World Travel Wednesday: Miami, I’m Coming Home


I’m sure Miami is a lovely place, and I would love to go there one day and enjoy it so I can replace my current memory of it.

When: 2003
Where: Miami International Airport

Coming home from Brazil in 2003, my flight plan took me from Manaus to Sao Paolo to Miami to Charlotte. I was pleased that on my return trip, I would have a shorter layover in Miami than I had on the way down. The airport there has some excellent people watching due to its status as an international gateway. I heard countless other languages being spoken and entertained myself by trying to figure out who might be the best, most unlikely drug smuggler. I like to be outside and feel fresh air whenever I can, and over the years I’ve gotten more temperature resistant. I am always sitting on my porch at home, baking or freezing, and I always have a car window rolled down unless I’m going over 70 mph. While waiting for my flight to Brazil, I spent a lot of time hanging around outside the sliding doors, smoking cigarettes to relieve my relative anxiety about traveling alone to a place where I had a less than rudimentary grasp of the language and visiting the boy who has always made the butterflies in my stomach do some disco dancing. At least I was escaping the refrigerated air. But it was miserably humid, like cotton wool smothering your face.


On the return trip, I would not be there long enough to have to hang around outside, and it put me in a good mood to know I was close to getting home from a long couple days of traveling. I had been feeling impressed with the improvement in my Portuguese skills when flying from Brazil to Miami. First, I had asked for a Guarana (a Brazilian soft drink) on the plane in Portuguese, not to show off, but because I really wanted one. It was easily the most thirst-quenching beverage I had in Brazil, with the Caipirinha and a pineapple yogurt drink as close runners-up. The taste is something like a cross between ginger ale and Fresca, with hints of apple and an aftertaste of the guarana berry, whose plantations we canoed by in the Amazon. And it is sublime. The guarana berry has two to three times more caffeine than a coffee bean. It’s good stuff.


Since I had made that request in Portuguese and conversed a little with the flight attendant, she must have assumed I was Brazilian (awesome!) because she gave me a customs declaration form in Portuguese. I could read most of it, and what I couldn’t was pretty easy to deduce contextually. Rather than ask for an English one, I just filled it out and returned it. After this episode, the  businessman sitting beside me asked me in glaringly English-accented Portuguese, “Where in Brazil are you from?” I said, “Actually, I’m from North Carolina. I’m on my way home.” He turned out to be from Rochester Hills, Michigan, where my long-time college roommate grew up. Small world! He said, “Do you have dual citizenship? They gave you a Portuguese form.” I said, “No, I think she must have just thought I was Brazilian also because I spoke a little Portuguese.” I really wanted to ask these people, WHAT about me looks Brazilian to you? The flat ass or the blond hair? The flight attendant continued to address me in Portuguese for the remainder of the flight, and the suburbanite beside me continued to look awed.


Upon arriving in Miami, we were herded towards customs and instructed to divide up into two single file lines, one for American passports, one for non-American passports. Most of the non-American people on the plane didn’t speak English, and therefore didn’t understand those directions. They looked around at each other, like, “What did he say? What are we supposed to do?” And none of the customs people were helping anyone understand — they were just being assholes and barking at people who had no way to understand them. This was my first experience entering U.S. customs post-9/11, and I felt very shameful at the way “we” were acting towards “those” people. And that was nothing compared to some of the horror stories you hear about people being detained.


I stepped away from the “American Passports Only” queue and touched the arm of the nearest Brazilian passenger, who was beginning to look very worried. What must they have thought the customs official was telling them to do? I showed him my passport and indicated behind me towards the line I just emerged from. Then I pointed to the green Brazilian passport in his hand, and demonstrated the opposite wall, a variation on Vanna White. Then I smiled. And slowly, he smiled. He began to spread the word amongst the non-English speaking passengers. See? Everything is okay. We’re just meant to line up here, and you there. Looking back, if I found myself in the same situation today, five-plus years post-9/11, I would never do anything like that.

Their line had to wait while the American line moved forward. When I reached the front, I handed my passport to the first of many officials who would need to examine it. “Welcome home,” he said, handing it back. He sounded very sincere. I’ve never been particularly patriotic, and I’m not quite sure how to explain that. Maybe I will examine that in another post one day. But that was the one time in my entire life that I have felt proud to be an American, except for when Obama was elected. Welcome home.

I passed through my easy peasy breeze through customs — except for when they ask you what you were doing in the country you just left, your occupation, and how much currency you’re carrying. That always makes me feel uncomfortable. I proceeded on to baggage claim, where I was waiting for my suitcase full of unbreakables to appear on the belt. The only bag I had traveled with for most of the trip was my one backpack, to minimize the risk of lost luggage, and to move around more easily. When one is traveling by small boats and passing through multiple airports, it’s best to have all you need on your back. In the end, I had broken down and bought a small suitcase in Manaus so I could pack some of the more fragile souvenirs I’d purchased in my backpack. Unfortunately that plan was foiled.


Standing in baggage claim, I was approached by two uniformed officials with a drug dog. It was not a scary looking drug dog, and I love dogs, and I swear I was sodding Bridget Jones, being friendly to the crime dog when she had coke in her bag. Of all the dumb things. But I didn’t have any drugs. What’s the problem?

The problem was that the dog was way too interested in my backpack. He was politely sniffing the side zipper until the officials asked me to step away from it. They said, “Do you have anything in your bag you want to tell us about before he finds it?” I said, “Um, no?” I couldn’t even remember at that point what was in my backpack, due to packing and repacking so many times to make everything fit in both cases.


At that point, the dog started going totally crazy. Growling, shaking the bag in his mouth, pawing at it, tossing it in the air like a cat toying with a half-dead chipmunk. One of the guys said, “I need permission to open your bag,” as the other one inched towards me — I suppose in case I tried to make a run for it. I never even considered that someone might have planted drugs on me, because my bag had barely left my side in weeks. Other disembarquing passengers were moving to the opposite side of the baggage belt.

The guy commanded the dog to stop, and the dog sat down beside me, tongue wagging, mouth gaping, smilingly expectant. I looked at the guy on the other side of me and down at the dog. “What is your deal?” I said to the dog. “Stop drawing attention.” He unzipped the main compartment and stuck his arm in up to the elbow, fishing around. He drew back and looked in a couple times, holding it open a little wider. Then stuck his arm in again and pulled out a plastic baggie, waving it in the air with accomplishment, and strangely, a huge smile.

Fried plantain chips. I had bought them on the street in Manaus that morning to have as a snack, and they must have smelled too good for a hungry drug dog to resist. Oh yes, we all had a good laugh over that. As soon as I got done sweating and cursing under my breath. Unfortunately, in the dog’s excitement about finding a potential treat, my breakable souvenirs so carefully packed separately were broken. But I didn’t find that out until I got home and unpacked everything.

When the guy handed me the bag, I said, “These are kinda cold and greasy now anyway if you want to give them to your dog. He was way more excited about them than I was anyway.” He said, “I can’t give them to him now because it would reward him for finding something that wasn’t contraband. But I’ll take them and give him a treat later. He’ll love it.”

I was thinking, “Um, how about a very sorry, ma’am? Can I get a what what?” But nothing. I still had to wait on my bag full of clothes to come gliding by. They just laughed and left me there. Welcome home, my ass. Yay, Miami! &#@$ers.


1 Comment

  1. Time Traveller said,

    December 2, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    I agree! I’m a 55 year old grandmother, light brown hair, blue eyes, good enough to still look at most times, and returning from Guatemala was escorted into Immigration, where they proceeded to verify my US citizenship (lol) then through customs baggage check… I had NOTHING at all to hide and they found nothing.

    Welcome home, my ass.

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