Obama was right when he said you cannot have both 100% security and expect 100% privacy and zero inconvenience. I just wish I didn’t have to learn this one the hard way.
Peace Corps status DOES NOT give you special privileges when traveling internationally. In fact, it’s almost guaranteed to be more difficult.
Stepping up to the Boarder Control desk, I took a deep breath, then told the truth. There was a pause at the keyboard. “Sir, you said you were where for how long doing what?” It turns out spending a year in an unpronounceable place slaughtering sheep does not put you in the fast lane through customs and security.
“Sir, did you ever leave your bags unattended?”
It was one moment in a long string of precautions and questions. When I finally made it to my gate I was told by the airline agent that I had been flagged for additional security and I would have to return. The plane would leave without me.
You can understand how disappointed I felt, not having been home for a year, my family waiting eagerly on the other side of that portal, just out of reach. The airline agent assured me this was all for my safety. “Your security is our top priority,” she said solemnly. Really, I wondered, because stopping and preventing me from getting on the plane seemed a lot more like she was concerned with everyone else’s security. Huddling in some forsaken corner of Toronto’s airport clutching my bag and shivering off the cold certainly did not make me feel more secure.
I spent the night in Section Q with the other squatters, awaiting my turn through customs and security once again the next morning. I was tempted to do it differently this time. To lie. To just get through that card in a way that would reunite me with buffalo wings as quickly as possible. Then I got to the part where it asks, “Were you on a farm?” Considering the fact that Kyrgyzstan is basically one large sheep pasture it was too difficult to answer “no.” So I was pulled into the back room for some shoe washing.
After waiting half an hour for the U.S. Customs Shoe Washing Unit to arrive, they glanced over my shoes for caked on dirt, determined there wasn’t enough to shake their washing stick at and passed me through. It didn’t seem like the appropriate time to mention the turkey and horse blood stains so I followed the extended arm out to the next security step.
After sending my bag through, I was randomly pulled aside for the “raise ‘em and spread ‘em” machine. Try coming from a country ending in –stan while wearing a beard and see if you don’t get randomly selected for extra security. If you want to serve your country in an unknown corner of the world for vast stretches of time doing “development work,” you are going to have your freedom and convenience violated.
But that’s what we signed up for, right? It’s not convenient to put a relationship or career on hold. It’s not convenient to step out into the unfamiliar and unknown. It’s not convenient to give up hobbies and support networks and to say goodbye to family and friends for two years of your life. And it’s not convenient to travel through airports.
But we didn’t sign up because of that. We signed up because, despite the difficulties, despite the hardship, we know this work matters. That nothing worth doing has ever been easy. That the inconveniences are not an end in themselves, but rather show us we’re on the right path.
I made it through. I’m in America, typing this right now in the land of the free and home of TSA. I have only two weeks here and then I’ll be back at the airport, back in line, headed back to the work and people I love. Yes, it’s inconvenient. And yes, it’s so worth it.