Where have I been in my life? What did I do in the countries I visited? And how did I end up in Costa Rica? These questions and more I have been asked hundreds of times. The answer is simple really. All my life I have had this wanderlust. Many of you will recognize the feeling – the real need to travel just for the sake of travelling. To explore different parts of the world, to learn about different cultures, to meet people of varying nationalities and beliefs and simply to wander this planet.
As soon as I left school – and at the height of the Swinging Sixties when everything British was all the rage in the United States – I decided to try my luck in New York. But first I had to visit the US Embassy in Grosevenor Square and apply for my green card.
“Will you raise your right hand and swear after me, I will not assassinate the President of the United States!” The American Vice-Consul in London peered at me over his half-moon glasses.
“I beg your pardon?” I gulped.
“Would you please raise your right hand and swear after me, I will not assassinate the President of the United States!”
I giggled, “You’re joking?”
The Vice-Consul loomed large in front of me. He pulled himself up to his full height, six foot two or three I would guess, and spluttered, “Miss Kennedy, this is no laughing matter. I want you to raise your right hand and…..”
“Yes, yes, I understand,” I protested, “but honestly, am I likely to admit to you if I was planning to do that?” I regretted this outburst immediately. It was blurted out in jest but I could see it was taken as insolence.
From the opposite side of his desk, the Consul frowned. He was beginning to lose patience with me. He reached over to grab my right hand. And, after a brief but obvious mental exercise as to which of my two hands that might be, raised it above my shoulder and repeated the phrase.
“I swear I shall not assassinate the President of the United States!”
Anxious to fulfil this one last requirement to obtain my all-important green card, I had little choice but to do his bidding. I mumbled the words taking great pains, as I did so, to stifle my giggles. In the end he was easy to satisfy. He had, I guessed, discharged his duty, as he saw fit. From now on, he must have reassured himself, if ever Caroline Kennedy was caught red-handed attempting to kill Lyndon Johnson or, indeed, any successive United States President, he, the Vice-Consul, could always protest, “But she swore to me she wasn’t going to do it!” He beamed with the kind of pride that comes only with victory, lowered my right hand and pumped it vigorously.
“Good luck in the United States, Miss Kennedy!” he smiled graciously.
I turned and walked towards the door. As I reached for the handle, the Vice Consul coughed. I looked back.
“I just wanted to say,” he added, “they’ll just love your accent over there!”
As I closed the door on his office I breathed a sigh of relief. I had leaped my final hurdle. I had been accepted into the United States with one shake of the Vice-Consul’s hand. Prior to my meeting with him I had already passed an exhaustive and unnecessarily invasive medical test during which I had been cross-examined about my past and current sexual activities, my medical history and my family’s psychological conditions. I had been thoroughly prodded, needled and tested all over my body, it seemed. My blood, urine and pregnancy results had been minutely scrutinized and filed away for future reference. Certainly if my original plan had been to go to the United States to deliver a baby, it would have failed miserably. In fact a girl who was applying for her green card at the same time as me failed hers. Her name was Jenny and she had whispered to me, as we waited sheepishly in line for our medical, that she wanted her baby born an American citizen because its father, Bob, was from Scottsdale, Arizona.
“We only met recently,” she whispered conspiratorially, making sure no one else was listening. “He was on a business trip. We clicked immediately.”
“Is he still around?” I whispered back.
“No. He left after two weeks. He didn’t know about this.” Jenny’s eyes lowered, indicating her still small belly.
“Haven’t you told him?” I asked.
Jenny shook her head sadly. “I was planning to give him a surprise.” A solitary tear dropped onto her lime green dress, creating a dark spot.
I suspected it would have been more of a shock than a surprise to Bob and his family if Jenny had, as she had planned, turned up unannounced on his doorstep.
But, as it turned out, it was more of a shock to Jenny that the medical examiner had skilfully detected that she was two weeks pregnant and he immediately put an end to her dreams. She had become that most loathed of creatures in U.S. immigration eyes, the undesirable alien.
“I doubt whether they’ll ever let me in now.” she wept, “They’re so strict.”
Yes, the Medical Department at the Consulate had been systematic alright. The tests were brutal, thorough and highly undignified. I had been asked some absurd questions too by the Immigration Department. Would I be making a living on the streets? Would I be selling my body for sex? Did I plan to carry out any criminal activities? Had I, indeed, carried out any criminal activities in the past? Had I got a police record? Had I joined any communist or un-American organizations? Had I ever possessed or carried a firearm? If yes, had I ever used it and under what circumstances? Did I have any bad credit? Had I ever been declared bankrupt? Had I ever suffered from substance or alcohol abuse? If yes, what substances and what medical treatment had I received? Was there any history of mental problems in my family? If so, what kind? And, finally, had I lied in my answers to any of the above questions? From that moment on I loathed bureaucracy and, particularly, the immigration services of every country I ever visited.
As I left the Consulate I glanced sympathetically at the long line of hopeful applicants, each one aspiring to obtain a green card or to become a citizen of the United States. I wondered did they know what indignities they would be required to go through, what questions they would be expected to answer? And, if they did, would they still be prepared to pursue this American dream?
But I was smug. I had passed mine. I was ecstatic. I clutched my green card. I felt I was on my way to the Big Apple.
Had I known then what I know now – that green cards are virtually impossible to obtain, I would have held on to it, paid the price of returning to American soil once a year and kept it up to date. As it is, four years later I foolishly allowed it to lapse.
So, after having discovered how carefully immigration applicants are vetted, imagine how astounded I was to find myself, a few months later, actually shaking hands with President and Lady Bird Johnson with, apparently, not a single Secret Service Agent in sight. The handshake took place the following summer of 1964. It was at a Democratic fund-raising barbeque in the magnificent grounds of one of those rambling Long Island homes and was hosted by the actor Paul Newman and the President’s daughter, Linda. My first thought on encountering the President was that, had I brought one, I could have easily disguised a gun wrapped up in my Texas-sized T-bone steak. Perhaps the Vice Consul had been right in making me swear not to assassinate the President. For here, right now, I realized, nobody would have even noticed. In one swift move I could have taken out Lyndon Baines Johnson before anyone had a chance to recognize what was happening. But, instead, all I could do was make small talk, “Lovely evening, beautiful garden, delicious food,” that kind of thing. Here I was, a fledgling journalist with an opportunity to discuss serious politics with the President of the United States, and I stood, like a frightened rabbit, too coy to ask him about anything. I wanted to pin him down about the war on poverty, about the possibility of manned space flight or, most importantly, on the recent “Gulf of Tonkin” decision for retaliatory air strikes against the North Vietnamese following their attack on the U.S.S. Maddox. But, no, I had missed my moment of triumph. I had been tongue-tied. I had wimped out.
Too embarrassed to linger, I fell in with the crowd congratulating Paul Newman on the mouth-watering sauces he had prepared to accompany the steaks. I found myself rubbing shoulders with Senator Ferdinand Edralin Marcos, the Philippines presidential candidate. As a woman I should probably have had some feminine intuition here for, in a few years time, I was to become an outspoken adversary of both him and his wife Imelda. I would write exhaustively on the ill-gotten gains of their conjugal dictatorship and I would clash, more than once with their eldest daughter Imee, on Manila television. But there was no way of knowing then what a central part of my early life they and their country would become. So, again, I shook hands, smiled politely, made some innocuous comment on the evening and walked on by.