Passports, and the Fine Print: When the journey is more exciting than the destination, you’ve done something wrong

By | June 15, 2017

Our last few adventures had gone remarkably well: exciting without the danger, authentic without catching something, educational without the boredom (though our children might disagree). I was returning from our trips with a little swagger, a little “yeah, we’re good”, a little “why would you spend the same amount of money going to the indoor water park at the Wisconsin Dells when you could have an amazing experience like we just did?”

My comeuppance was sure and brutal. It was a full two months after our return to Chicago that I could bear to tell the story to even my closest friends. I stand here now, chastened and deflated. Go, with my blessings, to the Wisconsin Dells, and be at peace.

We had one hour until we were to leave for the airport and begin our twelve-day trip to Indonesia. We were excited – I had planned this one well. From Chicago we were flying to a long layover in Shanghai, where we would spend a day running around the city. Then it was back to the airport and on to Bali, with six more hours of an overnight layover before the final puddle-jump to our final destination of Labuan Bajo on the island of Flores. Yes, it would be a monster of a trip even for a single adult, and we had three children, ages 3, 5, and 7, to cart along as well. No matter, this was to be a great adventure, and being the cocksure travelers we were, we embraced the challenges that lay ahead.

We didn’t even get out of the house before things started going sideways.

My wife was thumbing through our passports one last time. “Did you know your passport expires next month?”

Making my way with great haste from shock to denial, I snatched the passport from her, thinking she must be reading it wrong. Nope, she had it right. The expiration date fell after our planned return, but was five months short of the required six-month grace period.

The room spun. My breathing was shallow. I need, it was clear, to go back in time and fix this.

I double-checked my web sources. Some said the six-month window was an absolute requirement; others only listed it as a recommendation. I called the Indonesian consulate in Chicago for clarification. The woman I wound up talking to had a thick accent. I think she said, go ahead, you’ll be fine. That was the answer I wanted, so I may have been hearing something other than what she was saying.

The lack of clarity made things worse. Had my passport been expired, I would have reconciled myself to my fate with grace. But not knowing added a stomach-churning twist to the proceedings.

My wife and I sat down to discuss options. The only question that mattered was whether or not she would take the kids on the trip, alone, if I couldn’t go. We decided she could handle the older two. If I had to stay, I would keep the youngest with me. In the cold, clear light of our dining room, this seemed a reasonable conclusion.

The train ride out to O’Hare was interminable. Ordinarily, our family is filled with bubbly anticipation on that 90-minute journey. This time I was ill.

My passport’s first test was the China Eastern Airlines check-in counter. With the fine-grained focus of an electron microscope, I watched the clerk check my passport. Once she finished with it, she moved on to the next one. I exhaled.

When she handed it back to me the only thing she said was, “It’s expiring soon.”

“Yes,” I agreed.

Having passed the check-in test, we headed for security. Forests could fall to supply the paper needed to print the treatises on how America’s post-911 security architecture has itself become an enemy to the nation, so I’ll just say here that the security line was long and slow.

Not that I was expecting any problems, but the TSA guard who checked my passport against the boarding pass didn’t bring up the expiration date. So another hurdle was cleared, though a small one.

By the time we made it to the gate the attendants were already making the final boarding call. As we hustled to the check-in at the head of the jetway I thought to myself that at least I’ll get to see the Shanghai airport.

No sooner had I congratulated myself on being able to board the flight than a China Eastern Airlines employee picked up the microphone on the wall right next me and said over the loudspeaker, “Will Todd Wells please approach the counter at Gate C23 immediately.” Since birth I have known that hearing my name spoken by a someone wearing a uniform followed by the word “immediately” always bodes ill. This was to be no exception.

Standing at the head of the jetway, my boarding pass in hand, and three wriggling children underfoot, I said, “Yes?”

The gate agent verified, “You’re Todd Wells?”

Again, “Yes?”

He put his best worried face on. “You can’t get on the plane – your passport is about to expire!”

The rest of that conversation was meaningless. I plead my case, out of a sense of pride, perhaps. But I knew there was nothing I could say that would get them to let me on that plane. After a minute of polite discussion, I backed down. They offered to put me on a flight for free when I had a renewed passport in hand. That was generous. What they did not do was make the same offer for my three-year-old daughter. If I wanted to keep her with me, and then fly out a couple days later, that would require another purchase.

My wife and I looked at each other. It was helpful to be with someone I know so well that we could communicate without speaking, therefore saving me from having to say out loud, “I’ve botched this to an unimaginable degree. I understand that I can never atone for my actions, but will be expected to try every day for the rest of my life.”

Instead, smiling and crying at the same time, my lovely wife said to me “We’ll see you in Labuan Bajo.” I do all of the planning for the trips. My wife knows the broad strokes, but the details are all my responsibility (yes, including passport expiration dates), so when she pronounced the name of the town “Lobby Banjo”, I thought to myself, I’m never going to see them again.

My wife turned to lead our three children down the jetway. The small pocket on her backpack was unzipped, and as she turned, several tampons spilled out and scattered onto the floor. Ordinarily, that would have been the most uncomfortable moment of any given journey; on this particular day, it was barely a blip.

I was in a daze. We had discussed this possibility, and that probably made the decision-making process at the head of the jetway as fast as it was. But now it was happening, and I was losing focus. One of the agents was thinking for me. “Do you have your house keys?” she asked.

I said, slowly, “Noooo..,” Then, as the question cut through the fog in my head, “Crap. No, I don’t.” The agent sent an underling running down the jetway.

Struggling to stay lucid, I discussed next steps with the gate agent. What I began to understand was that it was to be an under-the-table kind of arrangement. When I returned to the airport, four days hence, on Tuesday, I was to find the gate agent, who would issue me the tickets and boarding pass. It was clear that this was an unofficial arrangement, but I didn’t sense any dishonesty, and I couldn’t think of what they would have to gain, so I took them at their word. As it turned out, there were to be repercussions, just not the ones I would have expected.

I walked back to the train. I should have been running, but I wouldn’t learn that until later. I had packed my long-sleeve shirt into a suitcase now headed for China, and was underdressed for the rapidly cooling Chicago evening. In one sense, my discomfort was a plus, as it felt like a first step in the penance needed to cleanse my soul.

In shame, I rode the trains and bus almost the entire length of Chicago back to Hyde Park. “You Idiot!” I wanted a fellow passenger to say, so that I could readily agree. But all I got was the silent treatment, which was so much worse.

A common trope in science fiction is that when a character travels through time, or dimensions, or realities, and winds up somewhere unexpected, he says “something doesn’t feel right” or “I don’t belong here”. That was my sense upon arriving home, almost like the house itself had been looking forward to some down time and my reappearance had disturbed those plans.

Still, I wasn’t so out of synch with time and space that drinking a beer didn’t seem like a good idea. Bottle in hand, I sat down at the computer. I pulled up a couple passport expediting websites. I didn’t choose the service based in Chicago because there were several reviews calling them charlatans and crooks. Time was of the essence, but I figured, better to get it done than to give all my money to a charlatan crook.

I selected an expediter based out of Washington DC. They were thorough, down to the color of ink I was using to fill in the forms. Of course, it meant I had to Fedex all my paperwork across the country and hope to get it all correct. I double and triple-checked everything in the package. Between the double and triple check I learned that I had to include proof of a ticket purchase in the application package. This was something I no longer had, as my ticket to Shanghai was now just a verbal assurance from a China Eastern Airlines gate agent. So I read the fine print on the Expedia website, bought a ticket, printed the receipt, then cancelled the ticket.

At 7:15 that evening I finally had everything I needed and walked the two blocks to the Fedex dropoff. The last pickup wasn’t until 9:00. I handed the package to the clerk and filled out some more forms. His last words to me were, “All set. It’ll go out first thing on Monday.”

The blood drained from my head. The room began to sway. Monday? Who? How? What?

The last pickup had been at 7pm. I was 20 minutes too late. I don’t know where I had read 9pm, but it was the second time that day I had been badly burned from misreading a deadline. I made a mental note to stop doing that.

Back in the house, I managed to find the strength to open another beer. It had been a bad day – the worst in quite a while. I tried to think of the last time I abandoned my wife and three young children to their fates on the opposite side of the planet. I could not recall it.

Missing the Fedex deadline added another day to my reunification with wife and children. As I sat at the dining room table, despondent, I mused over the unfortunate timing I was stuck with. It was a Friday, and the other four were hurtling westward to China, then south to Indonesia, where their vacation would commence without delay. My passport process, however, would not begin its own journey until Monday, when Fedex and the federal government reopened for business. If everything went smoothly, my application would arrive in Washington DC on Monday, the passport renewal would take place on Tuesday, the expediters would Fedex the new passport to me on Tuesday evening (I was assuming they had a better grip on Fedex pickup times than I did), and I would receive it early Wednesday morning – in time to catch the afternoon flight out of O’Hare.

With the fate of my passport application out of my hands, the next step was helpless waiting. Saturday crawled by. I still had not heard from my wife. I knew that she didn’t know how to buy, or replace, a phone chip upon arrival in another country, so I was entirely surprised when my phone chirped. My resourceful wife had figured it out and sent a text: “On the train. Going to the hotel.”

It took awhile to recover from the emotional tsunami of that first text, but even then I remained too ashamed of my self-inflicted wound to contact friends or family and let them know what had happened. When the food supplies in the house began to run low, I made a quick dash to the grocery store early in the morning to minimize the chance of running into someone I knew.

When Monday arrived, I was able to start following the trail of my passport application. I checked the weather forecast for Chicago and Washington DC; there were no storms that might interfere with Fedex planes and trucks.

As the daylight passed over Chicago and night fell in Indonesia, my wife and I traded several text messages. They had made it safely to the guesthouse in Labuan Bajo.

With my family alive and happy and exploring Indonesia I could compartmentalize my guilt, and deal full-force with my own problems. I had been poking around at various alternative flights to see if I could find something where I wouldn’t need to spend a day in Shanghai. I found an option to go through Seoul with a two-hour layover. This would get me to Labuan Bajo a day earlier. But two drawbacks gaped at me. The obvious one was that I would be buying another ticket. Using a passport expediting service is not cheap, and I was burning through the kids’ college funds pretty fast. The second problem was the flight left at noon on Wednesday. Two hours at the airport for check-in and security plus an hour-and-a-half to get there meant that I had to be out of the house by 8:30am. Fedex was promising an 8:00am delivery. Logistically, nothing in my life had gone right for several days, so I figured I was overdue – I bought the ticket.

At 7:00am on Wednesday morning I walked outside, locked the front door, and sat down to wait. 55 minutes later a cheerful delivery man handed me an envelope. I didn’t hug him, but just barely.

I looked at the passport. It was mine, and the expiration date was now quite a bit more than six months in the future. I left for the airport and got to Seoul without issue, which was a little strange, given that I had had nothing but issues recently.

It was still unclear, in my head anyway, whether or not the six-month rule was really a rule. In the empty time I had at home, I had poked around some more, but couldn’t find anything official stating the rule unequivocally. Had China Eastern kicked me off the flight unnecessarily? I finally got a good enough answer to this in the Seoul airport. I was in a mostly empty waiting room passing time before my flight to Bali. At the far end of the room were four other people: an American and three Korean officials. The acoustics were excellent, so I could hear every word.

The American was trying to explain that his passport was at his hotel, but the proprietor had locked the room and left, so he, the American, couldn’t get it. As a substitute the American had some sheets of paper from the school where he was teaching English, and if they would just look closely, right there was the official school seal. The Korean officials were having none of it. In broken English they said, over and over, “Where is your passport?” and “You must have a passport.” As their dance went on I detected fear seeping into the American’s repeated explanation. Eventually a higher-up arrived and the bevy of officials escorted the American away, to his fading pleas of “you can check with the consulate” and “the phone at the hotel is disconnected, because otherwise you could just call”.

I had no trouble superimposing myself into this situation: a hapless American full of useless excuses, and an invalid passport. Earlier I had concluded, self-righteously and sitting at the computer in my own house, that the six-month rule is a gray area and how dare they remove me from that plane. However, watching this traveler being carted off softened my judgment – I wouldn’t do well in passport prison.

I got off the plane in Bali at 12:30am. I stood in the immigration line with a tight grip on what was surely the most expensive travel document to pass through the airport that day. An anticlimax for the ages followed: The sleepy clerk stamped my passport without even looking at the page with the expiration date. I shuffled onward, past the endless stalls selling SPF 100 sunscreen, now in Indonesia.

The only remaining drama was whether or not I would see my family again. I had texted and emailed my wife with my arrival information, but I had received no confirmation from her. So while I had made it into Indonesia, there was still a possibility my time there would be spent alone.

My plane disembarked in Labuan Bajo under the watchful eye of an enormous Komodo Dragon mural painted on the side of the terminal. Across the broiling tarmac, I made my way to the arrivals hall, where my six-year-old son was excitedly jumping up and down and knocking tiny, ancient Indonesian grandmothers sideways. Just this once, I decided, I’ll skip the scolding. Instead, I picked him up and asked, “So, next year, should we go to the water park at the Wisconsin Dells?”

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