What feels like way way way back in June, I arrived in Canuckistan. I stayed down on the lower mainland for a week or so and then flew up to Quesnel in the Cariboo area, where a generous friend (let’s call him “Dave” for the purpose of this blogpost) lent me a car to use for the duration of my stay. On the day I picked it up someone backed his vehicle into the passenger door. I drove it like that, with a bashed in door, for the rest of my time here. The tyres were bald and the hybrid battery was iffy, but it served me well.
In total I drove approximately 18,700km in the jalopy without an oil change, exploring the gorgeous Canuckistan – on a day-trip to the unremarkable Burns Lake to deliver some truck parts for a friend, to the hillbillies outside town and the elderly lady who has run a holiday resort for several decades in the heart of the Cariboo. I drove back down to the lower mainland to a wedding and enjoyed several hikes with friends to lakes and waterfalls and god-awfully-high viewpoints over the ocean. From there I drove to friends in Edmonton, and to people I didn’t know in northern Alberta. I shot the northern lights and a couple of goose hunts, went on a day-trip to the North West Territories to find waterfalls, and undertook several excursions to look for bears to shoot (with my camera). Much of the driving was done around Quesnel itself to discover and photograph many of its most beautiful spots and people. I visited a (semi) random farm in the Okanagan and then, as my journey was coming to an end, I found myself back on the lower mainland, where I had started. (In total, I’m sure I travelled way over 20,000km in 5 months, including in other people’s vehicles, side-by side off-road vehicles and on a motorbike that caught fire.)
My final three weeks in the Pacific Northwest, I stayed with friends in the States, which necessitated a few trips across the border.
Just before I departed for the U.S.A. I Googled to see if I needed a letter from Dave giving me permission to take the vehicle across the border. But I couldn’t find anything that said I needed to. And for the first dozen or so times that I crossed between Canuckistan and the US I wasn’t asked about the car.
But last Friday that all changed. Last Friday the tetchy woman in the booth decided to question whether I had permission from Dave to drive his car. I told her I did but she wasn’t taking my word for it, sending me into the customs office to deal with it further.
Up until then, I had been amazed at how friendly the border control guards were (on the American side especially) but on that fateful Friday everything changed, scarring me for good. On Friday I was forced to deal with a border control guy of whom Heinrich Himmler would have been proud. I’m amazed he didn’t strap me to a chair with a bare lightbulb trained on my face.
It seems that he had decided I was guilty of something at first glance. I’ve always said I have “one of those faces”. He barked out questions, none of which had anything to do with the borrowed car: was I married, did I have children, what work did I do, how had I been travelling for so long, had I been working in Canuckistan or the States, why did I have so many friends to visit in Canuckistan and had I ever watched “Corner Gas” set in Dog River, Saskatchewan? Well, that last one wasn’t true, but he then proceeded to empty my wallet. The goon studied every grocery and fuel receipt, examined my drivers’ licence at such length that I suspected he had fallen into a profound trance, and dug things out of the tiny pockets that I had forgotten were there. He rifled through my phone; through my entire web browsing history and all my photos; he read my messages and emails. I felt violated.
I’m convinced that border control employees are required to have their senses of humour surgically removed after accepting the job. And so I have learned not to try joking or being light-hearted with them. It’s like trying to be cute with a Doberman guard dog. Not at all wise. My mouth was dry. I was sweating.
But perhaps I’m just overly sensitive.
My two phones, one of which I use purely for music, were a massive (combined) red flag for him. If I were the joking type I would have told him one was my burner for all things nefarious. But I didn’t. Life is boring when you don’t get to make up fantastic stories for border guards.
Eventually he actually asked me for Dave’s cellphone number.
“He doesn’t have one,” I answered.
“Who doesn’t have a cellphone?” asked he, while studying both of mine.
Again, I could have responded with one of so many snide remarks, but I held myself back and rather just said, “Dave.”
Dave’s in his 70s, you see, and is so busy at work, that he doesn’t want one. So I Googled his work phone number, which the SS goon wasn’t interested in.
“Is this a business-owned car or his personal car,” he asked. “If it’s registered to him personally, why are you giving me his work number?”
Apparently they removed his brain at the same time as his sense of humour, because I had to explain (very calmly) that that was the only place we could get hold of Dave on a weekday. Because he doesn’t have a cellphone. (I’m sure I had mentioned that before.)
So, the Nazi called Dave. And, amazingly, managed to get him on the phone. Because anyone who knows Dave knows that you only get to speak to him around 12.63% of the time when calling him at work.
I heard the one side of the conversation from the awkward bench to which I had been banished. All seemed just fine. Fortunately, Dave did not use his dry sense of humour on Hitler’s friend, who, seemingly satisfied, typed something on his computer and then called me over to the counter. Dreaming of a strong cup of coffee, satisfied that I was almost on my way, I sauntered over confidently.
“Give me your keys,” he demanded. “And go and sit down again. I need to search the vehicle.”
I hoped that he would enjoy all the touristy photos on my two DSLRs, which were on the back seat. But he never mentioned them. He was apparently too fixated on the cash he had found in my man-bag. You see, I don’t tend to use credit cards when travelling – it just gets too confusing what with wildly fluctuating exchange rates and all.
“And where did you get this money?” he asked.
“Africa,” I answered obtusely. “I brought it with me from home.” I considered getting just a teeny bit feisty: “Is it illegal to travel with cash now,” I almost asked. Because one is allowed to travel across the border with up to $10,000 in cash. And I most definitely did not have that on me! But I held my tongue.
He asked if I was hiding any more cash in the car, and I almost asked him if he would be willing to look for me. I mean, I have no idea whether Dave ever used the vehicle to stash cash. I was kind of hopeful.
But fortunately, he seemed to be getting bored at the fact that he wasn’t allowed to water board me or use shocking tools on my genitals, so he shoved all my stuff across the cold counter at me, told me to pack it up and leave. I tried asking another question but I had ceased to exist. He was already eyeing a new nervous victim across the room.
Two days later I travelled across the border agin. This time they searched the trunk with a fine-tooth comb, stripping out the spare tyre and several car panels. Again, the guy seemed disappointed not to find anything in the jalopy. Fortunately it was relatively easy to replace the panels. Don’t tell Dave.
Yesterday I was relieved to give the car back to Dave. Of course, I blamed him for all my border trouble.
And thus ended my trip through western Canuckistan in Dave’s jalopy. I’m headed home to safe, secure Africa, where everyone is friendly and doesn’t possess a bone of suspicion in their bodies. See you on the other side!