Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran
Recap, for those who missed “The Adventures of the Missing Passport (Part I)”: Long awaited trip out of D.C., land in Cancun, too excited to catch up with best friend, passport goes MIA. That about covers it! (Click here for the entire story.)
The perfect English, with a slight Spanish accent, “Passports for check-in, please” rumbling around my head, I dug through my backpack, knowing I didn’t have my passport. I keep it in one place- the top pocket of my trusty and well-traveled Jansport backpack, a pocket seemingly made in size and shape to house my passport when I am on the road. One quick glance told me it was not there. I went through the motions of digging through the other pockets of my backpack, my jeans, my suitcase, but all along I knew the effort was futile. It is wasn’t in the passport pocket. I didn’t have it.
As Thad continued to check us in and get the rundown on the pools, the always open buffets, the constant flow of beverages (adult and otherwise), and the tourism options in the area, I started making calls. You don’t work on the Foreign Service payroll for five years and not make a connection or two around the globe. I reached out to a good friend from KL (she was my boss, as the acting Consul General in Kuala Lumpur when I was working there, but bosses and friends are often overlapping on the Venn diagram of Foreign Service relationships). She is currently posted in Mexico City, so I thought she might be able to let me in on who was the American Citizen Services chief in Merida, the closest consulate. My hope was that the ACS in Merida would have good connections at the airport to see if my passport turned up there. She sent me the name of the ACS chief and I couldn’t be more surprised to recognize it instantly, but not from Foreign Service connections. As it turns out, the current ACS chief in Merida was our trainer for Peace Corps China ten years ago. I reached out to a friend from Malaysia who put me in touch with a guy she worked with in Cuba who we happen to have known from China, all to try to recover my passport in Mexico. Yup, that’s the crazy small world we live in!
This story is very long and I am going to try to edit it down for everyone’s sake, but suffice it to say that the ACS chief promised to reach out and see what could be found at the Cancun airport. With the next day being Martin Luther King Jr. Day, nothing more would be done anyway, so we made plans to take the ferry to Cozumel the next morning and called it a night, three out of four of us carrying documents that allowed us to be in the country legally.
Monday rolled around and out to Cozumel we went, enjoying the sunshine, blue skies, and clear water. We did our thing out there, tried our best to ignore the people offering to rent us Jeeps, show us their tequila shops, and sign us up for every possible snorkeling and SCUBA-ing trip available. We gawked at the absolutely massive cruise ship in the harbor (that thing had waterslides on it!) and laughed at the 50++ crowd having a little too much fun at Senor Frog’s at lunchtime. Overall, not a bad way to spend our first full day south of the border. On the ferry ride back to the mainland, I got an email from the ACS team in Merida saying that the Cancun airport DID have my passport and that I should go out and get it. YES!! I could not have been more excited (and surprised) by this development. While part of me was hoping that it had been pickpocketed (taking a bit of the responsibility off of me for the missing passport), I was mostly happy to hear it had turned up and I’d have it back in my possession before dinnertime. High fives and a small happy dance ensued.
As the rest of the crew headed off to an afternoon of lounging by the pool, I hopped in a cab to the airport to go retrieve my passport. It’s about an hour each way from Playa del Carmen to the Cancun International Airport, so not a cheap taxi ride, but worth it to have my stuff back. With the email directions of how to get to customs to get my passport pulled up on my phone, I had to finagle my way through a variety of guards and “helpful” standersby to finally get to the glass doors that mark the customs areas, where my passport was being held. (Thank you college Spanish!) As I reached the last line of defense before the customs officials, the woman said to me, “But you aren’t a man…” in a perplexed tone. I dutifully explained that she must mean Michael, as that is the male form of Michelle and can be an easy mistake to make. She looked at me doubtfully, told me to stay put, and sauntered through the doors to the room I was sure held my beloved passport. After a bit, she came back, said nothing to me, but held the passport up, biodata page facing out.
Yup. That was a dude. Not me.
Apparently, one Mitchell Ross Fillmore (surname changed to protect the innocent) also lost his passport at the Cancun International Airport. Are you kidding me?! (There may have been an extra word between “you” and “kidding,” but I’ll leave that possibility to your imagination.)
The airport did have an American passport, but it was for Mitchell Ross Fillmore. Not me.
Downcast and disheartened does not begin to explain my state of mind. (Even in this moment though, I had to appreciate the humor in the situation. Stupid Mitchell Ross Fillmore. I hate you!)
I spent another hour and a half at the airport while they “searched” a variety of lost and found places, although I don’t get the feeling they were actually doing much behind the scenes. Frustrated and tired, I finally headed back to Playa in the early evening, figuring nothing else was going to happen at the airport and that I would check back in with the consulate in the morning.
After some dinner and time with my feet in the sand, a bit of internet research told me that there was a consular agent in Playa del Carmen, which would save me having to make the drive to Merida to get a new passport. I would still need to get an emergency passport (EPDP for those in consular circles) before I could leave the country, but I could do it all in a few hours rather than making an entire day of it.
9AM sharp on Tuesday morning, I called the consular agency in Playa and asked about getting an appointment for an EPDP. Once they got over the shock of me asking for the service by the consular name, they told me I was welcome to come in any time before 11AM, so I quickly hopped in a cab and headed down to their conveniently located offices. Once there, I filled out the forms and then had to run the necessary errands that go along with a getting an emergency passport overnighted in Mexico. First it was to the bank to pay the overnight shipping fee and collect the receipt to present to the agent and then it was to the photo studio for passport sized photos, ones that the shop helpfully photoshopped to make me even whiter than I already am! (Thad stood on a corner while I worked on the photos, enjoying a banana milkshake that he’d ordered himself from a street side bodega, taxing his Spanish skills to the max, but making it all the more rewarding to sip.) Back at the agency, I swore the passport oath (I felt like I should give it to myself, I did it so many times in Kuala Lumpur) and then headed back to the resort to enjoy the rest of our vacation, knowing that the awesome agency team in Playa del Carmen and the ACS team in Merida had my back. (‘Merica!)
We spent the rest of the week touring archeological ruins, swimming through caves, bobbing in the ocean and eating way too much, but it was nice to know that the American consular section was able to take care of me quickly and efficiently. (Still, damn you Mitchell Ross Fillmore!)
To wrap up the missing passport saga, I had to get an immigration stamp in my new passport that would allow me to leave Mexico. (Not really wanting to leave Mexico, I thought about using the missing stamp as an excuse to move to Playa indefinitely, but alas, it seems I must return to a job and life on the northern side of the planned wall.) I stood line to meet with La Migra in Mexico, paid in USD cash (the only option!) for a small green stamp and then it was time to say goodbye to the January sun and sand.
The question remains though, how did I know I left my passport at the airport and am to blame for this whole mess when it was Mitchell Ross Fillmore’s passport at customs and not my own? Why not let myself off the hook and tell the story as if I had been pickpocketed, something I would have less control and therefore less blame for happening? Well, once I was re-ensconced in my D.C. cubicle, I sent a quick thank you note to that ACS chief in Merida, wanting to let him know I appreciated the help of his entire team. It didn’t take long before I heard back from him saying that as it turns out, the Cancun Airport DID find my passport and send it to the American consulate in Merida. (What!?! Ugh!!!) If it had been pickpocketed, it would not have turned up, which means it was my own dumb fault for leaving it on the counter at customs. I can’t even blame Mitchell Ross Fillmore for this one. (Although, I do now blame him for many things around the house. If the trash is overflowing, I yell at Mitchell Ross Fillmore about it. If the peanut butter cookies are a bit overcooked, I blame Mitchell Ross Fillmore for it. And if I can’t find a paper I am looking for or I screw up typing a book review, it is totally Mitchell Ross Fillmore who takes the fall. Pretty much from now until forever, Mitchell Ross Fillmore is my go-to scapegoat.)
Now, back in D.C., I’ve turned in my EPDP and am awaiting my full validity passport (one with a non-photoshopped biodata page) and have taken a few steps to up my organizational game. I am now the owner of an passport/document organizer that will make its maiden voyage with me to Johannesburg in a few short weeks and you can bet I’ll be a bit more careful when filling out my next customs form. No plants, livestock, narcotics or bricks of cash for this traveler!
“Passports for check-in, please.” These were the words, spoken in perfect English with just a hint of Spanish accent that made me question the very heart of who I am as a traveler. As my fellow travelers slapped theirs onto the counter, still sipping their brightly colored, fruit-on-a-toothpick laden welcome drinks, my heart stopped. In that instant, I knew my no longer shiny, a bit ragged on the corners passport was missing. At nine years old, it had visas and stamps from all over the world (okay, mostly, but not entirely the Asian part of the world), it had a photo of me ten pounds lighter and no gray hair peeking through the strategically placed blonde highlights, but in that moment, most importantly, it had my Mexican immigration stamp- the one that allowed me to be in the country and the one that would, theoretically, let me out of the country a week later.
But you see, I am an organized traveler. I pride myself on my plastic folder of pre-arrival airline ticket check-ins, hotel reservation printouts, pre-booked shuttle vouchers, and a highlighted schedule of when and where we need to be for various activities. I’ve got this! My Peace Corps era backpack is never without the travel essentials (pen for filling out immigration forms, aspirin for those long-distance flight headaches, Twizzlers for after the less-than-filling mid-flight meals, various hygiene products including but not limited to disposable wipes, toothbrush/paste, and all things from the feminine aisle.) And yet, here I was, attempting to check in to a lovely resort in Playa del Carmen, sans passport.
That does seem to be the question of the day. I would like to blame it on a pickpocket at the airport, a story which I believed to be true for some time (more on that later), and one that would ease my bruised organizational pride, but in the end, I do believe the fault lies solely and painfully in my court
Here’s how it happened (along with my excuses for each step in the road to the missing passport):
- Too happy to be on the road again: We’ve been pretty landlocked in D.C. since arriving in August. Between starting new jobs, finding a place to live, organizing the belongings of a 2000++ square foot house in Idaho into a 700-square foot apartment in the city, and resettling Stateside for a two-year stint, we’ve not wandered far beyond the suburbs of Virginia, and that was only for a few dinners with friends and a trip or two to the mall. (The mall has Taco Bell. That is how I get Thad to join me.) For the last handful of years, we’ve never gone four or five months in the same country, let alone the same city. I was itching like crazy to go somewhere new, so when my best friend planned a trip to the beach in Mexico and invited us, we couldn’t say yes fast enough!
- Too excited to see my best friend after 14 months: For the first six years of our middle school teaching careers, we were joined at the hip. We carpooled together, we planned cross-circular lessons together (science and literature overlap in awesome ways, just try to convince 8th graders of it!), we spent a lot of time at Idaho Education Association activities together, we got together for hat-night poker parties on the weekend, and we talked- constantly. But, as life does, it moved us both in directions we never would have anticipated that first day of our teaching careers, sitting across from each other on the hard benches of the district cafeteria, definitely feeling like the new kids on the block (first year teaching does feel a bit like you are “Hangin’ Tough”). I joined Peace Corps and moved to China for two years. While I was gone, she moved school districts. I came back to our original district; she got engaged and then married. Thad joined the Foreign Service and we moved as the needs of the service dictated; she went to nursing school, became an amazing trauma nurse and joined the ranks of traveling nurses, crisscrossing the US to work in understaffed ERs around the country. Now, we don’t see each other nearly as much as we used to. All of that to say, I was beyond thrilled at the chance to spend a week together, gabbing and gossiping, quietly judging our fellow resort-goers in a way that our husbands just don’t do. This excitement may have led to a lessening of my normal organization and travel awareness.
- Too fast of form filling out: In the end, I do believe this was my ultimate downfall. I made it through immigration fine- forms fine, passport fine, smile and be nice to the border guard. All fine. Next up was the line for customs. On the plane, I filled out this one-per-family form, stuck it with my passport and didn’t think about it again, going right back to my audiobook. (I was listening to The Lost City of the Monkey God, which is a fantastic non-fiction story about the uncovering of archeological ruins in Honduras. It is topping my list of favorite books for 2017 right now. I highly recommend it!) Somehow, in my form filling, I didn’t read the directions clearly and all of the boxes that I should have checked “no” on, I checked “yes.” Needless to say, when we got through the massive line at customs, the official was not impressed that I declared that yes, we did have fresh produce and vegetable matter with us, that yes, we had been in close proximity to livestock recently, that yes, we did have large amounts of prescription medication on us and yes, we were carrying more than $10,000 in cash. With absolutely no humor in his voice, he sent us across the room to a table with blank cards and made me redo our form. The table. That is where my troubles began. I am 99% certain this is where I lost my passport. I think I must have set it down on the counter to fill out the new form attesting that no, I did not bring diseased food products with me, I did not have sheep and goats in my apartment, I did not plan to sell RX narcotics, and I did not have bricks of cash in my carryon. Frustrated and annoyed at myself about the original form, I was off my game. I hurriedly redid the from and skittered back into line, probably (highly likely) leaving my passport in its adorable cartoon owl cover with its nearly decade of rainbow of visas and stamps sitting on the counter.
The next two hours flew by as we tried to meet up with our friends, who it turns out had landed at a different international terminal at the Cancun airport. After a relay of calls back and forth, descriptions of outfits (“Me? Pink hoodie and blue jeans. You?”), surroundings (“I’m at AirMargaritaville, where are you?”), and the shuttle (“Look for a white van.”- this one being ridiculous as every shuttle between Cancun and Playa del Carmen is a white van), we finally found each other, hopped in and spent an hour car ride catching up on the last fourteen months since we had seen each other.
The next thing I knew, it was, “Passports for check-in, please” and a realization that in that frazzled moment at the Cancun airport, I betrayed years of international travel organization. I was an undocumented traveler in Mexico.
(Stay tuned for part II of the saga of the missing passport and our Mexican adventures.)