Sleep is essential to a person’s health as well as their physical and mental well-being. Scientists have discovered that sleep plays a critical role in immune function, metabolism, memory, learning, and other vital functions.
Okay, I get it. More sleep = better performance.
But to what lengths would you go to ensure you got enough quality sleep?
Turns out, I’d go pretty darned far.
It was March 2010 and I was about to travel to Madrid for a business meeting. I knew from many previous work trips to Europe that sleep would not be on the menu. My body clock simply refused to adapt.
Lights out at midnight? Nope. My body knows it’s actually 6pm.
How about 3am? Denied. It’s only 9pm now, buddy.
Okay, 6am – surely now you’re tired, right? Why yes, I am!
Oops. What’s that? The alarm going off? Too bad, so sad.
And so went every trip to London, Madrid, Copenhagen, Barcelona, etc.
While packing my bag for this particular trip, I went through my mental checklist of all the failed “sleep aids” I had previously tried: spraying a lavender-scent on my pillow, using a favourite pashmina as a blanket, playing a white-noise app on my phone. Each one as ineffective as the last.
I racked my brain for ideas, finally landing on the one thing that’s sure to get me to sleep like a baby: la petite mort; the big O. Am I right ladies (and gentlemen)? If ever there was a better sleep aid, I’ve not experienced it.
But, what to do…what to do? I was traveling solo, after all.
After careful consideration, I decided that a certain device fit the bill. It was a proven performer and easy enough to pack into my luggage.
Off we went to Madrid. Olé.
Four well-rested days later we headed to the airport for the return voyage home.
I had a painfully early flight, departing Madrid at 7:30 am and headed to Newark, NJ, where I would then transfer to my final leg home to Toronto.
A colleague, Jerry, and I were on the same Madrid to Newark flight so we agreed to share a cab to the airport at 4:30 am.
As soon as I arrived at the terminal, before I even made it to the check-in counter, I was approached by an airline representative who seemed to be doing some kind of pre-screening.
She asked me some of the usual questions: Did you pack your own bag? [yes] Do you know the contents of your bag? [yes]
But then she posed some odd ones I hadn’t ever heard before:
- Is anything in your bag battery operated? [shuffling uncomfortably… quietly mumbles, “no”]
- Is there anything in your bag that might look like a weapon or gun? [mentally evaluating whether The Rabbit could be misconstrued as a firearm… “um, no”]
All the while, sweat was beading up on my brow as my mind raced… Who was this woman and how the hell did she know what I had in my bag??? I JUST ARRIVED AT THE AIRPORT FOR CRYING OUT LOUD!
She eyed me suspiciously, put a sticker on the front of my passport and told me to proceed to check-in.
Within minutes my bag, and its battery-operated, gun-shaped, contents were tagged and on the conveyor belt.
Phew. That was kinda weird. Oh well. At least Jerry didn’t hear any of it.
Next we moved towards security. I was a seasoned business traveler at the time, so I knew exactly how to dress to expedite my trip through airport security. I had never made the metal detector buzz, something I was proud of. Off my shoes went, out came my laptop and ziplock bag of small liquids. My stuff traveled through the belt while I strolled through the screening booth.
BEEEEEEP!! The angry red light turned on and the alarm squawked accusingly.
That’s weird. I never beep.
The male security agent called the female over for my “secondary screening”.
To say this woman did her job thoroughly would be the understatement of the century. She cupped my breasts, she slid her hands to the very tops of my inner thighs.
I felt like I needed a cigarette by the time she was done with me.
My face burned with embarrassment as I thought about my colleague Jerry, the 60-something year old ultra-conservative from Texas, who was likely witnessing the grope session.
When I got the all clear, I scrambled to put my stuff away, get my shoes on and purge the experience from my memory bank.
Jerry sidled up next to me and asked, “So did they figure out the ‘hot spot’?” WHOA! My head snapped around. He quickly clarified, “Do you know what set it off?” I mumbled something about an underwire, maybe, and suggested we try to find something to eat.
All this action and I hadn’t even had a cup of coffee yet.
As we made our way towards our gate, we noticed the entire area was roped off, corralling people into two areas, one for men and one for women. It seems, that day, even after the general security clearance had taken place, everyone was going to be subjected to secondary searches.
Every single man, woman and child had to go through a physical search of all their hand luggage, purses, etc., as well as the physical groping I had just endured.
I shook my head in disbelief. Seriously??
But then I quickly realized my good luck!
Hey, at least they’re not opening and looking through checked-in baggage; only the carry-on stuff. How mortifying would that have been???
Today was my lucky day indeed!!
I gladly opened my purse and my laptop bag for them, and spread my legs nice and wide so she could get her job done. I was not going to bitch about this shit, because it really could have been infinitely worse!
Eight hours later we touched down in Newark.
Jerry didn’t need to claim his bag as he was checked right through to Dallas. We said goodbye and I made my way to baggage claim to retrieve my suitcase, as was required, before heading to customs.
My bag was one of the first to come flying through the carousel. Great, I thought, I’ll have plenty of time to enjoy the lounge before my flight to Toronto.
Things were looking up.
Just as I was exiting the baggage claim area, a uniformed officer strode quickly towards me. “Excuse me ma’am, where are you arriving from?” Madrid, I responded, I’m just about to head to customs and then recheck my bag through to Toronto.
“No ma’am, I’m going to ask you to follow me. You’ve been selected for a special screening.”
My heart began racing.
Wait. What? Why? What?
He brought me to an area, not a room, but just an open area, in the openness of the terminal, where a stainless steel table was set up, with another uniformed officer conducting bag searches.
I assessed the situation: there were 2 business men ahead of me, 2 behind. I watched as the officer unzipped, opened and searched each piece of luggage belonging to the men ahead of me.
I felt the tears welling up in my eyes as I realized that there was no curtain, no privacy, no shielding of any kind to prevent every person in the general area (all men) from seeing whatever he pulled out of my luggage.
It was my turn. He called me forward.
I tried chatting.
He was having none of that.
He reviewed my boarding pass and passport.
Then he told me he would be searching my bags.
I thrust my purse towards him, “here you go”, with a big smile.
When he was done with that, I happily handed my laptop bag over.
He handed it back and patiently waited for me to lift my suitcase onto the table.
I smiled at him.
He realized I wasn’t taking the hint, so he said, “Um, ma’am, I’m going to need to look at that bag too.”
[voice starting to crack a bit… sweat forming on brow and upper lip]
I placed it on the table and turned my back to the men waiting behind me. At the very least I didn’t want them to be in my line of sight when the horror was revealed.
The customs officer unzipped the bag and the top fell backwards. In the mesh pocket of the top flap, a week’s worth of rainbow colored lace undergarments. My face reddened instantly.
The customs officer took immediate notice and showed tremendous chivalry by asking the men in line to all take a step back and to the left, moving them out of the direct sight-line of the contents of my bag. Small mercies.
His hand slid down the front wall of the luggage. I’m sure he felt my toiletries bag, my makeup bag and my blow dryer. He didn’t remove anything; just kept feeling around.
He made his way to the back wall, where I knew I had packed my flat iron. And my sleep aid.
I wanted to throw up. No amount of comfort ice cream was going to make this better.
His hands slipped down. He felt something. His face gave away nothing.
He removed his hands, carefully placed the top flap back onto the bag and zipped it back up, looked me in the eye and said, “You’re fine. Have a nice day ma’am.”
I wanted to kiss him.
But based on what he’d just felt in my bag, that probably would have been pretty weird.
I grabbed my shit and got the hell out of dodge before someone else decided to select me for another special inspection.
As awkward moments go, this ranks among my worst. Sure it could have ended even more horrifically, but I’m not one to tempt fate. The Rabbit’s flying days are over.
I’ve since embraced the magic of Melatonin as a means of combatting jet lag.
Now that I’ve aired my dirty laundry, won’t you make me feel less freakish by sharing some of your own horror stories?
What is your most embarrassing travel moment?
What lengths would you go to for a good night’s sleep?