I: The Border
Copyright (c) 1997 by Ronald Bourret
To Mark, who knows better, but goes anyway
"Where are you from?"
"Seattle. They're from Bellingham."
"What is your nationality?"
"All of you?"
"What is the destination and purpose of your trip?"
"We're going caving on Vancouver Island."
It was a statement, not a question. The immigration officer peered into the back of the Honda, stuffed to the ceiling with packs, jackets, ropes, food, and other caving detritus. He mulled over my statement. I was sure he had never been in a cave in his life.
"Do you have any experience?"
"Oh, yes. Lots."
I was stretching the truth, but how could he argue? Nevertheless, the questions ran through his head: What if these ignorant Americans are rescued at Canadian government expense? What if somebody discovers that I let them in? What will happen to my career as a junior immigration officer then? He tried again.
"What are your occupations?"
"Technical writer," I replied, as if writing in some way qualified me to poke about beneath the Earth's surface. The officer inspected me carefully -- graying beard, Coke-bottle bottom glasses, ratty T-shirt. His face was flat and emotionless, but I imagined the words "computer geek" rising up from the nether regions of his brain. He looked at Paul.
"Student," said Paul. Paul is the kind of traveler immigration officers should search without further question: a rust-colored sweater that might have come from the discount bin at the Salvation Army, a shoulder-length tangle of dirty-blonde hair, and an air of disinterest toward authority. Surprisingly, his defining physical characteristic is his voice: He is so soft-spoken that it is easy to forget him soon after meeting him. The officer turned to Ben.
Ben unfolded his lanky body from the back seat and brushed aside his Prince Valiant hair. "I work at the American Alpine Institute," he said cheerfully. A mountain guide. Relief flooded the officer's face, as if he had just been told his mother-in-law was moving to Florida after all. He smiled and waved us through. His job was safe and the Canadian government wouldn't have to rescue anyone.
We didn't tell him that Ben worked in the equipment room.