21 July 2010
Well, I just had that feeling. And it was right.
After spending the last three months living it up in New York City, it was time for me to say goodbye today. I boarded the 8:15 am Adirondack train at Penn Station, destination: Montreal.
I had already done some research on what to expect in terms of scenery – through the scenic Hudson Valley and the Adirondack Mountains if you sit on the right side of the train — but I wasn’t prepared for what awaited me at the border crossing to Canada.
Carlo and I had joked when we arrived in NYC that we would try and avoid US immigration officers from now on, even going so far as to say that we’re never coming back to the USA. It can be such a traumatizing event. But what happened to me just now at the Canadian border is my latest horror story. I hope that nothing tops this.
With no announcement, we stop in no-mans land, right near a lonely trailer structure out in the bushes. Everyone is waiting patiently. I look up from my book towards two armed border officers walking up the aisle. I make the mistake of locking eyes with one of them.
I don’t know why but I knew, at that instant, that I was in trouble. They start at the back of my train car. Very slowly they question every individual behind me. I’m astonished at the questions they ask the passengers in front of everyone else, forcing them to reveal very personal details.
In my experience, whenever I’ve crossed the border into Canada by car, I’ve only had to answer a couple of questions and am waved through. Sometimes they don’t even check my ID. This was more the experience I was expecting.
The officers move in on my neighbour and me slowly; they look mean. The guy beside me also has a German passport; this does not help matters. Straight away I need to point out that I don’t actually know the dude and that we are not traveling together. They take my passport and my Canadian Permanent Resident (PR) card and use the name on the card to find my train reservation on their list.
This is bad, as I booked my train ticket with my passport, which is in my married name. My PR card is still in my maiden name. They don’t like this very much and start firing questions at me:
- Where do you come from?
- How long have you been gone?
- Where do you work?
- Where do you come from (again)?
- When did you leave Canada?
- And so on.
I’ve always preached to Carlo the importance of having a rock-solid story ready when you cross any border. This time I’m not following my own advice, and now I’m getting burned for it. After question time they say they have to check my PR card and would get back to me. Off they go with my documents.
I wait patiently in my seat. I don’t bother preparing a story because surely they will come right back with my documents, I think. After all, I am a permanent resident of Canada.
Last time I checked, I have the exact same rights as a Canadian citizen, I just can’t vote. I’ve lived there for over six years, paid taxes, and celebrate Canada Day. And we’re talking about Canada for Christ’s sake. How wrong I was.
After 20 minutes of waiting, two different officers come back and ask me to take my luggage and to follow them into the little wooden trailer. Was I really that surprised? In hindsight, no.
There I was, with five officers (one female), a big table in the middle of the room and some plastic chairs. Through the windows I can see the waiting train, already behind schedule. I am officially frightened.
Two of them start to unpack my backpack and my carry bag, rummaging through everything including the pictures on my camera. The lone female officer comes back with my passport and asks me again what I’ve been doing since I got my PR card in 2007. I know I’m safe because I know my obligations to remain a PR.
As long as I am with my Canadian-born husband while abroad, I don’t need to actually reside in Canada to keep my status. And she knows it too.
But this doesn’t stop the next guy from picking up my passport and firing random questions about my travels. “What did you do in Mongolia? How do you support yourself? Did you work in the US? What are your plans in Canada”? He goes on and on.
At one point I almost lose it as they are really getting on my nerves. How hard is it to understand? For some people there is more to life than mortgages, babies, cars, and soulless jobs where you can harass the innocent. But I don’t, of course.
The officer I first locked eyes with so many minutes ago in the train finds something incriminating. Or so he thinks. He finds my stack of Vagabonderz.com business cards and swiftly goes off to use the Internet. This is good, as it finally convinces them that I just like to roam the world.
They pack up my stuff and send me back to the waiting train. I was the only person pulled off. “Welcome back young lady,” a fellow passenger says to me as I board the car.
How this story can help you
- Try to mentally prepare yourself when face to face with immigration officers.
- When you pack your bags be very mindful of what you put in.
- Every little piece of paper I had was searched. I even got a raised eyebrow for my Stumbling on Happiness book. (I guess as border guards you cannot fathom that there is actually happiness in this world?)
- Think of your camera. You might want to download and delete the nude pictures you took of your beach romance.
- Think about your hard drive on your laptop or portable device. Is there anything they can suspect you of wrongdoing (pirated movies)?
- While you travel, take notes when and where you have been and try to always remember the dates, at least vaguely.
- Or have a quick check of all your visas before you cross boarder. I was asked when and how long I was in Mongolia and what direction I traveled in Vietnam from my travels over two years ago. Good thing I have a sharp memory.
- Always keep your cool, getting angry doesn’t get you anywhere.
As we cross the St. Lawrance River and pull into Montreal the sky has changed from a blue with billowy white clouds to dark gray with rain and thunder. Bonjour Canada…
[Top photo: cuttlefish / Flickr]