March 15, 2005
Adventures In Homeland Security / Homestretch, U.S.A.
DAY 502 (Part 1; 501 days since last U.S.A. entry): Although the category for this Blog entry is "U.S.A.", our story begins in Toronto, Canada, which is okay I guess, considering it was there that I had to clear U.S. Immigration and Customs formalities before my "domestic" connecting flight into the States. As much as Canadians hate to hear it, Toronto is pretty much an American city anyway (just with funny accents); in fact, it's the ranked the second busiest American port of entry (after Miami) by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
I had just about an hour to switch terminals, get my bags, and clear U.S. entry formalities, a process I had long-dreaded -- as a matter of fact, I intentionally went from Indonesia to Singapore to Canada first, to decrease my chances of being a suspected terrorist flying directly from Muslim Jakarta with a beat-up U.S. passport that had already been suspected of being fake in Argentina and Egypt. As everyone knows, airport security has been tight ever since Nine Eleven, and even the night before when I boarded the Vancouver-to-Toronto flight, I was detained at the security check.
"He has a clamp in his bag," one Canadian security officer said to another.
"Okay, show me the clamp," I was instructed, at the table next to the metal detector gate where my electronics were soon swabbed for explosive material. I did as I was told and revealed the harmless "iClamp" that squeezed the side of my iBook together so the screen wouldn't dim due to a faulty logic board.
"You can't bring this. It's a tool," the officer said.
"But I need it to use my computer," I argued. "Here, I'll show you."
He wouldn't let me demonstrate. "You have to send it or check it in."
"Oh, but I was going to work on my computer on the plane."
The other officer came over. "You can check it in with another bag. Or you can put it in storage."
"Yeah, you can store it. When are you coming back?"
"I'm not. I'm an American going back home."
"It's a dollar a day here."
"Huh? Oh, I thought you meant storage on the plane."
What the hell is going on? I thought. National security is threatened by a 50-cent clamp I bought in India? There aren't any sharp edges! It's not like I have a bomb; it's not like I want to blow up the plane. Wait, can I even say "bomb" at an airport? Sure I can, I'm just thinking this in italics. Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb ba bomb! Wait, are they going to arrest me now?
All the commotion was holding up the line and the supervisor came over to see what the problem was. "[What's the problem here?]"
"He has this."
"Just take it on board," the supervisor said under her breath. "But don't bring it out on the plane."
"How long have you been away?" the officer asked.
"Sixteen months. Well, sixteen and a half."
"What have you been doing?"
"Just backpacking around... and I'm finally home. Well, Canada."
He was a good-natured fellow and went through standard procedure of swiping my passport through the reader and pushing a bunch of buttons on a computer. Looks like it's gonna be easier than I thought. Being American with an American passport does have its advantages sometimes. Alright, U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S-- wait a minute, why's he putting my passport in a folder?
"Take this and go through the door on the right."
The U.S. interrogation office was a sterile and boring looking place -- think hospital meets DMV without the long lines -- and it was there I was led to a counter manned by one Officer Mektar (sp?) who continued to question me on my supposed return to the States.
"How long have you been away?" he asked.
"Sixteen and a half months."
"Just backpacking around."
"Where did you go?"
"[Actually, more than what's written there; there was no room, so I just put the last four. Hmmm... Okay, the short version: four months in South America, four months in Africa, a month in Europe, then I took the train from Moscow to Beijing, then China for a month, Japan, then Nepal, India, Thailand, and sort around southeast Asia for a while.]"
"Must be nice."
"What company do you work for?"
"Uh, I was laid off," I told him. The officer started getting a suspicious look in his eye.
"Then what company were you working for?"
"This company called ACTV."
"And what did that stand for?"
"Uh, it didn't stand for anything." Shady, but the truth.
"And how old are you?"
"Thirty. Yeah, I know, I look young."
"And I assume you're not married?"
"And what are you going to do when get back?"
"Uh, look for work." Good answer, good answer.
Another federal employee came over looking quite beat from being overworked with security issues. She came over to see if she could help out. "Smile, it's Friday," I told her to brighten up their day and soften my character.
"Uh, we work weekends. It could be Tuesday for us."
Okay then. Just then, there was another guy beside me, waiting his turn.
"You take that one, this one will be a while," Officer Mektar told the other.
A while? I thought. "How long is this going to take?"
"[Just a moment. The system keeps shutting me out.]"
"Uh, my flight's at 7:15." (It was 6:55.)
Officer Mektar looked at his watch and hesitated a bit before reluctantly saying, "You'll make it." The system kicked in and I was registered -- probably flagged as a person to keep an eye on in the country -- and then was led for a quick X-ray of my bags. "Okay, you're free to go."
I rushed over to the bag check-in and then to find my gate, but still had to go through the carry-on security. They stopped me, not for my the iClamp this time (since I wisely stored it back in my big bag), but to check out my computer and such, which I showed them in haste. "Am I gonna make my flight?"
"We have nothing to do with that."
I packed up and ran down the hall before realizing it was the wrong one. It didn't matter because when I finally found my gate, it was already too late.
"Your plane just left," said the woman at the gate counter. "Where were you? We were waiting for you." They had paged me on the P.A. system, but I don't think there were any speakers in the U.S. interrogation room.
"I was delayed by the U.S. government."
She saw my passport. "But you're American."
"Must be the hat," her co-worker said. I was wearing my wool-knit hat from Peru.
"You have to take the next flight."
"When is that?"
"Boarding at 10:45."
"What about my bag?"
"[If you didn't make that flight, they wouldn't have been able to fly with it -- it's the law -- so don't worry, it's still here. If you're on the next flight, it will be re-routed on that one.]"
And so, the plans I had that morning back in the States were shot since I had no choice but to spend most of the morning waiting around in Toronto (picture above), stranded at the airport like in The Terminal, just not as long. I spent the time drinking coffee to keep myself awake from the lack of good sleep on the red-eye the night before, until it was time to board my final flight of The Global Trip 2004, to my next, but not final, destination. Unfortunately, as I found out later, my bag did not make that same flight in the connection delay fiasco, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. I guess it was sort of ironic; after sixteen months around the world, the first and only time my baggage was ever lost was at the very end, back in America.
DAY 502 (Part 2): My initial plan for my sixteen-month trip around the world was to end off with a month doing outdoorsy stuff in New Zealand, followed by a classic American road trip from California back to New York. However, due to time and money constraints (mostly money), I replaced a month in New Zealand with a week in Vancouver, B.C., and a road trip across America with a road trip across the state of New Jersey. (Yes, I realize this is like trying to substitute filet mignon with the salisbury steak in a T.V. dinner, but hey.)
Actually a road trip across New Jersey is sort of like crash course in Americana; in just three hours, you drive through the woodsy Pine Barrens of the south, up passed the shore towns of the Atlantic, academic and scenic Princeton, the malls and residential neighborhoods of American suburbia, until you gradually get up to the more factory-filled area near New York City, an area secretly still crawling with the gangsters that The Sopranos were based on. Each exit on the New Jersey Turnpike has its own sort of identity (which inspired me to open an on-line t-shirt store), for New Jersey is a microcosm of American diversity (even on the political spectrum), a melting pot of opportunity and numerous locations of Staples and The Home Depot. In fact, there's a line in the classic Simon & Garfunkel song, "America" that goes, "...the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, they've all come to look for America."
My road trip across the Garden State started not in New Jersey, but in Pennsylvania, more specifically the city of Philadelphia. As the birthplace of the nation, Philadelphia was the perfect place to make my re-entry into the United States of America after over sixteen months abroad, so that I may illuminate (or is it bore?) my readers with historical trivia one last time.
Speaking of being on a roll, Philadelphia is also responsible for giving us and the rest of the international culinary community the Philadelphia Cheesesteak Sandwich, a tasty artery-clogging slice of Americana I had not seen prepared properly since I left the country -- hence, another reason why I chose Philadelphia to make my U.S. entrance. Right from the airport, I went straight away to Pat's Kings of Steaks, the originators of the famous steak sandwich in south Philadelphia, to welcome my stomach back home. Thankfully, I still remembered how to order without being sneered at, and filled my empty coffee-lined tummy with greasy cheese and beef goodness -- so good I had another one right after.
Of course, with the morning wasted in Toronto, we sort of rushed through everything that afternoon, mostly taking quick pictures of touristy and non-touristy spots so that you Blogreaders could whiz through the city vicariously: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air's old hood of South Philadelphia, funky South Street, City Hall (featured in the film Twelve Monkeys, St. Augustine's Church (featured in the film The Sixth Sense), and some familiar locations where Sylvester Stallone once stood during the filming of Rocky. Mark was also quick to point out the McDonald's where the late Wu Tang Clan rap star O.D.B. ran away from the police when he was breaking parole.
But it wasn't all locations of movies and rap stars; Mark zipped me through the finer side of Philly, first to the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, site of the reception of his upcoming wedding reception (apparently he got engaged since I've been away), and of course, the historical core: Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, where the sounds of freedom started ringing way before the U.S. started exporting it to other countries by use of Starbucks, McDonald's, and the United States Army.
IF TIME HAD ALOTTED, the drive across New Jersey (picture above) would have included a stop at different exits on the New Jersey Turnpike to show off the diversity of the American microcosm, including a stop at the self-proclaimed "America's Playground," Atlantic City, the former dumpy shore town completely transformed by Donald Trump. But it didn't take "The Donald" to transform the rest of New Jersey; the rest of New Jersey already shined with its own born and/or bred glitterati, spanning the different exits:
EXIT 2: Bruce Willis
Perhaps the most famous icon of New Jersey was from Exit 14B, a celebrity that didn't even do much but stand there. I am of course referring to Lady Liberty, a.k.a. the Statue of Liberty, which despite popular belief, is actually in New Jersey waters, not New York's, as settled by a 1998 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. The New Yorkers across the Hudson River can claim some sort of bragging rights though, for Lady Liberty faces New York City; New Jersey just gets to see her ass. (Is that where the smog comes from?)
A quick stop at Liberty State Park at Exit 14B was significant for me, not just because the Statue of Liberty served as a symbol welcoming foreigners arriving in America, but also because it was the nostalgic park where I used to frequent and ride my bike after work when I had an apartment nearby. (Movie buffs might also be interested to know that I used to ride my bike on the road in the park where Clemenza recites the famous line, "Leave the gun. Take the cannoli," in The Godfather.) My brother and I ran out to see the symbol of arriving in America (even if it was of her backside) for a quick picture, but then rushed back into the car because it was so damn cold. (I hadn't been that cold since trekking the Snows of Kilimanjaro.) Before hopping back into the car, I managed to take the most patriotic (or is it the cheesiest?) photo of my return back to the good ol' U.S. of A.
The front door opened and my parents greeted me with kisses and hugs, along with other relatives from the Trinidad and Rivera sides of the family that had relocated to the area. My little American-born cousins of "Rivera Clan West" were excited to see me -- they even made me a welcome back banner -- and were excited to stick pin flags into the world map I had on the wall. (We ran out of pins before we could finish off every place I had been.)
Weird. I thought I was gonna have some sort of reverse culture shock or Re-Entry Syndrome as I saw things again for the "first" time, but surprisingly it was almost as if the past sixteen and a half months never happened; in fact, my wall calendar was still on October 2003. Even mentally in my mind, I wasn't phased or changed. The only reason for it that I could come up with was that perhaps I had just become so oversaturated with so many experiences around the world that it was all just clumped into one pile of mush in my brain, too complicated to be sorted or remembered.
Thank God I kept a Blog.
And so, I had made it full circle after a hectic day -- after a hectic sixteen and a half months -- with not much hoopla at all. I guess that was okay for the time being, because the real ending, the real full circle, would come on Day 503: The Return To New York -- Manhattan was just a hop, skip, and a train ride away under the river...
If you enjoy this daily travel blog, please post a comment! Give me suggestions, send me on missions, let me know how things are going back home in the USA. Knowing that I have an audience will only force me to make this blog more entertaining as the days go by. Donīt forget to bookmark it and let a friend know!
Posted by Erik on March 15, 2005 11:52 PM