A traveler daydream interrupted.
There is this feeling that you sometimes get when sitting in an airport, getting ready to leave a country. You’ve just unloaded the last of your local currency on a coffee and a Corona, and you’re looking out the window, just thinking about what happened. You think about all stupid shit you did, all the things that still don’t make any sense, and all that you experienced and, quite possibly, learned. You lay it all out and try to process it, you separate the fact from the fiction but end up realizing that, yes, you really lived all of that. You then feel this smug little smile stretch across your face.
This feeling that I shoot for in every country. I suppose it’s the feeling of victory for a traveler. This is how I always want to feel while sitting on he departure floor of every airport. It means you did something — pushed a few boundaries, perhaps — made a few friends, and ultimately did something worth retelling.
Two airport police officers were standing in front of me, snapping me back to reality. One was older and fatter and the other, the sidekick I’m presuming, was younger and skinner.
The fat one demanded my passport. I complied, and continue drinking my beer, trying to give off the impression that their presence was no more alarming to me than that of an old acquaintance. Disposition here is key — if I get too passive and yes sir and no sir them, then they are going to do whatever they want to me; if I disrespect them I’m going to get demolished.
As the skinny cop dug through my sandwich-thick passport trying to find the single stamp that he recognized in the hundreds of others, the fat cop tried asking me questions in broken English. I act slightly irritated and tell to hold on a minute as I made a phone call. I called my wife for the hell of it. She didn’t answer. She never answers.
I then became aware of the fact that the lady working at the cafe I was in had conveniently disappeared right before the cops appeared. I knew the situation; some would call it a shake down.
The setting was perfect: a cafe that nobody ever went to in an obscure corner of the departures floor. The place was deserted except for me and the cops. Nobody was watching us, and nobody knew I was there. They’ve probably nailed piles of suckers with this trap before.
You hear these stories all the time about the police in Bishkek robbing travelers, but you generally file them away as Lonely Planet nonsense. The police here hadn’t so much as looked at me until now, as I stood right at the gateway out of their country.
The fat cop then got to it.
“Do you have narcotics?” he asked with a big smile on his face. “You know, [sniff, sniff, goes through the motion of doing a line of coke on the table].”
“No, I don’t,” I replied vehemently, as though his question both irritated and offended me.
But I knew I had to do something.
“No, I don’t have narcotics. Do you want to know what I do for work?” I asked rhetorically. “Do you want to know my job? I am a journalist, I write for XXXXXX. Do you know this magazine? It is very famous. Here, I will show you.”
I pulled out my phone and loaded my author profile on the site, then coolly slide it across the table to him. I pointed out the site’s logo, waited for a flash of recognition, scrolled down a little and pointed to my picture, waited for a flash of recognition, and then had him scroll around a little.
He then made a call over his walkie talkie. A moment later this young, English speaking superior officer was standing in front of me. I stood up and we did a handshake that he turned into a thumb lock and a chest bump. No joke. He called me “man.” The two other cops dissipated as quickly as they had manifested. Their superior took a seat in the booth in front of me and we talked about nothing other than his previous visit to the USA. We exchanged phone numbers. He returned my passport and apologized for disturbing me.
“Please understand that we need to do this to keep the airport safe.”
We rose and he said goodbye as though we were now bros. We did the handshake, thumb lock, chest bump thing for a second time. I scurried away and checked into my flight and crossed into no-mans-land. It was time to get out of there.