Stranger in a Strange Land

I write this from the Atlanta airport on April 4, 2024. This is my first time stepping foot in the United States since December 2022. I feel like a stranger in a strange land. In that spirit, the following is my observations of the customs of this place and its humans.

The very first thing I noticed was upon taking my phone off airplane mode. The cellular data is blazing fast! My WhatsApp messages were sending immediately and webpages loading instantly versus taking 3 or 4 or 5 seconds. The 5G is lacking in Mexico so this was a welcome situation.

The next step was getting off the plane and heading to the Global Entry kiosks. I stepped up to it, pressed a big green button, it scanned my face in about half a second, and that was all I had to do. No one even looked at my passport. The customs guy asked if I brought anything in, I had brought a bottle of Mezcal, but he shrugged and waved me through. Insanely efficient.

The next thing I noticed was how friendly people are. I had to go through security again to get on my connecting flight and the TSA agent was saying Welcome to Canada to everyone that came up to him and laughing like he had just told the greatest joke ever written. I feel lucky to be among the first 20,000 people that this comedian practiced his new material on. I’m eagerly awaiting the Netflix special.

And it wasn’t just him. Everyone I approached gave an enthusiastic how’s it going? How’s your day? These are a loud and boisterous people.

The other notable thing is that about half of them are shockingly rotund. The size of two or three Mexicans in some cases. But it’s not just the girth of their bellies, they are tall too! I’d gotten used to being about average height but felt tiny again here.

Next, I sat down at an airport restaurant. I took a look at the menu. Burgers, wings, fries, vegan options for everything. Most things about $12 to $15. With no good options available, I ordered a turkey wrap and wings. The waitress asked if I wanted blue cheese with the wings. I said sí. She looked confused. So I said yes, a word that hasn’t left my mouth over the past many months.

I watched people waddling by. I watched people devouring mountains of fried potatoes.

I wasn’t trying to snoop but people talk really loud here. It’s like they want you to listen to their conversations. Most conversations I overheard were complaints about minor inconveniences like a flight being delayed by 20 minutes or how the wine someone usually ordered wasn’t as good as usual.

Throughout my meal, the waitress came up and asked things like “are you still working on that?” Which I thought was an odd question. I had eaten it, yes, but I’m in a different line of work.

When I was ready to pay for the meal, I forgot how to ask for the bill. Do I go to the cashier? Is there a bell to ring? Do I ask for la cuenta? When another waitress came up and asked if she could help with anything, I said I’d like to pay. That seemed to do the trick. She asked for my card which I thought was very odd. In Mexico, they always bring the card terminal to the table so when she started to walk away with my credit card, I thought I was being robbed. But I decided to let this play out. Sure enough, she returned with a slip of paper that had the amount I’d be charged but on the bottom there were a couple confusing things. While my meal had been $29, they tacked on another $3 or so in tax. That’s pretty shady. So the tax got added to the price on the menu. But it didn’t stop there. There was a section below that that said suggested gratuity. In that section there were three lines one said 18%, 20%, and 25%.

After I paid, I said a heartfelt ‘gracias’ to the waitress and left.

[That concludes what I wrote in the Atlanta airport]

On the ground in North Carolina, the strangeness continued.

In the airport bathroom, the toilets flushed automatically as you stepped away, the sink turned on automatically as you put your hand under it, and the paper towels dispensed automatically if you waved at it. Even the trash cans sometimes seemed to come to life and compact the trash every few minutes. Everything was automated, sometimes to the point of stupidity.

As the automatic airport doors opened I was greeted by vehicles that must have been built for giants. Instead of Volkswagens, Fiats, and little Nissans, I saw SUVs, mini-vans, mega vans, and giant trucks. In fact, about half of the vehicles were trucks. And these weren’t the little utility vehicles you see occasionally in Mexico that are always carrying a ladder, some tools, some mattresses strapped to the roof, and a cab full of three or four or eight workers. These trucks were twice as tall and twice as long. They were shiny, free of scratches, had leather seats, and looked like not so much as bag of groceries had ever been hauled in their giant truck bed. Piloting these monstrosities was usually just one person. One person mounted on a 4 ton luxury wheelchair.

To accommodate these monstrous vehicles, the lanes of the road were extra wide. And the parking lots in front of stores stretched on as far the eye could see with extra wide parking spots to accommodate the working vehicles that this population has. My best guess is that these people are all employed in the trades and need all that transportation capacity for their pipes and their lumber and their concrete. But again, I never saw a single truck bed that had so much as a lawn mower in it. So it’s all very confusing.

There’s a certain uniformity to this place. There are carbon copies of buildings all through the towns with names like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Chevron which make it hard to distinguish one town from another. This isn’t good or bad, just not as interesting as places where every street and neighborhood has a distinct personality and character.

This concludes my observations from this strange land.

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