Sunday, July 15, 2007

how to flee a foreign country on short notice

I made it home. I arrived at Meadows Field, Bakersfield's illustrious airport, at around 1:30 a.m. on Friday night/Saturday morning. My checked bag did not make it yet (and my cell phone charger is in my checked bag, so if you call me and I don't answer that's why).

The mildly amusing (and long--be warned) little tale of my "escape" from Ghana begins this past Monday, when I arrived at the US embassy in Accra to start the process of getting a new passport. The embassy recently moved to a new building (or, really, series of buildings in a large, fenced in area), and being there was truly eerie. It looked, smelled, and felt like being in the United States; it was the cleanest, quietest, most modern place I went to in Ghana. (I'm sure it wasn't the cleanest, quietest, most modern place in Ghana, but it was certainly atypical of my other experiences.) After going through security, I was directed to a long, somewhat narrow hall lined with a series of 13 windows at which embassy staff assisted people from behind thick security glass (with a little speaker so that you could hear them and one of those metal basins through which paperwork could be exchanged). The rest of the hall was lined with chairs and dozens of people waiting for their names to be called. 11 of the windows were for non-citizens; it appeared, from what I could tell, to be mostly Ghanaians seeking (and being rejected for) travel visas to the United States. Not to digress too much, but it was really fascinating and sad to watch. I'm not sure how the whole process works, but it was fairly clear that people had applied and then been assigned a day and time to come to the embassy regarding their application (how long it took or whether it was necessary to come more than once I don't know). I could tell that most of the people there had dressed up in their Sunday best and marshaled armfuls of potentially-relevant paperwork, most of which wasn't looked at during their brief stays at the windows. There was an embassy worker at window 10 with a loud voice, so I could overhear some of her rejections one of the days that I was there. My impression is that you have to have a compelling reason to want to come to the US, but not a compelling reason to want to stay there; even more important, you have to have strong financial ties to Ghana, presumably so that they believe you'll come back. Of course, if you're poor, you don't have strong financial ties anywhere. And so you don't get to come to the US.

Anyway, we can discuss US immigration policy another day. Windows 12 and 13 at the embassy are for US citizens. I was seen within about 15 minutes by a very kind woman, who explained to me the process for having a stolen passport replaced. You have to submit two forms, one passport photo, a police report regarding the theft, and fees totaling $97 (I also gave them a copy of my old passport, which I think greatly assists the process). I actually had a passport photo handy (I brought an extra one with me to Ghana after that whole deal in India last summer where I needed one to get a freakin' cell phone), but I didn't have a police report. (Not for lack of trying to get one--I went to the Cape Coast police station twice, but they were completely unhelpful, a story which I will tell in more detail at some point.) The woman told me where police headquarters is in Accra, and suggested that I get a report there and then come back and submit everything. At this point I'm thinking, cool, I can do this, this is all pretty easy. I'll have my new passport in no time. And then I asked how long it takes to get the new passport. At least 2 weeks, she told me. Honestly, I don't know why I was expecting it to be less, but I was. They send everything to the US and the new passport is processed here and sent back to Ghana, which is not surprising. It makes sense that it takes 2 weeks, I just wasn't prepared for that reality.

So when she said 2 weeks, I freaked out a little (okay, a lot). I burst into tears, and I got a little hysterical. I can't remember exactly what I said, but I know I was crying pretty hard and saying stuff like, "I can't stay here for 2 more weeks. I just want to go home." It must have been quite a show for the Ghanaians (and Americans) within earshot. There were 2 women helping me at this point, and they were both really sweet. There had me go into the interview room at the end of the hall, which is just another window, but it's in a room, so I was able to finish my little breakdown in privacy while the second woman, who's name was Grace, talked to me. She said she'd see what she could do, and that in the meantime I should go get the police report. So I left and went to the police headquarters, resigning myself miserably to the fact that I'd be there for 2 more weeks. An incredibly kind and helpful detective wrote up an official police report detailing the mugging incident, and did so in just over an hour, which is like light speed in Ghana. I had to go to an ATM afterwards to get cash to pay the fee, and of course at the bank I went to the ATM was temporarily out of service because they were refilling it with money. Five minutes, the guard said. Okay, will it really only be five minutes? I asked him, because I have to get back to the embassy before they close at noon. He said yes. 15 minutes later, after I've explained to him why I'm in a hurry and he's told me a few times that they are "almost done", he starts telling me where another bank is. I flipped out a little and asked him why he said "five minutes" when he didn't mean it, and he just started laughing, which made me more angry, which made him laugh more. But then finally they did finish, and I got some money.

Meanwhile, Grace, my embassy angel of mercy, had done some pleading on my behalf. I guess if you freak out in the embassy you seem a little crazy and unstable, and I guess that's considered a compelling reason that you need to go home sooner rather than later, because she explained my situation to whomever makes these decisions, and I was granted an Emergency Passport. I almost started crying again when she told me that I could go home as soon as I wanted. The only other thing I had to do in order to get the emergency passport was submit a copy of my ticket home, which of course I didn't have yet, because I hadn't changed it from the original date, because I was waiting to see how long the passport would take. So Grace told me I could change my ticket to Friday (which was when I was hoping to come home) and bring in a copy of the e-ticket the next morning.

I won't go into all the drama of changing my ticket (or getting a new ticket, which is what actually happened) except to say that my mother and DWE are wonderful people who are way nicer to me than I deserve. My mother paid more than she should have had to in order to get me home, and DWE very generously and thoughtfully used a pile of frequent flier miles to upgrade me to business class for my flight from Accra to New York (I'd never flown business class before, and dude, it rocks).

My emergency passport (which they made in Ghana, of course) looks normal on the outside, and sort of normal on the inside, but it has a little message about how it's just an emergency one and it expires on July 9, 2008 (I have to send away for a permanent one before that). When I was leaving Ghana, the customs guy told me (in a rather self-satisfied manner, I couldn't help noticing) that my passport was expired. He seemed a little disappointed when I pointed out the "2008" to him.

Anyway, I'm home. I'm not sure if I really "deserved" an emergency passport, and I still don't quite know how I feel about the fact that I left at all (other than to know that I'm very happy to be home). My experience in Ghana was more negative than positive, and I regret that, but I suppose that's bound to happen sometimes. Enjoying travel doesn't mean that every travel experience is going to be a good one.

Friday, July 06, 2007

not much new

This post probably won't be informative in any significant way, other than to assert that things are still fine, all things considered. I am in Accra this weekend and will go to the embassy on Monday morning to get the ball rolling on my new passport. Hopefully it will be ready by Friday (a week from today) because I'm hoping to fly out of here on Friday or Saturday. In theory I'm still doing one or two minor things for my adviser, but other than that I'm just hanging around trying to get things in order and not be too much of an emotional drag on Al or Mel. We're staying with a Ghanaian family this weekend in Accra (the family of the 3rd IDEC student working with Al and Mel), so that will give me a chance to try a couple of the traditional dishes I haven't had yet and attempt to leave this place with some semblance of a positive attitude.

I appreciate how sweet and supportive you all have been, and getting to see everyone sooner is a nice consolation in an otherwise crappy situation (how soon, I don't know...I'm going to want to stay put for a little bit, even if it's in Bakersfield, and then who knows how long until my mother lets me out of her sight again).

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