Confessions of an immigration detainee

01:23, Oct 05 2010

Whilst travelling in foreign countries, any number of calamities might befall the unwary wanderer - third-degree sunburn, a virulent case of "Delhi belly", pickpockets - but surely the most calamitous of all must be to lose your passport.  Yes folks, when I cock up, I cock up muy, muy grande.

My tale of woe (for that is what this is - not so much a comedy of errors as a tragicomedy of errors) begins at 4am, London time on Saturday.  This is what time Betsy and I have to get up in order to make an early train, to make a 7.35am flight from London Gatwick to Madrid, where we will spend several happy sangria-soaked days buying shoes (los zapatos!) and celebrating the 40th birthday of our good friend Fringa and her sister Fringa-twin (plus spouse and various children and a third friend Navigator-Jane - so called for her unerring sense of direction of which I am very much in awe).  Despite being tired and not having paid very much attention to my grooming (minimal makeup, hair scraped back into a ponytail), we successfully make the train, catch up with the rest of our party, check in and get on the plane.

EasyJet, with whom we are flying, have their cheapest tickets for folk who are travelling with only carry-on.  Because of this they operate a fairly strict "one piece of carry-on only" rule which doesn't even allow for small purses or laptop bags. For this reason, I have to carry my passport, graphic novel, magazine and hoodie in my hands on and off the plane.  Well, at least I managed the first part.

Now, you might think if a person dropped their passport on the plane they're disembarking and discover this fact not five minutes later as they approach passport control, that it would be a fairly simple matter to have somebody on aforementioned plane look for it, find it, and get it back to her so that she doesn't have to endure a Kafka-esque nightmare of bureaucracy, dirty hair and bad food, wouldn't you?  I know I did.  I now know better now.  But back to the nightmare.

So, basically I don't have a passport.  I can't enter the country without one and EasyJet claim that they can't find it on the plane.  The hallways and air-bridge between the plane and the foyer leading to passport control are checked but no dice.  Apparently mine is the Harry Houdini of passports and possesses the ability to disappear into thin air, but that's okay because surely someone at my embassy will be able to do something for me? Surely some emergency documentation can be produced so that I can enter Spain?  Again, not so much.  After many a frantic phone call (and by the way, if you're ever in a similar situation I guarantee you will be dismayed at how many "after hours emergency" numbers go straight to voicemail) it is determined that an emergency passport takes three working days to make.  It's a Saturday.  I'm pretty much screwed.

An official comes and tells me that I have to go with her.  At this point I haven't actually been able to speak to a New Zealand diplomatic official who can tell me what will happen to me. I am reluctant to leave my friends and go alone with Spanish immigration in case I disappear into a bureaucratic black hole and am never heard from again.  Also, the one immigration official who speaks English only does so to a fairly basic level and my Spanish is practically non-existent.  What will become of me?  Fortunately the official in question is okay with me staying where I am for the time being and continuing to play my merry game of phone tag with various consulate and embassy people. 


Though I've described this part of the process in a couple of paragraphs, in reality this all took several hours.  We arrived in Madrid about 11am but I don't finally submit myself to the care of Spanish Immigration until 2 or 3 in the afternoon, by which time I've had several small and restrained bouts of crying, sent Fringa's teenage daughter Cookie off to the other side of the room because her "this is just like the time I lost $20 at school..." story failed to resonate with me, chewed on my thumbnail quite a lot, and paced the polished marble of the foyer floor quite a bit, and accidentally gone into the men's loos when I meant to go to the ladies'. 

Eventually, I come to accept that my current situation is not "fixable".  They are going to send me back to London. There will be no sangria.  There will be no acquisition of Spanish shoes.  As disappointing as that is, I find that I'm okay with it.  What I am worried about is what happens when I turn up back at London Gatwick with no passport.  The possibility that I'll be sent back to New Zealand from there and be subjected to 24 hours' worth of flying on top of what I've already been through today is a kind of torture I can't begin to contemplate.

Anyway, after being furnished with Navigator-Jane's cellphone sim card (mine doesn't seem to work in Spain) plus a whole page of phone numbers to various agencies and friends, plus some Euros, we make our farewells and I go off with the "policia".

I'm taken upstairs to an office area where I give the policeman (who has a little English) my details. He informs me that I will be sent back to Londres (London) at 7.15 that evening.  It's a while to wait but I should be back in London before 10pm so it's not so bad, I suppose.  I'm also told that in a couple of hours I'll have an "interview" with a Spanish lawyer, and an English interpreter will be provided for me.  I feel quite relieved about that.  I've never had a lawyer before but I definitely want one now.  And one I can communicate with would be pretty swell.

From there I am taken up a few more floors and two security staff open my bag and go through it item by item.  They remove anything electrical (my cellphone, camera, laptop), anything mildly pointy (this includeds pens and badges) and anything liquid (shampoo, facewash, my contact lens kit).  My makeup bag is removed wholesale containing such potentially dangerous items as my hairbrush and eyeshadow.  All this is put in a plastic bin bag and labelled with my name and left in a secure room.  I'm also given a pat-down by the female guard. She gives rather more attention to my boobs than I'm comfortable with but then I'm not really keen on having them touched at all by anyone who isn't a very attractive man who's just bought me dinner so I just pout and bear it.  Let's put it this way, things could be a lot worse.  I had a frightened moment when I saw them don plastic gloves only to be relieved to see that they were for use when going through my things, not that they're going to be used on me.

Has anyone else seen that Midnight Express movie?  I'm having notions at this point. Rather bad ones.

From there I'm taken to a long room set up with some cafe tables and those white plastic chairs that you can get at The Warehouse and I'm given a tray of food.  It's fried chicken and chips, plus beans with bacon bits, and some salad.  It's okay but the bread roll that comes with it has seen better days, like maybe two days ago, and I think it should potentially join my hairbrush in the "bin-bag of things removed for security reasons". There's also a peach, which I save for later.  My tummy by this stage is all bound up in knots but I eat pretty much all of it because I'm not sure when I might get to eat again.  I am no longer in control of such things.

There are about eight to 10 other people eating.  They're all swarthy and Hispanic looking.  I am instantly recalling every movie I have ever seen where some hapless middle-class schmo ends up in the slammer with a bunch of toughs and gets done over.  About 2 seconds later I remember that I'm in Spain (though not technically) so actually the church fundraising bake-sale looks "swarthy and Hispanic".  I tell myself off for being racist but don't spend too much time punishing myself because, quite frankly, I'm a bit freaked out just now.

Everybody else here speaks Spanish of various kinds. They are from Venezuela, Brazil, Paraguay, Ecuador.  Nobody speaks English so I can't really talk to anyone.  A guy who introduces himself as "Hoonier" (which I twig about five hours later is probably "Junior") asks, by indicating that he is from Brazil, where I am from.  I respond with "Nueva Zelanda" but this is met with a lot of blank stares.  I panic and randomly mention hobbits, which unsurprisingly doesn't help much, before mentioning Australia.  Everybody knows where Australia is. So now I am Australian. Usually being mistaken for an Australian would bug me a lot but in the scheme of how my day is going it really doesn't rate too highly.  I have bigger things to worry about.

A twentysomething woman with a nose-ring comes in and calls my name and thankfully she speaks enough English for us to have a conversation.  She's a social worker and offers to call the New Zealand embassy for me (though I already have) and gets me a phonecard so I can use the payphones to make some calls.  She seems nice and her name is something that sounds like "Nuelia". Afterwards I kill time reading my graphic novel (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and trying not to think too much about the sticky wicket I've found myself in.  At 5pm my name is called again and I go and have my meeting with my lawyer... which doesn't go well.

The lawyer I've been assigned is named Silvia Diaz and she is stunning.  Seriously, she's gorgeous.  She's got this amazing coffee-coloured skin and green eyes and boobs so amazing I find myself wondering if they might be paid for.  Even as I'm wondering this I realise it's totally inappropriate given my situation but in my defence I don't have to worry about listening to what she's saying since it's in Spanish.  I need to listen to what the interpreter, who looks like a sandy-haired Janet Frame, says.  Despite the interpreter translating everything, I'm not entirely sure what's going on and I sign about five different papers (picking up a new Spanish vocabulary item in the process - "aqui", which means "here" as in sign "aqui, aqui, aqui") before I'm told that because of the bureaucratic processes that need to be followed, I won't be sent back to London until tomorrow at 10.  Which means that I need to stay overnight in the immigration holding facility.  At which point I allow myself the luxury of some more crying, but just a small amount.  I really, really, really don't want to stay in this strange place alone but among people who don't understand me.  But apparently there is no way I will be sent back the same day so I'm just going to have to suck it up.

I accept. I acquiesce. I cooperate. Ten years of working in local and central government have taught me that the bureaucratic wheels will turn at the speed at which they will.  They will not be sped by me having a tanty.  This would be a complete waste of my somewhat depleted energy.

I'm fairly miserable for a bit after that.  My guts are giving me some grief and when I look in the mirror on one of my now frequent toilet visits the view is not a pretty one.  My minimal makeup has been fully cried off, I have massive black circles under my eyes and my eyes themselves are more bloodshot than I have ever seen them.  

Back in "the waiting room from Hell" there's a TV in one corner and I watch for a bit even though everything is in Spanish.  I like the ads since I get to hear the dubbed voices they have for TV shows and actors I recognise.  The Spanish voice for Julianna Margulies of The Good Wife is very close to what she sounds like.  Even though I'm really tired and a bit unhappy, I still manage to be amused by the montage of "Denny Cren!" exclamations during the promo for Boston Legale and in a bizarre turn of events I love the trailer for Cartas a Julieta (Letters to Juliet) because it's accompanied by a pop song that's in English and the sound of words I actually understand is lovely.  That song is Love Story by Taylor Swift.  Yes, incarceration has made me want to listen to Taylor Swift.  Well, if it can make Paris Hilton read the Bible, truly anything is possible... and I am living proof.

I wait until it's late enough that my mum will be awake before I call her to let her know what's going on.  It's amazing to talk to another English speaker. Junior, who is at the next payphone, looks at me in a surprised kind of way because up until that point he might reasonably have assumed that I was a near mute.  I've spoken very little and been very quiet and withdrawn but suddenly I'm speaking in a very animated way.  I also get a hold of my London friend, Sean, who speaks some Spanish, and he offers to vouch for me if I have any problem getting back into England, bless him. Later on I also get a call from an official in Wellington who sounds appalled that I've been there for 13 hours because I dropped my passport on the plane. She actually sounds genuinely concerned...which is nice.  I retire to bed but Junior comes to let me know that there's someone speaking English on the "telefono" which presumably means it's for me.  I take a call from a New Zealand consulate officer in London who confirms that my passport has been found on the plane and is now with immigration staff at London Gatwick.  I will definitely be able to get back into the UK.  This is great news, though slightly tempered by the fury that I feel knowing that my passport was on the plane the whole time and that this whole "being banged up at the airport" thing could so easily have been avoided.

But at least once I get up in the morning it won't be long until I'm on a plane and I'll be back in London.  It's not home but at least there are people there who know me and don't need me to have a passport to verify my identity.  It's the homeward stretch.

Or, at least, that's what I thought.  Unfortunately, that wasn't quite the case...

I'll continue with Day two of my experience as an immigration detainee tomorrow. For now, I'm off to bed.  Feel free to share any similar experiences you may have had below.