Global Travel in the 21st Century

Remember the days when you could fly over to Europe and make your trip up as you go?  You know, just backpack around and live off the kindness of strangers? Do you? Well those days are gone.  9/11 did that whole dream in.

But, let’s back up for a second, shall we? 

It’s funny sometimes the things you don’t imagine will be important later on.

Exhibit A: I had talked to Andrea on the phone a few times before I came to visit her, but because of the crazy rates of calling her from my cell phone, I had used Skype.  So the only place I had her numbers was on my computer.  And while at the car on the way to the airport I thought to myself that I should have brought them with me, I figured that I wouldn’t be able to call her before she met me anyway, so no big loss.

Exhibit B: On my trip to Paris in January, the immigration guard didn’t stamp my passport with a France stamp.  At the time I was a little pissed about this one. Mostly because I want to be cool and have an book full of those stamps like my sister has, but I got over it.

Both of these are little things that would bite me in the ass later.

There I was, 10:30am, just off the overnight flight from NYC, and I’m standing in the long line to get up to one of the “tellers”. Now, if you haven’t flown internationally lately, when you get up to one of these people, you have to have your passport and this little card filled out. On the card you fill in your name, passport number, country of origin, purpose of your visit, and place where you’re staying while your there.

OK, well London is an expensive city, and Andrea being a jazz singer, knows all the managers at the hotels she plays, so she got me a room at the friends and family rate with the reservation in her name.  However while filling out this form and standing in line, I realized that I had no earthly I idea where it was I was staying. Just then I get called to the next available agent.

So the very nice lady looks at my passport and my card and says, “You forgot to fill out this part”  and so I explained that it’s because I don’t know exactly where I’m staying and the whole situation.  She then asks me for the name of my friend – Andrea Mann, that was an easy one. Ok, so what’s her phone number- D-oh!  Exhibit A rears it’s ugly head.  Well where did you meet this woman – “Well you see, I haven’t actually met her in person yet”  and I swear that the woman rolled her eyes and said,  “Oh boy, this keeps getting worse.”  Well have you been anywhere else lately? – Ah, yes Paris in January.  “Well why is there no stamp in your passport?”  D-oh!  Exhibit B!

Long story short, they went and found Andrea and she corroborated my story, they gave me the 3rd degree about how I was going to pay my way in their fine country by asking point blank how much money I had on me and what credit cards I was carrying (all of which she wrote down in my file, so she knew where to mug me later).  And finally she got permission from her boss to let me go with a special case number.  So now I have a cool special stamp in my passport.

The moral of this story is that you need to have a printed reservation with you when you go to another country.  Don’t plan on finding a hotel when you get there.

No, actually the real moral of the story is that security systems like this are a waste of time.  Sure, having not met my friend before, and not knowing where I was staying set off red flags.  But if I were really a bad guy who was going to do something terrible, wouldn’t I want to draw no attention to myself at all? I’d have reservations ready, I’d say I was there as a tourist for a few days, I’d have calm detailed answers for everything.

I guess the point of all this is while I’m all for reducing the likelihood that I blow up in flight or that some crazy guy blows up a city, I think we’re being naïve.  These people are smarter than we give them credit for.  And silly questions like, “So where are you staying?” are just there for the Congressional hearing where in front of a CNN camera some Senator asks with incredulity, “But you didn’t even ask where they were staying?!!” just to win the favor of scared voters in their district. The events of the past few years could have been an opportunity to bring the people of the countries of this world together.  But instead they have made us more xenophobic, more untrusting, and have brought even less freedom.

So in the end government has left us with with more freedom to eat Doritos, watch reality TV in the comfort of our own homes, and go see the Lion King on broadway. But seeing the world? Nah, sorry little boy, we don't trust you enough for that.