Oct 2007, Cusco Airport
We are sitting in a LanAir 737 that promises to take us to the Amazonian jungles of Puerto Muldonado in southeast Peru. All the passengers are in their seats, the engines have been running for the past 10 minutes, but the flight is still in its bay. Rhea, Gayu and I are in a row towards the front of the plane, Vijay and Preeti are sitting across the aisle.
We are still soaking in the four beautiful days in Cusco and Machu Picchu. In a way, the highlight of the Peru trip is behind us. What awaits is a quiet wind-down in a rain forest before we head back to the rain in Seattle and the routines of life.
A slight man in uniform gets into the plane. He walks down the aisle with a little piece of paper in his hand. He stops next to me to confirm if I am me. He wants me to step outside to confirm our luggage. Surprisingly, he is not taking me through the retractable passageway that snakes to the boarding gate. He heads out of the opposite door, climbs down a steel staircase to the tarmac. Plane side luggage check probably? I follow him obediently.
The “uniform” points to a lone dilapidated building on the edge of the concrete runway a few hundred meters away. It is early morning, but the concrete is already hot. The heat is seeping up through the soles of my hiking shoes as I head towards the shanty. I notice that the uniform is now walking two steps behind me. I slow down a bit. He slows down a bit. He wants to stay two steps behind me, I reckon.
I reach the building, duck into a room. It is small, windowless and fetid. Tables laid along the walls. One or two chairs vagrant. A door on my left that leads somewhere deeper into the building. On top of the tables is our luggage, unopened. I sense five-six people in the room. Four within my field of vision. A couple more behind me. There is a huge Alsatian, sedate besides a towering mountain of a man in army fatigues. I smell hostility in the air. Just like that, the hair on the nape of my neck prickle.
I am asked if these are my bags. Yes, they are. What is inside? I am subconsciously rattling off riff-raff a Joe Normal travels with. My conscious mind, however, is definitely worried. I have seen uncountable movies, read umpteen accounts of tourists ensnared in intricate third world criminal webs.
A man I have not noticed yet is stepping forward. Slight built, craggy faced. unshaven in loose civilian clothing. I wouldn’t look at him twice out there in the street. Years of experience reading people tells me he is the lead dog in this hot and humid room. Automatically, my muscles bunch up.
“Do you have contraband?”, he is asking in crisp accent free English. “Coke?” He adds innocuously. “The only Coke I have ever touched comes as a fizzy drink”, a whacky part of my brain - the one that gets me into trouble all the time - prompts. Thankfully my vocal cords are sensible.
I shake my head confirming a negative.
“Are you sure?” he asks.
I remember a question Gayu asked the previous day while climbing the Inkan steps to Wayna Picchu. Are we were allowed to carry back coca leaves to US? (Coca leaves are ubiquitous in Peru. They are on every reception desk the way candy is in US, saunf in India. Coca has helped Gayu dampen soreche. She likes coca leaves). I had made it amply clear to her that coca cannot legally cross an international border. What if she has packed herself a little Ziploc for the Amazon? After all, we are not crossing a border.
Coca is after all not coke says my limited knowledge of drugs. I would like to confide the possibility that I might have some coca in the bag, instead I find myself saying, “Yes, I am sure. No coke. No drugs”.
“In that case, are you okay if we open the bags and check?”
Beautifully done, chief! He makes a legal request to inspect my bags a logical extension of a normal conversation. If you don’t have drugs in the bag, you should not be worried us inspecting, huh? But that’s not how it works. Once I permit him, anything he finds in the bag becomes admissible evidence. So say, I refuse. Will they detain me till they get a warrant? Deplane Gayu and Rhea ? Vijay and Preeti as well? Take us to a police station? Will I need a lawyer? Am I allowed a lawyer in Peru? Not only do I not know a lawyer in Peru, I do not know a lawyer anywhere in the world. Refusing is clearly a losing variation.
So I smile what I think is my easy smile and ask them to be my guest.
The mountain-of-a-man is carefully opening all our bags. No gloves, I notice. I brace myself, expecting to see a neatly laid bed of little polythene bags of white powder. Fortunately, none. He is bending down and whispering to the dog. The reticent k9 comes to life and leaps effortlessly onto the table. The dogs sniffs the handle of the first bag then looks up at me accusingly. Then the second bag. Then the third. Each bag punctuated by the same disparaging glare. At the fourth bag, he goes beyond the handle. He literally enters the big red bag. His front paws thrust into the neatly folded clothes, he sticks his nose deep inside as if intent on taking a drug dealer home. The dog then quietly leaps down from the table and assumes his Buddha like demeanor.
I am about to sigh with relief when the men surge forward. I panic as four pairs of hands meticulously reach into our bags. There is a flurry of activity. I am not able to keep an eye on all of them simultaneously. I am more worried about them putting something in than them finding anything.
One by one, they back off.
Miraculously, the bags do not look too disheveled. The hostility in the room has clearly changed to disappointment. Me, I feel like I have cheated a prison cell that I did not deserve anyway. The innocent has been acquitted. I come out in the sunshine. The plane is waiting for me. This time I am walking alone. I cannot resist running the last few yards.
I settle back into my seat, buckle myself up. Rhea and Gayu look up from their books. Seems I have been away for less than 20 minutes.
“Nothing”, I play it down. “Just identifying our luggage”. The excited conversation can wait for later.
I take a sip of water. What’s a trip without a bummer, they say.
I hope THAT was THE bummer.