Monday, December 8, 2014

Nyet Comrade

Today's post is all about travel gone bad. When you think that your personal travel story reeks and you have basically sworn off trips any further away than the convenience store on the corner by your house, appreciate that other folks have an even more woeful tale to tell. Today's anecdote is one such chilling tale. First and foremost I am relieved to tell you that this story did not happen to me, but to a colleague of mine. However, as he told me about his experience, I unconsciously pulled my knees into my chest and began audibly moaning as I rocked back and forth.

My colleague had been invited to give a talk in St. Petersburg, Russia. He did his due diligence and applied for his travel visa several months in advance. In due time an official looking document arrived, written entirely in Russian, littered with the seals of various administrators and officials. With his fancy signed and stamped travel authorization in hand and a current passport, he then booked his airline tickets, set up his hotel, and registered to attend the conference. When the appointed date of his travel came, he headed to the airport and endured all of the usual indignities and hassles that are currently associated with such an experience, obviously including the 10+ hour long trans-Atlantic flight.

Upon deplaning, he worked his way through the lengthy delays of getting through the lines at customs. When he offered his travel documentation and his passport to the customs official, the agent asked him for his visa. My colleague indicated that the agent had it in his hand. After a few testy back and forth exchanges, my colleague figured something was terribly wrong, especially when a brusque security team armed with automatic weapons was called in. Through broken english, he came to understand that he would not be allowed to leave the airport as he had not presented an authorized visa. He quickly realized that if he were to continue raising a fuss, the security team would not hesitate to lock him up.

He then had to scramble to find a plane outgoing to the U.S. that had an empty seat. If you have ever been in Europe, getting a seat on a plane with short notice is nearly impossible. He was forced to wait several days in the international terminal of the airport, sleeping on floors and benches, surviving on food of dubious quality without any opportunity to take a shower. After nearly half a week trapped in his foreign cage, he finally worked his way back home. Ultimately he learned that his offical-looking Russian travel documentation was not a visa, but was simply an official-looking document that only gave him permission to apply for a visa. As he is not a blogger, he really had nothing positive that he could salvage from this miserable experience. At least for folks like me, I could get a couple of posts out of it.