I was moments away from total unmitigated screw-up.
About 30 minutes into today’s 8-hour LHR-MCO (“Orlando”) flight, a nice British Airways lady brought round some landing cards. As a veteran American visitor, I know the drill. Out comes the passport, the boarding pass and whatnot along with a jolly hunt-for-a-pen and after perhaps 2 movies and a doze and as the plane is beginning to make preparations for descent, I fill out the visa waiver form and the customs form.
Have I ever tried to overthrow the US Government? No.
Am I importing live animals? No.
Was I, or have I have ever been, part of a resistance movement between the years of… No.
It’s fairly straight-forward stuff, if a little mundane.
But the Americans are serious about all this kind of thing. I know. I’ve stood in line at 2am at JFK, LAS, SFO, LAX and so on. I’ve witnessed the glares, the stern instructions, the sniffer dogs.
Today, however, I didn’t bother with the pen nonsense on the plane. Indeed I remembered that I had emptied my bag of pens, pencils and other paraphernalia a week or so ago so I was reasonably sure I didn’t have a writing instrument on me. I could have asked the airline crew to borrow one. I could have asked a fellow passenger. They’ll have pens at the immigration bit, I knew. I’ll do it then. Yes it might mean a bit of a queue. But it’s a Sunday. Relax.
And relax I did.
On board I was surprised and delighted to bump into Rob Orr, RIM’s Vice President of Product Management for EMEA. Rob is an old favourite at Mobile Industry Review. He’s the chap who typically introduces RIM’s latest products to me over a sparkling mineral water somewhere in central London on launch day. He knows his stuff and when you ask him, as I usually do, to ‘go’ (i.e. begin a pitch / what’s this new phone all about), he’s like a thoroughly well informed, thoughtful, passionate machine-gun. I think the last time Rob and I seriously sat down was when the Storm2 came out. Before that, he introduced the Curve 8520 to me.
I said hello to Rob. But I didn’t want to bother the chap too much. Probably the last thing Rob was expecting was being sat nearby to me for 8 hours. I resisted the acute urge to ask him about the latest devices.
At the end of the flight, I picked up my things and asked Rob if I could get him on camera sometime this week. I’ve brought the equipment with me this week so I’m looking forward to getting some good content for the sites — and I think Rob would be excellent. All things being equal, I may well be able to bring you an interview with him.
Anyway I said goodbye and we disembarked.
And what a mistake I had made.
Here’s the first problem I had. It’s a small issue.
“Put your mobile phones off, please,” came an announcement as we waited to walk out the door of the plane.
“Do not,” continued the lady, “under any circumstances, be seen with a mobile phone in your hand until you are at baggage claim.”
Other passengers exchanged looks of surprise.
The announcer continued. “Customs WILL confiscate any mobile phones they see. Do not USE your phone, don’t even turn it on until you are cleared at at baggage.”
Right, I thought, I’ll… well I switched the BlackBerry on to silent and stuck it in my pocket. I wasn’t going to actually switch off the phone.
As we walked into the terminal building, we got another final warning from an earnest British Airways staff member telling us to switch off all phones and put them out of sight.
Like arriving into some Soviet-Era Eastern Bloc country with US dollars.
I glanced around at everyone else making their way to the obligatory immigration line. They’d all completed their forms on the plane.
I spied the desk that ran the length of the immigration hall. There were stacks of forms. As I approached I scanned for pens or pencils.
An immigration officer with her sniffer dog glanced at me as I lingered — suspiciously, I guess — around the desk hunting for a pen.
Shit, I thought. No pens. What kind of country is this? You have to bring your OWN pen?
Pen? We are in the 21st Century now, I thought.
I mentally scanned myself. Do I have any pens on me at all? No. Possibly in my baggage but that was 50m on the other side of the Immigration line.
So. What to do?
I turned and walked over to the immigration officer. I saw her subconsciously tighten the reigns on the dog as I approached.
“Excuse me ma’am,” I said, “Where can I get a pen?”
She regarded me for a second, perhaps deciding if I was trying on some kind of tying-my-shoelace style spymaster delaying or diversion technique.
Clearly, I wasn’t judged relevant.
She shrugged her shoulders, indicated at the queuing masses beginning to form in front of the visitors queues and then she walked on.
Welcome to America.
You’d think someone would have offered to sell me a pen, eh? There is, after all, nothing better — business wise — than selling a fire extinguisher to a guy who’s car is on fire. Or, to a stupid Brit with a $50 note in his pocket in need of a pen rather urgently.
You know what would have happened if I’d gone up to the desk and asked for a pen. Pandemonium, I’m sure. Or gruff ‘YOU MUST SUPPLY YOUR OWN PEN’ statements.
Indeed, they’re so unwelcoming at US Immigration that I reckon if I didn’t find a solution pronto, I think I’d have been delayed for hours.
It didn’t seem to dawn on this immigration officer that I might not — at that current time — be in the possession of a pen. I don’t do pens.
I thought the officer might have offered the use of one of her own pens. Or, I don’t know… pointed to some tray of rubbishy almost-used-up lost pens for people like me to use? What is the world coming to when you can’t gain entry into a country because you chose not to bring a pen?
A sodding pen!
I thought furiously. I scanned the horizon. I was going to have to do the unimaginable. That is, ask some random stranger if I could borrow their pen. How deeply embarrassing. How stupidly ironic that whilst I waltz around the place preaching the genius of a mobile-connected existence, the reality is, thousands of years after the concept of writing was first evolved and despite the technological prowess of the mighty USA, you still need a pen to get in.
This, despite me sitting and filling out their online are-you-a-terrorist form and giving them ALL the information they needed to know. The US Government already has absolutely everything they need to know about me. Electronically. But no. I need a pen to fill in a piece of paper so that an Immigration official can bang the table theatrically every 3 minutes with stamp after stamp and then staple stuff into my paper-based passport. Rubbish.
As I scanned the crowd, my heart lifted.
I spotted none other than RIM’s Rob Orr, at the front of the queue about to be called forth to the immigration desk.
“Rob,” I ventured from across the hall. He turned and I walked-ran over to him (you know, in that British don’t-want-to-actually-run-in-case-they-shoot way).
“Rob,” I said, indicating to my blank forms, “Do you have a pen I could borrow?”
“Sure,” he said, as I felt one of the other immigration officers prowling the queue begin to look over. Surely there’s no rule against swapping pens in the queue?
I’ll never know. Because at that moment a British chap from — well it sounded like Birmingham — innocently got out his phone. The officials were on him like a shot.
“Thank you, thank you,” I said to Rob as he held out a BlackBerry branded pen.
Rob was called forward as I retreated by the melee of immigration officers and outraged Birmingham folk and filled out the form.
With a pen.
My strife didn’t end there though.
One of the first questions on the form?
21st, maybe, I thought? 23rd? I couldn’t remember. Who knows what day it is anymore? I reached for my … no wait… no phones!
I swore under my breath. The Birmingham chap in the centre of the Immigration hall was attracting enough of a scene, I judged, for me to sneak a glance at my BlackBerry. I kept it in the breast pocket and switched on the screen by pressing from the inside.
25th of April.
Next question: Flight number.
Flight number? What the .. how am I meant to know that? I don’t have this information etched into my brain. Again, I surreptitiously queried the calendar on my Bold hunting for the flight number. I’d added it as a calendar entry earlier on.
What? Gahhh. I fudged that one and just put ‘Orlando Convention Center Hotel’. Couldn’t remember the brand. (“Marriott”).
I don’t do travel documents. Passport, credit card, boarding pass when they insist on issuing one. That’s it. I don’t print out stuff. I don’t come armed with reams of printed rubbish. It’s just ridiculous in today’s day and age. Everything I need is on my phone. Everything. Especially since I use PageOnce which collects all my travel itinerary details in ONE place. And that works on multiple devices. I’d set my iPhone to ‘airplane mode’ guaranteeing it would still have plenty of power when I arrived in Florida, just in case I needed to query PageOnce on that phone.
And if all else fails, everything — absolutely EVERYTHING — I need is on Google Mail.
But goodness me this experience is causing me to question the value and relevance of mobile devices vs paper.
I ended up being delayed by almost 60 minutes because I didn’t bring a pen.
Normally I’m perfectly fine. Normally I complete the forms ON the planet. Normally I had a pen somewhere at the bottom of my bag.
The moral? Always keep a pen at the bottom of your bag when you’re flying into the States.
And Rob — thank you. I will leave the pen at reception for you 😉
In case you’re wondering, I’m in Orlando for RIM’s WES2010 BlackBerry Developer event. More on that shortly.