At Miami, as at so many international airports in the US, there’s a rather shambolic welcome to the country to all us damned furriners. I realized, standing in the long queue for immigration that snaked around the hall, that if you looked back the way you had come, there was a sign welcoming you to the USA, but only for people who were walking backwards.
After a long, long time the booth in front of me processed the person ahead of me, and as the person in the booth sat so low they were invisible from the magical line of this-is-where-visitors-must-wait, I walked up to the counter, where I was imperiously waved back by the man hiding behind the computer there. As soon as I got back to the line, he waved his hand over the top of the counter, to summon me back.
I had aroused his ire in unexpected ways. The customs form for entering the US asks you to write down the number of family members accompanying you. Since I’d left both Foremanwife and La Serpiente Negra behind, I wrote "0", as I always do. Because that is a number. The number of family members accompanying me.
Apparently all those years of mathematics, and all that time navigating other border control officials in the US, was all wrong, because the correct number, as he explained to me very slowly, was NONE. I bit my lip and tried not to say anything.
Then he looked at my passport, and said that I don’t look anything like it. This is a trifle unfair, if not unkind. It is a photograph now five years old, and obviously with time, we all must change. Once again, it looks like I may have brown eyes again in the eyes of Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State – not much I can do about that. The officer seemed more annoyed that I’d had a shave.
(Back in London, 36 hours before, a computer had no trouble reconciling the bearded face in my passport with the shaven face I am currently transporting around the world, but that’s facial recognition algorithms for you.)
He demanded other photo ID. I gave him my Singapore EP (with huge beard). I gave him my driving license (which has exactly the same photo as my passport, just shrunk and converted to black and white so it’s harder to make out). Neither of these satisfied him. He asked me why I’d got rid of my beard. Was it for my girlfriend?
I couldn’t imagine that explaining my marital status, or the present of a decent shave for my birthday, or the Christmas shaving cream, or any of these together, would get me processed any quicker, so I told him it was down to the hot weather in Singapore, and hoped he didn’t notice I had my passport issued in Hong Kong where it can get just as unpleasantly sweaty. I think he began to grow a little bored at this point. Perhaps I was one of those suspicious types who go round not having exactly the same appearance for the entire validity of their travel documents, but since all my other documents matched that face, apparently there wasn’t much for him to do, and at last he waved me on. By now I was oscillating from all the stress of a long journey and unexpected questions, and so I quivered as I went to collect my bag.
Baggage transfers in American airports demonstrate the great faith and hope Americans have for miracles. You pick up your bag, take it to a room somewhere else where some men shout incomprehensible commands, and then you leave the bag there. There is no sign of any tracking equipment, no barcode scanner, no evidence that your bags aren’t just about to be wheeled outside and dumped in a ditch, yet each passenger placidly relinquiishes the suitcase they were so worried about a few moments earlier, in the sure and certain knowledge that they’ll see it again.
Against all expectation, my bag arrived in Costa Rica at the same time as me. Costa Rica seems quite beautiful (or at least the starry sky is) but very dark and very quiet. Perhaps tomorrow, when my eyes aren’t spinning like the reels on a one-armed bandit,I’ll be able to see a bit more.