When the second entrance to Korea even beats the first!
A precedent had been set. The last time I had come to Korea was entirely by accident and due to a lack of any other options. As you may or may not recall, it in involved a race around Vladivostok, an interesting bus trip down a dirt road to within sight of the North Korean border, and a long trek on a somewhat, shall we say, delipidated "ferry" down the North Korean coast in a typhoon. It sure as heck had it's moments at the time, but looking back was a great experience and makes a great story. I never figured that my second entry, in calm waters along the well travelled route from Japan, would be anything other than routine. With my history, I really should know better.
And so it was that i spent about 3 hours being guarded in a holding cell, provisionally charged with importing a prohibited class A narcotic. Ah cr*p.
People tell you to ALWAYS check your bags carefully in case they had been tampered with, and to NEVER carry anything through customs for anybody else. In a way, it was the second of these rules that i blatantly ignored, and looking back, I really should have seen it coming. I have had enough trouble crossing borders in the past, and get picked out and checked 'at random' that it is nothing new to me, and I am extremely careful about what I do carry. Except on that fateful day.
And so it was, that after a pleasant crossing from Hakata on a mostly empty boat, I dismebarked in Busan, happy to have left Japan for a new adventure and a chance to actually see some of Korea, and looking forward to meeting up with some friends from my previous visit.
And it was one such friend - she will remain nameless at this point, but I may edit it in if i don't get enough free food and booze out of her as recompense - who dumped me into it. Big style.
She had mentioned that there was something that she loved dearly, and hadn't been able to find in Korea, and that if I happened to come across any on my time in Japan, could I pick some up for her? It seemed an innocent request, and I was happy to look. Searches of Japan failed to find a useful source, but two other friends happily came to my assistance, pulled through, and delivered the stuff to me to bring over.
Passport control was time consuming in itself, mostly because of my lack of barcode and machine readible passport leading to a longer processing time. But they let me in, and even gave my 3 months. My bags went through the x-ray machine without problem, and I didn't even set the metal detector off. And then came the immigration checks. Being the only non oriental on the boat, it was a cert I would be stopped anyway, despite my record, and this duly happened.
"May I see your bags sir?" asks the man. Sure, no problem. "Do you have anything to declare?" he asks. Nothing, help yourself to a look. I handed my immigration card and passport to his colleague for inspection whilst he goes about my bags, and I let my mind start to wander whilst the routine is played out. After a few minutes rumbling through, he pulls out a small carrier bag, opens it and gives me a puzzled look. He prods and sniffs a while, and says something. Two more people come over and inspect the goods, and faces are looking grave in my direction. It is at this point i realise what the offending material is, and think that I should be able to explain ok.
But none of them really spoke English, and the question of "can you explain what this is?" kind of stumps me anyway. I try it's a kind of sweet eaten in the UK and North America, but they ask if it's chocolate (no) or mint (no) and then reach the end of their English without me being able to convince them. You can't get it in Korea, I said, but your welcome to try some. But by this point, the smell is overpowering them, my attempts at an explanation which they would accept are faltering, and the levels of suspicion are very high, so they think i'm trying to get them to take drugs.
It is at this point that the women perusing my immigration card with increasing detail points at something and asks me to explain. This happens often as well. Cartographer isn't really the first word most people learn in a foreign language. Heck, enough native speakers don't know it. I try to explain 'map', and after a few seconds her face changes in realisation. I think, thank dog (i was in one of my dyslexic moments), she knows what i do. She thinks she does. She points at me, shrieks "spy", and then follows a rapid high pitched conversation between the now 7 officials around me, with other passengers wandering through completely unwatched.
And so i'm whisked away to a room and locked in alone, wondering how the hell i've managed to get arrested for being a British spy and in possesion of 2 bags of bassetts licorice allsorts, and 2 bags (the ones which are really causing the problem) of loose licorice sweets and twirls.
This is impressive, even by my standards.
About 10minutes later, some people enter and in halting English - whilst showing me a laminated (it's NOT CALLED PLASTIFY) card with the same writen on - telling me i'm being detained on suspicion of importing a class A narcotic. I'm surprised they don't have one saying i'm being held as a spy or North Korean agent. Or on some other daft charge.
Shortly after, they whisk me to another room and ask me to sign something to say they can search me. I sign. They motion me to take my clothes off, and i'm treated to my first strip search in maybe 3 years, but as it's not exactly a new thing for me, no great problem. I wasn't so keen when they all pointed and laughed, but what can a man do? Still unconvinced, they ushered me to an X-ray machine and I was given the full body X-ray, which was a first. I guess they think i'm transporting stuff inside me as well. Fair enough. But of course it comes negative, and that confuses them. So I am allowed to dress, and then taken back to my holding cell where i'm told that the police will be coming to visit me, and a translater would come soon.
After a couple of hours, there is a commotion at the door. An employee enters, followed by several sheepish looking colleages. He points at me and collapses on the floor laughing (this is also a common afair), and then in perfect English with more than a touch of a Norfolk accent apologises profusely for the 'over zealous nature of his colleagues'. Turns out he had lived in the uk for a few years, and had obviously come across licorice before, and had walked in on them in earnest conference trying to work ot what the hell the stuff was. His colleagues are falling over themselves to apologise and bow at me, and after assuring them that i'm fine and there's no trouble over the misunderstanding (they were just doing their job, saving the Korean population from a highly addictive and subversie substance), i'm then free to go. Strangely, they all refused my offer of a piece of licorice to try...
2.5hours, and I was a free man again. Better than normal, I must admit!
There is only one small footprint to the story, about my subsequently being fondled by a cheery middle aged Korean man on the subway, who had his hand on my crotch whilst trying to talk to me to work out why i seemed to be laughing to myself, but in the grand scheme of things, it's of no consequence, so it shall be left to rest.
This is an interesting country.