About Me

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Author of Safari Jema, A Journey of Love and Adventure from Casablanca to Cape Town http://tinyurl.com/owdwvrp I write about travel and adventure from my home in California and from Africa. I've sailed a catamaran from California to Hawaii, trekked in the Himalayas, worked as a construction manager on a bridge project in Zambia, hiked 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago, (http://bootsbedouinsandabridge.blogspot.com/) and traveled in over 100 countries and all seven continents. Indie Book Award Winner for Best Memoir of 2012, New York Book Festival Honorable Mention for Non-Fiction, San Francisco Book Festival Honorable Mention for Non-Fiction, Travelers Tales Solas Award for Best Travel Writing Honorable Mention for My Gambian Husband. Indie Book Award Finalist - Best Travel Book 2013. BOTYA Honorable Mention 2013 - Travel Essay. Member of The Explorers Club since 2013 You can follow my current 2013-2014 expedition across Africa, this time in a 1973 Land Rover Series III 109 on http://teresaokane.blogspot.com/ and on facebook https://www.facebook.com/safarijema

Monday, August 16, 2010

Avoiding Arrest on the Zambia Border- We’re not a Gang…. We’re a Club!

Don’t tangle with the Zambian police. They will search your bags, intimidate you, open a docket (which will become your Zambian permanent record), threaten to take you to jail, and will ultimately, as humiliating as this is to admit, make you cry.

We disembarked from the MV Liemba in Mpungalungu and passed through Zambian immigration with ease. They even accepted a photocopy we had printed out from the Zambian Consulate web site stating that as Irish citizens (yes, we're duel citizens), we would be exempt from paying $100 for a visa. They couldn’t have been more welcoming. They brought us into an office and gave us seats in front of a computer and stamped our passports. A half finished solitaire game glowed on the screen prompting me to wonder if the entire world plays solitaire. Everyone was so friendly! They all but offered us a Guinness. But when all the immigration formalities were completed and we were almost at the port gates we were abruptly stopped by the Zambian equivalent of Homeland Security. “Security Check!” a burly Zambian shouted and pointed us towards an open door where a well dressed young woman and three policemen were examining a deck of nudie playing cards that they had just confiscated from another passenger off the ferry. “Put your bags on the table! Where are your medicines? What’s in here?” demanded a policeman while prodding the compartments on our day pack. “Where do you keep your medicines?” He asked again.

I handed him the zip lock bag that holds our malaria tablets, antibiotics, allergy medicine, Pepto Bismol, and aspirin.

One of the policemen zeroed in on my allergy medicine. “This is Benadryl,a controlled substance in Zambia! Who do these belong to? Where is your prescription?” he asked sternly.

“They are mine,” I answered keeping my eye on two others who continued to paw through our bags. “I don’t need a prescription. I bought it over the counter in California. They are for my allergies.”

“Well, now you are in Zambia and here you need a prescription. This is a serious matter,” he said in a tone a TV cop would use when he was about to arrest a drug dealing gang member.

I wanted to say, "Well, that's just silly!" but I took my time before responding. You never know which way things will go with a cranky border official and I really just wanted to get out of there. I looked from him to the eight allergy pills in his hand. I could argue the issue, demand to see his superior and possibly walk away with my allergy medicine, but that would take far too long and we had a bus to catch. “Well, I’ve been carrying those eight pills for four months and haven’t had to take one yet,” I said with a smile trying to come up with just the right thing to say so he would let us go on our way. “I guess one option is that I hand them over to you. Or, I guess we could destroy them. That would be another option.”

“No”, he said even more brusquely. “The only “option” is that I open a docket and arrest you for drug trafficking”, he finished while reaching for a sheet of paper.

What? Was this some kind of joke? Some weird Larium dream? I looked over at Scott in disbelief. His eyes said, “be careful what you say.”

You could have heard a pen drop as the policeman recorded all my passport details and confiscated my passports. “I am sending for the chief of drug enforcement”, he said. “Come with me.”

We waited in stunned silence in the small office of the Zambian DEA chief. Did he want us to offer him a bribe? Should we? Or would that just get me in more trouble? I was becoming more anxious by the minute. I felt the situation could go south if I said or did the wrong thing.

Fifteen agonizing minutes went by before the chief entered the office. He sat down behind his desk and said that I was in “a serious bind.” He fingered the eight Benadryl and studied my travel documents. He asked how long we were going to be in Zambia and where we were going to stay. He made some notes and looked through every page of my U.S. and Irish passports. He put the Benadryl packet aside, put his hands together and repeated what the policeman had said, “This is a serious offense,” and since I was evidently being arrested in slow motion, he inserted a hugely pregnant pause before leaning forward and adding, “but,” he paused again, “when someone is trafficking in drugs, they usually have more than eight pills in their possession.” He said nothing else for a full minute. Maybe that was when we were supposed to offer the bribe, I don’t know. I do know that I was holding my breath. I was beginning to feel a little dizzy when he finally he concluded, “I think perhaps your intent was not to sell these.”

I took a breath. “That’s right. My intent was to take them for my allergies. See?” I said pointing to the label. “It says, ‘Benadryl Allergy’.” I thought of our African Trails pals Alice and Tom and how they had nearly been arrested a month earlier in a bar at 3am in Ethiopia and thought it might have been better if I were intoxicated like they were when they were taken in for questioning. Tom's defense was, “We are but humble travelers” though “humble” came out “hummel” I'm sure. In any event, they were released without charges. One of the policemen even paid the damages for the mirror they (allegedly) broke in the disco.

Zambian policemen are apparently not so flexible. The drug enforcement chief picked up the sheet of paper with my Zambian Permanent Record to date, pushed back from his desk and relaxed comfortably in his chair. “We will take possession of these illegal drugs and keep a record that you brought them into the country without the necessary paperwork - in case there is any more trouble,” he finished ominously.

I felt a rush of relief. A few minutes later, I was in tears. Not because he had suddenly changed his mind and decided to arrest me – he didn’t. But after he dropped the charges, he started to act like all was forgiven, like he wanted us to friend him on facebook. He continued to keep us in his office and ask questions. He asked what the weather was like were we live, had we been to Zambia before, were we planning on doing any safaris while there We had already been detained over an hour and I wanted to get out of there before he decided something else in our bags, like my bikini top, or Scott’s Leatherman tool, was somehow contraband material. It was probably due to the small amount of sleep I had over the two previous nights on the Lake Tanganyika ferry not to mention the considerable stress of nearly being thrown into a Zambian jail, but tears suddenly began to roll down my checks uncontrollably.

Looking at me in complete bewilderment the chief asked, “Why are you becoming so emotional?”

I stood up and blubbered, “I’m very tired. We were on a ferry for three days and now we have an uncomfortable 15-hour bus ride to Lusaka to look forward to, which we have probably already missed. And gee, I guess being threatened with arrest makes me cry.” I wanted to say more but didn’t want to press my luck. I gave one last look at the allergy medicine on his desk, shot him a look of disgust, picked up my backpack and stormed out the door. He didn’t try to stop me.

I walked through the port gates and started up the road to the bus station muttering, “…corrupt official…. asshole…. I wonder how much he will sell my Benadryl for …” Scott caught up and gave me a hug. “That was pretty scary!” I said, blowing my nose and hugging him back.

After we had been walking about five minutes we saw a man standing on the side of the road next to a white sedan with an open trunk. It was the DEA chief. “Your bags look too heavy. Please allow me to give you a lift to the bus station.”

“No thank you!” I said without breaking my stride. I could tell he felt horrible but I thought maybe, just maybe, he’d be a little more understanding or at least not so excruciatingly unhurried, when arresting (or not arresting!) the next unsuspecting Benadryl carrying traveler. Though to be safe, if you are ever detained at a border or crack a mirror in a disco overseas, try the “We are but humble travelers” defense. It just might work.

We did manage to catch the last bus to Lusaka that day (one that took 18, not 15 hours though), and arrived at Lusaka at 7am the next day in time to have breakfast with Candice, the woman in charge of our bridge project.

A week later in Petauke, we had the opportunity to buy beers for a couple of Peace Corps volunteers, a tradition for us whenever we encounter them overseas. (We are celebrating our tenth year!) When I told them that my Benadryl had been confiscated at the border and that I had been threatened with arrest they said, “Oh yeah, we’ve heard of that happening. The Peace Corps gives us a document to show border or police check officials stating that we have permission to carry Benadryl. It has come in handy because there are lots of random police checks in Zambia.”
Scott looked over at me and said, “Wow, these guys really have a thing for Benadryl! Remind me to deep six that Benadryl mosquito after-bite pen we have.”

Kamunjoma, Zambia
Next: The Dancing Bridge

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