Thursday, October 24, 2013

happy birthday in no-man's land

Europe Trip, Part 2. (Part 1)

A border security guard escorted Jon and me to our luggage which was waiting for us in baggage claim at Riga airport (RIX). We pulled out our sleeping bags and our toothbrushes, re-zipped our bags, said goodbye to Janis and followed the guard to the "transit zone." That no-man's land of people who have landed but not yet been allowed into the country. Remember Snowden? We could stay on the ground floor or go upstairs, she told us. After taking a look at the upstairs, we returned to the ground floor and looked for a place to sleep.

Another couple were trying to sleep in a corner of the no-man's land. They had pushed together two benches, removed light bulbs above their makeshift bed and were trying to sleep. We spread our sleeping bags on the hard floor. I didn't sleep much. I felt terrible. I had planned the trip. I had known there were rules about entering Russia, but hadn't seen this 90-day passport rule for the EU. I'd never seen the term Schengen, or if I had, I certainly didn't remember it. How could I have not seen it? While I kicked myself, Jon reassured me, told me to not beat myself up over it. I couldn't help myself. As the clock turned to midnight, I wished myself a "happy birthday" and hoped we wouldn't have to return to London.

"He doesn’t speak the language
He holds no currency
He is a foreign man
He is surrounded by the sound, the sound"

--You Can Call Me Al, Paul Simon

I woke at 4 a.m. from my restless sleep on the airport floor. Cold, hungry, tired and disappointed. Two vending machines, one with snacks and one with coffee, stood side-by-side in the corner of the brightly-lit section of the room. I walked up to them. They took Lats, the currency of Latvia. Money I was unable to get while in Anchorage. I had dollars, pounds and euros. The Paul Simon lyric wedged itself into my brain: He holds no currency. He is a foreign man.

I thought about our friend, Janis. When he had waited with us before going through customs we worried that something might happen to his luggage as it sat unclaimed. When we'd finally gone with the guard to get our sleeping bags, Janis's bag wasn't in baggage claim. I thought about how he had gifts for his sister and his mom in that bag. All his clothes and gear for the next few weeks of travel.  All of it gone.

I walked up the stairs to see if any shops were open. The coffee shop would open at 8. The two duty-free shops were closed; the currency exchange office was closed. I walked down a corridor that ended in a closed door. Another passport control site that led to the other gates and flights to other countries in the Schengen region. I tried to ask when it would be open. A cleaning woman didn't speak English. A man in a uniform rushed past. "You must wait," he called over his shoulder.

7 a.m.
"Sitting in a no-man's land
Here but not here...
Passports returned unstamped
denied entry and so we wait....
Barely a chill in the air
the tarmac's bare
the sky is clear
and we're still here...
...No snow, but we're Snowdened in Riga
We'll wait it out
we're Snowdened in Riga."
---I had some time to write a song...

The airport started coming to life. Passengers began entering the area where we'd slept. I powered on the iPad, planning to email Janis to find out what we could do to salvage our trip. He had contacted the embassy. Couldn't they help? They said we needed to go back to London. Couldn't someone meet us at the airport; help us with paperwork? No; it doesn't work that way. We wouldn't be let into the country. Eventually, I learned that we were the responsibility of the airline, airBaltic. Because they had allowed us to fly to a Schengen country without 90 days on our passport, they needed to get us back to London, though probably on our dime.

I went to a room that listed airBaltic on its door looking for someone from the airline. A woman there told me to pick up a phone in the corridor. I looked for a phone and finally found it tucked behind a sign and a plant at the top of the stairway. Picked up the receiver. Told the operator my name and that I needed to talk to airBaltic. He told me to call back in a minute or so after he had a chance to talk to someone. When I tried back, all I heard was: You must wait. My iPad's power was running low, so I borrowed an adapter plug from the other couple who were waiting in no-man's land. Stuck because the woman held an Israeli passport which wasn't recognized by the country they wanted to visit. We're not the only travelers whose plans have gone awry.

Later, I knocked on a sliding door that opened and closed near us. I could see officials in the room; it was another passport control. Finally, a man in uniform came out. Sergei. I spoke with Sergei (from border patrol) and pleaded with him to allow me to go back to my luggage to get some items (like the right adapter plug). It was the only way we'd be able to keep communicating with the outside world. To my surprise, he showed up later and escorted me out of no-man's land to the unclaimed baggage room of the airport. I found the plugs in Jon's bag. I also learned that our friend's bag hadn't been taken by someone else from baggage claim. It had apparently never left London! Though it wasn't my bag, the staff gave me a claim number I could forward to Janis. At least I had some good news. I returned with Sergei to where Jon waited. Though he was frustrated by the waiting, he never blamed me for not knowing about the 90-day rule. He was as relieved as I was that Janis's bag hadn't been stolen as Janis tried to help us the previous night.

As the morning wore on, our space became overrun with passengers. I continued to call airBaltic. I was prepared to get on a plane back to London. Meanwhile, when I wasn't looking, Jon had made a plea on my facebook page telling people we were stuck in the airport and asking what to do. At the time, I was pretty annoyed with him. I felt embarrassed and un-savvy. I felt like the hapless travelers we sometimes hear about who have to change plans because of an oversight. Now it was ME! I didn't want people to know that I was this clueless! Jon had also posted a personal message on our friend Sage's timeline. Sage is pretty well-traveled and always has a story about how she overcame one bureaucracy or another. Her response was to say, adamantly: "DO NOT get back on a plane. Remain where you are. They can not forcibly remove you from the transit hall." She was the only person advocating this position. Everyone else who woke up to Jon's message told us to go back to London. Some gave us the embassy information. None of them could do anything. None of them had been to Latvia, except Sage.

At one point, I went to the currency exchange office to get money to use a pay phone to call the embassy. The man handed me his phone and let me make my call on it. Still, the person at the embassy said there was nothing he could do. He could not bring paperwork to us; we could not be brought to the embassy no matter how many times I pleaded with random border security staff: "I want to go to the American Embassy." My hopes deflated. I was ready to give up. I emailed one of my U.S. Senators.

That day's airBaltic flight from Riga to London was boarded and took off without anyone contacting us. The message to me when I picked up the phone to call the airline yet again: "They know about you. Everybody knows about you." The only thing is, it didn't seem that anyone knew about us, but we were about to change our luck.

-----This is where I need to say that the order of events is still not clear to me. At one point Sergei offered me a telephone number of the person the Embassy consul should contact in Latvian border security. Was that right before I used the currency exchange guy's phone to call the embassy? I guess the order of it all is not as important as the fact that there were moments when we threw off our concerns about bringing attention to ourselves and realized that the only thing to do was bring attention to ourselves.------

We moved upstairs and leaned against the outside wall of the duty-free shop, around the corner from the coffee shop, across from the airBaltic lounge (off-limits to us) and just a few feet from the courtesy phone. I made a sign: "We are Prisoners of airBaltic and RIX. We have rights." (I'd seen a poster about passenger rights and figured that was a good line to use.) Believe me when I say that I'm very aware now that I made a mistake in not doing enough research on rules for entering Europe. This much I also admitted when the passport control first explained it to me. And I'm very aware that I was about to become the "Ugly American" asking for special privileges such as bending this rule and begging to be allowed to go to the embassy. But the airline had not reached out to us once, not even to say someone would meet with us at any appointed time. We were in the dark as to how long we would wait. Could it be days? Jon added a sign to mine: Hours Waiting... writing down numbers and crossing them off until it was 15, 16.

Hurried passengers slowed. Some asked us what was happening. Some, even frequent travelers, told us they did not know about the 90-day passport rule. One even checked his expiration date. Now it was an outreach effort. While waiting to be sent back to London, we could at least educate others on the rule. Of course what we really wanted was for the officials to take notice. Mid-afternoon, I emailed our contact at the embassy telling him what we were doing. I told him people were taking notice. How long did it take for the officials to see us? I don't know, but there came a point where five Important People stood around us in a semicircle discussing our case. People from the airport, border security, one from the airline. Before, we were a behind-the-scenes problem; now we were going to be a public relations problem. We hoped we wouldn't be arrested.

When not talking to people, I was on email or facebook. Looking for a solution. In the middle of the stress, I read a message from Twitter:
Passersby must have thought I was quite mad as they watched me laugh hysterically at that and other tweets my sister in St Louis had posted. She provided the comic-relief I needed. And it reminded me that one day I'd be able to laugh at the entire incident. One day.

I got a message from the consul: "The Border Guards will not let you through and are blaming airBaltic for your situation. AirBaltic is blaming the weather and they claim they are trying to fix your situation. Hopefully we can get you on the next flight. I'm also calling the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to put pressure on airBaltic." The weather?* It was a clear sunny day, the day we were supposed to visit the coast and celebrate my birthday. But at least the people who could do something were communicating.

The wheels began turning more quickly, though still at a Saturday pace. With no further flights to London, I think the airport people just wanted us out of there. A few more emails back and forth to the embassy and to Janis, who was doing all he could to call and email people he knew. Jon wrote "19" on the list of number of hours waiting.

I had noticed passengers who were puzzled about more than just our predicament: they were also having trouble finding a gate that I knew was downstairs. But there was no airport map and the sign pointing to the gate was in small letters and hard to read. I started pointing out the directions to travelers, even escorting some people downstairs. 

I got an email from the consul showing me what he had sent to the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs: "If you allow them to pass border control, I will be able to issue them new passports on Monday so that they meet entry requirements for the Schengen zone." This was promising...

I was returning from one of my trips down the stairs when Sergei came to us. He had us collect our things. Told us we could go. Go? Yes. He escorted us through passport control where we were asked a few questions: where are we staying; how long; where will you go next? Then our passports were stamped. Sergei escorted us through a security check, then he took us on the long walk to the unclaimed baggage room. "Is this where we walked earlier today?" I asked him. It was hard to remember. Had I really walked outdoors with him all those hours ago? "Yes," he answered. It did not seem familiar.

Sergei directed us toward the unclaimed baggage room and we stopped. This was as far as he was going with us. I wanted to hug him, but held back and shook his hand, thanking him, instead. He had been the most helpful person in the entire airport. Jon offered his thanks, then off we went to get our bags. The same woman who had helped me get the outlet plug was at the unclaimed baggage room and remembered me. We gathered our bags and signed a form, then walked away. Out of the airport and into the fresh air and fading daylight.

Soon Janis and his friend Marcis picked us up and we drove across a suspension bridge into the city while opera played on the radio. We dropped our things at the apartment I'd rented, changed clothes and then we headed out for my birthday celebration, now a celebration of freedom! A feast at Lido, the largest selection of Latvian food I will ever see. Finally, we were free to set out to explore Latvia and a bit of Europe. Happy birthday indeed!

*After we left the airport, we learned that due to foggy conditions in the early morning, a number of flights had been routed to Riga and the airBaltic staff had spent their day getting other people out of Riga while continuing to tell us to wait. Had the flight to London not been full, we would have been on that flight, I'm sure. I also think that had someone, anyone, from airBaltic come to talk with us in the first 12 hours of us being in the airport, we would have not been as frustrated, nor would we have been as adamant that we be allowed to stay in Riga.


Unknown said...

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Katey Schultz said...

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