antiMusic Travel Editor Sparks Terror Scare
My mother has never once been bitten by a mosquito, and that's saying something considering she's spent most of her life in Michigan where the pests are notoriously plentiful. Whatever the condition is that causes her special status, jacked-up pheromones or maybe the lack thereof, I can't speak to. I can only say that I was not fortunate enough to have inherited the trait. Upon my recent return from a trip to Mexico I found myself in a serious situation where a little bit of mom's built-in bug repellant could have kept me from being investigated for committing an act of international terrorism.
The Riviera Maya is a fifty-mile long stretch of Mexico's Caribbean coastline running from just south of Cancun to a point just north of the border with Belize. The area is Mexico's top tourist destination and a place where, as a travel writer, I am fortunate enough to be a frequent visitor. In early October I flew down to the Riviera Maya to do research for a story about Mayakoba, a planned resort community in Playa del Carmen that houses several top of the line properties, including the Banyan Tree Mayakoba, where I stayed and was treated like a king. Actually, all guests there are treated like royalty; the standard was set years ago when the first Banyan Tree opened in Phuket, Thailand. Equally important, the Banyan Tree (and everything else in Mayakoba) is respectful of the environment and the compound has received numerous awards for being eco savvy, including recent accolades from the Rainforest Alliance and UNWTO, the United Nations World Tourism Organization. So to research my article I spent a couple days luxuriating in the Banyan Tree's facilities while also learning about how they've been ecologically responsible from day one, before ground was even broken. I also took a day-long trip off property, the first in a series of circumstances that would ultimately get me detained by American federal officials as a suspected terrorist.
The folks at the Banyan Tree had arranged for me to take an adventure tour the day before I was supposed to fly home; the excursion included kayaking, rappelling, a zip-line, jungle hiking, a journey down into a cenote (underground cavern filled with slow flowing water and colorful crystals), a delicious regional Mexican lunch and finally a trip to the ruins of the ancient Mayan city of Coba where you're allowed to climb on the grand stone pyramid. Not on the itinerary but also included in the day's fun---a few souvenir mosquito bites. But I always travel with a particular brand of first aid gel that takes the sting out of skeeter bites and the like, at least for a few hours, so no big deal.
On the morning of October 3rd my time on the Riviera Maya had come to a close and I caught a taxi from the Banyan Tree to the airport at Cancun for my direct flight home to Phoenix aboard US Airways. The flight takes about five hours, and exhausted from my activities the day before I pretty much slept the whole time, waking only to claim my complimentary Diet Coke and pack of peanuts. Since I was snoozing the whole way (and never left my seat) it seemed like we were touching down in Arizona in no time. Here's where the real fun begins. As the plane is taxiing to the gate, one of the flight attendants makes an announcement that when the plane reaches the gate everyone needs to stay in their seats with their seat belts buckled, that the plane was going to be met by "officials." The first thing that went through my mind, although there was no apparent ruckus during the flight, was that someone had done something en route that was going to get them hauled off the plane in handcuffs. After sitting at the gate for about ten minutes a series of people boarded and went to the back of the plane; first what appeared to be airline and airport employees, then guys with badges representing various law enforcement agencies. They all turned around and left the plane empty-handed and it was at this point that the flight attendant let us know what was going on. Someone had "spilled" a white powder in the plane's rear lavatory and we were quarantined to the plane until the Phoenix Fire Department could analyze the substance and determine if it was hazardous or not. Now a simple delay had turned into possibly being exposed to anthrax or something similarly nasty. As we waited for the PFD guys to arrive the flight attendant made numerous appeals in both English and Spanish; if someone had accidentally spilled the powder in the restroom, just say so. A promise of no repercussions was made. No one came forward. The parade of officials on and off the plane went on for about an hour when it was finally determined they'd let us antsy passengers off the plane and quarantine us, since this was an international flight, in the Customs and Immigration area where badly needed restrooms would be available. So we all deplaned, carry-on luggage in tow, to the room where you line up to get your passport checked and officially enter the country. Cops monitored our movements the whole way and there was one stationed in each restroom. The area we were mustered in had no place to sit down except for the floor and some people sat on the cement; most just milled around stewing, some audibly carping about missing connecting flights or their ride home (the use of cell phones is never allowed in this area, let alone in a situation like this.) I leaned against the wall and rummaged through my computer bag for a snack, finding a baggie of candy corn that I had taken with me (Halloween was nearing at the time.) I was munching some of the seasonal treats, now about another twenty minutes in, when the movement of several uniformed men caught my eye. Three stern looking ICE agents, (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) were headed our way and you could just tell by the looks on their faces that this wasn't going to be good. Someone was going to get busted. Imagine my surprise when they strolled partway into the crowd and announced that they were looking for a particular passenger---me! I could feel all the other passengers giving me the stink-eye (they caught the bastard!) as I was perp-walked through the area marked "diplomats only" and into "interrogation room #2," so stunned that I kept nonchalantly popping candy corn into my mouth as I walked. I was too taken aback to panic and I can see how my relaxed demeanor might have given the ICE agents the mistaken idea that the evil mastermind they'd nabbed was one cool and cocky dude. The interrogation room was basically a jail cell; a stark space with a concrete floor, a stainless steel toilet and a matching bench. From a spot on the bench I tried to size-up the trio; one looked like an ex-Marine, one looked like an insurance salesman and the third, well there was no question as to who was going to be "Bad Cop." Bad Cop had a pugilist's face; maybe it wasn't boxing that put his nose out of alignment and caused one eye to sag in its socket but it was apparently me that now had him nearly seething. After a preliminary grilling---What seat was I in? Was I alone in that row? Why was I in Mexico?---I got the full body search, and sure enough it was conducted by Bad Cop. This was not a polite pat down like you get from a TSA guy when you set off the metal detector going through airport security; this was the full-blown hands-against-the-wall, feet-back-and-spread-'em nightmare exactly like you see on television cop shows. No part of my body was spared the probing. Remember that "Don't touch my junk" guy? He would have had a convulsion over this situation as Bad Cop sort of slapped his hand into my crotch and gave the slightest of squeezes; he was sending a message and I received it clearly. Meanwhile one of the other agents was searching every inch of my computer bag and I had to stifle a smart remark when he found my business cards and proclaimed, "He really is a travel writer. It says so on his cards." I saw the unintentional humor in the agent's statement even though I was being investigated for an act of terrorism at the time and made a mental note to print up some cards saying I was a rocket scientist or perhaps the world's greatest lover. I asked why they had singled me out and I probably turned pale when they gave me the answer. White powder had also been found on the plane floor right by my seat. I was completely dumbfounded. I knew I was innocent yet here I was being interrogated by the Feds and it wasn't looking good for me to say the least. With my computer bag coming up clean, Bad Cop now went to fetch my checked luggage to put it to a search. For a split second I worried about the fact that it contained a little more liquor than you're legally allowed to bring back into the country. I am not in the habit of trying to put one over on the Customs man but alcohol is cheap in Mexico and with the holidays approaching I went ahead and loaded up on (undeclared) hooch. Of all times! I was now sitting on the bench in the interrogation room with just one ICE agent on guard; he offered me a bottle of water which I declined and engaged me in small talk that put me somewhat at ease. Then came the "aha!" moment as I felt a twinge coming from my left calf where my mosquito bites were demanding a scratch. Leaving Cancun that morning I had put my preferred first aid gel on the bites and being in a bit of a hurry I had just slathered the stuff on instead of meticulously daubing it on each bite. This particular gel though, when over-applied, tends to flake off. I quickly asked for the agents to gather and showed them that when I scratched my legs little flecks of dried gel fell to the floor. I know from previous experience that the residue is not white and neither is it powder but at least I could now explain what was found adjacent to my seat on the plane. I had done some vigorous scratching about an hour before landing when the efficacy of the gel wore off. So now they wanted to know where the tube of gel was and upon finding it in my checked luggage they took it to presumably have it analyzed by the Phoenix Fire Department. About fifteen minutes later they were ready to release me from custody but I, like the rest of the passengers, was still under quarantine until the nature of the powder in the plane's lavatory was ascertained. The all clear came shortly thereafter but I wasn't particularly in a hurry to leave if it meant being thrown to the wolves, i.e. having to face the rest of the passengers where undoubtedly there would be some belligerence directed at me. But now that it was obvious that they had the wrong guy, Bad Cop's attitude softened and he escorted me out of the Customs area ahead of the mob. A female ICE agent who was not involved in my interrogation but who heard me turn down the bottle of water earlier added a little levity to my escape by asking, "Are you sure you don't want something to drink? We have lots to choose from; gin, rum " At this point they were hardly concerned that they had found me bringing in an excessive amount of liquor. "Actually, it's all tequila," I said over my shoulder with the best smile I could manage.
Later that evening I watched the local news and the incident, thankfully without any mention of a suspect being interrogated, got just a minute's worth of airtime. Similarly a small blurb appeared the next day in Arizona's largest daily newspaper. It never came out to what extent the white powder was distributed in the plane's lavatory. Was it a small, innocent spillage or did someone deliberately throw the stuff all over? Either way, I was the only one who took any heat for it. If I was the paranoid sort I'd expect my name to be on some type of government watch list now. If I were the type to offer advice the best I could probably do would be to advise passengers not to eat powdered sugar donuts on airplanes. In reality though there's only one thing I need to do as a result of this experience---switch to a first aid cure that's available in cream form.