The Acadian bus pulled out of New Brunswick in the twilight of afternoon with a small crew of people. The only passenger I noticed was a hefty, black fella in saggy jeans snoring heartily beside me. His head was swathed in a dark bandana of skulls. Oh my, some kind of badass on the premises.
Immersed in what little iPhone coverage was left until the States, I was surprised to find myself smack at the Maine border by 5 pm.
My attitude was laissez-fare, but I also haven’t been across since passing through Seattle on route to Brazil, about 2008 or so.
The bus pulled up to the border crossing window. The driver turned, a weathered face caused by his easy going nature and too many cigarettes.
“The officers will board the bus and then instruct us on what to do after.”
With only 6 of us on the bus this won’t take long.
Two men in stark uniforms boarded, formed two lines, rear and front, that met in the middle – to me. I handed in my neatly completed declaration card and passport, told the pug nosed one the purpose of my trip.
Each passenger rattled off their respective stories until all the cards were collected. They announced that we had to leave all our belongings on the bus and go inside to get cleared.
The building itself mimicked a sterile bank, the color of polished whale bone. We filed in lining up like a gang of bank robbers approaching our opposites – the bank tellers. In this case, just hand over the passport and we’ll let you into our country. I couldn’t help noticing that all the officers fit a profile. A wall of pasty, stern faces violently plunged into intimidating uniforms formed a bizzare chorus line. I almost laughed at the image of stir sticks in coffee. It was obvious these guys didn’t get out in the sun much, probably produced in border cop labs, neatly categorized by number.
Border cop #241 started drilling me with questions, I gave him the same spiel. He repeated the protocol to make sure my answers were consistent.
“What do you do for a living?”
“A travel writer.”
“Myself. I’m a freelancer.”
“And why are you going to New York?”
“Visit my cousin, haven’t seen him in 30 years.”
“And when are you returning to Canada?”
“Uh, well… I’m probably going to London after that, have to attend some conferences, then I’m probably going to India after that… so, could be June or later . ”
“Probably or do?”
“Sorry sir, I do have a flight booked.”
“From where to where again?” Christ, it’s always ‘again’ with these guys.
“I have a flight from New York to London, then London to India.”
“And do you have these itineraries with ya?”
“They are in my laptop bag on the bus.”
“And where is your home?”
“Uh.. I had an apartment, don’t really have one right now… ”
“Okay, okay… so tell me this again?”
Do you ever have moments when you know damn well anything you say or do will only sink you further? My voice finally pushed out the words in a less choppy pace. Then again it was repeated. Too late.
“Awwlright, I’m gonna check this out, so I’m taking your documents with me. Please wait over there.” He gestured to a stiff, uninviting granite bench. The other passengers had beat me to it. I was the only one detained during questioning.
As soon as I sat down, my goal was to not appear ruffled, once you start sweating buckets or muttering “assholes” under your breath it only reflects poorly on the detainee. I jumped into a conversation with a compact elderly fella and bandana man for distraction. The dialogue steered towards something about Tim Horton’s being a franchise and who else was one. Ooh, I could feel it. The seething. My face flushed with boiled blood.
Sure, my answers were vague at first. But why was I still left with a sense of violation. My eyes couldn’t help straying to the parked bus. It seemed like an eternity of conversation between the driver and pasty officer #241. Finally they both disappeared, but my spidey sense detected what was next.
The Homeland Security flag hanging above was an angry exclamation mark, bringing me to the brink. Knowing I was being filmed, knowing that dough face was rifling through all my belongings. Because certainly a 5’1″ Asian world traveler is a red alert security risk. It felt this close to an ultimate failure. Less than 25 minutes after crossing the border, Jeannie will be hauled off the bus and kept in a tiny, airless room for hours answering intimate questions to pasty upon pasty. I want my lawyer. If I could afford one.
A single question entered my mind: is the world truly more dangerous or are we just more paranoid?
A stack of borderphiles came in from the biting Maine air and announced we could go. My guy wasn’t among them.
My internal sweat ducts dried with relief. I sprang up, when the one who resembled Bela Lugosi gestured me over. “You still need your documents back.”
I peeked over the teller desk, noticing my itineraries and business card lying next to his high-tech keyboard. Along with my precious passport.
“I see you found what you needed,” I said icily.
#241 went through everything. Every single piece of my life. That violated feeling returned fiercely. In true childish form, I leaned forward, propping myself up on an elbow, my index and middle finger supporting my cheek, secretly giving him the two-finger bird. Secretly hoping their effing cameras were capturing it. Yeah, I like to play with fire. If I kept this up, a lawyer would be the last of my worries.
#241 suddenly appeared. He drilled me more, claiming the London to India flight was AWOL. Jet Airways, buddy. In case you’ve never traveled before, Indian carrier. He finally took the gas off scrutiny and tapped the brake.
“Awlright, just so you know when entering the States you have to be nonblahblahblah.”
“I have to be what?”
He sneered, flicking his eyes at my business card. ”I don’t know how you make money doing this.”
“Well, I’m also a travel blogger. Heh.”
“Nonblahblah is if entering the United States you have to be gainfully employed and must have a residence. Since you have a ticket booked out of New York, I’ll let you in this time. Have a good trip.”
Canadians, take note. Claim you have a residence even if it’s your mother’s. U.S. border patrol do not like nomads.
After that ordeal, we finally set off towards Bangor. A mini-squabble ensued with hefty, black fella. He insisted I was worried about the border crossing, I held my tongue. Nobody wants to hear criticism from a person who just entered their country 5 minutes ago. He claimed it should have been fine, because I’m Indian. Noooo, Asian. Indian. Asian. You have cheekbones. I stopped talking.
The Maine landscape is a continuation of New Brunswick, bushels of trees singed with the grand colors of fall. What is different are the polar extremes of abandoned, spooky farmhouses and Texas sized homes with oversized cars parked in the driveways. Not sure what is worse, a haunted farmhouse or garish displays of wealth. Either way, it makes sense why Stephen King uses Maine as the setting for several of his bestsellers. There’s a definite blank canvass and oddity to the air.
The blanket of night was upon us once we reached town. I vaguely remember passing by the giant Paul Bunyan statue, several motels and freeways. Didn’t help I was tired, fighting a nagging cold.
It was pitch black by the time we pulled into the small Greyhound station at the edge of downtown. I tried to line up a complimentary room at The Charles Inn, a mere 5 minutes from the station. My bus to New York was an early 6:30 am boarding call, ouch. The Charles Inn was fantasy, email tag doesn’t conjure a cushioned bed in a boutique hotel.
Loitering at the Greyhound station was out since they closed at 6 pm, so I turned to my back up plan – Motel 6 off the I-95. The only glitch was cab money. Didn’t really want to spend it. That’s when I turned around and my debate opponent from the bus piped up.
Our cabbie was a snappy gal from New York, so we gabbed about what I should do there. Bandana or hefty had a name, Longus. We decided to stop at Shaw’s to grab some food. Longus revealed he carried around a hotplate and that he traveled for work frequently. In what, I asked. Transport. You know, like the movie The Transporter. You’re no Jason Statham with hard abs and a penchant for mute, but satisfying sex.
Sure enough, Longus bought chicken, crab, and greens. I thought he was joking. I chose a limpy tuna sandwich and some questionable sushi.
Once we reached Motel 6, the night got more interesting. Booked solid. There didn’t seem a particular reason why. Calls to Super 8, Howard Johnson and the like produced the same result. I pulled out the Air, started Skype calling any hotel the Motel 6 clerk could think of.
The Ramada at $129 per night. Smoking room, two double beds. Totally available. Longus was a fairly dense, but easygoing fella. But he was stressing a bit, claiming that even if you have a reservation with Motel 6, they don’t honor it. I encouraged him to stop offending her.
He asked if I wanted to share. Not really. Not because I felt scared, just weary. Sizing him up, he was innocuous. Besides, I could outrun anyone who constantly had to hitch up his sagging pants. Even with a bum knee. I just wasn’t up for conversation, but there wasn’t really a choice. Sleeping on cold pavement or a warm bed peppered with static conversation. Take it.
We had to walk across the highway to get to the Ramada. It was a miracle we didn’t get splattered on the highway. After Longus experienced some minor payment issues on his credit card, the room keys were handed to us. I settled into free wifi, while Longus started up that chicken in the bathroom sink. Got to credit the guy for ingenuity.
Hoping the TV would be a buffer zone, we flipped between Coyote Ugly and some teen horror flick. Travel tests your limits, Longus tested mine. We swayed from tenuous banter to blocked communication. He kept calling me baby. I asked him to stop. He said Montreal sucked because of bad kids. That made no sense, since bad kids exist everywhere. My mostly open nature just couldn’t find that common ground. I finally had enough of Coyote Ugly and the continual barrage of conversation circles.
Time for bed and silence. The room reeked of chicken. That’s when I realized how easy it’s been in Canada. They’ll be another Longus. Or future hairy border crossings. Or I might be Longus in the next situation.
Clutching my iPhone and sinking under the covers, my rattled head drifted to sleep with this amusing thought… Welcome to America, home of the brave… Longus began snoring.
Photo: Marion Dross