“The computer tells me that I need one more travel document from you.” Sandra Gebhard-Fitzgerald stares at the screen and swipes the passport once more through the reader. We have already handed her all our flight tickets for the next months, but the computer stubbornly insists that something is missing. “Hm… let me get my supervisor,” Sandra finally murmurs helplessly. Next to us, an Eastern European couple is repacking their suitcases, while bored children patiently wait beside their parents in the check-in line. After 5 minutes, the supervisor arrives and takes control of the situation. “No, US immigration won’t let you into the country without a return ticket!” Although we are planning to stay in the US only for a few days and have an onward flight from Bogota, there is apparently a danger that we might overstay the 90-day visa. “But wouldn’t a prospective illegal immigrant buy a return ticket in the first place?,” we argue, but to no avail.
We have to buy a new ticket
Half an hour later, we present an (except for the 90 Euro processing fee) 100 per cent refundable and thus absurdly expensive “Houston-Bogota” ticket and are allowed to proceed to the check-in counter. Wearily we mention that we are carrying a petrol camping stove, of course without fuel. We had called Delta Airlines in advance, enquiring about the risk that the stove will be confiscated as a dangerous object. If the stove is cleaned and doesn’t smell of fuel, there should be no problem, the woman at the call centre had assured us, after checking with her supervisor. Today, however, several staff members dealing with our tickets had given us a different answer. “To take a stove? That’s strictly forbidden.” By now we are ready to explode, but luckily the check-in officer is more relaxed. The backpacks, with stove, are wrapped in plastic and disappear in the depths of the airport building, while we worry not only about the ticket refund but also whether we will see the stove again.
At the US immigration
In Cincinnati, we have to pass the dreaded immigration. On large posters screaming “Welcome!” and “US-VISIT,” Homeland Security informs us about the “Procedures for All International Visitors”:1. Left Index Finger, 2. Right Index Finger, 3. Look at Camera. “Yes, Officer,” we think, remembering Central Asia, and try not to stick out. Pathetically the immigration officers have a list of “pledges to the visitors” pinned to their booth. “We pledge to greet you cordially…” Our immigration officer affably comments on his digital snapshots, nobody asks to see our return tickets, and we get a 90-day visa for the US without any further problems.
Beyond immigrations, we have to haul our backpacks through customs before we can check them in again for the local onward flight. Long queues of passengers file to the x-ray machines, where they patiently remove their jackets, belts, purses, shoes and nearly everything else. Progress is slow because only a few airport officers are busy scanning too many passengers. “Ladies and gentlemen, let me have your attention! The reason why you are being subjected to this screening is that you have had access to your check-bags,” a bully security staff roars, and the passengers further lower their heads like prisoners submitting to punitive measures after a revolt.
By the time we have arrived in Houston and returned our onward tickets, the airport is quite deserted. It is nearly 8pm, and only a few employees board the public bus towards downtown with us. Nearly all of them are black. When we change into Houston’s only tram line, again nearly all the passengers are black, and most are visibly poor. Although a city of 2 million, Houston looks like a never-ending industrial district without much of a centre.
Finally in the US
“We did it!” Two middle-class women in starched blouses congratulate each other on taking the tram to the Museum of Fine Arts. Besides the fabulous permanent collection, we visit the “Red Hot” special exhibition dominated by very kitsch Chinese pop art. The excellent technical execution of the Chinese works largely obliterates their tameness. While the commentaries try to link the art objects with political issues in China, we notice, just as we did in Beijing, that none of the artists working in the PRC (and so visibly exhibited) dares to criticise the current situation. Visiting the magnificent Menil Collection and the interreligious Rothko Chapel, where progressive talks and meditations are held, we found that there’s much more to Houston than the Mr. B’s.