[ 10:41 sunday 19 october – galesville, maryland ]
landing at dulles yesterday afternoon something remarkable happened: the border protection officers let me into the country.
on my very first visit to the united states in november 2002 i walked blearily up to the passport control booth at san francisco airport, the officer swiped my passport and looked up at me with an expression that didn’t bode well. “i don’t know what this means” he said. “they want to see you out back”, scrawling a big red cross on my immigration papers and pointing me to the secondary screening room. i sat for an hour in the bare fluorescent-lit room, terrified, before i was called up. it became clear the officers believed i’d visited the usa before and was lying about it being my first visit. eventually my dazed brain made the connection with a new passport that had been stolen in transit from the passport office in 2001. presumably someone had tried to enter america with it, had been refused and this had triggering an alarm on the database when my passport was swiped. after another half hour they agreed to let me through but they made it clear there was no way to remove the information from their database so “it would be a good idea never to book flights with tight connections in future”.
thus it has been that every subsequent trip (and there have been a great many) i’ve been despatched to secondary screening and treated with more or less suspicion, each time having to explain the situation anew and pray the officers would be sympathetic. the moment when the officer in primary passport control swipes my passport, does a double take and commences to look at me as a suspected criminal rather than a legitimate visitor has become all too familiar. there’s always a slight fear in my mind that one day i’ll arrive more tired and crotchety than usual and inadvertently make some sarcastic comment that would result in an officer deciding to use their power to refuse me.
so yesterday when i arrived at passport control and the double take didn’t happen my heart started beating a little faster than usual. there was no disbelieving question “are you sure you haven’t ever been denied entry to the united states?”. no red cross on my immigration papers. the officer just took my fingerprints, carried on looked bored, stamped my papers, wished me a pleasant trip. i didn’t fully believe it until i’d collected my luggage, passed through the import check-point and passed into the arrivals lobby. but it was true, i was through without having to visit secondary. it made me feel surprisingly different about the country. for the first time my reception by the authorities wasn’t characterised by suspicion, delay and indignity.
i’ve no idea what changed. maybe the original database entry expired after five and a half years? perhaps the officer in primary was incompetent or dozy and failed to notice an alert on his screen? it will be interesting to see what happens next time.
having arrived i had nowhere booked for saturday night. before leaving london i’d done a quick search for interesting-looking places on the maryland coast and jotted down a few numbers. as i was waiting to pick up my rental car i phoned a few of them to see what was available. only the “pirate’s cove” at galesville had space so i booked it, collected my car, fed in the gps coordinates and set off.
galesville is a little harbour, popular with yachties, at the edge of chesapeake bay. the shore is lined with simple clap-board homes, decorated with pumpkins and candy ready for halloween. “pirate’s cove” provides the only tourist accommodation in the area, with five rooms above a seafood restaurant next door to a boat yard. i’m sitting having breakfast now with sun streaming through the windows and a steady breeze blowing in across the bay. i plan to drive down the coast to walk in one or two of the coastal reserves. this evening i’ll drive back up to washington ready for a string of meetings to commence tomorrow.
: c :