It's not nearly as bad as when I was much younger, when you might say I was rash, reckless and craving trouble. There was a time when I couldn't go from one country to another without falling foul of the local forces of law and order. Now things are a little better, but it's still not all quiet on the Looney Front, as recent incidents in the Marshall Islands and Indonesia will show. But back then...
On one memorable five-months trip round Latin America more than four decades ago, all the police forces of the continent swooped down on me. I got detained in Costa Rica, arrested in Colombia, charged by police and soldiers in Uruguay, and stopped in nearly every little jerkwater town in then military-run Brazil.
In San José, Costa Rica's capital, I was happily strolling round the red light district, pushing open the swing gates of 'bars,' sizing up the inmates lounging on stools in various states of undress, when I was accosted, not by one of the fairer denizens, but by a tall guy dressed in black with a big black broad-brimmed hat, grey hair protruding in a knot at the back, a long shiny beaked nose - and a very large suspicious bulge inside his jacket. Clearly the local Al Capone!
"Your papers," he growled. "Well, you show me yours and I'll show you mine," I growled back, ever the stroppy one. And he did. As far as I could see, it said secret police. How secret could it be, if you've got a card advertising it? I felt in my pocket. Of course! My passport was not there. I'd left it in the hotel. Gee, Officer Krupke...
I was half frog-marched back to the hostelry with a heavy guiding hand on my elbow. The release of my passport from the safe deposit finally released the hand from my elbow.
An Ecuadorean landscape
By the time I got to Colombia, not just one but 11 policemen materialised out of the misty Bogotá night, merrily waving a motley arsenal of small arms, larger ones too, and advising me to freeze. My hands were already half way up to heaven. Colombian police had a reputation for being even more brutal than the criminals they were meant to counter, that was when they were not one and the same, and this gang's armoury seemed to embrace everything but portable tactical nukes.
I must have stumbled in on a drug bust - or more likely a drug deal. My passport came with me this time, but they wouldn't give up, their hands working overtime in all the money gestures known to man. Would I like to make a nice contribution to the Police Choir of Greater Bogotá, they seemed to be hinting. But then a luxury jaguar ran a nearby red light, causing an almighty pile up of similar luxury vehicles. My new found friends sped off happily to clearly more lucrative pickings.
By the time I reached the Ecuador-Peru border I was already an authority on authority. I went through Ecuadorean control and strode jauntily onto the International Bridge for the short walk over, with a full hour to spare before the daily closing of the frontier. Three minutes later, just as I reached the other side, two little men came running out of a kiosk, padlocked the door, and a barrier came swooshing down, with a soldier armed like an entire SWAT team taking up residence.
A Peruvian village
Here the guard wouldn't let me back in because I was already stamped out. Please, please, I pleaded, they won't let me in, I can't spend the whole night on the bridge, I hate Peru and Peruvians...
I'd hit the open sesame. After a century of border wars in which they'd lost a goodly chunk of their territory, any enemy of Peru was an Ecuadorean's best friend. He let me back in with a smile.
By the time I got to the Bolivian-Argentine border at Villazón, my 'stroppies' really took control of me. The Bolivian guard demanded a $10 'exit tax,' about which I'd heard absolutely nothing, so I demanded back to see the presidential decree instituting the tax. After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, he lost his temper, started fingering his revolver and could quite easily have 'disappeared' me, what with a nice deep, desolate and lonely ravine just outside.
Instead he summoned two soldiers and had me frog-marched across no-man's-land to the Argentine post at La Quiaca. Still, I'd left without paying his $10 'tip.'
An Argentine glacier
In Uruguay, all I did was try to take a photo of the presidential palace in Montevideo. Well, there were no signs saying 'photos verboten.' But this wasn't the time for the 'stupid stroppies' à la Bolivian border. I retreated post-haste up a side street as fast as my little legs could carry me as a coalition phalanx of police and soldiers bore down on me, batons aloft and guns to the fore.
And so it went on throughout that unforgettable trip.
Now that I'm mature (most would contest that), mellow and craving anything but trouble as I careen into senility, such confrontations are fewer and farther between. But still...
On a visit to the Marshall Islands a couple of years or so ago, I decided to stop off on Kwajalein atoll, a major U.S. military base and missile testing and tracking station.
Kwajalein missile tracking station
It's such a restricted area that not only are you not allowed to stay on the atoll itself but you're whisked away from the airport by closed van and a tin bucket ferry to the satellite island of Ebeye. It was on the ferry back that the trouble started. The captain, a grizzled old toothless geezer, told me to take my case down the steps along with myself even though there was plenty of room to leave it on deck with other baggage.
"I'm the captain; I'll tell you what to do," the pocket Nelson of the sardine tin growled when I sweetly protested; "I'm calling security." So I tripped daintily down the steps headfirst with my case. On arrival at Kwajalein, a U.S. policeman ordered me to stand on the dock while the others moved off to await the van.
"I understand you had an issue with the captain," he said. "Let me read you your rights.
"You have no rights. You have no right to be here. It's a privilege. The captain could have thrown you off the boat and he would have been within his rights. You, you have none." Of course I did't improve matters any when I asked if I could take the nice cop's picture in front of a radar tracking dome. Very verboten.
Ebeye on a stormy day
And just a couple of months ago I was on a two-month trip to Indonesia. So what am I doing inside the police post on a little wooden dock on Tidore in the Moluccas, the original spice islands, surrounded by two policemen, a police woman and the irate captain of a little speedboat that has just brought me from nearby Ternate?
It all started when the captain came grabbing after me, demanding the 100,000 rupiah (about $10) I'd already paid in Ternate. He keeps on trying to grab my right trouser pocket, waving a carmine 100,000 rupiah note, shouting away in a language I don't understand but clearly demanding I give him one.
A calm, charming, smiling policeman holds him back and motions me to move on. But the frigging looney whispers in his ear. He must have said I'm a terrorist, because the policeman now comes after me, albeit smiling, puts his arm round my shoulder and guides me respectfully but firmly into the post.
Tidore as seen from Ternate
They call in the policewoman who speaks a little English. "He says you've got the 100,000 rupiahs in your pocket," she says. "Rubbish," I say. "Just look," says she. And look I do.
And OMG! There in my pocket is the 100,000 rupiah note that I was sure I'd handed him in Ternate. I remember now: he told me to pocket it as he led me, almost tripping into the water, across several boats to get to his. Clearly I can no longer be let out on my own.
Boats in harbour on Tidore