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.


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 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.


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.


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?”


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.


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.

    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

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