Not your average travel blog
I will try not to make a habit of writing so much. A rather long blog this time…but, so was the experience.
When I was fifteen, my girlfriend set my nerves on edge by kissing me with her tongue for the first time. Whilst I clung onto a door frame with both hands, I think it was my most nervous teen moment. When I was four in France, I saw the doctor pull out a smoking vile of liquid nitrogen to burn off a blemish on my foot. I was petrified and my tearful nerves had me gasping for breath. When I found my sister screaming on a quiet hospital ward in delirious agony after just coming out of surgery and having her infected kidney made stable (she later had it removed); I was terrified. The doctor, telling me that it was an emergency and that they had to rush her in to avoid a threat of a coma, froze my nerves like I had just swallowed some of the liquid nitrogen that had melted my foot as a young fledgling.
Not even my exam results, driving test, job interviews, first time on a plane or any sporting event I have taken part in have had my nerves so heightened. Not even eating suspect creatures (there have been a few) or being woken in the night by ghostly happenings (house deeds back up my sightings) came close to the above events or the day that I attempted to be approved for a non-immigrant USA visa…
Suspect Squirrels: Nutty
Worry for family and friends and sexual experiences aside, I can’t recollect being as apprehensive or as nervous about anything else; I was dreading the day. I had good reason to feel a little nervous. You only need to type “USA visa application nightmare” into Google and there are hundreds of stories about people finding themselves in impossible situations. For example, you can’t apply for a visa very easily whilst in America, nor can you skip to a neighbouring country, Canada or Mexico to acquire one either (apparently). If you plan on being in America for under the 90 day allowance (free visa waiver program), but then find yourself needing more time because of your ill-chosen route, harsh weather conditions, or your car simply breaks down, you cannot acquire a visa whilst in the country and no amount of chat at the border seems to help. I have also spoken to foreigners who have experienced the quest to be a much lengthier and impractical nightmare – taking days because their finger prints cannot be scanned on the same day as processing their paperwork. Yes…you need to have your finger prints on record. I imagine the same feeling of dread, mixed with nervousness, excitement and bald eagle-styled freedom (fingerprints aside) will hopefully be repeated next March.
Finger print freedom
Hopefully by the time you read this, the United States bureaucracy will have accepted (mistook) my alternative travelling plans for ambition.
The day (ordeal) began with high expectations of the well organised, experienced and meticulous North American government; running a tight ship and being as methodical as I am when it comes to clearing a field of golf balls on a quad bike – Father Wolfrider will like that one. I’ll never forget the lecture I received to save fuel and the lifespan of the wet, almost frozen grass…not to mention all the other important lectures that happened on the golf course…
“Do you take drugs, Danny?”
My “appointment” was at 10.30am. Keen to think they might edge me in a little early and I would be done by lunchtime, I arrived at 9am. I joined an unexpected queue of roughly a hundred people. Half way down the queue, I was told that I could not take ANYTHING electrical into the embassy. Paranoia somewhat expected, I was told to leave ALL my electrical items at the pharmacy round the corner. I had to leave the queue.
Paying by card for the storage, there was a minimum of £6 to pay: Brilliant. I re-joined the back of the queue. After all, I’m a Brit and I simply love to queue.
The first queue. The foundation of elation.
Once at the front of the queue, my forms were checked and I was asked to join another queue. Fabulous. As a Brit-Queue-Perfectionist, I can be self-critical about queuing; we are after all, the best at it.
On reaching the front of the second queue I had ummm, absolutely nothing checked. I still don’t know what happened when I arrived at the front of it and it was totally inconsequential. Even though I hate to blow my trumpet, I would say that I queued amazingly. From there, I was ushered three feet into another queue (not even through security or in the building yet), then twenty minutes later a man checked that I had my passport. I did wonder why my passport couldn’t be checked at the front of the first queue, but then I realised that I would be putting the third-queue-guy out of a job.
Genuine passport in hand, normality resumed. At the front of this queue, there were the security scanners. The usual procedures were endured and some people were made to exit the queue having found that they had key fobs and headphones. Having removed most things on my person that might contain a bomb, I stepped through the scanner. Next time I’ll just go in speedos to save time. In fact I might write a helpful letter, asking the Embassy to note on their website that visitors should come dressed for a tanning salon.
American Psycho: Ready for security
I walked through the scanner, it beeped. Luckily I had no explosives, recording devices or drugs in my shoes and after I flashed those rubber dandies at the fully loaded guard, I was allowed to enter the facility.
Once through security I walked up the steps to the woman on reception. I mentioned I had an appointment for 10.30am. “Certainly Sir. Please go up the steps inside and join the (…wait for it…) queue”.
I was over the moon. This is where the serious queues were. Some people looked like they had been here for days – surviving on nothing but washroom tap water and stale Wotsits. We were not told that this could take ALL DAY and you could really sense that some people had other places to be. We also had no way of communicating with the outside world. Many foreigners were hovering around the office workers’ windows, eager to be seen. All the Brits found a chair and the familiar, digitalised, “waiting for your number” queue system was apparent. The hoverers, queuing trainees, rookies and greenhorns (Europe) oozed sweaty tension and just weren’t coping with the level of queuing difficulty. Had this been The Crystal Maze in the 90’s, they would be have been locked in after running out of time…for the entire show…without a crystal.
Essential Survival Kit
Incredibly, I was immediately called to a window. I had jumped in front of almost four hundred people! Maybe they respected a professional queuer. They knew it was futile to test an Englishman’s patience and therefore suitability as a tourist, by giving him queues.
The friendly woman at the window requested my papers. You could almost see the pure joy on my face when she informed me that I had to go back to the pharmacy to have different photos taken than the passport ones I had provided (however, the pharmacy forgot to charge me due to the length of queues). Returning through security, I didn’t queue this time. I edged my way to her window and caught her attention by pressing my hands to the glass and raising my expectant eyebrows (Brits don’t shout public). I swiftly slid my photos in her direction and assumed she would know what to do with them. She then said, “The next time you see your number, it will be time for your interview”. I was politely queuing again.
I queued this time for just over four hours. I was lucky. If it hadn’t been for my queuing forethought; an industrial-size bag of liquorice and a magazine on tornadoes, I would have fallen asleep and awoke to the sound of the janitor mopping me out the door that evening.
Eventually, I made it to my interview where I would find out if I would be allowed to go to the USA for an extended period. Should I have wanted to go for only three months, I wouldn’t have had to queue once, or even visit the embassy. I think I had a fair argument that if I could survive the six hours of queuing and leave without crawling, dehydrated towards the exit, mouthing “water” to the security guard, then I would be fine on my 4000 mile trek across the third largest continent on earth. Reluctantly, I didn’t make that point during my time at the window.
Waiver Program not applicable
I only have about five friends and a distant family member in North America. One friend, who’s address I noted as my place of rest on arrival in Boston and one who I put down as a point of contact, each of them on opposite coasts. Thank-you to them both. Without these fine people, I doubt I would have even been able to put my foot through the digital door and send my application to the hamster-wheel-operated Amstrad computer to be vigilantly processed. As I am about to insinuate, the same computer that now knows almost everything and nothing about me.
I was expecting an interview, maybe some questions about my intentions, probably my plans, my ties in the UK and possibly my political views. However, what I experienced was, to put it simply, an interrogation to see if I would lie. The chap behind the (I can only assume bullet proof) glass treated me like a lab rat, testing me to see if I would become effected or even explode due to his invasive, verbal probing and fierce, eyeballing mind games. Even though I felt like I had just had my retinas and nervous throat sandblasted, I was actually impressed.
A gentle probing please
With no exaggeration necessary, this is the beginning of the “interview”.
Me: “Good afternoon. It’s been a long day, huh?”
Him (let’s call him Brian): “I’m sure it’s been just as long for you, Sir (no niceties and a serious, long pause)… I’ll try and have you out of here quickly”
Brian: “Why would you like to go to the USA?”
Me: “For an extended holiday (long pause followed as I didn’t realise that Brian expected more from me). To travel, to see natural places of beauty, to meet interesting people, to admire the wildlife and to see and experience quite a lot of American culture”
Brian: “Right. Who’s Lauren?”
At this point, I was slightly bemused. Admittedly, I know a few Laurens and the closest one (not geographically) lives in America but unfortunately, through the glass, I laughed at the rather stern Brian. Oddly, Brian didn’t see the funny side.
Me: (Thinking we were here to talk about me, I responded) “Umm, which Lauren do you mean?” Clearly he didn’t believe that I should be asking the questions and he stared at me like I was going mouldy in front of him. “Do you mean The Goché?” Brian then simply stared at me some more. This is going well, I thought. Brian must mean The Goché. “Lauren is my friend in Portland”. It was deliberate. I didn’t need to lie, but I hoped that by calling someone “The” would insinuate that they were more like a “mate” on a stag do than a lover…so I ran with it.
Brian: “Is she your girlfriend?”
Brian: “Are you dating?” Now at this point I was confused by the question as I thought I had just answered that one. I laughed again as I just perceived Brian to be extremely rude. I’m not very good at keeping a straight face when someone is being invasive or provocative: Highly frustrating for past girlfriends and indeed, now Brian.
Brian proceeded to question me about whether I had “been with Lauren”, whether I was single, whether I was sleeping with anyone and if I had a girlfriend across the pond. Then Brian finally just asked if I was seeing anyone at all. Very thorough. Brian must have thought I was a catch as he seemed to sit back in disbelief when I had to say I was single, over and over and over again. It was however so nice of Brian to remind me just how single I was for the sake of my visa.
Brian then asked me more about what I want to do in the states. I divulged a rather straightforward itinerary. I’m not sure why – Brian knew all the answers already. Everything seemed to be on the Amstrad screen in front of him, and across the “Jedi-mind trick” face of his.
“You’ll tell me everything I already know” (Brian was not Obi Wan Kenobi)
Brian asked me how I was going to travel around America.
Me: “Walk”. Again, Brian’s eyes waited for more. “…and probably some buses?”. Uncertainty in my response was not the best tone.
The barrage of questions about insurance followed to which I replied, “I would be stupid to travel without insurance, but I’m not buying any until I know I can go”.
I think at this point I knew things were getting worse. I really didn’t have anything reassuring to say to Brian. He wanted to note down that I was someone that could be trusted; Someone who wasn’t going be a strain on the economy, the emergency services or just that I might avoid threatening my own life. When Brian asked me what would make me return to the UK, I simply said “It’s my home”.
I think I just see things that simply. Brian on the other hand, saw things on many complicated levels.
I realised how difficult it was to convince Brian of something when I didn’t believe it myself. It is highly likely that I will leave the USA, in fact I’m sure of it, but how could I convince Brian the Interrogator that I am going to come home whilst all I’m looking forward to is leaving the UK? The only certainty is that I will leave the USA because my visa stipulates that I must. I’m not a liar and I don’t want to abuse America, the American people, the institutions it has built or to be a public nuisance, but when Brian asked “what will make you return to the UK?“ I didn’t have an answer that I could say with conviction and that must have been obvious. I also avoided pointing out the fact that its not illegal to remain in America, and what would the problem have been if I had said yes to having an American girlfriend and that my intention was to stay? I doubt the interest would have been around my sex life.
Then, without hesitation and for the first time without staring, (I mean burning through my face with his eyes) Brian said “You can leave through that door. I have approved your visa today but it will up to border control if you can enter America”. What a lovely guy.
As Brian didn’t sign off our chat with the normal gesture of “Good bye”, “Thank-you” or “Have a nice day” I froze in my own abyss when he ended my day of queuing with possibly the most unfussy and dreadfully delivered news which should have come with a fanfare and dancing raccoons. If the bullet-proof pane wasn’t between us, I probably would have kissed Brian. I mirrored his overly friendly delivery, silently picked up my bag, looked drearily at my own reflection in the emotionless glass, then walked to the door like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh. With some inane procedures and overpriced storage charges for a paranoid nation, being cut off from the outside world with disgruntled folk, ill-practiced in the art of queuing; a whiff of stale wotsits in the toilets and being mentally invaded by Brian the indiscreet Interrogator, interested mostly in my social sex life and not if I was a threat to the American nation; it was quite literally so far, the best day of my year.
USA, I can’t wait x