Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Mind Your Please and Thank You’s

Last year, when I was in East Timor, I was asked by a former consultant to fix a passport problem. He had overstayed his visa and they had banned him from every coming back.

“How stupid do you have to be to overstay your visa?” I thought.

Today, I found out.

After extending my stay last week and moving hotels, I completely forgot. I only had a thirty day visa and my new flight had me leaving on the 32nd day. Of course, I didn’t realize this until today; the day before I leave.

Oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit.

I called Susan. Her reaction was classically forthright: “What do we do now, Madam?”

We collectively freaked out and then hung up on each other. I called my friend at the US Embassy, who told me to contact American Civilian Services, who as it turns out, are only open from 1-4 on Mondays and Wednesdays. D’oh. Dead end.

Susan called a friend of a friend who said that US Citizens have a seven day grace period. I refused to believe that unless it was in writing. Our comptroller called a friend who worked in the Immigration office. Susan called another contact who said that it was only a 24 hour grace period and we’d have to pay a $50 fine to extend it. We decided to gather all the paperwork and go down to the Immigration office ourselves.

I tried not to think of the what-if’s. What if they don’t issue it; what if I have to stay, what if...Susan kept patting my hand, laughing nervously and saying she’d make it right. We both shook our heads at each other, hardly believing what an adventure we’d gotten ourselves into. Susan is like me, in that she realizes the futility of her situation when its out of her hands, and keeps her sense of humor.

I think this is what saved us. The Immigration office was a crush of people, whom I towered above. We climbed four flights of stairs (and stares) in and out of air conditioning until we came to a semi-filled room in the Visa section. We were directed to station number #2, where Susan pleaded my case. The woman there stated it would cost $100. I didn’t care; I was determined to get out of the country! Better plead my case here in the visa section and pay my dues, than at midnight tomorrow night with some ornery passport control agent.

We were directed to fill out a form, go get a passport photo, and bring it back. Luckily, there was an entrepreneurial photographer on the floor landing (in the wicked heat). The result, of course, were three very sweaty photos of me looking terrified. Dutifully filled out, we went back to station #2. Then passed to station #1, then the guy next to station #1. I had written that I only needed an extension for one day. “One day, Madam?” he queried. “Yes!” Susan and I replied together. “Just enough to catch my flight…” I explained. I thanked him in Singhalese, and gave him a wan smile.

He shook his head, disbelievingly, glanced from Susan's eager face to mine, and changed my request to three days. “Just in case,” he stated. Then he signed the papers and directed us to station #3.

A long line was forming in front of Station #3, a glass room with a large man behind a desk. Apparently, extensions are only processed before lunch and it was a little before noon. We had only thirty minutes – tops – to get this done. The line crawled. We laughed at my photos. I chewed my hangnails. Susan assured me I could live in her basement, if need be.

Station #3 hardly looked at us before signing the paper, shooing us away. We went back to station #2 ( by this time, I was feeling a bit like a ping-pong ball). They directed us to Payments, who directed us back to Station #2, who wouldn’t take our money. A woman there said she liked my necklace. Another man behind the desk just wiggled his head from side to side in that charming Sri Lankan way, which I understand now to mean “Not a problem.”

"Boham Estuti" I said to them again, "Thank you."

We submitted the final all-signed paperwork to a man behind yet another desk, next to five signs labeled: NGO, Student, Private, Clergy and Resident Indian. I wondered if they had a lot of visiting clergy… However, I didn’t have much time to ponder this, as within twenty minutes the last man came back with a load of passports, including my own. Then they shut down for lunch.

Whew! Under the wire. Susan commented that it was probably a) my saying so many thank you's and b) the innocent, urgent look on my face. "Your charm wins again, Madam," Susan said. I'm not sure, but I think I'm running short on how much I can rely on my charm. I told Susan as much and she just laughed at me.

As repayment for their help, I took Susan and the rest of the office out to lunch to celebrate my freedom. Needless to say, productivity was not very high for the rest of the day.

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