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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Christmas at the Airport

We arrived in Abu Dhabi at 6pm on Christmas Eve, after a relaxing though long flight in Singapore Airline's economy class. Eagerly, we approached the immigration counter, pleasantly surprised that there were no lines. We expected to sail through the formalities and get to our hotel, freshen up and meet my spouse's sister and our nephew for dinner at their nearby home. I got a chance to practice my New Year's resolution (to keep calm and be grateful) early, when the immigration official refused to allow me to enter the Emirate.

I had brought only my diplomatic passport, normally sufficient to assure entry with ease in many countries. But the UAE, as of last year, requires a visa obtained beforehand if an American desires to enter the country on a diplomatic passport. I had forgotten to bring my tourist passport, with which entry without a visa is allowed. My spouse happened to bring both his diplomatic and tourist passports, so he was fine. I had to stay in the airport, like Tom Hanks in The Terminal.

As a Foreign Service Officer, in the Management cone at that, I was embarrassed. Of all people, I should have been fully on top of the logistics. I called the Embassy's Duty Officer, reluctant even to give my name. I've been a Duty Officer before and might not have been entirely sympathetic of callers in similar situations. What were they thinking when they left home? Why hadn't they done their homework?

Only the night before, an Indonesian friend texted me in a panic. She had just then realized, hours before her family's holiday trip to the U.S., that her son's visa was expired. She asked if my spouse, the DCM, could help. Knowing how often he gets hit up with visa requests, and not wanting to burden him with yet another, I calmly directed her to information on the Embassy's website concerning emergency visa requests. Though at first I wondered why she hadn't checked the visa's validity before, I quickly, thankfully (lest I be too much the hypocrite), remembered that everybody makes mistakes.

In speaking with the Duty Officer, I owned up to my mistake in planning, and tried to trouble-shoot solutions short of returning several thousands of miles back to Southeast Asia. Could I fly to a nearby country in the Middle East that allows visa-less entry on a diplomatic passport and there request a visa from the UAE's Embassy, returning to Abu Dhabi within 24 hours? Could the embassy in Abu Dhabi issue a new tourist passport for me (my current one had already expired or was close to expiring - I wasn't sure; I so rarely use it)? I hated calling on Christmas Eve and was certain nothing could be done on Christmas Day.

My devoted spouse lovingly stayed with me overnight in the airport. "We're a team," he affirmed. The airport hotel was full, but the front desk attendant said we could wait in the adjacent lounge and that she'd let us know around midnight whether there were any cancellations. Exhausted from our day-long journey, we tried sleeping on a bench in the lounge, but the harsh light, clanking dishes in the background and frigid, over air-conditioned temperature made slumber impossible. At around one a.m. on Christmas Day, a room at the inn became available.

We planned our next moves the following morning. I printed out and completed a new passport application and some color photos in the lounge. We would try again to pass through immigration, pleading, if necessary, to be allowed to spend Christmas with our family, promising to go to the Embassy the following day for a new tourist passport. No dice. Immigration refused to let me in until I had a new tourist passport. The Embassy assured me that first thing the following morning, Boxing Day, they would help me to obtain a new passport. My spouse entered Abu Dhabi to see our family and I remained in the airport, hopeful that I'd at last be free the next day (mercifully, I was).

Not so bad, we kept telling ourselves. This could have been worse. It wasn't a car accident. And, as I've had many occasions to remind myself over the past year, maybe this setback really could be an opportunity. The airport lounge was comfortable and, on Christmas Day, very quiet. I could write, read and watch DVDs. I would have enough to eat. I was safe. Which is a lot more than many people in the world have. So while this wasn't how I envisioned spending Christmas, I kept calm and was grateful.

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