Far out

By LAUREN WOLFE  |  May 4, 2007

It was so remote, she would later discover, that people would travel to Afghanistan with grand get-rich schemes, like making liquid hash and shipping it out of the country in wine bottles. In fact, that plan had been hatched by the man who eventually persuaded her to smuggle gold; his original plan had come to naught when he discovered that wine bottles were entirely vulnerable in the shipping process.

Carol’s mother was a first-generation English emigrant and the only one in her family to go to college. (And her mother did not understand why she wanted to go to college.) Her father was “a Connecticut Valley WASP; fifth-generation to go to Yale.” On the whole, regarding her world wanderings, Carol says, “They believed and trusted that I knew what I was doing.”

Gold: mine
The path from Beirut to Taipei to deliver bars of gold began in Zurich. A Swiss friend of Carol’s boyfriend, the dreamer of the liquid-hash-in-wine-bottles scheme, had just returned from Beirut and told her about smuggling. It was easy money, he said. Altogether, each smuggler got about $450 — $200 on departure, the rest on delivery. With her $10,000 dwindled, but not gone, Carol says she wasn’t in it for the money. Rather, the big draw was that she would get to see East Asia off the tourist-beaten track, which was surely worth the minimal risk. Besides, it seemed like everyone was doing it; smuggling, she says, was “an open secret” back then.

Gold was the smartest way to go. Until 1971, the US backed the dollar with it, fixing exchange rates. Because of this, Asian countries restricted their gold imports. On top of that, Asians traditionally trusted gold as a means of socking away their money. Together this made for a healthy underground market for the precious metal. And Beirut was a swinging capital of the Middle East, the Paris of the region, with a free market in easily purchased gold. Then again, floating around were tales of stewardesses being kidnapped and put into harems.

There were two drop-off points on the three Pan Am flights Carol made. From Beirut, she flew to Manila, where she would meet a man in a hotel who checked her gold and sent her on with a ticket to Taipei. There, she says, the “odor was different” from anything she had ever smelled before: street vendors dripped with food and spices. Everybody rode bicycles. There were rice paddies behind the hotel.

In Taipei she would meet another man in another hotel and hand off the gold. She doesn’t remember much about these men other than that they were locals, in their 30s, and “pretty normal, not scary.” She does remember, however, that she would see guys in the hotel elevators who were clearly doing what she was doing. Always men, they were smuggling something, gold or gems or drugs. She could just tell.

Over four years, Carol returned three times to the Middle East and Asia “because I was of a mind that America was not a place I wanted to live; in part because of the Vietnam War and because of what I perceived as the evils of capitalism,” she says. Her perception was very much reinforced while abroad. She wrote home about the “amazing difference from the way the rest of the world is and what one’s conception of how it is in America. In many ways I have found how much propaganda we get in the States.”

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