09 April 2009
Detained: You Are Not Forgotten
Zeynep and I set off early and in good spirits for our sojourn to the Southeastern-most point in Europe: Sagres, Portugal. The tube wasn’t crowded, the sun was shining in London and the “soundtrack of our life” would definitely have definitely included sound effects like birds chirping and kids laughing. Airport arrival and check-in goes surprisingly well. Her Luftansa Silver status and my Star Alliance Silver status meant business check-in was all ours (and our luggage even got “priority” tags, so they’d come out first). While the business lounge was a no-go for me (turns out you need Star Alliance Gold status - drat!) that didn’t stop Zeynep from foraging for sandwiches, cheese, crackers and tiny cakes, which she managed to stuff in her new turquoise purse. Our flight was on time (madness!) and the inflight snack for a traditional Portuguese dish that was utterly divine.
Naturally, when things are going well it usually means something is bound to go wrong. Scan forward to our arrival. We deplaned into PERFECT weather (it’s just like southern California climate-wise), boarded our bus across the tarmac and lined up for customs. I zoomed through without a passing glance and stopped just behind the “border” to wait for Zeynep. And wait. And wait. And wait. No Zeynep. A good five minutes pass before I see her jumping up and down behind the glass on the “other” side, directing me back to the immigration control. “There is a problem with my passport,” she tells me. Oh no! After a little finagling, we manage to convince the border agent to allow me to rejoin Zeynep on the “other side” while things get resolved. She has been detained, and I have voluntarily detained myself with her.
Meanwhile, our “priority” bags are now who knows where, waiting patiently for their owners. The woman walks us over to a cordoned off area consisting of twenty or so seats and a fire extinguisher. It’s 9pm. At 9:30pm officer power trip strolls over to give us a stern talking to. “You can’t enter Portugal with this type of Turkish passport,” she tells Zeynep. Ok, backstory time: Zeynep’s passport is a “special passport.” I mean that literally. It says “special passport” right on the front. Her Dad worked for the Turkish central bank so while she doesn’t have full diplomatic status, she is also not a wayward civilian (as if!). This “special passport” has a Shengen VISA built in. What does that mean? Well, it’s supposed to mean she can move freely throughout the European Union without a VISA. According to who, you ask? Her government’s website as well as wikipedia (which means it has to be true). Apparently not, as our short, high-waisted, chest-droopy, mullet-induced new friend was now explaining.
Certain of our facts, Zeynep asked if they were in the back doing research. “What means research,” she asks, hand on hips. WE. ARE. DOOMED. “I don’t know what you are saying, but nothing can happen until 11pm when the new chief comes on. “What is the current chief doing,” we ask. “He is very very busy. This is a busy job,” she tells us. Cut to the immigration area, which is COMPLETELY VOID OF ALL HUMAN LIFE, save for us. Yes, very very busy. Already we’re having a negative reaction toward Portugal. Madame Miserable tromps away and we begin the inevitable puns that go with our new refugee status. “I bet they’re in the back sending out homing pigeons to collect information,” Zeynep quips. “Kiss kiss, fly away bird, fly away!” Nervous laughter ensues, as we’re not 100% sure this isn’t the case. Time treks on. We read, we play cards, we sit, we talk. Minutes feel like years.
Now hunger sets in. We decide to ration all the food we have - my two granola bars. Agreeing to save one for later, we split the other in half, nagging at one another over whose half is bigger. Detainment is NOT fun. I wander aimlessly across the detainment area to the vending machine, insert my 3 euros and push for a bottle of water. The screen reads “vend” and a bottle of Coke pops out. Super. Upon relaying this information to Zeynep she informs me that her life goals have now changed. “I am going to dedicate myself to improving conditions for detainees. This is just terrible.”
11pm rolls around. No sign of the new chief. To make matters worse, there is no sign of our husky lady-friend or her calling pigeons either. Zeynep wanders to the “border” and the man tells her not to worry. “You are not forgotten,” he says. Feeling otherwise, she decides it’s time to call her Embassy. Three rings and an actual human being answers! She begins explaining the whole situation in Turkish, though I can tell exactly what she is saying based on her inflection, occasional English words and mini “jumps” in her seat at particularly poignant moments. “Let me ask some friends and I’ll call you back.” Ten minutes later he’s ringing her. “Yeah, sorry ma’am, it’s a Saturday night and I’m the only one here and I’m new, so, um, there really isn’t anything I can do compared to if it was the middle of the day on a Tuesday.” Great. From now on, no flying on weekends or after 5pm. Since this all began, however, border officers have sauntered past us at least fifteen times, never once even acknowledging our presence.
Midnight rolls around and we’re into hour three. What began as a nervous situation and then evolved into a humorous situation has now become a slightly frightening situation. “What if I get deported,” Zeynep ponders out loud. “I mean, how do you get deported FROM Europe TO Europe?” It really doesn’t make any sense. Thirty more minutes and it’s all becoming too much for her. She gets up and marches over to the new man sitting at the “border.” From afar I can only see arms flapping and hear the occasional “I’m sorry.” She returns with him in tow and for whatever reason, HE is apologizing! “Do you want some water? I am so sorry!” He returns with two cups of water then whisks my water bottle away, returning it completely full. “Are you hungry, he asks?” Considering we had a small domestic dispute twenty minutes earlier over dividing up the other granola bar, we concede that yes, we are indeed hungry (assuming he is going to produce a snack from the staff break room or something). Not so. This man returns to his booth where we watch him rifling through his own meal, returning moments later with a ham and cheese croissant and box of apple juice. Is this country for real? What began with a stout, mulleted Pat-like character now involves a kind older gentleman who is sharing his wife’s home cooking and a box of juice he may have stolen from his toddler.
The entire tone changes at this point, and everyone couldn’t be nicer. Another man appears and begins to apologize to us yet again. Is this for real? “It won’t be much longer, I promise.” Ok? It’s only been four hours at this point (during which several other people had come and gone into our detainment center), so what’s another two or three? By 1:30am we were taking photos with the guards, on our merry way for the total price of ten euros and sixty cents - the cost of a six-day on-site VISA. our bags were in the “lost luggage” section, the taxi ride to town took all of five minutes and the woman at the guesthouse resembled my Nana is both warmth and spirit.
So what began as a “what is this country?” became “this place is perfect.” And just for future reference, “Special” Turkish passports do in fact require a VISA to enter Portugal. As for us Americans, continue to be grateful that - despite our gaffes around the World - we can still travel VISA-free to about 160 countries. Fortunately, Portugal is on that list.