For as much as I love international travel, there are some travel experiences I can do without, namely spending hours processing through immigration and customs. I appreciate the need for the sometimes lengthy wait times, but it wears me down. I also get really nervous when approaching immigration officers for no valid reason. I don’t do anything wrong and my reasons for visiting are just that, to visit, and yet I get visibly and oddly anxious. I blame watching too many episodes of Locked Up Abroad and am terrified of someone unknowingly using me as a drug mule. My anxiety met its match though when I tried leaving Israel.
Let’s be clear, I have no issues with how any country chooses to protect its borders. Every nation takes actions which the government believes are prudent and effective to protect the safety and security of its citizens. This isn’t an indictment of Israeli security procedures, merely my experiences with them. I truly enjoyed visiting Israel and would return in a heartbeat. It’s a beautiful country with amazing people and it was a deeply enriching experience. That being said, leaving wasn’t the easiest thing I’ve ever done.
Everyone knows the reputation of Israeli security, particularly at the airport. Keeping this in mind, I arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport outside of Tel Aviv early, with more than enough time for even the most robust security screening. At least that’s what I thought.
The first stage was a fairly lengthy line (queue for my British friends) that led to the first stage of screening, well before we were even allowed to approach the ticket agent. I would learn that the ticket agent was indeed a long way away. As we were waiting, immigration officers went through looking at everyone’s passports and asking questions about their travels and such. A charming young lady took my passport and thumbed through it, remarking at how pretty the Galapagos novelty stamp was. She casually asked me about my time in Israel, why I was there, why I was alone, and what I had seen. So far so good.
Then the questions got a little more personal, especially once she saw the Morocco stamp. We had been in Morocco earlier that year as part of our vacation, and I hadn’t even considered the fact that it would cause problems. She asked me why I was there, what I did, who I was with and whether or not I still maintained any relationships with people in Morocco, especially romantic ones. This was a first for me, but I was able to quickly and honestly reply that no, I did not travel to Morocco to date and no, I don’t know anyone there. Eventually, I received a smile and was told to proceed. I thought that was it, I was done. Not too bad, a little personal, but nothing I couldn’t handle.
We were funneled through bag scanners, after which I was given a number but, instead of being directed to one of the open ticket agents, I was directed to a special line. I use the term special very loosely.
The special line was for those of us who had sparked interest at some level of our screening, probably long before we even arrived at the airport, which demanded that more attention be paid to us. I looked at my fellow special-liners, and it was a motley lot. It was a mix of men traveling alone and Arab women in traditional dress. In hindsight, I should have realized that a 30-something male traveling alone would spark some interest.
The problem with the special line was that it was slow, very slow. I watched as the people in front of me were called up, asked a multitude of questions, their bags searched, and so on. I also saw a couple of people start to lose their cool, never a good idea. They were getting flustered and, like I, were worried about missing their flights.
Eventually it was my turn, I was next in line and looked at the security personnel eagerly, waiting for them to call me up like I was at a deranged bank. Then, inexplicably, they all left. All of them. I looked around at my special-line friends, who were all equally confused. I guess it was break time, but they just left us there. After another 20-30 minutes, they returned, rested from a smoke and an espresso and it was at last my turn.
Meanwhile, I kept watching the clock and getting more and more anxious about missing my flight. The lines at the check in desks had evaporated and ticket agents were leaving. I didn’t think that the security staff would care if I missed my flight, and I had no idea what I would do if I didn’t get on that plane.
They honestly seemed less interested in me at the time, it was more about my bags. Everything was unpacked, poked, prodded and practically dissected. Electronics were turned on and used, and everything demanded a special swab. Then a huge guy, refrigerator big, came up to me and said “Come with me,” in a thick Israeli accent. “Your bags will be fine.”
This was it, I thought. I’d seen enough TV shows to tell me that this is how unsuspecting tourists end up disappearing or in jail, never to be seen again. My palms were sweaty and my heart was racing as I followed the huge guy to a back room. Instead of torture equipment or a jail cell though, it was just a metal detector. All of that for a freaking metal detector. He could have at least said so before leading me to my supposed execution.
Finally, we were done and the Israeli security staff were satisfied that I was indeed a boring, middle class guy from a Maryland suburb. The problem was that I still had to get my tickets, navigate yet more levels of security and get through the airport all within a 30-minute time frame before my plane would start boarding. I was dubious.
I mentioned the fact that my two-hour security extravaganza had put in serious jeopardy my ability to make my flight and to my surprise, they reacted swiftly. One of the them escorted me to the ticket agent, obtained my documents in a few seconds and then we skipped the next few security lines altogether. She said because I’d already gone through the extensive screening that I didn’t need to do anything else, so she took me through the bowels of the airport into the super secret elevators and personally led me to my gate. I was dumbfounded. For hours they hadn’t seemed to care at all, but when push came to shove, they went above and beyond to make sure they didn’t screw up my trip.
I can’t say that leaving Israel was my favorite travel experience, but in retrospect it really wasn’t that bad. More than anything, it helped bring home the dangers confronting Israel every day and the need to make sure visitors and citizens alike are as safe as possible.
What was your most ‘interesting’ immigration experience?