Spicing up the trip home

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

For the last two weeks I've been on vacation in the Horn of Africa. I saved up the money and took the time to go back and visit some people I'd sorely missed since I left there 11 months ago.

And it was a great trip. I'd love to share all the details, but since this space is as small as most of our attention spans, I'll limit myself to a funny anecdote.

One of the nice and completely overlooked things about Africa -- indeed much of the Third World -- is the generosity of the people. In most desperately poor areas you have to be careful what you compliment in a person's home. You just might end up taking it with you as a gift.

I carefully avoided a major faux pas, but somehow still ended up with a box filled with local spices, cooking powders and other food delicacies. The family who gave this to me (they said it was so I could cook the local cuisine at home) was also driving me to the airport. I was left with no chance to discard the potent smelling box before boarding.

Oh, well. I dutifully checked the box through and started the 30 hours of connecting flights back to St. Louis. And I didn't think much about this mystery package until I reached Chicago O'Hare Airport. That was where I entered U.S. Customs and had to declare the foreign items I was bringing home with me.

So with bloodshot eyes and crackled contact lenses, I waited for my luggage by the conveyor belt. And then I saw it. That same box of spices given to me by that same generous family in Africa.

But to my horror the box I saw coming toward me had been transformed. Somewhere during the flight it had burst open. Now it was just a lump of cardboard placed in a plastic security bag and completely coated with bright red and yellow powder.

This was going to be messy.

Now the smart thing to do at this point would be just to bail. I didn't need these spices, didn't particularly want these spices, why not just let them circle around until some official threw them away?

But somehow I couldn't do it. I didn't want to dump the stuff so generously given to me. So I did my best to salvage the mess. My first move, picking up the bag, resulted in a good half pound of a fiery red Berbere spice dumping all over my pants.

I tried to dust myself off, but now I was drawing stares. And not just from my fellow passengers who had long since given me a wide berth. Now the security officials were on to me. "We're going to have to ask you to come with us," said two nice men in suits.

So I followed them to a secluded cubicle. I thought frantically about how I was going to explain all this spice. This spice that, looking at it again, looked an awful lot like the way I imagined yellow-cake uranium.

Now I was really sweating.

But the officials were professional and not at all impressed by my predicament. They swabbed the powder and ran it through a machine. They calmly asked me a ton of questions while taking notes and then they graciously sent me on my way. I was free.

Now I had an extra hop in my step. I was beginning to feel possessive of these spices. I carefully repackaged them in a new plastic bag from the airline and checked them through to St. Louis. Boarding the flight I still had streaks of the sneeze-inducing powder all over my face and neck. If anyone deserved to be on a terrorist watch list, I did.

But after all was said and done, it was worth it. I brought a little bit of Africa back home with me and respected the generosity of my friends. Spicy food, anyone?

TJ Greaney is a staff reporter for the Southeast Missourian.

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