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Detained in the Underbelly of Madrid-Barajas Airport

Thursday, March 31, 2016
What's it really like to be detained? Here's the uncensored story of my interrogation, strip-search and confiscations while flying from Madrid to Israel.

There are certain things that you sign up for when traveling outside the comfort zone of the European Union. When venturing to a politically complex country, misadventures are to be expected, though the exact predicaments can never be foreseen. Upon embarking on my recent trip to Israel, my most dramatic misfortunes occurred prior to even leaving Spanish soil.

Ominous beginnings

After being aggressively questioned by El Al officials before checking into my flight, I was told that my carry on luggage had to be searched prior to boarding the plane. After fueling up with a snack and a green smoothie, I ambled up to the gate for my second security check. After some chaos and confusion about a gate change, I watched other passengers be sent off, seeing as they were in the clear. When I was finally attended, I was singularly escorted to a basement below the terminal.

I was lead into a rather large bunker that connected to a garage of sorts. The cellar contained a makeshift waiting room with twelve or so chairs, a body scanner and an additional scanner for luggage, watched over by a few Spanish baggage handlers idly chatting about sports. Aside from the El Al security officials, a bored looking Civil Guard officer watched over the room.

First, the security officials wiped down my shoes for any suspicious substances. This didn't seem strange to me, considering security in the USA does something similar with TSA pre-check. The din of animated Hebrew filled the air as the minutes passed languidly. As my bags were being searched, I was told to wait for a female police officer to do a full pat-down. An attractive and friendly looking Israeli security official approached me, but what I thought was a casual conversation turned into another intense interrogation about the purpose of my trip.

What was supposed to be a "routine, 10 minute inspection" was turning into a lengthy ordeal. "But it's Spain", I casually thought to myself. "Everything takes forever here."

You want me to take off my what?

After about 20 minutes, the female Civil Guard officer finally arrived. She glanced at her colleague with a baffled expression and blurted, "Her? Really?" The policeman shrugged apathetically, and they both turned to me, quickly realizing that I speak Spanish. Once they confirmed that I could understand them (and obviously wasn't a threat), the Spanish policewoman took pity on me. After the Israeli officials came back to ask me questions about the contents of my bags, she whispered to me with disdain, "These guys think that everybody wants to blow up their plane."

"I'm sorry, but do you have a different pair of shoes that you could wear on the plane? I'm afraid we can't let you fly in these", the security official announced. "Why can't she wear those? That doesn't make any sense", touted the policewoman. "I'm afraid they've set off an alarm", she responded.

Now what kind of alarm these shoes set off, I'll never know for certain. From late nights at the club to reggae concerts, these shoes have seen it all. Whatever it was, I'm sure the mystery substance couldn't have been any worse than what's perfectly legal in the great state of Washington.

I handed my shoes over and was escorted into a small locker room, where my full pat-down was to begin. "By the way, you're probably going to have to take off your sujetador", warned the policewoman. "¿Sujetador? ¿QuĂ© significa?" I asked, not recognizing the word in Spanish. She swiftly motioned to her bra. Noted.

My strip-search took a turn for the worst when the metal detector kept beeping on my legs, where there was obviously no metal. The policewoman told the female El Al official that the detector was probably faulty. Unconvinced, the official apprehensively let me put all of my clothes back on and leave the locker room.


Saved by the Civil Guard

As I continued waiting, I snuck a glimpse of the back room, where the contents of my bags were strewn across the counters. I could hear the police arguing with the security officials, and finally they entered the stark waiting room together. "We need to scan you again", the official said with muted urgency.

The policewoman rolled her eyes and gave me a sympathetic glance. "The detector's faulty, she's fine", she reiterated as she scanned me again. No beeps, no static. I glanced down quickly enough to see her turn on her scanner, right before she scanned her own pistol and said, "But see! It still works!" Unsure of what I had just witnessed, I shot her a glance and we briefly locked eyes. She smiled and said, "I think we're done here", as she motioned for her colleague to leave with her.

The security officials still weren't convinced. They brought my iPhone to me, asking me to unlock it. They asked me to take a picture with and without the flash, so they'd know that the camera hadn't been tampered with. They then ordered me to play music or something with sound.

Serenity now!

Shortly thereafter, they broke the worst news of all. Motioning me into the back room, I saw that they had disassembled my camera and extra lens, indelicately examining them without even using the lens caps. "Unfortunately we can't let you fly with these either", the official said in a grim tone.

Panic paralyzed me. Not only is my camera gear the most expensive thing I own, but that camera is my life. "We need to put these in your checked luggage, but there's no room." Of course there's no room, I thought. I tried to pack eight days worth of clothes into one small carry on, and then I had to squeeze in the pair of boots that I wasn't allowed to wear on the plane.

They reassured me that they'd wrap it in bubble wrap, and I begged them to let me pack it myself. Seeing that I was visibly shaken, they let me wrap and pack it accordingly. And that's precisely when the tears came.

Desperately trying to keep it together, I collected myself and asked to be escorted to the restroom. I felt like a criminal.

"We're sorry you have to do this", the officials assured me as they let me repack and reassemble my bags after an hour and a half in the cellar. "You don't do this to everyone, do you?" I wondered aloud. "No, but when an alarm is set off, we have to follow certain procedures." And I obviously look like a pretty shady character, so apparently they couldn't take any chances...

I was escorted by the two officials up to the gate, where they ensured that I was the first person to board the plane without buying anything, using the restroom or talking to anyone. Considering they had also confiscated my iPod and headphones (but then let me repack them in my checked bag), I was left to my own devices on the 5 hour flight. My only entertainment was my book, 1984, which in hindsight may have also set them off due to its relatively subversive content.

Do I look like a criminal?

I am not a terrorist.

When an entire region of the world basically wants to wipe your country off the map, I can fully understand why security has to be rigid. If anything, it made me feel safer to fly El Al to Israel. That said, I was shocked to be searched, interrogated and detained with such intensity.

My friends in Tel Aviv were convinced that it wasn't my shoes that set off the alarm, but rather the stamps in my passport from Morocco and Turkey. Which I suppose is valid, but then again, as a smiling, blue-eyed preschool teacher/former sorority girl, I don't exactly fit the bill for "suspected terrorist".

Thankfully, the rest of my time in Israel wasn't nearly as dramatic. Despite the rocky start, I ended up falling in love with the country's culture, cuisine and history. I can't wait to gush more about my love affair with Israel, but for now, this story will go down as one of my most rattling travel experiences.

I still made it to Israel!

What's your worst airport horror story?
Have you ever been detained?

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