¡Hola a todos!
The airplane flight from Panama City to Los Angeles was highly uneventful, bar sporadic episodes of cold sweats, the likes of which I am increasingly accustomed to experiencing while departed from solid ground: I have never been a confident flier and although I seem to be mellowing with age and repeated experience, nonetheless I grow alarmed even now at the slightest change in the sounds emanating from the plane's engines; the slightest dip in altitude - no matter how slight - leaves my stomach far above me, somewhere in the vicinity of the space to which my mind's thoughts then turn. Well can I remember the efforts of Dad whenever we flew off on some wondrous family holiday trying to calm me, to assuage my fears. Alas, there is no such external help in these most current days but, I am able at least to recall his words and repeat something similar to myself - a mantra if you will that keeps my mind focused, my thoughts concentrated, my disquiet distracted. I need not have worried: the flight passed smoothly enough - I was able even to steal some hours of sleep as darkness crept up upon our wing, a nebulous predator of the sky.
We touched down in Los Angeles International Airport a little past midnight local time, the flight lasting a total of some six and a half hours. The inevitable game of patience unfolded as passengers shuffled down the central aisle, pausing to scoop up bags from the overhead lockers, children from the adjacent seats, magazines, books, iPods and all manner of distrations from elsewhere. We proceeded slowly through the 'arrivals' terminal to the immigration desks, lined up in a typically uniform, soulless design, manned by human (I think but, cannot be sure) equivalents. I queued patiently, the Britishness inside me elated to find such an orderly procession, although there was one final reminder of the past six months, arriving in the form of a shameless Costa Rican (I saw her passport), who slipped past me in the line - while I gazed at my surroundings - with utter impudence. Finally, I approached one of the many identical desks, behind which sat a particularly dour, uninspiring fellow, who rather pointedly childled me for not having in my possession a green slip, which - it transpired - asked for the exact same information as that issued on a white piece of card that I did carry with me in this first encounter. Ah, the trivialities of bureaucracy: I lost my place in the growing queue and picked up a green card from a kiosk lurking nearby. I filled out this piece of irrelevance swiftly and returned to the head of the queue from which I had so recently departed - I was not in the mood to waste any more time on visitor niceties. I was not challenged - these folk had seen my exchange with the immigration official and wisely decided to leave me to my agenda.
At this moment I came to a rather hazardous juncture: I had been forewarned when checking in at Panama's international airport that I would be required to present US immigration officials with a temporary residential address; a form of contact for them to retain, I imagine; a hoop through which we all must jump. Of course, in the long-lasting aftermath of the 9-11 attacks, these hoops have multiplied and become increasingly difficult to navigate: I had also in my possession during this exchange an ESTA visa form, the most recent and (seemingly) trivial paper waste required of those attempting to enter US territory. The problem was that I did not have such a piece of information to give: I knew that my friends Ben and Courteny, whom I had met while being completely over-awed atop the mighty Iguazu Falls in northern Argentina, would be awaiting my arrival at the airport, having kindly offered to host me for my first few days in LA. What I did not know was the exact location of their handsome abode, only that it lay somewhere in Venice Beach, a particularly quirky, reputable district within the city limits. Panama had told me not to worry and advised simply that I give the immigration desk in LA the address for a hotel - the Marriott was their exact, jocular example. I mulled the idea over while on the plane (there had been no internet in the Panamanian airport that I could use to contact Ben and Courtney) and eventually decided to resort to honesty and rely upon the common-sensical, sympathetic nature of US immigration. Of course, this cut absolutely no ice with my friend the immigration official. He looked at my with a mixture of incredulity and disgust as I aired this fact, before asking me how much money I had in my possession. Still adjusting out of my South American mindset, my first, abhorred thought was that he was asking me for a bribe: thankfully, I recovered my wits swiftly enough to save any potential offence - he wanted to know, of course, whether I would be self-suffient in the country. The sinking feeling in my stomach grew: I had spent much of my cash in Panama and had not transacted a withdrawal before boarding the plane - I had perhaps ten dollars in cash on my person. The officer's face contorted further (I hoped that the wind was either not blowing outside or at least was blowing in a very determined, singular direction) but, I was able to salvage the situation somewhat by displaying some of my Amex traveller's cheques and assuring the bully that I had further money in an instant access account, which I planned to ransack at the first available opportunity after leaving the airport. Becoming increasingly impatient and exasperated at the treatment this challenged individual was meting out, I committed a slight faux pas: leaning over the counter in a confidential manner, I sought to break past this impasse. The need for an address was a hoop through which I needed to jump: I have mentioned this already and I now chose to mention it to my would-be jailer as well. The oaf-ficer sneered up at me and called over another immigrational official. His face had - improbably - contorted yet further, accompanied now by an air of triumphant bitterness, so that it was something of a relief to be able to leave his festering presence, dutifully following after the second official, who held my passport and immigration papers. Little did I realize just how taxing the following hour would be.
The room to which I was escorted had a sign above its entrance: it was called the 'Admissibility Office'. My papers were deposited with a clerk at the front desk and I was requested to take a seat and engage in the slow rotting of my brain and all remaining cordiality towards these rude authorities. Needless to write, I was at the end of a small yet, significant queue awaiting their turn for a grilling at one of four desks at the back of the room. I swiftly realized that although all four desks were occupied by officials, only two were actually calling up individuals from the seating area: the other two desk-occupants seemed happier joking to each other about some of the candidates who had already been processed that day. The whole atmosphere was distasteful and I concentrated upon absorbing myself in tackling some mental exercises in my 'BrainTeaser' book: there was little else that I could do before my own chat with officialdom in this surreal, Orwellian state. Eventually, at roughly the same moment that I became convinced that my brain was threatening to seep out of my nose, eyes and ears, my name was called and I escaped from one seat to another, in readiness for my conversation with my latest acquaintance from immgration control. This lady was possibly more challenging than the gorilla I had first encountered. She seemed incapable of listening to any of the information I provided and her memory struck me as approximately compatible with that of a goldfish: come to think of it, there was an uncanny physical resemblance there as well... I apologize: I am not usually so shallow a character but, I was by this stage in proceedings tired, frustrated and angered by the treatment that I was receiving. In all of my border-crossings in South America, I had not once been issued such rude discourtesy. The lady took some minutes to process that I had visited the US many times before, that I loved the country and (many) of its inhabitants and that I had friends waiting for me in the arrivals lounge. In fact, I now realized, they had been waiting for two hours: the ladyt belatedly decided that it was perhaps a good idea for someone to put out a tannoy announcement, not to reassure my friends that I was fine - oh no - but, instead to seek out a fixed address for my form. Meanwhile her joker of a colleague gloated over my stupidity: no address? no functioning mobile phone? no contact number with which to seek out an address? Surely I was the most contemptible character ever to set foot upon America's hallowed ground. The truth is, I had been rather silly: I had grown accustomed to the procedures of countries in South America, where formalities are relaxed and immigration a five-minute exercise in bureaucratic rubber-stamping. In committing this subconscious act, I had caused irretrievable offence in that country of the free, that ensign to liberality and common-sense. When I think back to this latent, lamentable episode in the immigration centre at Los Angeles International Airport, a small part of me pales; a small part of my mind wonders whether the terrorists have no won in some sense.
So, you like America then? Where have you been before coming here? (Oh, South America! How wonderful!) What is Classics? Don't you have a job? Oh, I see that you've been to America before... Honestly; I think the insufferable lady was trying to break me. I did manage to remain reasonably calm and restrained, focusing upon answering the questions as fully as possible and relaxing when talk turned to Classics and my love for home (really: why on Earth would I want to seek illegal asylum in the United States - just who do you take me for?!). Finally, the time approaching half-past two in the morning, some wise-guy suggested that I write the address of a local hotel: I seemed a nice chap and they were sure now that I had no desire to remain past my month-long stay in the country (yes, I had shown them my itinerary, complete with electronic print-out of my ticket home from Seattle at the start of October). What hotel should I name? Oh, don't use a name; just write down this address - it's for the Marriott. Oh, the bitter, twisted irony.
The immigration logo dotted all over the area in which I had passed some of the most miserable hours of my trip proudly paraded the department's promise to treat all visitors to the US with 'courtesy, dignity and respect'. Alas; if only this were true to any degree: I was left confused and very, very disappointed with the reception I found throughout my personal experience with officialdom. I felt more a criminal alien than a human being; a target of suspicion and ridicule instead of a harmless traveller from overseas. America, in this instance, has fallen far indeed. Of course, I should remind myself that the previous experiences to which I compare this outrage all stem from family trips conducted years ago, predominantly pre-9-11 and when I was far from the strapping adult of today, travelling alone, with no address, no contact telephone number, no money about my person even. I recognize the need for immigration to be wary in these circumstances, so far removed from any situation that Mum and Dad would ever allow to befall us on a trip to the States. Even so, I would have hoped to have been met with civility and perhaps even a touch of warmness throughout the proceedings that followed and even to have been able to conclude these inconveniences far sooner with the full information that I was able to provide concerning my travel itinerary and previous spotless record. I had been tried, tested, pushed far beyond anything I experienced in South America and in a much harsher, more disrespectful manner than any I encountered on that fair sub-continent. I slouched from the office wearily, my eyes affronted by the stringent glare of the overhead lighting and the late hour. I collected my bag, erroneously taken from the conveyor-belt and deposited behind a counter; I entered the arrivals area to discover - surprise, surprise - no Ben or Courtney: immigration had at least been able to warn me of this much, having failed to rouse anyone to announce themself and provide the details that they sought, enumerated in their tannoy-message. After logging on to a computer in the airport (for a scandalous fee) and discovering an e-mail from Ben providing his home telephone number, I endured a miserable experience with US pay-phones, following the automated directions fully and still having my money swallowed without a call connecting to Ben's home telephone. Finally, finally, I approached two workmen enjoying a break (LA International is undergoing some renovations) and encountered, belatedly, some of that all-American friendliness that I so desperately sought: one of the chaps gladly let me borrow his mobile to call Ben who, mercifully, was at home and awake. My saviour refused to accept my proffered payment for the call and five minutes later I was enjoying a happy reunion with Ben outside the departures building.
Welcome to the US!
¡Saludos a todos!