Passport control always makes me nervous. It’s kind of like police officers in the U.S. Even if you haven’t done anything wrong, you’re still afraid they’re gonna nail you for something. That’s how I feel every time I’m about to enter a new country. Living the way I do is certainly unusual, and it can tend to be a challenge explaining my lifestyle to an immigration officer who is probably used to hearing the same touristic reasons minute by minute. Although it’s never been a problem for me – until now.
I was heading in to reunite with some friends and kick off 4 months of travel around Europe. It was exciting to get back on the road after over a month of being home and back into the life of adventure. After an uneventful flight, I arrived at customs and stepped up to the counter. The immigration officer had her blonde hair thrown in a messy ponytail and stress lines were speckled around the rims of her eyes making her look older than the early-40’s I guessed she was. She started asking all the standard questions:
How long are you here for? Two weeks.
What are you doing while you’re here? Visiting friends.
How much money do you have? Only $450 but I’m waiting to be paid more from 2 previous gigs.
Where are you going to next? Visiting a friend in France.
The officer seemed suspicious of me from the start, and I still can’t figure out why. That day, I wasn’t even dressed like a backpacker. I had my hair up and out of my face, all of my tattoos were hidden, $100 dollar Lucky Brand jeans (the irony of the brand only just hit me) tucked into burgundy Doc Martens, and my large black glasses paired with the black and white sweater of roses gave off hipster vibes, rather than the usual lazy clothes I would settle for. But who knows? Maybe it was the purple hair.
I tried to answer as confidently as I could, despite everything about her intimidating demeanor. She certainly was not the typical cheery Brit. No “pip-pip’s” or “cheerio’s” from this one! After failing to satisfy her, she took my passport and led me to a waiting area along with a handful of other hopefuls waiting to be set free. After some time waiting (and there was certainly a lot of waiting during this ordeal), I was led by a much friendlier customs officer to search my bags.
“Any weapons or firearms in your bags?”
“Well I wanted to bring my machine gun, but I decided to leave it at home.”
“Probably for the best.”
My weak joke brought a chuckle to the kind man as he dove into my crap. I’ll give him credit, he was thorough in looking through everything, but also put everything back neatly – a courtesy that hasn’t always been granted to me by the TSA. After he was satisfied I had nothing illicit, he took me back to the waiting area. From here on out, everyone fit nicely into the polite British stereotype, which made the whole situation much more tolerable. More waiting, then I was escorted through the airport to the holding area where I would unknowingly spend the next 8 hours. They took my fingerprints, my photo, and gave me a pat down search. That was when they found my cocaine.
Before locking me into the holding room, they gave me a pat down search, made sure my pockets were empty, and my belongings were locked in a luggage room. The holding room was pretty much as bland as you could get. There were 3 sets of hard metal benches lining half of the room in a U formation, coming to 20 seats total. They surrounded two wooden cafeteria style tables where you could opt to sit at to twiddle your thumbs. Hungry? No problem! You could either attempt to satisfy your cravings with the packaged croissants on the cafeteria tables, or knock on the door and ask an officer for Cup O’ Noodles. Gourmet eatin ’!
On the opposite end of the rectangular room, were two thick looking mattresses laying parallel to each other on the floor, accessorized by some flimsy pillows and raggedy blankets. I didn’t want to know how long they had been there. With the consistently cool temperature lingering in the room, you were sure to never be very comfortable. The fading white walls of the room that desperately needed a paint job, were lightly peppered with the same info poster in different languages, about watching out for slavery and human trafficking. What was I supposed to do about that locked up in here? For entertainment, the options were bountiful! You could flip through one of the available television channels, start a game of broken connect four, try to remember how to play dominoes, or choose from their selection of books (most of which weren’t in English). I didn’t really want to pass the time reading a trashy romance novel, but in retrospect, it would have made the situation more bearable.
As I learned that day, the process for detainees goes like this: you wait in the holding room until the immigration officer interviews you and determines if you will be allowed to enter the country, or sent right back where you came from. Every time you leave and enter the holding room, you’re given a pat down search (I got more action that day than I have in my entire life). I was led to the interrogation/interview room, where the make it or break it questions began. After being in limbo for 3 hours, my spirits were low, and it weakened my confidence further. She asked me the same questions again, this time writing them down. I informed her that I was able to get one of my previous jobs to pay me, which brought my finances to a significantly more stable situation. It didn’t matter to her – she told me it was too late.
Traveling in a non-traditional way has always been difficult to explain to people, and this was no exception. After the interview wrapped up, she told me it was unlikely that I would be let in, and the next flight wasn’t until noon the next day. Holding myself together the best I could, unwelcomed tears still slid silently down my tired face. All of my plans, the few that I made, were suddenly ripped away and I was back to square one. I allowed myself that moment of weakness for about 2 minutes before piecing myself back together and regaining my composure. Crying would only make this situation worse, and right now my emotions had to be put on hold until I got home which would be approximately 30 hours later.
As I slowly started accepting my fate, I did everything I could do occupy my mind. In my head, I would hum upbeat tunes in efforts to drown out the hippie in the holding room with me who was humming out loud. Time stopped existing, and every second felt like an hour. There was no point in ever checking the clock, because the hands never moved.
At 11 pm, they transferred me to a detainment center. They transported me in a van where I was isolated from the drivers by a metal shield, save for one Plexiglas portion that slid open so the two babysitters could keep an eye on me. The door had no inside handles, as pointed out by a sign saying something like “The inside handles have been disabled for your safety and security.” It didn’t make me feel safe – if anything it made me feel more helpless. Upon arrival, they granted me the privilege of accessing my backpack for a change of clothes. By that point, I didn’t have the energy to change and I stopped caring about my hygiene, and everything else, until I arrived home.
Back at the airport holding room, I accounted for the time difference and waited for it to get later so I could use my phone call to ring my parents when I thought they would answer. By the time I asked for it, they informed me that I would have to wait until I was at the detainment facility. After trying to call home from the detainment facility, I wasn’t able to get through, even with help from the staff. Finally, they allowed me to use one of their computers. With Facebook being blocked, E-mail was my only option and I logged onto my Gmail through Internet Explorer (the savages didn’t even have Firefox!).
Being terrible at saving people’s email addresses, I had to rely on emails I’d recently received to acquire a link to the outside world. There were two: Luke and Chris. Luke, who I write for, doesn’t always check his email frequently. So I opted for Chris, one of the few people I was able to tell beforehand that I had been pulled aside, and who would easily be able to contact my parents.
Oh wait, I had to make sure I didn’t get stranded at the airport the next day.
Time to cross my fingers, and hope someone shows up. I was put in a room to pass out in, lined with 3 empty beds and one window. Taking in the surroundings of the room, there was one sad painting of a flower on the wall along with a dirty mirror, and a desk with plastic drawers sitting on top of it. What the heck were you supposed to use the drawers for if they took all your stuff?
Finally, I gave a peek out the window and my heart sank. In the black night, I saw staring back at me another building with big numbers painted on the side “13.” How fitting. In between the two buildings, was a tall fence with barbed wire looping the top. It was the kind of fence you see enclosing a prison. It was at that moment, seeing the prison fence with the unlucky number staring back at me, I officially felt like a criminal.
Now I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, and that holds to this situation as well. Being denied entry and the forced change of plans wasn’t necessarily the biggest frustration. Not to mention, there have certainly been other instances when I wanted to give up while on the road. This was an entirely different situation. Being locked in a room and shipped around like a lone cattle does something to your sanity. All of my options and freedom (you know how us Americans like our freedom) were stripped away, and I was left completely at the will of someone else. It was the loneliest and most broken I’ve ever felt in my life, and I still had a long ways to go.
By the time they shipped me back to the airport, it was barely 5 A.M. After trying to watch TV for about an hour, a commercial for California came on, reminding me of where I’d be returned to. By then, I had accepted my fate, and just wanted to get home already. After all, there are certainly worse places to be sent to than sunny California. So I abandoned the TV and opted to try to sleep again. As uncomfortable as it was with the horizontal wood slats buried in the mat poking into my waist and knees, I managed to shiver myself to sleep for the rest of the time.
It was eerie falling asleep when there were 6 other people in the holding room, only to wake up to find everyone had disappeared. I have no idea what happened to the 5 other people who were previously in the room, whether they suffered the same fate as me, or if they were finally granted freedom to enter the strict country.
An officer called my name, and finally the journey home began. I was escorted to the front of the line of passengers boarding the plane. Turning to one of the nicer of the two officers with me, I exclaimed “woah this is cool, I feel like V.I.P.!” He chuckled and responded “Yeah, that’s the only good thing about this situation.” I could tell he felt bad for me.
Finally stepping onto the plane, I found my seat, which turned out to be the cherry on top of this whole thing: I was in the middle! Something about that, being detained for 24 hours after a 10 hour flight, only to be put on another 10 hour flight in the middle seat, and it all started hitting me. I’m supposed to be reuniting with Chris right now. We were supposed to be walking around London, eating Oreo’s and berating each other with “your mom” jokes. I was supposed to be excited for my bus to Sheffield in a few days where I would be reunited with more friends, ready to celebrate Jonty’s birthday and get fat from Kat’s delicious baking skills. I was supposed to be spending my nights on the brown couch watching bad English reality shows with Jack and Kirsty. But instead, I was secluded from the world for over a day, left with only basic human rights: packaged food and a toilet.
A few hours into the flight, my stomach started to rumble, unsatisfied with processed food it had been fed, so I decided to splurge and buy myself an overpriced sandwich. I kid you not, everything of substance was sold out and I couldn’t help but laugh ironically at the luck I was having. As we came close to landing, I finally started getting agitated. I could almost taste freedom! I had spent the whole flight anxiously wondering if Chris got my email, and if he had in turn passed the info on to my mom. The moment of truth finally came when I was able to turn my cell phone on and call my mom. Sweet relief – she was on her way!
I plunged my way through passport control, going as fast as I could, and almost bursting into tears when the officer asked how long I was in England. My voice shook uncertainly as I answered his simple questions and continued out the airport. The closer I got to the car, the closer I came to cracking. My legs pumped faster, and a wave of emotion finally curled and crashed on me when I saw my mom approaching to help me with my bags.
After climbing into the white SUV, I was finally able to let everything go and have my long awaited meltdown. Curling myself against the window, sobbing uncontrollably, but I made it. I made it through the isolation, the nutrition-less food, the uncomfortable metal benches, the unnecessary security, the endless questions, having my belongings withheld, being constantly babysat, and feeling like a prisoner. And somehow I pushed the entire nightmare through without any major emotional release, but it could finally be let out now.
When I got home, I sat down with a salad, pulled up Google Chrome, and started searching for flights back to Europe.