Wednesday, October 22, 2008

If Stalin and Chairman Mao had decided to branch out from Gulags, into the Airport business – they would have built JFK.

During yesterdays long packing, re-packing and general sorting bonanza, I came across a folder containing copies of some emails I sent back from the United States during my last visit. I was quite amazed by just how vitriolic and angry they were. I thought, ‘gosh, it’s only been seven years, but I have really mellowed in that time. I am sure I am far more tolerant and relaxed these days.’ There was one email, I particularly liked, sent to my friend Chris detailing the more fanciful, touchy-feely, embracing-the-inner-child-ness of American culture. The conclusion of this email was my decision to “accept and affirm my bitter disposition”. Oh how I sniggered at that.

However, in the spirit of that email, I now feel the need, as I sit on the plane from New York to Miami, mentally preparing myself for today’s second dose of the Land Of The Free, to accept and embrace my inner (and indeed outer) vitriol and fury, and clearly state for the record: I HATE THE USA! HOW MAY I COUNT THE WAYS?*

We were over an hour late into JFK. Obviously this was not the USA’s fault, I merely state it as fact. However, upon arriving I had to go through Passport Control, to collect my checked bags; go through Customs; transport them to Departures; check them in again and finally go back through Passport Control. What on earth was the point of that? Hmmm? I have been on many connecting flights in the past, have changed planes and airlines at Hong Kong, Dubai and Bangkok, amongst other airports. And on each occasion my bags have been transferred for me; and I have been able to lounge around inside the customs area whilst waiting for my connecting flight. But no, not so here.

Did I mention I spent nearly an hour queuing at Passport Control? There were six desks open for the 200 or so passengers. In addition, there was 20 or so Uniforms striding around in a purposeful manor, patrolling the queue.

My interview bought the usual questions, but also one more question, which left me utterly bewildered: I simply did not know how to answer it. Even now, having given it some thought I still don’t know how to answer it. We started with a mundane query as to why I had no US address (really). I explained I was only passing through. The Official was quite bemused by that.
“So Mexico,” he said “why you going there?”
“Just travelling” I replied.
“You got friends or family there?”
“You mean you’re going ON YOUR OWN?”
“Oh… ok then.”
“So,” he started flicking through my passport “you been to a lot of places… (whistle) a LOT of places… all these places on business?”
“No, just travel”
“None of them on business?”
“Oh… (Pause, and here it came, the question that rendered me speechless,) “Why you been to so many places?”

You know, it has never occurred to me that I needed a reason.

But before I get too superior, he then moved on to official business:
“Please place the index finger of your left hand on the pressure pad there.” I was uncertain,
“Is this my index finger?” I asked.
“Yes ma’am, but that is also your right hand”
“Oh yes.”

I went to collect my bags: one big backpack, one even bigger dive bag. I went to get a trolley, there were all locked up! They cost $3 (in coins) to rent! I was beyond livid. I asked a random Uniform why, when I was coming from the UK, to Mexico, could I possibly be expected to have loose change in US currency. She agreed it was unfortunate, but there was nothing to be done. I felt like I was the first connecting passenger to have this problem, for there was no way to get a trolley, and I had to drag my bags behind me (Ok, I could have worn the backpack, but I was making a point!) past the rows of locked trolleys, through the massive Arrivals hall, through Customs and then around and into Departures. Along the way, something strange occurred: It was partly my mood, but also my physical gait – hunched over, dragging heavy weight behind me – somehow… I turned into Gollum:

“They tricksss us, gollum, they tricks us! They has trolleys, but not for the likes of ussssss, gollum. Only Yankeessssss gets trolleys… nasty, fat Yankeesssss. No trolleys for Limeysssss, poor Limeyssss…. gollum”

“Where’s your trolley?” asked an overweight and completely unprepared Official at the customs desk. I hit him with 30 seconds of pure abject rage on the subject of trolleys. It is a reflection of just how scary I was at this point, that he literally took a step backwards and waved me through without saying one word in response.

I arrived at the Luggage Check-in, spitting and snarling like cornered wildcat.
“Couldn’t you get a trolley?” asked the completely unprepared and quite defenceless girl on the desk. I think it’s safe to say she has never regretted asking a question so much. I handed over my bags and she directed me to the other check-in desk, to get my boarding pass. She did not ask to see any documentation or ID. Straightening up and turning on a sixpence, I instantly became Fawlty.

“Don’t you want to see my ticket? No, of course not, silly me. You'll want to see my passport then? No? No ID necessary! I see, I see. Do you even want to know my name? No, of course you don’t. Are you even going to label my bags? There already labelled are they? Oh super. All the way to Cancun?** Oh they are? Oh good… that’s great… then why the blazes couldn’t one of your baggage handlers bought them around here ON A TROLLEY?”

I stalked towards the second Check-in desk, practically begging someone to ask me why I was so late. I have to give credit where it’s due, the staff on the second Check-in were soothing, calm and polite and dealt with me very well. They also checked me in very, very quickly.

“Lovely! Thank-you so much” I said to the nice man. This is something I have noticed about Americans – they have a terrible weakness for the word “lovely” – it’s gets them every time. English people! If you are ever in a sticky situation in the USA just try to find a way of working the word “lovely” into the conversation. Even the most hardened, Sipowitz-wannabe will go a bit gooey round the edges.
“Have a safe trip,” said the nice man.
“I’m sure it will be lovely” I replied, quite deliberately, to see if I could get a smile. It worked, he practically melted. He was handsome after all, and it’s always worth a bit of effort to make a handsome man smile.

I was feeling quite upbeat until I rounded the corner into a scene from Mao’s Long March: endless queues of weary, battle-worn proles, trudging around a room. Amongst them, striding up and down the isles, with loud voices, polished buttons and big sticks were several fat Security Officers.
“People people, you need your boarding pass AND passport in your hand as you APPROACH the desk… all liquids must be drunk, thrown away or you must LEAVE THE BUILDING… no shoes, belts, jewellery of ANY kind…. Remove any an all of the following items from you bags…. AND KEEP IT MOVING PEOPLE”

I had reached the infamous Homelands Security Checkpoint. When my turn eventually came, I nervously confessed to still wearing a silver bangle, explaining that I never take it off because it is too tight.
“You’ll remove that item if you want to board the plane ma’am” replied the Officer. I forced it over my knuckles and handed it too him. He glared at it, with his full and undivided attention, for a full nanosecond before returning it too me and waving me on.

I turned and received a face full of abuse for not placing my laptop IN A SEPARATE TRAY.
“AND is THIS your HAND LUGGAGE?” asked the fat, indignant hobbit.
“WHAT in HELL have you got IN HERE?”
“It’s a regulator”
“It’s A WHAT?”
“A Regulator…. It’s diving equipment.”
“In my other bag, I already checked it in”
“No, I didn’t check that in”
“OH… WELLLLLLL…. Ok then.”

“What next?” I snarled at no one in particular.

What next is Miami. I have been told that I will have to go through Customs again. Ha! I only have an hour between flights this time! But apparently my bags will be transferred automatically. What next is Mexico, and it can’t come a minute too soon. Vive la Revolution!

*By this I do, of course, mean the State, the machine - not the people, who are often lovely!
**I arrived last night, my bags finally arrived this afternoon.


Anonymous said...

lol.. too funny! Have fun in Mexico!


Anonymous said...

You really have got to write a travel book- I for one will buy it!!!
Too funny...hope you love Mexico, any plans or following your nose.

Botogol said...

LOL! I haven't been to the US for ages.. but this is exactly how it is. I like it there.

Red Pirates said...

And I thought travel in the Philippines was infuriating!

Anonymous said...

Ha! LOL! And sooo true! Am just back from 2wks hol in the 'lovely' US of A and OMG, customs control were tuff! "Why do you want to come here, where are you visting, where are you staying, take your shoes off!!" Enjoy Mexico! xx