She didn’t believe me


“Tell me the truth. Are you a spy?”

It wasn’t the first time an old friend had asked me this, but the others made it sound like a joke.

I suppose it was all those strange stamps in my passports: North Korea, China, Burma, Sudan, Syria… That and a twenty-two year-long obsession with a martial art that had historic links to espionage.

I always assumed writing for travel magazines helped others make sense of some of the stranger places I was attracted to, but I could see where they were coming from. ‘Travel writer’ would be a pretty good cover— one less conspicuous than James Bond’s Universal Exports. It also gave me an excuse for sticking my nose in and asking so many questions.

I always laughed at that old joke, usually while mixing another martini. But this time was different.

“We knocked over your plastic tub while moving things in the storage room…” my friend said. 

I’d left a container of childhood keepsakes with her when I moved to Malta. The lid came loose when she tipped it over, and two strange items fell out:

“Alex and I both froze when we saw it. He didn’t believe me when I said it was a joke. That Homeland Security pass looks real.”

“It is real,” I said.

There was an uneasy pause.

“It’s from a fitness seminar.”

“A fitness seminar…”

“I helped teach a fitness seminar at a law enforcement training centre in the US. We had to have a pass to be there.”

“Uh huh….”

I was on the coaching faculty of a martial art focused fitness organization. The founder and I coauthored a training program that began as a fun gimmick with tactical names, military-style scoring charts and over-the-top explanations of exercises like “This movement trains your connective tissues to absorb the detonation of recoil…” (from a 9mm handgun?!).

It was aimed at wannabe weekend warriors who wanted a fun hook for their workouts but at some point my friend began to think it was real. He started wearing trousers from 5-11 Tactical and an army-style cap, and he peppered his vocabulary with terms like “roger wilco” and “SITREP”. 

It all became too silly for me but the workouts were fun and effective, and we ended up teaching them to U.S. Marshals and others. Hence the plastic pass to that base.

I’m sure it only looked so strange because it fell on the floor next to a fake plastic thumb.

It reminded me of the time I freaked out a TSA worker in a US airport while flying home in university. I’d packed a can of shaving cream in my carry on bag — you could do that back then — and it showed up on her screen right next to my windup travel alarm clock. I’m sure she only yelled “What the hell’s that?” because it was ticking. 

Contrary what my friend Anne assumed, the thumb wasn’t an elaborate means of fooling high tech security systems. 

I’d bought it at a magic store on one of my early backpacking trips. I needed something new to add to the coin trick I learned in Japan. It was incredibly useful for breaking the ice with children when I was traveling in strange places. 

When the children laughed, the parents dropped their guard. They never got suspicious at all my strange questions.

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About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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