Sunday, January 17, 2016

Laughs and lessons learned from visa denial

How to wait for a visa in Japan: find a fan dance class
and pose in a kimono.
Unsurprisingly, being denied a visa twice in two weeks provided plenty of fertile ground for me to contemplate the privilege of belonging to and being a temporary visitor in a foreign nation--and how others would love to enjoy this privilege that I have previously taken for granted.

The first visa issue was a relatively painless experience. When my sister and I were denied a boarding pass due to not having a required letter from the Vietnamese embassy, we realized that we could enjoy two full days in Tokyo. And we did. We ate fantastic sushi and ramen, learned a fan dance in a kimono, received our fortunes in a temple, and even attempted to visit a penguin bar (epic fail). The climactic part of our trip? Probably viewing our Vietnamese approval letters on my sister's Iphone, while watching the world's busiest pedestrian intersection on the third floor of a palatial Starbucks. If we needed wifi to check our email for this highly anticipated document, we thought that we may as well do it in the most memorable way possible.

On the way to Cambodia, Vietnamese women selling things from a boat are fairly common.
 Obtaining a Cambodian visa, however, was far more hair-raising. At that point, all of us had largely exhausted our Vietnamese currency and were relying on the Cambodian ATMs to refurnish our funds upon arrival to Pnom Penh. While on the six-hour boat ride, my father, unfortunately, realized that he had left his chunk of money intended for our visas. We immediately began to pool all of our Vietnamese and American money together for this worthy cause, but soon realized we were 100 dollars short. While the Cambodian visa was only thirty American dollars per person, It may as well have been three hundred dollars--there did not seem to be any possible way for us to pay for the outstanding amount. One of my brothers offered to pawn off his watch for the cause, and I began to wonder just how much my earring studs would go for.

Suddenly, my brother realized he had a fifty-dollar Australian bill that he had kept from his time in Australia over one month ago. Another one of my brothers happened to have some yen currency from his trip to China two years prior. My mother also realized that she had some Qatari bills, as well as some Egyptian and Icelandic currency from her recent adventures. After exhausting our Vietnamese and American currency, we pulled together approximately eight different currencies from all of our respective wallets--and anxiously hoped that the Cambodian officials would look at our situation kindly (and perhaps a slightly blind eye).

We were relieved to find that while the officials only accepted American dollars, there were about fifteen currencies that they could exchange. Despite the horrible exchange rate, we soon found that we had enough to pay for all eight of our family member's visas--with several dollars to spare.

While we had no money to pay for snacks or a lunch, we laughed and congratulated ourselves at our uncanny ability to cough up these funds--only to find that we had only completed the first obstacle. After giving the officials our money, we returned on the speedboat for a twenty-minute ride to a makeshift immigration center on a remote waterbank. The officials then explained that they would need our 4x6 visa pictures, which my brothers and parents did not have. However, as we had met our first challenge, my family members were confident that this second task at hand could be accomplished. A quest soon began to find an extant ATM and photobooth on this remote, rural bank on the Cambodian border.

My sister and I meanwhile, breathed a sigh of relief have we had obtained these 4x6 pictures in Japan, and we confidently waited for our passport return. One can only imagine my dejected face, when the Cambodian official told me that my sister's visa was accepted, but my passport was "no good": I only had two pages left on my passport, and the Cambodian government required to have three blank pages remaining.

For the first time, I regretted my unusually well-used passport, and I asked what on earth I was supposed to do. He smiled, nonchalantly blew cigarette smoke in my face, and said that if I gave the officials another thirty American dollars, they would put a visa on top of one of my stamped pages. Never before had thirty dollars felt like so much money. As I looked at my empty wallet and wondered where the rest of our family members had traveled to as a result of what may be an elusive quest,  I believe I caught a brief, yet rare glimpse of what purgatory must feel like. My sister and I then discussed the very real possibility for her to go on to Pnom Penh alone, retrieve some ATM money, and return back by boat to rescue us from this dismal place that was overwhelmed with pedantic regulations.

Fortunately, after what seemed to be an eternity, my brothers and parents returned from a successful mission: photos in hand and enough cash to last us for several days. My father rolled his eyes when learning that an extra fee would have to be paid, since six of the eight passports were "no good." But seeing my visa in my passport was a far sweeter sight as we left the land of purgatory and on to the promised land of Pnom Penh.

We made it to Pnom Penh!!
Certainly, obtaining a visa for Cambodia and Vietnam will be family stories that will last for years to come. However, after leaving that miserable makeshift immigration center, I though of how others attempting to travel to another area for much more compelling reasons other than tourism can be stuck in worse places than this one for months--even years. While my father could have easily paid for eight visas in any other situation, our family temporarily had several dollars between all of us--with no apparent certainty as to how we would obtain more funds. For an extraordinarily brief time, I caught a minute glimpse of what refugees around the world must endure as they may immediately transition from having everything they need--to having almost nothing but the clothing on their backs. And despite our being American, it was deeply uncomfortable to realize just how much our family was at the mercy of these officials to complete our trip.

If Pnom Penh felt like the Promised Land to me after almost eight hours of travel and visa anxiety, I don't know if I could even contemplate what a refugee or an immigrant must feel when they have obtained a sponsor or been granted asylum. I'm not sure if I will ever completely understand that feeling, but I am grateful for a temporary exhaustion of funds, questionable government officials, and some uncertainty of our visa outcome that provided a tiny window of insight.    

No comments:

Post a Comment