Something that’s changed quite a bit since I first visited the US, back in 2007, is the process you have to go through at immigration. Previously, it used to be nothing short of a full on interrogation. I remember when I flew into Washington DC in March 2007 I must have spent ten minutes being asked questions about my employer, my reasons for visiting, where I was going, what I was doing there, why I was doing it and when I was leaving. The whole thing was conducted in a style similar to what you see on ‘Law and Order’ when they’re cross-examining a witness.
I’ll admit my first trip to the US was a bit unusual. I flew into Washington DC on a Thursday evening with only a backpack for luggage (taken in the cabin) and a vague idea of how to get from Dulles International airport to the centre of the city. I’d booked one of the cheapest hotels I could find and, as it turned out, it wasn’t in the best part of town. I could make the excuse that this was in the days before TripAdvisor became popular but, if I’m honest, I’d done pretty-much zero research about DC. I had a picture in my mind that had been assembled from hundreds of Hollywood movies and BBC news reports – that DC consisted of lots of white stone buildings and large open spaces. This is true to a point: the centre of DC is exactly that – wide boulevards and grand structures – but the majority of the city is about as far from that as you could imagine. DC is, in places, quite rough. Very rough in fact. Notorious even. And the hotel I’d booked was on the wrong side of the Navy Yard district.
Of course I knew none of this at the time and I wandered from central DC out to my hotel completely oblivious to the fact that the area I was going through was (as I later found out) in the middle of something of a drug war. I remember sitting in my hotel that first night listening to the gunshots and sirens, and watching on the local news about a double-homicide that had just occurred a block away from where I had walked earlier.
My luck held though and I spent a very nice day walking around central DC (the Friday), then got the AMTRAX all the way up to New York City on the Saturday (on the way back the train caught fire – apparently this wasn’t an unusual occurrence for AMTRAX). I got back at gone 1am and had to head back to my hotel in a taxi I shared with someone who very-much looked like he may have been a key player in the ongoing drug feud. I spent the Sunday walking round Arlington and some of the fancier districts of the city and then took a flight back out of Dulles on the Sunday evening. Essentially a long weekend in the US.
Looking back on it now I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I was flying almost completely blind and made a lot of the travel arrangements up as I went along – so no change there then.
It was an adventure though. Going somewhere so completely different from anywhere I’d been before with nothing but a backpack and a vague sense of unease.
Times have changed though and this was reflected in the experience I had going through immigration in Newark today. I read something a few years ago (I can’t remember where) which said that all the US boarder officials had been sent on a training course organised by the people who train the Disneyland greeters, to make the immigration process a bit more welcoming. This has certainly had an effect: I was stuck at the immigration desk for over ten minutes today because the officer was explaining at length to me the best routes to drive from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon, what time of day to go and the precautions I needed to take when driving through the desert. He drew me a map on a spare piece of paper showing me how I could get to LA and back in a day from Vegas. He talked about his history in the airforce, how he used to be based on a base in southern Nevada and then proceeded to recount some of the hairier experiences he’d had when driving back to the base straight though the night after a period of leave.
This was all very fascinating but I was more than aware of the queue of several thousand people that was building up on the air side of the desks. The officer took my fingerprints, stamped my passport and sent me on my way, sketched map in hand.
It was only later when I thought back to the conversation that I realised that I had, in fact, told him where I was going, what I was going to do there, when I’d be leaving again, who my employer was back in the UK and why I’d chosen to come to the United States. I was impressed. Without me realising it he’d extracted exactly the same information as the officer had back in 2007, but instead of feeling like I’d been interrogated I felt welcomed.
Heartened by this I headed off to find my next flight. On the way I decided to get a coffee and, in the process, managed to break the self-service checkout to such an extent that they gave me the coffee for free. Please don’t ask me what I did – all I know is that when I tried to offer the machine some money it crashed to a blue screen of death, as did (simultaneously) every other machine in the Newark Liberty International Airport Terminal C food court. Chaos ensued.
It was a 20oz coffee too.