Because Fear of the Unknown Affects Us All

To be honest, before every long trip (and even some short trips) that I’ve taken, I get a little nervous. My heart starts fluttering – have I made enough plans to make sure I have a smooth trip? Is it going to go as planned? Will I like it? Will it be worth it? I’m traveling to a completely unknown area, and I am all alone, is this a good idea? Should I just cancel? If my flight gets delayed or cancelled, is it a blessing in disguise? Should I just stay home?

These thoughts have consumed my mind before every trip I have taken; when I was 14, flying off to 8 days in Japan with my middle school, I was so nervous I thought I would do something terrible wrong and cause an international incident. No joke. My mother spent hours calming my down from a full-out, crying-so-hard-I-couldn’t-speak freak out. But, just like mom said, I did not actually cause an international incident (would that even have been possible? Probably not).

The thoughts happened when I flew to Greece and Italy a few years later, and when I went to Australia the year after – and the year after that. They happened when I flew out to UBC for the first time (although, let’s be honest, who doesn’t freak out a little when they move all the way across the country, into a totally different country, where you know absolutely no one?) Even when I was going to Europe in October, my heart was fluttering. As I was rushing to the airport, wondering if I’d be late to my flight, the thought crept into my mind – ‘well, if I miss the flight, I can just stay here. Thats a lot less scary than two months, alone, traveling all across Europe.’

As I laid in my bed last night, the thoughts crept back in – ‘What if the fake-gun-fiasco (as I have now named it; if you don’t know what I mean, read my last blog post) means I can’t fly? Then I’ll just stay home. I might kill my parents after, but 6 weeks here is a LOT less scary than 6 weeks in place I have never been…’ But despite my heart beating rapidly and my mind nervously wondering what the next 6 weeks have in store for me (and despite the fake-gun-fiasco), I boarded my flight into the unknown, defeating the anxiety bubbling in the pit of my stomach, and started my next Grand Adventure!

Fear of the unknown affects even the most seasoned travelers, but giving into that fear means you miss some of the most exciting adventures the world can offer!

Because No Plane Ride is Ever Uneventful

If you follow my travels, you will know that any flights I take are far from uneventful. To be exact, I cannot name you the last time something outrageous didn’t happen on one of my flights. I can, however, tell you the most outrageous (albeit, in some lights, possibly deserved?) thing that has ever happened to me on any trip. Ever.

For a little background – over the past four years I have been a student of Krav Maga (Israeli Military Martial Arts), practicing at the UBC REC center normally twice a week. Over that time, I have achieved a yellow belt, first stripe status (and would have already tested for my second stripe, but I’m always out of town when testing occurs…) Needless to say, after four years I’d consider myself very devoted to practicing Krav Maga, which caused me to get two things: a practice knife and a practice gun, both of which I use to prepare for my belt tests. And since I’m moving back to America, I brought them back in my luggage, with all my other earthly possessions still in Vancouver, so I can practice at home as well. But I was smart – I put them at the very top of a checked bag filled otherwise with clothes, at a place easily accessible by TSA, and totally expected my bag to be searched by TSA. No doubt.

Also – both the gun and the knife are 100% plastic, 100% solid (meaning they cannot be modified into a real weapon), and the gun is a comically bright banana yellow. Both are very clearly fake, no question. (The knife

See, clearly not a real gun.

And to be clear, I knew it might be a red flag for TSA, but I honestly did not think it would be that big of a deal. Turns out – I was wrong.

It was such a big deal that US Customs agents pulled me into the back room, called the RCMP, had both Customs and the RCMP question me, filed a full out report, and searched through all my bags – TWICE. Lesson learned, don’t fly with fake guns. Because despite being clearly legal on the TSA’s website: “They are okay, but please pack them in your checked bag”, you will get pulled over. And it will cause a problem. But unlike real guns, there is no procedure to declare you have a fake gun, and there is no guarantee TSA won’t just confiscate it (thankfully they returned mine.) So there is literally no way to bring one without causing trouble at the current administration’s TSA checkpoints.

For those curious, here is the full story:

Check my bags, no problem. Get through security check, no problem. I’m in a trusted traveller program (well, two of them: Nexus and Global Entry), so everything is a breeze. Get up to the Customs agent (you do US Customs in Vancouver if you are flying straight to the states, which I was), he passes me through – again, no problem. Walking to leave the area when a guard approached me, “Lena Raxter?”

Me: “Yes sir?”

Him: “You’ve been selected for a random screening, please come with me”

Me: (thinking) Shit, if this is some of the bullshit executive order, try-to-deny-an-American-entry-back-into-my-own-country, I’mma be super pissed.

Him: “If you just have a seat, an agent will be with you soon”

Me: (not thinking, mainly because this is super weird and has never happened to me in the hundreds of international flights I’ve flown) *takes out my phone to check the time*

Him: Ma’am, please, no phones. Please come with me, is there anything I should know about your bags?

Me: Yes sir, I have a fake training gun in one of my duffel bags that I use for martial arts.

Him: (With an expression that I thought was surprise on his face?) Oh, okay, thank you for letting me know. We’ll get your bags. Here, this border agent will help you.

Me: (sits with the border agent, still a bit pissed, wondering if I’ll make my flight)

Guard 2: (asks tons of questions about where I live, my criminal record, etc. etc., repeating at least three times ‘So you lived in Vancouver?’ and I’m like ‘umm…. I just said that?’ Still wondering if this is another of the Trump-era witch hunts.)

Original guard, whispering to Guard 2: “We have her bags and have removed her from the flight” Wait now, WHAT????

Now, I’ll admit firsthand, I did get a bit defensive. Why? Because number one: you removed me from the flight???? Maybe I heard him wrong, maybe he just removed my bags, but I have pretty good hearing y’all.

And two: when the border guard started talking to me about my fake training gun I use for completely legitimate purposes (my yellow belt was also in the bag the gun was in), he made a point of questioning my judgement.

Guard 2: “What level are you?”

Me: “Yellow belt, first stripe.”

Guard 2: “And what does that mean?”

Me: (Explains in deep detail)

Guard 2: “So that means you should have good judgement?”

Me: “Well, um, yes, I would think so?”

Guard 2: *rant about how I couldn’t have good judgement because blah blah blah (summary – bringing this fake gun is bad judgement)* Rant included: “Would you bring a fake grenade on a plane?” Well, no sir, I wouldn’t, that is actually illegal.

OKAY, dude no. Lets remember: I put it at the top of the bag. I stated immediately to the first guard that I had it. The gun is banana yellow (on purpose, because I never wanted people to mistake it for a real one). I can, in vivid detail, explain what I use it for and my qualifications I have attained through the practice I have done using the training weapons. Just to stress this, I never concealed I had it, while at the same time making it extremely accessible. And also had checked into TSA’s requirements: “Please pack them in your checked bag.

(Now, maybe I should have told United at the gate that it was in my bag. But I honestly had completely forgotten – after all, I was carrying around four 50lbs bags plus a backpack and a giant jacket stuffed with other jackets. So it completely slipped my mind.)

But no sir, please don’t question my judgement for following the very regulations that our government has set. When I was doing something that was completely, 100% legal according to TSA’s website.

Side note – I also got really pissed when he said “And I’m here to protect my country and say who can go into it” – Again, sir, No. Because this is my country too. I’ll give you leeway, because you are guarding entry to my country and hey, maybe it was a real gun – but when I am upfront and clear, don’t act like I am trying to subvert the letter of the law for the nation I was born and raised in.

Following this, two RCMP agents (for those who don’t know, they are like Canada’s version of federal police. Kind of like the FBI, but they function as a police force for areas that lack a local police force.) And, like Canadians normally are, they were supppeerr nice.  I talked with the officers, explained – in very vivid detail again and with a fully calm tone, which is probably how I managed to make my flight – everything that I had explained to the Customs agent. The officer smiled, thanked me, told me I wasn’t in any trouble,  that they were also informed that the gun was fake and comically yellow by the screening agents. They understand, no big deal, everything is fine, they are just required to follow up on this. Then he asks for my address, I give it to him, he says no problem, have a great day.

30min later, FINALLY, after more annoying questions and what seemed like an endless amount of typing into his computer, the US Customs guard finally lets me leave. So I run to my flight, only to find out it had been delayed more and still hadn’t started boarding yet. (Yay! But also, really?)

Here is where I can be at fault – I did pack a fake gun into a checked bag and was taking it across international borders. Despite being super careful and upfront about it, I can understand how it was a problem. That being said, as my angry father is hearing the retelling of this story – “No dear! You do not need to apologize! All you did was pack a fake gun, which is completely legal!” (Dad is a lawyer, for those who don’t know.)  And to be honest, if they did this to someone who is carrying a US passport, neither my father nor I can bear to imagine what foreigners are being put through!

But either way: dude – what a freaking crazy experience. I did not, in a million years, realize a comically yellow, solid, plastic, fake gun would make that big of a fuss. As long as there is a story, right?

Also, lesson learned (again) – Canadians are nicer than Americans. Much nicer.

Grand Adventure Summer 2017!

A common question I get nowadays is “Lena, why are you leaving Vancouver again? Where are you going now?” Well. A lot of places. Because staying in one place is overrated, right?

SO: In the next two days I’ll be taking off on my next giant adventure, traveling to 3 continents in 3.5 months!

“Jesus, really Lena? Whhhyyyy??? Hoowwww??? WHHHEREEE??” WELL! To answer your questions:

On Tuesday, April 18th I head back to North Carolina to see my family, only to pretty much immediately jump in the car and road trip up to DC with my mother for the March For Science on Earth Day [April 22nd]. (Super excited, will make sure to take plenty of photos and make a blog post!) But once the march is over, Mom and I pretty much immediately jump back in the car to make the 5 hour trip back to Raleigh since I fly out again on April 25th. Only this time I’m gone for over a month and I’ll only have two days to pack… (Because that won’t backfire on me, right?)

From April 25th to April 30th, I’ll be utilizing my International Relations skills as an NGO-Representative for the Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean, while also exploring Mexico City with my amazing Mexican friends! And also learning how incredibly inept my spanish actually is, despite 6 months of practicing…. Bright side – it’ll make some awesome stories? Or I may get stranded in the middle of nowhere and struggle to find my way back (cough cough repeat of every freakin’ day during my EuroTrip cough cough). But either way, stories. So we’re good.

On April 30th, I fly off to meet up with my super awesome GBFF, Carlos, in Bogota, Colombia! I may not be spending a full year there like planned, but I’ll be spending a month traveling around the country and attempting (and probably failing) to become fluent in Spanish! Just like Europe, my dad thinks I am going to get kidnapped and die. So I once again will be required by parental decree to make blog posts every day or face my father calling the US Embassy thinking I have met a terrible fate (when let’s be honest, I probably will just have been curled up in a ball hungover from the past night’s fiesta. Because Latins party HARD, and my liver may not survive their standards. AKA I may die. We’ll see. But again, stories right?)

After a month of adventures in Bogota, Carlos and I (and any friends who want to join!) jet off to Cartagena for a week of Lena’s birthday celebrations! So from probably about May 30th to June 3rd, I will not be sober. Should I be sober during this time, I have failed at life. Because really, when you are in Cartagena for your 24th birthday there is no reason to be sober. At all. Ever. Never.

On June 4th my South American adventure will unfortunately come to an end…because I am flying up to New York City for the UN’s OCEAN conference! Another week in the UN doing what I love, and being reminded why there is some semblance of hope for the world despite there being a narcissistic carrot making its mark by disgracing the title: ‘Leader of the Free World.’

On June 12th I’ll finally return back to Raleigh to recuperate (AKA allow my liver to detox). And for three weeks I’ll have some quality family time, including my first state-side July 4th in three years (YESSSSS!!! Being by the pool all day, drinking copious amounts of beer, watching awesome fireworks, making my liver need to detox again. Oh how I have missed Independence Day in the USA!)

Sadly, immediately after, I’ll be leaving again – this time for Europe! On July 5th I fly back to Amsterdam, 9 months after I last was there. And from July 6th to July 9th I’ll be re-experiencing the city – but this time not in a Christian Hostel in the middle of the red light district. Because dear lord I never want to do that again. Weirdest. Experience. EVER.

On July 9th I say goodbye again to Amsterdam, and head off to the Hague for the Hague Academy of International Law for three weeks of learning about the UN and public international law from experts! Which is basically the UN nerd’s version of Mecca, because ya’ll know Imma be nerding out for the entire three weeks that I have access to the largest library of International Law in the world. It’s gonna happen. No doubt.

And when my nerdy three weeks of heaven sadly come to an end, I have a week (maybe more, if I decide to stay longer) to explore more of Europe before heading back state-side and calling my three month adventure to a close.

So yeah – those are my adventures for the next three and a half months! This is gon’ be fun ya’ll!!!