Sunday, March 25, 2012

Proud to be an American?

"There's something happenin' here, what it is ain't exactly clear---"

When we recently returned to the US the immigration officer in New York who stamped our passports cheerfully said, "Welcome back!" And indeed it was great to be back in the land of the free and home of the brave.

An incident at the airport in Raleigh, North Carolina, however, made me seriously question both the "free" and "brave" parts of this familiar phrase.

After a wonderful visit with family there we were returning to Hoboken to spend time with the rest of our brood. While I was preparing for the usual drill of going through security--shoes off, laptops out and in a separate bin, etc.--I wasn't really paying attention to the TSA guy droning on behind me ("No liquids larger than---").

As I got ready to walk though the apparatus that checks for metal the guy says to me, "SIR, what's that in your front pocket?!" His tone of voice was not conversational. It was like when in the movies a cop says to a perp, "Let me see your hands. NOW!!" When you're hearing this on the screen you think nothing about it. When someone's speaking like that to you, trust me, it makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

Caught off guard and confused, I answered, "My wallet?"

"You have to take everything out of your pockets, sir."

"But my wallet doesn't have any metal in it."

"YOU HAVE TO TAKE EVERYTHING OUT OF YOUR POCKETS, SIR!" There was that tone of voice again, only louder and more forceful.

I'm a little rattled now. I've been through a lot of airports, including just days ago in Newark, and nothing like this has ever happened before in my life. So, OK, I take out my wallet and put it in a tray to be scanned.

As I now get ready to go through the metal detector, the TSA guy stops me again.

"SIR, what's that in your back pocket?!"

Huh?? I have no idea what he's talking about. I check my back pockets.

"Um, a piece of paper??"


A piece of paper with some notes scribbled on it? Are you %#@*&+ kidding me???

Now I'm totally discombobulated. I put the damn piece of paper in yet another tray and hurriedly walk through the detector to get away from this knucklehead.

The TSA guy on the other side stops me.

"Sir, what do you think you're doing?!"

"Um, walking through the metal detector?"

"Turn around and put your feet where it shows."


"And put your arms up above your head like in the picture."

At this moment I realized I was in one of those full body scanner machines I've read about. In Raleigh and not in New York? Really? Never seen one before. Totally unprepared for the drill I'm going through.

And I just want to be done. I submissively put my feet where they're supposed to go, put my hands behind my head as the picture shows, and it's over.

Except it's not. After all that, when I emerge from the machine the guy tells me to again put my hands above my head. He then proceeds to pat me down around my waist area before finally dismissing me.

After gathering my belongings, putting everything back in my pockets and my watch on my wrist, putting back on my shoes, belt, hat, and coat, putting the computer back in the luggage, we immediately got the hell away from there and proceeded to our gate. I needed to make a phone call before we got on the plane, but when leaving a voice mail I discovered my brain was so agitated I couldn't even put together coherent sentences.

As I sat there going over the chain of events that had just occurred and how it had effected me I got increasingly angry. As I recall the episode now I feel myself getting pissed off all over again.

First of all, why are TSA standards so utterly random from airport to airport? You forget to take off your belt. In some airports the metal detector is triggered; in others it is not. Once Cynthia discovered she was traveling with a large pair of scissors in her carry on. She discovered it--not screeners in the two US airports we'd been through. Why is there a full body scanner in Raleigh, not exactly a hotbed of terrorist activity, and not in New York City?

More importantly, I am an American citizen. I grew up in an era when freedom--civil rights, women's rights, gay rights--was in full blossom. None of these happened without struggle, and in some cases bloodshed and death. But happen they did because of the will and spirit of the people.

Yet now in this same lifetime it has come to this? Where our own law-abiding citizens can be routinely subjected to treatment formerly reserved for suspected criminals? And we just sheepishly keep our heads down and go along?

The government says these procedures are to keep us safe from terrorists. Baloney. I didn't feel safe. I felt victimized. I felt violated. I felt---terrorized. By people whose salaries are paid by my taxes.

No, this isn't about safety. It's about control. In "the land of the free" our own government wants to know where we are and what we're doing at all times. Methodically and ever increasingly it wants to control our behavior. Did you know there is now a law that allows American citizens to be arrested by the military without cause? Imprisoned because someone (who?) thinks you might be a threat?

Don't believe it? Google the National Defense Authorization Act and prepare yourself for a shock.

So in light of all this am I proud to be an American? Absolutely! I love my country and the ideals that it stands for. But, in the case of my episode, I am absolutely appalled that our own government is employing Fascist tactics on its own citizenry. And I am disheartened that the American people have grown so passive? complacent? fearful? that such abominations are not only tolerated but accepted.

What has happened to us? Were those heady times of my youth when freedom reigned the peak of our culture? Is the battle already lost?

God knows I hope not.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Weighty Matters

During my first trip back to the States I shocked myself by packing on a whopping 15 pounds in less than a month. I had prepared a lengthy wish list of specific places and things to eat and returned with my mission accomplished and the waistline of my pants straining. The first ten pounds dropped off pretty quickly but, damn, those last five were stubborn!

On the second trip I wasn't such a maniac. There were of course certain things I looked forward to enjoying that aren't available here--barbeque, Popeye's fried chicken, the usual suspects. I learned from the first go round that, while I relentlessly pursued my "seek and destroy" agenda, the anticipation often exceeded the actual experience. As a result my weight increased only five pounds or so and was back to normal in a week.

After returning from our latest three week visit I stepped on the scales and---I was a scant 1/2 pound heavier than when I left. How could this happen? I wasn't a glutton but neither did I deny myself (with US portion sizes that's next to impossible). I'm certain that overall I consumed much more than my normal diet. Adding to the mystery, I go to the gym religiously three times a week, but on this trip I never set foot inside a health club.

I'm seriously wondering if eating the more nutritious food in Ecuador for two straight years has changed my metabolism and/or body chemistry. Or maybe it's living at higher altitude. I'm certainly happy about all this but curious as to why.

You got any ideas?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


Remember when fax machines first came on the market? You know, the ones with the weird paper that looked like the Dead Sea scrolls after a month or so? I was totally fascinated that you could put a document in your machine and somehow transmit the image over telephone lines to a receiver anywhere in the world. Sending a picture over wires meant for sound was absolute magic to me.

We just returned from a 3 week visit to the US last night and I must admit that the act of getting on a plane and emerging hours later someplace completely different similarly seems like magic every time I experience it. Yesterday morning we left JFK in New York at 8 AM and by lunchtime we were in the airport in Bogota, Columbia (the "magic" was admittedly a bit tainted when the first thing I saw was a Dunkin' Donuts shop). Everyone was speaking English, now it's Spanish; dollars, now pesos. I woke up in Hoboken, New Jersey and went to sleep in my own bed in Cuenca, Ecuador.

It's fantastic! I love it!

I've got a number of stories to tell and observations to make from our visit. At first I was fretting about not keeping up the blog in real time. Then I decided chronology is so overrated and I'd just wait until I returned and write as ideas/themes come to me.

So stay tuned. And, while the subject is still fresh, if there is a US vs. living abroad topic you'd like my thoughts on post a comment or shoot me an email.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Back in the US of A

It’s been about eight months since I’ve been in the States, and with each return trip I recognize how much I have changed. We’re here to attend the New York Times Travel Show and of course visit our family, but only an hour outside of Cuenca I first noticed something different.

Two years ago the 3 hour van ride through the Cajas mountains to Guayaquil was for me a tense, white-knuckle experience. This time I actually fell asleep on the way, once waking up when the vehicle suddenly lurched to the side.

Me: “What happened?”
Cynthia: “The van was dodging some big rocks in the road.”
Me: “Oh.”

Our two hour layover in Bogata, Columbia was enlightening. I have not been in a country that doesn’t use the US dollar since we went to Europe several years ago. The prices in the airport were astronomically high, and it turns out the conversion rate is 1800 to 1. Well, no wonder, I thought. Then I started doing the math, and the prices were still pricey, at least by Ecuadorian standards. $2 for a can of Coke or a bottle of water? $5 for a damn hot dog? Stop it. A vendor at the Port Authority here in New York only charged $1.85. I know airports aren’t generally where you go looking for bargains but still-----.

I hadn’t really thought much about what to anticipate or prepare myself for prior to leaving Ecuador. And it’s funny what you forget and what you get used to. For example, I was temporarily caught off guard when as soon as we got off the plane everything was in English. Then we got to the immigration area and things were---orderly. A guy was actually directing traffic—OK, the next five of you go down there to #36, the rest of you wait. In Latin America it’s pretty much a chaotic free for all with people either looking bewildered or rudely breaking in line.

Speaking of which, a new immigration window opened up while we were waiting our turn and this old guy went from somewhere behind us and stood by himself in front of her booth. He isn’t a bewildered Latin American. He’s just a jerk. It’s 5 in the morning after an all-night red eye. We’re next. I’m not in the mood.

Me: “Hey, what do you think you’re doing?”
He: “She’s calling people.”
Me: Yeah, she’s calling people from the front of the line. Get your ass back where it came from.”

As the immigration officer stamped our passports he cheerfully said, “Welcome back!” And it’s good to be back. I’m munching on a piece of Vermont extra sharp cheddar while writing this and remembering how much I miss all the delicious goodies so readily available here. I love my family so much and don’t see them as often as I’d like, and I look forward to every moment we’ll be together in the coming weeks.

But I’ve changed. I can tell I don’t live here anymore. The energy is so different. Everything/everybody seems to move incredibly fast. “What’s the rush?” I keep wondering.

Our kids ask us about our plans while we’re in the States. We don’t really have many—just a general idea of what to do each day, then off we go to enjoy whatever adventures come our way, just like in Cuenca.

The slowed down, in the moment lifestyle I’ve adopted feels better. I can’t even remember why I was always in such a hurry before, and it seems like I should have accomplished a lot more, or at least had a lot more fun, for all that effort. Perhaps there is an unquestioned cultural consciousness that most everyone simply accepts as “the way it is.”

Still, it’s wonderful to be in the US again, to visit family and partake of the material abundance (and bring a few special treats back in our suitcases). What a blessing to enjoy the best of both worlds.