Philadelphia Part One: Travel anxiety

I used to love to fly, and I still like the sensation of being airborne. What I don’t like, however, is waiting, overcrowded cabins and current TSA practices, not necessarily in that order.

Prior to last weekend, I hadn’t flown in around four years. The last times I traveled by plane were when I went to Hawaii around 2006 and to Dragoncon in Atlanta in 2008. In both instances, the waiting and the crowded long flights really dampened my enthusiasm for air travel. My enthusiasm nose-dived even further with the introduction of the nude (and possibly cancer-causing) body scanners and enhanced pat downs in recent years. There just wasn’t anywhere I wanted to go badly enough to risk my health, make free porn or be felt up by a stranger. Plus the whole 4th Amendment “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” thing. Yes I hate terrorism, but this is not okay, and if you don’t understand why go watch “V for Vendetta” and then come back.

Over the past two years I’ve been running across various horror stories about TSA, so I don’t think my concerns are unjustified. For instance, there’s the case of the man who was threatened with a $10,000 fine for leaving the airport rather than subject himself to nude photos or groping. Or the case of the woman who was handcuffed to a chair and had her ticket torn up because she was reluctant to submit. I had been under the impression that if TSA got too oppressive, you could simply walk away, but apparently once you enter the security line this isn’t the case.

So I’d pretty much decided that I would not be flying anytime soon, as it wasn’t worth the potential health risk, hassle and humiliation. And then in July I got invited to the Lave Tet at Sosyete du Marche in Pennsylvania. This was their tenth anniversary celebration, and the cost of the head washing was substantially discounted. I’ve interacted with Mambo Pat (aka Mambo Vye Zo Komande LaMenfo, author of “Serving the Spirits: The Religion of Haitian Vodou,” which I highly recommend) online over the past year or so, and immediately liked her (not too surprising, I guess, as we are both children of Legba). Meeting her in person was equally delightful, but more on that in a later post.

I’d been wanting a Lave Tet for a while, and the offer was so tempting, but the thought of TSA made my stomach churn. A lot of people seem to take the violation of their rights rather lightly, but I can’t do that. When I was younger I suffered from serious bouts of depression, and they were usually triggered by feelings of powerlessness. I could see how a negative experience with airport security could result in a recurrence of those feelings.

The drive to go was powerful, though, so in the end I said yes, then spent the next few weeks trying to distract myself so I wouldn’t richochet between excitement and waves of anxiety. I told myself that if the lwa wanted me to go, then they would get me there with my sanity intact. I decided I would dress to be boring (no controversial t-shirts) and be very polite unless given a reason not to be. A couple of friends also performed some wanga to make things go smoothly and, I must say, whatever they did was quite effective.

As it would turn out, Seattle was the worst of the three airports I went through. As you line up for the screening, a TSA agent directs you to a line and you are herded towards the nude scanners. There was an agent standing a few feet in front of the machines, and when I opted out I was asked if I’d been through the pat down before. When I said no, she read me a brief description of the process and asked if I still wanted to do that or go with the scanners. I had to wait for maybe five minutes until an agent was available. Then I walked around the machines and a young man asked me where my stuff was.

I pointed out my bin and totebag, and he got them and set them aside nearby. Then he asked if I wanted to do the patdown there or in a private area. I opted for there, just in case things got stupid so I’d have witnesses. But things never got stupid. This young man was professional, and explained what he was doing as he went. It was over in a few minutes, and pretty untraumatic.

That experience calmed my fears somewhat, but things would actually be much better later in the trip. In Philadelphia, the TSA agents were quite friendly, and I simply went through a metal detector and had my bag x-rayed. In Chicago (where I missed my connecting flight and had to stay overnight at a hotel) I got to choose which line I went through, and two of them had metal detectors. Easy, quick and painless.

I’ve been so grateful that, other than the missed flight, traveling went fairly smoothly. This does not mean I am eager to travel again or give current TSA practices a thumbs up. Yes, Chicago and Philly went smoothly and I happened to get a good agent in Seattle who knew how to minimize the awkwardness  of the situation. However, that does not mean I will be so fortunate the next time.

Next post: Lave Tet

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