Travel

What It's Like to Fly When the TSA Profiles You

Daniel Fishel/Thrillist
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

It’s 4:45am on a Monday morning, and my flight from Washington, DC to Charlotte, North Carolina is set to depart in 90 minutes. I haven’t made it through security yet, but my friend tells me it should be “no problemo” — it’s so early we should be able to cruise through. I’m more skeptical. I don’t think she usually flies with people who look like me.

Midway through the line, a TSA agent pulls me aside to swab my palms for explosive powder. For the 15 minutes we’ve been in line, I’m the only person who’s been pulled away for this drill. When we get to the metal detectors, I go through without a beep, and yet the agent asks me to step aside for frisking and pat-downs.

Finally I’m allowed to pass through to pick up my bags from the conveyor, but I already know I’m not going to see my backpack come out the other side. Sure enough, it’s been redirected on the other conveyor at the security checkpoint for more detailed inspection. As it always is.

We wait another 15 agonizing minutes. An agent finally comes, inspects the bag, and lets me get my things. My friend is stunned at how long everything has taken; we have to jog through the terminal to catch the plane. When we sit down, she literally sighs with relief that we made it. I don’t tell her that if this was an international flight and we were moving through passport control, there would have been another round of interrogation about who I was and why I was doing anything. Unless we’d planned accordingly for these inevitabilities, we would have missed our flight.

Daniel Fishel/Thrillist
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

I’m a U.S. citizen, very much from and of this country, without the smallest blemish of a criminal record. I was born outside Chicago and raised right outside DC by a computer engineer father and a clinical research auditor mother. In high school, I was a keener for AP and IB courses, and I graduated with a biology degree from Virginia Tech (go Hokies!). Now I eke out a living writing about NASA and Hyperloop and whatnot. Stereotypes are bad, but I will admit, my life does little to dispel the ones about Indians.

I wouldn’t say I’m a model citizen (I work in the media, for chrissake), but at 5-foot-2-inches and with a petite frame, I’m the definition of non-threatening. I put airport security on alert only because I’m brown — a typecast stand-in of how Americans picture a Muslim terrorist.

You’re not even Muslim! my white friends exclaim, quickly followed by, Not that that should even matter. And of course it shouldn’t. But Indian descent won’t spare me from the racially based harassments guised as “security measures” that my Middle Eastern and Arab friends and colleagues face. On cosmetic terms, I fit a profile our society has learned to fear, and the optics are powerful. Sikhism is a religion very distinct from Islam or anything else, but as a Sikh friend of mine jokes, “The beard and the turban mean you’re a visual liability.” When he flies, he counts on being stopped for what the TSA drolly calls “additional random screening,” as if there’s much random about it.Things are worse if you actually possess a name that sounds Arabic. Your name might be shared or similar to one on a no-fly list, and you’re more likely to be grounded and interrogated. My friend Imani wears a hijab and says a TSA agent will always pat it down and feel through it to see if she’s hiding anything. “It makes no sense,” she says. “If I was out to do something destructive, wouldn’t I want to try to look more discreet, rather than blatantly advertise I’m a Muslim?”

In the UK, ethnic minorities are 42% more likely than white people to be stopped at the airport by security personnel. Here in the States, the TSA doesn’t keep records of stoppages, but TSA behavior detection officers at Boston’s Logan International Airport once told reporters that more than 80% of the passengers selected for additional screening and questioning were people of color. A study of TSA documents by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) shows what amounts to a pretty systematic process of racial profiling against brown and black people.

Daniel Fishel/Thrillist
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

I usually keep a trimmed beard in my normal day-to-day life, but when I travel, I shave my face clean. I also prepare to keep moving through security as fast as possible, carrying only a backpack and wearing light clothing (the best way to keep searches minimally invasive, I’ve learned over the years, is to travel in only basketball shorts, a T-shirt, and sandals, ideally). The less I have, the less excuse security has to pull me or my things out for additional screening.

At no point do I get huffy, or show my aggravation. I can’t join others who fume and complain in the security line. I have to be calm and respectful and answer questions as succinctly and pithily as possible — not saying too much to sound long-winded or rehearsed, and not saying too little as to be vague or blasé. Speaking clearly and quietly carries the least risk of getting pulled aside for yet more questioning.

People are sympathetic to this, and they always seem amazed at how calmly I go through this ritual. They don’t always realize there’s no way in hell that I, or anyone else of my skin tone, are going to get through it any quicker by protesting. I suspect it’s the same calm calculus that many people of color do when police pull them over on the road. If you get pissed off, you’re giving authorities a reason to escalate things. Complaining about their suspicions is likely to confirm those very suspicions.When you’re brown, and you tell your white friends about these experiences, they always react with shock and umbrage. Some of them have asked me whether things have gotten worse under Trump. Hard to say, but I feel like I’m getting stopped more often, and airports do feel more tense. Shortly after the Inauguration in 2017, a Muslim woman was attacked by some bigot at JFK. “Fuck Islam, fuck ISIS, Trump is here now,” he shouted at her.  “He will get rid of all of you. You can ask Germany, Belgium, and France about these kind of people. You will see what happens.” Trump’s own tweets cast the world into nuance-free camps of “us” and “them.” And guess where the people of color fall.

We can, though, take solace in how diligently people are documenting and exposing these instances. Social media let us call out abuses in real time, and connects us to a community who shares our experiences.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t emphasize that my grievances are with profiling at large. Individual TSA agents often make clear how aware they are of the absurdity of their errand. Even when an agent pulls me aside for a pat-down or to check my bag more thoroughly, there’s always room to trade a couple wisecracks. The agents who approach their job with that sense of shared human connection help remind me that I’m sane, even when the system isn’t.Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Neel V. Patel is a journalist based in New York City, mostly writing about science and technology, but occasionally writing about the ennui of his life. His tweets are bad and dumb, please follow him.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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