Monday, September 14, 2009

Don't Leave Home Without It

Don't Leave Home Without It (a/k/a How to Turn an Ordinary Shower into Heaven)

I still fully intend on finishing the last few entries that conclude my first experience in India. My notes have been waiting for me all this time.

However, I have to get this update out now. I have been offered another position in Delhi, beginning in October, 2009. I will be the English Language Teaching Director. As preparation for assuming this position, I was invited to attend three days of meetings in Delhi, beginning on September 14th. This is the story of how that went.

No one mentioned to me (nor did I know) that one needs a visa to spend even ten minutes on Indian soil. So I happily went on my way at the Cedar Rapids airport and the Chicago airport—where the gate agents all checked my passport numerous times and told me I was all set for my latest trip to Delhi. Have a nice flight. Thanks for flying American!

Fifteen hours later, I’m dragging my way off the plane at the Delhi airport. I get through the H1N1 check with no problem. I walk to the next set of desks, and I am halted in my tracks. The man behind the desk starts flipping through my passport again and again. Finally he says, “Where’s your visa?” And I happily explain to him that I’ll only be here for a few days, so I don’t need one. Instead of letting me go get my bags from the carousel, he asks me, “Why did you come here without a visa?” “Because I didn’t think I needed one,” I reply. “But why did you come here without a visa?” he asks again. Perhaps he wanted a more creative answer, perhaps he thought my response was a lie to cover up my evil plot of becoming an illegal immigrant in Delhi. But I had no other answer. “I didn’t think I needed a visa,” I repeat. He shakes his turban and beard at me and motions toward a cross-looking, grey-haired man wearing a swine flu mask who leads me towards a shady office with one-way glass. An Indian woman walks by behind me and looks quite worried. “Are you okay?” she whispers. “I’m fine,” I tell her confidently, truly without worry. I just have to explain my situation to this guy and everything will be fine. Yet in the back of my head, I’m wondering if this is the start of one of the Discovery Channel’s episodes of Locked Up Abroad. Could I get thrown into some Indian slammer and be sentenced to nine years of hard labor? Naw, I think. I should have never watched that series anyway. It gave me nightmares. It’s like watching one of those doctor shows and then becoming convinced that you have the rare ailment featured in the subplot.

The masked man walks behind a contact-paper wood grain desk and motions for me to enter his office. I sit on a dirty, saggy couch as he paces and asks over and over, “Why did you come here without a visa?” The answer is the same every time: because I didn’t know I needed one… Eventually, he thinks of more questions. I answer them all and produce my itinerary, the hotel confirmation, letterhead, a list of contact people and their phone numbers, my return ticket dated September 18th. He looks at it all, poking each document with a pencil, then he unties the top part of his mask and gets on the phone. “Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Tika, sir. Tika, sir. Acha, sir. Acha, sir,” he says for the next three minutes. He then leaves the room and returns a minute later with an entourage of shuffling men in faded denim shirts. They form a circle outside the office door and intermittently shoot squinty glances my way. Two more people come into the room. I get the sense they’re tending to something else. As the man with the baseball hat sinks down into a crushed cushion of the opposite couch, he sighs, “Nooo visaaaa?” to the woman on the swivel stool, who shakes her head in reply—both of them acting like I am an inanimate object. The crowd outside the office keeps pulling more people towards it like a static-ridden sweater attracting lint. I wonder if everyone in the airport knows about this now. I wonder if they’ve sent out a code red about me, if this constitutes an “international incident,” if I’ll make the evening news, if I’ll be a two-second story on CNN. What would the headline be? “American Woman Makes Huge Mistake – Pays For It.”

Finally, the crowd disperses and the masked man returns to his desk. Half of what he tells me is intelligible. I get the idea that I have to call someone important to get out of this jam. “Who? Can I have a phone number?” I ask. He shakes his head. “No! You must know. Do not you have someone from your company?” I tell him I’ll make a few phone calls, and he wanders off again. I’m alone in the office for a while, but the whole time men are pacing outside the door.

I fire up my cell phone and notice a waning battery charge. I look at my list of phone contacts. I hope to see Vivek’s number there, but it don’t. I call Joanne, the ELT President I’ve been working with, dreading the thought of telling her of my predicament. I dial three times before the call finally goes through, and Joanne, thankfully, answers. “Joanne?” I say. There is a long pause. Maybe I have the wrong number. Maybe she was asleep already. “Yes?” she finally says.

“It’s Vicki,” I say, while actually meaning, “I’m a useless turd and I apologize in advance.” In preceding weeks, Joanne said over and over again how important it was to be at this meeting, and I assured her I could make it.

“Oh, are you here?” she asks hopefully.

“Well, I’m at the Delhi airport and I don’t have a visa because I didn’t think I needed one and nobody told me I needed one and they won’t let me in and they say I need to talk to somebody and get them to call someone important…” I break for air, and notice there’s just static on the line. Our connection’s broken. “Hello?” No reply. I wonder how much she heard. Shortly thereafter, my phone rings. I pick it up. “Joanne?” It’s her.

“Something happened with the phones. I think we got cut off. So you’re stuck at the airport?” She seems to have heard almost everything. She asks if I’m okay. I am. I am quite fine. No one’s dragging around a large gun. No one’s got any handcuffs yet. I figure if I behave pleasantly, then the worst thing that can happen is for them to send me back home. I fill Joanne in on some details and she says to hold tight. She’s going to look for Vivek’s number and call me back.

Now it’s me pacing the office and clutching my cell phone, which rings after a few minutes. “Hello?” I say. There’s some noise, but no one responds to me. This happens two more times. Then she finally gets through. She found Vivek’s number, and called him, but he’s not there right now. So she’s going to call Sharad from Educomp and see if he can help. She’ll let me know.

More waiting. More pacing. More impromptu crowds and gawking passers-by. Occasionally, people shuffle in and poke at the papers I’ve left displayed on the desk. They talk about me in Hindi, then leave, not even having made eye contact with me. I feel like I’m watching a play about myself—or maybe like I’m on display in a zoo.

I sit back down on the sagging couch and look at my phone, wondering if I should try to plug it in and charge it—or if that might be a punishable offense. As I ponder this, I notice that I have a message indicator. Someone left me a message and it didn’t even ring. I think my phone has Delhi belly. The message is from Joanne. She got in touch with Sharad, and he’s sending someone to the airport to meet me. She includes my savior’s name and number. I call him immediately and get through, but there are a lot of people talking in the background and it’s hard to hear him. He says he’ll be here in two minutes. He wants to know where I am in the airport. He doesn’t know if he can help, but he will try. I thank him profusely, and rest assured that I’ll soon be grabbing my checked bag and heading to The Oberoi Hotel. I luxuriate in the thought of clean, white linens and beige drapery, but after that, I wonder if Vijay’s two minutes will be Indian or standard time. If the former, I could be waiting here for an hour or more. But no matter. Everything will be okay. It has to be.

Turns out that Vijay really meant two minutes. I am so happy to see a friendly face as he shakes my hand. I thank him profusely, but he warns me that he doesn’t know if he can help. I think, “Stop being so modest, Vijay. You know you’re here to become my hero.” Several denim shirts gather around him and lead him off towards the stairs. On his way out, he tells me he’s learned of something called a Temporary Landing Permit that the airline can issue for $200, so he’s checking into that.

Just as my hero falls out of sight, two new people in more serious business attire approach me as I sit on the couch. The man who looks to be in his twenties wears a creased white shirt, black pants, shiny shoes, and a necktie that says, “Livewell Aviation Service.” His badge has a sideways picture of him on it, but no name. Anita Singh, customer service associate, stands just behind him as he addresses me. She nods as he speaks, seconding everything he says.

“Ma’am,” he says sharply, “Get up. You have to go now.” Whoa. I was expecting the wheels to turn for a much longer time before hearing an ultimatum. I explain to him that I have a friend in the process of checking with the airline. He says I can get a Temporary Landing Permit. This provokes Livewell. The sides of his mouth point downwards. “Ma’am, you have to go now. Come on,” he says, but I resist, telling him I have to wait to hear from my friend.

“I just talk to your friend. He tell me you have to go. He call me. He call me on cell phone.” He looks at his phone and reads out Vijay’s phone number to me—but I don’t believe him. I insist on talking to Vijay, whom I call.

“Vijay, what’s going on? Did you tell someone I have to leave?” Vijay says he’s still upstairs looking into the permit, and that I shouldn’t leave yet. I hang up and relay the message to Livewell the Goon, whose eyes narrow as his stance widens like he’s getting ready for a wrestling match or to hit a home run.

“Come on now,” he says, “to get a TLP you need to speak to someone in the office, and you know very well there are no offices open now, so you will go home and apply for a visa. There is nothing open until twelve o’clock tomorrow, and you can’t stay at the airport until then. And you can’t leave here without a TLP. So? Let’s go,” he declares victory. I don’t even move a little toe.

“My friend is still talking to someone. I need to wait until I hear back from him.”

Livewell the Goon realizes that, at this point, he’ll have to either drag me bodily from the couch to a plane, or wait and let me talk to my friend. Bitterly, he opts for the latter, mumbling, “Do as you wish,” as he walks out of the office door, followed closely behind by the silent Anita Singh, customer service associate.

Ten minutes pass, then the Hit Couple returns. This time, Anita speaks. “How many checked bags do you have?” I tell her one. “Just one?” she asks. Well, just one if you don’t count the nerve toxin package that I swindled in between my butt cheeks, I think.

“Yes, just one,” I say, smiling.

I expect them to lay into me again and try to force me out, but instead they have an agitated conversation in Hindi with the masked man who first led me to his office. Arms wave. Nostrils flare. Then they all leave. I am again alone, guarded by a pudgy, turbaned man shuffling his way back and forth by the blue and orange immigration desks just outside. The airport is quiet. The rush of passengers from incoming flights has subsided. Slowly, the swarm reconvenes outside the office door. Livewell the Goon cracks his knuckles loudly, one at a time. I wonder why he’s so brusque, so seemingly angry, and so hurried to get me gone. I feel like the pox, or a termite infestation, or a hot potato, or a time bomb. I check my ass for a fuse. Nothing. Why are they so panicked?

The Goon and Goonetta walk back into the office and sit on the opposite couch. I stare at the floor. I stare at the crooked world map on the far wall. I look everywhere but at them. I reason, like my childhood dog used to do when she jumped onto the nice furniture, that if I don’t look at them, they can’t make me leave. I take out a notebook and start writing about what’s happening. That way, when CNN finds my notes, the world will hear my side of the story. As I take notes, Anita Goonetta comes over and pulls the boarding pass out from under my hand without even asking to see it. She and Goon speak almost inaudibly to each other. She chuckles a bit. Goon gets up and stands with his arms crossed and his legs apart in the middle of the doorway, staring out like a sentinel. I’m going to love seeing his face when Vijay the Great shows up with my ticket to freedom.

Now six men, seven men, eight men enter the office and crowd around my papers like they’re performing a dissection during their biology lab. They are silent, but point and shuffle. Someone spells my last name out loud, stumbling when he gets to the “double u.”

“What? What? WHAT?” I just want to scream, but stick to my not-getting-locked-up-abroad plan and play it cool.

I call Vijay back to check on his progress. “I am very sorry, Miss Vicki, but it looks like we cannot get anything today.”

Well, then, he must have another plan, I reason. “So what should we do now?” I ask.

“You will have to go home and apply for visa,” Vijay says. Okay, so Vijay was not my hero. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing else I can do. I can call someone else. I can just make a break for it. I can ask to go the bathroom then climb out the window. I can…

The Goon interrupts my planning session. “Excuse me, ma’am. Please come with me. You have to go back. You cannot stay here.” I look up and see Anita Singh, customer service associate, standing at the door with my checked garment bag in her hands, the large metallic luggage tag in the shape of a star seems to mock me. “SUPER!” it says.

Crap! I stall by ignoring them and writing in my notebook. He glares at me. I wonder if he can tell I’m writing down everything he says. I wonder if I should ask for a group picture. Lots of Indians love being photographed. That could stall things.

“Now, ma’am,” Goon demands and takes a step closer to me.

“Okay, okay,” I mollify him. “I’m coming. I just need to make some notes and place a call.”

“You can call on the way,” he says, motioning for me to get up.

Now that’s just rude and unnecessary. Let a woman who’s being booted out of your country at least let her boss know why she’s going missing.

Livewell the Goon starts grabbing at my papers on the desk and putting them away. “Fine,” I think, and start packing up.

When I’ve got my bags, Goon demands, “Follow me.” He and Goonetta take off quickly, walking around the counters and behind an escalator. Every three steps, they shoot an angry look back at me to make sure I don’t run away. As we approach an elevator in a dark corner, I wonder where they’re taking me. To a torture room? To the electric chair? To a white slavery broker? I remember a tip from that gruff cop on America’s Most Wanted: don’t ever let your kidnapper take you to location two. That’s where they plan to do you in.

The elevator rings and the doors part. “How do I get out of this? How do I get out of this?” I think and think. Goonetta points to a corner behind her in the elevator. That’s where she wants me to stand. I comply. Goon looks at me and says, “I need your passport and your boarding ticket.”

“I don’t have my passport,” I tell him, growing worried. “You took it.”

“No,” he says. “I gave it back to you.”

“You never gave it back to me. Where is it?” I try to keep the panic from raising my voice too much.

“I don’t have it,” he insists. Then Goonetta points to his shirt pocket. He touches it and realizes my passport is in it. Thank God. He fails to apologize and simply looks away.

The elevator doors open and we are on the second floor. As I follow my jailers, I dial up Joanne and tell her what’s going on. “So why can’t you stay in the airport?” I don’t know. “Who are these people?” I don’t know. “Is there a scheduled flight that they’re putting you on? Because if there’s not, maybe you can stall until tomorrow.” I don’t know.

Why wasn’t I asking more questions? I can be more assertive than that. Goon throws my garment bag onto a dirty and broken x-ray machine and walks off to get someone. I stand there with Goonetta. I muster everything I have to sound pleasant and nonchalant. “So, Ms. Singh,” I ask her, “do you work for the airport?”

“No, the airline,” she says, and I notice she has on a lot of pink lipstick. The airline? So the airline people are the ones being so aggressive and rude to me? Interesting.

“So what is going on here?” I ask Anita. “I need some information. Is there a flight scheduled? For what time?” She tells me they’re putting me on the same plane I flew in on; it’s the same flight to Chicago. It leaves at 11:30. I ask if they’ve also booked a flight to Iowa. “I can’t leave if there isn’t a plan to get me home,” I say, hoping I’ve found a stall tactic or a snag in their plan. Anita tells me she doesn’t know. I’ll have to ask the others.

I continue questioning her. “So can’t I just stay in the airport until we can look into a TLP?” I ask. Goon overhears this question.

“No you cannot stay in the airport. It is immigration law. Besides, you cannot get a TLP. Our airline does not issue TLPs,” Goon reports. But he is about as believable as Pinocchio with a ten-foot nose. Still, there is no arguing with him on this point. There is nowhere to run; nowhere to hide; and he is not letting me go or changing his mind. Goon has brought with him a dark-complected man who tells me in a pleasant tone that he needs to ask me a few questions.

“Also, we have subjected your bag to an escalated security search,” he smiles. I imagine them rolling my dress clothes through dirt piles and smile back. He asks me all of the standard, “Did you accept a gift from anyone? Have your bags been in your possession the whole time?” questions. I tell him every bag has been in my care but the one they apparently confiscated.

“That is wonderful,” he says. “Here are your tickets. One for Chicago; one for Cedar Rapids. You can go through security right there.” He points to a long line, then Anita says, “Come upstairs with me.” I’m confused.

“He just told me to go through security.”

“But there is a lounge you can wait upstairs for priority customers.” And I do seem to be their priority. “Come with me,” she says, and walks up the stairs. I follow her to a well-appointed lounge. “You can take some food or drink. Whatever you want,” she tells me.

I walk in and survey the food. Nothing looks appealing. I grab a tiny mug and get a double espresso from the machine. Then I sit down with my luggage and hope that they forget about me, or that they call me too late to get through security.

But my hopes are dashed again. I’m not even done with my espresso before I am escorted downstairs. At the end of the security line, I kindly let people in front of me thinking I could just do that all night until the TLP offices open. When the people stop coming, I wonder what would happen if I had a giant, pretend seizure. But I conclude being chained to a government hospital bed would not be a good solution, and very hard to explain to Pearson, that is, if they allowed me to make phone calls.

I finally surrender. I’m not staying in India. I can’t believe it. I’m going home.

I take out my electronics and put them in bins that run through the scanner with my bags. I walk through the metal detector, then stand on a raised box as a woman with a wand checks me thoroughly. I feel like we should have a smoke when she’s done.

Behind Security, there’s a little gift stand with the usual elephants and Buddha statues. I check it out, thinking I might feel better if I can at least come home with a souvenir. But they’re overpriced and I have similar versions of almost everything they’re selling.

Okay, this is it. I walk towards Gate 10 to board flight 293. They ask to see my boarding pass and point me down the hall. There’s another queue. A woman at a podium is collecting the boarding passes. When it’s my turn, I ask if I can at least upgrade to first class, which I was told before I left that I was booked for anyway.

She refuses, saying that the system tells her that I am in business class.

“Yes, I know. But I think it’s a mistake,” I tell her.

She tells me she cannot upgrade me because there’s no certificate number in the system. “If you can give me a security number, I can upgrade you.”

I dig through my papers. I’ve got my AAdvantage number. Is that it?


I’ve got all my past flight information. Is it in there?


I take one last stab. “Look, I’ve just been on a plane for fifteen hours, and now I have to spend another fifteen hours travelling—and all because the American Airlines people let me through when they shouldn’t have. Can’t you at least upgrade me as some compensation for that?”

She has a different answer this time, “This airline does not do upgrades. We cannot give complementary upgrades.”

There’s no use in trying to reason or persuade. I deflate and pack my papers back into my bag.

“Wait,” she says, “What I can do is give you a row with nobody else in it, so you have it all to yourself. Would that help?”

Her glimmer of sympathy somehow makes my eyes well up. I say yes, sling on my backpack and continue on to the next line. Here, they are searching everyone’s bags. I put my backpack and suitcase on the table thinking of the long, long trip ahead of me, thinking about how I let people down, how I should have known better, how I won’t know what’s going on with my job assignment. Tears run down my cheeks.

“Madam, are you okay?” the woman searching my bags asks.

“No,” the word jumps from my lips before I can think that the polite answer is always, “Yes.”

She looks concerned. Then the woman tending to the lines standing by the bag checker leans over to her and says, “She has no visa.” They both nod.

How does everybody know? Am I the only person in the world to have done this? Will I be included in the next edition of the Guinness Book of World Records? Will this incident be carved into my gravestone? “Here lies Vicki Krajewski. She has no visa.”

Next, I have to take off my shoes and stand on another box and spread my arms and legs out to get the wand treatment a second time—as if I might have sprouted deadly adamantium claws in the ten minutes since my last wand experience.

In my increasingly delirious state, I think maybe the flight attendants will let me change my seat if they feel sorry for me. I drag myself to 13D and sit down, noticing that business class is a lot nicer than I feared it would be. The seats even lie flat, sort of. If you don’t mind being on a slant. But there’s elbow room and leg room. It’s not like coach. I put my seatbelt on and keep the pillow and blanket on my lap, wanting to bury my head in it like an ostrich. A few minutes pass and a man sits in my row. I wonder if he changed his seat—if he’s not sitting where he was assigned because he thinks there’s more room in my row. I even ask him. “This is the seat I have a ticket for,” he says. So the ticket agent lied to me.

I hold my head in my hands and my nose runs. A flight attendant asks me if I want some orange juice. I say, “No,” but keep looking down. A minute later she passes by and puts some tissue in my lap, which only makes me cry harder for the kindness she’s shown. I use all the tissue.

I was planning on not eating during this flight, but when dinner arrives, I actually feel a little hungry. The flight attendant addresses me by name, “Would you like some dinner, Ms. Krajewski?” Of course she knows me; I’m the famous woman without a visa.

I accept the dinner, watch a movie, and then, thankfully, fall asleep. I wake up somewhere over Russia to the sound of the man in my row snoring. There are about seven hours left ‘til Chicago. So I put on my headphones and find some Peaceful Dreams tracks through the plane’s audio system.

The flight is smooth and we arrive at O’Hare so early that they can’t let us off the plane because the customs counter doesn’t open for another half hour or so. It’s 4:20 in the morning. I recline my chair and turn on my Kindle to read for a bit.

They finally let us disembark, and I feel a sense of dread as I approach the official at the desk with the fingerprint scanner. What if they don’t let me in? What if I am forever destined to live in an airplane flying the same route? It’s like a Kafka plot, or maybe a Samuel Beckett play—that one where the woman spends her whole life partially buried in the sand on a beach, or the one where they’re just looking for Godot.

I present my customs card and passport to the man behind the desk. He examines it and asks, “How long were you in India?”

“For two hours,” I reply. In retrospect, it might have been more like three.

The man cocks his head at me. “Really?”

“Yes,” I say, not offering any information I don’t have to provide.

“Why?” he asks.

“Because I didn’t have a visa,” I reply, “so they sent me back.” Really, where have you been that you haven’t heard about this? On Mars? I mean, everyone else knows.

“Wow, That stinks,” he says, and hands me my passport, allowing me through.

I claim my luggage, take a train to the domestic terminal, call Scott, eat an omelet prepared by a jolly Greek man, hang out a little longer, then board my plane to Iowa.

As the saga draws to a close, I do a quick self-assessment. On the plus side, I’m uninjured and I haven’t been locked up abroad. On the down side, though, my throat hurts, my back hurts, my hair is greasy, my contacts are hardening onto my eyeballs, my teeth are wearing sweaters, and I stink. Bad. It’s Monday and I’ve been wearing the same clothes since Saturday morning, marinating in them, really.

Scott picks me up at the Cedar Rapids Airport and drives me home, continually apologizing. I tell him it’s not his fault, but he says he’s just showing empathy.

I walk into my living room and am so glad to see window treatments that aren’t tiny plastic, unbreakable shades. And there is a whole couch! That I can sit on! I stand there for a moment just taking it in. Then I head upstairs to wash up. I peel off my pungent clothes and throw them into the laundry, then climb into the shower, which is no longer a shower at all, but pure salvation, pure, spiritual and bodily cleansing, pure bliss—better than a thousand full-body Swedish massages.

I shampoo my hair and do a little math. I've spent 32 of the last 48 hours on an airplane. Then I think about what I might post on my Facebook status as an update. I decide on, “Vicki Krajewski discovers miracle secret that turns an ordinary shower into heaven.”