I really had no preconceived notions about Ecuador. The only things I really knew about the country were that it was among the poorest in South America, that most of the roses sold in New York City are from there [$10.00 a dozen!], and that the spectacular Galapagos Islands were part of its territory. It was in fact, quite a beautiful and interesting country. But that is a story for another blog post. This post is about the time I was molested leaving Ecuador – a government-sanctioned molestation.
After two glorious weeks in Ecuador, I arrived at the Quito airport with my three travel companions: a newly-married Australian couple and a friend who is a Spanish teacher. As we made our way through passport control to leave the country, things were going smoothly and we only had security and customs standing between us and the gate. I have seen episodes of various “locked up abroad” reality shows, so I knew that they mean business in Ecuador, but, I maintain if you have nothing to hide, then there is no reason to fret. Of course, that depends on where they think you are hiding something.
As is customary for me, I was singled out of the queue for a “closer” inspection. The combination of unplaceable Sicilian surname, looks that could be Georgian, Armenian, Lebanese, generic Middle Eastern, Columbian, etc., and the fact that I only travel with a backpack and do not buy anything while travelling puts me at the top of the target list.
At first I thought this was simply going to be a “check your backpack” routine, but it soon turned higher tech. Much to the discomfort of my Spanish-speaking friend, who was shouting in Spanish something like “you can’t take my friend back there!” I was taken to a small approximately eight foot by ten foot room and was asked to place my backpack on the floor near the entrance. I watched it like a hawk, as I knew that banned items have been known to mysteriously show up when quotas need to be filled.
In broken English, the uniformed man, who looked to be in his late thirties with mocha skin and pitch black hair, asked me to stand against the far wall. He reminded me more of a character one would find in a television series about South Central LA than a customs agent, which made my compliance all the more speedy. The wall I was asked to stand against was adjacent to a small desk with a machine on it. At this point I began to wonder if I had found Dr. Mengele’s offspring or an agent of some international secret society that I had been, unbeknownst to me, chosen for from birth. As I stood there, the man then asked me to unzip my jeans.
Now, I am all for new experiences [and for that matter unzipping my jeans] but given that I was not told what was going in, I felt compelled to ask.
“We are going to X-ray you” he said.
“Why would you do a thing like that?” I responded.
“It is just something we do” he replied.
It seemed awfully empty in the bowels of the airport for “just something they did,” but being an official officer of Ecuadorian Customs, I figured I had better not put up too much of a fight – unless of course I absolutely had to.
“OK – I’m not sure what you want me to do with my pants and how that relates to the X-ray?”
“I am going to X-ray you to see if you are a carrier.”
A carrier? From an X-ray could they determine whether I had a particular gene sequencing? Was Ecuador that technologically advanced? Duh, he was looking for drugs. I have a personal no drugs policy so I wasn’t worried [ok well maybe the occasional Claritin]. Although there was a nagging thought running through my head [should I be worried?] I had been pulled aside by customs so many times before it was almost normal for me.
As I stood there and I unbuttoned my jeans [they were 501s], he approached me. “Pull them down to here” he said, motioning to just above the naughty bits. “OK” I replied. With all of the modesty of Queen Victoria but feeling more like Coco in that famous scene from FAME, I inched my 501’s lower just to the point where it would not be ready for prime time, or a Super Bowl half time show.
He then made me lift up my shirt to my chest, exposing my rock solid six-pack abs [ok so I took some poetic license here]. He said “stay there.”
He then went behind the X-ray machine and snapped an image of my insides. I promptly pulled my jeans back up over my rock solid six-pack abs and sat down in a chair next to him.
“See” he said, showing me a computer image of my insides, “everything is OK.”
“And it looks like I don’t have any gall stones either” I responded.
“What?” he said.
The irony of the situation was not lost on me, as even though he had X-rayed my abdomen, my backpack sat near the door, never touched and never looked at. Had I wanted to smuggle something out of the country – I’m just guessing at this – but I think it may have been easier to put, let’s say, a contraband collection of priceless Inca statuettes in my backpack rather than in a place where the X-ray would have seen them.