Playing solitaire for two hours accross the street from the US Embassy makes the guards incredibly nervous.
It wasn’t Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday and it was, indeed, one of the two days of the week that the Embassy was open to the public – but when I arrived the Embassy was, nonetheless, closed. I’d slept later than I’d intended to, slowly pulled myself together, asked around the hostel for directions (no one knew how to get to the Embassy or even the river, but I did get 100 baht – after having dinner the night before I was down to 60 baht – from two Canadian guys who took pity on me), tried to walk it, gave up and got a tuk tuk (50 baht).
Only to find it was lunchtime.
I wasn’t going to leave – I was afraid I’d get lost if I went on foot and I didn’t have enough money to get another tuk tuk back. So I sat down, back against the wall, to wait. Cue nervous conference of the guards. They asked me to move accross the street: “Shade of tree!” they said. It might have been better, for their own sanity, had they sent me out of their line of vision. There was no way I was relaxed enough to take a nap and, given two hours to kill, I was incredibly grateful for my deck of cards. I probably spent more time shuffling them than I did actually playing. Through the three-paned window I could see a new guard walk in, coffee mug in one hand, notice me accross the street and start pointing. They’d all shrug. Someone was sent out – roughly every ten minutes – to question me.
One couple walked up – a blonde woman in slacks and a collared shirt, a black man in a suit without the jacket – while I was asking the guards to help me find the Chiang Mai Bank for Agriculture on a map. I told my story – the short version – and they patted me on the back. Lunch break or not, they were allowed in. The woman turned around before going through the door, talking to the man she was with. “George, honey -” his name wasn’t George or Bill but it was something along those line, “why don’t you give her some money?”
“Oh no!” I protested. This was twice now that people were trying to give me money. They’d been so nice and they thought I was begging. “I wasn’t asking – I didn’t mean to sound like – I’m alright, I’ve got some friends I can go to -”
“No no,” said the man, actually winking at me, “Just for luck.”
“We know you’ll be fine – you have such a light around you – it’s just for luck,” the woman said. Puzzling over her words, I don’t even remember taking the 500 baht bill.
As 1pm approached, a few others showed up. Expats dealing with visa issues, retirees collecting their social security checks; white-goateed old men in polo shirts and khaki shorts, one silent businessman in a suit and sunglasses who refused to small talk with the rest of us.
“You’re first honey,” one of the older men told me. “As soon as those doors open you run in – I’ll push you to the front – and take a number. You’re going to have to go to your left, they’re remodeling the normal waiting room, and you push the green button. You’ll see it.”
I walked in first, but I was the last to the ticket machine. The others poured in while the guards carefully searched my bags in depth. I was the only one priveleged to an extra wand-search and pat down (without even setting off the metal detector). They asked if I had a phone; I couldn’t find it in my bag, which bothered me – I knew I’d taken it with me from my room. I was stressed enough to be wrong, so I shrugged. I was allowed to enter.
The man had saved the first ticket for me, anyway, but it was another half hour before they began to call us in. A large wooden door opened into a narrow hallway – it had obviously once been a room but the scaffolding, saw horses, and stacked lumber didn’t leave much space. The smell of varnish was overwhelming. The entire room was dark wood. Photographs of George Bush and Condoleeza Rice hung over the two windows in the back wall. I walked up to the woman and explained. Passed her the police report and copy of my passport. She frowned.
“I am sorry. Passport application processing fee is $97.”
“I have 60 baht!” I offered. I explained again about everything haven been stolen. I had 600 bht, actually, but it didn’t occur to me at that moment – and it wouldn’t have made a difference.
“$97 USD is,” she pulled out a calculator, “3,201 bht. We cannot process until you pay.”
There was already money waiting for me at the Western Union but I had to have something better than a black and white battered photocopy of my passport to claim it. “Is there some sort of temporary ID I can have?” I tried. There was – but only if I could give her two passport photos.
“There is a place -” she began to tell me. I interrupted. I’d used the toilet there earlier and something had prompted me to ask how much it cost for passport photos. “I know! Down the street. I’ll be back.” I ran out of the room, ran out of the waiting room, ran past the guards, ran down the street.
It was lunchtime for the photorapher. Said the young woman at the desk holding a stack of passports in her hand, visas on the table. He wouldn’t be back for half an hour. The Embassy was closing in an hour. The Bank was closing in 45 minutes. I explained. I begged. She called him on the phone and I sat down to wait. A toddler joined me on the couch and began to play with my hair. I tried to smile gently and the mother rushed over, clutching the kid. I wasn’t sure who was being protected. A Thai woman in a short skirt with a white man with a large stomach came in. I made space on the couch.
The photographer returned within 20 minutes, almost running as he entered. I thanked him profusely, headed straight for the stool against the back wall with a white screen behind it. The tripod was already set up and he pulled a camera out of his bag.
“Please remove spectacles.”
I took off my glasses.
I bared my teeth.
He took a shot. “Maybe,” I couldn’t see his face without my glasses but his voice was hesitant and I imagined he was frowning, “maybe now not smile.” My grimace must have been painful. I tried to relax my face.
Printing the pictures was the longest part. It was 100 baht for two, the woman had told me, and I double-checked with the man. “For you I make four!” the photographer said, clapping his hands. I thanked him again.
I ran back down the street, back through security, and took another number. The waiting room was almost empty, with the exception of an retired military officer waiting for an interview with the Consulate – dropping in on his friend, he explained. “You returned qucikly,” he said. I hadn’t remembered him being in the room when I’d left. We chatted a little until they called me in; he had the most intense stare I’ve ever been faced with. Back into the varnish room and up to the window where I presented my documents and the photographs. I was sent out to wait again while she attempted to find someone with enough authority to sign the letter.
“Normally we only deal with this in the morning,” she said, “you should have come earlier.”
I bit my lip.
“You must come back on Thursday morning. We open at 8:30. Passports only on Thursday mornings. Lucky for you today is Tuesday and you did not miss this Thursday. Come early, there will be many people.”
I got the paper. Folded it around the police report, put them into the deepest inside pocket of my bag and headed back out. I collected my contraband from the guards – water bottle, hand sanitizer, chapstick, and batteries – and grabbed a tuk tuk.
“Bank for Agriculture?” He didn’t know it. Not that he informed me of this fact – rather, somehow, he interpreted it as “Wat Phra Singh” and took me to the temple. I’d learned by now not to exit a tuk tuk unless I could see a sign declaring my location. “This is not it!” I showed him the name and address, again.
“Ah!” He said.
The second stop was at least a bank; we were getting warmer. I was, however, getting ever more nervous because the bank was about to close. I had him pull up to the next tuk tuk we saw and ask directions. I passed over the scrap of paper, tearing it out of my journal, showed him the mark that the Embassy guards had made on my map.
“Ah!” They said together.
We made it on the third try.
It took the bank a good hour to decide that the Embassy’s Letter of Identification, the police report, and the copy of my passport were sufficient documentation to release my money to me. I read a newspaper, found the restroom, and – spotting the first drinking fountain I’d seen in Asia – filled my water bottle while they conferred.
Finally, my money.
I put one bill in my pocket an the others in my bra. I thanked them, left, got change at the 7-11 next door, and found my tuk tuk driver.
“Moon Muang Soi 7,” I said, climbing in.
He grinned broadly.”300 baht!” He said.
I pointed out that the original deal been 50.
“I wait for you so long! We drive so much!” The driving was his own fault but I supposed the waiting was mine. He knew I’d just been to the bank. I wanted a shower, desperately, and back to my room.
“200 baht?” I offered. Done.
I got my shower, the first meal of the day (Comfort food – Indian! Across from Bohemian’s is a small place; the man who runs it makes an amazing chai masala and has four incredibly friendly daughters, the youngest of which is two and a half and does her utmost to keep you company while you eat – she’ll even help you finish your food, useful enough because he filled my plate three times.) and a nap before heading out to the markets. I had to get another moneybelt to wear under my clothes and I went to the Night Bazaar – the more touristy the better, I figured. It took a while to find a small one (and even the “small one” I’m earing now is twice as thick as my original one – at least it’s keeping my pants up) and, the last few days undoubtably visible on my face, I got an incredible bargain.
I ran into Gae, a Thai woman studying at University to be a tour guide who I’d met the week before at Bohemian’s, and she told me she’d been calling and calling my phone to invite me to dinner. I explained that I had apparently lost it – “Noooo!” she said, pulling hers out of her purse to try again. Someone answered. It was a tuk tuk driver.
I was ecstatic – my next plan had been to buy another phone. Now I didn’t have to.
“He meet you tomorrow,” she told me. “On Moon Muang Soi 9. Anytime you want. He say he has your documents too.”
I shrugged off the bit about documents, assuming a map or lose sheet must have fallen out of my bag. I headed to Bohemian’s, played backgammon with Gal, got a Thai massage at the the place nextdoor. Then, getting back to my room to move things into my moneybelt and discovering that my police report and Letter of ID were missing – panicked, believing I was being held for extortion. The fact that I spent the next day waiting on Moon Muang Soi 9 without finding the tuk tuk driver only made it worse. (He, apparently, spent the day on Moon Muang Soi 7. I’d started approaching every tuk tuk driver by that point and asking; once it got dark I started asking them to call my phone, handing out 10 baht per call.) Eventually, I went through the timeline – I hadn’t had the documents when I’d lost my phone, so he couldn’t possibly have them unless he’d gotten them from someone else or unless I’d had the same driver multiple times withut noticing. Either way, if I went back to the police I could get another copy of the report and I could talk my way into another Letter of ID at the Embassy.
We agreed to meet the next day on Soi 7, first thing in the morning.
I slept through my alarm and woke with a start, threw on some clothes, and ran out the door. I had to meet the tuk tuk driver, go back to the bank to see if I’d left the documents there, go back to the police, and make it to the Embassy before they’re lunch time. The tuk tuk driver had already left the city. I sat crosslegged at the corner with a bottle of water from my room and a can of sweetened coffee from the closest store. It was a nervous hour and a half until he showed up – passenger in the back, on the way somewhere. Phone, yes, documents, no. (“The bank!” he said; I didn’t even stop to wonder how he knew.) I blindly reached into my bag to grab a bill; it was a 100 baht and I should probably have given him more.
Onto the bank where I’d left the documents; I must have walked out before they could bring them from the back room where they’d been pouring over them. “We call and we call you, we so worried,” a woman told me. The tuk tuk driver must have answered my phone for the bank, as well.
Onto the Embassy – the guards remembered me, smiled and joked, and gave me another surprisingly thorough search. (I’m not certain that they believed my claim that I wasn’t a journalist, just some young foolish backpacker who lost her passport.) The waiting room was full this time. Several hours later I was called in, filled out the form, paid my money. Back to get another number while the form was sent onwards. Called in again for another interview – this man had an American accent.
“Because it is a case of theft, we will try and expedite the process. You may have it within a week.” It was better news than I’d expected.
Finally let out.
It wasn’t, however, over yet – checked my email the next day (today) to discover that I’d “forgotten” to sign one of the lines (I’d signed each and every line that they had pointed to) and had to go back in; they were only open to the public Tuesdays and Thursdays, so I had to make an appointment to return to sign my application. I emailed back, said I could go as soon as possible – waited for a response, didn’t get one, decided to head over anyway. Spent a good while attempting to locate the Embassy (the good news is that I do know exactly how to get there – now) and talking my way back in -and signed that line.
Hopefully. Presumably. I will have a passport in a week.
But probably not before my visa expires, and since I can’t get a visa extension without a passport, that means I’m going to have to pay a fee for each day between the two.