A little background first. My family, friends, and colleagues know that sometimes I am the absent-minded professor. However, for this six-month sabbatical around the world, I’ve done some serious planning. I’ve arranged seven flights, seventeen train trips, twenty four hotels, and three prolonged stays at institutes or religious organizations as well as dozens of emails to all sorts of individuals and institutions. I also acquired long term visas for China and India. Whew!
What does this have to do with having the same pilot twice in one day? When I arrive at the Taipei International Airport, I prepare myself for a long day. I am catching an early AM flight to Bangkok and then a connecting flight to Mandalay. When the Taipei China Air check-in person asks “do you have a visa for Myanmar?” I should have been alerted. However, I had read online that you could receive a visa “upon arrival” in Myanmar. When I explain that I could receive the visa upon arrival, she says nothing, takes my bag, gives me two boarding passes for my two flights, and smiles.
The day rolls on uneventful. Airports are airports. Upon arrival at the Bangkok Airport for my second flight, I saunter around, stretching my legs. When the flight to Mandalay takes off, I feel myself getting excited. The flight is only half full with a mixture of old and young.
Upon landing at Mandalay, I am struck by the contrast with every other airport I’ve used. It definitely is not Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, the world’s busiest. There are four airplanes, and two of them have the word Cargo on their fuselage as they are parked a good quarter of a mile from the terminal. After filing into the terminal past stern looking security guards yet smiling support staff, several of us chat in the passport/ ID immigration line. The young German behind me is planning on spending two weeks taking local buses from Mandalay to Bagan to Yangon. He has more energy than I do! The older California midwife in front of me has just completed thirty-six hours from the States and is enrolled in a meditation retreat at Sagaing outside Mandalay. That is more my style. All of us had that tired but excited feeling.
The line moves slowly. As nobody in front of me has any problems, I begin to think about what I’ll do later that day. When I reach the immigration officer and give her my passport and arrival documentation, she asks “Visa documentation?” I ask: “Where do I get one?” She points to a small side office that says “Visa Upon Arrival.” This is when the situation got interesting.
When I walk toward the office, a staff member meets me and escorts me into the office.The office is three times the size of a faculty member’s office, not real big. There are three desks and five or six chairs. “I would like to get a visa I mentioned” I smile. Knowing that “official procedures” can be painfully difficult, I want to appear attentive and cooperative. Speaking decent English, a woman asks: “Your letter please.” Taken aback, I exclaim: “What letter?” She responds: “Your e-letter to allow you to get the visa.” Hmmm, this could get more interesting. “I don’t have a letter.”
That is the wrong thing to say. Immediately, I am joined by about four other people. A security guard who was standing outside the room moves closer. Although he doesn’t have an Uzzi machine gun, he looks quite capable of keeping order. The other support staff did not smile.
The one initially handling my situation though tries to help. “Wait here please.” After conferring with another official who had been observing the lines filing through the immigration/passport checkpoint, she returns to ask me: “Is there somebody meeting you outside?” After responding yes, we walk through the baggage claim, pass other staff, to find that person. Since the hotel has sent a driver to pick me up, he along with eight or nine other sign-holding drivers is easy to identify. I wave at him; he waves at me. I smile; he smiles. He looks a bit puzzled when the immigration official begins to speak with him. His smile disappears to be replaced with that somber facial expression you get while sitting in a waiting room at a hospital. It is clear that the immigration official told him to follow us back to the small office.
I have to admit that I was not really anxious. Instead, I am thinking about how this will be an interesting adventure. I’m not into racing Nascar type cars; I can’t trek across Nepal. An adventure getting through customs could be interesting, especially in Myanmar. I’ll simply play the absent-minded professor, look sincerely contrite, and be very attentive to the two people that I identify as the authorities.
When we return to the original office, we go through it into another curtained small office. I am now in the real boss’s office. He doesn’t smile. “Your itinerary please.” I hand him my make-shift typed up travel arrangements for six months. “Where did you fly from?” I explain “Taiwan. Here is my boarding pass. Here are the hotels that I’ve booked in Myanmar.” He frowns. He begins to make phone calls; he must have instructed the driver to make a phone call. When I glanced at the driver, I could tell that he looked like he wished that he was anywhere but in that office.
Minutes go by. The man in charge makes more phone calls with two different cellphones. My driver makes phone calls. Finally, the second in charge explains to me “We can’t issue visas here. We are contacting the Ministry Office.” That got my attention! What next I wonder? All sorts of thoughts race through my head given that not too long ago the military dictatorship in Myanmar did not play games. I imagine the following phone conversation: “President Mallard, this is the United States Embassy in Myanmar. Do you have an employee named Dr. Curt Lindquist…..”
During the few more minutes that we wait, the man in charge reviews my eight-page itinerary; he smokes a cigarette; he speaks to the driver who is sitting as still as a monk in meditation. Following some commotion outside the office, a woman enters wearing the uniform of Bangkok Air. She sits down next to me. She isn’t smiling either.
Eventually one of the cellphones of the man in charge rings. The conversation lasts less than a minute. After speaking to the official who has never left my side, she turns to me: “You’ll need to follow the Bangkok Air person and return to Bangkok. She’ll help you purchase a ticket. The Ministry can not grant a visa immediately.” Arghhh. I gather my suitcase which had been watched by the security official and another security official friend of his. I turn and face the driver. I truly feel sorry for him since he has endured this intimidating experience and has also wasted probably two hours of his time because of this crazy American. I give him $15 for his time and trauma.
The Bangkok Air official and I race back to the gate where she takes my Visa card, gives me a receipt to sign, and then hands me a new boarding pass. Boarding the plane, I walk down the single aisle to seat 19F. As I am taking my seat, a flight attendant announces “We would like to apologize for the delay. We will be taking off for Bangkok immediately.” As other passengers’ eyes look at me, I felt like that hated person who causes everybody else to miss their connecting flights!
So there you have it. Although in a different seat, I am on the same plane, with the same flight attendants and with the same German pilot. It’s a shame that I didn’t ask him what is his name.