Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Haunting the Customs Line

"Ow, Mom, that hurts!" Noah says to me, after his first swipe with third-world toilet paper.

We're on our first international family vacation. Isla Mujeres, Mexico. He's five years old. Okay, we'd all been out of the country before that but sorry, Canada, you don't count.

My first steps off the airplane, into the tube walkway, and then Wham! It smells of my childhood. It smells like home. That wet musty air hiding underneath the scent of machine-cooled air. An overworked A/C system. Leaky windows. Who knows what it is. I had to spend a minute sniffing it to figure it out. The smell of humidity. The smell of imperfection. The smell of a third-world HVAC system.

American air conditioning smells, well, perfect seems like an odd way to describe it. Clinically clean is more like it. You can't smell wetness, age, and a certain thickness. American HVAC air has no personality, no oomph. Here I was, sniffing stinky canned air and feeling quite happy about it. It meant I was overseas again.

The last time I was overseas in 2005 -- five months in India with my husband -- feels like -- decades ago, xx,xxx leagues under the sea away from who I am now. I am a mama. I now exist in an entirely new dimension, one that I never even knew existed. And I am now traveling overseas for the first time as a mother. Two kids in tow.

I stand in line, holding four dark blue passports now. Not my usual, solitary, One. The customs line winds around the poles. Katherine thrashes at my feet and makes a break into the crowd, too many hours on a plane for a one year old. Noah wants to be held, tired, heavy for a five year old. The whining, begging, chasing, thrashing sets in.

I am desperate for calm. To be left alone, really. I dig out the kingsize Blow Pop from my purse, it's been in emergency stash for a few months now. Sticky pink saliva immediately stains the front of Katherine's shirt. And she refuses to remove the sugarbomb from her mouth now that she's had a taste. She shrieks when I try to pull it away. Okay, I'm only slightly mortified. Because it works.

The sticky Blow Pop affords a few minutes of calm in the line (once I stop trying to rip it from Sticky      Paws' hands). I look around. I find myself looking into faces, wondering. I am looking for myself. that girl I knew. The one who stood in customs lines at the foot of her mommy and daddy, two, three, four times a year. That girl who never thought twice about standing in customs lines. It's just the way it was -- to get home, to leave home, to go most anywhere.

I want to find her in someone else's face. I want to recognize myself. Remember myself. This girl feels far far away from me. I want to find her, so that I can be sure she actually was a part of me. Is a part of me. More and more, I hardly believe I was her.

We're next. Hand over the four passports. It's my name on the customs form as Head of Family now. Hola. Small smile, make eye contact. Small nod. These are the people giving me passage to another country. They are the final gateway and I always take this moment seriously, and with a slight smile.

Passports flip open to the picture. A glance up from photo to actual face. Check. Boom! Stamp, stamp. The mechanical bang of stamps echoes down the line of customs desks, those square hard boxes each with filled with boxed unsmiling men. Travellers flow in one by one. Leaving home. Coming home.

I look at my Mexico entrance stamp, first one in my new passport. I've had a passport since I was six days old. And I wonder -- when will I come home? After forty years, here I am, still looking for myself in a customs line.

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