country I’ve been to has been quite the same as my own. The Germans in Frankfurt were brusque, but it was an all-business cold brusque, not I’m looking for some reason to send you to jail!

    1. Earl

      Hey Mark – I also have no problem with a serious, no-BS attitude, especially coming from border agents. But like you said, when they seem to be doing whatever they can to turn you into a criminal, that’s going too far…

      Thank you for the comment!

  178. Dtravelsround

    Wow. I am appalled at your treatment. Speechless. And yet, it doesn’t surprise me, which is sad. Thank you for sharing this story.

    1. Earl

      @Dtravelsround – It definitely makes it worse that people aren’t too surprised by what took place. There are some very real problems that need to be dealt with in regards to the image people have of US border control.

      Thank you for the comment and for reading the post!

    1. Earl

      Hey Andy – At the end of the day, I’m just telling a story exactly as it happened, so I’m not too worried about any consequences. Sure, it may lead to more interrogations in the future but if that’s the price, I’m ok with it.

      Are you sure it wasn’t one large bottle of wine you drank?? 🙂

      Seriously though, I hope you’ve been well and I appreciate the comment!

    1. Earl

      Hey Ayngelina – The fact that it was the border of my own country was exactly what made it all even more shocking. I don’t think anyone would know how to handle it until it happens (hopefully it doesn’t happen often of course)!

  179. Yousuf

    Reminds me of my trip to Pakistan with my brother 5 years ago, we went to visit my father. I was 18 and he was 15, and we were interogated when we got back. At that time I was pretty clueless and just answered questions however now I would not be so forthcoming. I recently learned that you do not need to answer their questions as a pre-requisite to enter the US if you are a citizen, if you have completed out a customs form. Will not make that mistake again.

    1. Earl

      Hey Yousuf – Thank you for your comment. Clearly you have an idea of what it’s like to be interrogated. I didn’t know the exact rules about answering questions at the border, but I certainly didn’t feel the need to tell the officers too much information. They didn’t even want to listen to me anyway!

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  181. Scott

    Great story! I would have bought the Bin Laden Kulfa Balls as well. I have to say though, as a Canadian who has traveled in over 30 countries the USA border is the worst to cross in to. The guards treat you like an automatic criminal and assume that your doing something wrong.

    1. Earl

      Hey Scott – It’s such a shame how many people feel that the US border is the worst border to cross. I firmly believe that a few adjustments to their procedures would help turn that around and make the country a more welcoming place. Of course, I’m not so sure they are going to listen to my ideas!

      Thanks for the comment!

  182. elsa

    what a story! that’s pretty scary to be in a room with someone yelling at you, telling you what you are when you know you’re not ~ and then tapping your Mom’s phone. thanks for the story and insight to what’s going on in customs ~

  183. O.J Prime

    “Do you believe in the words of the Prophet Mohammed?”

    What if you had said yes? Is it illegal to be Islamic in the U.S?!?! That’s just total xenophobic, racist B.S!

    Great story. (Well not great exactly, actually pretty horrific, but you know what I mean…) Lets just hope that the world calms down about people different to them soon.

    1. Earl

      @ O.J Prime – I appreciate the comment! I’m not too sure what would have happened if I had answered ”yes” to that question. Although, by the way they were asking it (and the number of times they asked it), I got the feeling that the consequences would not have been very pleasant at all.

      Quite shocking and sad to say the least…

    1. Earl

      Hey Laurence – I can guarantee you that it is not an experience you’d want to have at any time during your travels! Any other airport activity would be a much better option 🙂

  184. Dan

    That is both hilarious and frightening at the same time. I’d like to think I’d respond by saying “We’ll when I entered Pakistan they didn’t accuse me of being a CIA spy or an infidel, so yeah I’d say they were friendly people, certainly more friendly than the reception I’m getting coming home”. But I bet I’d just look like a stunned mullet saying “WTF?”.

    1. Earl

      Hey Dan – That would have been a great response. But you’re right, when you’re actually standing there in that small room, it becomes difficult to think clearly and come up with an intelligent answer to their questions. There was definitely a lot of mumbling and incomplete sentences coming from me…

    1. Earl

      Hey Ant – That’s a good point. Definitely not a good thing when I’m more terrified of entering my home country than I am of walking the streets of Lahore or Kabul!

  185. Dave

    The way it sounds, it’s almost as if had you said “Yes, I believe the words of the prophet Mohammad,” you would’ve been arrested and sent to Gitmo on the spot. It’s kind of sickening to me that they put so much focus on that question.

  186. Caz Makepeace

    Oh My God Earl! This is the travel story to beat all travel stories. What an unbelievable experience. I can’t believe they tapped your mothers phone!!!

    Craig gets interrogated for hours every time we come into the States now, as he once entered the country unknowingly on a J1 visa before me, who was the main visa holder. We thought that was bad- that’s nothing to being suspected of terrorism and monitored in this way.

    I had tears in my eyes reading what you wrote about the friendliness of the Pakistani people. It’s so horrible that the whole nation has been classed as terrorists when they are just good people trying to have a happy life.

    It is meeting people like you, Earl, that has made me so happy to have become involved in the travel blogging community. You are a rare gem.

    1. Earl

      Hey Caz – That was such an amazing comment!! I can’t tell you how much it means to me that you mentioned what I had written about the friendliness of the Pakistani people. Barely a day passes without me spending a couple of minutes reflecting on the interactions I had over there, interactions that repeatedly left me standing there speechless. And every time I hear or read something that casts an entire country or people in a negative light, it drives me crazy knowing how many kind and peace-loving people will now be negatively affected by that ignorance.

      I could go on and on 🙂

      And I was just telling someone today how much I love the travel blogging community and every reader I have. It’s such a powerful source of inspiration to communicate with such wonderful people!

  187. Anil

    I remember when you first told me this story back in June – reading it again was riveting.

    Enjoy it though, I’m pretty sure there are a few planned destinations in the Middle East that could make for an interesting trip through US Customs.

    1. Earl

      Hey Anil – I don’t doubt it for one second. It’s never a good sign when I’m forced to think about US Customs before I even leave for my trip!

  188. Zeeshan

    Very interesting. I am from Pakistani origin, tough lived more than half of my life outside Pakistan, and am a Canadian citizen for years, but am used to such VIP treatments. I understand very well how it feels. Specially at the US border they used to ask a lot of questions during Bush era, but seemed like it was part of their duty, and otherwise they were always very friendly. I have also found US people always very nice and never noticed anti-Muslim attitude.

    1. Earl

      Hey Zeeshan – I appreciate you sharing your thoughts and I am happy to hear that beyond some questioning, you were always treated kindly when crossing into the US. That’s how it should be!

  189. Pinar Tarhan

    Wow! That was one hell of a story. It was like watching one good episode of a crime/thriller show, only this time the interrogators were the bad guys. I know they were doing their jobs, but it could have helped if they did listen to you, but the candybox was a bit over the top- I mean it is just a box, but the picture would probably trigger you too, had you been one of the officers:)

    1. Earl

      Hey Pinar – Thank you so much for the comment! I agree that the candy might have been a little much so I wasn’t upset that they found it to be suspicious. Such a photo would surely raise the eyebrows of most people I’d imagine…

  190. Cailin

    You have 98 comments on this post in 4 days!!!
    Great story Earl. You must have been so scarred with those customs officers yelling at you! I definitely would of cried. I am sure just like you, if a little kid had given me a present like that I would of taken it and same with the candy.
    I hope to travel to those countries someday too, maybe entering from and exiting to Canada may have different results? hmmm.

    1. Earl

      Hey Cailin – This post has definitely led to many great comments! Your comment is actually #100 🙂

      And more than being scared during the ordeal, I was confused!! I didn’t understand the reason behind the screaming at all. Perhaps Canada would be a better option, although once you return to the US, they might swipe your passport and find out anyway…

  191. Dave and Deb

    Wow! Now that is an amazing story. I have no words, it is just insane. The funny thing is, I probably would have bought the candy too. It makes for a great souvenir and writing about the citizenship…It is a great quote for an article. I probably would have jotted down that too. Everything you did is so innocent, but to a border official?…I wonder what would have happened if you put down on the form that you went to Afghanistan and Pakistan, you just never know eh?

    1. Earl

      Hello Dave & Deb – I actually did write down Afghanistan and Pakistan on the form (I don’t think I implied that very well in the post). So they knew and that’s what surely set them off. As soon as they see those two words, they automatically think ‘danger’. But of course, being suspicious of my possessions is quite understandable, the way they treated me certainly was not.

  192. Erica

    Wow Earl… just WOW. I honestly would have bought the Bin Laden candies too – how can you turn down a box that looks like that!??!

    Honestly, I get more trouble from the Border Patrol checkpoints on I-10 than I do when I leave/enter the country. Our last experience had the border patrol guy not believing I was an American citizen and kept trying to re-check our story about the road trip we were on. I’m thinking, “Dude… I have colored hair, tattoos, and a small southern drawl. How on EARTH can you really be asking me this?” I think if he would have asked for my papers I would have lost it.

    1. Earl

      Hey Erica – It’s amazing that you mention the Border Patrol checkpoints on I-10 because I keep hearing so many terrible stories about people’s experiences. They do seem to be much worse than going through Customs, even with a bullet in your pocket! Glad to know you would have bought the candies as well. It would have been crazy not to buy them, right???

  193. Margo

    Earl, Earl, Earl… always wondering what chromosome,gene, upbringing combo you have that I clearly don’t. Love this post – highly entertaining and emotional. Thank you for sharing the experience. (you and my husband have gotta chat someday)

    1. Earl

      Hey Margo! You should probably be happy that you’re missing the ‘get into trouble while traveling’ gene! And I bet your husband has some stories to tell with his travels. Would love to chat with him!

  194. Trans-Americas Journey

    Best read of the week. Customs can mess with you as the Constitution doesn’t apply until you pass their doors. I was once strip-searched by a bored customs agent in Guam (of all places- US territory w US customs)and missed my connecting flight back to the ‘mainland’ after a few months in SE Asia…but that doesn’t compare to this.

    1. Earl

      @Trans-Americas Journey – Strip-searched in Guam?? That sounds quite intense to me. And you’re right, the rules are different before you make it through Customs and these days, the agents are virtually allowed to do anything they please during their interrogations. That’s quite a scary thought!

  195. T-roy

    Earlllllllll, burka, bullets and Osama candy… WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?????? This is post-9/11 man! jajajaj

    Dude you can’t make shit up this good… you need a book deal on all your adventures! jajajaja It made me think of that time though when the mafia guy was buying knives in port and talking about you on the cruise ship. Well maybe he just collected knives (ok we all knew he didn’t) but thats what those immigration officer would think when seeing all that stuff in your pack after 9/11. I thought I had it bad once… but i wasn’t bring in live ordnance into the country. Hell the only thing missing was a brick of pure coke and it would have sealed the deal! jajaja Great stuff man!

    1. Earl

      Hey T-roy – Well, even though it’s post-9/11, I’m still free to travel and buy those things! It certainly made me suspicious but not illegal 🙂
      It is similar to the mafia/knives story and I’m sure that as the Officer began pulling things out of my backpack, he thought he had stumbled upon a real criminal. He just didn’t know how to find out for sure and so he just started screaming about everything…

      So what did your customs situation involve???

  196. Amanda

    Wow, Earl, this was one of the best things I’ve read in a long time! It’s crazy to think that’s it’s all true. I hate that this is what the U.S. boils down to these days. I’m sorry that you had to go through this! It’s terrible. But, it seems like you’re able to look back on it now with a tad bit of humor (I’ll admit to being amused once or twice while reading this). Or, if not humor, at least not with too much resentment.

    Great, great writing! And I’m glad you seem to have been taken off that list!

    1. Earl

      Hey Amanda – I can absolutely look back on this with some humor these days. And I’m glad to hear that you managed a few laughs yourself while reading the story 🙂 Even right after it happened I wasn’t so much angry as I was confused. Had I been taken to jail, then maybe it wouldn’t have been so humorous…

      Have a great weekend!

  197. Andi

    Holy shit!!! What a story! I think I might have lost it, not from being nervous, but for having to deal with such pricks! They way they treated you makes me SO angry. I’m laughing though when they pulled out those Osama candies. It would make for a good SNL skit huh?

  198. Phong

    Wow. Totally blow my mind. The closest experience I had is when I had a road trip to Arizona/Texas earlier this year around February, I got stop at the highway’s border patrol for half an hour at one o’clock in the morning because…hm…I’m not white?!

    1. Earl

      Hey Phong – They just stopped you for no reason? Was it a checkpoint? I would imagine that the highway patrol in those parts would be quite intense these days. Hopefully they didn’t do anything beyond questioning you, although 30 minutes of questioning seems excessive just for driving down the highway!

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  200. Elisa

    It seems to me a really good terrorist wouldn’t bring Osama Bin Laden M&M’s with them on a mission. Especially with airport security being what it is and all.

    If anything the Customs Officers should have realized that if you *were* a terrorist you were mediocre at best…

  201. Shannon OD

    You’re stories are nuts! I kept reading this hoping it was going to be a joke – the fact that they repeatedly screamed at you like that is just incredible…I had no idea that could happen just from visiting the region and it makes me sad at the level of intolerance. I get that they have to protect our borders but this entire situation seems like overkill. 🙁

    As for the candies – I would’ve bought them too – that box is flat out interesting.

    1. Earl

      Hey Shannon – Glad to know I’m not the only one who found those candies interesting! At the time I thought, ‘how can I not take one of these boxes back home?’ The intolerance level is quite disappointing and the amount of screaming was shocking. If that’s what their training teaches them, it is beyond sad.

      I hope your travels around the US are going well!

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  203. TAE40110

    Hi Earl,

    It’s crazy the way things have gotten in the USA. Even the TSA at dmoestic terminals are way out of line.

    I’m from Australia and we complain about our customs officers but they are no where near as bad as in the USA.

    Interestingly, I always find the NZ officers the most friendly and welcoming.

  204. Forest

    And so what if you did believe the word of the profit Mohammed! What a dumb question…. I’ve seen border guards give people all kinds of shit they don’t deserve. I once saw a guard say to a french speaking haitian at the Quebec / Vermont border that he couldn’t enter USA if he didn’t know English….. Errr I think border guards at the French border should be able to speak French for a start!

    Anyway sorry you had to go through that crap, none of it deters terrorism as the terrorist’s are not dumb enough to carry Osama novelty sweets in their pockets! What is the world coming to!

  205. Migrationology

    Earl, you had my attention for this entire story. Greatly told and written. I would have been pretty nervous if I was in your shoes. I hope most of the customs agents these days know that most Muslims are extremely kind hearted and friendly. I also hope the American customs agents start to treat international travelers with a little more kindness!
    I’d love to try some of the Osama treats, how were they?

  206. Mimi: Sleepless In KL

    Yr story is both fascinating & downright scary. Reminds me of the movie “My Name Is Khan” starring Shah Rukh Khan and his personal experience of getting detained by US authorities in real life. And it reminded me briefly of getting myself “escorted” (even to the toilet) during a short stopover in San Francisco from a trip to Mexico waaay back when the US still allowed transit without visa. It made me feel like some sort of criminal especially when one Immigration officer yelled at me for giving an answer other than yes or no (the only choices he’d take). Maybe US Immigration and Customs officers ought to travel to 3 continents as part of on-the-job training 🙂

    1. Earl

      Hey Mimi – I would hope that US Immigration and Customs Officers are required to travel as part of their travel, but I’m not quite sure that’s the case. It would seem like an essential part of such training to me. It might help increase their cultural sensitivity and decrease all of the unnecessary screaming!

      I haven’t seen “My Name is Khan” but I’m curious to check that out. Thank you so much for the comment!

  207. MK Taylor

    Ah, I was just visiting an old coworker who moved back to Canada & part of the visit was swapping stories about our mutual loathing of US and Canadian customs. I actually got the 3rd degree from Canadian customs even with just the honest answer that I was there for a weekend to visit an old friend.

    Worst experience? I went to Cuba about 2 months prior to 9/11. Even with a travel license as part of an exchange program, I *still* got pulled out of line for questioning at George H Bush in Houston (go figure). They went through every inch of my luggage and threatened to confiscate the items I was bringing back. It was probably stupid, but because I didn’t want to lose 2 bottles of premium rum and the cigars I promised a friend, I pulled out the paperwork where it said in writing I had the legal right to bring these things in under the Treasury Department License I had for this trip. Oh and hinted that if I had the right to a phone call, I’d call my cousins who lived in Houston, because they were standing by to come down to the airport and raise a stink if I got detained. I ended up getting released because (besides not having a leg to stand on, because I had a travel license) the agent who was questioning me realized that I worked at a university he was planning on applying to for grad school. So I ended up getting off the hook because of a random reason. However, somebody decided because of that incident to put me on the Do Not Fly List. I finally got off of it about 18 months ago, but what a MF PITA. Pretty much every time after that when I had to fly, I had to check in at the airport in person & the counter agents had to go through all sorts of hoops to get me checked in.

    1. Earl

      @MK Taylor – Thanks for sharing your Customs experience! That doesn’t sound like such an enjoyable encounter at all. At least you kept your rum and cigars 🙂

      And I’ve yet to hear too many negative things about Canadian customs but perhaps the attitudes of the US officers are starting to rub off on them as well…

      1. MK Taylor

        The friend I was visiting still does the RT Vancouver – Seattle run once a month to visit another old coworker. It’s the Bellingham border crossing (for both US & Canadian customs) where she’s gotten so much grief. Maybe it has to do with that being the spot where the guy who’d planned to blow up LAX on New Year’s Eve 1999 was caught. But she warned me & I did get the 3rd degree until I told the agent I was there to visit somebody I used to work with. Weirdest part was then he went from stern to all friendly and made the comment of “Gosh, why wouldn’t she want to go back down to California to visit you?”

        As much as I gripe about my own (minor) experiences, I know I don’t have it nearly as bad as the people I’ve seen on various flights from Latin America into the US. Most of my expat friends have said avoid flying into Miami and go to Atlanta, because you won’t end up feeling like you’ve been arrested. I had a flight into Miami from Rio & even if it hadn’t landed at 4a, it still would’ve been unreal. There was an actual scrimmage line of customs agents who intercept & question you before you can even get into line. I was barely awake, but just remember the guy next to me getting dragged off because he said he was Peruvian and there on some kind of church sponsored exchange program. Didn’t see him in the baggage claim or transfer terminal, so I have the feeling he probably got detained.

        1. Earl

          @MK Taylor – I agree that we don’t have it nearly as bad as many others who enter the US. It is difficult for me to imagine entering a foreign country and to be so intimidated from the moment you step off the plane, just because of your nationality or appearance. As I’m sure you noticed when returning from Rio, the agents also never seem to take into account the fact that the people they are questioning don’t speak English very well. I’ve found them yelling at foreigners in such rapid-fire English and then getting even more angry because the visitor simply didn’t understand!

  208. Unexpected Traveller

    Wow – shocking, bizarre and scary. Glad you managed to make it out in one piece.

    It’s a pity that these people do not have enough training to do their job properly because it’s clear that all they want to do is just their job. They may have the best of intentions (ok, maybe not the _best_) but the result is far from ideal.

    Makes me wonder what would have happened to me if one previous experience of mine did not turn out well: http://wp.me/ppqxP-9j

    1. Earl

      @unexpected traveller – You’re absolutely right, the officers are definitely just trying to do their job. I have no doubt that they are focused on trying to make the country safer (how that’s defined is a different question). For such an important task, one would think the training would be a little more extensive.

      And I’m surprised that your encounter with US Customs went so well given your fingerprint situation. That just seems like it would lead to a major ordeal every time. Glad that you escaped that experience without any trouble!

  209. Jeremy B

    This has to be one of the most fascinating stories I have ever read! Gripped the entire time. Recently, I just wrote about the TSA Secure Flight program and how passengers have to give information to be cleared before flying. Sometimes people get on the lists accidentally so it follows them for a while and they have to be cleared through this process. By November 2010, this will be mandatory for all passengers flying into and out of the US.

    Now, I know what it’s like for one of those people to be on that list. Extraordinary Earl! It sucks that you had to go through that but you will have this story to tell the rest of your life!

    1. Earl

      Hey Jeremy – That’s interesting about having to provide information pre-flight starting in November. I’m sure there will be plenty of people who will be denied boarding for what turns out to be a simple error. I can’t imagine that’s going to help improve people’s image of entering the US!

  210. Audrey

    Oh man, this is my worst nightmare. It’s not only being interrogated by US officials, but by people who really are not properly trained and in reality, don’t know what they are looking for. I’m really sorry to hear about the tapping of your mother’s phone and subsequent interrogations.

    I admit that I get nervous when we return to the States because we have stamps and visas from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and other countries perhaps not deemed too friendly by the US government.

    1. Earl

      Hey Audrey – I’m happy to know you haven’t had to go through such an ordeal! The good thing is that if you don’t have anything to hide, then there’s really nothing that’s going to happen beyond an intense interrogation. It just always amazes me that despite not having anything to hide, endless people (including citizens) are still terrified of the US Immigration/Customs. Returning to one’s home country is something that should not be associated with the term ‘nightmare’!

  211. MaryAnne

    I used to live in Turkey and had spent a lot of my time off traveling around the Middle East. My passport had a lot of stamps with Arabic script in them. At one point, when i was living in a small city in the middle of Turkey just before the Iraq war started and American fighter planes from a nearby base kept roaring over my classroom freaking out my 10 year old students, I decided to go to New York to see some friends over the Christmas break. Even though the city I lived in was very traditional and very Muslim, all foreign teachers got a week off for Christmas so we could be with our friends and family.

    I flew to New York via Istanbul and Frankfurt. In Frankfurt, they confiscated a small, round edged butter knife I’d forgotten in my bag from a picnic I’d been taken on before I left. Obviously a totally dull, round metal object originating in a Muslim country was a weapon. At the gate in Frankfurt, before boarding the flight to NY, an American official pulled me aside and grilled me for 20 minutes about my movements from my front door to this gate (it had been a 2 day journey so far, by bus, taxi and plane). He wanted exact seat numbers, road names, bus companies, friends’ addresses I’d slept over at, and exact times of all movements. I still don’t know why it was relevant.

    That was in 2002. From 2002 until I moved to China and got a shiny new passport about two years ago, I was stopped and grilled and chastised at every North American arrivals desk, both in the US (usually just in transit) and in Canada (coming home to visit my family). No one could understand that I was living and working in Turkey because I just really enjoyed it. Surely I had other motives. And those Egyptian/Omani/Emirati stamps? Didn’t help.

    Coming back from Shanghai with a passport full of Asian-only stamps has been easy. Suddenly I’m no longer grilled or pulled aside for questioning when I fly home. Go figure.

    1. Earl

      Hey MaryAnne – It is amazing how returning home from Asia doesn’t raise an eyebrow at all, no matter how long you spend there or how many countries you visit. But having one stamp with arabic script on it is enough to make a person highly suspicious. I’m not sure how I would have reacted in your situation when faced with such a grilling in Frankfurt. Seat numbers? Road names? Those are some crazy questions and under the pressure I don’t know if I would have been able to remember anything.

      At least you have your new passport now and are receiving some better treatment 🙂 Thank you for your comment and keep on enjoying Shanghai!

      1. MaryAnne

        I meant to add that I recently discovered your site (through someone’s twitter retweet) and am now slowly, methodically reading my way backward in time through your posts. As a long-time traveller/expat type too, I totally relate to a lot of what you’ve written. I’ve been abroad nearly non stop since I was 19 (36 now) and often find it hard to explain to others what I’m doing and why. I can only say that I’m doing what intuitively feels right for me. I get the feeling that you’re doing the same thing. Keep on writing. It’s good stuff.

        1. Earl

          Hey MaryAnne – You definitely have quite a few more years experience than I do! 17 years on the road is quite admirable 🙂 And I agree with you that sometimes it is nearly impossible to explain the driving force behind our decisions to remain a ‘wanderer’. As you said, it just feels right and that’s basically all we need in order to know that we’re making the right decisions for ourselves. It’s such a simple feeling (that we can easily understand) but can be so complicated to explain!

          I appreciate you reading through my posts and it’s great to have met you! I look forward to hearing more about your years abroad as well…

  212. Nate

    Earl. Just when I thought that I’ve heard it all from you, this incredible post comes out of nowhere. I can’t believe that they tapped the phone line at your mom’s house! Craziness.

    Big congrats to you for not having an attitude with the interrogators. I feel like I would have made some smart comment that would have landed me in some kind of cell, somewhere.

    Looking forward to more of these stories from your upcoming trip!

    1. Earl

      Trust me Nate, making a smart comment crossed my mind a few dozen times! I only held back because I could easily envision the Officers handcuffing me and leading me off to an even worse situation. And besides, if I had ended up in jail, this post would have been much too long 🙂

  213. Heather

    Unfortunately I can’t say I’m surprised, as I’ve been spending the last six months researching the effects that PATRIOT Act has had on South Asian and Arab Americans. This story is extremely disturbing, not just because of how you were treated and on what “grounds” the officers based their suspicions, but because it seems like if you had been Muslim, you would have no choice but to deny your faith or be considered a threat.

    1. Earl

      Hey Heather – Thank you for your input! I would imagine that the results of your current research are probably not too positive. After what I went through, I certainly feel for anyone who’s racially profiled and sent into that same interrogation room. I can’t imagine the abuse they must undergo simply on the basis of their religion or appearance. What a terrible situation to be in, especially if the person is a South Asian or Arab American. Not a great way to be welcomed home.

  214. Clarkson

    What a story! It certainly doesn’t take much for customs to jump all over you. Thanks for the good read, totally enjoyed the story, but sorry for your troubles. Glad it’s over – for now 🙂

    1. Earl

      Hey Clarkson – I appreciate you taking the time to read this post and I thank you for your comment! I guess I’ll just have to wait and see how the next Customs inspection goes!

  215. Henway

    Heh, what a story… I’m sure people don’t get bored talking with you in cocktail parties 🙂

    But it really is a shame how Islam is perceived, even among the authoritative members of our society. I wonder what would have happened if you had said yes to their question. On the one hand, you can sorta understand their reactions (better safe than sorry), but when they could not find any reasonable evidence that linked you to terrorism, they should’ve let you go.

    1. Earl

      Hey Henway – I perfectly understand their reactions and agree that it’s better to be safe. To me it always comes down to the lack of professionalism and common courtesy that is so often mentioned by people who have had to undergo similar interrogations or even worse. They can go ahead and check me out for as long as they want, that’s fine with me. Just be a little more respectful and lose the power trip! Thanks for the comment…

  216. Missy

    Wow, man. The FBI should be way calmer at the start of these things. The things they assumed, not even listening.
    However, I’m not condoning their rudeness, but really would you want to ride a plane were they didn’t investigate someone with a bullet in their pocket?

    1. Earl

      Hello Missy – I agree with you and had no problem with them questioning me at all, or even becoming suspicious after finding the bullet. I just think that perhaps they should have been less aggressive and actually tried to listen to my explanations!

  217. Andy Hough

    That is quite a story. I don’t have anything to compare to that.

    My worst experience was when crossing back to the U.S. from Mexico shortly after having completed a medical study. During the study they had been taking my blood several times a day resulting in needle marks on my arm similar to those of a drug addict. The customs agents gave me a thorough search and ran my license. Luckily, I didn’t have anything to hide and they let me go after about 20 minutes.

    1. Earl

      Hey Andy – I could see how the agents would be suspicious of your arms! I guess if you were using drugs as often as your needle marks seemed to indicate, they certainly would have expected to find something on you. Glad to hear they didn’t rough you up too much as that could have been the perfect excuse for a cavity search. 🙂

  218. Ozzy

    There is absolutely no way I could have kept a straight face during that interview. Especially when asked the question “Do you believe in the words of the Prophet Mohammed?” At that point I would have a asked them some stupid questions, “Do you believe in Jesus Christ?” “Are you a Mormon?” “Do you believe in the great spaghetti monster that floats through space?” “Are you one of those stupid Scientologists who believe aliens showed up and put our spirits in animals and we morphed into what we are today?” I then would have gone on to discuss how America actively promotes freedom of religion. I realize this would have gotten me in even more trouble, but from my experience when I get interrogated my mouth takes over when I get asked stupid questions that have no relevance. Or when you were asked if the people were friendly I know that I would have given a smart ass remark. Thus I would probably either be in jail or been kicked out of the country…Congrats on making it through that. I’m glad it’s all over and you are probably right, you are going to be right back on someone’s list after this trip. I only have one question…how did you get the bullet on the plane in the first place.

    Ozzy

    1. Earl

      Hey Ozzy – The only reason why I was able to keep a straight face and refrain from making any remarks was because I was too confused to think clearly. All I kept thinking was, “If this is what I have to deal with, I don’t think it would be a good idea to make the situation any worse”. Although, I could see how some people would have had trouble holding back their smart ass comments, especially after the “Are they friendly?” question!

      As for the bullet, it was in my backpack which I had checked. It had been in a pair of pants that I never wore after that day in Kabul so it never occurred to me that the bullet was still in the pocket!

  219. Jennifer Barry

    I’m sorry about the treatment you received but I’m not surprised at all. The US is repeatedly voted the least friendly country to visit. More and more people are doing what John mentioned and making sure they never have a US stopover. Not surprisingly, tourism dollars spent in the US are dropping.

    I would be hesitant to visit anywhere in the Middle East except Israel due to the kind of treatment you received. That’s very sad.

    1. Earl

      Hey Jennifer – The worst part is that being voted the ‘least friendly country’ has nothing to do with the behavior of actual US citizens. You know the situation is really bad when an entire country’s reputation is the result of border agents! Tourism dollars are dropping and I really would love to see this ‘image improvement’ initiative start to make some real progress, although I’m certainly not holding my breath.

  220. Jools Stone

    Great stuff. On the one hand you were spectacularly unlucky at the time, but equally incredibly lucky to now have this great story to now tell us!
    I hope you got to keep your Obama sweets.
    Jools

    1. Earl

      Hey Jools – Many thanks for the comment! I did in fact get to keep the bin Laden sweets as well as the bullet, burqa and books. In the end they just handed them all back to me, told me to pack up and sent me on my way…

      1. craig | travelvice.com

        I’m very much surprised they released those items to you.

        The bullet had been fired or was still intact with its casing? That would’ve been a ‘legitimate’ offense if it was capable of being fired. Something not to do in Russia as well, it would seem.

        Congrats for getting off the list!

        1. Earl

          Hey Craig – I was surprised as anyone when they handed everything back to me! The bullet was unused but was not in great condition as it had a tiny chip in it and was caked in some mud. To be honest, I would never have carried the bullet with me had I even remembered I had it in my possession.

          There’s a travel trip: Always check the pockets of all your clothes before taking a flight in case you have a bullet on you!

  221. Alan

    Wow Earl.

    When I got back from the Middle East (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Qatar), I was asked ten minutes of questions in a private room, but fortunately, since I had company support, I wasn’t subjected to the kind of intense interrogation you describe above.

    I’m sure I’ve said this before, but this is my favorite article you’ve written. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Earl

      Thanks Alan! I was actually going to ask you about your Customs experiences but it makes sense that having the company support gives your travels a bit more legitimacy. Otherwise, your job would probably involve an absurd amount of time spent in US interrogation rooms!

  222. Jenny

    WOW. What a compelling story! I couldn’t stop reading. Glad that everything turned out okay, and hey it did turn into one hell of a story to tell! lol.

    I, too, had some people watching over me because of my association with a friend. Crazy!

    1. Earl

      Hey Jenny – Hopefully you weren’t harassed too much for your association with your friend! I imagine that knowing you’re being watched is a most frightening thing to experience. Perhaps your situation led to an interesting story as well???

  223. rose

    Wow, that’s quite a story! I’m not surprised though, whenever I go down to the US from Canada to visit my grandmother I get pretty gruff treatment (“Are you aware that you are not allowed to work in the US?!”…) and I am thinking of getting my US passport (I have dual citizenship) just to avoid this, but I worry it might just make it worse. After all, why would an american citizen want to live in Canada?!. The way they have acted with Canadians since 9-11 is shameful, and they routinely refuse people access for no apparent reason. My aunt even got interrogated for an hour on her way back home from a visit once, because she looks like she could possibly be of arab descent (we are originally french-canadian, and she was born and lives in the US!)

    My ex-boyfriend always got pretty rough treatment at any border crossing, the worst time being when he left India to go home because he had typhoid fever – the border guards were convinced he was a heroin addict because he had lost so much weight from the illness and the malaria he had gotten before (it was a bad year…), and gave him an extremely thorough search, including a thorough vacuuming of his entire bag. He barely had enough strength to stand and pack his bag up again, and as soon as he got home he was in the hospital for 3 weeks.

    I always find it very sad when I see or hear of border guards acting like such bullies, and I agree with James – it seems like they watch way too much TV, and get a very unhealthy thrill out of the power they wield.

    1. Earl

      Hey Rose – Thank you for sharing! I have heard more and more stories of Canadians being hassled at the border as well and again, all that does is help turn our once friendly neighbors against us. It is a shame indeed. The situation with your ex-boyfriend sounds intense and I can’t imagine how miserable that must have been for him to go through. What a way to end that already difficult trip.

      And the ‘too much TV’ idea seems about right to me. Who’s going to stop them from acting this way? Nobody it seems.

  224. Andrew

    I’m not religion’s biggest fan, but the line of questioning about belief seems completely irrelevant to customs from a factual standpoint. I wonder if there’s some psychology or Paul Ekman style facial signaling they’re looking for that’s completely separate from the content.

    The bit about U.S. citizenship is interesting. Citizenship can’t be revoked voluntarily without possessing another citizenship. So again I gotta wonder what they’re really after by pursuing that line of questioning.

    Great post in any case!

    1. Earl

      Hey Andrew – I wonder the same thing. Were they simply trying to observe my reactions to their outrageous statements? If so, they did a pretty good job of hiding their motive as, to me, they appeared to have no idea what they were doing whatsoever!

      As for the citizenship issue…it just seemed that the young Officer was trying to get me to say something that could be used against me, anything at all. Again, maybe there was a method to his madness, but I tend to highly doubt it.

  225. Adventurous Kate

    What a CRAZY story, Earl! I’m glad you made it out okay without giving in to the Islamophobia that defines our border security and, sadly, much of our nation.

    Really? This is how they’re trying to catch terrorists?

    1. Earl

      Hey Kate – I know. It doesn’t seem like a very reliable method at all, especially since the officers seemed to have very little understanding of that part of the world. Just like with anything, a little knowledge can easily clear up a handful of misunderstandings!

  226. Phil

    Earl,
    Your narratives are brilliant, both for their content and your writing style. The “Aftermath” is rather insane, but I’m not surprised – I have heard similar stories from people who have ended up on such a list for worse reasons. Always a great here Earl. B well, Phil

    1. Earl

      Thank you kindly Phil! The aftermath was a bit much, and I think the worst part of it was having the border officials go through my computer all the time. I had nothing to hide but it just seemed like such an invasion of privacy.

  227. John Bardos -JetSetCitizen

    WOW! That is a story.

    American custom agents are ridiculous. I have had so many problems that I avoid going to or through the US. My wife and I will gladly pay several hundred dollars more to avoid the harassment.

    It is a shame because the United States is a fantastic country. I really don’t understand how the government can allow customs agents to abuse their powers to that extent. Customers officers in Japan and most other countries offer so much respect and basic kindness.

    1. Earl

      Hey John – I remember you mentioning on your site one time that you were not particularly fond of US customs agents. The funny part is that there is a major initiative designed to improve the image of the US immigration/customs agents, but I’m not quite sure that’s working so well. Visitors/Returning citizens aren’t exactly asking to be served wine and cheese upon arrival, just to be greeted and treated with some basic kindness as you said.

  228. Sarah

    Wow, this is quite the experience. I’ve always been amazed by how tough the US immigration and customs teams are compared to most others I’ve encountered around the world.
    At 18, landing in Hawaii from New Zealand, I was subject to quite the interrogation because the idea of someone of my age travelling around was apparently unthinkable. The same questions were repeated over and over “Where are you going?”, “who are you going to stay with?”, “where have you been?”, “are you intending to work?” Who did you say you were staying with?” Along with the rather perculiar “Have you ever been to Illinois? (only for a stopover)” I’d love to be able to land in the US and not be treated as a criminal for simply wanting to enjoy spending some time in their lovely country. Ho hum.

    1. Earl

      Hey Sarah – It really is a shame that so many people are afraid to visit the US just because they don’t want to deal with Border Officials. Surely there must be a way to protect the borders while still being hospitable to our foreign visitors. And the “Have you been to Illinois?” question doesn’t surprise me at all as they of course have a record of every single flight we’ve all ever taken!

  229. Maria Staal

    Like Fabian, I must admit that I was simultaneously ammused and horrified at reading your post. I can’t believe that US immigration officers can be so short-sighted. And keeping you in the picture for a further two years! Ridiculous.
    Anyway, I think you could be right about getting back into trouble after your Middle East trip. But I’m sure it’s not going to stop you from going. 🙂

    I have no real horror border crossing stories, other than that I I was told by the US embassy in Amsterdam that I needed a visa if I visited the US westcoast while working on a ship. I duly obtained the visa and was granted access without problems. The year after, working on an other ship, I visited the US east coast, where the imigration officers were much put out to discover that I had a visa as they didn’t think I needed one. I explained about my previous trip and was cleared, but as my visa is valid for 10 years, I get suspicious looks everytime I cross the US border. But that will all end when it expires in 2012. 🙂

    1. Earl

      Hey Maria – No, it’s not going to stop me! Your experience with US visas seems to be a common occurrence resulting from a lack of consistency with border procedures. One agent says one thing, the next agent says something completely different and so, to the visitor, the rules become extremely difficult to understand. At least you’ve only had to deal with strange looks so far!

  230. Greg

    Wow.

    “frustrated by the lack of training/knowledge of the people put in charge of protecting the US borders…”

    Well said. On several occasions I’ve found US border officers unable to comprehend aspects of the nomadic life. Their brains require simple stories. I’m a US citizen, but my wife is dual Canadian/Romanian citizen. Without property, or a formal job in the office sense, they assume she is going to try to stay illegally in the US. We’ve spent hours in front of US customs officers explaining how we are traveling long-term, etc. So far things eventually work out, but I agree with Fabian that these guys probably watch too much TV (24, for example).

    1. Earl

      Hey Greg – I agree, the nomadic life is a nearly impossible concept to explain to border officials. And while I fully understand the need to protect the borders, I often find the manner in which the procedures are carried out to be less than acceptable. As Brian mentioned, people are automatically assumed to be a criminal and treated as such, without any real cause for suspicion.

  231. Brian

    Wow, I will never complain about my delays at US customs again … well not as loudly anyways!

    There’s nothing like being guilty until you can prove yourself innocent before you’re allowed back into the US, even if you are a card carrying member.

    Glad you’re off the list now!

    1. Earl

      Hey Brian – That’s exactly it. I’m more afraid of going through Immigration and Customs in the US than in any other country. And I’m a citizen with nothing at all to hide! Somehow that doesn’t seem right at all. Thank you for commenting!

  232. Fabian | The Friendly Anarchist

    Damn, this is really a tough story, Earl. Admittedly, still quite entertaining reading it from a distance, but in its content totally horrifying. I will never get it that these guys at the border aren’t better trained. Couldn’t be so hard, could it? All they know is the game of confrontation, but that’s pretty much it. The thing that really worries me, though, is this phone tapping thing. Wow…

    My personal story would be too long to tell here now. Let’s just say that it includes a German guy (that’s me), taking a standby flight from Bruxelles to Atlanta, looking like a drug lord, long-haired, with a lot of gel in my hair, a ponytail, and a fine suit (I was going to travel business class and had to dress like that due to Delta’s standby policies), two large bags full of children’s clothes, and a connecting flight to Colombia via Florida.

    Just like in your story, that’s a lot of details coming together, that drove the border guys pretty crazy. On a lighter note, they ended up getting an American-German interpreter to make sure I REALLY wasn’t involved in any Nazi crimes (born 1981, that ist…), and we ended up talking mostly about the weather and the memories form home. The lady seemed to be rather ashamed by the treatment I had gotten earlier, that also made me lose my flight and resulted in a free night sleeping at the airport…

    1. Earl

      Hey Fabian – That sounds like quite an ordeal you went through yourself. I would imagine the drug lord look wouldn’t sit very well with the Customs Officers, but probably just the long hair would be enough to set them off. That’s quite funny about the interpreter. I always wondered what kind of interactions would take place when an interpreter is called into such a situation…now I know…the weather. Amazing. Glad to know that you weren’t detained or put in jail, which is where I thought your story was headed!

  233. Brian Setzer

    Man, that kept going from bad to worse. I can see how the interrogator would have to interpret some of the items as troubling. Still I think their ignorance is the more of an issue than anything you did. Did you have a photocopy of the wanted poster the mob put out for you? That could have made for some interesting questions as well.

    No surprise that I take the travelers side I suppose. Hope you enjoyed your short stint of not being targeted for searches.

  234. Kristian

    Sorry I have to say I had many chuckle reading that article – luck really wasn’t on your side! Those bin Laden sweets are also bizarre, the face of the customs officer must have been a picture.

    But I totally agree with you on Pakistan – I was lucky enough to be sent there earlier this year, and it was absolutely wonderful. I felt very safe, the people were some of the most hospitable I’ve ever met and it was one of the warmest receptions I’ve ever had.

    1. Earl

      @Kristian – Thank you for the comment! I’m glad to hear you thoroughly enjoyed your visit to Pakistan as well. For a place with such a terrible reputation, almost every traveler I’ve known who has visited that country has only positive things to say about the people they met!

      @Brian Setzer – I absolutely admit that the items I had could be viewed as suspicious, so I had no problem with being interrogated. The manner in which it was conducted just didn’t seem very useful to anyone! Perhaps a bit more training would help make the borders safer.

      @Dan – Thanks for reading! So I guess you understand how unpleasant a Customs inspection can be 🙂 Hopefully next time you’ll be treated better!

      @James Schipper – Hey James! I’m not sure what they were thinking. My first guess was that the young Officer had no experience in such interrogations but when the Supervisor acted in the same manner, I became completely confused.

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