With the confidence that I always project in approaching the customs agents, I carried my luggage to the counter and handed the agent my passport. More often than not, when I had previously presented my American passport at the same counter, the agents had simply glanced at the passport and asked if I had anything to declare. This time, as usual, I replied “No.” Then he asked a question I had never been asked before.
“Where did you come from?” he inquired.
I replied, “Bahrain.”
His response was, “No, before Bahrain.”
I replied, “Athens.”
And then he said something that sent a chill up my spine.
“Ah, yes,” he remarked in a tone that indicated he had been expecting my arrival. “Open the black bag.”
Only one other time, when I had indicated I had something to declare, had I been told to open up one of my bags. Without hesitation, because I had nothing to hide, I began to unzip the black suitcase. Before I could finish, the customs agent interrupted.
“No, not that one. It’s this one,” he said pointing to my green backpack.
It’s this one echoed through my mind and I felt twinges of fear and anxiety as I tried to understand the meaning of his words. I thought, What does he mean, ‘it’s this one’?
As soon as I had unzipped my backpack, he instructed me to stand away. There on top were my camera and some calendars I had bought with pictures of Mykonos. It was immediately obvious that he was looking for something specific as he rustled through my belongings. After what seemed like eons but were only seconds, he pulled out my black toiletries bag and said, “This is it.” Immediately, I understood that he really had been looking for a black bag and that initially he had erred in asking me to open the black suitcase. It was the black toiletries bag that he wanted! Why? What was going on here? My feeling of uneasiness increased.
The toiletries bag was rectangular and running the length of the top side along the center was a zipper. Each end folded over to allow the bag to compress or expand easily. He laid the bag on the desk and told me to open it. Nervously I did so, revealing only my toothbrush and toothpaste. Normally it would have been filled with other items, but in my haste to pack I had thrown the remaining articles into the suitcases. So I was relieved, for apparently what he was looking for wasn’t there.
I said, “There’s just a toothbrush and toothpaste.”
“I don’t think so,” he said motioning again for me to stand back. With that he put his hand into the bag and reached under one of the folded ends. When he withdrew his hand, he was holding the vial that had contained the cocaine that my friend had shared with me in Athens two days earlier!
Panic and shock immediately overtook me. In a split second my mind processed what I had seen and I knew I was in a very difficult situation. Through my confusion I heard him ask, “What is this?”
I could tell that the vial was empty except for a few grains of cocaine stuck to the inside surface so all I could think to say was, “It was some medicine my doctor had prescribed but you can see I’ve finished it.”
He ignored my explanation and said, “Let’s have a look.” He proceeded to take off the cap, rubbed his finger along the rim of the bottle, and put his finger to his mouth. “This is cocaine. Close your bags. Bring them with you and follow me.”
I felt an electric shock shoot through my body and I thought, Should I just make a run for it? But as quickly as the idea came, it was replaced by the knowledge that running would only make matters worse. I could never get away and would most likely be shot in the back. I suspected that this was the beginning of a nightmare, though I never imagined the length and depth to which it would go. It was 11:30 p.m. on Wednesday, October 7, 1998, and I knew I would be late getting home.