Welcome to Miami, Bienvenido a Miami, so sung Will Smith. Hadn’t been released yet but I was probably thinking it.
I had just spent Christmas and New Year’s on Roatan, one of the Islas de la Bahia off the coast of Honduras. A blissful Caribbean paradise, once you get used to the sand flies. They seem to leave you alone after a week or so. A month floated by there, in fact this direct flight to Miami was the first time I had had long trousers and shoes on since November.
We seemed to be landing right on one of the freeways around Miami, I could make out the faces of pissed off morning commuters in their cars as we made our final approach. This was to be a culture shock. I was on my way home after spending a year in South America. My passport was full of those stamps that arouse suspicion in immigration officials. To make matters worse I was on a one way ticket. I did have a ticket out of America, although not confirmed, San Diego to Tijuana, a ten mile hop and a long way from Miami. The cheapest ticket I could buy in Honduras. I had a feeling I should have held onto my $50.
The plan was to visit a friend in Gainesville, Florida, then somehow make my way up to New York for coffee and donuts and the $100 tickets back to London. Just had to get that entry stamp first. I had bused, trained, boated and walked across numerous borders in the last year. In Central America I had entered and exited countries in the same day, but North America is different, for this reason I had donned my smartest outfit.
Queuing up, I knew I was in trouble, old habits die hard. I had always traveled with a bottle of rum in my ruc-sac, today was no exception. Except it was, this bottle had smashed, my whole ruc-sac smelt of booze, it was permeating around me as I handed over my passport. Mr Immigration took some time to digest the stamps and my aroma. Bolivia, Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua, they were all there.
“What did you do for a year in South America? Did you work?”
“I was making contact with the Colombians, I’m looking to move ten kilos out of Cartagena the middle of next month.”
The ramifications this would bring, of course I never said it. What would happen if you said that to a customs guy?
“Just as a tourist, learning Spanish.” Seems hard for people to grasp this if they haven’t done it. Save some money, resign the job and take off.
STAMP! satisfied, that red immigration mark was already drying on the one empty page of my passport. Three months it said.
“Can I see your ticket back to England?”
“Eerrrrr…I’ve got a ticket to Mexico, but it’s not confirmed.”
This was like a slap around the face, was I insulting him? “That’s not good enough! Queue up over there.” Round two, my passport had been taken from me, I was in another hall with, I suppose, other failed tourists.
Only half an hour or so had passed, I was still on manana, manana, South American time and was ready for the long haul. Summoned to the desk. “I hate it when they do this.” A customs officer conferred with his colleague. I had already been stamped entry, checked for criminal records or terrorist links, Miami opened it’s arms to me.
This was the biggest, busiest and most expensive city I had seen in a year and this was just the airport. As far as I could see this place had everything. Shops, restaurants, people I could understand….just. I had been told of a hostel downtown on South Beach. $10 to $20 a night, this was going to take some acclimatising to. Met up with some Israelis on their way to see relatives in New York, stowed our bags in lockers and hit Burger King.
Using the airport as our base, seemed natural enough at the time, everything we needed was right here. I was experiencing difficulty using the phones though, for the past year the few calls I had made had been through receptionists. No need to dial, just pick up the receiver when they nod at you.
These phones were complex. Pick up the receiver, fair enough, a recorded voice asks you which telephone company you want. Took me about five attempts to realise it was a recording! “What companies do you have?” Couldn’t work out why no-one replied to me. When I had grasped this, which involved asking the guy at Burger King in between ordering a soft drink and a Whopper what telephone companies are there in Florida, he thought it was a trick question. An intelligence test, was I one of those scouts Burger King sent out to test it’s employees?
Coming up with a viable company, the recording didn’t recognise my accent.
“Which telephone company do you require?” Hours I was there, the trick I finally worked out was to throw on a Yankee accent. Bingo, like breaking into some high tech defence system, I was in, stage two.
“Please dial the number required.” Thumbing through my notebook, easy, then I was informed: “Please insert two dollars for the first…minutes.”
It would only accept quarters, I had to go to get change from my friend at Burger King again. After a few restarts, I finally got through to an answering machine and over the course of the next two days left numerous messages.
“Alright, it’s Justin. I’m in Miami and will be with you in a day.” Didn’t find out until days later that it was the wrong number. I had been omitting the area code!
Exasperated I purchased a fabled Greyhound bus ticket to Gainesville. 48 hours I’d been in Miami airport, quite a lot of the time using the phone. But like I said it’s big, had everything I needed. The previous evening we had taken the bus to South Beach, played pool and gone drinking in the bars, making sure we caught the last bus back to the airport. Where, in true South American style, I had swung my hammock between two chairs in a quiet corner.
We killed the next day and night on South Beach too. Wandering around the Cuban restaurants marvelling at the Art Deco architecture. My companions left me that evening to fly to New York, I was on my own. My Greyhound ticket was for 6am, finding my quiet corner I swung my hammock. It was around 1am when the police started screaming at me.
Miami cops, one Africa-American, one Hispanic. At maximum volume the gist was they had seen me here the night before, if I didn’t have a plane ticket I was going to have to leave. This was an airport, not a hotel. I thought very briefly about my ticket from San Diego to Tijuana…no point. Seconds I was given to untie my hammock and stuff it into my bag as they almost hauled me towards the exit. My passport was vigorously scrutinized and name ran over his radio.
“I bet you have been arrested before! If you even look at me the wrong way I’m going to arrest you!”
His wife had obviously been screwing around. I was marched to the sliding doors of Miami airport and informed in no uncertain terms to leave.
It was around this time that tourists had been murdered whilst leaving Miami airport. It was 1am, I had nowhere to go. A hotel bus driver took pity on me and dropped me at the Greyhound terminal, although this didn’t exactly instill me with confidence. There was no one there apart from two people trying their best to sleep on plastic chairs. Trying to look like I was packing a Magnum and knew what I was doing, roll on 6am.
Welcome to Miami! Bienvenido a Miami!