Day of Reckoning. Stolen Identity.

11 Dec

No sleep. Maybe 2 hours. I wake at 4 AM. Need to repack for prison or kayaking. Either way, there is a full hour of sorting, folding, tossing before I kick off today’s festivities at 7:45 am.

The hotel lobby greets me around 6:30 AM. I’m back on the phone with the ATM folks at USAA. It’s 5:30 pm Central Standard Time. The real people are working. Real meaning NO night answering morons telling me my ATM card will be in my hands in 15+ days. I go through it again with New ATM gal. She puts me on hold forever and ever. I took it as a good signs. She’s either asking questions or going on a cig break. Either way, she’s meeting my expectations. She’s doing something.

For whatever reason, I keep reminding these ATM gals they are working for an international, military bank. It’s like I want them to take ownership in their brand promise. It seems to have zero impact.

New ATM gal looks into other rush options and it seems like night ATM gal was right. We’re talking about ATM in hand in 4 to 5 business days via FedEx, no guarantees. My heart says – there is a faster way. But, I’m in Hanoi. In a lobby with poor internet connection. Without an identity. So, not much I can do right about now. Release it. Purge the I’m in control monster.

An email pops up from Dad. It’s the secret code needed for Western Union. God willing, Benjamen Franklin and I will be celebrating a la rice wine tonight. But, I must prove my identity to get the money. Government issued ID, which leads me to the US Consulate’s office in Hanoi. This whole day hinges on an emergency passport. The worst part is to get me out of the country, hinges on a communist immigration bureaucracy.

Hello, anxiety? I pray – “God, help me let it go. Protect me. Keep me safe. Send me your top travel angels. Allow me to give this day to you – be gracious, humble and thankful…Thankful I’m NOT in Russia…”

And, then she appeared. My pint-sized travel angel. Quite frankly, I’m not feeling all that confident. What is it about size, clothes, and, overall, first impressions that can set you in a tailspin.

She walked over to me wearing a big smile and introduced herself as “Ha.” I asked her, “Like in HA?” She said yes. I hear myself saying… “ha..ha…ha…This is soooo NOT funny…Please, God…we’re not doing funny today…”

Ha is about four-foot eleven. Sporting jeans, with colored rhinestones spelling the word BeBe. Her little purple polished toes are squished into black, open toe flats. It’s chilly out – like 75 degrees – so she’s bundled up thick glow-in-the-dark blue sweater. Her black hair is slicked back into a tight pony tail, making her look like 16 instead of 22. She’s wearing no visible signs of makeup. Has a few acne scars. And, her mouth carries too many teeth for her small mouth.

She tells me she’s the office receptionist. REALLY? The office recptionsit? Ha…Ha…Ha… Yea, this is getting funnier by the second…

We sit down for she comes up to my arm pit. She describes, in broken English, our game plan for the day. I just listen. Control my breathing. And, take in this little person who is going to find me an idenity and an exit out of V-nam all in ONE day.

Ha: “Get taxi. Go to US consulate. You get passport.  By taxi, go to police to get stamp. Office manager take you to police. She know people. By taxi, we take police stamp and passport to immigration to get Visa…ok…ok…You call US consulate now. Tell you’re coming…ok?”

Me: “Ok?”

I’m trying so hard not to overwhelm her or me. I have so many questions. I quickly determine which questions to ask now and then pepper her with in the taxi on the way to US Consulate. Because, this is NOT that easy – way tooooo many variables. And, I need to calculate and debate. Role play scenarios. Do a decision tree analysis. Game theory…. Just can’t walk into this blindly, can I? Is it possible for me to let go control of these three ginormous “to do” items without questioning, understanding and over analyzing? Inhale. I look at her. My God, I don’t have a choice. I’m in Ha’s hands.  God, are you listening?  It’s time to call in for reinforcements.

Inhale again… “Ok. I do have a few things I need to tell you before we get started…. My father…..” Voice trails off. Tears sprout from my eyes. You see, I have not cried yet. So, why not just let it rip in the lobby. Why not cry so much that black mascara showers my cheeks. Cry so much my lips blow up like Angelina Joelie. Cry so much that I finally have color in my checks. Perfect timing for guess what today is? New passport photo day. I got up even earlier to shower, blow dry the hair and apply cover-up, eyes and lips. Because we all know this photo will haunt you for years… ha…ha..ha..

When I said my Dad’s name, feelings of genuine love and relief overcame me. I miss my family so much – especially in times like this. And, just having their support and prayers is truly indescribable. There are no words. But just tears of gratitude. Tears of thanks. Tears of love.

Ha grabbed my hand and looked into my eyes, “I’m here. No worry. I take care of you…No worry…” I looked into her deep, dark, soulful eyes and knew her little 80 pound frame would be carrying this 6 foot body these next two days. God sent her to me. And, I’m grateful. We’re going to do this – No worries.

I shook my tears away. Repeated out loud…. “Brain… need to be focus… Brain…find logical, rational thoughts…Emotions are for later.” I am NOT kidding. I really said that. I laughed at myself and that my emotional, wackiness subsided. I uttered Western and Union and Daddy in the same sentence without having a nervous breakdown. We’re off to a good start.

Next thing I know, we are in the back of a cab in route to the US consulates office. Ha asked me within 30 seconds of our trip if I have a boyfriend. I laughed. GREAT distraction. I said, “No…Not as of 5 mins ago… Why? Do you have a tall, smart brother?” For whatever reason, she thought that was so funny. She said, “No tall in Vietnam. We short.” She told me about this boy – in high school – with whom she has a crush. They go out with a large groups – eat sunflower seeds and drink green tea. They’re just friends, but she likes him more. The taxi stops in front of a big, ugly yellow building.

We get out. She grabs my arm to lead me. She’s not letting go – and never did for 2 days.

We march to the building with my country’s flag. Wanted to climb up the pole and kiss it. The guard said, “you in wrong place. Passport office moved…” Ha looked shocked. And, then she turned it on. My word, she’s got it. She has the FLIRT gene. God is GOOD! I got a Vietnamese Choppy! (Choppy is my stepsister, BFFer.. She’s one of the top flirts out there..) Next thing I know, V-nam military leaves his post and is escorting us down the sidewalk. He points the building. Ha smiles, never letting go of my arm.

As we are crossing the street she asks, “What do you do when you’re sad?” The question startles me. It’s a little out of context as we fight traffic with our feet. I scream over honking horns, “I write. I have a journal. When I’m sad– I go to a place –by myself – and write…and pray…later, like 1 week or 1 year later, I look back and see how much I’ve learned…and, you? What do you do when you are sad?”

Ha said, “I write too! And, listen to my favorite music. I go outside of Hanoi, where it is more quiet. I like to write. I have a journal…” Perfect. We have something in common. And, by this time, we are in front of a gray, oversized building. I head inside to see what the US consulate has in store for me.

Second floor. Second window. There are only two or three people in the lobby. None are from the US. Not sure if this is a good sign. I ring the bell on window 2.  A Vietnamese lady speaking perfect English greets me. I tell her my situation. She nods. She says she received my email and has a copy of my passport. Then, she uttered words I longed to hear, “We’ve been expecting you…” I LOVE my country. L-O-V-E!

Relief flooded the body. She told me where to go for new passport photos as she handed me a stack of documents. As I wait for the photos, I can fill out all the paper work. Wanted to kiss the woman. The words, “she’s been expecting me” rings in my ears as I skip down the steps.

Ha is waiting for me outside. We head down to the Kodak store to pose for pictures. I pass by a mirror. Damn, this is going to be one ugly photo. I quickly whip on some lipstick so I would not fade away. Kodak V-nam dude takes one photo and tells me to wait. Only one photo? Can’t we go for the best of five? Back to ugly. I just nod and smile, reminding myself it is out of my hands. I start to fill out the paper work. Ha is holding my arm – still. I told her I’m not going anywhere. She says, “Friends hold each other when sad and happy…” I smile. Look over at the Kodak V-nam dude and he’s touching up wedding photos. Yea, we will be here for a while.

About thirty mins later, I have the passport photos. Not that bad. He photo-shopped the dark circles Red puffiness. And, kept my oversized lips. And, my skin looks flawless. Like HIM! And, like the photo. Who knew redesigning your face was included in the $1 price?

Back at the consulate’s office. I turn in the paperwork and sit down. Wait. Wait. The Director of Passport (I guess that is her title) called me over. She is a fellow TallGirl too! We bonded. Good energy. I told her what happened. Told her I’m taking time off to travel. Told her I’m thankful I’m NOT in Russia. She agreed. Or, China. She agreed. But, she DID say, “BUT you’re in Vietnam…” I smiled. And, later found out what was behind those words.

Tall consulate woman said, normally, she only issues a three month emergency passport. But, she will extend it to 7 months for me. She recommend once I get to Cape Town, for I’ll be there for 2 weeks, to contact the embassy and have them issue me a REAL passport. This emergency passport will cost me $135 US. I told her, “I have NO money. Nothing. And, I can’t go to Western Union without a govt. issued ID. “

She told me to borrow from the Travel Agency. She said to come back between 3:00 – 4:00 pm to pick up the passport. In the meantime, I need to go to the police now to get a formal incident report with a stamp. Bring it back and the US consulate will write a letter to the V-nam immigration requesting an emergency Visa. I thanked her profusely. And, thanked God the place as not packed so all the govt. worker bees can focus on my issue. I’m serious too. The place was DEAD.

I tell Ha about the $$ situation and ask to borrow $200 US dollars. She smiled and said, “Ok. I call friend. Wait 20 mins, Ok? We get green tea.” We sit on two stools for micro-mini people on the sidewalk, in front of the US consulate building. And old woman with narley hands, dirty fingernails and no hygiene hands us two dirty glasses full of tea for $.15. I take. Drink. And, say a silent toast to Tour-burn for gifting me his cold for I’m consuming large doses of antibiotics to kill all bacteria on sight.

Ha and I watch the world pass us by. We go through different scenarios of our day. “What if… What if… What if….” Next thing I know, a kid who looks about 12 pulls up on motor-bike and pulls out a wad of cash. Hands it to Ha. She giggles, bats her eyes, touches his arm and yanks the $ from his little grubby hands. He blushes. My word, she is good.

We got the $$. Next stop, her travel agency office to tackle the next cog – Vietnamese police department. I have to file a formal report with the police if I’m to get a Visa. Ha said, “Office manager know police in neighborhood. She take you. On motor-bike… You go with her..” I nod. What am I going to say, “no?”

We arrive at Handspan Travel Adventures and the Office Manager introduces herself. Didn’t catch the name, so I called her Ann. She hands me a motor-bike helmet. Next thing I know, I’m straddling little Ann as we fly through the busy streets of Hanoi. I’m actually smiling. Having fun.

We pull up in front of the police station. Buzz kill. Fun is over. The Vietnamese police station is like something out of a military, war movie. Like Platoon. This station is sandwiched between an assortment of shops — coffee, stuffed animals, handicrafts, stolen movies… We park the motor-bicycle out front. Ann reminds me of my story. We rehearsed it several times. “Stolen passport. Stolen $200.”

I believe she was more concerned about the street names than anything else. Apparently, Hanoi is divided into police districts. The police departments are judged by crime reported in their district. Less crime reported, the better for the police station. Some areas – like the touristy areas – the police departments are HYPER sensitive to reporting crime. If something bad happens to a tourist, then the department is severely reprimanded. I did NOT know this. I would have been vomiting in a toilet if so.

We walked up the three concrete stairs. No doors. Few plastic chairs scattered to the side. Two men in olive green, polyester uniforms look up. NO smile. They said a few words to each other. Younger man leaves. Older man of 50+ sits and stares. He is wearing German, style square glasses. Faint gray mustache line his lips. Skin is smooth. Shirt is open. No hair on his chest. Ho Chi Minh portrait hangs above him. His, uniform is too large and swamps his small frame.

His eyes say it all. He does NOT give a shit. Only thing he cares about is good sex and good rice wine. He looks past us as we walk closer to his desk. His desk is perched in the middle of the room. It’s his thrown. I look over my shoulder to see what is holding his attention. Then, I look down in embarrassment. GIRLS GYMNASTICS is on the TV. He’s entranced. So, I revise my comments. Let’s add good sex with little girls to the list.

We sit. I slump over a tad. Body language of the submissive foreigner. Ann sits up. Leans forward. Tilts her head and smiles. Everyone is listening. I notice police from the backroom got word a “foreigner” is here – so now we have a party. Shit. V-nam Police Pervert is not going to cave. I slump over more and look down. I repeat, “look humble.. respectful..listen..”

Ann starts. Police Perv is intent on watching gymnastics. He looks at me a few times as she continues to tell my story. Does not say a word. Nothing. She stops. He’s silent, like he did not hear a thing. He tilts his head. After a few moments of silence, he looks at me quickly, turns to Ann and says, “was not stolen…she lost her passport.” Ann translates. I give him a look of confusion. And, shook my head. I said the word S-T-O-L-E-N very slowly. He sighs. Great, he’s part Russian.

A younger man looking on says something. Police pervert reaches for a folder. Starts to go through it while looking at the gymnastics. There’s no motivation to find the document. Younger police man opens a file cabinet and yanks the sheet out. Hands it to Ann and smiles. Maybe THIS is her friend? She fills out the form for me. Her writing. Police pervert is paying no attention. But this time, the room has cleared. It’s anticlimactic. Maybe its a blessing he was distracted by flat chested, little girls twirling in leotards.

Ann writes my passport was lost. I grabbed her pen. Wrong verb. I scribble in caps STOLEN. What is it about verbs. They can make or break you. It’s always about the verb. If it is lost, I get no stamp. She looks embarrassed. She keeps writing. Then, hands it to me to sign. I sign it hoping it will not come back to haunt me. I mean, it’s all true – but signing a V-nam police document in a communist country… Makes me skirmish. Again, calling on my faith and travel angels.

Police pervert looks over the document. Says a few things. Puts it down and continues to watch TV. Now and then, he looks outside to see what’s happening. Ann says, “he can’t speak or read English. I need to translate to Vietnamese.” I reminded her, “Please say the word stolen…” She finished. Pushed the paper back to him. Police pervert sighs. Not happy about missing his gymnastics. Stands up. Shakes his head and walked in the back room, leaving us out front.

Ann and I move to plastic seats in the corner. I notice more and more people are coming in to sign a paper and give the police money. I ask, “What’s going on? Crime reports?” Ann laughs, “No. The police charge for parking motor-bike out front. Money business for them.” Of course the do… Got to love seeing capitalism at work in police departments in communist countries.

We wait. Watch. Ann is nervous, but tries to appear calm. I’m reading every expression in the room. I ask, “what’s happening now?” She said, “Police meeting. Decide to sign or not. No like signing…Bad. Crime needs to be low here. No good to have crime with foreigners…” This was my OH SHIT wake up call. I knew what she meant. I just sat there, praying. Ok God, it’s ALL in your hands. I’m just watching. I tell myself – it’s a movie…I’m really at the movie chomping on family sized popcorn and supersized Coke Zero. I’m just an observer.

Police pervert walks out about 20 mins later and tosses the paper at us. Ann looks surprised. I mean, shocked. I just smile not knowing what happened. She thanked them, grabbed my arm and ushered me out with great speed. Those red high heels can walk fast. She said, “Helmet fast. Get on motor-bike.” I did. We sped off. She starts to laugh. I can’t hear what she says, but I scream PART-AY really loud. She giggles even louder.

We pull up at Handspan Travel Adventure’s office. She gets off. Looks at me and said, “You lucky. Very lucky. Very lucky. Three or four hours at police. Never sign. You lucky. Lucky…” I said, “No luck. We’re blessed. Travel angels are with us…” She giggled, “Yes, angles… and dragons…” She kept on rattling off more. I smiled. And, asked her to make several copies of this police report.

I ate some lunch. Big bowl of carbs, washed down with a beer. Next thing I know, I’m on the back of a motor-bike heading to US Consulate’s office. Ha is in the driver’s seat. We pull up around 2:30 pm. I’m to pick up the passport around 3:00 pm, but hoping to get it sooner so we can make it to immigration and Western Union. The guards now know me. I sprint up to the second floor. Ring the bell at second window.

They gals ask for my police report. I gave it them. They were surprised I got one – and got one so fast. They said, “That is not normal in Vietnam… Usually takes days for police report…You are lucky…”

Hmmmm… maybe police pervert wanted me out of his country for I’m not his type… Or, he had to make crime quota for the month… Or, saw that I was NOT one of those narly backpackers who drink, vomit and poop all over his streets. I don’t care. Just blessed. I sit down. Thank my travel angels. And, wait. And, wait..

About 30 mins later, I walk out of US consulate’s office with my passport in hand. I have a 7 month extension. Hurray! I have an identity. I will say the passport looks fake. Looks like some kid did it on power-point. As long as it gets me out… Gets me to Cambodia…

Ha and I are back on the motor-bike and race to Western Union. I smiled. It’s now almost 4:00 pm. Ha and I bet we can get the $$ in minutes and be at V-nam immigration by 4:15 pm. It’s right around the corner. We submit my paperwork and pick up Visa the next day. Life is good.

Snag.

The V-nam bank using Western Union services was slower than slow. The girl who helped me had trouble dialing a phone and using the fax machine. I did NOT know what to do. I can’t tell her to hurry it up b/c I need to get to “immigration” in time. She has my money. I need to be nice.

Then, Ha stomped in. Highly annoyed. It’s been 15 mins and she not tolerating slowness right now. She lays into little girl in a pretty suit. The girl looks mortified. Ha and shy girl come to a solution. Make a copy of my passport for Western Union files. We go to immigration and come back after to pick up my money. Done. We bolt. No need to put my motor-helmet on, because I was wearing it in the bank. Saving time. And, we’re off… zooming through the crowded streets. Going a zillion miles an hour.

We pull into the V-nam immigration. The French used the building as a prison back in the day. Perfect setting. As we’re pulling in, everyone is leaving. It’s 4:28 pm. Govt. workers going home. Ha ignored this and motored through. She was making fun of them – their schedules – and the fact they don’t work.

We park the motor-bike. I can’t get my helmet off. It stays on. Ha grabs my arm. She guides me through the crowd. Smiling. Talking. Responding to these govt employees. They all look at me. Who knows what she is saying. They smile back. I look like the Jolly Green Giant wearing a blue bike helmet. I feel it too.

We are walking up some stairs. Ha still has my arm. A woman asks where are we going. Just so happens she works in the Visa department. She looks through my paperwork and says we’re missing a document. I need a stamped letter from the hotel saying to confirm I was there. Ha looked very upset. She was trying to convince the woman to follow us to HER office to start processing my Visa now. Ha REALLY wanted to wrap all of this up in one day. From where I sit, I have an identity and money waiting. That’s called a miracle…

Back on the motor-bike to Western Union. She stops. I hop off and run across the street. The bank is closed. A large garage door covers the entire storefront window. Workers can’t see out. I can see them through the cracks. I’m NOT leaving without my money.

Wearing my motor-bike helmet, Jolly Green Giant starts banging on the metal garage door. You can see the scene now. Tall blond. Jeans. White long sleeve t-shirt. Pink hiking boots. Striped socks. Pounding with both hands as hard as possible. People behind me stopped. I feel their eyes. I hear Ha, “Amanda…No! We ok…No more bang…Stop!” I started to laugh.

Ha grabbed my arm and says, “see what happens when I let go of arm…you go crazy….I take care of this…no worry…”

Don’t ask me how, but we find our way into the building. A security guard waits for us in an some random garage for motor-bikes. We walk through a long hallway and enter the bank through the back door. I see slow Western Union girl. She smiles. Hands over the Benjamen Franklins. I LOVE him. I ask for a receipt. Slow girl takes a good 10 minutes to turn on and make a copy of the receipt. My word… I could NOT work here.

We’re back on the motor-bike. It’s getting dark. Ha drops me off at the hotel with instructions. “You ready at 7:45 am. Sorry about immigration. No worry. My country slow. We fix…”

I thanked her again and again. Told her she was my present. My gift. And, to keep holding on to me so I won’t go crazy. And, I needed her more than she knows…

One Response to “Day of Reckoning. Stolen Identity.”

  1. Allison 12/12/2010 at 4:31 pm #

    I love your Vietnamese Choppy!

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