Taipei airport, 7pm, Tuesday 27th. immigration point.
‘sorry, can you come with me please?’
these are not the words you want to hear when you are just 2 meters from crossing into a country. you turn to see the origin of the words. see the uniform. white shirt. black pants. functional shoes. small badge, gold-edged. ‘Immigration Officer.’ a chill goes through the bones. your red-tape radar goes off the charts. nausea threatens.
‘uh… looks like you had an overstay.’
‘yes. last november.’
‘so… you have to go an apply for a visa.’
you know the answer to the next question is going to be non-good. you can’t even get your voice to make it sound like a question.
‘Hong Kong, that’s closest.’
and so began The Immigration Nightmare.
it started innocently enough, this saga of Customs, sleeping on benches, application forms and faxed bankbook pages, of sweat and exasperation, immense and intense frustration and the eking out single cups of coffee for hours on end. i went to Singapore to head the next day into Indonesia, just a short ferry ride away, to take part in the Batam 6 Bridges event.
the race itself was a lot of fun, a 120km roller coaster of a course over, amazingly enough, 6 bridges that connected these little Indonesian islands, some beautiful views in between and some good guys to race against. i ended up riding myself out of the race though with a rookie mistake – i attacked with 60km to go, chasing three leaders that i thought might stay away. that was the first mistake, as when me and my companion caught them, they promptly stopped riding.
which is what i should have done too, but no, i forged on like i was Tom Friggin’ Boonen with a hanger on behind who did almost no work and when the headwind increased i was done. 15 guys or so caught us and i was up there for the sprint but cramped up pretty thoroughly in the last 300m. agony! i don’t know why but when i get the cramps my triceps go first. weird, and not very fun.
so i had zero left for the sprint. can’t win them all, as they say. kind 0f a stupid ride though.
riding yourself out of a race, i see it a lot and thought i’d stopped doing it, but i guess not. the secret to racing smart is not so hard to grasp – when you feel really good, do as little as possible til the very end. and when you don’t feel great, take a chance. that’s my philosophy, anyway. congrats though to the top three, it was a great little race on a real racer’s course and i’ll be back next year to see if i can do better.
so, back to Singapore, some fun in the evening, then another couple of days hanging around, seeing friends, then off i trundle to the airport, get on the plane, freeze my ass off, try not to get drunk on the plane (achieved, they only give one glass of wine! Flying Nazis!), then land at Taipei.
then that voice. those cold, dead eyes. the thin layer of ice over the skin. the loss of hope, the embrace of the Dark Side. i swear, they are Vader’s people…
yes. 9 months ago. for a week. i went to East Java on an emergency passport then came back ion and got a new passport, then found out by chance that the emergency passport only gives the holder a 30 day visa instead of a 90 day visa as with the regular passport. did anyone tell me? nope. did my passport have the obligatory stamp in there to inform me? nope. did i get a letter telling me about the need to leave the country before the end of the visa, as required by law? nope.
so i left Taiwan for two days, went to HK, applied for a 60 day visa (the longest available for those who have overstayed) and had to repeat through the year. i couldn’t get an Alien Residency Card for some time because of myriad reasons, not least being that the nasty accountant at one company i worked for deliberately sent off the wrong form when applying for my card. yes, hard to believe, but true.
anyway, i did finally get an ARC, but then left that company after half a year for various reasons. and so last week i went in to hand in my ARC to the Immigration Office in my town, and asked, very clearly – ‘will my previous overstay be a problem when i come back in?’
‘nope, just use your passport and you’ll get 90 days.’
i went back in the next day to see another officer, to double check. i am thorough like that.
‘nope, no problem’ came the answer, as he studied my file on-screen intently.
but guess what? yup. ‘incompetent’ is the politest word i can manage here.
at the airport i ask to see the head honcho. he comes out and clearly cannot be bothered. it’s an overstay and that is that.
he does though finally glance at my passport. ‘where’s the stamp that says you have to apply for a visa before you come back to the country?’ he asks.
aha! i think. here is my ‘in’! official f**k up negates visa requirements!
‘that’s wrong,’ he says. ‘you have to have a notification. someone made a mistake.’
‘so…. can i get some emergency extension, then go home and sort this out?’
‘oh no!’ he says with a little laugh. ‘it’s still an overstay violation.’
‘how can i violate something if i don’t know i am violating something?’
he hands me back my passport and says ‘sorry!’ with another laugh and turns to go.
‘but you’re not,’ i say.
he stops. turns. ‘what?’
‘you’re not sorry. not at all. it’s obvious.’
there ensues after this a night on a ‘bench’ made up of three odd shaped chairs pushed together, a flock of angry Chinese tourists (they always sound angry) and jabbering Indonesian workers feeling the need to have a heated chat at 3am, and a workman who really really need to fix a light fixture with a big drill just above my head at 4am. not to mention my poor girlfriend scrambling around by phone to get me a flight to HK in the morning.
she has no credit card on her so uses mine, then we are told i have to have the credit card on me to get the ticket. i didn’t bring my credit card because i once did bring my credit card and was paying it off for months. i had enough cash to go to Sing, have some fun, then come back and get home with a hundred bucks US or so left over.
after another hour of debating they finally wave the need to see my card. in the night i have to go online and to fill out the Taiwan visa application form, which then needs to be printed out also. why? do they have a printer at the Taiwan office in HK? nope. a photo booth for the visa pictures near the office? nope.
now, if you want a same-day visa pick up you have to get your visa app in before 11 am. i land at 9:15, with my dwindling money and temper fraying like a tramp’s ten year old underpants, then race up to the 7th floor to get visa photos, then down to the basement to the business center to use the printer, then to the train station to get into the city, then get into a cab, say ‘step on it!’ for the first time in my life, then at 10:40 crash into the office like a man delivering his own kidney to his critically ill first-born daughter, and take a number.
the electronic board says 43.
now, excuse my french, but F**K MY HAIRY LIFE.
i sit down. ’44….45…46…’ interminably slow.
10:50 now. ’47… 48…. 48?’
…i think 48 jumped off the balcony.
screw it, I AM 48!
and i will fight you for that!
up to the booth, into the seat, forms thrust under hole in glass, put in place to protect the Visa Gerbils from people just like me, people on the edge & ready to go to town with a processing stamp and an ink pad all over the staff.
‘uh… where are your accompanying documents?’
the most pregnant short pause ever, ever, in the world.
‘sorry?’ and already the desperation in my voice is clear for all to hear.
her face contorts a little, the strain of dealing, of having dealt, with a thousand melting assholes just like me.
‘evidence of employment or funds, or relatives in Taiwan.’
‘i.. no… please… i was in Taipei see and-‘
‘no, you need these documents.’
the clock is silent to everyone in the office but me, i hear that final tok thunder down like the call for the End of Days.
wouldn’t have mattered anyway, what time i went yesterday. i had to ask my very understanding better half to fax over my bank book details as proof of funds that evening. in the meantime i changed the last of my Singapore dollars and went to get a very small, very cheap room. i have friends here but i was in no mood to be social. i wasn’t sure i could trust myself around kindness! i might break down completely.
so, with now exactly 1280HK$ in my pocket and $400 Taiwan dollars – about $110 HK. it was $800HK for the visa so i’d have a bit left for food and to get the train to the airport. i set off for the office once again, early doors, trying to beat the rush. i got in, handed over the documents, trying to remain calm, and poof, it was over in a minute, painless, simple.
‘that’ll be $1200 please.’
‘huh? i thought $800…’
‘same day is 50% extra.’
‘…..yes. of course it is. of course it is…’
i handed over just about every dime i had.
then followed a 5km hike to find a money changer, usually omnipresent in HK but, charmingly, not by the Taiwan Cultural Office. and so here i sit, in the Habitu coffee shop down near the office, sipping the same coffee for the last 3 hours, waiting til 4pm when i will go pick up the beloved visa and then get on a bus to the aiport.
such, it seems, is life. or rather, my life. i really do not do things by halves.
at least i know that my nerves will stand up to punishment!
cannot wait to get back on the bike tomorrow, i am going to ride the crap out of it…
*highlights of the saga included seeing friends in Singapore and racing, obviously:
not getting avarian flu:
realising again i have some very lovely friends, many of whom offered help – one bit was advice to stay here with Charlie Chan!
and seeing this: