International excursions for some these days have been complicated by the swirling of the rather precarious executive order of a “travel ban” making headlines. Limited as a world traveler, it nevertheless brought opportunity for me to reflect on some of my periodic treks involving a boarder, passport and some form of an official agent. Without further ado, rest assured, I in no way wish to make light of the recent mandate nor minimize the unsettling nature, confusion and even hardship that has befallen many.
Most frequent fliers of the foreign variety would agree that even for the “rank and file,” initial encounters with certain countries can be fraught with the unanticipated which prolong.
Guelph, Ontario, is a frequent, almost annual destination to a personal, eight-day directed silent retreat at Loyola House, a Jesuit retreat center. Yes, you read correctly, eight days of silence. Heading north and east, my journey requires a bridge-aided traversing between Detroit and Windsor. With each year’s accumulated history, I find this hardly mitigates the internal anxiety.
As almost always, the agent asks my place of residence. I answer without hesitation and confidently, “Ottawa, Ohio!” Specificity was then requested by the uniformed intermediary, and I gladly comply with verbiage I have designed and rehearsed multiple times in the past while addressing similar inquiries here in the good old U.S. of A. When he asked, “Where’s Ottawa? Is it near Cincinnati?” I unassumingly declared, “No, it’s way north of there.” I then go on, “Ottawa is the epicenter of Findlay, Defiance, Lima and Van Wert.” In retrospect, a poor word choice, but it was too late!
Consequently, I’m now being detained, rather unreasonably, 15 to 20 minutes. During this time the agent begins pummeled with questions surrounding the legitimacy of my silent retreat adventure and even requiring me to present evidentiary paperwork supporting my claim. For future reference, I’ve since chosen to delete my “epicenter” refrain given its association with explosive devices and capacity to stimulate interrogation-like scrutiny.
During one return from Canada, the appointed U.S. Border Agent caught us quite off guard. Pun intended! I wasn’t alone this time as I was accompanied by a good friend, also a Lutheran pastor. Having come to our appropriate mandated stop, this officer wanted to know our occupation and reason for being in the country up north. We gladly obliged. This news gave way to a most tangential dissertation by the patrolman espousing his own denominational upbringing as a member of the Armenian Apostolic Christian Church. Go figure! What a coincidence!
With no interest in any abbreviated exchange, he took exceptional interest in exploring the intricacies of our respective ecclesiastical polities. This ever-extending interaction was forced to continue as we were instructed to park our car and make our way to a modest building nearby for further questioning, or so we thought! As the contents of our vehicle were being thoroughly examined outside, we found ourselves inside sheepishly queuing for the next available agent.
Wouldn’t you know it, our Armenian friend resurfaced and we were next-in-line to his station. With almost giddy delight he returned to his inquisition of the intricacies of various religious orders, their rubrics and regulations. Let’s face it, who doesn’t want to know if Armenian Apostolic Church bishops can marry? Tell me, just when do we get to inform those agents, “Sorry, we’ve really enjoyed the clerical dialogue, but we do have to go?” Almost never, I suspect.
A trip and tour to Israel, Jordan and back provided another outstanding border education moment. Traveling with my brother-in-law, Dave, we had arranged for a three-day excursion to Petra in Jordan. Fundamental lesson one: When crossing back over the Jordan River via the King Hussein Bridge — and, no, the waters didn’t part for us — we learned it best to always relinquish one’s passport upon request.
Now in Israel, we stepped into a crowded mass of people all awaiting the same thing we were: admittance! Immediately, a man without any noticeable identification came to my relation and demanded his passport. Dave’s response: “No can do, buddy!” As Job once put it, “O, that you would keep silent and it would be your wisdom.” I gained timely access as one willing to not “pass” on the passport. Far from the case for my negligent brother-in-law. Twiddling thumbs and with no explanation, he waited, waited and waited some more. He inquired time and again and was it not for his eventual mention that he was from Cleveland, the home of LeBron James (of whom the Israeli guard was apparently a big fan), we might still be there today.
And finally, a medical mission trip to Tanzania this past July, required each team member to transport, along with a carry-on, two 50-pound army duffel bags loaded with medical equipment and supplies. Having landed safely in the Dar es Salaam Airport, and after passing through visa processing, request was made by authorities to examine the contents of jam-packed bags. Through random selection, they chose to open bag number 17. Contents exposed, on top up was an innocent looking zip-lock bag of small packets of lubricant. You know, the stuff bought in bulk by your favorite proctologist! Who knew that such things had expiration dates? I know now!
We struggled to deflect further inspection wary of some other expired and unwanted assemblages. In the end, it took more than two hours to convince them to grant acquittal and rule in our favor. I’m not sure our pleading that we were part of a Christian Church mission helped. Rest assured, in the future, I’ll duly read the fine print, my next scheduled colonoscopy!
Ken Pollitz moved to Ottawa in 1991 as mission-developer/pastor of New Creation Lutheran Church. His biweekly column provides insights and viewpoints from Putnam County. Contact him at email@example.com