Monday, December 2, 2013

Undocumented, aka Our Brush with the Law

One of the many benefits of partnering with Educational Services International instead of teaching on an independent contract is the support and training you receive throughout the year. It was at training in July when I first heard the murmurings that the fall conference would be hosted in Turkey. Don’t let anyone tell you that being a cross-cultural worker doesn’t have its perks. 

The whole thing started off sounding just a bit too good to be true. It was a comfort saying good-bye to new friends at training because we knew we’d be seeing them again in the fall. Once in country I formulated an informal list of short-term goals, the chief of which was, “Survive until the fall conference.” Even the day before leaving I just couldn’t imagine what it would be like 1) to visit a place I had long wanted to see and 2) being in a place that wasn’t Karaganda. Despite the frequent reminders from our director that THIS WAS NOT A VACATION, I could barely contain my excitement. I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew it would be good.

We left straight from the language center, which meant I carried my luggage all over Yugovostock and Daryn and Centre, and the melting ice on the ground meant wet socks through the first two legs of our travels. The Karaganda airport was dark and empty when we arrived, giving it the eerie air of a bunker guarding the apocalypse, but we checked in, passed security, and boarded the plane to Almaty with no problems. An hour later we touched down in the Alma-ata, got a bite to eat (Parenthetically, goldfinch soup is chicken broth with potato starch in it. This is not delicious.), and found a bench on which to lay our heads to wait out our eight hour layover. 

This layover was pretty uneventful, except for the brief run-in I had with a resident of Shymkent who tried to converse with me through the language barrier and kept trying to touch my nose with a spit-covered finger. We parted ways when he started saying, “Money! Sex!” over and over. 

Two hours before our flight was scheduled to depart, we got in line for passport control. We each went to a different booth, and thus each had different experiences. I got yelled at by a devastatingly beautiful Russian woman, the young Kazakh officer in Bet’s line just pointed at the date on her registration card with a blank look, Teka sailed through customs no problem and waited for us past security, and David spoke with an older Kazakh woman who attempted to explain the situation with the little English she had. We stood in our booths for half an hour while our three officers made phone calls and conferred with each other. “I think there’s a mistake,” I kept saying. Apparently there was a problem with our registration card, but I remembered being registered when we arrived in August. We had five-year visas and letters of invitation, for goodness sake.

There was nothing they could do for us though. The date on our card showed it to be expired. We had overstayed our time in Kazakhstan by ten weeks. We were illegal immigrants. They put their rejection stamp on our registration cards, confiscated our boarding passes, and showed us out of the terminal. “Can we re-register? Is it possible to catch a later flight today?” we asked with some hope and desperation. “Go to the immigration office,” they told us. “You will not fly today.” The disappointment I felt was heavy. 

The team just moments after we heard, "You will not fly today."

We didn’t really know what to do with ourselves. We were stranded seven hours away from home in a city we’d never visited. Our director from ESI was asleep. Our administrators at the language center (who had taken care of our registration when we arrived) were also asleep. (It was five in the morning, after all.) We weren’t sure what the penalty was for overstaying one’s visa. A fine? A night in jail? Where was the immigration office? What papers did we need? Would the migration police speak English? Should we stay in Almaty and try to get legally registered? Should we go back to Karaganda and get registered there? Should we throw in the towel on this whole Turkey trip? We had spent the whole night bumming around the Almaty airport and could not think clearly enough to resolve this issue.

Things turned a corner when David was finally able to get in touch with our administrators from the language center. They strongly recommended returning to Karaganda. If the migration police had made a mistake on our papers, it could be taken care of. So instead of boarding a flight to Istanbul, we got on a plane headed back to the very place we had just flown from. Our administrators met us at the airport, gave us some food, told us to sleep and then spent the day working magic for us. 

This was the issue:

1) It turns out our five-year visas require us to leave the country every thirty days. Because this visa is brand new (and also maybe because it says so nowhere on the visa itself), neither our administrators or ESI or anyone at all really knew that this was the case. Our administrators felt awful that they hadn’t caught this mistake when they registered us the first time, and now that we’re back from Turkey we have to get these visas voided and apply for new ones so that we don’t have to leave the country every 30 days.

2) Teka was fine. Because she’s Brazilian, her visa was different from ours, and she scored the standard one-year visa that the other ex-pat workers also have. And so at the airport she was waiting for us on the other side of security for half an hour, nervous that we had been taken into custody and she would never see us again. 

3) I wasn’t even in the database. When our administrators went to the migration police to investigate, insisting that there had been a mistake, the police had scoffed at them . . . until they went to pull up my record and saw that I was nonexistent. Considering I had a registration card with their stamp on it, that was kind of embarrassing for them. 

I don’t know what sort of voodoo magic (or bribing) was done to square things away, but once our papers were secured our administrators booked us another flight back to Almaty, and rescheduled the other two legs of our journey: the Almaty-Istanbul flight and the Istanbul-Antalya flight. 

And we thought that was that. But the three flights were spaced out over three days. We’d be arriving at the conference on Friday afternoon, when it was already halfway over and after Thanksgiving dinner. Our director thought the expense was too much, and suggested we stay in Karaganda, but when we found out that our language center was covering the cost of 1) the cancelation fees, 2) the two extra flights to and from Karaganda, 3) a place to spend the night in Almaty and Istanbul, and 4) the taxi to get there, we made the call. The Turkey trip was still on. 

I cannot even describe how indebted we are to our administrators from the language center. From 5:30 in the morning when they got our call until 10:30 in the evening when they put us on a plane back to Almaty they were working on a way to get us to our conference. They shelled out over a thousand dollars getting our flights sorted and booking us hotels, and I shudder to think what they paid in registration fees and punitive fines to make our legal problems go away. They took us to and from the airport and they gave us food to eat while we waited in our flat for a verdict. They even bought us chocolate and tea while we waited for check-in to open. We spent Thanksgiving Day in bewildering transit, but thankfulness for them was my greatest sentiment that day. Katya and Olyessa and Sergey did us a solid. 

Eight flights. Four airports. Five of our six days were spent traveling. A night in Almaty. Then a day in Karaganda. Then another (more pleasant) night in Almaty, this time in an apartment in Arbat instead of the airport. A night in Istanbul. Two nights in Antalya instead of the four originally planned. And then a night in transit through Istanbul, Almaty, and finally home sweet home in Karaganda. Never a dull moment. 

No comments: