Silly Question

I was sitting on the third flight of the day when the thought hit me. Or at least, I think it was the same day. The math got a little fuzzy after Hong Kong.

The thought? “I’ve lost track of time, or time has lost track of me. I’m somewhere in between the pages of a book, and I’m somehow cramming about 48 hours into a single day. I’m the sharp edge of the page of the book. If I turn sideways, I’ll disappear.”

Needless to say, at that point I was quite sleep-deprived.

We left Kolkata unceremoniously, having enjoyed a going-away party several days before we actually took off. Jóna and I had planned to hop a train for Mumbai, but our third attempt at doing so failed just as badly as the first two. We resigned ourselves to enjoying a few more days in the three-bedroom flat we had been renting in Kolkata for the duration of our stay, spending most of our newfound time indoors, working on our respective projects and gazing longingly toward a near-future when we would find ourselves back in the First World.

Hot showers. I’ve been taking two a day since I got back. After 15 minutes of standing — perfectly contented — under the endlessly-hot waterfall of steamy, clean water, I emerge from my reverie and tell myself that water isn’t free here, though it is awesome on a level I never noticed or appreciated before.

Honestly, I’ve gotten very little done in the few days I’ve been back in the US. I visited with a friend from college after landing in Chicago, and he was kind enough to put us up for the night, buy us a meal, and not be offended that we just wanted to pass out after the stressful hullaballoo we went through just trying to get back to American soil.

The whole thing was a jumbled mess from start to finish.

We found out, after landing in Mumbai for a 5 hour layover, that Jóna would need to fill out some kind of form (they call it ESTA, even though it has nothing to do with the verb ‘to be, non-permanent’ in Spanish) and pay $10 in order to enter the US. This is, I might add, a luxury citizens of certain special countries (read: countries who smile and nod wistfully instead of speaking up against us when we launch an ill-conceived ‘War Against Whomever’) are afforded, and is supposed to be better somehow than simply applying for a visa. As far as I can tell, though, the only benefit is that you have faster turnaround on them telling you whether or not you’re turned down pre-arrival (though they still reserve the right to send you home after you arrive).

From there, the friendly Cathay Pacific manager (who informed us about ESTA) also informed us that Jóna would need a return ticket from the US, leaving from her port of arrival (in this case, Chicago). The irrationality of this necessity is boggling, as it seems to assume that someone visiting the US, potentially for months, will not be leaving the city they arrive in.

In our case, Jóna was planning to road-trip with me around the US until the end of April, at which point she would head back to Iceland. Turns out, however, that IcelandAir doesn’t fly out of Chicago. Furthermore, as helpful as Cathay Pacific was throughout all of this (they allowed us to occupy one of their office computers for a solid 4 hours while trying to sort everything out), their terminals were running some old version of Internet Explorer, so every time we tried to purchase a refundable ticket from Chicago to someplace international, the browser would crash and all of our hard-work would go unrewarded.

I’m not ashamed to say that by the time we finally just said ‘Fuck it!’ and bought a relatively cheap ($190), non-refundable ticket to Canada from Chicago — chalking it up as an unavoidable cost of travel to the US — I was a jittery, pissed-off, mentally-shredded human being, equal parts ready to punch an American politician (ideally whoever was responsible for that ridiculous ‘must have a ticket out of the US’ law, but any politician would do at that point) and break down into a sobbing, gasping lump of sleepy traveler.

It must have been something to behold.

But we finally got all the paperwork in order, and we hopped a 6 hour flight to Hong Kong, where we then boarded a 15 hour flight over the Pacific to Chicago.

Upon arrival, I made it through customs faster than I thought possible, but Jóna was pulled out of line after waiting in it for about 30 minutes and taken to a back room.

I grabbed our bags from the conveyor belt and set them down in front of a pillar, leaning against it and facing the room where she was taken, making angry eyes (without seeming to be making angry eyes) at the security personnel there. After 20 minutes of waiting, I went and asked one of the loitering guards when I could expect her to be done in back. He glared at me and said, “She’ll be out when she’s out.”

I choked back a snide, “Thank you, that was very helpful; ass,” returned to my pillar and shifted my glare to the pudgy Homeland Security rent-a-cop that had so rudely answered my question.

After another 15 minutes she emerged. I asked her, “What did they do to you?” expecting to hear a tale of full-cavity searches and violent waterboarding.

“They questioned me for a bit. They wanted to know if we were planning to get married while I was in the country. You know, for a green card.”

We laughed in relief and at the ridiculousness of the prospect. “If they only knew how silly a question that was.”

We kissed, picked up our bags, and walked toward customs.

This post was stolen from the pages of Exiles, my everlasting ebook, which you can subscribe to (or find out more about) here.


  1. Interesting: I, too, get little done in the US and find myself with copious cognitive potential when far-flung…or 3000 meters in hurtling steel. Being shaken up by the comfortably numb bureaucratic machinations of the US airliners and ETSA–or the distended or contracted days (48 hours) lends itself to interesting modes of thought. I’ve written a series of half-intelligible philosophical short stories while reaching cruising altitude. Is it the speed? the lack of O2? the absurd parlance from the AA curb to the terminal?

    I love how you used guerrilla traveler tactics and sidestepped American international flightism altogether.

    Good on you, Colin.

  2. Why is it a silly question to ask if you two would get married? I guess I don’t know the backstory and can’t find it on your blog. Jo’na’s hair is awesome though. I love that look. More pics please

  3. I’m glad that you and Jóna were able to make it Chicago, albeit some annoying bureaucracy that is the U.S. Immigration. Too bad it wasn’t two weeks early, I was just in Chicago!

    Tell her I said hello and that I’m sorry for buying “Lame-ass husband” flowers when I was in Reykjavík :)

  4. I hate immigration. For some reason, every fucking time I come back through Miami, I’m interrogated and sent to the back room with the other “miscreants”. Maybe it has to do with the fact that my last trips were coming back from Guatemala, Colombia and Bulgaria….whatever.

  5. @T, I think the silliness of the question has something to do with US Border Control’s total lack of self-awareness.

    Who would want to stick around after receiving such a welcome?

    Good luck on the road trip! Very excited to see some of the results.

  6. Interesting read Colin. Good to see what you are up to. The best thing my wife ever did was get her citizenship in the U.S. (as far as travel is concerned). Much less hassle and shorter lines when traveling internationally. I feel sorry for others who have problems with customs and immigration.

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