Friday, April 3, 2009

Apparently I'm a Terrorist

The journey home from Korea, as one might expect, was not an uneventful one. After all, this is me we're talking about. "Interesting" things always happen to me!

Of course, I kind of set myself up this time. Not only was I flying all the way from Korea to the USA, I also had a short layover in Japan. That meant three trips through customs! Three chances for mishaps, in other words. I also had the following additional complications:
1. I was traveling with my dog (he went cargo, not carry-on).
2. Owing to the DREADFUL exchange rate, I did not change any of my won that I had saved into dollars. So, I was carrying nine million won in ten thousand won bills. Yeah, you might as well start giggling now.
3. I was smuggling two bottles of soju in one of my checked suitcases, wrapped up in two of my sweatshirts.
4. One of my bags had had its mate destroyed on the journey to Korea, so I knew the airlines were salivating at another chance to demolish the set.

So, anyone want to make any predictions or bets before I tell you what "interesting" things happened on the long journey home? Okay, I'll give you a minute....ready? All right, read on:

Jasper actually caused very few troubles. I had a health form and a signed rabies certificate, as well as an airline-approved dog carrier. After what amounted to an interview with someone in an office with a very long, official-sounding name (it was in English, but I can't remember it), I filled out some paperwork, paid two different people, and then Jasper was whisked away on the same conveyer belt as my luggage. I could hear his tail thumping on the side on the carrier as he drifted away from me.

I would like to give quick kudos to Northwest Airlines for their Priority Pet program (since I'm going to complain about their airline in just a few paragraphs, I figure I should also mention what they did right). Before both of my flights took off, a flight attendant brought me a paper stating that my dog was safely on board. You cannot imagine how much easier my flights went when I didn't have to struggle with the fear that my dog had been abandoned in Japan (he doesn't speak the language). So for that part of the trip, I give my warmest thanks to Northwest Airlines.

I discovered when I got to Gimhae airport in Busan that security had apparently been stepped up a notch (maybe because they knew I was flying that day). Not only did they have the normal x-ray security check of carry-on bags; they had also decided to unpack each carry-on after it got through being screened. Since I had nine million won in cash, they were naturally a bit curious about me. I patiently explained about the exchange rate woes, they carefully examined my money, and all seemed to be well. Then, they discovered the horrifyingly dangerous weapon that I was trying to smuggle in my carry-on luggage...

Without giving the matter any thought, I had carelessly thrown a lavendar facial sheet into one of my carry-on bags. It was like a giant wet-wipe with eye-holes (in its original sealed package, with what it was proclaimed boldly in large type - in two different languages), so I figured that made it technically not a liquid, and I figured it would be just fine. I was, of course, wrong. Apparently, face masks are an extremely inhumane torture technique used by the likes of Hamas and Al Quaida. I could, after all, threaten the pilot with a facial if he didn't divert the plane. Clearly, I was in possession of something fearsome and dreadful. At least, that's the impression I got from the reactions to my facial sheet.

Immediately, I was suspiciously interrogated about what this horrendous thing was. I explained carefully, as two airport employees attempted to penetrate my soul with their piercing eyes. Then they discussed the matter amongst themselves. Finally, I was allowed to keep the facial sheet. I figured that with that troublesome search behind me, my troubles were over. Fat chance!

As I said before, security had been kicked up a notch when I was leaving Korea. So, they were unpacking each carry-on a second time at the gate. I had purchased a Gatorade after completing the first security check (not aware there would be a second), and the airport employee quickly confiscated that. Then she saw all the cash, and I had to trot out my explanation of that. Then, her eyes narrowed in horror as she saw...yep, the facial sheet again. I once again explained what it was (she could have just read the package, but I'm not sure that they bother teaching airport security employees top-level skills like reading anymore). Once again, a conference had to take place between two security people. Then, the decision was made. They confiscated the facial sheet. I have to say, I was relieved to see it go. I had no idea what a volatile substance lavender is.

(NOTE: Once, on a flight to Oregon, it was discovered upon landing that the couple behind me had smuggled a dog onboard. That's right: a LIVING, BREATHING Pomeranian made it through x-ray without notice. Yet a facial sheet almost landed me in an interrogation room. I've more than once seen hobbling old women, barely able to walk, deprived of their walkers so that those can be examined more thoroughly for drugs/weapons, yet I've also seen kids pull out giant scissors to work on craft projects on planes, and I've seen people get alcohol through and drink it once aboard the aircraft - after they started the idiotic all-liquids-in-a-one-quart-bag rule. Anyone else think airport security is a joke?)

When I arrived in Tokyo, I had to have my carry-ons unpacked and searched thoroughly as soon as I departed the plane (everyone had to go through this, which meant a very long wait before any of us could make it to customs). Even though I was connecting to another flight, I still had to go through Japanese customs. I'm guessing that they had probably kicked up their security in Japan for the same reason Korea had (I have no idea why). Since I no longer had the facial sheet, I only had the cash to explain, and I was getting to be a pro at that.

The flight from Japan was long and turbulant. We hit a storm system as we left Tokyo, and the plane was bounced around like it was stuck in an angry pinball machine. Poor Jasper must have been terrified! Even though I never get airsick, I started to feel a little nauseated. Then, coming into Detroit, we hit an even worse storm system and the plane got knocked around a second time.

Once I got into Detroit, I went straight over to the luggage carousel and waited for my bags to come. And waited. And waited. And started to stress out. And even started to tear up a little (it had been a stressful, emotional week, so don't think too harshly of me). The last two (literally) bags to come around the carousel were mine, and I let out an involuntary whoop of relief to see them. Then, of course, I started laughing hysterically. Why? Because Northwest Airlines managed to destroy the very suitcase I had assumed they would be gunning for. Destroyed is actually an understatement. The damage was so bad that my bag had been completely severed around the middle, and was now in two pieces. Some thoughtful individual had wrapped it in plastic and duct tape, so only a handful of my possessions inside the bag were lost or broken. Still, I think it'll be a while before I willingly fly on Northwest Airlines again. I don't blame them for the turbulance, but the handling of my luggage was unacceptable - what'd they do, play football with it?

Next I collected Jasper, who had decided to amuse himself on the plane by shredding his puddle pads into microscopic pieces. He whined to be let out, but I had so say no, since we still had to go through customs. Of course, the man was VERY curious about the money. After listening to my explanation, he demanded to know why I hadn't declared the money on my customs form. I reminded him that as long as cash is under ten thousand dollars, it does not have to be declared. And then, finally, I ran into the welcoming arms of my mother. The Korean chapter of my life was over, and the next chapter was waiting to be written.

By the way, customs never discovered the soju.

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"Passage—immediate passage! the blood burns in my veins! Away, O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!
Cut the hawsers—haul out—shake out every sail!
Have we not stood here like trees in the ground long enough?
Have we not grovell’d here long enough, eating and drinking like mere brutes?
Have we not darken’d and dazed ourselves with books long enough?

Sail forth! steer for the deep waters only!
Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me;
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go, And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

O my brave soul!
O farther, farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! Are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!"

~Walt Whitman, "Passage to India"