In February I went to Barcelona for my 50th birthday, I wanted to see Sagrada Familia but here’s the thing, there was one guard at passport control and as the entire plane disembarked and queued up to go through he barely glanced up from his newspaper and just waved us on, I can’t tell you just how relieved I was as I had 50 kilios of nuclear grade plutonium, Haitian goat hide drums and a small Albanian family concealed under my jumper…
This is in marked contrast when travelling to the States. I’ve travelled all over the country, north, south, east and west and arriving at passport control is never easy. I visit travel websites showing how welcoming America is and indeed it is but from the time I enter the passport control to the time I get through, there’s an underlying tension and this has only become more acute since 911. I know Americans are probably relieved to be ‘home’ but for us ‘aliens’ it’s a time of tension, it always throws me, this juxtaposition, the America I know is warm, friendly and very welcoming, this is how I am psyched up when I arrive but I’m always nervous waiting in the queue to have my passport stamped and these days my photograph and fingerprints taken, like everyone else in the ‘aliens’ queue I try my best not to look like a terrorist and arouse suspicion, especially as now they have installed geiger counters, kind’a ironic considering I come from the land of bombing and terrorism, I spent the first 25 years of my life being checked/searched/scanned/groped/probed before entering Belfast city centre and any large shop (sometimes we’d go around twice if the security woman was nice looking!) and so I’m used to stringent security but even I feel the tension going on holiday, sorry I mean vacation, in America.
The best place to land is Raleigh airport in North Caroline, it’s not much more than a wooden shack in the middle of nowhere (or at least gives that impression) and the worse is Miami airport which is surprising because of the zillion that cross the pond to go to Disneyworld. Miami is well known amongst travellers as having the tightest/meanest/strictest security, they don’t have watch towers and razor wire but it’s feels like it’s only a matter of time, I’ve had a couple of run-ins with them, at one point had an officer place his hand on his gun holster and order me not to move, trust me, when that happens you do exactly what he says, men in uniforms with guns tend to focus the mind in much the same way having diarrhoea does – which by co-incidence was exactly what I started doing in my pants as he reached for his gun, “Stand in the circle SIR!” was one order I wasn’t going to mess with. I think if the immigration staff at Miami had their way they would shift Disneyworld across the pond so we, the great unwashed, wouldn’t have to trouble them, oh hang on a minute, they did exactly that, Eurodisney..
JFK was surprising OK and relaxed, surprising because of the Twin Towers, thought it would be worse there, maybe it was because there are so many Irish there and he thought I was coming home to join the diaspora but by far the most gobsmacking was Las Vegas, from the moment I got off the plane my eyes were affronted with huge screens blasting out scenes from ‘We Will Rock You’ and whatever else was showing in Vegas, plus there was row after row of one armed bandits – no, not row after row of muggers with only one arm, (although that is an interesting image now I mention it) but this is what we call slot machines here in the UK, this was even before I got to the baggage carousels never mind immigration, seriously, a little piece of Disneyland in the middle of the desert.
I’m always deeply jealous of the US Passport holders queue, that one seems to go reasonably quickly but even there it seems to take a lot longer than necessary, I did pitch up at LAX once with 300 other potential terrorists and we had the good luck to arrive at lunch time because there was only two immigration staff on, the mood in the hall was not good, especially as one officer was held up with an Asian couple and wouldn’t let them in, Argy Bargy’s song ‘There’s Going To Be A Riot’ kept running through my head..
But it’s not only airport border staff that give me grief, a few years ago when I was driving around Arizona I went to Yuma and nearly crossed over the border into Mexico but the border guards there told me they wouldn’t let me back in without a lot of hassle, even if I did have a hire car full of manky laundry sitting in the car park behind them. I drove off and bounced along the border roads for a few hours and it was noticeable that I was the only car that was stopped and checked by the random border patrols. After being stopped the fourth time I asked one of the patrol guys why was I being targeted, I certainly didn’t look Mexican or look like I could be hiding a family in my compact car but he let me into a little secret, it seems that the reason I was being stopped all the time was because I had my window down to let fresh air in, all Americans drive with the window up and the air conditioning on, only Mexicans drive with the windows down, the border patrol call it ‘Mexican Air Conditioning’ and assume anyone with the window down is really Mexican… or Irish