Last month I had the great pleasure of sharing my passport with border officers when I was traveling to Quebec and Ontario on a book tour. I love my passport, because right now it has visas for Syria and Lebanon. These days, there is little that causes more conversation with a uniformed official on either side of the U.S./Canadian border than a passport that looks like mine.
Given the amount of time I spend with border officers or with customs officials at airports, here are some tips to make sure that you, too, can move effortlessly through Passport Control.
Let’s begin with those anxious moments when you are traveling by car and arriving at the booth at the border. Always remove your sunglasses, smile, and say politely, “Please don’t open the trunk.” If you are driving an SUV or pickup, pile as many boxes as you can possibly fit into the rear of the vehicle. Cover them with blankets and tarps. Be sure and point them out to the officer by saying, “I know you’re busy, so you don’t need to look under those blankets. Really, there’s nothing there you need to worry about.”
You always want to make sure that the officers can hear you from inside their booths, so I always shout at the top of my lungs as a courtesy. If you have interesting music available – on the radio, on a CD, on your iPod – share it. Border officers are people, too, and there is nothing they want more than to be a part of your party. In my experience, they enjoy heavy metal, especially when you bang along on your steering wheel and yell out the names of the bands: “This is Cannibal Corpse, dude! Want me to make you a mix?” If you do not have any heavy or death metal available, bring along your favorite Middle Eastern music CD.
Finally, make sure your car smells of ammonia.
Now, if you are traveling by air and thus passing through passport control at an airport, it can be a little more difficult to make friends with the officials. After all, you can’t win them over by putting your car in “park” and then gunning the engine as a joke. Consequently, it is important to begin by making eye contact, smiling, and asking them something personal about their lives. I like to begin by asking them if they have any secret tattoos. Other options? Ask them if they are married or have small children. If you really want to spend lots of quality time together with your new friends at customs, ask them if they have recently spotted a drug dealer or terrorist or celebrity. Ask them where the bomb-sniffing dogs are. My point? Don’t just talk about yourself. Invite them into your world. They will thank you – and so will the people in line behind you!
And, of course, have your passport ready. Sometimes, to make everyone’s lives easier, I like to point out the more interesting visas and stamps on mine. These days nothing starts a conversation better at passport control than having been to interesting, faraway lands.
Sadly, passports expire every ten years, and I have to get a new one this winter. I will certainly keep the old one for posterity, but soon I will be traveling without the one that has become such a terrific conversation starter. As one official once murmured when I explained that I travel as a writer, “Syria? Lebanon? Armenia? Brazil? In the movies, writers always seem to be spies.”
Nope. Not this time.
On the bright side? My new, clean passport will make the people standing in line or sitting in their cars behind me very, very happy.
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Chris’s new novel, “The Light in the Ruins,” will be published July 16, 2013.