Thursday, February 11, 2016

Arrival U.S.A.: Getting Through LAX

You might guess by the title that I am again among my loved ones, after a grueling fifty-plus hours in transit. Little Benjamin has just had a bath and been put to bed, Samantha is studying and Darrell is at work – the overnight shift. Zeva the Dog lays at my feet and the cat is curled up on the arm of the chair. I find myself at loose ends, having slept like a log last night: no jet lag for me!

The trans-pacific plane ride did not last fifty hours; in fact, it went rather quickly. What did me in was the 16-hour layover in Hong Kong. I got a great deal on the ticket but I'm not sure the thousand Yuan I saved was worth the time spent in transit. The trouble is that I cannot seem to sleep on the road so, all night and into the next day I stumbled around Hong Kong airport, enviously staring at those who seem to be able to sleep in any position, in any environment and in any condition.

That 'not sleeping' deal applies to plane rides, too. I might have nodded off for a few minutes out of sheer exhaustion, but true sleep never visits me in transit. So, you can imagine what fine form I was in when we finally touched down in Los Angeles.

Last year I glossed over the pain and aggravation of getting admitted to America. Now, I'm glad I did because this year, the 'clearing customs' ritual has established an all-new level of annoyance and aggravation, and I get to tell you all about it!

LAX's Tom Bradley International terminal must have been planned and laid out by fitness gurus who hold the belief that extended walking is the secret to unhappy life, or by blind architects. The distance from the jetway to the passport validation area – the step that precedes claiming baggage and clearing customs is convoluted and consists of up-and down-ramps, escalator rides and more than a few meters of straightaway concourse. As opposed to many other airports, there are no moving sidewalks. That might help explain why I believe sadistic fitness gurus might have been involved in the planning and design.

Normally I would not balk at taking exercise but, because of lack of sleep and sitting overly long, my newly mended leg was screaming. And then, when I thought of all the standing and queueing still to be done...

After about 10 minutes' walk we all arrived in the great hall, ready for passport  examination and customs declaration. Whereas visitors to the country were instructed to enter the first serpentine queue marker, those with American passports had to walk to the end of the large hall to line up, switchback style. The line had already folded back on itself 7 times by the time I got there. I was not happy.

And then, futher aggravation set in when we collectively noticed a line of machines. Assistants were inviting queued-ups to face the contraption. Others coached the bewildered travelers on how to use the machine. “What could these be for?” I wondered.

Finally, my turn to face the gadget. After engaging it by requesting it speak to me in a specific language, it asked my name, nationality, purpose of coming to America. Next screen asked what type of passport I have, and what country issued it. Third screen detailed duty items: had I anything I needed to declare? Did I bring any produce or seeds? Soils? Had I been in contact with any livestock while abroad? Am I importing gifts totaling... what amount? And then, I was to present my passport to the built-in scanner. Next, the machine instructed me to remove my glasses, adjusted itself to my height and took my picture. The ritual concluding by it printing a receipt, with the instructions to present that paper to the official who will inspect my documents in the next stage of the process.

This step of in-processing is new. Last year, we were all given a blue and white form to fill out while still in flight which, after the death-march through the terminal and endless queueing, we were to present to a security officer, who would ask leading questions such as: “What were you doing in China?” “Why did you come back?” Where will you go?” in order to ascertain whether or not you are a terrorist. By that short conversation, your form would be marked in a certain way, indicating to the officer downstream that your bags are to be opened and checked, or you should just be waved through.

Those new gizmos asked the same questions as the officers did last year, so I reckoned that, once more a machine has supplanted a human. After moving further up the new serpentine queue I found myself in after wrangling with the machine, the officers' booths – minimally staffed, were still in place, and travelers still stepped up to and stopped at them, handing over documents. Officers made conversation, supplicants removed eyewear and pictures were taken... just as the machine had done. 

I thought that those officers were there to ease the pain of transitioning to the automated passport validation system so, when my turn came to be interviewed by such an official, I asked if the machines will indeed take their job in the near future. “No” he replied. “It's just another layer of security.”

I'm confused. Those machines, no doubt having cost the taxpayers a bundle, asked the same questions and fulfilled the same function as the officer. While it is true that a machine would not necessarily be able to interpret subtle nuances of body language, all other aspects of the entry process are done mechanically.

And these machines are supposed to help thwart terrorists' feet touching American soil? Wasn't it just a few weeks ago that ISIS claimed responsibility for a shoot-up in San Bernadino? And, the American economy being what it is – the poor getting poorer, can America afford to throw tax money toward  a redundant layer of security?

My sleep-deprived mind pondered that as we all queued up for the next step in the process: claiming our bags and going through customs. Here, there were no serpentine arrangements, just lines of people, stretching out as far as the eye can see,  front to back, the entire length of the building. To get to the proper carousel, we had to cross those lines, and then find a place in one of the three lines and wait.

Progress was slow. Several travelers around me fretted over missing their connecting flights. An officer on the fringes insisted that this procedure is normal, that no one line is moving any faster than the other, and that everyone should just be patient.

I've been in plenty of airports, around the world. I contend that only Israel beats America in aggravation as far as entry procedures. They have good reason for it: their country is constantly in turmoil/under attack.  Presumably America is also under attack, and these measures are necessary. However, in all of the time I've been traveling in and out of America, the only terror incidents I've heard about are 'homegrown' – initiated by citizens who've lived there long-term.

Gaining entry was an aggravating time. Fortunately, we had scheduled my connecting flight to Oregon for several hours after touchdown in L.A. so that there would be plenty of time to go through all of the procedures necessary for admittance to the country.

Nevertheless, in the back of my mind, niggled: “How must they feel: those who, their whole lives, have dreamt of coming to America, only to be confronted with... this?”              

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