Border hopping is never as fun as it sounds.
When I picture it in my head, it’s a giddy activity that involves skipping up to a line drawn in white chalk, leaping over it, and gleefully finding myself in a new country when my feet retouch the ground.
It never happens like this.
Unlike the easy breezy beautiful process of crossing a state line in your mom’s Toyota Avalon, snapping a picture of yourself in the passenger’s seat with the sign at a completely unreadable level of blurry behind you, crossing the border of a country is a lot more difficult.
One summer when my brother was little, my family and I were driving to a softball tournament and we took a freeway that required you to pay a toll. My brother had fallen asleep a mere 10 minutes into the drive and assumed that the slowing pace of our Honda Odyssey meant our arrival at the park. When he opened his eyes however, my mom was throwing change into the toll bucket and he shot up in his seat.
“ARE WE CROSSING A BORDER?!”
It took a while for me to stop laughing, but when I did I explained to him that crossing an international border was a much more complicated process than throwing money into a bucket.
A few years ago, my best friend, Geri, and I went to a wedding in Ohio. We flew from LA to Chicago to Minneapolis to Detroit and then rented a car and drove 3 hours to the wedding venue. (What can I say we were committed and poor and that was the cheapest to get there.) Our flight home the next day left at 3pm and after getting back from the wedding around 1am the night before, we decided that since we were close, we would go to Canada, just to say we did. I collect postcards, so I figured we could hop in, grab a postcard, hop out and drive to the airport. It would be quick and easy.
Going from the US to Canada by car you have 2 options. The tunnel or the bridge.
Once you approach the Detroit River, a number of rectangular green signs point you to Canada with their enthusiastic, all caps, “BRIDGE TO CANADA ß” and “TUNNEL TO CANADA à ”
We chose the tunnel.
While going through the tunnel I remember us being devastatingly American, singing our own version of the Canadian national anthem, which was actually a spinoff of that written for the fictional country of Genovia found in Disney’s, The Princess Diaries.
“Ohhhh Canadaaaa the land I call my hoooome, oh Caaaanada, oh Caaaaaanadaaa, foreverrr will your banner waaave.”
We have the event on video, along with a remarkable statement by me about “seeing the Canadian sun up ahead.” Looking back now, we deserved what we were about to get.
The officer at the Canadian border was sharp, but polite. He was put off by our bubbly nature and passed us through after only a few minor questions.
Sticking to the plan, after we marveled at the wonder and beauty of the Canadian sun, trees, and birds, we went to the first gift shop we could find, grabbed a post card and hopped back in the car.
While waiting in line to re-cross the border back into the states, Geri and I sat in my car dancing and laughing and gossiping about the 15 minutes of Canadian fun we had just experienced. We were glad we decided to make the spontaneous trip, even though the time to our flight departure seemed to be viciously ticking away.
When the front of the line came into sight, we saw two officers walking amongst the other cars knocking on windows, opening doors, sifting through trunks. Geri and I made soft jokes about hoping that they didn’t search our car, saying that we had enough cocaine in the back seat to build a snowman.
We giggled at the thought of it as we watched the men get closer and closer to my car, only to then hear the pounding on my window a few minutes later.
The officer signaled for me to roll my window down, spinning his index finger an impatient clockwise.
He started with what I thought was an easy question.
“What did you do during your time in Canada?”
“Bought a postcard.”
“That’s it, we were only here for 10 minutes.”
“I’m sorry what.”
“We were close by— ”
The man looked at our passports, finding our “close by” statement unbelievably suspicious after reading aloud our Californian addresses. He questioned this in a tone that made my stomach drop faster than any rollercoaster I had previously boarded.
I explained to him about the wedding and the spontaneity, none of which he cared about, and I tried to lighten the mood by make a self-deprecating comment about my nerdy obsession with postcards, which only seemed to deepen the scowl on his face.
“I’m going to need to search the car.”
I nodded feverishly, wanting to accurately portray how innocent we truly were.
“Sure, of course, no problem, do you want us to get out?”
“NO. You stay right where you are.”
I nodded again, very weakly, and decided not to speak again unless first spoken to.
Geri and I had a matching shade of paper white skin as we watched the men in my rear view mirror shuffle through our suitcases, mumbling to each other at a tone just out of our earshot. We knew we had nothing to hide, but I still felt the need to vomit.
“WHAT IS THIS?!” one of the men shouted, his head still hidden in the trunk.
I looked out the window to the item in his outstretched arm first worried and then puzzled by the question.
“That’s one of my heels that I wore to the wedding….”
“Yeah, she looked hot in them,” Geri joked nervously, to which I laughed but the man stomped over to the window.
“This looks to me like a weapon. At any point during your time in Canada did you come into proximity with illegal drugs?”
“What?! No. No, sir. Of course not.”
At this point I couldn’t tell if the guy was messing with me, or if I was in fact a criminal without my knowledge, but after a few more questions laced with attitude, the men sent us on our way.
This past week, I was given the opportunity to visit Niagara Falls with a couple of my friends. Much to my dismay, while there were no men identifying cute black heels as death wielding weapons, our trip across the border was no less scary or nerve-wracking. I sat in the back seat this time, just as shaky and pale as the first time.
When I look back at the first time now however, I’m thankful that there are men that poised on keeping our country safe that they would bring a girl like me within a few moments of crapping her pants. But I’m also 99% convinced those guys went out for a beer that night and laughed about how pale they made my skin turn and how at one point of the interrogation I was so scared that I mispronounced my own name.