November 21, 2007

Making a Run for the Border

Sometimes, when there's so very much to blog about, the postings get backlogged. That has certainly been the case over the past couple of weeks. This post was mostly written while sitting in the line to cross the Canada/USA border, but I only got around to finishing it today. I'll try to catch up on the other updates over the next couple of days...

On our way to Mexico for my sister-in-law's wedding, Fawn, Jade and I decided to take a few extra days to visit some friends and family in Victoria and Vancouver. While in the area, since I was still on a quest to find a replacement vehicle, I dropped into a couple of car dealerships.

I'd been looking online for one in Canada, but couldn't find one for the "cash value" that the insurance company is paying me. The more I researched , the more attractive it was becoming to purchase a car from the United States. The dollar was at a high and the American prices were significantly lower for the same vehicle. I had done my research on importing a vehicle, and as much as the dealers tried to bump-up the potential cost and difficulties of modifying a car to Canadian standards, I eventually discovered that it wouldn't cost anything at all for the vehicle I'd been looking at - another Volvo XC70. Only one thing was holding me back - I really didn't like the idea of purchasing a car that I hadn't personally inspected and driven first.

That's why, while Fawn and Jade spent a day with her godparents in Surrey, I decided to drive the rental car on the short trip across the Canada/US border to do a little car shopping in Bellingham, Washington.

Not counting a couple of trips to Skagway, the last time I drove across the Canadian/American border was two months after September 11, 2001. I had a friend who was living in New York City - two blocks from where the towers went down - who also had an apartment in Ottawa. His sister had just moved to the Bronx and he wanted to give her his furniture before he moved overseas. Since he didn't have a vehicle of his own, he asked if I would be willing to bring his stuff from Ottawa to New York for him. I had wanted to visit with him before he moved, so I was happy to oblige.

It was an interesting time to be crossing the border. There were almost no vehicles at the crossing, and there were a lot of border guards.

I pulled up in my car, towing a U-Haul trailer full of household items behind me. I hadn't packed the boxes and didn't know what they contained and that made me a little nervous. The border guard asked me what I was doing, so I told him. They asked me to step inside so I did.

The office was small. They wanted proof that I was bringing items for my friend and that I wasn't planning an unauthorized move of my own.

Fortunately, my friend had had the foresight to send me a faxed copy of his Green Card. While one guard investigated its validity, another grilled me for an hour, testing my knowledge on, of all things, Nunavut. I'm lucky I've travelled in Nunavut because the depth of questions was staggering. While the guard feigned ignorance of Canada's newest territory, I could tell he knew a great deal more than he was letting on.

When they were done, they asked me to step back outside. They wanted to look in the trailer. There were four of them, standing in a semi-circle around me and the back of the trailer. They asked me to open the trailer and they all took a nervous step back as I did so. When it was open, they all stepped forward again, peering around me to get a look at the trailer's contents.

One of the border guards donned a pair of latex gloves and I started to sweat, fearing what might come next. "Mind if I look inside?" he asked.

"The trailer?" I asked, just to be certain, "Sure, go ahead."

He half-heartedly peeked inside one box, opening it with the end of a pen and said, "Looks fine. You can go."

Relieved that everything was in order, I drove a few minutes into New York State and into a pull-out to consult my map. Shortly afterwards, I pulled back onto the road and resumed my drive.

As I crested a hill, I gasped. There was a small army lined-up across the road. Machine gun in hand, one of the them waved me over.

An officer of some sort stepped up to my window and I rolled it down half way. He said something in a drawl so thickly that the words bounced unintelligibly out of his mouth. He had asked me a question, but I hadn't realised it at the time. I stared at him blankly.

After shifting his machine gun into a position that was designed to make me feel uncomfortable (and did), he slowly and sternly drawled, "You're takin' a little long to answer that question, son."

I told him, "I'm sorry, it's your accent. I don't have a clue what you just said to me."

He seemed to accept this explanation, so he slowly enunciated every word and explained, "I said, 'Did you just come across the border, son?'"

With dawning comprehension, I replied, "Oh! Yes!" Since I was on a road that led only from the border crossing, I couldn't see where else I could have come from. Speaking slowly, he asked me a few more questions about where I was going and what I was doing and then he signalled the line of militia to move aside and let me through.

So, there's something about border crossings that make me nervous. I'm not sure what it is, but it might be the guns. Or maybe the latex gloves.

I always feel a heightened sense of awareness when I prepare for a border crossing. While I'm never doing anything wrong (I hope), I'm afraid that someone in a position of authority (as in, someone who has a gun or a pair of latex gloves) might think that I am. For some reason, this makes me feel guilty even though I'm not.

Before I left Surrey, I carefully checked to make sure I didn't bring anything with me that might imply that that I was a crook or a terrorist. Then, I checked and double-checked to make sure I had "my papers in order".

Rental car agreement? Check.
Driver's license and passport? Check.
Computer with internet browser windows open showing vehicle research to validate my reason for crossing the border? Check.

As I waited in the idling rental car in the unbelievably long line before the border crossing, I listened to the radio and mentally prepared myself for the inevitable interrogation. The DJ started playing the Animals, who sang, "I'm just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh, Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood."

This was followed by the Temptations singing "It was just my 'magination, runnin' away with meeeee."

I thought, these are not songs that put one at ease when crossing a border.

The line was so slow, that I began typing this blog entry in the car as I the traffic crept very slowly forward. The wait was a fairly neighbourly affair as the people in the vehicles next to me said "Hi" every time we passed each other. The girl in the car in front of me was checking me out to see what I was up to, just like I was watching the guy in the car behind me - he had been picking his nose and eating it for about forty-five minutes. I was amazed at how long he was able to keep it up, because his nose should have been thoroughly scoured after the first fifteen minutes or so.

I chuckled as I pass by a sign that says, "SPEED HUMP" with a "NO VENDING" sign immediately beneath it. It reminded me of a stop sign that once existed near the West Block on Parliament Hill that had a "No Stopping at Any Time" sign immediately below.

I was less than 500 metres away from the booth when I realised why the line was moving so slowly. They were interrogating everyone.

The booths were menacing as I approached. The lights indicated that I had to stop in a spot where an array of grey boxes, painted navy grey, were pointing at me and my vehicle. I could not imagine the purpose of the boxes, but they certainly were intimidating.

The lights changed and I moved forward to the booth. The guard asked me where I was from.

"The Yukon."

"And your destination?"

"B-b-b..." I stuttered, my mind going suddenly blank.

"Bellingham?" the guard prompted.

"Yes!" I replied, relieved that he had filled in the blank for me.

"Not familiar with the area are you?" he enquired.

"No," I agreed.

"The purpose of your visit?"

"Car shopping," I responded.

"No. The real reason for your trip."

This took me a little aback. I thought I had given him the real reason for my trip.

"Uh," I thought, "I'm going to Mexico?"

"From Bellingham?" he asked.

"No," I clarified, "From Vancouver."

This seemed to satisfy him, and he let me through.

I drove into Washington State a little confused, but glad that I had made it through without any real difficulties.

While in Bellingham, I found a car and negotiated a deal that I was happy with, though, really, pretty much anything I looked at was $10,000 less expensive than it was in Canada.

For some reason, I never have the same anxieties passing back onto the Canadian side of the border. I'm not sure why. The border agent asked me, "Returning to Canada?"


"Did you purchase anything while you were there?"

"Yes," I responded, "A car." I held up the envelope with the sales agreement. He gave me a short speech about how I would need to bring the car to a different customs port and waved me through. Short and simple. It always seems so much more welcoming on the Canadian side. I was glad to be back.

I still need to go back to collect the car, but that story will have to wait a week or two.

1 comment:

ExploreNorth said...

It's always nice to save huge amounts of $$$, and your story gave Cathy and I a few chuckles this morning. I don't mind the guns so much, but the latex gloves just freak me out :)