Sunday, April 7, 2013

Land of the Free, Home of the Brave

It's a lovely Saturday afternoon and there's nothing much to do. Sitting idle I'm trying hard to think of something to write but it seems writer's block has struck me big-time.

So now that I'm here, let me tell you about my first trip to the United States of America.

And today I'm going to let the world know of my secret affair - with Airport Security all over the world..they seem to be totally in love with me!

Here it goes folks,

IGI, New Delhi -

My travel started from IGI, New Delhi. The T3 terminal is one awesome terminal..hats off DIAL and GMR, you've built something..definitely way better than a Chennai or a Kolkata Intl. And standing at the airport, at 1.30 AM in the night I realized there's more rush at international terminals than the day-time rush in domestic terminals!

Seems like everyone is travelling abroad, that's why there's no one to help the country here. Just joking, its good to see so many Indians going all over the world and putting us on the map.

So back to the airport, after standing in line for almost an hour to get the boarding pass done (yes, huge line!) I picked up an immigrations form and started filling it. Done with the form, I stepped up to the immigrations counter and my love affair started.

The officer motioned me forward and started looking at my papers. He looked at the passport, then looked at me, then again into the passport. I thought maybe the picture in the passport reminded him of someone who owed him money (I guess). Then he asks me, you are going there to work? or study? I said, "the visa stamp says H1-b so that means work". To which I got the reply, "you look like just out of college!".

After that I moved forward and was now in front of the security check. I am not sure why but almost 99% of the times I am asked to remove my boots and the whole airport looks at me when I'm removing my shoes as if I'm about to do something stupid. Nevertheless, I completed the security check and for the rest of the trip - I didn't bother to tie my shoe laces. I knew there are 2 more airports to cross and this would be repeated there also :)

Thank You note to Etihad Airways - the flight was awesome, food was super, air hostesses were pretty and yes, the movie collection was nice - in the 8 hr flight to Abu Dhabi (my first stop-over) I finished Bourne Legacy, Alex Cross and one more (can't remember).

Abu Dhabi -

If I hadn't known that Abu Dhabi exists on Earth, I could've mistaken it to be a human base on an alien planet. All around, miles and miles of desert..all of a sudden you'll start seeing thing black ribbons running criss-cross and in the distance a megalithic white mushroom (that's a hotel/convention center in the Yas Island) would be looming up ahead. And then you'll slowly see an airport in the middle of a desert with greenery all around!

The landing was a hard landing (pilots would know what I mean - but basically one where the plane touches down abruptly with a thud, its a little uncomfortable but from safety point of view - is a better one than a soft touch down) and then I disembarked.

Abu Dhabi airport is an international airport of the highest standards but you can hear so many people speaking in Hindi, Malayalam and Telugu you feel you are either in Hyderabad or maybe Chennai :) and this includes the airport employees as well. So it was fairly easy to navigate my way through the airport and the stop-oer was only 3 hours so didn't matter much.

Now, Abu Dhabi has a special section where all passengers going to the US are asked for travel documents by American officers. I went up, and this time I could see every one was removing shoes so I did the same and thankfully I passed hassle-free.

The flight from Abu Dhabi to New York is a 9 hour flight and by now I hadn't realized my watch was still on India time, so I changed the time to US EST. So the flight passed smoothly except for the occasional glances from the gentleman sitting next to me and finally the question - "are you going to school in the US?" And I replied, "No Sir, I'm there to work." Now this is a problem, without a stubble I automatically look around 20-22 and it becomes a little difficult to explain that to people :)

Other than that, it was all Atlantic Ocean spread far and wide, until I could see land which was New Haven, CT according to the flightmap. Yeay! USA finally...and NYC looks as much as awesome from the air as much it would look on the ground.

Finally, touchdown at JFK International. And while coming out, keeping my immigration papers and passport in one hand and standing in queue for my turn at the Border Security Checkpoint, the scene from Inception came into my head - Dom slowly making his way to the officer, and worndering if the warrant on him has been removed by Saito's call or will he be arrested. And yes, not to forget the soundtrack - "Dream is Collapsing". I had my very own goose-bumps moment there.

The officer on duty at my checkpoint was a nice guy, he looked at the passport and the work permit. Then he asked a few questions about my job and location, I felt like this was a second visa interview. In 2-3 minutes, he asked me to remove my glasses, got a picture clicked and well..I was officially admitted into the United States of America.

And then it hit me for the first time - the chilly NYC wind! I was coming from warm climates, New Delhi and Abu Dhabi, and was wearing only a shirt and I almost shivered with the cold. Quickly I got into the sweatshirt I had stuffed in my backpack (thanks to friends I knew about the New York weather)

Now last step, submitting the customs declaration form. I repeat - DO NOT ever try to do what I did.
I was carrying the baggage trolley in one hand and passport with the I-94 in the other hand. So where'd I keep the customs form - that's right - it was in my mouth. I gave the saliva ridden form to the officer at the customs section and he said - 'wow, do you think the form is vanilla flavored? you disgust me!"

And with that, he tore my form and asked me to go to a particular side - where the officers were waiting for someone to come, they looked bored.

I go with my stuff and this 6'4" officer with a spiked hair-do (yes, in the US anybody can have any hairstyle - doesn't matter if he/she is a govt employee also) asks me, "Yo Man! You from India...where's the bag of rice?" I said I don't have one on me, He was utterly disappointed and asked if I had pickle or daal (guess they've confiscated these items so many times - they now know what Indians can bring to the US). But I replied, "I'm in America so I'll eat American food." He was impressed and I just had to open and show my bag once, and then I was out of the airport.

So, finally without much troubles which go along with international travel, I made to New York. And the first thing that hit me was simply how big and bustling the city was.

I got to the hotel and dumped my bags and in no time - I was at the Times Square as my connecting flight to LA was tomorrow. Times Square is a lovely place to be, especially if you like or are into adevertising - that place is one big bill board.

Next day, I left for LA. And my affair returned to haunt me.

In most of domestic airports in the US, the body scan is done by a life size X-ray cubicle machine which scans you in one go and then you can walk away. But since I was coming from the New York office after getting some work done, the ID card was on me and the officer motioned me sideways. And every officer was on alert when I was asked to slowly remove my sweatshirt. I could feel them reaching for whatever side-arm they might have been issued.

But luckily, no one panicked and the officer my company ID hanging and said, that's ok - but next time, try and remove everything.

I heaved a sigh of relief and with that, I had enough adventure with American airports.

It's been over a month now and I'm still amazed at my journey, a journey which had all the emotions - hope, excitement, fear, anxiety, Nolan-esque tension and finally that sense of numbness when I cleared all checks and was standing on American soil.

I had thought that when I'd set foot on American soil, it'd be a grand SRK-style entry but sadly, I didn't do anything...I just walked to my friend who was waiting for me braving the icy winds....


  1. :) nice to read... Hope on your next visit, they improve...

  2. Very nice post PJ....LOve the way you have narrated your whole journey.... Looking forward for more posts from US