When I wrote a recent blog criticising the Breeders Cup and Dubai one of the feedback comments I received agreed with what I had written but concluded with the comment “I think there are now two countries where you will not be welcome.”
Well in the case of Dubai that would be no great hardship as I have no intention of ever visiting the place anyway and with a passport full of Israeli visa’s I don’t think I’ll be allowed in any Arabic country anytime in the near future.
As for the USA I would like to visit there again, although whether I will be allowed in again is another question as last time I was there I really thought I was going to end up in Guantanamo.
Let me explain.
I’m not one of those people who can laze around on holiday – at a push I could possibly be persuaded to spend an hour, possibly two on a beach and that would only be if I had a really engaging book to read. The thought of spending two weeks on a beach would be an automatic qualification for Room 101, indeed the thought of spending two weeks in any one place on holiday fills me with dread.
That is why my holidays are planned with military precision.
This trip across the Atlantic is a prime example and my planning would have impressed any travel agent.
The holiday was starting by flying to Las Vegas, via Toronto, for the traditional start to the American trips. Then after three days in Vegas (I find Vegas is so full-on I cannot spend more than three days there in one go) it was off in a car to Utah for a week exploring the canyons.
Back to Vegas for a couple of days before flying to Minnesota for a few days to visit friends.
The next leg was a flight to Buffalo to see Niagara Falls from the US side then it was a matter of crossing over to Canada by land, picking up a car and heading to Toronto for a few days, with the holiday highlight being racing at Woodbine, before flying home.
All relatively simple and, as is the case in the US, the internal flights were ridiculously cheap.
Well about a month before the holiday there was a change of plan as an interesting attraction loomed in New York so with some re-planning, instead of flying from Minnesota to Buffalo, flights to New York and then Toronto were booked.
Now the flight to Buffalo wasn’t worth cancelling as it only cost about $80 and it was non-refundable anyway – not cancelling that flight was a big, big mistake.
The holiday began fine – the flight to Toronto was great and thanks to a US / Canadian arrangement US immigration for the flight from Toronto to Vegas was cleared in Toronto so no long delays on arrival in Vegas.
Vegas was its usual fantastic self – Disneyland for adults I call it.
The Nevada Canyons were awesome even surpassing the Grand Canyon.
Bryce Canyon was a surprise as the top rim was so high there was even snow, even though at the base temperatures were in the 80’s in old money.
The visit to Minnesota to see the friends was great and as it was the first time in Minnesota, it was a chance to explore somewhere new.
It was leaving Minnesota the problems began.
The problems actually began the evening before as I attempted to check-in for the New York flight online – after all I had an e-ticket. It wouldn’t allow the check-in and said check-in at the airport.
I thought nothing of it, it was a Saturday evening and I thought, perhaps the check-in system was down for maintenance.
The flight to New York was 7:04 in the morning so it was a cast of arriving at 5:00 to check-in.
At the North-West check-in desk I was greeted by the usual exuberant American false bonhomie.
You will know the sort of thing if you have ever gone into a shop or restaurant in the States, even though you have never met the person serving you before, you are still treated as though you are some long lost friend. I think they call it customer service, I won’t tell you what I call it!!!
Anyway I handed over the e-mail confirmation of my flight and when the check-in clerk keyed in the booking reference the “long lost friend” welcome changed to Arctic frosty – for a moment I did wonder if I had, inadvertently, asked her to perform some perverted sexual act. She almost threw my boarding pass at me.
As I walked away I noticed she was in animated conversation with her colleague next to here and the way they were looking daggers at me it was clear I was the topic of conversation.
I had a look at my boarding pass to make sure she had booked me on the correct flight, the only unusual thing I noted about the boarding pass was it has SSSS printed on the bottom, something I had not seen before.
As I approached the security screening queue I was actually approached by a Transport and Security Administration (TSA) officer who asked to see my boarding pass.
I showed it to him, “could you please come with me sir?”
I was asked the usual “where have you been, where are you flying today?” questions and answered then quite happily, still assuming this was a random security check.
With his next question, the penny dropped, “are you booked on any other flights today?” Clearly a leading question as he already knew the answer and luckily I remembered I had not cancelled the Buffalo flight.
I explained why two flights to different locations were booked on the same day and why I had nor cancelled the original flight. I have to say the attitude changed markedly and it became much more relaxed and friendly.
He explained their systems had picked up the double booking and I remembered it is a terrorist ploy to book multiple flights.
As I said all was relaxed now and he was on the verge of becoming my new best buddy. He said because of the double booking it would mean full security screening.
He said the hold bags had already been fully searched and were OK. All he needed to do was check my carry-on baggage, which was just my camera bag.
He took the swab, as they do, and went over to the explosive testing device.
What happened next will live with me the rest of my life.
We were both watching the computer screen and it turned a vivid red and flashing up in big white letters was just two words “EXPLOSIVE DETECTED”
He turned round to me and I could feel the blood draining from my head and I really thought I was going to pass out. He obviously saw that as well and almost went to catch me.
After the dramatic red screen of death as I called it the computer display said “query nitro-glycerine”
I don’t know how I didn’t become a blathering wreck – in between having visions of being dressed in an orange jump suit and being taken off to Guantanamo Bay, my brain amazingly came up with an explanation, despite being a shaking gibbering wreck.
It was the word glycerine that was the clue.
You will recall I had been exploring the canyons of Utah at the beginning of the holiday. It was very dry in the desert and my lips were chaffing so I had bought some lip salve from a local store, a glycerine based lip salve!!!
Luckily I still had it and when they analysed some, it had the same chemical profile as the “explosive” on my camera. Obviously taking photos of the canyons I had transferred plenty of the lip salve onto the camera.
He took my boarding pass, stamped it, handed it back – in bright red it said “security cleared” – I was allowed through to departure – my fellow passengers must have thought I was a nervous flyer as I was sitting there ashen faced and shaking like a leaf.
Thankfully I was able to prove I wasn’t a terrorist, somehow my brain clicked into auto-pilot to come up with an explanation.
I have never been so scared in my life.
Even though I was innocent I have little doubt I am sitting on a TSA / FBI / CIA watch list somewhere – I’m dreading my next trip to the USA.
PS The trip to New York was worth all the aggro and even though most of the racing was on dirt the racing at Woodbine was a delight.