Friday, August 13, 2010

Finding Nemo: The Bureaucracy of Border Crossings

It was like a very, very bad dream-one where you want to yell at yourself to wake up.  After the third consecutive night of about 4-5 hours of sleep and too many days of pretending to fire on all cylinders, I watched the bus with my colleagues pull away to cross the border into Beirut for the next academy. We were all so tired and preoccupied that we forgot that I would need extra funds to cover the taxi ride, exit fee and visa at the border to return to Lebanon.  I tried not to focus on the fact that I was now stranded in Syria, alone, with no passport and limited funds thanks to my paranoia about carrying too much cash (I had left the majority of my emergency fund in Lebanon) or leaving too much in my travel bank account (both of which are still sound ideas).  After the staff at the hotel, myself and my colleagues had searched my room and all my bags three times, my passport was still absolutely nowhere to be found. 

Home Sweet Home: NY Stock Exchange
Luckily, I was in a capitol city-one with a U.S. Embassy and consulate with entry hours that ended in just 45 minutes.  After some frantic calls to our partners at the Embassy who called ahead to say I was coming, I ran to the consulate with every single electronic item you can think of that is not allowed into an Embassy (cell phone, Blackberry, laptop, camera, Kindle, microphone etc.) determined not to lose anything else that day. It took some time, but eventually the staff realized they were expecting me and I was admitted in and promptly relieved of all my stuff.  I walked into a room filled with Syrian nationals hopefully waiting for their visas to come to the U.S. Into the third run of "Finding Nemo" (the irony of feeling stranded like a fish out of water dependent on the kindness of strangers was not lost on me) and after rereading the version of Little House on the Prairie left in the waiting room, I finally had a new emergency passport. 

I would love to say that is was easy to get a new passport and resume travel. On the whole, it was relatively easy, albeit extremely humiliating. I would also like to say I handled it like a pro and was cool, calm, and collect throughout. But, everytime I got called into the booth with the local bureaucratic consular official who really was doing his very best, tears of fatigue and frustration would start streaming again because when you lose/have your passport stolen they pretty much treat you like a complete moron with no sympathy and in my case also like a dumb girl (even before the tears). At that point, I have to confess that the repatriation option was looking good even though I had already sent one of my bags to Lebanon.   

Currency Dilemmas
After much discussion of how much I needed to pay in Syrian livres to make up the difference from the $55 remaining USD in my wallet to purchase a new passport (now $135.00 as of July 13), I headed off to the Saudi bank down the street to get funds because (and this is very important) you can only pay in cash-no credit or debit allowed.  On return, I was then informed that they would only take one currency after three of us had had a 20-minute conversation breaking down the difference between the Syrian livres and USD I had on me. This was all calculated according to the US Embassy exchange rate which of course is the best for the dollar you will find in the region and can differ dramatically from what is accepted on the street. Although some ATMs in the region will hand out multiple currencies, the Saudi bank they sent me to didn't hand out dollars. 

A big thank you to Karen, the American consulate FSO, that stepped in between myself and the bureaucrat, who at this point saved the situation by changing money out of her own pocket (a thousand times better than the alternative suggested by the bureaucrat which was go into the room of rapidly diminishing hopefuls and play let's negotiate an exchange rate).  I then, finally, received an emergency passport.  Basically, it is good for a certain period of time (in my case one year) to get you home and then you can turn it in for a real one that expires in 10 years.  

The ever important exit and entry stamps
On the way out (five minutes before they closed for the day), I thanked them for their help, and asked about next steps and the "what if" of having the passport appear at the hotel since they were still looking.  We agreed that it would be best if I did find the old passport because it had  both my Syrian and Lebanese visas and the entry and exit stamps.  With the new emergency passport, to get out I would have to make a report at the hotel, a report at the police station and then a visit to immigration/internal affairs to get a special exit stamp before heading to the border.  A daunting process in itself and I should mention I don't speak Arabic well enough to navigate this kind of bureaucracy.

Back at the hotel, things got better. The high speed Internet was working and my Dad (a long time personal hero) initiated a cash infusion into my travel account just in case I had to stay for an additional week. The hotel staff continued to help me try and find the lost passport and offered me lunch. 5 different members of the staff at Fardoss Towers who had been so good to us the past week came up and offered kind words.  Our local project manager and a contact at the Ministry of Culture met me at the hotel to facilitate the process of getting an exit stamp.  After a strange visit to immigration/internal affairs (picture really dirty floor and walls, lots of guys sitting around in military uniforms, and a computer that looked like it was operating on the DOS system) we learned that we had missed the guy with the paper to take to the police station by 5 minutes or so when he left for the day at 3 pm. Yes, 3 pm.

Back at the hotel, the three of us got ready to tear apart the room and all my luggage one last time so that I could perhaps avoid staying in Syria for another four days or so since I really was needed in Lebanon.  And, thank God, now 7.5 hours later, we found the original passport at the bottom of a bag that 4 people (myself, two colleagues and a hotel employee) had thoroughly checked and emptied out that morning.  Knowing that the process of cancellation had been initiated for the passport, we immediately took off for the border taxi stand so I could make it across asap. 

Our local project manager, jazz talent Amr Hammour-now another one of my personal heroes, made sure I got a good taxi and had enough in livres to make the border crossing.  As we left, one of the daughters of the middle-aged woman also making the trip asked me to watch over her mom which I did my best to do. On the ride to Lebanon, totally exhausted at this point, my fellow passengers were so kind and not one complained about the extra 30 minutes it took for me to get the transit visa.   They tried to feed and water me, in broken English kept asking if I was ok, and the Mom sincerely said as she got out "I will miss you."  The European, Australian and Canadian members of a tour group that had witnessed the drama that morning were also at the border crossing and were extremely kind when they recognized me (although as my mother's daughter I was very embarrassed).  All of these gestures are typical of the amazing kindness and hospitality that as a Southern girl I was brought up with and find prevalent far from home (as did Nemo) but see more rarely in the U.S. these days. 

Standing in the customs line at Newark, I fully expected to be pulled out to do a full entry interview when I presented my emergency passport. And I was, but they were very courteous and Homeland Security processed the emergency passport, commended me for reporting it lost so quickly so that it couldn't be used for terrorism, and then sent me on my way in less than 10 minutes. Again, I am sure the note that all my travel was U.S. Embassy sponsored helped.

Threshold from the Covered Souq to the Old City
So lessons learned: Don't lose your passport! Have a considerable emergency cash fund available (I suggest $1000) in case you have to stay a few extra days and a family member or friend that can easily be accessed to put more money in your travel account or wire money in emergency situations. Without the help of our local and official partners (US Embassy and Syrian Ministry of Culture), it would have been far, far worse. As an independent tourist, the process would have taken an inestimable amount of time. That said, despite everything, there are options as an American to always get home which I find very comforting. However, I do recommend a policy change of being able to pay via debit or credit card!

So Syria, I will be back, hopefully for YES Academy 2011; better prepared for emergencies and with a new passport ready to be stamped because Damascus is a beautiful, ancient city full of life that I only scratched the surface of. Despite the drama of that day, I recommend it as a place truly worthy of visiting for at least a week; just don't lose your passport!

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