The Canadian border guard thumbed through my already worn passport. He didn’t like the cluster of recent stamps he found on pages 6, 7, 9, 12 and 13.
“Why did you go to all these countries?” he asked.
Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and, lastly, the U.S. had all left their marks on the maple-leafed pages. I could have given the guard many reasons for visiting new countries and seeing new vistas, but he clearly wanted brevity. Also, I didn’t want to hold up the tired bus passengers who were waiting to drag their heavy luggage forward another few steps.
“Just travelling,” I said.
Guards on the borders of many countries accept that answer quite readily, especially when they learn how I make a living.
“What do you do when you’re at home?” this latest guard asked.
At home, en voyage, anywhere, everywhere.
“I write,” I said.
Once, a Canadian customs agent didn’t believe me and found my claim amusing. Now, however, since I’ve stopped saying it with happy pride and begun using resigned exasperation, they no longer ask for proof. But they always ask about the stamps in my passport and the lengths of time I spend abroad.
“Did you meet up with anyone?”
“Meet up with anyone?” I echoed back, but I wasn’t really confused. Being the one to ask the questions is a hard thing to resist. “How do you mean?”
When a person crosses an international boundary, there’s a moment he is outside of every law, stateless, powerless, without rights. A traveller’s hope when in this geopolitical limbo is that an agent of one country or another will accept his papers and let him out. Those guards hold powerful positions, and sometimes they abuse them. They are officers of a state and how they treat the people who depend on their mercy reflects on their superiors.
Which says bad things and good things. Americans, for instance, are polite and friendly, but firm with citizens and foreigners alike.
“Look’s like you got the catch of the day,” said one to another at the Niagara crossing.
The second guard had identified a Vietnamese national who had to be taken off the train for extra processing. It was a routine event and the young woman was quickly escorted back to her coach and helped on board. Clearly: catch and release.
Mexican border guards are great fishers as well, often netting foreigners for La Mordida. The high official entry fee, 264 pesos and no change provided, por favor, makes it so easy for agents to skim tips off tourists that even freelance money-changers are outraged by the corruption.
Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Costa Rica make little fuss about who enters their countries, as long as you get all the stamps and pay the small entry fee. However, if your documentation is messed up in any little way — for example, if a guard thinks you’ve got too many of one stamp, but too few of another — you could quickly find yourself having to buy your way out of an incomprehensible bureaucratic maze.
Panama welcomes visitors, but with conditions. The guards won’t let you into the country until you can prove you can leave again. Fortuitously (or not), an agent of a bus company is conveniently at hand to sell outbound tickets: $34 from Panama City to San Jose. I’ve still got my ticket, unused but saved for tax purposes.
I can’t say how Canadian border guards treat foreigners, but they seem generally suspicious of their own citizens — or maybe just of me. Once, they wondered why I wanted to spend so much time out of the country, but now they wonder why I want to return.
“I meet lots of people,” I said.
“Did anyone ask you to bring anything back?”
Like what? Like sunshine and tropical breezes? Like a sense of freedom?
“No,” I answered and waited, but he was finished. He waved me into Canada without further ado.
Nice, I thought, but I would have appreciated a “Welcome home!”
Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.