I’ve always carried a blade on me while traveling. Always have carried a pocketknife on me in general, not so much as a weapon, but as a tool. My dad gave me my first one when I was 8-9 years old with the explanation that this was not something to play with as a toy, but use carefully and when necessary.
Later in life, backpacking and hitchhiking around the US, I recognized it’s value as a survival tool, especially when I got a sketchy ride with this guy somewhere along the Oregon/California border who abruptly turned down a dirt road so we could go “meet his friends” as he cryptically put it.
If I hadn’t snapped out my blade, held it to his side and demanded that he stop and let me out, I’m not sure where that interaction would have led me. The point I’m trying to make is that it’s always good to be prepared for the worst case scenario, and knives are a valuable tool in that regard..
So when I got to Thailand, traveling light with only a single carry-on bag, one of the first purchases I made was a solid little spring-assisted folder that I carried clipped in my front pocket.The whole trip I used it maybe a handful of times, and never for intimidation purposes.
I completely forgot about it when I packed up my backpack and the new carry-on suitcase I’d picked up to hold all the cheap clothes, spices and jewelry I’d bought along the way. I didn’t remember until I had already cleared Thailand customs and immigration and was on the plane to Kunming, China.
China is night and day from Thailand, the yang to Thailand’s yin. Where the Thai culture and people are open, soft, loving and colorful, the China I experienced is hard, cold and grey. We were rushed off the plane into a bus, rushed off the bus and into customs and immigration, rushed through the process of applying for a the 24 hour visa that’s necessary for any kind of layover, and rushed into the airport where we were left to fend for ourselves. At 12:00 a.m.
Rush, rush, rush. This kind of cold, inhospitable masquerade of efficiency became the theme for the next 24 or so hours. Upon walking into the airport, I was immediately accosted by an older, well-dressed Chinese gentleman with sharp eyes who in broken English offered to put me up in a room for a few hours until my flight.
After a couple weeks exploring Bangkok’s streets, I’ve gotten better at recognizing a hustle and with a knowing smile and slight bow, politely declined the man’s offer, to which he nodded and shuffled off, looking for an easier mark.
I spent the next 6 hours in the cold, brightly-lit Kunming terminal, trying here and there to nap, meditating off and on, listening to a Year of The Ox album on repeat while wandering around and around the terminal looking up at the beautiful yet heartless architecture.
Beautiful isn’t quite the way to describe it. It was beautiful in the way a massive steel skyscraper is beautiful, or one of those massive exposed V8 engines powering a Thai longboat is beautiful. Beautiful in its power and design, but lacking a certain soulful quality that I think is necessary for real beauty. But I digress, and I’m sure some gearheads might take offense to that last one.
When the check-in counter finally opened, I stood in line for a good 30 minutes until I finally was able to check in, got my boarding pass and headed into security, weary and ready to catch a nap or two before my flight.
In my sleep deprived state I totally forgot about the knife I had stashed in my bag, literally until I walked through the metal detector and stood at the other side of the x-ray machine waiting for my two packed carry-ons. When they pulled my bags aside I froze, instantly remembering the blade and trying to maintain my serenity and calm expression as panic crept up my spine.
They immediately opened the suitcase containing the knife, unzipped the pocket it was in and pulled it out. The security guards eyes went wide and he got on his walkie talkie, talking excitedly and within a minute, 2 more security officers and a very spooky looking guy in civilian clothes surrounded me and pulled me off to one side so they could continue rushing people through the security checkpoint in their cold, efficient manner.
Adrenaline was coursing through my veins at this point, and I breathed deep, offering up a silent prayer to the gods to get me through this situation without ending up arrested and sent to a Chinese prison. I tried to explain using broken English and hand guestures that I had forgotten about the knife in my bag and would be more than happy to surrender it if they would just let me go and continue on my journey.
They took a cursory look at the rest of the stuff in the suitcase, which was full of spices and jewelry, and then examined me up and down. Here’s where the gods, the Buddha and the land of smiles gave me one final gift.
I was dressed very cleanly, in a new pair of light colored, long, comfortable cargo shorts and a pure white asian-style collared shirt which completely covered my tattoos. I’d also just gotten my hair cut the day before, and most importantly, was wearing a bracelet of wooden prayer beads on my right wrist.
I’d dressed this way very intentionally, as white in Buddhism is often associated with purity and knowledge, and is worn by many novice practitioners, including myself, to signify a pilgrimage and quest for knowledge and enlightenment.
The prayer beads I had picked up at a street stall outside a temple in Chiang Mai after a particularly inspiring walking meditation practice around an ancient pagoda, and I’d been using them for the past few days for chanting practice.
Maybe the repeated mantras of ‘Auṃ maṇi padme hūṃ’, ‘Om namah Shivaya’ and ‘aho mitakuye oyasin’ had infused into the beads, maybe karma was in my favor, maybe the gods were watching out for me, but after an animated discussion between the security and intelligence officer which included them pointing repeatedly at my right hand where the prayer beads were around my wrist, the intelligence officer (pretty sure it was anyway, he had all the markings of a spook) disappeared and came back with a piece of paper.
He came and asked me a few questions in flawless English: where I was traveling to, what the purpose of my stay in Thailand was, and how long I had been there. I answered honestly, looking him in the eyes with a slight, respectful smile, that I had travelled to Thailand to get dental work done, train Muay Thai and receive a Sak Yant tattoo as part of my religious practice. He nodded, gave me one more long look up and down, and had me sign the piece of paper which acknowledged that I was unintentionally concealing an illegal weapon (spring assisted blades are a no-no in China in checked bags, let alone carry-ons).
He then returned my passport and boarding pass, motioned to my bags and told me I was free to continue. I picked up my stuff calmly, hands still shaking slightly from the adrenaline, and walked out of the security checkpoint towards gate 33, (no shit) and the next step of my journey, offering a silent prayer of gratitude to the Buddha and the gods, the prayer beads on my wrist rattling as I wandered on…