‘We made it! I don’t know how,’ I said as we stepped into John F. Kennedy airport.
‘Sheer necessity,’ John said. He looked stoically at the mass of humanity in front of us, much as a steppe warrior might survey the vast, unforgiving plains. ‘In a hundred years, people are going to say about us, “How did they cope with death?” And the answer will be, “They had no choice.”’
The Texas televangelist Kenneth Copeland, defending his preference for private jets, once described flying in commercial planes as ‘getting in a long tube with a bunch of demons.’ John supports this view because every time he gets on a plane he is swarmed by microscopic demons in the form of viruses and infections. This time the symptoms included an upset stomach and red eyes– hence his less-than-rosy view of the whole thing.
The trip had been grueling. We’d left the previous afternoon from Lima, had stopped in Mexico City where we’d snatched five hours’ sleep and then had risen at 5 o’clock in the morning to go through a two-hour check-in process where travelers to the US were marched to a special area in the airport–and then marched back again because the lines were too long. We had to answer three ‘security questions’ and get a sticker on our passports, without which we wouldn’t be able to fly. By the time we’d checked in our bags and cleared security, the plane was already boarding. I had a pounding headache and gulped some Aspirin down with an illicit bottle of water as soon as I got into my seat.
I don’t remember too much about the flight except that I listened to supposedly relaxing lute music, planned a healthy 4-week menu and read To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, a teen romance by Jenny Han. Breakfast was inadequate but made up for by three cups of coffee. John was already suffering torments with his stomach but for me, by our standards, it was not a completely bad flight. And yet, I felt uneasy.
The truth is, I never look forward to going through United States customs. There is something about US border policing that feels an awful lot like bullying. I’ve been in a lot of other countries and they don’t tend to do things this way; border guards may not be very friendly, but nor do they enjoy their jobs quite so much. In the past, US border guards have variously taken exception to our car, to Arabic letters in our passports, to our dog, to our queuing in different lines (because ‘This is America and American families stick together!’) and to our queuing in the same line (‘Ma’m, you are not a US citizen. The line for foreign nationals is over there.’). And every time this happens, not matter how unreasonably, I get horribly scared.
Part of it is that I’m an inherently nervous and guilty person. As far as I know I have not committed any actual crime, and yet I’m certain that Fate has a long-term prison sentence in store for me. It’s only a matter of time. As long as I have access to a word processor or pen and paper I should be able to survive. I’ll have an exercise regimen of star-jumps and man-style push-ups.
But I’d noticed, when applying online for my ESTA visa waiver, that there were more steps to follow than last time and that the officious cloth-eared legalese had exploded like a worsening infection. Not only was I required to be free of plague and terrorism, I also had to declare that I was not a member of ‘the foreign-language media’. This set off little alarm bells.
There were other factors contributing to this state of unease. Firstly, exhaustion. No part of plane travel is restful because you are waiting for every single stage to be over, and we’d been on ‘the road’ for 20 hours. Secondly, there are different queues for US citizens and visitors so John and I had to separate. Thirdly, there were a bunch of new computers on which you had to register yourself and a helpful volunteer insisted on showing me what to do. He helpfully pressed the ‘travelling alone’ button and before I could muster enough energy to correct him on that front, he produced a receipt and ushered me over to the line where we had to wait for a human border guard.
Standing in the long queue (the computers seemed to have slowed things down rather than sped them up), I had plenty of time to reflect on my error. I thought I should go back and re-do the machine thing so that it said I was ‘travelling with a family member’ rather than ‘travelling alone’. But there were dozens of people behind me. I decided just to bluff it out.
‘I am travelling alone. I am here visiting friends. I am here for three months,’ I coached myself. All of which, except for the ‘alone’ part, was true.
An airport usher directed me to wait in line for window 17. As I set my bags down at my feet—they were heavy because I had all my books in them—I heard a loud, derisive laugh. It was coming from the booth where my border guard sat. He was a blond young man with a pencil moustache and excessive energy. Some hapless traveler had said something he considered stupid and now he was loudly and publicly shaming the guy.
‘Great,’ I thought. ‘Perfect. Of course I get this line.’ But then I told myself not to be so ridiculous. After all, look at the hundreds of people in the hall. Why would anyone want to go out of their way to bother with me, a boring English-speaking woman from an affluent country? It didn’t make sense. That’s what I told myself.
‘Next! Are you travelling alone today?’
‘Reason for travel?’
‘Tourism, visiting friends.’
‘How long are you here?’
‘Three months?’ he stopped and I very much feared he was going to have another derisive outburst. ‘What are you going to be doing here for three months?’
‘Um, er, well, you know, seeing my friends, looking at museums…’
‘Do you have a job?’
‘Uh oh, this is a tricky one,’ I thought.
‘Yes,’ I lied.
‘And what do you do?’ he asked in what sounded like a sarcastic tone.
‘I’m, ah, a writer,’ I blushed. Well, it was somewhat true.
‘What is it that you write?’
‘Fiction and, uh,’ I realized this sounded pretty thin, ‘For money I write travel articles.’
‘Travel articles, huh?’
‘Yes. I travel a lot.’
‘And is your employer American?’
‘No, a New Zealander,’ I replied truthfully, because I am a New Zealander.
He thumbed through my passport, his nose wrinkled as if he smelled bad fish and finally got up from his seat.
‘Follow me,’ he said.
I followed him noting that he had a definite goosestep. We arrived at an interrogation room at the end of the corridor.
‘Do you have anything valuable in that backpack?’ he asked.
‘Um…I don’t…think so,’ I said, bemused.
‘Leave it here,’ he said, pointing to the floor outside the room.
‘OK,’ I said, wondering why. How long was I going to be in there? Were they going to get a bomb-defuser to explode my backpack?
We entered the room, where a bunch of plastic chairs were arranged in front of a raised platform where the booths stood, each one occupied by a uniformed officer.
I sat down with a hot face and noted that there were three other people, all of whom had the same tense, hunched posture as I did.
I wondered what John was doing and whether he was worried yet.
‘So stupid,’ I said to myself. ‘Why didn’t you just say you were here with your husband?’
I opened my teen romance to pretend nonchalance. Lara Jean Covey’s pretend boyfriend comes over to her house and helps her make cupcakes for her little sister. You can tell that they will soon start to really like each other. Bitterly, I thought that the high-achieving gynecologist’s daughter would never find herself in this situation. It would never occur to her to tell a bald-faced lie to a border guard. What’s more, she’d definitely travel first-class and never even mention it in the book either. Lies, all lies.
I overheard blondie briefing another officer.
‘She says she’s a writer and it looks like she’s planning to come right back again after three months.’
‘What a tosser,’ I thought, frowning at my book.
He stalked out and another be-gunned officer started talking loudly to another one about what he planned to have for lunch.
‘I think I’ll have some of those noodles they do over there, with the sweet chilli sauce, you know?’
‘Oh yeah, the chilli sauce.’
This conversation annoyed me. They didn’t have to rub it in our faces that they were so relaxed and carefree. In all likelihood, I was going to be marched off to the airport dungeon and all they could do was wiffle on about lunch. Such was their hard-heartedness! Probably the guards at Andersonville used to talk about biscuits and grits in front of their poor prisoners too.
‘Dolan!’ a woman’s voice called out.
I couldn’t see who had spoken –they were all hidden behind tall rostrums–so I went to the first one. The woman looked back at me, bored.
‘Right to the end,’ she said.
I went to the end. A young woman regarded me coolly.
‘How long are you planning to stay?’
‘And what is the purpose of your visit?’
‘Um, to see friends.’
‘What is their address?’
I fished my itinerary out of my purse and showed her the address.
‘It’s an Airbnb,’ I explained.
‘An Airbnb? I thought you were staying with friends.’ Her eyes narrowed.
‘No, we’re going to visit friends, not stay with them.’ I stopped myself from adding ‘Silly!’
‘“We”? Are you travelling with somebody else?’
Oops! Time to come clean…
‘Yes, I’m here with my husband. He’s a US citizen actually.’
‘Oh, you’re here with your husband?’
‘Yes. He had to go in a different line, that’s why I said I’m travelling alone…’ I laughed queasily.
‘I see. And does he live in the US?’
‘No, he hasn’t lived here for a long time.’
‘And what kind of work do you do?’
‘I’m a writer.’
‘What kind of writing?’
‘I have a blog, About travel.’
‘And when you finish the three months, do you plan to come back immediately?’
‘What? No, of course not.’
‘Oh, because I thought…’
‘Oh, that’s all right then.’ Suddenly she was no longer a cop.
‘Just out of curiosity,’ she said looking at my passport pages, ‘When is the last time you were in your country?’
‘New Zealand? About two years ago.’
‘And what all are the countries you’ve been to?’
‘Oh, you don’t even want to know!’ I say breezily and immediately wonder at myself.
‘No way!’ she squealed, apparently delighted. ‘I’ve heard about people like you but I never met one before. I was just reading on Facebook about a project called Women Who Travel, it’s kind of an exchange program. It seemed really interesting. So, what’s your blog called? Can you write it down?’
I wrote it down for her, confused by this sudden change. Probably she wanted to double-check the website to see that a) it existed and b) I wasn’t here to ferret out state secrets or something. Nevertheless I felt rather flattered. It occurred to me that flattery is so much more effective than threats when it comes to intelligence gathering.
She stamped my passport and said, ‘You’re all done. Have a wonderful trip!’
‘Thanks,’ I mumbled.
I felt about ready to faint and was just walking away on jelly legs when another cop outside the interrogation room boomed, ‘Miss!’
Oh Christ, what now?
He had to do something to my passport.
Please let it be over, I prayed. He took a piece of paper out of my passport and finally I was free. I found my way to the baggage claim area, where John was sitting dispiritedly with all our checked-in luggage.
‘What happened?’ he said.
‘I got interrogated and—oh damn.’
‘I forgot my backpack. It’s back there.’ So, with dread in my heart, I had to walk back to the scene, past the border guard who’d flagged my case, past the ‘Miss’ cop and right up to the interrogation room itself. Luckily, when I pointed to the bag, they seemed to understand what I was there for and let me take it.
Once we were out of the airport and in a taxi, I felt an extraordinary sense of freedom. It was one of the most perfect days I’d ever seen, with a cool sea breeze playing in the trees, bright sunlight straight out of the children’s TV programs of my youth like Sesame Street and 3-2-1 Contact! How wonderful it was, after all, to be alive and in a 30-km traffic jam on the way to Brooklyn!