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, 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 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, 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 US.
Hot showers. I’ve been taking two a day since I got back. After 15 minutes of standing, perfectly content, 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 States. I visited 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 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 five 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 ever leave the city they fly into.
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 Iceland Air 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 four hours while trying to sort everything out), their terminals were running an 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 policy-maker 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 six hour flight to Hong Kong, where we 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. She was 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. After 20 minutes of waiting, I 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.”
What a douchebag. I returned to my pillar.
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.
Update: February 16, 2017
I’ve been fortunate to never have and truly horrendous immigration experiences, personally, but the entire system lacks oversight and regulations that would allow me to trust it. A lot of the people involved seem to be incredibly cynical, power-mad mini-tyrants, empowered to mistreat fellow human beings by vague regulations that prop up a system of security theater and abuse. I recognize the need for security, but I don’t think that’s what we have, much of the time.