Just Curious. That’s what I call this blog. I have a lot of questions. In the case of this story, the question is “What the hell was I thinking?”
Of all the stupid things I’ve done in my life, this one ranks right up there.
A few years ago I was invited to speak and perform at a conference in Edmonton, Alberta. Expenses paid, honorarium, the whole nine yards. Er, metres.
I work in Canada a few times a year, and had recently been given some advice by friends from the US who also consult and conduct workshops with our neighbors to the north.
They suggested that unless I was regularly returning to Canada to work for the same organization, just tell the border agent I’m there as a tourist, or visiting friends. Saves some paperwork hassles and delays, they said. Makes it easier, they said.
It’s a harmless lie. No one gets hurt. I mean, I’ll be reporting my income to the IRS, so what’s the big deal? No need to get bogged down with the Canadian border bureaucracy and potentially have to pay for a work permit.
So, that January I fly to Edmonton. I deplane, get in line, and hand the agent my customs form. She had the look of someone you should not mess with, like something was wrong. A bad day, perhaps. She looked mean and mad. I wonder if maybe I should tell the truth.
“What brings you to Canada.” It wasn’t a question.
I smiled at her. “Sightseeing, relaxing. I’m visiting a friend.” Why I added the friend part, I have no idea. I don’t have any friends in Edmonton; only a slight acquaintance (by email) with Jo, the conference organizer. And then: “I got a great deal on the airfare!” What? Shut up, Pete!
“How long will you be in Alberta?”
“Uh, my return flight is the day after tomorrow.”
“So, you’re here in Edmonton as a tourist for two days, mid-week.”
“Yes. Visiting a friend, and also there’s a cool Harry Potter exhibit at the museum!” (While there was a Harry Potter exhibit – I did do some research – I had no intention of seeing it.)
“Mmm hmm. Is that a guitar?”
“Yes! The small size is great for traveling! About 10 years ago I met this guy on a beach playing this same guitar and I –”
“Are you performing here in Alberta?”
Slight hesitation here, which was unfortunate, but I was starting to be conscious of the little lies piling up, sweating, getting a bit flustered. “Not really, I mean, I just like to play.”
“So you are not performing for money, not working here, not being paid to come to Canada.”
“Nope! Um, I mean, yes, that is right.”
“OK,” she says, looking like she’d like to hurt me. “Go down the hall to that moose and turn left. There’s another agent you need to speak with.” I had been watching everyone else from my flight turn right at the moose, toward the exit.
I walk into a room. Just me and another agent, a friendly looking woman who asks, “What brings you to Alberta?”
This would have been the right time to fess up, but no.
“I think I know why she sent me to you,” I say. “I have a guitar, and I’m only here for 2 days, and it’s winter. But I can explain.”
Suddenly, in walks agent #1. This is not a good sign, her leaving the other post and me now about to be double-teamed. She begins firing questions while friendly agent gets on the computer.
“Where are you staying? Who are you visiting? How do you know them? We need to search your bags and everything in your pockets. Put everything on the counter. Where’s your cell phone?”
She scrolls through my calls and texts. I’m feeling violated and really nervous and aware that I might soil myself. She goes through my briefcase. D’oh! Notes about the conference! She finds the name of the conference, and the titles and times of my presentations. She points to Jo’s phone number.
“Is this your friend?”
“Yes, that’s my friend Jo!”
Scrolling through my phone now. “I don’t see any texts or calls with Jo.”
I say, “We’ve only been emailing about my visit.” I need a toilet, but this is not a good time to ask.
“I see a lot of texts with B. Who is B?”
“That’s my wife Betsy!” For them to know I have a wife back home couldn’t hurt.
“Oh yes, she knows I’m here… but she doesn’t know Jo. And I don’t think she was thrilled that I’m staying at a place called the Fantasyland Hotel! Heh heh!” (This is true… that’s where the conference was being held. It’s an indoor theme park. But the agents didn’t seem amused.)
Bags searched. CDs found. Are you selling CDs here? (Truth: Yes. Me: No.) You are not performing or getting paid to be at this Alberta Association of Services for Children and Families conference? No! Friendly agent silently at computer, googling. Uh-oh, there’s my picture! She’s on the conference site!
“Are you being reimbursed for your airfare or hotel? What about meals? Did you say NO ONE is paying you to attend this conference?
I am now babbling, sweating, and very close to losing control of my bowels.
“OK. I have something to say.” They stop what they’re doing and glare at me. Just glare.
“I am not here as a tourist. I’m speaking at a conference tomorrow. Jo is the organizer. She is not a friend of mine. They are paying me and all my expenses.”
Agent #1 looks furious and yells, “Why did you LIE to me?”
“I guess I did lie, or not tell you the whole story. I, I, I mean yeah, it’s by definition a lie. But can I just tell you why? Not that it’s okay, but there is a reason.”
“Go. Make it quick.”
I tell them the advice I’d been given, which I was stupid to follow.
Mean stares. I am shaking.
“I did lie to you by telling you I’m not here for work. And I am really sorry for doing that. It was a bad idea, bad judgment. I guess I thought maybe it didn’t matter that much. I mean it. I am truly sorry and this is a painful lesson. I will never do this again.”
Agent #1 is now going through my underwear and socks in the suitcase, no doubt hoping to find crystal meth, opening my computer, looking at documents.
The ending went like this. Agent 1 storms off. Agent 2 says: “If you had not admitted why you were really here exactly when you did, I would have put you on a plane back to the US. I could still do that.
“But I’m not going to, because you finally came clean, and I think you do mean to help Canadian families. I wouldn’t want them to miss out on what you have to say. Just next time tell the truth. We will work with you. You may have a bit of delay to fill out some work forms, but don’t do what your friends told you.”
“I won’t do anything like this again. Thank you so much. I really appreciate what you’re doing.”
“Oh, and just so you know, from now on you’ll be flagged in our system, so every time you come to Canada you’ll be detained for a while and asked a lot of questions. Have a good visit!”
“OK! Thanks again,” I call, sprinting with my bags and guitar to the men’s room.