Spring Break, as the name implies, is a time for much needed R&R, a welcome respite from the marathon teaching weeks spanning mid-January through April. That being said, I decided to veer away from last year’s ten-flight itinerary and lean toward something a bit more stable and Zen. It was Chantelle who cemented my plans:
“What are you thinking of doing for Spring Break?” she asked one evening at the pub.
“Not sure. I’m debating Morocco to visit Annie, or China to visit Judson and Valiha.”
“Ooh, China. If you go there, I’ll come with you.”
China had never really been on my radar as a place I genuinely wanted to see. Apart from the Great Wall and…um, other parts of the Great Wall, it didn’t seem all that appealing to me. I don’t pretend to be ignorant of the hundreds of years of culture, the dynasties, Confucianism, Lao-Tsu, and Chairman Mao of more recent times; it’s just that none of this compelled me to book a flight to Beijing. What convinced me was the prospect of a traveling companion, someone to revel in the majestic architecture of the dwarfed hutongs and muse at the landscape that inspired The Good Earth.
Plus, China seemed to be all over the news lately: consistently poor air quality, the recent outbreak of H1N7, an earthquake, and the proximity to missile-happy North Korea all snagged China a headline or four on NPR’s main page, prompting me to pester Jennifer daily with several plausible scenarios all resulting in my death.
“What if I get lung cancer when I’m there?”
“What if there’s another earthquake?”
“There won’t be.”
“What if I get H1N7, and just as I’m about to fly back to Cairo, Beijing gets nuked by North Korea?”
“Don’t you read the news? They’re allies.”
What I really should have been concerned with was not the possibility of contracting a fatal flu a-la Peking duck, but something far more complex and worrisome: obtaining a tourism visa.
China, officially referred to as the People’s Republic of China, is not as lax as Egypt when it comes to admitting tourists or hell, anybody, across its borders. The Great Wall may have been erected centuries ago, but getting into China today can still be an ordeal – one that’s easily exacerbated if you’re trying to get a visa in a country that functions much like Oscar Madison.
I imagine Egypt’s policy on bureaucracy bears a strong resemblance to my treatment of grocery receipts and important phone numbers: stuff them in an empty cookie tin and promptly forget they are there. Any sort of endeavor involving paperwork quickly becomes a challenge here, augmented by numerous petty frustrations: line cutters, language barriers, misinformation.
I may have, with foolish optimism, expected a different course of events since we were dealing with the Chinese consulate, but Chantelle immediately crushed that fleeting hope when she returned from the consulate with news that it does not close at 2:30, as stated on the website, but at 12:30, as stated on the door.
“Technically it is open until 2:30,” she explained, “but not to the public.”
Hours of operation were the least of my worries; instead, I spent a harried two days on a frantic scavenger hunt through my apartment. Before dropping off my passport, I had to produce a variety of peculiar and official documents such as employment verification letters, copies of my work visa, and a bank statement in addition to the standard passport-sized photos and three-page visa application form and invitation.
Yes, invitation. One step in the visa process required a letter of invitation from someone living in China. That’s right. China is so popular that it has a strict, invite-only policy. While the rest of the world may, for the most part, cheerily interact as tolerant neighbors at a block party, China is that priggish house on the corner where the gate is securely locked and the lights are out, but every once in a while you notice someone peering out the curtain. (North Korea is the abandoned edifice with boarded up windows, whose inhabitants are convinced there is no block party going on at all, despite “Gangnam Style” on repeat and the empty Solo cups strewn about its lawn.)
When the consulate opened its doors two minutes past 8:30, I was practically giddy with efficiency. The small crowd pushed into a small waiting area with plastic chairs. Unlike the American Embassy – or the Egyptian consulate in Mohandiseen – , which are thronged with hundreds of people with hundreds of varying agendas, the Chinese consulate seemed to serve two purposes: processing work visas and returning passports. A quick glance revealed that most of the men who’d been waiting outside were here for the former purpose, so I – falsely – assumed I’d be called first.
As it turned out, for all its efficiency and good looks, the consulate was more of a Potempkin village than a genuine, organized embassy. An Egyptian man served as a liaison between our waiting area and what appeared to be a single employee hidden behind a closed door. Every twenty minutes, without receiving any sort of sign, he would signal to one of the men in the chairs that it was his turn to vanish behind the door and then we would all await his eventual exit.
Time dragged along and I kicked myself for lacking the foresight to bring a book, a crossword puzzle, or anything to pass the painful minutes in the consulate. Even a tax return would have been better than this.
Instead, I occupied my time observing the Egyptians in the group and how they occupied the tedious seconds. One man immediately switched on the air conditioning and set the temperature to tundra. Another man excitedly plugged in the metal detector. Now, it may seem counterproductive to switch on a metal detector after everyone has entered a room, but it’s technology and it’s there, and that’s what counts. I amused myself by watching my twenty restless cohorts repeatedly exit the room, hesitate on the street, and reenter. 45 times. Of the digital 45, only three were newcomers. Talk about fidgety.
What especially piqued my anger, though, was the fact that, despite having a purposeful number next to my name, I was passed over repeatedly. At first, I wasn’t entirely sure I’d been skipped, but when a woman was called in who had been one of the three people to enter after me, it took all I had not to boil over with rage. Instead, I rose and approached the Egyptian man and asked when I could go in. He motioned for me to wait. I glanced back at the waiting area and saw that there were only two people sitting there.
One thing I’ve learned while living in Egypt is to be assertive to the point of making someone uncomfortable. Personal space never seems to be an issue here, but if used with the right combination of crossed arms and slightly maniacal eyes, it usually works.
When I was finally admitted, I thought my troubles would be over, but alas. While Loraine had been assured that we could pay in cash, the woman bluntly informed me that only cards were accepted, and since I’d left both my credit cards at home, my only option was to get my driver to take me a few blocks away to the bank to deposit money into the consulate’s bank account.
Exasperated and feeling pressed against my tolerance limit, I exited the back room and stood seething back in the waiting room.
“You do not have enough money on your card?” asked a tall Egyptian man in a suit.
“No. I thought you could pay in cash.”
“You have a driver? I will tell you where the bank is. Here. I will write down bank account number.”
The man led me out of the consulate and waited with me for my driver so he could explain the process. Despite feeling ready to be institutionalized with anger, I felt it suddenly dissolve. Again, I found myself in a regrettably inconvenient situation, being rescued by someone I’d automatically presumed to be a perpetrator. (And perhaps he was one of the men who’d edged his way ahead of me at the consulate, but at least he was redeeming himself.)
When I returned, I made sure to hover uncomfortably close to the liaison, who wisely decided to let me through even after he warned me I’d be waiting for 5-10 minutes.
From the chilly comfort of the Dubai airport, my visa firmly adhered to a page in my passport, the entire situation seemed laughable. It seems a trivial thing to be so stressed about, but at the time, it epitomized all of the hassle I’ve grown to dislike about life in Egypt; sure, it teaches patience, but when I’m late for work and uncertain about whether or not I’ll have a visa in time for my trip, I don’t want to learn patience.
And while I may have reassured myself that the greatest hassle was behind me, I was soon to discover that this adventure was only the first echelon in a trip that was to follow in much the same fashion.
*Six is the combined number of times that Chantelle, Loraine, and I visited the Chinese consulate.