The following is a true story that occurred with me between July 10th and 13th, 2015. On my arrival in the United States, for a holiday, I was interrogated, detained, and sent back to India. Close to 30 hours at 3 airports and a total of 42 hours on 4 flights, and here I am, ready to share.
My aim of penning down my experience was threefold: to spread awareness that this can happen to anyone; to pass on some survival tips and life lessons that I gained while dealing with this; and to help myself feel better. Writing and completing this article in a week’s time has been cathartic, to say the least! I’d like to thank my close friends who encouraged me to make a blog post out of this, for everyone to read and share if they want to.
Everything written here is true to my knowledge, but I have taken the liberty to not name people who were part of this experience. At the end of the day, we know exactly what kind of “free world” we belong to, so I’d prefer maintaining anonymity as far as possible.
On a parting note, I’d like to shout out a big Thank You and Love You to the handful of my family members and close friends both in the USA and India, who supported and loved me through it all!
Detained by chance. Unbroken by choice.
The Long Haul
Flying fearlessly for 18 hours
When you know what’s on the other side of a door, and it’s the good stuff, you’re bursting with excitement to open it. That’s exactly how I felt, while I waited at the boarding gate of the swanky International Terminal in Mumbai. It was the middle of the night, but I couldn’t have been more awake. Tapping my foot (much to the irritation of the drowsy Aunty next to me), I looked around. Bored adults. Children, already fast asleep, their tiny minds leaping about in dreamland. Some women were dressed to kill. At this ungodly hour? Well, that’s something I would never be able to pull off.
Fighting sleep and bits of usual pre-travel anxiety, I watched the time go by. I had a short 3 hour flight to Doha, where another 3 hour layover awaited me. Then, the long haul – 15 hours to Chicago O’Hare, and finally, sweet freedom.
I love traveling, but I never did like airplanes. An amazing fear of heights coupled with my unpredictable motion sickness makes me an ideal co-passenger to any unassuming frequent flier! My air-borne travels have included acts like clutching the hand rests, holding tightly onto the air-sick bag, several rounds of deep breaths during take-off.
I could say I have improved drastically over the past few years. Each time I travel by air, I discover a new, calmer me.
Fortunately, both the flights were uneventful. Lots of crying toddlers (one set of parents had definitely lost their marbles to bring their new-born on a 15 hour flight), free-flowing caffeine, core-strengthening lavatories, and so on. Like I said, uneventful.
Jetlag? What’s that?
I landed in Chicago at 2 pm, which apparently is the chosen time for ALL major flights to land. So obviously, even a large airport like O’Hare will be utterly chaotic when so many jet-lagged passengers arrive at the same time. Before we knew it, there was a crowd-(mis)management situation. The lines to clear Immigration were unending. We were herded like cattle in the corridor: tourists on the right side, US nationals on the right. The right-side line obviously progressed faster than ours. There was something wrong with the air-conditioning in that part of the airport, and before I knew it, people around me were peeling of layers of jackets and scarves, and fanning themselves with whatever paper they could find.
It was a whole 2 hours, by the time I, sweating profusely, reached my turn at Immigration.
“Wait for your turn behind the red line.”
At 4 pm, I was called forward. My fingerprints and photo were taken, and we had the usual conversation:
“What is the purpose of your visit?”
Blah blah – visiting my sister – holiday – more blah blah
“Do you have a return ticket?”
Yes (ready to hand him the e-ticket printout I was holding)
“How long will you be here for?”
A little under 6 months
“Could you please step to the side, Ma’am?”
Clearly not the reply I was looking for! I was confused. He handed my passport to another officer nearby, who asked me to follow him. I did as I was told.
This is just a random check. Just play cool. I re-assured myself.
The officer who had my passport, and whom I was following blindly, led me to the U.S. Customs & Border Protection Office, a nondescript room located just between Immigration and Baggage Claim. It’s so well-placed, out of normal view, that until you are ever directed to this room, you would never know that it existed! The officer handed my passport to another officer in the room, who then asked me to take a seat.
Making peace with the unknown
I looked around. It was a regular waiting room, filled with all kinds of travellers. The first thing I noticed was the abundance of minorities. It amused me to no extent. There were Chinese, Indians, Koreans, Mexicans, Africans, Muslims, Russians, and Scandinavians.
Seeing so many passengers, like me, being made to wait there, comforted me a bit. Still, I did not know what was happening. And that is unnerving to another extent. Over the next few minutes, I learned that none of the people around knew what was happening to them. Most could not speak or understand a word of English. It was sad to see them get intimidated by the American officers, who started talking loudly and rudely to get some answers out of them. Yes, studies have shown that this is a proven technique to teach English to non-English speakers!
I’m not supporting the actions or deeds of these people around me. Heck, I don’t know who had done what to piss the Americans off. I wasn’t about to find out either. All I wanted was some decency in the way they were being treated. This group also had four women in wheelchairs, who were not allowed to inform their relatives waiting outside, the reason for their delay. My heart went out to them. At the end of the day, at least my knowledge of English and other worldly matters made me capable of defending myself. What did these people have?
I am all for following rules, exercising laws, and creating strict policies for those who break rules. I really am! I also get that there’s a certain training that these officers undergo, and yes, they cannot be sweet and familiar with everyone who enters or exits the airport.
There’s also an air of suspicion that hangs coldly in the room. Guilty until proven innocent. It does not help matters that all the officers (with the guns and Tasers) were Caucasian. I’m just saying…
There was a large board that said “No Cell Phones.” I had a dozen missed calls and messages from my sister who was waiting outside to receive me. It had been a long time since my flight had landed and it was natural for her to worry.
I was quick (and discreet) enough to send out a text message informing her, about this delay. Yes, I broke a tiny rule. And it made me very happy. And I’d do it over and over again, knowing I did the right thing.
I sat there, trying to keep my composure and sanity, for 4 hours. Watching people around me get their passport back, and leave. Some had connecting flights, which were long gone by now. Others were rushing to the Exit to see their family and friends. Old people left. New ones replaced them. Some young girls broke down. Many just gave up and tried taking a nap. Everyone made peace with the unknown.
The people on my left and right kept changing. I felt like everything was on a fast forward loop, but the only thing on pause was me.
I had last eaten on the flight, which was at 12 pm that day. I have never gone that long without a snack or meal, in my life. I silently patted myself on the back: Yay! Achievement.
Fortunately for me, food was the last thing on my mind. I had switched to Survival mode. My instincts were razor sharp and I was pissed.
In the interim, I could not begin to imagine what my family (both in Chicago and India) went through during this phase of not knowing what the hell was going on.
Later, I would learn that my family in Chicago, did everything possible to find out what was happening to me, whether I was OK, what were the reasons for my delay, etc. They would use every resource at their disposal to get some answers from the American officers.
Hungry, tired, and pissed off
At 8 pm, I was called in by one of the lady officers. I was in a daze, spiraling through a gamut of emotions: from panic to anger to fear. Nothing good could come out of a 5 hour wait and an interrogation in a private interview room, with an officer looking as fierce as this one.
That’s when it struck me. They keep you waiting. Keep you hungry. Keep you in the dark. Keep you disconnected from the outside world. Keep you psyched. Keep you guessing whether you did (or said) something wrong, unintentionally.
It’s a form of mental, physical, and emotional torture. After a point in time, you start believing that you have actually done something wrong – wrong enough to deserve this apathetic treatment.
Back to Round 1 of interrogation in the private room: I was told to take a seat and asked a couple of questions. Who was I visiting? Who is back home in India? Was I employed? How much money did I have? Why was I taking such a long break? What was I going to do during this time? Did I have my return trip planned?
By now, she asked me if I’d packed my backpack and purse myself, and then proceeded to check everything I had with me. Including my phone. Yes, my cell phone.
As I sat across from her, seething with humiliation and anger, I thought of the violation of my privacy and dignity. Was she hoping to find if my cell phone had a secret 7-step plan of “How to Move to Chicago on an Invalid Visa?”
For the next few minutes, as we sat in silence, she went through my text messages, my WhatsApp, my Gmail and Facebook accounts. They had invaded my head; now they were invading my space.
Then began Round 2 of interrogation. She extracted some sentences from my private conversations with my friends: “It seems that you’re all set to move here. A friend of yours has written “Have a great new beginning…” I sighed. She was taking everything out of context. “All your friends are wishing you a Goodbye as though you’re moving here for good?” I just replied with a tired, blank expression. I had nothing to justify or defend. It was obvious she/they had made up their mind about my intentions.
Eventually, the questions starting veering towards my family, my parents’ interest in settling down in the USA (Like, seriously, what?), my ability to pick up a job in the next six months on an invalid visa (I had a regular tourist visa, like everyone else), etc. The officer claimed that I had an intention of transiting to a student or work visa, from my current tourist visa. She believed so. Nothing I could say or do would change this.
Then, I was made to get my checked in bags from the baggage carousel, where they had landed hours ago. I dragged both bags back to the room where the Officer was waiting, as she held onto all my items including my phone, money wallet, and laptop bag. I was asked to put them up on a table and open them. She manually searched through my bags, upsetting all the perfect packing I had done. I silently cursed. She found nothing, because all I had were clothes and bags and footwear and some personal effects. No, I’m not carrying kitchen utensils or bed linen so I could secretly set up my new home in your country.
What followed was a formal statement, where I was asked the above questions again, but this time “under oath.” My responses were entered into a computer by the Officer, and I was given the verdict at the end of the long statement: I had two choices. Voluntary Removal or Deportation.
Voluntary Removal meant that I would be sent back to my home country, and my US tourist visa would remain cancelled. I could however re-apply for a visa later (oh yes, I’m so motivated to do this!).
Deportation (obviously deadlier) meant that I get would get sent back as a “deportee”, which gets stamped on my passport, which then follows me around and flags off more Government dudes whenever I want to travel anywhere. Oh, and I would be “banned” from the United States for the next 5 or 10 years.
This is all the information I was given by the Officer. I had no means of checking the legal status, whether her information was true and complete, whether I had any other options considering the situation I am in, or whether I could question anyone/anything American!
She recommended I take Voluntary Removal, seeing how my case was based on “Prejudice.” I chose Voluntary Removal, signed the statement by check marking the box, and finished the paperwork for the moment.
Here’s my take on it, real quick.
- I got a feeling that my long-ish trip was making waves here, since I’m unmarried and traveling independently. I had also quit my job recently in Bombay, least expecting this kind of a situation to question that decision. I had sufficient savings to take a break and my intention was to truly reinvent myself during this I’d heard so many people do it, and I thought so could I.
- The officer also couldn’t believe I wanted to spend such a long time with my sister, because family values in that country are mostly non-existent. Most of them run in the other direction at the thought of their parent or sibling wanting to come spend a holiday with them. It’s a cultural lag, and I get it. But nobody can question my intention of actually staying with my sister.
- I had visited the USA twice before (once last year), on the same 10 year tourist visa, staying with the same family member in Chicago. Both times, I had never faced such issues and had left on my fixed return date. If they had such a problem with me being a potential immigrant, why assign me a visa in the first place?
- What made me angry and suspicious was that they didn’t even check my return ticket, despite my declaring multiple times that I had one. I even told the officer that I would re-schedule my return to an earlier date, say September, so that I leave within 2 months of my arrival, and that they could keep track of my departure.
I tried looking for solutions that were less harsh than a Voluntary Removal, and that would allow me to make good use of the money I’d spent to travel across the globe.
Accepting the Voluntary Removal gave me some hope: that I could leave the damn airport (and country) soon. I assumed they would find me a return flight and put me on it that night. Good riddance, right?
The Officer looked at me patiently. “All international flights leave Chicago during the second half of the day. So as of now, we don’t have anything flying out to India. The next flight’s tomorrow evening, provided we get you a seat on it.” It was around 9:30 pm, when she broke this news to me.
I stared blankly at her, waiting for her to tell me that I can perhaps stay the night anywhere at the airport. In that split second, I pictured myself creating a make-shift living arrangement at one of the boarding gate areas, surrounded by my luggage, trying to catch some sleep. I’ve watched so many people do that as they waited for their connecting flight or in case of delays. It looked doable. I felt optimistic.
“Until we put you on that plane, we will need to detain you here, at the airport.” She cut through my reverie. “Do you have any questions?”
I had so many.
Is it a female-only detention? What happens to my luggage and personal items? I last ate lunch on the plane. Where can I get some food? Can you guarantee my safety in this centre? Can I brush my teeth please? I need to call my sister, NOW.
“Oh yes. We have separate male and female facilities. Don’t worry. You can catch up on some sleep and you’ll be out before you know it. I’ll get you some food; are you a non-vegetarian? We have an officer supervising the facility at all times; any issues you have, let us know and we’ll help you. Before we lock you in, let’s get you that phone call.”
I went into auto pilot mode. I began to mechanically do as I was told. She dialed the number I gave her. I knew my calls would be recorded. I quickly told my sister I was fine; I was being detained; my bags were with me; I would be sent out by the next flight, within the next day; my cell phone was not in my possession; I told my family to get some sleep if possible – I was going to do the same.
I hung up, feeling tired and scared and still, angry as hell.
The Officer brought me some food. The type that you pull out from the freezer and pop into the microwave. The type that the Americans are famously known for. I had no appetite. I forcibly ate a few spoons of rice and chicken; I drank up the horrid grape juice from a box. I needed my physical self to not give up in the next 24 hours.
Next, I took a change of clothes from my suitcase and my toiletry case and went into the ladies restroom. I brushed my teeth, washed my face, and used some deodorant – anything to feel humanly normal again. I was instructed that I couldn’t take any scarf, belt, or jewellery into detention.
So I thought quickly and smartly. I changed into a short-sleeved round neck t-shirt, and pulled a long-sleeved man’s shirt over this. Buttoning up, I gladly looked down as my very-expensive Vero Moda jeans. Oh the story behind the jeans. I picked up my first every pair of Vero Moda jeans the day of my flight from Bombay, as my Mom stood by wondering how on earth anyone could spend so much for just a pair of denims?! But this was it. It was love at first sight. The jeans fit like they were tailored for me. The irony of it all? These jeans would get to spend their first real night in an American detention facility. I laughed out loud in the restroom. Unfortunately, the jeans were loose. Which meant, my extra-tightly wound belt was the only thing holding them up. Uh-oh. I removed my belt and my jewellery. Anyone who knows me well, knows that I love my silver jewellery. So removing these and packing them in my suitcase took quite a bit of time!
I was allowed to safeguard my money and any other valuables, in their locker, which I would take back when I was leaving. I handed over my USD and some larger Indian rupee notes. No, I didn’t have valuables. Unlike, most other Indians they probably encountered, I hated gold. I signed on the document that permitted them to keep my money in their lockers.
Then came the last bit. The most interesting bit. The bit that you only watch in movies and read in books, and may never have witnessed it in real life. The pat down.
Another female officer was called. She seemed much nicer and friendlier. The two women escorted me to the restroom, where I was explained what was going to follow, and then manually patted down from my mop of unruly hair to the cuffs of my jeans. Clearly, that was the only excitement I was going to get on American soil.
They also checked my rolled up shirt sleeves, to make sure I wasn’t taking anything sharp with me in that centre. The only thing sharp that would never leave my being, was my wit. Let’s see you try and take that away, ladies!
Then, I was ready, to be locked up. I stood up, feeling fresher, cleaner, and determined.
Let’s do this. I told the Officer.
Switching to survival mode
I was told to bring my big suitcases and cabin luggage with me, to the back of the office. There were 2 identical rooms, separated by a narrow corridor that was filled with few pieces of luggage and backpacks. Two more officers stood up. One of them opened the solid steel door of the room to my left. There was a small 2 by 3 feet window to the side of room, and I could see a girl’s face in there. I didn’t think much of it; I didn’t care. If only I had known at that moment that this girl would become my best friend in there, and one of the main reasons I would survive that hellhole.
I entered the room. It was dimly lit. And cold. Not just temperature-wise.
The girl I saw at the window was sitting on one of the beds. The room had no other opening except that small window, and the door I entered through, which was now shut and locked behind me. This was not the time for claustrophobia to kick in, I sternly told myself.
There were 2 bunk beds and 1 small couch, each against one wall. The fourth wall led to the bathroom. There were no doors, just a steel half partition, to modestly cover whoever was on the pot. Apart from that, no privacy and no scope for anyone harming themselves with any of the things in the room. Everything was nailed to the walls. There were paper cups for drinking water out of the tap in the wash basin, which was fitted above the toilet. The toilet had no lid, so the thought of drinking water from the tap above it made me nauseous. It also ensured I didn’t drink water for the next 24 hours.
After I hesitantly checked out the room, I turned to the girl who was sitting on one of the lower bunks. Let’s call her El. Clearly, that was her bed. So I walked to the other bunk, and sat down. There were thick fleece blankets that made me feel better about spending the night in that temperature. Later in the night, I would find a long blonde hair on the blanket pulled closely to my face. Normally, I would freak out but “survival me” simply threw it away and went back to sleep. I remembered to be grateful for what I have.
“Where are you from?” was my first question to El. As she answered, more questions flew across the room. It was just the two of us, and we had a lot of time to kill. Soon, I decided to call it a night, after we exchanged our respective detainment stories.
I fell into deep sleep as soon as my head hit the bed (there were no pillows). I chose the upper bunk. It had a few advantages. The one dim light in the room was above it. If I sat up on the bed, I got a direct view from the window into the corridor outside. I could see the wall clock, the officer’s computer screen, and the back of his head. If you opened your eyes on the lower bunk, all you could see was the underside of the upper bunk. Not cool.
At the officer’s table, there was a white board next to the clock, which contained some notes. There was a small table with the detainee details. It had El’s and my full name, passport number, and date of arrival. The space next to the flight and time of departure was blank. On asking the officer what time we would get to leave, we were met with rude a “Can you see it written on the board? No…? Then I can’t help you.”
That night, I slept 11 hours straight, with no break. That was probably the best thing to happen to me since I had left Bombay. I felt rested, physically and mentally when I woke up the next morning.
At around 11 am that morning, we were given breakfast in a cardboard tray, containing cold oatmeal in a silver pouch (the kind that had to be heated before serving), a packet of soy nuts, a packet of raisin mix, a grape juice box and a granola bar. I stood up and knocked on the little window, to get the officer’s attention. It took me several tries before I could tear the officer away from his WhatsApp chat. Sometimes, it seemed like they ignored our call for attention, deliberately. I remember being able to clearly hear El speak when she was inside and I was outside the cell (the previous night), so I doubt the room was soundproof.
I requested the Officer for something warm to drink, like water or even coffee. I said I was not feeling too well and would like something to warm up a bit. He called out to another officer nearby, sniggering: “Hey Matt, you hear that man? The ladies want coffee…Hahaha!”
Then, to me: “This is not room service at your hotel. You don’t get coffee or anything else. If you want water, there’s plenty in the tap in the basin.” I retreated a couple of steps back. I could feel the anger rising.
Again, El came to the rescue. She had woken up by then with this conversation, and she encouraged me to try to eat something. We began to peck at the oatmeal, nuts and raisins.
Our conversations that day were more relaxed and casual, as opposed to our initial interaction the previous night that was laced with hesitation. We got to know more about each other as time passed. We shared the same birth year and birth sign, which was such a lovely surprise. We had similar viewpoints, experiences, and believed in ourselves despite what we were going through. At such moments, I realized it is so important to feel good about yourself, especially when everyone around is trying to make you feel otherwise.
Each time I felt I was hitting a low, she cheered me up. We laughed, chatted and prayed together. We told each other to keep the darkness away. To not let them break us. To not let them treat us disrespectfully because this was not what we deserved. We knew that our lives were going to be significantly beautiful once we returned to normalcy in our own countries. That there was a much bigger and better plan that was yet to unfurl, and this challenge was part of the preparation.
In those 24 hours, I learned the importance of holding your head up and not underestimating your strength when the going gets rough. I understood that life can throw unpredictable curveballs your way. And you have to deal with it, no matter how you feel. You have to figure out a way to overcome it, with all the limitations around you. Also, that self-talk, when you have nothing else to hold on to, becomes the most important thing that keeps you going – if you go to a dark place, it’s tough getting out, so stay on the positive and brighter side.
The rest of the day was spent pacing around the room, stretching and doing some push-ups, anything to keep the blood flowing through my veins. At regular intervals, I dozed off, the flat bed a welcome break to the “sit-and-sleep” airplane travel.
At 8:30 pm that day (about 22 hours after I was locked in), 3 officers came to get me. They said they were ready to take me to my boarding gate. I had no clue what flight, timing or any other detail. I was too disoriented to ask. I hugged El tightly and told her I’d pray for her to leave soon. I felt so bad to leave her alone. Later I would come to know that she left 2 hours after I did, and was sent back to her hometown, without further concern.
I requested the Officers 5 minutes to freshen up and change my clothes. I repeated my previous night’s activity. I brushed my teeth, put on deodorant, washed my face, put on my jewellery and belt that I’d parted with the night before. I also put on my usual makeup, some eyeliner and a lip gloss. I was about to enter a plane full of unassuming travellers, and there was no way I was doing that without my dignity and confidence.
I was given back the valuables they’d tagged and safeguarded the previous night: my money. They told me my suitcases would be tagged and sent to the airplane. At this point, I was so nervous about losing my bags because this was an unusual way of checking in my bags. There was no way for me to confirm whether they actually put my bags with me on the same flight!
Two officers, one Caucasian and one Indian, escorted me from these secret elevators and passageways, directly leading us to boarding gate. By way of conversation, I asked them what flight I was on and what time it would leave. The blonde officer said that it was the Qatar return flight to India, the same plane that brought me to this nightmare country was responsible for taking me back. Or else they would face severe penalization from the US government.
The departure was at 8:50 pm and I would be the last one to get on the flight. The three of us waited at the gate, with the rest of the ground crew, who were informed of my “situation.” I was half-expecting everyone on the plane to know of my “situation” but thank God for the fact that they did this with discretion. Or I’m pretty sure my co-passenger would have asked for a change of seat!
My boarding passes (this flight’s and the next one’s) were handed to the ground staff. I was alert enough to ask to see it, before they packed me off.
I had heard of enough stories of people boarding a flight and never reaching their destination. I needed to make sure I was en route to my own country, via Doha. And that I had an immediate connecting flight from Doha to Mumbai. Once I checked all the fine print, I handed it back to them. The last passengers (the ones who are generally late and cause delays in take-off) had boarded the flight. There was just one seat vacant on the plane and it was waiting for me.
The previous night, before they’d detained me, I had asked my interrogating officer about the details of my flight out of the USA. She had assured me that the airlines that brought me in had to take me away as well, in this case, Qatar. However, I explained that my booked return ticket for January was on Etihad Airways, to which she’d replied, “Let’s see if they will bump up your departure date to tomorrow, and you may have to pay a small difference in fare, if any.” I had enthusiastically nodded a yes, seeing that it made complete sense. I had a non-refundable ticket to India, in January, for which I had shelled out around USD 700. I couldn’t afford to let that money go waste. The officer had assured me that Qatar could not charge me for the return trip to India, after I expressed concern about not having sufficient funds to pay for this unexpected (and certainly expensive) return airfare.
Now, as I stood up to go through the boarding gate, the Qatar crew member approached me with a document, which was handed over by the American officers along with my passport, which was titled “Invalid Passenger” or “Deportee.” It was a one page basic form filled out the previous night by the officer in charge, which was signed by me at the bottom. As I waited to board, the lady showed me the document, saying: “Once you land in Mumbai, you will need to pay for the air ticket. For now, we’re accommodating you since you don’t have the funds immediately. You will be given your passport in Mumbai only after you clear this payment, so you can make arrangements as needed.”
She was pointing to a number on the form I’d signed yesterday. Only difference was that these guys had freshly written this ticket price on the form. It wasn’t there the previous night when the Officer assured me of a free trip back home!
I stared at her. Without blinking. USD 1438. About INR 93,000.
(For the sake of comparison and context, a one-way ticket from Mumbai to Chicago usually costs around INR 40,000)
At that point, with my one leg on the plane, and my heart filled with hope I didn’t care about money. I just needed to go home, to leave that country. I agreed and boarded. All the while, until I reached Mumbai airport, my passport was passed on from hand to hand, among the Qatar crew and staff. Not once did I lose sight of it, constantly nagging the crew to check that they had it safely.
I was shown my seat on a completely full flight. I started to feel normal again. Nobody was staring at me. Nobody knew what had happened to me. Nobody reminded me of what had happened.
I needed to be anonymous. I needed to gather my thoughts and get back to normalcy. I buckled in, and I counted the minutes until the plane took off. The longer the plane was on the tarmac, the more worried I got.
The Long Way Back
When Ross made fajitas and was fine
It finally took off, as did my spirits. Dinner was served, which I devoured happily. I plugged in my headset and flipped through the channels. I found what I was looking for. I pumped up the volume. FRIENDS: The One where Ross is fine! I laughed out loud as I watched him make fajitas and do the little dance. I laughed more as I saw him get drunk on margaritas. I re-watched that episode twice. Then I completed 4 more episodes of Friends. Those 3 hours were the most normal I felt since getting off my flight at Chicago the previous afternoon. That was followed by some Modern Family and an entertaining Bollywood movie.
Both the return flights were uneventful, and I would have even been happy to be seated next to a wailing baby! I swear, this is not something I would ever say otherwise in life.
15 hours later, I was at Doha. I had a 3 hour layover, during which an elderly Indian officer was responsible for me. (It was at such times that I felt like an errant child, who had to be baby-sat and supervised every minute of the day.) He was really nice, and at some level felt really bad for me. He was respectful, and we chatted about Mumbai and India in general. For once, I didn’t feel like he was interrogating me. He told me to walk around, eat something and come to the boarding gate at 7:45 pm. He had my passport and would meet me there.
I got something to eat, charged my phone, freshened up and updated my folks. I had my phone with me now, and I told them “I’m coming home…”
When it was time for my flight, I did as the Indian uncle said and I boarded my second and shorter flight from Doha to Mumbai. My passport was handed over the airplane head stewardess, who was again respectful and answered all my questions politely.
I ate all the meals I was served, asked for extra beverages as and when needed, making sure I bloody well extracted value for the ridiculous airfare I was going to pay later!
I landed in Mumbai in the wee hours of the morning: 2:30 am. Two young Qatar officers came to receive me at the boarding gate. As with the previous flight, I was asked to stay in my seat until the plane emptied and was then escorted off of the plane by the staff.
The Welcome Home
It happens only in India
At Mumbai Airport, I was made to skip the usual winding queue at Immigration, and was led to the Immigration Office nearby. It was an isolated area next to the Immigration counters, restricted to authorities only. The office had 3 tables, 1 computer, few chairs and 1 long couch for passengers who needed to wait. Like me.
There were 2 senior officers, in identical ties and black blazers. They were speaking Hindi with each other. They were briefed on my situation by the officers who had got me out of the plane. Then they gave me a bored look, and told each other (in Hindi): “Why do they (the American Govt) like to increase our paperwork?”
Over the next 4 hours, I was interrogated (same questions) by 3 different officers of different ranks. They could speak NO English at all. I had to narrate the incident 3 different times, and for the fourth time, I was asked to write out the whole thing on a blank A4 paper, as an “official statement.” I told you, this happens only in India. Nobody was using a computer or laptop. Everything was entered manually in large registers and account books. They also entered my details, passport and everything, into one of these large books. I was made to wait.
I identified the high levels of chauvinism in the room (I was the only female there), and knew right then that anything I ask or voice out would work against me and may aggravate the situation. These were Indian men who did not like to be challenged by a woman, especially one that looked like me. They would not like it if I asked them what the next steps were or why was I made to wait for so long even though I’d submitted my statement a while ago. So I waited, patiently. I complied. I swallowed my pride. Only in the hopes that they would like me better. Fortunately, it worked. I did not piss them off, which I realised as time flew. They eventually started feeling bad for me. And at the end of it all, they cleared me to leave the airport, 4 hours later.
That morning, I learned that patience was a really important thing to have, in general. Not everything will happen the way you want it to. You have two options: you kick and scream and wonder why this is happening to you. Or you wait. Wait with as genuine a smile you can muster.
During my long, long wait, I witnessed some hilarious samples who were sent to the Immigration office for similar visa related reasons.
Sample 1: A smart Caucasian guy, traveling independently to Mumbai, from Virginia (USA), via Emirates. He’d landed here without an Indian visa! My jaw dropped. He was allowed to leave the USA, halt at Dubai, and land at Mumbai, before getting flagged off at Immigration for not having the mandatory tourist visa. The officers could not understand how he flew all the way with no visa. He claimed nobody told him that India required a tourist visa. And that he was not at fault. Now, remember how the officers couldn’t speak English. And he obviously cannot speak Hindi. So what transpired was truly, truly hilarious, and I would really have wanted to thank them for entertaining me. Half of me wanted to go and voluntarily translate for them, seeing as how I was bored out of my mind, and considered invisible!
Our immigration officers (and most other Indians) absolutely love white-skinned people, from any part of the world. Mind you, just the fair ones; we might as well just sit with a shade card. Because we feel they’re superior and God-like. Here was this American man, traveling without a visa, whatever the reason be.
The officers began fussing around him. “Would you like some tea, Sir?” The white guy: “Yes, sure.” One of the younger officers scurried away to get some tea. He came back, balancing two cups of tea precariously: “Lemon or ginger tea, Sir”? The white guy: “Lemon, thanks.” I covered my face, trying to stifle my giggles.
Sample 2: An Indian family of 3, Green Card holders, from New York, had forgotten their old passports, which had the Indian visa necessary to enter India! They had come with their new passports which did not have the visa. Sigh. Such third-world problems, I wanted to scream. The elite lady sucked up royally to the Indian officer, painting a sorry picture of how her ailing mother lives here, and they visit her every year. The officer was floored. Wow. I wiped off a silent tear.
To leave Mumbai airport, I needed the immigration stamp, indicating my arrival in India. One of the officers took my passport to those Immigration cubicles that all passengers pass through, and stamped my passport “Arrival – 13 July 2015 – CSI Airport Mumbai”, right next to the stamp “Departure – 10 July 2015 – CSI Airport Mumbai.” Life had come a full circle.
I cleared Immigration, passing by Duty Free on my way out. I was earlier informed that my 2 bags were kept aside at a specific desk at the Baggage Claim. I half walked, half ran towards it. Outside the airport, I could see the warm hues of the rising sun. I knew my parents were waiting outside. They had spent the night at the airport, and I couldn’t imagine what they’d been through. Fortunately, my long return home had given my folks enough time to transfer the necessary funds to help me pay for the ticket at Mumbai.
At the Qatar baggage claim, I was met with the same young officers who met me when I landed. He helped me get my 2 bags on a trolley cart, and took me over to a counter that contained the necessary forms and card swiping machine. He pulled out a Qatar branded cash challan (receipt) with the details of the air ticket, double checking the conversion as per the exchange rate for that morning. He showed me the figure on the calculator, “Ma’am that will Rupees 93,000.”
“Sure, and with that, why don’t you take one of my kidneys too? I don’t need one anyway.” I replied, with a dry smile.
He stared at me blankly. I sighed and handed him my debit card. I held back my emotions at seeing my account balance drop down with just a swipe and a signature. My phone beeped with the “debit” message from the bank, confirming that this was no dream. I finished the formalities.
I tried explaining to him how I was led to believe that I would not have to pay for this airfare, when I was held at Chicago. He replied saying if the Americans booked me on an Etihad (which was my original return ticket), then Etihad could have considered my return fee, and adjusted it against the original ticket. But the Americans did not give me a choice or a voice in understanding my options at a return ticket. And Qatar Airlines (I’m sure all of them are the same) found a gold mine in the middle of all this, and I was the lucky one. So I had to pay for this Qatar ticket and I lost the money on the Etihad return ticket. This is how fucked up all the systems are.
With the payment receipt and my beloved passport back in my bag, I pushed my trolley towards the Exit. I passed Customs without a glitch. I could see the automatic sliding glass doors, signalling the Exit into the area where outside people are allowed. I counted silently as the number of steps to get there, began reducing. All this while, I’m still praying nobody else stops me. I had become so used to be being checked and stopped by authorities the past 3 days, I didn’t know what was normal anymore.
I walked through the Exit, feeling the full push of the Indians around me. The cacophony. The unruliness. The humidity. The comfort. I saw my parents at a distance. I wheeled my cart towards them.
Finally, I was home.