The year is 1993. The cold war in drug dealing between Latin America and North America is beginning to make it hot for Caribbean nationals like myself wanting to go to the USA, even for a friendly visit. But we who live in our various states of development (some call it under-development) have an insatiable desire to experience life in the developed world and no amount of insults, harassments or 'bad face' can stop us. Once the visa is stamped into the passport we hastily leave our shores to sample the pleasures and conveniences, the efficiency and hospitality of our giant neighbour to the north. We go to visit Cousin Sue and Auntie Vie, to shop, to study, to earn money, to holiday, to roam, or just check out the scene.
I wouldn't describe myself as a regular visitor to the USA. One has to be an Informal Commercial Importer or a part of the many families with one foot here and one foot there to qualify for the frequent flyer bonuses. Once a year or so I try to overcome my fear of flying and buy a ticket to visit family and old friends.
One thing which never ceases to amaze me is how rapidly things change in 'foreign'. Don't bother to look for what was familiar last visit. The stores will be set up differently, packaging will have changed. The people will be different. There will probably be twice as many brand names to choose from; it bewilders me, every time. And, everything is now in the computer, somewhere. So as long as you know which button to push you can probably find the information you need. In fact , pretty soon, if you don't know which button to push it will be very difficult for a country bumpkin like me to manage this first world environment. We're in the AGE of the CHIP. (I read that somewhere).
Just imagine coming into a foreign airport terminal and being guided only by flashing lights and impersonal voices. You will probably push your plastic passport card into a slot which will direct you to Room A or B depending on what the chip disclosed about you. If you are unfortunate enough to get the wrong room, a robot will probably do the frisking and a mechanical dog will do the sniffing and a moving sidewalk will carry you into the clink. No use trying to escape. The airport (any airport) is already a prison anyway.
The one thing I really like about the USA, though, is the availability of bathrooms, rest rooms, ladies, Jills or any of the other polite words which are used for the powder room. Americans are very practical people, they don't believe in fighting nature, so around every corner, in every shopping mall and gas station, everywhere you turn, there is a place for relief.
I have had a special problem from childhood. A part of the problem may be a small bladder, the other part is my mother's voice, every time I was to leave the house - "Did you wee-wee?" For where I am from, the public means of relieving oneself in decent surroundings are few and far between, and I had embarrassed her on more than one occasion with very poor timing of my needs. In Jamaica, we believe in strict discipline - our British heritage - one has to hold it, burst, or get fined for littering (not indecent exposure). I believe there's a marching song with these words:
"There's not a loo in sight
Nether left nor right
So stiffen your upper lip
And hope you don't start to drip"
Even now, in my senior years, although she is long dead, the last thing I do before leaving any place is to heed Mama's voice and visit that special room. Naturally, therefore, after a long plane ride, before I leave the airport I seek the nearest place of refuge.
It's 1993, and my point of disembarkation is Miami airport. I'm in the customs area. Since we have to wait for luggage to arrive, it seems sensible to use the time attending to my needs, so I look around for the familiar sign and walk into the nearest haven, a small one; only one room, one basin, one seat. I close the door and as usual, (another of dear Mama's injunctions) I wipe off the places I might touch before getting myself ready. But, as soon as I flick the paper into the bowl, the contraption goes, gurgle, gurgle, swish and flushes. I am a little surprised because I haven't touched anything to cause this to happen. There is a tiny red light gazing at me from under the rim. Is this a new system of flushing? Curious, I drop another piece of paper and the same thing happens- gurgle, gurgle, flush. I am alone in this place and I begin to feel as if the hair on my head is lifting, rather like it’s supposed to do when one sees a duppy, at home. But here I am, standing before a WC in Miami, and nobody has ever told me about self flushing toilets. What happens if it starts streaming water before I've finished my business. Is it only paper to which it responds? A host of weird thoughts begin to pass through my mind. I stare and stare at that little red light. For some reason it begins to look like an eye. I think perhaps I should hold strain.
But I am a sensible person. There must be some explanation for this, although at the moment I can't think what. Is the computer chip now controlling bowl actions? I wonder. I decide to ignore dear Mama's voice, so I go to the basin, where, as soon as I put my hand under the tap, water flows without my touching anything. I pull back my hand in surprise, and it shuts off. Sensible or not I am now definitely sure that this is no place for me. Where I come from everybody knows that when stones start stoning house by themselves or furniture start moving about by themselves, or water turn on by itself, something is definitely wrong. Very high science is at work.
But this is Miami. What is going on? Obviously that little red eye has something to do with it. There was one on the basin too. Outside now I think I should have experimented a little more. I am tempted to go back in, but my luggage has arrived and for some reason when I look around, I get the uncomfortable feeling that I am being watched. Red eyes are beginning to haunt me.
I go through customs, still bemused. THEY're taking this science and technology thing too far, now, I think. Satellites, video phones, pigs' livers transplanted into people - all very wonderful, but now THEY've reached the bottom line. Invaded might be a better word.
The thought that that little red eye could be recording details of very private business makes me sweat. Research data collection? About what? Why? For whom? I think that perhaps I had better stay away from such public places in future. Just suppose I were to linger too long over certain business - travelling creates all sorts of problems. It would be a simple matter for THEM to add advertising. Imagine a voice coming from below, chilling in its unprejudiced concern: "Stop it, quick, with STOPIT!" or perhaps "Just one square of RE-LAX will release you!" - depending on the state of affairs. Now, if that were to happen, I for one would have to come rushing out, unfinished business and all.