The Visa Debacle, Part Two: Walk the Line

I knew I should have slept more. Somehow I reasoned staying out late the night before wouldn’t be a problem since I was just going to be sitting on a bus and standing in lines. Wrong. Cycling towards the travel agency I tried my best to shake to cobwebs from my mind and managed to stop for a Blue Pumpkin croissant. If I was going to be sleep deprived I sure as hell wasn’t going to be hungry too.

My friend Mike was already sitting in front of the closed travel agency. Both a bit bleary-eyed we waited for, well, we weren’t really sure what we were waiting for… Shortly after 7:30 a.m. a tuk tuk screeched to a halt in front of us.

“Get in!” The driver waved.

Mike and I looked at each other, shrugged, and climbed into the back. Weaving through the early morning traffic the driver stopped in front of a mob of haggard travelers. We joined the weary hoard and waited for our next move. Around 9 a.m. our packed bus chugged towards Poi Pet and the Thai border, right on schedule.

I tried my best to sleep during the three and a half hour ride but the young, giant German backpacker next to me was having more luck. Gradually his large frame tilted closer and closer until he had practically taken up half of my seat as well as his own. A part of me wished he would fall asleep on me because then it would be less awkward if I fell asleep on him…

The bus rumbled to a stop and Mike and I climbed out, blinking in the bright sunlight. “I guess we should figure out where to go…” I mumbled.

“I was going to ask you that,” Mike stated.

We decided following the mass of backpackers was our best bet and joined the group lining up under the sign reading: Departures. My heart pounded faster the closer I got to the front and was practically beating out of my chest by the time my toes inched up to the bright red line painted on the floor.

Without saying a word I handed over my passport and waited.

“You overstay,” the immigration officer stated matter-of-factly.

“I know.” I was getting really tired of having it thrown in my face. I watched him add up the number of days. “Can I just pay the fine?” I asked pulling out a very large bill wondering if I would be morally against bribing if it came to that.

“Not here.” He pointed to another officer who quickly ushered my out of the line and across the street to the Arrivals building.

At this point I just wanted to put everything behind me. I slapped a smile on my face and nodded when this new officer reminded me again that I had overstayed.

“14 days,” he told me.

“Actually, it’s 16…”

He paused then smiled. “Yes, yes, 16 days.” He did some more calculations, “$70.”

“I think it’s $80.” I kicked myself a bit for correcting him but I didn’t want to take any chances, plus this officer was actually being nice to me. After handing over my money he pointed in the direction of the Thai border and told me to cross over then come back to pick up my new visa.

Exiting the building I scanned the crowd for Mike.

“I thought they’d taken you away,” he said after I spotted him.

Together we rejoined the backpack herd and worked our way through line after line. It didn’t take us long to work out a line-standing system. In each new building we split up to maximize the possibility we’d find the fastest line. Every time we approached a border control desk I held my breath until I heard the firm thunk, thunk, thunk of the officer’s stamp on my passport.

Shortly after 3 p.m. I reentered Cambodia as a legal resident, exhausted, hungry, cranky, but LEGAL!

While we were wandering about the shuttle bus station a man approached Mike about hiring a taxi to take us home.

“It’s only $5 more than a bus ticket and takes half the time,” he told us. We didn’t take much convincing.

Shortly after we followed a different man to a car, got in, and promptly fell asleep. Not even halfway through our journey I stirred long enough to realize we had stopped. Our driver was purchasing a sandwich at a roadside stall while the woman who had been in the front seat was passing around her baby.

Suddenly convinced we weren’t in a real taxi and that our border buddy just paid some guy to drive us to Siem Reap, I pretended to be asleep. Soon enough we were back on the road and I nodded off for real, lulled to sleep by the Cambodian pop music soundtrack.

About an hour later we bounced into town and merged into the city’s gridlock. After unsuccessfully trying to explain to our driver we weren’t staying in a hotel and needed him to drop us off where we left our bicycles he pulled over, opened the back door and motioned for us to get out. As I was trying to figure out where we were and determine if I could get us back on foot another man rushed over, exchanged some words with the not-taxi driver, and told us to follow him.

“I have tuk tuk,” he promised. By this point we were getting all too familiar with blindly following random strangers.

After we’d been handed off to the tuk tuk driver we again joined the traffic-clogged streets, only this time we maneuvered around cars and motos until the city center came into view.

As I mentioned in Part One, I don’t recommend letting your visa expire. I do, however, feel like my trip to Poi Pet was some kind of expat initiation.

Welcome to the club.

The Visa Debacle, Part One: Never Let Them See You Cry

No matter how tempting it may seem, never let your visa expire. I repeat: Don’t. Do. It.

You’ll just feel like doing a lot of this:

And this:

And end up doing more of this:

I watched the expiration date stamped in my passport barrel closer like growing wave, and for the past two (plus…) weeks I managed to push any concern to the back corners of my mind in hopes everything would just be o.k. Isn’t there a phrase: Everything is O.K. until it isn’t. This past week I figured out what “isn’t” is all about.

Having missed my first appointment at the airport a new one was finally scheduled for last Friday. With the instructions: Go to the airport and show them your paper, it was basically up to me to figure out what to do.

I knew I needed to get to the visa desk, a simple enough task except the visa desk is located at the arrivals gate and I wasn’t really “arriving”. Sreyneang, who graciously drove me to the airport, chatted with a security guard who then ushered me (and me alone) through a back door telling me to, “Go straight.” I weaved between travelers, fresh off the plane, quickly slid backwards through the passport control checkpoint, and got in line behind the visa desk.

What little confidence I had mustered shattered when I realized the immigration officer had no idea what I was talking about. He kept pushing back my paper and pointing at my expired stamp.

“You overstay!” He yelled at me.

“I know,” I tried to stay calm. “That’s why I’m here, to pick up my new visa.” I pushed my photocopied attestation paper back at him.

“No,” he stated, “The date is wrong. Your visa is expired.”

“Can I pay the fine and get a new tourist visa?” I asked, my voice starting to shake a bit. If I couldn’t get my business visa, maybe I could at least buy another 30 days.

“No. You have to go to the border.”

At this point, I just stared at him. “Can I call my boss and have him talk to you?” The officer nodded, but pushed me aside in the line.

As they say, if anything can go wrong it will. I think it’s a law or something… My phone was out of minutes. Just the other day I purchased more but hadn’t yet figured out how to reload them onto my phone. Let’s just say I was forced to figure it out really quickly…

The officer and Seak, the PEPY HR manager had a heated discussion for several minutes. Even though I couldn’t understand I knew it wasn’t going to be good.

“You’re going to have to go to the border.” Seak told me over the phone.

“Awesome.” I could feel the tears building up, an unfortunate knee-jerk reaction to situations in which I have absolutely no control. “But how am I going to get out of the airport?”

Surprisingly, no one seemed too concerned with this little detail.

“Can I get out of the airport?” I asked the (very) frustrated officer.

“Yes.”

“But my visa is expired… Will they let me into the country?”

“Yes.”

I took his word for it and cautiously approached the immigration officer working the passport check line. Handing over my passport I watched him flip to the telltale page stating I have been illegally living in his country for the past two weeks. He looked confused.

“I already stamp this.” He stated matter-of-factly. “You’re visa is expired.”

I was getting really tired of having that thrown in my face. “I know. That guy,” I pointed toward the visa desk, “Told me I could leave.”

“But your visa is expired. Which flight you come in on?”

“I didn’t come on a plane, someone let me in so I could get a new visa but they didn’t have it. I have to go to the border to get a new visa, but to go to the border I have to leave the airport.” Living the rest of my life like Tom Hanks in The Terminal was becoming an all-too-real possibility.

By this point another officer, this one in a more official looking uniform, had joined the discussion, snatching my passport from the man at the desk. After what felt like an eternity Mr. Snazzy Uniform added up the number of days I overstayed and told me how much I owed in fines. “You pay at the border.” He handed over my passport.

“So… I can leave…?”

“Yes.”

I think I literally bolted towards the door, determined to make it out before they changed their minds.

Stay tuned for Part Two: The Wanderer’s First Border Run!

P.S. For the record, I didn’t cry (at the airport…)