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Traveling to the States post September 11
Traveling to the States and to a lesser extent, Canada, was always something fraught
with excitement. Overzealous baggage handlers, strange coinage, unusually coloured cheese and intimidating bathrooms. You have no idea how used to everyday things you become until they are taken away from you and replaced with things that look different, sound different, and even flush differently. It's disturbing.
Even so I had reached a point of nervous familiarity with the North American Way Of Life to take these things in my stride. I even knew which side of a sidewalk to walk along, and the brands of beer best avoided. This all changed because of the far reaching effects of September 11. Airports are now a mixture of nervousness, frustration and serious men with serious suits and a penchant for looking in strangers luggage.
One interesting point is that many of the security measures installed are merely playing
catch-up to what most other countries already have. A friend was telling me about his trip to India where a guard points a loaded automatic rifle at you as you step through the metal detectors. Certainly makes you focus on the task of removing all metal items from your person before you step through.
So what, in practice, is it like? In a nutshell, frustrating. Not frustrating in the sense that you have to arrive for a typical international flight the day before to ensure that security has a chance to rummage through your stuff, but frustrating that so many of these measure seem simply as show. Take, for instance, the nail clipper. I challenge anyone to a fight to the death with nail clippers. They are
not a weapon of choice for terrorists. They clip nails. Often poorly. Maybe you could hold someone down and clip too close to the cuticle, but really.
Then there is the other end of the spectrum: the plastic knives the now provide you. Here's a hint: either order the pasta or eat your meal with your fingers. A meal of not-quite-prime beef that's been on the boil for 7hrs between Sydney and Honolulu is not a fair opponent to a plastic knife. The meat is like
rubber. The knife doesn't stand a chance. And the other piece of cutlery they supply you with? Yes - a large, 4-pronged stainless steel fork that could cause exquisite
discomfort if wielded by someone with a few sheep loose upstairs1.
So the security is frustrating. They search your luggage, they pull everything apart and show the entire airport that pair of humourous boxer shorts your girlfriend gave you (and aren't they a whole lot less humouress now that 2000 people are staring at them?). They x-ray your stuff, they scan you, they pat you down, and in all this security they will definitely catch a knife or a gun if it's (a) in the shape of a knife or a gun so that the scanners will pick it up, and (b) on top of your luggage. After searching 37,000 pieces of luggage a day you've gotta get sick of a job like that, and it shows.
One thing that many people complain about that I've not really cared about is the boot up time of Windows. I got a first hand demonstration of what a slow machine and/or operating system can do to domestic airline
schedules. When you go through security they ask you to take out your laptop (or any other electronic device) and turn it on. I'm kind of at a loss as to what this proves. I've got a Dell, and like any card-carrying gadget freak I've pulled it apart and there's stacks of room in there for all sorts of fun stuff. There's also things called removable peripheral bays. So anyway, they make you turn on your machine and when it gets to the BIOS splash screen they go 'OK - that's obviously a rather old and clunky laptop and not a weapon of mass destruction' and tell you to turn it off. There's the problem you see. You can't. It's still booting up. You stand there, with 20 other guys carrying various degrees of gadgetry all looking sheepish as you wait for your laptop to boot up and then either shutdown or hibernate. Sure - you get the occasional iMac guy who breezes through, or a HPC Pro with instant on/off - but there is a special room in hell for these sorts.
So I made it through the luggage checks. I even managed to not need a change of underwear after we started taxiing and an engine stopped working. I even - and this capped off a perfect 30hrs of non-stop travel - managed to be one of the select few on an Air Canada flight that didn't get fed because they had run out of meals. Personally I think they merely ran out of unbroken plastic knives and were too embarrassed to admit it.
Tip #129 for international flying: Eat a good meal before you take off. You may end up arriving hungry at 12:05 in a city that shuts at midnight.
So Sydney to Honolulu was a long trip. Once in Honolulu they asked us to de-plane (my second most hated word in the English language. What, prey tell, is wrong with 'disembark', or even 'get off'?), placed us on a bus, drove us around to the other side of the airport, then watched and giggled as we made our way through 3 lots of security to arrive back on the same plane, in the same seat, that we were in mere moments before
Arriving in Vancouver was great. Actually arriving in one piece, anywhere, was great. I got the usual 20 questions from immigration but the girl was nice and it's almost criminal what you can get away with if you act dumb and have an Australian accent. A good friend kindly gave me a lift from Vancouver to Redmond and I sat back and snoozed in the car on the way through the border checkpoint.
Last time I went across the border by road it was with 49 very inebrieted Canadians. Immigration and Customs took one look at us (and one whiff of the stale air inside the bus) and let us pass as quickly as decorum would allow. This time was a completely different story. America is at War and they ('they' meaning those entrusted with the Country's security) are not going to let you forget it. I watched as other cars had a cursory check of back seats and trunk and were waved through. As soon as I flashed the Australian passport it signaled a significant slowdown in proceedings. The inside of the car was searched, the trunk was searched, all my bags pulled out, my humourous boxers held up for display, and my work and personal papers and affects carefully combed through and scrutinised. Then came visit to the immigration office where it was 20 questions time, followed by 'empty your pockets and wallet' time (my wallet? Trust me - I'm not hiding a pair of
nail clippers in there), quickly followed by 'please take a seat sir - someone will come and speak with you sir' time (my personal favourite).
So I answered all there questions about what I was doing, where I was going, and why, exactly, I had 5 bottles of Australian Shiraz in my luggage (oops! How did that get there?). They searched my wallet, went through all those little bits of incriminating bits of paper that collect in wallets over the span of years, looked up my immigration records (which I didn't realise I even had - foolish me) and eventually decided that I was probably not going to go on a rampage of death and destruction, but was, all things considered, quite possibly angling to find myself a woman of eligible age, court her, propose to her and marry her and stay in the US on a Green Card. All in 2 days. I was given a stern warning
not to get married during my 2 day stay (yeah - well I'll try not to,
OK?) and given my visa. Fabulous.
Tip #130 of international travel: Empty your wallet of anything incriminating before you go travelling.
Two days later I went through the exact same process but in reverse, and with a Canadian immigration officer who wasn't exactly sure what he was meant to be asking. I coached him along.
So in a nutshell, travel to and around North America is still a lot easier than it is in other countries, is still efficient, and still far safer than, say, strapping on a pair of T-bone steaks and stepping in a lion's cage. The only thing that's really changed is that complimentary upgrades are now as rare as hen's teeth, the knives bend, and there's no more visits to the cockpit. Fellow
travelers still bring on 60 pounds of carry-on luggage, the person behind you will still spend the flight sneezing on the back of your head, and you will probably still forget to bring your CD player and be forced to listen to 9hrs of Phil Collins' Greatest Hits on the
in-flight music channel.
1 The fork has since been replaced by a bendy plastic version that is a perfect compliment to the knife.