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THE TSA AND THE OPIUM PIPE IN MY BAG
By Michael Matthews
May 21, 2009 -- For more than five years, this column has been all about all things hotels. But this is about opium and the Transportation Security Administration.

Ah, that got your attention, didn't it?

Following last year's visit to Hong Kong, Cambodia and Thailand, my wife this year chose to try Laos and there is where our story begins.

Laos remains a mostly undeveloped, Communist country. In other words, tourism has yet to find and destroy the place. Wonderful people. Wonderful scenery. Good hotels and food, too. Our time was filled with elephant trekking, visiting innumerable temples, sailing up the Mekong River to the Burmese border--fantasizing all the while that I was Marlon Brando or John Kerry--and antique hunting.

The opium trail starts in the World Heritage city of Luang Prabang. We were exploring its back alleys and came across a small antique shop. We entered and started browsing around.

Lying on a table, covered in dust, grime and dirt, was an object about 16 inches long and four inches wide. I picked it up, blew off the detritus and found that I was holding a solid piece of jade carved in the shape of a piece of bamboo. It was covered in intricate filigree work that might have been silver or brass. It was impossible to tell since it was tarnished black.

Not speaking Lao and the storekeeper having no English, I made my schoolboy French the language of inquiry and negotiation. As best as I can tell, the opium pipe was about 200 years old and probably belonged to a headman of a local village. It had clearly seen pretty heavy use. The asking price was $250. I deemed that cheap but, after much dallying back and forth in fractured French, the pipe was mine for $65 cash. The shopkeeper wrapped the object in that morning's local newspaper and we said our adieus.

My wife and I then started on our journey back to Arizona content in the knowledge that we had a new conversation piece to serve as the centerpiece of our coffee table. The journey was uneventful and the pipe, lodged in my hand luggage, progressed through five or more security checkpoints without so much as a raised eyebrow.

But when we reached Los Angeles to connect to our final leg back to Tucson, a TSA agent at the LAX checkpoint decided there was something amiss. After a pass through the X-ray machine, a large, tall TSA agent looked down at me and said: "This your bag? I've got to put it through again."

"No problem," I responded. After all, what choice did I have anyway?

After my bag's second journey through the X-ray machine, she said: "What you got in there then?"

"An opium pipe," I said, without a hint of sarcasm, irony or sassy repartee.

"A what?"

Trying to be relaxed and making it sound as if it was the most normal thing in the world, I repeated myself: "An opium pipe."

"An opium pipe!" she exclaimed so that most of the other flyers and TSA agents at the checkpoint could hear. "You got any opium for it?"

Suddenly I had visions of armed police officers and Drug Enforcement Administration agents surrounding me. Nervously, I explained that I had no opium and that the pipe was just an antique curiosity.

"Come over here with me," she said, lifting my bag off the belt.

Next thing I know I'm behind a "privacy" screen and the agent is opening my bag. She pulled out the pipe, handed it to me and asked me to unwrap it from its newspapers.

I complied and handed the pipe back to her. She looked at the hunk of jade, stroked it ecstatically and said: "Man, that's one beautiful pipe. You sure you got no opium for it?"

Again, I assured her that I hadn't.

Then she asked me to wait while she fetched another agent. TSA Agent Number Two smiled lovingly at the pipe, smiled at me and then smiled at my initial inquisitor. TSA Agent Number Two then high-fived the first agent and said, "You've won for sure!"

Now I was curious. What, I asked the first agent, was that all about?

She smiled and, in a very jovial way, said: "Every month we have an informal competition to see who finds the most unusual thing in a passenger's luggage. I've won it this month for sure."

I must have looked stunned.

"You can go now," she said. "But are you sure you don't have any opium?"
ABOUT MICHAEL MATTHEWS Michael Matthews has managed and marketed fine hotels around the world for more than 45 years. He spent 14 years in Hong Kong building the legendary Regent International group. He has also worked with St. Regis, Ritz-Carlton and Rosewood hotels. Matthews is currently based in Arizona. He began writing Do Not Disturb in early 2004.

THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Michael Matthews in the spirit of free speech and to encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Matthews. This column may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Michael Matthews.

This column is Copyright 2009 by Michael Matthews. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.