April 7, 2006
Magic Blue Pass
Inevitably, every time I get on my soapbox and start to argue that, maybe, the United States is not the greatest nation on earth, or that maybe it would behoove us as a nation to look in our collective mirror and examine our flaws, someone will stand up and say, “I don’t see you complaining about that US passport when it is whizzing you around the globe, or “Which other Embassy would you like to take refugee in when the shit hits the fan.” Rather than argue with them that the very embassy they are talking about will most likely be the focal point of whatever “shit” is about to hit the fan, I agree, because after all, they are right. It is nice to wave that US passport and not need a visa to enter the majority of countries. As a comparison, I would hate to see how far my Iranian passport would get me. Having a US passport is like having a global VIP pass. Pass Go and collect your $200. Not so fast!
But before I share my latest story about my dealings with a US embassy, let me say that yes, I am grateful to have this marvel pass. Now onto our story; first, let me clear up a common misconception-the US Embassy is designed to help US citizens living overseas. I first realized what a sham this idea was when I received better treatment from the Thai government as I fled the Tsunami in nothing but my swimming trunks a few years ago. That is a whole other story, but it left a bad taste in my mouth. So what is the role of the Embassy? I am not certain, but I think it has something to do with establishing and maintaining corporate interests and ascertaining US dominance in foreign markets, but that may just be the leftist conspirator in me speaking. Why, may you ask, do I have such a cynical view of the lovely men and women working in the State Department? Let me share:
I needed a legal document to be notarized in front of an American consul, so I could release some funds from…well I needed a notary. I made my way down to the Embassy around 10 a.m. to find that they are only open between the opportune hours of 2:00 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. What do they do the rest of the time? Your guess is as good as mine. I was lucky enough to be on vacation, so I could make it during these convenient afternoon hours, but I guess other ex-pats don’t work. A small line of non-citizens had already begun to form, waiting for a chance to beg their way to the promised land. I left and wasted the next few hours milling around the nearest mall. After a few hours, I made my way back to the compound to have my document notarized. The line was now at least fifteen people long, but I waved my magic blue pass (US passport) and entered in front of the others. Inside, after making it past two separate security points, I took a number and began to wait. Surprisingly, I was called almost immediately. Wow! This is going to be great I thought. In and out. In and out. Yes, I was that naïve.
The woman behind the bulletproof glass took my documents and asked me to sit. Oh, “There will be a small fee.” Sure, I thought, that makes sense. $25. Twenty-Five dollars to stamp a piece of paper that says I am who I say I am. Since both my wife and I needed a stamp, it ended up costing us $50. How is that a small fee? For what reason could they possibly be charging $50 to stamp a piece of paper? $50. Fifty fuckin’ dollars! Sorry, it has been several hours and I am still upset. We paid the fee, which I call extortion, and we sat down. How long would you say this should take? Keep in mind there were about six people lurking around behind the glass. Twenty minutes. Add another twenty for bureaucratic malfeasance. It took one hour and ten minutes till we were called up to pick up our stamp.
At the window I was told that the state of my passport was unacceptable (some water had leaked onto the front page, making it difficult to read the writing.). I was strongly encouraged- told- to get a new one. Okay, no problem, I said. “There will be a small fine: $97.” (I was about to bust out the Chicken Dance. see previous post for explanation) How do they come up with these numbers? Fifty dollars for a stamp. $100 for a new passport. Apparently, it would have been cheaper if I had lost my passport, but since I had damaged it, I had to pay more. What do they say to justify these fees? We must pay for: the staff, the materials, the War in Iraq, Tax-cuts for millionaires. Why am I paying nearly $100 for a passport that is damaged because of shoddy workmanship? “Sorry but these new fancy passports are no good because even if a tiny amount of water gets near them, they warp.” These were the words from the man behind the glass. For $100 you would think that they could make a waterproof passport.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand that bureaucracy is synonymous with hell, and yes, I understand that this hell knows no single nation. I also understand that errands like this are never as simple as walking in, giving the guy five bucks, and walking out ten minutes later. The part that bothers me is that many Americans feel that we are immune to these types of impracticalities. We are raised in a culture, myself included, that thinks that if something, let’s say an embassy, is American, then it is perfect, and I am just here to say that it is far from true.
Next time you are arguing American foreign policy and someone tells you to be grateful for the privilege of an American passport, just tell them, “Damn right. I am paying for the privilege, paying through the nose!”.