The above article by Shashi Tharoor on the ordeals of traveling took my mind to mine during my recent trip to the US, during which I did a lot of domestic traveling.
I have no business to grumble, I realize. If an international celebrity of Shashi Tharoor’s credentials can be subjected to these travails, who am I to crib, especiall since, at the end of the day, I felt happy and secure at the thought that the aircraft I was traveling in would not blow up mid air.
I was a victim of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) inspection twice. I had picked up a couple of serving dishes which caught my fancy at the one dollar shop which I had insisted on visiting. And which Sunny, my husband insisted on not visiting. My son-turned- mediator took us to the shop and I picked up these two ceramic dishes, much to the disapproval of my husband who thought they were cheap, heavy and not worth even the one dollar each cost. Again the mediator son convinced him that ‘we’ (he and his father) should be indulgent with the old lady and her whims. Somehow, the old lady bit worked and I picked up the dishes, knowing fully well everything that Sunny said was true. But, I am the type who gets a lot of thrill acquiring these low cost stuff – fun stuff - exotic but not perhaps the type we’ll leave behind as a cherished legacy to our children.
I took extra care to pack these dishes, as they were breakable. I must say that I am pretty good at it, having had to deal with a lot of transfers across the country with all our worldly possessions. I can proudly say that the damages in terms of breakages were negligible. But then, there was no TSA intervention while transporting things by road from one destination to another in India. On reaching Chicago, on unpacking, I found that one of the dishes which raked up such a domestic controversy was broken. Sunny was around, helping with the unpacking. I refused to look at his face for fear of that triumphant i-told-u-so-good-riddacnce-to bad-rubbish look in his eyes!
In our box I saw that note from the TSA that our box was picked for random checking, and an apology for any damages, including damage, if any, to the lock.
During my return journey to India too, my box was singled out for TSA inspection. This time the damage was to the nail polish bottles which my daughter insisted I take, knowing fully well, on my own, I will not buy them to paint my nails. She bought me enough shades to last till she made her next visit. Fortunately, I had the good sense to pack them in a double zip lock. On unpacking, I found all the bottles stuck together. Apparently, they’d opened all of them to ensure they didn’t contain liquid explosives – but did not take enough care to close them tightly. The zip lock, however, proved its quality by containing the leak within itself.
I wish the TSA has a system which will ensure that the boxes that are randomly examined will be repacked the way they found them. After all, air travelers too have some rights!
But the worst ordeal was at the Boston airport. As I stepped past the security gate, the officer there kept my boarding pass and asked me to sit down. Soon a gigantic lady came with that beeping instrument and told me that I have to be checked from ZERO. I looked out to see my brother and family looking at me very anxiously. I gave them a plastic smile to indicate that I’m not rattled and than looked back at the lady.
“I’ve to check you from Zero”
I didn’t know what that meant.
”Want the screening to be private?”
“Naturally”, I smiled. I was shaking inside, with nervousness and embarrassment. Is it going to be a strip frisking? And why me? The other passengers were just walking past the beeping door and were heading for the lounge.
“Come”, she said. I followed her with no footwear, no shawl. It was terrible. I must confess that I am very sensitive about my feet and the shape of it and always choose my footwear to cover the oddest pair of feet that the creator has ever made. Another reason I’m never seen without my footwear is, I use them to add those missing inches that the almighty forgot to bestow on me. So with my feet flapping like a duck’s and my dress hanging disproportionately long without the well heeled footwear, I walked behind that huge lady, a long long way, feeling very self conscious, thoroughly humiliated, and very sure all eyes were directed towards me. “Well, if this is a terror merchant, I might as well have a good look at her”, the expressions of the Indian passengers seemed to say.
“Have to start from zero, sthat okaye?” she asked. They were two other female officials in the room where the “private screening’ was to take place.
“OK”, I shrugged nonchalantly, elaborately casual.
Then she just ran that beeping contraption superficially over me!! That's all she did!
What all that drama was about, I couldn’t make out.
“I did a lot of traveling during this visit”, I told those officials after they gave me the green signal to go. “This is the first time I’ve been screened like this. Why so?”
“You wanted private screening. That’s why I brought you here”
“I thought I’ll have to do a strip, since you kept saying zero”
I suppose my relief manifested in a form of irritation.
"Tell me, why did I have to be screened like this. Am curious”, I told them
“Where are you from?” (Oh oh, that’s the reason eh? I told myself triumphantly. The cat will be out of the bag in a minute.)
“What’s the weather like in India?”!!!!!!!!!?????.
I stared at them.
“Monsoons in my part of India”, I replied like an idiot.
“Ooooh, it must be beautiful!’, they cooed.
“Yes beautiful. Beautiful”, I agreed and walked back to collect my accessories and boarding pass.
Raja, my son-in-law told me later that just like the TSA does random inspection of the baggage, they also do random inspection of the passengers. The chosen passenger will have it noted on the boarding pass.
When I got back to Chicago, I looked hard at my face in the mirror. Why was I singled out? A random selection? Is there some system in this selection? Or is it because of me Asiatic origin?
Better still, is it because of my one mile long name of which they couldn’t make out if I was man, woman or extra terrestrial, which should explain why even my baggage was marked out for inspection?
Like I said earlier, getting into the aircraft, i forgot the unpleasant zero experience, and felt that I was flying safe.