Back in the USA (MIA to SFO)

Monday March 18, 2008 Miami International Airport

We passengers got off the plane (deplane sounds so Fantasy Island, doesn’t it?) and zombied forward, toward the bureaucramaze, which is like a maize maze but not nearly as much fun.

Sergio had warned us about Miami International Airport. He was too kind.

The show run by Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration of the US Dept. of Homeland Security at Miami International Airport proved to be an utter cluster-f**k. I may be wrong (not an uncommon occurrence) but neither CBP or TSA seem to have its act together. And, they’re not happy about it. According to its entry in Wikipedia, DHS employee morale ranks lowest in the US government departments.

There seems to be no concept that the people arriving at this embarkation point may not be operating at peak capacity, often traveling six to ten hours and overnight. Second, the agency is Anglo-centric. All signs are English. There seems to be no allowance that people may not be, shall we say, fluent in English. After my eight-hour flight, even I wasn’t able to read and follow the signs. C’mon guys how about a few pictograms to help those not totally literate in English? Like maybe those of us who didn’t ace the SATs?

Our first decision came at a bifurcation point: US citizens moved to the hallway on the right, foreign visitors into the left hallway. The purpose of this is to put you on the far left or far right (is there a metaphor in there for the US to be the far right?) of the same room. That is was the same room was not readily apparent to me (I’ll not speak for Mary) and I headed to the far left where the lines appeared to be shortest and fastest. Yes, you read that correctly, the lines. Rather than placing the two groups into (nearly ubiquitous) two serpentine lines, we were directed back into the same room with nothing separating the groups, and we had to gamble on which line would move the fastest. Mary was the first of us to notice something amiss.

Her first observation was that the people seemed to be more slender than the average American. Next, their clothing looked different. Finally, the people around us were not carrying US passports. The slender woman in front of us held an Argentinean passport.

Perhaps the most telling observation came from a man a couple people ahead of us, “You’re in the wrong line.”

A visual inspection of the Passport Control station yielded a clue: “Visitors.”

Back we went to the handful of queues on the far right. Four stations (out of maybe sixteen) were marked “US Citizens.” I’d show you a picture of the chaos but the bureaucrats do not allow photographs.

After getting through passport control, we picked up our luggage and were directed by signs to “follow the green dots” on the floor. These took us to a place that resembled the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark movie with the stacks upon stacks of crates and steamer trunks. People waited at various places along the perimeter. One TSA uniformed man wandered behind tape, grabbed bags willy-nilly, and tossed them into other stacks. I never saw anything move along the conveyor belt to the x-ray machine. We waited five or ten minutes trying to get him to take our two suitcases. We would move to where he was taking bags from people on our side of the barrier, and then he would move to another area—we’d follow him there, and he’d go back to where we had been.
He finally noticed us. “Follow the yellow dots,” he growled.
Someone woke up on the grumble grouch side of bed. Did I mention that Homeland Security employee morale is in the dumper?

We staggered off on the Yellow Trick Road and found an equally confusing luggage situation with an equally harried woman using the same snatch and toss technique as the guy at the other drop-off.

She gestured with her chin. “Just leave it inside the barrier.”
We scooted our stuff under the stretchy tape’s fabric. I fully expected to never see my underwear again.

After leaving our luggage to the vagaries unknown, we went in search of the line for domestic flight security screening. We found it. Just one more bit of chaotic clusterf***:
A woman pretends to look at our boarding passes and identification as we get into the serpentine cordon.

“Okays,” hollers another guy from the equally Anglo-centric Transportation Safety Administration. “I don’t speaks no Spanish, but, we’s got four lines here. If’n the person in front of you don’t see no opening, be polite, be nice, but go around ‘em. We’s got four lines here.”

“Here” refers to the lines for carry-on and passenger screening: the sprint where you take off your shoes, cap and coat, get out your liquids, and pull out your laptop, and put them in plastic bins (that are nowhere near you) in less than fifteen seconds or the person behind you knocks you down. I hate this part of air travel. It’s Theater of the Absurd without the funny bits. I believe we are no safer; simply hassled for show.

The waiting area on the other side of security didn’t hold any good coffee or pastries. It just had another group of people waiting for another flight to another place. We sat down and waited for our turn.

American Airlines flight 431 was notable only for the fact that it wasn’t notable. The only things I remember of the six-hour journey are the lack of in-flight entertainment (other than the magazine) and there was no one in front or behind me. I reclined my chair back and snoozed some more.

In SFO, my underwear and I reunite at the baggage carousel. I would have bet money and given odds that we would never see Big Blue (a hardside Samsonite) and the flower fabric suitcases before the coming of the Messiah.

Luggage in hand, I spotted a Peet’s Coffee and bought the best cup of coffee I have ever had. I could never move to Brazil. No Peet’s Coffee there. Coffee in hand, we headed off to the skyway tram to BART.

In the tram, I talked a little Portuguese with some vacationing Brazilians and wished them a boa viagem when we got off. I hope they had a great time.

People jostled at the automated ticket dispensers for BART. We got in line behind a couple of Emo types from New York (we later learned) dressing in leather and pierced/studded in at least a dozen places. To our right, a young man dressed in black with straight shoulder-length hair begins to freak.

“The f**king machine has eaten my f**king credit card!” he cries.

He has tried to put his credit card in the printer located near one’s right knee rather than in the strip reader higher up and to the left. In his defense, it’s an easy mistake to make. The printer slot does look like the reader on an ATM.

He’s quivering. “I am so f**ked! I need that card. I’m going to be presenting at a Pop Culture seminar.

“A conference on pop culture?” says one of the beleathered New York couple. “Oh, we would have totally been there if we’d known about it.”

Will you watch my spot while I try to find an attendant to retrieve it?”

We agree to keep an eye on it.

He comes back minutes later with a large woman who has the keys to open the machine up. We head for the train platform.

He tells us he teaches English and Pop Culture Studies at a college in Montreal. He will be part of a panel presentation on Emo (kids who dress all in black and cut themselves with razor blades). I ask him what about kids who were self-cutters who aren’t into Goth.
“Oh, yeah, what’s up with that?!!” he replies.

When the Yellow Train arrives, we get into the same car. The conversation continued.

One of the New Yorkers says, “I bought a Japan album on eBay—the seller said it was a rip off of Duran Duran. I wanted to send him, a like, 6-page email saying that Duran Duran evolved out of Japan, not the other way around!”

“It must be hard to be young today,” the Montreal teacher says, “because nothing is authentic—everything is pastiche.”

Maybe. But this is not a new idea. As the author of Ecclesiastes said, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

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Brasil – Rio de Janeiro Aeroporto

Segunda-Feira 18 Março 2008

The ride from Buzios to Rio de Janeiro airport is just as easy due to Mario’s excellent driving.

After an hour on highway BR-101, we come upon the Rio harbor and can see the now-familiar landmarks of Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf) and, Corcovado mountain on which Christ the Redeemer stands. Mario negotiates his SUV into the traffic of Rio with seeming ease. Five lanes choke down to three for no apparent reason as if we had just left a toll collection booth. He doesn’t break a sweat.

A ship’s horn blasts in the distance.

“Excuse me,” I say. “Must’ve been the feijoada.”
Mario and Mary laugh. Mario speaks only Portuguese. I guess fart jokes are universal.

Rio de Janeiro Aeroporto (GIG)

Getting our boarding passes at GIG proves to be a breeze. We sat at an airport café and ate one of the tastier–if not strange–burgers we’ve ever had. In addition to the all-beef patty, lettuce, pickles and tomato, there is cheese, bacon and egg. And beber (to drink)? Mary drank a guarana and I had an espresso com creme. We looked out at Sugar Loaf and just smiled.

Mary wanted to pick up a book at the airport. She’d read the book she brought with her (The Princess of Burundi), plus four she found where we stayed: Murder at the Margin: A Henry Spearman Mystery, The Investigation, Fashionably Late, and Citizen Girl. She found a Michael Connelly book in paperback at a small loja and tossed it on the counter. It rang up at 50 Reais (about $30). We got Veja (Portuguese for “See It”) instead.

We went through Rio Airport’s security with a slight hiccup. The screener mistook my thumbdrive for a penknife. Once on the other side of security we found ourselves in a cramped terminal. There seem to be about thirty chairs for three-hundred seats. We share our claustrophobic conditions with passengers waiting to board ah hour’s delayed Air France flight.

I know that we Americans take heat about our fashion sense abroad. But…what are some people thinking? She’s in line for the Air France flight.

The American Airlines plane flight is long (eight hours plus a thirty minute delay waiting for clearance), boring, food unremarkable, uneventful. It’s perfect. I slept off and on throughout. I’m surprised by how quickly my fellow passengers spring out of their seats to clog the aisles. I know how they feel, you just want to stand up and be moving. Many have connecting flights that they are now late for. My stiff legs and sluggish brain can’t compete.

Next to me, a criança (little girl) threw up into an airsickness bag. Mary and I pulled the bags from our seat pockets and hand them to the girl’s mother. The little one upchucked again before we could get them in the mom’s hands.

The plane emptied slower than, well, a plane full of logy passengers.

We girded ourselves for the real communications problemsUS customs and the officious and bureaucratically Anglo-centric Transportation Security Administration–after a red-eye flight to Miami.

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Brasil – Búzios Tchau

Segunda-Feira 17 Março 2008

We are ready to go. Packing took very little time. We decided that everything would need to be washed when we got home. Those items we had washed two days ago are still wet. Humidity is high here.

At around 11:30 AM, we were enjoying one last cup of cha on the porch overlooking the water, trying to burn the scene into our permanent memory. Rosa, one of the condo complex caretakers, walked up to the top of the hill to the condo where we are staying. She speaks no English. We speak halting Portuguese and recognize only ten percent of the words when someone speaks to us. I wish I could turn on the captions. If I could read what is said as well as hear it my comprehension rises slightly. Out of the cloud of sentences, we are able only to understand the words cinco minutos (five minutes).

Mario indeed arrived five minutes late just as Rosa explained.

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