May 19, 2007

When my deo spray posed a threat to America

I don’t know which colour-coded alert (orange, yellow, blue or black) is now on in America. But with my every visit to this country, I learn about new threats to its homeland security. I was careful this time not to keep my nail-cutter in the shaving-kit as part of my hand baggage during air travel. The last time I did, the officer at the security check (Hong Kong airport) took the nail-cutter away before I could board the flight to San Francisco.

They were after my shaving kit this time as well; at the security check-point in Seoul (during transit) the man picked out my deo-spray and said, “No, not allowed”, before tossing it into a thoughtfully placed trash-bin. Toiletries so collected at airport check-points can keep the shelves always filled at Chennai’s Burma Bazaar. The US federal security bans carrying gel (more than three oz) in any form in the hand-baggage.

It is on such occasions I miss my wife. She has a way with the airport security officials. During our last visit to the US together we had our baggage scanned on arrival at San Francisco and I watched helplessly a customs official rummage my hand baggage and pull out a plastic container with betel nuts. As he was about to toss it into the bin my wife spoke up on my behalf. “It is supari,” she said, “we take it after meals for easy digestion”. The man saw sense in it, and asked my wife if there was anything else we were carrying. “No”, she said with a straight face, while I knew she was carrying rasam powder, milk sweets and banana chips.

This time my wife and I traveled on different dates. While I lost my can of deo-spray my wife had breezed through the airport formalities with her Mahalakshmi sweets and assortment of other eatables for her pregnant daughter-in-law and beloved son.

My son Ravi, who travels frequently within the US, says they were more considerate at domestic airports. Once at San Jose when he told the security officials he didn’t want to lose his after-shave gel. They offered to courier his can of gel to his residence at San Ramon. He wound up paying the courier charges ($ 10), which was more than what the gel had cost him.

My wife’s complaint is that I am anxiety-prone. My anxiety is that, unknown to me, my wife packs in sweets, eatables and curry power in supreme indifference to the restrictions at the US airports. My telling her about such baggage violations, sniffer dogs and the trash cans at the airport security checks has little impact. I get silenced by her saying, “I will take that chance, so long as you don’t blurt it out to them”. So I let my wife do the talking. I can’t bring myself to telling people at airports, ‘we’ve nothing to declare’, particularly when I know not what my wife'a baggage had that didn't show up on the electronic scanner.

Cross-posted in Desicritics and Zine5


fred said...

You have to wonder about security measures at airports. I found this report on how safe we really are. Here's the link:

Anonymous said...

While American custom officials rummage visitors' suitcases, pull out stuff and bin them, Americans travelling elsewhere resent similar treatment meted out to them in other airports outside their country. They think that other nationalities would simply stomach whatever they do to get into their country. The Americans have the propensity to swing to extremes whenever any disaster occurs as a result of their own negligence. They forget that the threat to their country comes from within, from their own citizens and the way their systems work. The Oklohoma bomber was a white American marine who served his country. The bungling 9/11 suicide bombers succeeded because of the rivalry between CIA and FBI. While it is difficult to buy over the counter in a drug store medicines which are not strictly classified as prescriptive medicines, one could without much difficulty buy a Uzi Submachine gun from a gun stores on production of a weak identification.

Even though I lived in America and know their ways of overreacting, I was surprised to be confronted with an official at Washington Dulles Airport on my journey out of America who insisted in asking me how much dollar I was taking out of the country and started counting my traveller cheques! After he finished, I said to him 'there are dozens of ways of getting dollars, and that in Europe where I live dollars are of no use as it is a weak currency'. I can see his red face getting redder. I then explained to him that dollars are used as de facto currency in many Gulf countries and that in these countries they prefer another foreign currency like Euro in their shops!!

The American banking system though seems ubiquitous and powerful gets into a spin if you present a draft made out to you by a major American international bank say to a local bank in an American city in MidWest.

There are so many Indians in America and with so many Indian stores there, one wonders the necessity of carrying rasam powder etc..

Lakshmi Bharadwaj said...

Yes, it is true to every word. They don't allow us to carrry everything we want, and some people have this knack of getting away with such things. I think I understand perfectly about the "anxiety" part of it. It always happens to my mom during air travel.

Anonymous said...

There are reasons behind why every American immigration and customs official fibrillate when they see some one who does not speak the way they speak and carries something like rasam powder they cannot reason out. First, a large percentage of Americans do not have passports, they rarely travel outside the country and do not understand the sensitivities of other cultures. Second, they have very poor knowledge of world history and geography. I can recall how in 1974 most Americans shocked to discover that the price of the gas they fill in to their cars could be affected by a conflict between Middle East countries. The CBS, NBC and ABC at that time were carrying out geography lessons on Middle East and informing their viewers that the large oil deposits were in the Middle East and not in Texas!

Third, they believe in their infallibility and their reasonong. Bush was arguing that Iraq when liberated from Saddam Hussain would be a friend and the Defence Secretary was chiming in to say that Afghanistan would be rid of the Talibans for ever. They forgot the history that Iraq is a complex country of Turks, Sunnis and Shias and that when a dictator who held it together is removed, the country would be in chaos like Yugoslavia and soon Shias will join with Iran creating a new problem. They forgot the long history of Afghan wars and how Afghans defeated Russians the invaders not long ago. I wonder even after the influx of so many Indians in almost every city in America, Americans are any wiser when it comes to dealing with Indians. One reason may be that the Indians who emigrate to America start behaving like Americans eating their burgers and chilis. When plague broke out in India in 1990s, the customs officials became even stricter, and when they removed almost all my suitcase contents, I reminded them that plague exists in Californian counties! The answer from them was 'it is our plague!'

About the internal travels by air. Because of reasons of sheer convenience before 9/11, the airports hardly checked any baggages. If they did, they could have stopped the 9/111 bombers.
When I took my internal flight from Minneapolis to Dallas in late 1990s, I with a fairly large hand baggage was waved through, and when I asked the officer about screening it, he gave me a funny stare!

Finally a funny incidence. When I was preparing to go to America to study in early 1970s, my mother packed me a plastic bag with a few balls of tamarind to help me to learn the quantity of tamarind I should use for my rasam. This bag attracted attention of a customs officer at JFK who was not impressed with my explanation and soon a posse of officers were scrutinising it and one of them took it away for examination. After making me wait for an hour he came back saying that they did not understand the purpose of these balls and they binned it! It took me nearly three months of experimentation to prepare a bowl of rasam which was barely palatable!!

david mcmahon said...

G'day from Oz,

Thoroughly interesting blog – found your site by accident. I also started my journalism career in India but I now live and work in Melbourne. I did my cadetship at the ABP group, under MJ Akbar.

I also had a very interesting experience (not a pleasant one) at an Indian airport six months ago.

Must tell the tale one day on my own blog.

Hope to hear from you.


David (McMahon)