Dear Ezra and Lian,
I’m not a weapons smuggler, but I AM a bit of a smuggler. Telling you that, publically or otherwise, means I have sworn off smuggling. Those days are behind me. I promise you, I won’t be smuggling things and risking big fines or jail time. You really have no idea how difficult that is for me to say. The fact is sometimes evil governments forbid good things for their citizens. For instance, they would rather let tens of thousands of people starve to death just because they are on the other side of a border. If there is a ban on exporting food to them, I’m the type of guy who is going to ignore that unjust law. I’m not going to say too much because I would be endangering the lives and welfare of friends and those I’ve helped. That particular government is in the process of being replaced by a democratic one so I feel partially confident in telling you this.
It all started when I was 16. Remember that trip to East Germany? The trip changed my life. It also taught me, if you can deal with the fear, smuggling isn’t that difficult (if successful). Our group of teenagers took Christian books and music that was illegal in East Germany. That night before we got on the train to enter East Germany, I couldn’t even go to bed.
On the train, border guards came through our train. They never looked through our stuff. One pass. Ticket collector (working for the government) never saw our stuff. Two passes. At some point, dozens of Russian soldiers (probably only 3, but it seemed like a train-full to a nervous teenager) got on our train. A couple got in our cabin. They never opened our bags to see a keyboard (extremely rare in East Germany and worth a lot of money there). The Russians instead tried to make friendly conversation in very limited English. Three passes. We got picked up at the train station by the East German pastor (Rolf Heidel) and neither there or on the way to the church, no police officers stopped us. 4 passes and success. I was hooked on the adrenaline rush. The look of joy when someone gets the impossible brings a sense of satisfaction that few other things ever can.
Once when I was taking used microscopes to India, I got stopped in the Delhi airport. The custom officers pulled me aside for an inspection. The one time I’m not smuggling anything across a border and they try to squeeze a $1000 bribe out of me. I asked to speak to their commanding officer. I sat there for a couple hours. They refused to let me go or talk to their boss. I refused to pay. I told them it was for charity and helping poor villagers suffering from malaria. A senior custom official asked which charity. I told him and he said, “All the churches in the North East work for the CIA.” Finally, I pulled out my trump card. “Here’s my father-in-law’s cell phone number. He’s an Inspector General of Police in Maharashtra. You tell him what law I’m breaking. Until then, I’m not paying you 1 rupee or leaving these microscopes behind.” I could see the little boss go talk to the big boss through the glass in their office. After a few minutes, they came out and let me and the microscopes go.
It was my own fault. I was carrying a full hockey bag in the middle of business men carrying small, smart suitcases on wheels. It was the middle of the afternoon and I was dressed like a backpacker. The custom guys probably just pulled me aside just because they were bored and I looked like an easy victim.
Remember when we’re travelling, you won’t find anything interesting in our luggage. It’s like a wasted opportunity, but I will play it safe. I promise.