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To Salt Lake City And Back

(I have a habit of writing a light report whenever I travel to an interesting place; this is my overdue report of the trip that took me from Sacramento to Salt Lake City through Los Angelos, and back home through Las Vegas.)

Mention Utah, the LDS Church comes to mind; but Utah is diverse and it is getting more so by the day. Of course it’s very prosperous (and very secular.) After all, in 2012, Gallup found that Utah was the “best state to live in.” My trip to Salt Lake City was my first ever to Utah.

At the airport in Sacramento, I observed something I never paid attention to before. Now you can buy your way through the security checks–a few dollars and one is excused of the annoying ritual of taking off your shoes and jackets for five years. No kidding, all it takes is $85. Strangely enough, everything you pay for to avoid going through (fingerprints, background check, and citizenship status) is stored in some government agency computer. It is also stored in the computers of google trackers, telemarketers, spammers from Russia and other places. I don’t understand the need for duplication. But if you are willing to pay $85, and go through the process (which I doubt is not easier than applying for a citizenship), miraculously, you are not a security risk at the airport!

I am thinking of proposing a profiling exemption fee to the Transportation and Security Administration (TSA). Maybe $10 per passenger that you pay at any store at the airport, maybe at Starbucks—every passenger had to go through the coffee line for a fix. That would work for me because the airport computers love me so much I need to avoid them. Often I am told, “Sir, you have been randomly selected; can you step aside, please!” Of course, even if they didn’t say the magic but mechanical word, please, I step aside like an obedient pet.

To me, travel is about driving to the airport, going through ticketing, and being “randomly” selected at the security point. The loyal computers never forget to select me. Finally I board the airplane, if it is not delayed.

At the security line of Sacramento Airport I saw a sign: if you are 75, you can leave your light jacket on, shoes on, and don’t unpack your laptop. Seventy five years old? Why should a 75 year old go through the grill in the first place? I am for age profiling on this one. And here, I would like to suggest one more sign: if you are a terrorist, peel off all your clothes and stand stark naked, please. That would hasten the flow of travelers through the check points; it might encourage the suspects (if they are there God forbid) to come forward and save the rest of us all the hustle caused by the non-cop security personnel who mostly act like a suspicious cop, and cause you all sorts of trouble and embarrassment.

Ok. I stood in line, a long line, and I was two-persons away from the lady behind the podium where they check your boarding pass against your ID, when a security man came and told me to walk to another line, all by myself. There was no one else. What an honor! They kept a line ready just for me!

I walked on the line and came as close as three-steps away from another lady sitting behind another podium, just bulkier. She looked at me almost with her eyebrows, her pupils rolled up while she kept her face leaning towards the surface of the podium reading nothing. She took my boarding pass and wrote something on it, like a doctor’s prescription. I bet you no one could read that unless she and her colleagues have communication codes. Then she let me go.

I took off my jacket, shoes, belt, hat, emptied my pockets, unpacked my laptop, and walked on my socks through the x-ray machine raising my hands above my head in total surrender. Hooray! I passed the tunnel. I was allowed to collect my things. I did and walked to find crowds lined up to eat at the restaurants; don’t they have food in their homes!

Minutes later I boarded the airplane to LA where I had two hours to kill before connecting to my flight to Salt Lake City. Moments later I received a text message from the airlines, the flight was delayed; now I had three hours to kill. Of course, LA is in California. And in California they send smokers to the guillotine. I walked out of the terminal and killed most of the time and burned a few wicked cigarettes. Then I returned and went through the security check. Here it seemed they have eased the stripping part; as I began to take off my jacket, a security man interrupted me: “No sir, keep your jacket on.” Oh! Thank you, sir. I began to unpack my laptop. He came to me again: “Sir, you can keep your laptop inside the bag, just run it through the x-ray machine.” Oh! What a relief. A reflex smile engraved itself on my face. I started to push my things. Dammit! A second security man motioned to me, “Take off your jacket, sir.”

I looked him in the eye, “Your colleague told me to keep it on, sir!”

“No, not the type of jacket you’re wearing, it is too heavy.”

Okay. I took the jacket off and began to unpack my laptop; I didn’t wait until he tells me the bag is too heavy. Then the first security man came closer to me: “I told you to keep your laptop inside the bag!”

“Well, you also told me to keep my jacket on but your friend told me to take it off.”

“Did he tell you to unpack the laptop?

“Well. No. He didn’t”

“Then why are you unpacking it?”

I felt embarrassed. At that moment the second security man chastised me for delaying the movement of the passengers, “Move it, man.”

I was no more a SIR, I was MAN!

That is disrespect. I sheepishly protested, “Whose instructions should I follow?”

“The airport security instruction, man! What is wrong with you, move it. ”

Now both of them were becoming suspicious, I felt it. One of them looked at a huge security man at a distance and winked at him. A hulk of a man came and told me, “Sir, you have been randomly selected by the computer, move on to the side.”

I hauled my things and went to the far side of the checking area. There, they treated my travelling bag like a child dismantling a Lego house. Then they wiped my palm, my laptop bag and my jacket with a small dump pad, inserted it in a computer slot. The computer loves me; it declared my hands were clean. Of course, I had just washed them. As I waited for more whimsical instruction, I swear I heard the computer speaking to the security personnel in sotto-voce, “C’mon guys, give him a break! It’s enough you lied to him; I never selected him!”

Alright. Last month, when the Seattle airport computer selected me randomly, a security guy insisted my almost-empty shaving cream canister was not allowed on board an airplane, “This is a 10-oz can, only ten is allowed,” he said.

He was wrong, it was a half consumed 7 oz. can. I protested, “It can’t have more than 3 oz!”

“I go by what is printed on the label, sir, I don’t weigh cans.” He insisted it was a 10 oz. can without checking the label.

Foolish, I said. Of course to myself. Don’t they use their common sense (some know-it-all friend said it is prejudice and stereotyping) when they lie and tell me the computer randomly selected me? Why can’t he use his common sense and judge whether the can is full or empty?

He wouldn’t budge. He threw the can into the trash bin. I cursed him from under my tongue while I drew a fake smile on my face, less the computer randomly selects me again.

So, here I was looking at Salt Lake City from the sky.

The city looked as if it was ravaged by the volcanic eruption of Mt. Manitoba, it seemed as if it was covered with ash. No color at all. That is how ugly it looked from the sky. Snow is not supposed to be that grey!

Once outside the terminal, I noticed the snow was actually white, beautiful bright white. But from the sky, it seemed Salt Lake City was randomly selected by the computer to act weird and look grey.  Another weird thing: unlike moments earlier when it seemed the sun never comes to that place, the city was covered with snow and the sun shone brightly. How come the snow didn’t melt down?

And everyone looked young!

I wondered if there was grass in the city at all and if houses have lawns in front to them. They told me they do. I didn’t believe them. Once at the guest house, I sneaked out and uncovered the snow with my freezing hands to see if I could find grass underneath the fluffy snow. Yes! There was grass, only buried one-feet under the snow.

I haven’t checked it but I bet you Salt Lake City has the highest life expectancy in the whole nation; very natural, I guess. How could you get old in that place? Nay, how could you die? Life there is so laid back you feel you are in the Barka plains of Eritrea, only the weather in Barka is a little different, about a hundred degree higher, give or take five degrees. In Salt Lake City, people drive slowly, they talk slowly, they all smile and their faces look like a fresh fruit picked from a tropical garden.

Unfortunately, I was introduced to snow late in my life, mine was a dry, rocky, and sandy environment—the sand whiter than snow. If not, no doubt I would have moved there. After all, just like my town Keren, Salt Lake City is surrounded by mountains, only here they are covered with snow.

One of my hosts offered to take me on a hike, to the snow covered mountains! If only she knew how cold I felt by just looking at them. I wish it was summer, I would have displayed my mountaineering skills.

My hosts displayed what I consider Utah traits: vital, living souls, happy faces… very sensitive and caring people. Now, if only they could change the weather in winter, make it seventy degree higher, I would consider moving there—I guess they don’t need to do anything with spring and summer.

I gave a speech at the Hinckley Institute of university of Utah. Unlike my Eritrean meetings, it started on time and finished on time. The audience, mostly students in their twenties, and faculty, was refreshing. I learned a few things from them, I am not saying it now. But what struck me was their action-oriented questions: “What can we do?” I sensed a keen and genuine interest to be involved in good causes, human causes. I really enjoyed talking to them, they were great.

That same night, I gave a pep talk at a fundraising function, a group lovable, sensitive and intelligent people. I felt connected to them, particularly because I was introduced by John Green, a gentleman who served at the Kagnew Station in Asmara. Great audience and an exhilarating atmosphere… and of course, excellent food and ambience.

One more thing, an evidence that the world is small! That night, a casual mention of a lost friend of mine the night before yielded results. A lady who heard me mention the name located a friend of my lost friend. Now I have the address, the telephone number and a little history. It was amazing. I already connected with my lost friend.

My return trip was smooth if not for the delay at Las Vegas airport where I had to kill almost four hours. The computer at that airport didn’t select me randomly, but the officers there brought a priest dressed like Elvis Presley and made me swear to stay true to the city’s slogan, “In Vegas, you see nothing, hear nothing and say nothing.” I am sorry I can’t say anything apart from the fact that the smoking room at the airport has 25 slot-machines. Not for gambling, but for gaming.

My new friends in Salt Lake City, thank you and God bless you all.

negarit@awate.com
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Webpage: miriamwashere.com

About Saleh "Gadi" Johar

Born and raised in Keren, Eritrea, now a US citizen residing in California, Mr. Saleh “Gadi” Johar is founder and publisher of awate.com. Author of Miriam was Here, Of Kings and Bandits, and Simply Echoes. Saleh is acclaimed for his wealth of experience and knowledge in the history and politics of the Horn of Africa. A prominent public speaker and a researcher specializing on the Horn of Africa, he has given many distinguished lectures and participated in numerous seminars and conferences around the world. Activism Awate.com was founded by Saleh “Gadi” Johar and is administered by the Awate Team and a group of volunteers who serve as the website’s advisory committee. The mission of awate.com is to provide Eritreans and friends of Eritrea with information that is hidden by the Eritrean regime and its surrogates; to provide a platform for information dissemination and opinion sharing; to inspire Eritreans, to embolden them into taking action, and finally, to lay the groundwork for reconciliation whose pillars are the truth. Miriam Was Here This book that was launched on August 16, 2013, is based on true stories; in writing it, Saleh has interviewed dozens of victims and eye-witnesses of Human trafficking, Eritrea, human rights, forced labor.and researched hundreds of pages of materials. The novel describes the ordeal of a nation, its youth, women and parents. It focuses on violation of human rights of the citizens and a country whose youth have become victims of slave labor, human trafficking, hostage taking, and human organ harvesting--all a result of bad governance. The main character of the story is Miriam, a young Eritrean woman; her father Zerom Bahta Hadgembes, a veteran of the struggle who resides in America and her childhood friend Senay who wanted to marry her but ended up being conscripted. Kings and Bandits Saleh “Gadi” Johar tells a powerful story that is never told: that many "child warriors" to whom we are asked to offer sympathies befitting helpless victims and hostages are actually premature adults who have made a conscious decision to stand up against brutality and oppression, and actually deserve our admiration. And that many of those whom we instinctively feel sympathetic towards, like the Ethiopian king Emperor Haile Sellassie, were actually world-class tyrants whose transgressions would normally be cases in the World Court. Simply Echoes A collection of romantic, political observations and travel poems; a reflection of the euphoric years that followed Eritrean Independence in 1991.

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  • Nebri Adam

    Brother Saleh. As always enjoyed reading your article about your experience on the way to Salt Lake City. Years back I was travelling to Los Angeles through Denver and Las Vegas with my wife we were subjected to the same “Sir you have been randomly selected by the computer for further screening, could you please step aside” It was with all due respect non harmful way and we obliged. The good thing as you humorously described it in your article they do it in such a way that you end up laughing than getting mad right Saleh? I would rather live in a country like the U.S.A which in spite of a truly scary national security situations but still respect your rights even while they double check your identity. I just wanted to let you know that I read it while laughing at the same time. It was fun to read as usual!

  • dawit

    Nice pictorial article, I enjoyed reading your experience in the land of democracy and freedom. As fellow smokers and ‘colored’ individual I share your experience of travel. Next time when you travel try Atlanta airport where they accommodate all travelers. You don’t have to leave the airport building to smoke while you wait for your connection flight. They have special smoking rooms inside the airport with comfortable
    chairs. Well they also have that special computer but it work randomly for the
    most part; maybe there are many colored travelers and TSA officers at ATL.

  • Hameed

    As usual a captivating narration for a national mission

  • Kokhob Selam

    I love the experience you went through. guess where start laughing ““The airport security instruction, man! What is wrong with you, move it. ” GASHA ASHA zaynetu. that was good experience. one day soon I am going to put a poem (when I get space or page ) my experience in Asmara air port.

  • Amoraw

    Good narration SGJ
    How about your new year promise of quitting smoking?