I ventured back onto Twitter yesterday for the first time in a while. One of the first tweets I read pointed me toward Marian Schembari's blog" where she described her horrendous experience getting into London. Read here: Part 1 and Part 2.
I have been to the United Kingdom several times before this trip, so I had an idea of what to expect going through customs. I had always traveled with my mother and her partner, who is a UK citizen, and we'd never had any issues getting into the country for holiday. This time, things just did not seem to be going my way. I hadn't managed to print out any of my itinerary or anything because I was having some serious printer issues (during finals week - no fun). I had all my confirmation numbers and dates and times written down in my travel journal, ready to go. When I got up to the customs window, the woman asked not only for my return ticket (which I didn't have because that would be silly to carry my return ticket around London for six weeks), but for the schedule for the Globe workshops we were attending. This was new to me. Part of my trip was for holiday with my family, and I had put their address on my form, and I told her who they were, so I thought I was set. Lesson one for international travelers: if you are traveling for any specific purpose, bring proof of that purpose with you in hard copy format. Those of you who read my Meredith Duran review might have noted that I left my packet of information in the US, so I had no proof. So she made me go back down to the United ticket counter to print my return itinerary and bring it back.
Fortunately, when I returned, there was a much nicer gentleman who helped me who asked me about my family, I told him, and he sent me on my merry way after seeing my return itinerary. Lesson two: bring proof of your return home. If you don't have a ticket yet to return home, as Marian's experience shows, it can bring all kinds of hell down on you. Even if you're American. Which leads to an even bigger lesson, and one that many people already know, but not all.
Don't assume that because you're an American, you will be treated like you are in America. Because you aren't. You are in someone else's home, and they are just as paranoid about immigrants stealing their jobs and terrorism as we are in America (I say this generally as I know not everyone agrees with these sentiments;- bear with me). After speaking to my London friends, I was informed that the British government has been super paranoid about everyone who comes across their borders lately, particularly since the 2005 bombings. I went in 2005 and 2007, but I was with family and was travelling through London for a short period of time. A woman travelling alone with no evidence about how long she's staying is suspect, even if she looks a perfectly nice girl who has no criminal record or anything. She could also be trying to sneak into the country to stay permenantly and try to work illegally - a major problem in the UK.
Gone are the days of spontaneous international adventures.
While I understand the desire to protect their country, Marian's account shows me how close I was from being a normal stuent/tourist to potential illegal immigrant/terrorist. The difference in treatment from one to the other is immense. There is no scale, you are good or bad. You are let go or you are imprisoned. You are waved through or you are iterrogated. There is no middle ground to work with. What infuriated me even more about Marian's account is the people she met who have no voice. No one interrogating them speaks their language, and they are unable to get in touch with anyone who can speak for them. Many of them were likely there to visit family. There are nationals of all varieties in London;- it is a wonderfully vibrant, diverse city. I would think it would be more efficient and make everyone's lives easier to have someone on staff who speaks some other languages besides English, don't you? This is common sense to me. If you are working an international terminal and running a detention facility that gets people coming through it of varying nationalities, finding some polyglots you can train certainly seems to be the way to go. There is a whole debate in this midst about what the British government calls 'value for money', which my London friends will rant about for days. I am not educated enough of the issue to make a statement about that here, but I can say that it seems awfully silly to me to yell at your prisoners instead of teaching your guards to speak Nigerian.
The other thing that scares me is that I know this happens in our country as well. Having friends and family who do come visit me from the UK, I have become extremely paranoid about them coming to visit me. Fortunately, they speak English. But what about friends of mine with relatives in other, non-English speaking countries? I know that one of my London friends has had an experience in the US with getting interrogated because he was flying inside the US by himself and was flying out from a different place than he was flying in.
I suppose the lesson is, be fully prepared with all the details of your trip and be ready to answer any questions about where you will be and when. But the lesson for me is, look more closely at what is going on in your own backyard. Because it is awfully difficult to criticize another country and their methods when you're not even sure what happens at home.
It saddens me that in today's world, which is increasingly international, we feel the need for all this security between citizens of various nations. Is this going to improve our way of life, or is this going to create more incidents like Marian's, only for people who have no voice?
Anyone with any advice, links, etc, feel free to post them here. This post turned into a bit of an angry diatribe, but it was intended to start a conversation. We need to have this conversation.