As a teacher, I have come to understand that everyone learns in different ways. For example, some people are theoretical and learn best from reading and synthesizing information, others are practical and learn best from the physical action of doing … I, as it turns out, fall into the latter category and am very much a ‘learn by doing’ type of person. A character trait that has provided, over the years, many situations that ‘in hindsight’ could have worked out better, differently or been avoided altogether.
One such situation has been my maiden voyage to America. I set off with such vigor and excitement. I had packed and unpacked and then repacked and triple checked my packing just one more time. I was so nervous about US customs, that I had gained my ESTA about two months ago, I had made sure there was NOTHING in any of bags that could cause suspicion, I had memorized all my details about accommodation while in America, I had organised all my money (not all in one account just to be safe and some USD just in case), I had sorted my budget for the time I was away and just to be sure I had printed actual copies of all my documentation. I was ready to leave and I was so well prepared … I was going to have no problem.
9 hours later I disembark in Hawaii and am now face to face with the customs agent. I can literally hear my heart beating and my hands are shaking … I don’t know what it is but whenever I am face to face with an authority figure I get so nervous my words come out muddled and I blurt out my whole life story. I would be a terrible criminal … Next thing I know I find myself held up in the detention center, possibly getting sent back New Zealand on the next flight! My worst nightmare has come to fruition.
What was the issue?? Well, aside from getting mixed up about the duration of my time in America and the disbelief that I had been granted so much leave from my place of work. I had also failed to book a flight out of the country. This naturally sparked questions about my intentions to actually leave the country and the validity of my life back in New Zealand that I wished to eventually return to. You see, I had a plan and it was a good plan! Until it wasn’t a good plan at all and in hindsight should not have been the plan.
The plan was simple, Damian and I were going to do a little travel at the end of his contract and we were unsure which international port we would end up closest to. It all depended on the money we had left by that time and what we were able to accomplish doing while he was working. So we would book our exit flights once we were more certain of our travel plans, something that we thought would be a whole lot more clear once I got to America, we were both together and knew more about the situation over there. I stupidly assumed that it would be sufficient enough to be able to prove that I had enough easily accessible money to be able to book an exit flight. Turns out customs thought that was stupid as well.
Lucky for me it is clear to anyone that I have zero ability to lie, I just can’t do it, the customs officers must have realised this at some point as well because three hours of negotiations, trawling through my paperwork, showing photos of Phillip and a little bit of crying I managed to convince them that I was 100% intending to leave the country, that I do in fact really love my life back home and it was just a really stupid oversight/misinterpretation.
My next issue came in the form of booking an exit ticket so I would be allowed through the gate. The detention center had no WIFI connection or cell service and phones were not permitted to be used on the premises, so I was unable to just quickly hop online and book a flight. What seemed like a problem that had such a simple solution, it was near impossible to rectify even in this modern day. I managed to find one part of the room that received cell service but the signal was not strong or consistent enough to be able to use a booking service. This is it I thought … I am going back to New Zealand.
To my surprise my savior came in the form of a customs agent, she took me to her computer and together we quickly booked a flight out of the states. When the booking didn’t work and I had to ring the company to confirm my details, she let me use her phone to call out. She then helped me find my bag and walked me through the airport to make sure I knew where to drop my bag at the domestic terminal. As I was apologizing profusely to her for wasting her time and feeling like an idiot, she stopped and looked at me and said ‘forget it now, stupid things happen and there are far worse things that you could have done. I am just glad I didn’t have to refuse you entry for something so silly and I am sure you will never do this again’. I hugged her and cried.
It took half of my 9hour flight to New York for the shock to die down and the realization of what had just happened to hit me. I was almost deported back to New Zealand!! But there I was, still alive and well, about to land in New York and then catching a flight on to Boston … my trip rolled on.
In hindsight, I should have booked an exit flight BEFORE I left the country and in all future trips I will endeavor to do so. Lesson one – check. But also in hindsight, I should have not been so quick to assume that all ‘horror’ stories of American Customs are true. They were not the ‘bad guys’ of this situation at all. At the end of the day, I mucked up, I made a stupid mistake and I was in the wrong. They had a job to do and they did it very effectively. But they were willing to listen, to investigate and then to help me to fix the problem when they didn’t particularly need to. They were kind and compassionate. So, I guess there are good people in all corners of the world, in all walks of life, in all places you wouldn’t expect to find them. People who genuinely want to help and for things to work out with the best possible solution. I am very grateful to have come across one of these people and I am extremely grateful for what she did for me. However, I don’t particularly want to repeat the experience in a hurry or meet any further customs agents (as nice as I am sure they are). Lesson two – check.