How hunter-gatherers helped me get through customs

It’s hard to feel playful when going through customs. On a recent trip to Montreal, while shuffling along the ropes of the airport’s customs line, I could think only of the 1978 movie Midnight Express. In its tense opening scene, Billy Hayes tries to leave Turkey with 2 kg of hashish strapped to his chest. Okay, transporting a package of trail mix from the U.S. to our northern neighbor is comparably small stuff. But still, one worries.

I was determined to bring to the customs line what I’d recently learned about hunter-gatherers. In Free to Learn, Peter Gray wrote of hunter-gatherers’ capacity to remain cheerful when faced with hardships. One researcher who lived among the Tauripans in Venezuela watched men of two different cultures handle a stressful canoe portage. The Europeans cursed and lost their tempers as the native South Americans created a game out of the stuck canoe and laughed heartily.

Gray theorized that hunter-gatherers gained their capacity for self-control from extensive childhood play. And he wrote that in difficult times, composure can keep things from going downhill even more.

However, I doubted that customs officials would find a loud belly-laugh amusing. So I smiled. I smiled with empathy at the Canadian woman who was told she was in the wrong line. I shot an I’m-a-mom-too smile at the parents behind me whose child had just jammed her suitcase into my heels. And for that nice fellow in the blue uniform who was telling me in French to do something, well, that was my dumb smile.

Hey, this is working, I thought. I approached the passport-stamping-man in the booth with eagerness. Did I imagine it, or did the sides of his mouth twitch when I declared the trail mix in my suitcase? Obviously, honesty was not enough. He asked what type of conference I was attending. “Journalism professors,” I replied. “It’s a lively bunch.”

That did it. He smiled, and he let slip the tiniest of laughs.

Spoiler alert: In the movie, things do not go so well for Billy.

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