Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Susan Smith Nash

I discovered today that customs officials don’t like “humor” -- I had just checked the announcement board for flights to Oklahoma City and had discovered, to my delight, that I might have just enough time to catch the flight that left at 7:43 am, rather than waiting until 10:07 am for the one I was ticketed for. At that point it was 7:05 a.m.

I trotted up to the customs agent who read my customs form. His face was a mask. He then asked if I had been on any farms or if I were bringing in any food or agricultural products.

“No. I ate it all,” I said. I guess he wasn’t as amused as I was. Actually, I was mildly disgusted with myself for eating at least a half pound of Turkish delight and honey-pistachio confection before I left the hotel in Santiago.

“Line 1, please,” he said. He gestured to the AG line. The beagle brigade was sleeping in, I supposed. All I saw was one lone, rather distracted customs agent with sandy hair, glasses, and a hand full of forms.

"But I don't have any agricultural products," I said. He circled the red AG-1 he had written on the top of the form.

"Line 1, ma'am," he repeated.

I remembered to lift with my quadriceps and not with my back as I hoisted my 50-lb carry-on onto the aluminum table. The thing wasn't going to be easy to close up again.

“How often do you travel out of the country? How many trips have you made in the last year?” He had already unzipped my carryon and was carefully picking his way through the books, pantyhose, blouses, shoes, wine glasses and assorted trinkets. He opened a bag with the by-prescription-only tube of Metrogel I had bought at the Cruz Roja Farmacia in Santiago where, instead of paying $75 for the anti-inflammatory cream, together with a $150 dermatologist’s office visit fee, I had forked over 8000 Chilean pesos, or roughly $14. I also wondered how I would explain the 60 tablets of tetracycline or two weeks worth of Cipro. The tetracycline was an anti-malarial prophylaxis just in case I really did go to Mozambique in a few months. It was good. Instead of paying more than $100 to keep myself free of that scourge, I paid around $10. Instead of $60 for Cipro, I paid $15. July 1 my workplace changed health insurance carriers, and instead of a $200 annual deductible, $10 office copay, and 80% coverage on prescription medication, we now had to pay a $2500 deductible, with no subsidies on office visits. Someone said that medications were barely covered at all. The forthcoming savings in doctor’s visits and medications practically paid for the entire trip to Santiago. I wish I had thought to get heartworm prevention medicine for my dog. I was glad I had not attempted to sneak in the souvenir corkscrew from Veramonte winery that even had its own lead-cutting knife.

“Ah. Five times? Maybe four?” He looked at me. I guess he wanted an answer. The effects of the 10-hour flight were beginning to percolate into my brain. I felt a bit of vertigo when I looked down at my luggage.

“Five. Yes. I think it was five trips.” As hard as I was trying to count them, all my recent trips were blurring together – emotional trips to San Diego to visit my son, tedious trips to various and sundry conference locales – Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Orlando, Florida. Both places with used to have annual outbreaks of malaria. Even Oklahoma had malaria back in the good old days before dams were built and the Washita River used to flood and leave nasty oxbows filled with stagnant water, and the city did not fog the low-lying forested areas with DTD or whatever they use these days.

The customs agent replaced the clothes and started to zip the carryon after assuring himself that I really did not have any agricultural or food products on my person. According to the clock, I still had thirty minutes before scheduled take-off. It was a ten-minute walk. With any luck at all, they wouldn’t be booked full.

“Thank you,” I said as I wrestled with my luggage. I wondered if the pills would rattle in their little bubblepacks. The customs agent did not look up from the forms he was filling out.

As I made my way to the gate, I thought of the summer before when I had spend three weeks in Kenya. I had taken two months worth of prophylactic-level medicine. At the same time, four soldiers who had recently returned from Afghanistan had murdered their wives, girlfriends, themselves. They were blaming it on the anti-malarial drug they had to take while in Afghanistan. It was a new one – malorone, or something like it. Supposedly, it caused anxiety, even psychosis. I had chosen the antibiotic route, which made my face extremely photosensitive, but kept me from fits of aggression or rampaging hallucinations. I just got a bit testy at times. I don’t think I could really blame that on the medicine, though. There were many other factors – one being the approximately 500 small carved animals I had dragged back with me from Kenya, with the idea of setting up an e-business with my son, when I realized that the market was already fairly glutted and that to really sell the things, I would have to drag them to work with me and hustle them as Noah’s Ark items for the office workers' grandkids.

Luck was with me. There was a seat available on the 80-passenger Embraer commuter jet. The weather was clearing up, and although the gust-front of a line of strong thunderstorms was, at that very moment, snapping trees, downing electric lines, pushing trees into telephone lines, and wreaking havoc a mere 250 miles to the north on all of Norman and south Oklahoma City. Oblivious and mildly sleepy, I was stretching my legs and letting myself drift off into thoughts of Chile, German and French-influenced architecture, Africa, rain, summer, mosquitoes. It was good to travel. It was good to think on my feet. It was good to score cheap antibiotics, even if, somewhere along the way I realized that it was doxycycline and not tetracycline I had taken last year in Kenya.