Not Going to Guatemala, Part the Fourth

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Not Going to Guatemala

The return flight from Barcelona to New York was, technically, much like the flight out: relatively uneventful, and marred primarily by terrible movies and horrific food (the fact that I remember nothing of the details suggests that the fare on the return trip was in fact marginally better than the chicken with sugar sauce and mashed sweet potato of the outbound leg). But after an hour or two, once they passed out the American landing cards (green, as you may recall, and white),  I started to develop increasing nervousness about the entire onward-flight-to-Guatemala ruse. As far as I know, I do not actually have the legal right to visit Guatemala. Spain, Canada, the US—these are all places I visit routinely and for which (at least until now) I have never needed a visa. But Guatemala? I had no clue. And again, there is the American penchant for demanding street addresses. Certainly I knew my connecting flight number to Montreal, and I could even provide a street address for my ‘stay’ there—I live here, after all, and presumably I would not object to my staying with myself for a couple of weeks before heading off to do whatever it was I was supposedly planning in South America—but what of Guatemala? If I wrote, “The Guatemala Hotel, Guatemala Street, Guatemala City, Guatemala,” how would that go over? And the word “Guatemala” sounds good if pronounced with a Spanish accent—should I then conclude that it’s a Spanish-speaking country? (Basic geographical facts become, it appears, harder to recall with precision in conditions of personal panic.) How convincing is my story, then? Worse than that, since I live in Canada and I travel to the US not infrequently, getting caught telling porkies (pork pieslies, for those not in the know) at the now organised and computerised US border would be beyond dumb, and a serious problem for my career and my personal life, both. But the stewardess handing out the landing cards said that if we had any uncertainty as to how to fill them out, we should ask. So I betook myself to the rear of the cabin and sought advice if not expert, then at least better familiarised with such situations. These things, after all, happen all the time.

Furthermore, I reasoned to myself, while plans for misleading immigration officers are not things one normally discusses with anyone one does not already know quite well, in this case I had been given the bizarre advice about Guatemala by an employee of Delta Airlines, and speaking to further employees of Delta Airlines about my quandary could likely not further weaken my position—if everything went pear-shaped at the US immigration post, I would like to maximise Delta’s involvement, rather than the contrary.

As I explained my situation to the nice lady, her eyes glazed over and her jaw fell open. Not, it seemed, a good sign. But she was more competent about these matters than she appeared, and in this wise: that she asked me to stop talking and made a call to the chief steward, who quite shortly arrived from the first class section and asked me to repeat the problem to him. The chief steward was a slim and distinguished black gentleman, nearing middle age, and he nodded sagely. “It is not a problem,” he said, “this happens all the time. You are nervous only because they have explained the regulations to you, but not the politics. Here are the politics.

“The US border guard does not give a damn where you are going, or what your plans are. He wants to get rid of you, and send you to Canada. Then you become a Canadian problem. The Canadian border guard does not give a damn where you are coming from, or what your plans were. You are in his database, you are returning home, he will be officious and remind you to carry the appropriate paperwork in future, and he will send you on your way. You do not mention Guatemala to anyone, and no one will ask you about Guatemala, and it will not be a problem at all.”

“But why, then,” I asked, “do I need this ticket to Guatemala City?”

“That is easily explained. The Americans and the Canadians have agreed to cooperate in policing their borders. The Americans have agreed not to send to Canada people that the Canadians will then reject, and the Canadians have agreed, reciprocally, not to admit people in transit to America whom the Americans will not let in. This way, America will not be stuck with Europeans the Canadians do not want, and Canada will not be stuck with Europeans the Americans do not want. Then, in turn, the Americans have delegated responsibility for checking immigration paperwork from the border guards to the airlines. This seems crazy at first hearing, but it means that rather having to deport people back to Europe because they cannot be admitted to the States, they simply stay in Europe, which is better for America and perhaps even, more often than not, better for the travellers. The airlines do not like this, but the policy is enforced with fines, so of course they cooperate.

“But there is a wrinkle. The immigration laws of both the US and Canada are tortuously complex. Not even the immigration officers of the respective countries truly understand all the details. So when the Canadian policies are delegated to the US, they are simplified. And when the US policies are delegated to the airlines, they are simplified. And after two levels of simplification they make very little sense.

“But the purpose of it all is this: if the Canadians ever ask the Americans what on earth you were doing coming into the country, the Americans come to the airline and say, what on earth was this person doing coming into our country. And then the airline pulls out its database records and says, see? This person was travelling on to Guatemala. We followed the policy. And then the Americans go back to the Canadians and say, we checked our records, and this person was travelling on to Guatemala. We followed the policy. And then the Canadians can send you back to England. Or on to Guatemala. Or wherever. But that won’t really happen, because you actually do live in Canada, and in point of fact both the Americans and the Canadians can check on that. And in the mean time, Delta has a paper trail, and everyone’s butt is covered.

“So: tell the US border guard that you live in Canada, that you are going to Canada, and that that is the whole story. He will like that. He can process you in seconds. The ticket to Guatemala, you keep in your pocket, and you cash it in when you get home.” And that made sense. In the sense that such things ever make sense. So I returned to my seat, planning to behave as if everything were just as normal as in fact (if not in documentation) it was.

And eventually we arrived in New York.

Deplaning at JFK was confused and crowded, and involved negotiating narrow and unsignboarded stairwells, as by now I had come to expect. Eventually, the dingy passages and dodgy escalators debouched (but not until after separating me from my companion) into the immigration hall, where we queued for a long, long time, during the first long of which a certain amount of James-Bond-esque leaping over the queue control ropes (and rather more ordinarily British apology for jostling people) reunited us so that we could share the experience. And somehow, by that same miracle that ensures that one is always in the queue behind the person with the mountain of groceries all of whose price labels have fallen off, and despite having been in the middle of the crowd leaving the aeroplane, and in the middle of the queue for immigration control, we were among the last six people to actually reach the border guard. My friend went first.

She, it might be mentioned, had been rather concerned about some detail of her US immigration status which appeared, because she had been so rash as to go to wilds of Europe, to require her to present seven kinds of documentation to re-establish her status as someone they actually wanted; but in fact the man at the desk was more interested in making with his stampy things than he was in looking at her documents, and she was through the gate in a minute, and it would have been faster if his ink pad had been fresher. So then it was the turn of me.

I took a deep breath. I made sure that (a) my ticket to Guatemala was not in the little packet of documentation that I held in my hand, but (b) that I did have it handy in my shoulder bag. And I walked up to the wicket.

“Passport?” said the man. I handed him my passport, and the landing card. “Where are you going?”

“Montreal.”

“Where do you live?”

“Montreal.”

“Thank you,” said the man. He handed me back the torn-off bottom end of the little card and passed me through. So that, after all that, was that.

I rejoined my friend, and we went off in search of our luggage, and the gates for our respective onward flights. In these matters she had no trouble, and the biggest problem I faced was a longer wait for my departure time, so once she had boarded her plane for California, I sought out my gate—number 23, deep in the Construction Wing—located the nearest source of coffee, and settled in to wait. This took some time, a certain amount of reading, and a few mind-numbing puzzles from my curiously unwanted Christmas gift, but eventually the flight was called and we were sent out (along with passengers for two other flights), not through a proper docking snorky, but through the temporary wind-tunnely blast-shieldingy passages of smelly frigid misery, to the tiny aircraft which was to fly us to Montreal.

Now this process was not as simple or as pleasant as it sounds, for the simple reason that, as I mentioned, several flights were leaving from the same ‘gate.’ The passages of frigidity, correspondingly, were not simple linear tunnels, but a branching maze of misery, populated irregularly with bedamned and bewildered souls, some of whom had useful directions to give and some of whom did not, some of whom told the truth and some of whom lied, but only if it was Tuesday or Thursday and the lady in the blue uniform was either a truth-teller or a witch. But eventually I made it to an exit (in the middle of a concrete airfield, surrounded by aircraft), and a human-looking lady smiled brightly and said, hopefully it seemed, “Montreal?” and when I said yes, waved me into a particular aircraft. And I climbed the steps, was greeted by a child in an oversized uniform, and directed to my seat.

At first, I was the only passenger.

But slowly the plane filled up. Then we waited, waited and waited. Finally, we started moving, wandered aimlessly around the airfield for a while; stopped, started, stopped, started, and took off. Somewhere in this process, the child in the uniform gave us to believe that she was the stewardess, explained about landing in the water and how to breathe when you can’t, told us that computers are ok but cellular phones aren’t, and started handing out bottles of water.

The plane smelled of kerosene and vomit. The water was that fake spring water that Coca-Cola puts out, which tastes of formaldehyde and heavy metals. The stewardess was nearing panic. The flight to Montreal would only take an hour, and she had to give a packet of peanuts (or a biscuit, but not both) to every single passenger on the crowded plane. She had graduated from saying “oh dear” to “oh shit” when someone shouted, “Is this your first flight, dear?” and she said “On my own? Yes.” The passengers were even less happy, but somewhat more forgiving, after that.

At around this point the ill-socialised and grumpy kid sitting next to me shouted at his parents, got shouted at in turn, went into a sulk, and started listening to music on his phone. Now, I have no idea if it is true that using a cellphone on a plane is in fact dangerous. I have no idea if the cell-tracking protocol that operates when no call is active is a matter for concern, and I surely hope that planes are well enough designed that it is untrue; but I have hopes of a rather better and much less pointless death, myself. This brat, on the other hand, was certain it was safe—so long as he hid the phone in his shirt, or under his butt, or in his hoodie, whenever the stewardess went past. I had a go at glowering at him. He glowered back. I cleared my throat. He switched to the ear that faced me. Finally (and by this point we were descending and the ground was starting to look close enough to hit) I said, loudly enough for eight other nearby people to hear, “Look, I fully appreciate it if you are bored, we are all bored here, but I believe it is a safety regulation that you are not supposed to use your phone while we are in the air, and for myself I would rather be safe than sorry.” And I felt like a terrible brat myself, but the strategy worked, and he went back to being sullen and phoneless.

“We are starting our final approach,” said a voice, “please put your seats in the upright, locked position. Oh.” There was a pause. “Ladies and gentlemen, I have just been informed that we are unable to land in Montreal, and we will be returning to New York. Thank you.”

And then we flew back to New York.

As we made our approach in New York, there was another announcement. “Ladies and Gentlemen, this flight has been declared cancelled. As such, it is not Delta’s responsibility, and we will not be providing you with accommodation. Please check with the Delta representative as you leave the plane, and we will book you on an alternative flight, early tomorrow morning. Thank you.”

I told the stewardess-child as I left the plane that she was undoubtedly working for the worst airline in North America, but she was too rattled to be impressed.

And so we arrived back in the terminal building of doom.

Chaos ensued. All the passengers from our flight, and it appeared (though I am not certain) many other people, descended on the Delta information desk. It was already late; many staff had gone home. Those who were left tried to book people on alternative flights. The first three passengers were placed on next day’s 9AM to Montreal. And then it was full. Another four or five passengers got routed through Toronto. By the time I got to the front of the queue, I was offered an 06:00 flight to Cincinnati, to ‘connect’ with the 17:00 flight from Cincinnati to Montreal. By this point I was exhausted, I felt there was nothing I could do about it, and I took my new ticket and went in search of a bathroom.

Uh-oh.

But ultimately I found a stall that I was willing and able to enter, did what I had come to do, and started to search for a place to sleep in the by now all but deserted terminal. In the course of so doing, I again passed the information counter. There were eight people still there, five in front of the counter, and three behind. One of the erstwhile passengers was explaining to two of the remaining staff that his goal in travelling to Montreal was to meet his eight year old son, who was coming in on another plane, unaccompanied, and who spoke neither English nor French. The staff appreciated the degree of his concern, but shrug! what could they do? Another gentleman then explained that although they had undertaken to get him to Montreal before 9PM, this was of little help, since the speech he was to give at the opening of the conference was in the afternoon. This, too, brought sad little shrugs from the patiently listening staff.

But suddenly there was a whoop! There was a whoop, and a happy dance! There was a whoop, a happy dance, and an exclamation from the third Delta employee, who had been, all this time, on the phone. And the content of the exclamation was, “Yes! Score!! They will extend the flight for us! Folks, we have another plane!!!!”

Frantic typing ensued, and the others then concurred, “Yes! It’s listed! Quick, everyone, give me your tickets and we’ll book you on it before it fills up!” So I joined the small mob, while that mob phoned their friends, and another handful or two of people started drifting back to the desk. “Me too?” I asked. “Yes, you too.” My ticket was grabbed from my hand, and ticketta-tick, ticketta-tack, quick as a wink, a replacement was issued.

This new voucher was a little odd; because of the haste with which the changes were made, I had seemingly been issued a ticket for an 08:00 flight from New York to Montreal, there to connect with the 17:00 flight from Cincinnati to Montreal, but I figured, what the hell, just like the flight to Guatemala City, I didn’t actually need to board the second leg (even if I happened to get teleported to Cincinnati in time for it). And the staff assured me that my luggage was coded so that when it arrived in Montreal it would stay in Montreal, so that was alright, too.

So that was much better, and all I needed to do was sleep in a chair in the huge, bright, loud, unheated airline terminal, and on the morrow, I would actually get home and—well, aside from some anticipated difficulty with immigration—all would be right with the world, and I could sleep in my own bed.

It was miserable. The seats were uncomfortable and the indoor temperature was dipping towards freezing. At about 3AM some kind soul dropped a blanket on me. Then it was still miserable, but it was a little warmer.

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