I was so very much looking forward to seeing Mexico. Out of the 8 or so cities I got covered on Couchsurfing for 6, and for some of these cities I got so many invitations. Mexicans are obviously passionately hospitable. Besides, many of the hosts seem so interesting and absolutely warming.
Alas it was not to be.
The several customs officers at Merida Airport didn’t try to be imitating at all, but they did check my passport through and through and told me that they didn’t see a Mexican visa. I explained that as long as I have a US visa, the Mexican visa can be exempted. That US visa is stored electronically in the chip in my passport though. I showed them the printout of my online application for US visa, but to no avail. Eventually all the passengers waiting in line (in the chilling customs) left, and I was led to the customs office. In the meantime, no one in the Taiwan embassy in Mexico answered the phone, as it was Thursday night. I tried to call my CS host Enrique P. in Merida to apologize for keeping him waiting, but my Taiwanese SIM card didn’t work. I managed, though, to call a couple of friends in Taiwan for help.
The officers discusses, and even the one most proficient in English had limited vocabulary, as can be imagined (after all, I had been through some not unsimilar ordeal in Colombia). I tried to explain, but nothing worked, and the person who seemed to be in charge still didn’t let me call Enrique. And of course time didn’t stop. I thought it must be not very pleasant to wait futilely at an airport. They started to talk about sending me back, and that wasn’t what I wanted to hear.
At one point a lovely young lady came and listened with all sympathy, and she spoke much more English. It didn’t take me long to realize that she’s a clerk of United Airlines, and she helped explain to me the situation. I kept telling her that Taiwan has been “promoted” to the group of countries whose citizens need only to apply for an electronic US visa, and as long as I have a US visa I don’t need a Mexican one, and the MOFA page of my country gave me all the info above. Still, nothing could be done.
Originally the officers were pretty relaxed with me, and the young, fine-looking male officer also handed me the TV remote, but later the very skinny young female officer came to show me a printed documents which was obviously signed by some of her superiors, and she tried to use the four or five English words she knew to ask me sign on that. I didn’t understand what was on that and declined.
There was still no way to come into contact with the Taiwan embassy in Mexico, and I didn’t hear any good news from my friends on the other side of the (very expensive international) phone calls. My ticketing agent Ms Chang told me that it doesn’t seem possible to get the Mexican visa upon landing, so a plausible choice may be buying round-trip flight tickets from Merida to neighboring countries: Honduras, Guatemala, or (Ms Chang’s idea) Cuba. And of course with Cuba it’ll be a bit tricky, since there can be no direct flight between Cuba and the US. I turned on my notebook, turned on Skype-wifi, and frenetically checked any flight-routing possibilities, which I’ve been so good at doing.
Eventually some officers came to tell me that I had to go to a small cell. Which seemed all right, but then they told me to take off my belt and shoe laces. I didn’t understand why (being somewhat dense I guess) and, unhappy about this, grumbled a bit, to which they didn’t react badly but still persisted about their demand.
“Light on or off?” they asked. On it was, I said. I was tired, my hair was very greasy, me having not taken a shower for so many hours, and yet in my orange mountaineering jacket I continued to surf on line searching for possible travel destination and the kind of itineraries associated with these respective countries. I could do it, I told myself. And indeed I could. It wasn’t difficult at all. I did it all the time: first in Amman, Jordan, then in Madrid, Spain. I did all these before: find new possibilities, come up with new itineraries, and get the most out of a new, previously unplanned and even un-thought-of journey.
But the nice United Airlines lady came and told me I had to be sent back to at least the previous stop, which is Houston, and of course that’ll utilize my return ticket. I pleaded her not to change my ticket just yet, because my friends in Taiwan might be able to reach the Mexican embassy in Taipei after their lunch break, even though down in my sinking heart I already knew it wasn’t very likely to steer the course the other way. She promised that she would leave the ticket changing to her superior, who’d arrive in early morning and see to the matter of sending me back. This nice lady also brought me a cold sandwich, a bottle of water and another of Coke. I thanked her with my best gentleman behavior as I usually behave. My computer was quickly running out of battery, and she with better English also made sure that, when I was to be locked in the cell, I could knock on the door so one of the officers could give me the computer, as there’s no socket in the cell and the computer needed to be charged outside the heavy, heavy cell door.
The lady also explained to me about the document they wanted me to sign: it was meant to state how I landed without the required visa and had to be deported on a certain coming flight, and during the meantime no customs officers mistreated me. I privately found this ridiculous, but after getting assurance (not that the assurance is any more useful or anything) that it isn’t about making a “black mark” or bad record in their system, I signed.
Upon leaving, the ultra-amiable lady showed strong sympathy and asked if there was anything she could do. Aside from asking her to try to secure aisle seats (instead of otherwise, which I dread), I simply bowed, showed my best humble manners as a Taiwanese. She couldn’t have been nicer and told me she felt really, really, really very sorry for my situation.
I drank a lot of water during the whole time after I was taken to the customs. Of course this meant that I’d have to use the men’s room a lot, but I felt that I was drying out, and ever since my childhood I have always been very keen on replenishing water in-take. I knocked a couple of times on the cell door so the guards could take me out to the men’s room (they standing guard the whole time at the door), but I also used the water bottle I got from the UA lady to store my urine, since (a) I didn’t want to trouble the guards that often, and (b) eventually they probably dozed off or went away and no one came to respond to my knocking.
I tried to sleep for a while, but it wasn’t easy. Luckily I had a sleeping mask, and I tried to sleep. I finally succeeded for a short while, and obviously my body needed it more than I thought, but that didn’t last long, since Ms Chang called and told me some unhappy information which I already thought of. One of the things is that there’s a chance the customs may not agree to my choosing to purchase a flight ticket to fly off to other destinations instead having me sent back to Houston by using my original return ticket. I racked my brain and thought, thought, thought, and though. I knew I’m good at this, and no matter how much I disliked putting my enterprising capacities as a backpacking traveler to use, I’d got to. As my original flight ticket have the itineraries of Taipei/ Tokyo/ Houston/ Merida and, for the return journey, Guadalajara/ San Francisco/ Tokyo/ Taipei, choices include:
- Ask them to change the ticket to make the transit in San Francisco instead of Houston. I’ll enjoy a couple of things, including perhaps some opera performances, and I may have a chance to stay with a friend Rob B.
- Stay in Tokyo instead of simply making a transit. I might figure out how to enjoy a couple of things in Tokyo and neighboring area, maybe even come up with a new itinerary in Japan.
- Stay in Houston. But I find this to be ridiculous, as it lacks the kind of public transportation system that can be found in SF and I just don’t think I’ll find interesting tourism options there. And I really disagreed with Ms Chang about her suggestion of “just hop on a Grey Hound and visit some other places.” (Upon hearing that I had a very vague and mild urge to strangle someone.)
- Return to damp cold Taipei in winter = take the defeat = be miserable in hateful Lunar New Year = feel ultra-super-extraordinarily humiliated and incompetent and useless
- Return to Taipei and figure out some other overseas journey, which Ms Chang also suggested. But Oh my, how tired was I already! I was mentally so very used up.
Ms Chang also apologized, but I was just so fatigued and also preferred to focus on making plans.
After Ms Chang’s call, no matter how hard I tried, I simply couldn’t fall asleep again. Before and after her call I read some parts of the Mexico travel guide, which seems useless now, even though what I was reading was the historical and cultural aspects of the country.
Eventually it was probably 5am, and another UA clerk came. This one was slightly older but just as sympathetic as the former. I asked her with all my best manners (I simply couldn’t imagine forgoing manners or composure under any sort of circumstances, I guess; nor collapsing like a shapeless potato bag either!) some questions, and told her some of the options I’d like to have, if possible:
- buy a ticket to other country without changing my original return ticket;
- stay in San Francisco before returning to Taiwan;
- stay in Tokyo before returning to Taiwan; (Ms Chang told me that my flight ticket actually doesn’t allow getting out of the customs in Tokyo, but I thought since deporting trumps anything else and would allow an airline to change the return ticket anyway they wanted just to send me back, I might as well ask.)
(Gosh, me being organized and concise AT ALL TIMES!)
This clerk didn’t seem to respond positively to the first choice. As for the second and the third, both were possible; she told me she could have me fly to Houston and then directly to San Francisco, and then after that I could fly back to Taipei via Tokyo.
Sure, seeing SF isn’t a bad idea, but aside from the fact that Rob B. didn’t answer me (on a such a short notice, I knew), I thought it to be just a tad too exhausting than I can bear not to have a direct flight from Merida to San Francisco. I decided it was finally enough. I simply asked to be returned all the way to Taipei, and “aisle seats all the way, please.” She told me that the legs from Tokyo to Taipei is not catered by UA so she would be able to choose the seat, but she could help me with the other legs. (Ms Chang also told me that the soonest flight for one of the last two legs was extremely full and no seats could be found, but obviously the UA clerk could find some hidden seats.) And for each of the two transits, less than two hours were granted.
Just like her colleague, she expressed great sympathy upon leaving. “Is there ANYthing else I could do?” she asked. She also told me that it’s just the matter of visa; otherwise Mexico is really a nice country to visit, and I’d still be extremely welcomed next time — with proper travel documents, of course. I bowed and thanked her.
For just a tiny bit I wished I could cry, but there was simply no tears at all. With my agonizingly greasy hair, I headed to my flight. Yes, my luggage had been checked in, they told me.
It was early morning. Sun came up. I saw Merida for the first time from the plane, and ironically I simply couldn’t go into those streets and hug my CS host and make new friends.
When flight attendants passed down customs forms for passengers to fill out, the fine-looking young lad (Mexican I assume) sitting across the aisle next to me gestured to lend me the pen. How nice Mexicans are. And yet I didn’t get to meet them outside the customs.
And I would return as such a HUGE F-A-I-L-U-R-E. The one thing I can do and can do pretty damn well is backpack traveling, and I failed stupendously this time. There was not even any kind of saving grace or way out. I couldn’t improvise my head off and do something just like the way I fled Egypt and explored Jordan and Syria.
And it isn’t easy at all for me to have such long holidays: my superiors at work were graceful enough to let me put all my annual leaves together with Lunar New Year holidays, something not all Taiwanese employers would agree to (even though we should be lawfully legit to do so), not to mention that they even managed to ask the company to postpone transferring to another department the only one colleague who could cover my job content until I return from Mexico.
And I didn’t even know if I could have such holidays in 2015. Of course, I could still
- depart again from Taipei (after one or two days) for some other destination, although at this moment I simply couldn’t ponder upon the possibilities;
- go to some destination not far from Taipei for three days or so and lick my wound;
- finally do a round-the-(Taiwan-)island bike tour by myself;
And I simply couldn’t bear to explain to one after another inquiring mouth in Taiwan about why I didn’t travel to Mexico. There was something silently deafening rocking in my brain, and I simply felt I should come up with some LIE, some lie that’ll make all my colleagues and acquaintances uncomfortable enough so that they would ask anything. Oh gee, all that swelling-up feeling in my brain, and my fatigue…
I probably did fall asleep for a while on the flight to Houston. If that was the case, lucky me. After all, it was 24 hours of flight + 22 hours of flight + 7 hours of prison time.