This morning I negotiated a taxi to the airport. He started by asking twice the going price, so we wheedled back and forth until we finally reached an agreement, at the going price. There was lots of traffic of course at 07:30 and there is much-needed road construction underway in Abidjan as well. But we still arrived at the airport at 8:00 which was my goal since the flight was scheduled for 9:50. Inexplicably on arrival, the departure time was posted at 10:50. I could have spent another hour in bed, which would have been good since I’ve developed a cough, probably due to the Harmatan, the seasonal dry north wind out of the Sahara that brings with it a great deal of dust. It causes many cases of respiratory complications.
Once again they insisted that I pull everything out of my roll aboard and my shoulder bag. Normally I need two, maximum three bins to get my laptop and other electronics through a security check. Here I needed five, all but one over flowing. They didn’t ask me to remove my shoes, so I left them on as I walked through the metal detector, and they set it off.
I told the agent it must be my shoes and began taking them off. “No, don’t do that, I will frisk you” the agent responded. OK, I held my arms out and let him pat me down. He seemed surprised to find my belt still on, which he asked about. I told him it never sets off metal detectors so I always leave it on. He told me to take it off. I moved to put it in a carry-on bag, but he insisted on seeing it. One of the places I carry the cash with which I travel is a money belt, a leather belt with a zipper down the inside which opens to pouch running the length of the belt in which rolled bills can be placed.
Two agents examined the belt closely. “What is this?” they asked me. I told them. “How much money do you have in there?” they asked. It told them. They didn’t really know what to make of this, but they obviously thought it was a big deal. “Show us!” they demanded. I discretely opened the zipper just enough to show them a bill. Then things started getting weird.
“Open it all the way!” they demanded. I complied. They started pulling hundred dollar bills out and scattering them around the tray. This is in full view of all the passengers going through the security screening. Then an agent took the tray with the belt and walked off in another direction. I protested: “she cannot just walk off with my money, I insist she return here, so I can observe what you’re doing.”
“Monsieur” the agent said suspiciously, “you are becoming agitated. Why are you agitated? There must be something going on here!”
I have several thousand dollars’ worth of electronics: laptop, DSLR camera, AV projector, spread out on the security belt out of my control and on display to everyone, an agent is walking off with my money belt and cash, and they’re telling me that my agitation is a sign that I’m up to something sinister….
“We must search more closely” one of them said. There are now four or five security agents around me. “Come with us to the security room” I am told. I reply that I was not leaving all my equipment spread out on belt, nor was I leaving my cash and belt. They thought it over. Then they decided to take everything to the security room, so they stacked up the trays, took the carryon bags and escorted me to the security room. A big guy, obviously there for physical security, held my passport and boarding pass, and watched me like I might make a break for it at any time.
In the little windowless security room, they picked through my things. “Why do you have money in a belt?” one demanded. I told him it was for security, and that I had declared the amount of money in the belt. I hadn’t hidden anything. “It’s not normal to hide money in a belt!” I reminded him that I had declared the money, what difference did it make where I chose to carry it, since I had declared it?
“You are obviously trying to hide the money!” “Yes”, I replied “but not from you, I declared the full amount, so what is the problem?” He said “if you have carried the money in your pocket or in your bag, this would be normal, but this is not normal!” I explained as calmly as I could that many people use these or similar kinds of belts; it is not unusual or suspicious.
“Tell me Monsieur” the agent lectured “say you were to arrive in America and they find money hidden in your belt, what are they going to say?” I replied that as long as there was less than $10,000 they wouldn’t say anything at all; it doesn’t matter how you choose to carry it, only the amount matters. I said he was really exaggerating this, since I had declared the full amount that I was carrying.
Not willing to listen to reason, he declared: “We will go down and search your checked suitcase, come with us.” What about my things? “We will lock them in this room.” Another agent said that wasn’t possible, the room had to stay clear. They consulted again. “Repack your bags and you will come with us.” I put everything back in my bags. They allow me to put the cash back in the belt and put it on again. Then we march single file down the stairs to the check-in counters. I am obviously the center of attention in the huge room, surrounded by four security agents. Passengers look at me curiously.
Behind the counters, we pass through a large door that leads to a baggage processing area, a dark, windowless place full of conveyor belts, scanners and the like. I stand in an out-of-the-way corner to await developments. They bring out a suitcase, which, I tell them, is not mine. They take it back. My passport and boarding pass with claim check ticket are handed off to the agent who goes back behind another wall to match the numbers. He finally returns with my suitcase. I offer to unlock it. “No don’t touch it” I’m told. They swab it for explosives, and then tell me to unlock it.
When the suitcase is open an agent goes through everything, all the clothing, all the pockets in the clothing, everything is placed in bins to be put through a scan. They open my Bible and flip through the pages, they do this with my other books. They unzip the suitcase lining and feel behind it. Finally they tell me I can repack my suitcase, which I do. I must sign a form, stating which agents were present during the whole episode. Then they tell me I can go back upstairs.
Now only one agent is with me. She obliges me to go back through immigration, even though my passport is already stamped. And then the cherry on the cake, they tell me I must removing everything from my carry-on bags and go through the security check again!
This whole misadventure took over an hour.
The flight was of course an hour late from the scheduled time, and I arrived in Lomé an hour late too. But Guy and Pierre were waiting, we greeted each other warmly and they drove me to the hotel. I was coughing more now, and not feeling 100%, there was congestion in my chest. I told them that I wasn’t sure I’ve be able to conduct the Bible Study we had planned for the evening, that I would rest and let them know later in the afternoon.
I actually felt worse as the day went on and was coughing more deeply. I cancelled the Bible Study. I will try to get a full night’s sleep and hope I’ll be in good form for tomorrow. I would be a shame to travel all this way and not be able to meet with everyone.