Somewhat sleepily, I nodded in acknowledgement.
Up until that point, I had been minding my own business by happily snoozing in a deep armchair in the Executive Lounge of Guayaquil International Airport. The flight to Amsterdam was delayed by one hour, so my wife and I had two hours to sample Ecuadorian Business Class hospitality. In effect, that meant we were allowed as much coffee as we could drink. However, being South America, tea was nowhere to be found; which is purgatory when you are English, dislike coffee and remain very partial to the odd drop of Earl Grey. However, at least the armchairs were comfortable – at least, that is, until the air hostess from KLM interrupted my dreams.
‘I’m sorry to disturb you, but Security would like you to open your luggage. Would you mind coming with me please?’
Reassuring my wife that I would be back soon, I accompanied the hostess out into the main waiting area, through the security desk (ominously surrendering my boarding card in the process) and down various corridors until we reached the tarmac, airside.
‘I wonder what has excited them?’ I commented to my silent escort.
‘It is just routine,’ she replied, in a non-committal sort of way.
The process may be routine for her, but in years of travelling the world, it was knew to me.
‘Perhaps my alarm clock has gone off?’ I offered, as an attempt to lighten the atmosphere. It didn’t work.
Beneath the airport main terminal was an open fronted, spartan and somewhat foreboding, grey concrete, service area. A long trestle table had been erected along one-side, behind which stood three uniformed security officers. Another two guards stood on my side. All five had belts bristling with firearms, long truncheons, cufflinks and a variety of other official-looking paraphernalia. I didn’t need to know whether they spoke English. Their adornments translated as “don’t mess with me” in any language. On the trestle table was a familiar silver coloured, Samsonite suitcase. One of two accompanying us on that trip.
Approaching the table, I nodded to the nearest guard, who remained silently impassive whilst I unlocked the suitcase. As I did so, another guard walked up behind me and requested my passport. Handing it over, I watched as he flipped through the pages, whilst a colleague started to unpack the contents of my case.
His approach was slow and methodical.
Starting with the contents of the lid, he unfolded clothing item by item. A model of a giant tortoise (from the Galapagos Islands – well, I thought it would look good on my desk back at home) was unwrapped from its safe-haven amidst the dirty laundry, visually inspected, sniffed (interesting) and then carefully re-wrapped. A similar procedure was then applied to every other object within the lid of the case until, seemingly satisfied, he turned his attention to the main storage area.
Beginning to feel a little more relaxed about the proceedings, I continued to watch as he was equally meticulous with the second half of the examination. Step by step, my washbag was opened, contents inspected (and sniffed), before being replaced from whence it had come. This was followed by my wife’s make-up bag, the portable hairdryer, a small souvenir bag from the outward flight with KLM, and so on.
It was as the officer was sniffing tubes of suntan lotion, after-sun lotion and insect repellent that I glanced at the final, yet to be inspected, corner of my suitcase, spotted the black Vidal Sassoon case, and suddenly realised that matters were about to get a little more exciting. Why couldn’t they have chosen to inspect my other suitcase? I asked myself.
My brother's comments prior to our departure from the U.K. came back to me:
'There are only two things which come out of Ecuador: drugs and Panama hats.'
He was wrong actually, as they are also major exporters of bananas. However, such erudite knowledge was not going to assist my present quandry.
Scenes from the 1970s film, Midnight Express, wherein a young English chap was imprisoned in a squalid Turkish jail, flashed through my mind. Would I be able to persuade the authorities of my innocence? Would they allow me to pass a message to my wife, or would she be forced to board the plane not knowing of my fate? Would the Ecuadorian jails be any better than those in Turkey?
At this stage, I ought to offer an explanation.
Being a physician, it is my habit to carry a small selection of medicines on most trips abroad, especially when journeying to places where western European standards of medical practice might not be easily accessible. Over the years, the number of medications thought to be of necessity, has expanded with experience. I now carry a supply of paracetamol, two or three different antibiotics (suitable for chest infections, cystitis and the dreaded traveller’s diarrhoea), antacids, eye ointment, antihistamines, Imodium, Dioralyte powders, anti-sickness tablets, hydrocortisone cream, antibiotic cream, suppositories, and so on - you name it, I can treat it. All those various white pills, creams and lotions pack very neatly, without their original boxes, into the black Vidal Sassoon case. However, without their original boxes, I suppose it is not quite so apparent, except perhaps to the trained medical eye, that they are relatively innocuous and not the latest designer drug destined for export from South America to Amsterdam.
Wondering whether my membership card for the Royal College of General Practitioners would be accepted as proof that I was not operating an opium syndicate (and only then realising that the card was in my wallet, safely in the possession of my wife back upstairs in the less intimidating surroundings of the Executive Lounge), I watched the officer fold back the last few items of clothing adjacent to the Vidal Sassoon case. I hardly dared breath whilst I waited for the inevitable.
He waved his hand over the suitcase. For a moment, I was non-plussed.
‘Si,’ he repeated, making a turning movement with his hand. I proffered my keys and he nodded.
Trying hard not to look relieved nor to rush the task in hand, I closed and relocked the suitcase, and then watched as it was loaded back onto a luggage trolley.
‘Follow me back upstairs please,’ said the now smiling KLM hostess.
I didn’t need any further bidding.
Ten minutes later I was reunited with my boarding pass and made my way back to the Executive Lounge.
‘Everything, alright?’ my wife enquired.
‘Yes, no problems,’ I replied. ‘They minutely opened and inspected everything in the suitcase apart from the medical kit.’
Her look of astonishment said it all.
‘You are joking?’
‘No,’ I responded. ‘I couldn’t quite believe it myself. The one bag he would really have got excited about and he ignored it! Strange how some things happen.’
I placed my jacket over the back of the armchair, shrugged and grinned.
‘Do you fancy a cup of coffee?’
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