On returning

We took a vacation to Costa Rica. Our return trip was one of contrasts. I’m writing about the return trip first, to get the unpleasantness over with. That and I have over 6GB of photos to work through, so the rest might take a while…

Costa Rica’s San Juan international airport is the most mellow and relaxing airport I’ve visited. After paying the exit taxes and collecting our boarding passes, we passed through security screening quickly and easily. The gate areas were quiet and peaceful, with a little ambient music. There were no TVs blaring CNN, no regular ‘security’ announcements. We got some coffee (local of course), did some souvenir shopping, and relaxed. On boarding the plane, there was an additional quick luggage search and a wanding, much like we experienced in Hamburg. I’m guessing that Costa Rica’s big concern is wildlife smuggling, but since I have no parrots stuffed in my bag or down my pants there was no problem.

The flight was also unremarkable, but as soon as we reached US soil things rapidly went pear-shaped. As is my habit, I kept a log of what happened; it somehow comforts me to document exactly how awful things are to the minute. Here’s a writeup of what I logged, with some additional timestamps taken from my SMS logs.

16:40: We arrive at Houston George Bush Airport (IAH), exit the plane, and stroll to the immigration checkpoints. The line we are in turns out to be closing; we’re the officer’s last customers of the day. His mind doesn’t seem to be entirely focused on the job. As a permanent resident, I have to submit to fingerprint scanning. Right hand, right thumb, left hand, and then the officer tells me the third scan was supposed to be my left thumb. He tries again, starting with the left thumb scan, then left hand, then right thumb, then right hand, but apparently he’s still not getting me to put my fingers on the plate in the correct order, or something is wrong with the machine. He instructs me to step aside while he calls someone over. I figure they’re just going to have someone more expert take an old-fashioned ink fingerprint set.

And so the nightmare begins.

17:12: A short Asian-looking man in a bergundy jacket walks over, takes my passport and visa, puts them in a yellow folder, and asks me to follow him. He directs rothko to go ahead to the baggage claim area, then leads me to a small unmarked doorway and ushers me in. I walk inside the room. There are six rows of about six seats, and the majority of them are occupied. There’s an Indian family, sitting holding a big bundle of papers. An Asian family is across the room, I think Japanese. There’s a Mexican-looking guy with his kid, a middle-eastern couple who look Islamic, and various other people. Behind a desk are three immigration services officers. There are three in trays at one end of the desk. The small Asian man picks up a bundle of folders from one of the trays, and slides the yellow folder containing my passport into the bottom of the stack.

Fortunately, I have my cell phone. I send updates to rothko:

17:12 There are a lot of people waiting here. I suggest collecting luggage. I’m betting we miss the connecting flight.

17:36 I think there are 4 or 5 cases in the pile ahead of mine, and 1 guy processing that pile.

17:36 And the last case took at least 20 minutes. So I could be here all fucking night.

(The 20 minute estimate being based on the fact that from when I entered the room until just before my 17:36 update, nobody left.)

I have my carry-on luggage, including my Kindle. I finish the book I was reading, and start a short story.

I finish the short story, and read another.

19:00 (±2 mins): I’m finally called to a desk. The immigration officer looks at my passport and permanent visa. Here’s what transpired, as precisely as I can remember:

Where did you travel from today?

Costa Rica.

Why were you there?

Uh, vacation.

How long were you there for?

Ten days.

Were you alone?

No, my wife was with me.

OK, here you go.

He marks my customs declaration form and hands me my passport and visa. I thank him, pick up my bags, and walk out of the room in stunned silence. After almost two hours of waiting, all that happened was I answered some questions I could have answered at the original immigration desk. They didn’t even re-check my fingerprints. I walk to the baggage claim area, where rothko is waiting, and tell her that apparently she gets to keep me.

We have hopelessly missed our scheduled 17:46 flight to Austin. Rothko had called United and managed to get us re-booked on the 19:05 flight, but obviously we’re not going to make that either. Still, the night is young, and I decide to let optimism rule.

19:04: We reach the drop-off point for checked bags and connecting flights. We drop off our luggage. Because it’s an international connection, we have to go through security screening a third time. I opt out of being unnecessarily irradiated and photographed naked, because that’s the kind of guy I am. I get an ‘enhanced’ pat-down, and rejoin rothko. The alternative screening is quicker and more efficient than in Austin.

19:22: Rothko has called United to try and get us booked on the next available flight, but the guy she ended up talking to had no idea what he was doing, and she hangs up on him. I call and get the useless voice menu system which offers to read me information I already know. I’ve found that some voice menus are programmed to be even more annoying than usual, and detect words like “representative” and use them as a trigger to send you back into the same menu again and force you to pick something. United’s system seems to be one of these. I make mooing noises into the phone, which I’ve found is a good way to make voice menu systems give up and forward to a human.

The system says it’s forwarding me, but needs to know if my travel is within the United States. I say yes, as we’re in Houston and flying to Austin. The female customer service agent takes my record locator, looks up the information, and tells me that she can’t do anything. Although we’re booked with United, because our first flight was international, our entire trip counts as international, even unbooked flights from Houston to Austin. She offers to transfer me to the international desk, and I say yes.

I get two minutes of hold music, then a dead silence as their system cuts me off.

Once I’m done swearing, I sit on the floor outside the United VIP club and call United again, and moo my way through the voice menus once more. This time I say I’m calling about international travel. I go through identifying myself and providing the record locator again. The customer service agent says he’ll check for available flights. After another minute or two, he informs me that the next flight is full, and that the last flight of the day is also completely full with a long wait list. It’s like my last UK trip all over again.

I ask the customer service agent what he suggests. He says he could book us on the first flight the next day. I hang up on him.

19:36: We get up and follow the signs to the nearest baggage claim area.

19:43: We arrive at the United Airlines baggage service office. There’s a sign-in sheet in the waiting room. I sign in, sit down, and try to keep my cool.

Just before 20:00 a staffer who reminds me of Ira Glass calls my name. He takes our baggage tracking receipts and starts looking them up, agreeing that based on my recording that we dropped the bags off after 19:00, and the fact that it’s only 20:00, there’s almost no chance that they’ve been loaded onto either the 19:05 or the 20:58 flights.

Sure enough, by 20:02 he has located our suitcases and dispatched someone to fetch them. We thank him, and head out to the luggage slide between the carousels.

20:10: Our suitcases are returned. I give the baggage handler a thumbs up and tell him he’s a hero. He looks a little confused. We head to the rental car building, which is a shuttle bus trip away.

20:26: I pick Budget rental cars, on the fairly spurious grounds that they were the cheapest familiar brand in Costa Rica. Arriving at the desk, I explain that we need a car to go one-way from Houston to Austin Bergstrom, because the airline has stranded us.

The only vehicle they have available for a one-way trip is a luxury SUV. I’m not wild about it, and briefly ponder trying one of the other half dozen car rental firms in the immediate vicinity. I see people waiting at the Dollar counter, and realize I’ve reached my limit as far as lines and waiting. One credit card transaction later, we head to the car lot to see what we just rented.

It turns out to be a Buick Enclave. In the dark, the dashboard lights up like an aircraft cockpit. There are buttons everywhere. I eventually locate the important controls, and we leave the rental lot at around 21:00.

I haven’t yet memorized the route from IAH to Austin, though it seems like my life is leading that way. I pull out my phone and ask Google to navigate us. We head west, making a brief stop to pick up a bottle of Gatorade and two cans of Red Bull — one for me, and one for rothko. Experience suggests that Red Bull will keep me functional for about 4 hours, which should be enough to get us home safely.

I’ve never driven a luxury car before. I have to admit that the Buick is very comfortable. It seems to want to go at least 30 mph unless you apply the brakes, and it whooshes along at 80 with an effortlessness that really shows the Prius’s weak points. It also turns out to have Sirius XM satellite radio, so rothko finds the 80s new wave channel to help keep us awake.

23:20: We finally arrive at Austin Bergstrom, almost 5 hours later than expected, not to mention $200 poorer. The rest of the journey is tedious but uneventful, and we get home around midnight.

I still have no idea what the hell happened in the immigration area. I doubt I ever will. I guess I have to assume that any international trip could involve a random Kafkaesque 2 hour delay at immigration. From now on, I’ll have to do my best to avoid any journey that involves international travel with connecting flights.