By Rajendra Shende, firstname.lastname@example.org
A flight lands smoothly from about 10-11 kms above the earth. That high level blue experience comes to an end with a light thud as the aircraft touches the ground. The blue sky color slowly vanishes as the earthly colors dominate - the grey and black runway, the white airport building and the Eastman color huge bill boards that welcome the travelers in the country. And then as one exits, there appears those red and green signs monitored by the customs officers: 'Nothing to Declare' the green zone and the forbidding red zone. Those cold, penetrating eyes of the customs officers cause butterflies in your stomach. You have to be ready to open your bags, to show your favorite alcoholic drinks that you recently purchased or the electronic gadget that you wrapped in your clothes, and then respond to the customs officer, which almost feels like a prosecutor firing questions at you in the witness box. And if you are unfortunately called aside to open your bags, you have no choice but to cooperate and hope that customs makes a fast search before a nice lady passes and gets a glimpse of some of the unmentionables that may be untidily packed in your bag.
On one occasion I was stopped and called aside. "I have come to attend a United Nations meeting and all am carrying are documents and files," I respond briefly hoping this will shorten the inspection. Not a chance. As if he hadn't heard me, he said, "Can you now open this second bag," came the cool but firm voice from the customs officer, who is unimpressed with my UN status.
The United Nations Environment Programme delivers training programmes for policy setting, in good practices for the emission reduction, and so on. The training is normally for government officers from the ministry of the environment, in enhancing their understanding of the global environmental issues. When I took up my assignment with the UNEP, I never ever imagined that one day these very customs officers would receive training from me. I never dreamt that a day would come when instead of customs asking me to open my bags, I would be telling them to open their bags and take out the training manual.
I remember one day when I was walking through the 'nothing to declare green zone' at Budapest Airport, a customs officer called out, "Are you Mr. Shende of UNEP?" I started sweating under my overcoat…and then he said, "I remember last year you had given us training on the prevention of the illegal trade of the CFCs." I was so relieved and felt very strangely proud when other passengers behind me were looking at me with awe. I was then escorted graciously towards the exit - not the green zone welcome but royal red carpet welcome, I thought. As for my bags, they still went through screening! Customary welcome by Customs, I thought.
Once at Delhi Airport at 2 o clock in the morning, the customs authorities located me when I collected my bag from the creaking conveyor belt and made my way through the green zone. A customs officer gave me a broad smile and invited me to his small cozy cabin. After my bags went through the screening machine and with an uncharacteristic smile that one never sees on the faces of the customs officers, he offered me some Delhi wala masala tea and said, 'I like the Green Customs Training Programme. You have packed such interesting information on many international environmental agreements in your training guide. It's a nice change for us to receive training in the illegal trade in the environmentally sensitive trade.'
Uncustomary side of the customs officers, I thought.