Indian airport security is usually pretty lax. Not that they don’t use uniformed military police to check your reservation to allow you admission into the terminal; but generally speaking, entry and egress can be managed easily with a smile and a flimsy excuse. Not that liquids and gels aren’t banned on flights, as elsewhere in the world; but I routinely travel with a liter water bottle, and sometimes my full dop-kit, without being stopped. And one more thing: Sikhs are permitted to travel with swords, which are religious symbols (apparently too valuable to be entrusted to the vagaries of airline baggage handling) as well as unnerving carry-on items.
But as Independence Day approached, and with al Qaeda terror threats on the front page of every newspaper, things got tougher.
How much tougher? To get from the airport curb to the ticket counter requires two checks of ID and reservations papers. All checked luggage is x-rayed and sealed before being taken at check-in. All carry-on bags are x-rayed three times and thoroughly hand-checked at least once, twice for approximately one-in-four passengers. Each passenger goes through metal detection three times: once through the standard gateway, and twice with a hand-held wand. Men and women are separately screened during the wand checks, because these also entail pat-downs.
Today, as we traveled from Bombay to Madras on our way home to Pondicherry, air travel was extremely light because of the Independence Day holiday. The inspector tasked with the hand-search of Yoo-Mi’s carry-on backpack was extremely meticulous; and he had his work cut out for him. She has the habit of packing in a highly segregated way, employing dozens of small zipper cases, pouches, and boxes. I’m a dump-it-all-in-and-fish-around-for-it-later kind of guy; Yoo-Mi is an a-place-for-everything-and-everything-in-its-place kind of gal.
Five minutes into his ordeal, he came across a cylindrical zippered case approximately 10 cm long. Inside he found a half-dozen smaller cylinders, each individually wrapped in paper. “What are these?” he demanded to know. “Tampons,” Yoo-Mi told him. “What?” “Tampons,” she said, in a voice loud enough to perhaps embarrass him in front of his fellow inspectors for asking such a silly question. But his ignorance was matched only by his inquisitiveness. “What are they for?” he asked. “For my period,” Yoo-Mi replied evenly. “Your period?” he bellowed, “What is that?” Seeing that she and he sat on opposite sides of a gender-and-culture wall, Yoo-Mi sought assistance from a middle-aged woman standing next to her. “Can you please explain to him what tampons are?” Yoo-Mi asked her. Though the woman spoke perfect English, she too was at a disadvantage: she had never seen a tampon before either. Finally, pulling out her best Indian-English, Yoo-Mi said to the inspector, “I am using this for my monthlies only.” Both he and the woman turned brown-shades of embarrassed, he quickly re-zipped the case and repacked her backpack, and sent her on her way.
The flight would now be secure against acts of terror and menstruation.