I returned to the UK last Monday. I generally find customs a fairly uninspiring place full of workers who are trying to catch you out (which is their job). I’ve never done anything wrong when entering a country, but customs officials have an uncanny way of making you feel as if you have done something wrong and that there are grave consequences for what you haven’t actually done. Such as on Monday.
I arrived with Leah, my American partner, whose potential crime, it seems, was being an American. After visiting her family in the USA, we have travelled to the UK to visit my family for a couple of weeks. I waltzed through customs, grabbed the bags, and waited for 45 minutes without any sign of Leah. Eventually I was approached by a border guard who proceeded to question me for half an hour about my life since meeting this young lady over three and a half years ago.
This is the story I told her. Every word is the truth.
I was hitchhiking in Europe when I met Leah who was on a one week holiday to Poland. She decided not to get on her plane and hitchhiked with me for several months before visiting the UK, and then working with me as an English teacher in Turkey. From there we travelled across Europe for several months before moving to South Korea and then Australia.
Completely unsatisfied, she quizzed me on every detail: how we supported ourselves, the dates on which we entered and left each country, and a seemingly never ending stream of questions in between. She even accused me of having someone else buy Leah’s ticket for her. We have travelled to more than thirty countries in the past few years, many of which don’t require passport stamps, and I don’t remember the dates exactly. We have travelled by bicycle for a month, travelled by raft, and slept outside for free for many of my journeys, meaning we have been able to travel at a very low cost – almost travelling without money at times. These are not ‘conventional’ methods of travel, but they are real and anyone can do them if they want to. Most people however, see them as impossible.
Tired of my answers, the border guard went back to Leah (who was held in a room where I couldn’t get to her) and questioned her further. As the exact dates are near impossible to remember and the border guard had never heard of Istanbul (our home in Turkey), Slovenia, or several other countries we have visited, she said something that implied our stories were either made up or didn’t match up. It is possible we got mixed up with dates (ever so slightly), but other than that, everything matched because it is the truth. Despite this, it took nearly two hours to get through customs and Leah’s passport was put on a watch list in case she tries to do anything sneaky.
I understand that a country wants to protect its borders, ensuring that no-one is attempting to take advantage of the system, but I also find it unfair to be singled out due to the life that we have lived. In fact, much of the life we have lived (being nomadic) has largely been due to the fact that we have different passports and are not able to live easily in either of our home countries. Thus we have travelled around the world, applying for visas and working in places where we are both easily able to work legally. My major question here is ‘why was she put on a watch list?’ And does that affect her travel in the future? She hasn’t ever done anything wrong, our stories matched, and we are here for a short vacation. It seems she was singled out for a random check and despite having legitimate answers, blacklisted for being questioned as part of that random check. In a few days, she will fly back to America. Hopefully that will take her off ‘the list’.
Silly customs, eh?!
You might also want to read:
The Boy Who Was Afraid of the World – how I met Leah in Poland.
The Girl Who Jumped – a video about Leah making the life changing decision to quit life and hitchhike with me.
Travelling Without Money – the way we travel so cheaply in an expensive world.