Gosh. I just went to bed and it’s already time to get up. Good thing my writer friend offered a last-minute lift to the airport: check in at 5AM! It’s still dark outside and even though it’s July 28th a cold shiver makes me uncomfortable. The truth is that I’m worried. Back from a six-week volunteer experience in Brazil, I’m supposed to take on the world, right?
I feel a little like crying.
Matteo looks at me with admiration and mistakes my fear with a bad mood due to lack of rest. He'sgot big plans for when I get back and he wants me in his theater company. I'm flattered and I manage to distract myself but here he embraces me with the best wishes and advices... and he's already gone. It makes me laugh a bit with its battered and crackling small car (yes: it saved your a**e this morning, though).
Hey but this is the super-cool new part of the third airport in Italy! I "dress" as a lived-in woman for the occasion and I cross the threshold of this milky giant looking like someone who has always and always traveled: casually self-confident. I can’t get the whole Vietnam visa thing out of my head, though. Yeah: the consummate traveler goes to Vietnam without a visa, but...can you?!! The alternative option was not to leave, loose the ticket, spend another thousand euros and wait at least three weeks before being able to try again. But no! And...yesterday the theologian-philosopher-president of the non-profit organization involved in developing countries projects assured me that now they do it on arrival because "they are opening up to tourism". Will it be so?
With this trembling hope I approach the check-in desk where a hairless and bow-tie boy welcomes me seriously and dutifully trying not to reveal the comatose state he is in.
And here starts the Visa Odissey. The Visa? And why on earth? Now they release it upon arrival: you know, they're opening up to tourismI try to remain calm and kind by deliberately showing a certain knowledge about the subject. The ground assistant hesitates, he would like to ask for confirmation but at that time on Sunday there is no one so he finally embarks my super backpack with undisguised hesitation.
Done! At least for the moment. I am amazed at the lucid madness with which I face this unknown while I let my gaze go to the soup of human beings that laps the white halls of international departures. It reminds me of a certain tragicomic film where the leading character arrives before God through dazzling rooms and corridors. I'm smiling as I realize howfast my brain jumps from A to Z bouncing around in frenzied and improbable associations of ideas.
It's time to leave and passing in front of the duty-free shop I think contentedly that once I get to the first stop, embarking on an intercontinental flight, I will be entitled to the purchase of 2 cartons of cigarettes, which, as a Sunday smoker I am, will last me a lifetime!
Another European airport, another example of sophisticated applied technology, another queue to suffer. I feel like I'm going to the gallows. Never had airport check-ins with annexed ground assistant triggered me so many emotions. What if they don't board me? What if they send me home? I earn the goal in small steps and heavy legs, air conditioning malaise and lack of sleep. Here we go.
Not a blink.
Not even a blink, on the contrary, the big boy from beyond the Alps smiles at me, while the adrenaline rushes down under my feet and I draw two words from my rusty German. From zero to ten in a few seconds, and I'm back in charge! I feel relieved and the joyful excitement that precedes every journey almost returns: you feel a citizen of the world just because you are at an airport, at a train station, or in the shabbiest gast station diner.
I start wandering around the shop windows, trying to guess the where that distinguished businessman or that round woman loaded with bags come from. I'm bored, it feels like I'm wasting time already, I have to leave, leave. This is the most satisfying feeling of traveling: the intolerance towards platitudes, the slightly snobbish awareness of being different, of having something special for being a traveler. You feel totally alien to the ordinary of noisy tourists with overexcited children who, in fact, annoy us.
A pair of fat and thieving Central European newlyweds distracts me from my thoughts (but confirms my reasoning) and reminds me that I must get photos for the visa application. In wedding dress and friends in tow they try to slip into the photo booth. Despite being funny and clumsy in size and movements they manage to pull out the romantic woman in me that certain mental somersaults had put aside. As in movies and never in life, the just married couple leaves the guests and, without changing clothes, sets off for the honeymoon like a Monopoly "Do not pass Go". I feel a faint call, a scent of home that comes from afar but can't get that close. Like the light of a torch that dims hoping that someone will change the batteries. People I left behind. But a traveler cannot have ties, a traveler acts alone. Away. Away.
The cheerful gang moves away and it's my turn for the photos, which I choose in black and white because I'm a Contrary Mary but also because it costs less. I buy the supply of cigarettes and this gives me five minutes of happiness. The wait seems endless. I realize I am longing for the twelve hours of flight and original language films almost with impatience: I can't wait to shake off this feeling of imminent happening.
The plane is overloaded with Asian people and I get distracted trying to guess their country origin: to me they all look so similar!
The uniform of Malaysian flag airline attendants consists of the traditional female costume with bright batik and chaste workmanship. Helpful and smiling, these young women appear very far from the Western career-girls model . But it's useless: the Visa stress prevents me from relaxing and sleeping so, one after the other, I absorb all the foreign films (even the poor ones) that this winged beast broadcasts from the mini screens set in the back of each armchair. About to land in Kuala Lumpur - where I will transitbefore boarding to Vietnam - I see the skyline of Kuala Lumpur impressive airport standing out on the horizon: it reminds me of that building in Sydney elected as a symbol of Australia and for a second I'm already projected towards another destination, another journey, who knows.
The air conditioning is on full blast and I realize it's twenty hours since I last breathed "open" air. In short, just long enough to catch a cold, pee, check e-mail and it's time to leave. As Hanoi approaches I refill the reservoir of hope which light has been on for some time now, and I savor the sensation the cone-shaped hats and the rustle of silks clothes causes me. Apart from some reckless French and English tourists, the human scenario is made up of Vietnamese people wh,o as soon as they see me, look at me with a sort of curious respect: a Western woman who travels alone in a country that is not exactly touristy! Once again, an imperceptible smile betrays my solo traveler vanity, but I can't wait for time and tact to change that curious deference into curiosity and that's it.
"It's gonna go just fine, come on it's okay, go on it's all right". In line at the passport control of the small and sloppy airport of the Vietnamese capital, I repeat this sentence as if hypnotized by a Hindu mantra. I observe the policeman by premeditating an attitude to adopt. Here we go.
“But…here there’s no visa. Where’s the visa?” the short, skinny man asks me in broken English. I explain to him that I haven't got it and that I would like to do it now. He doesn't even bother to tell me it doesn't work like that and with an imperious gesture he calls two colleagues who escort me to what looks like the State police office. Still convinced there's a solution and with all the courtesy and humility I am capable of (because I am a Western woman and we are in an South-East Asia) I tell every man in the room the reason for traveling to their country: I volunteered to work in a humanitarian project supported also by my country and that I just coouldn't get the entry Visa on time, and again that the project manager assured me that I could have applied for one upon arrival at the airport. At first they listen and explain the only way would be to have an invitation letter from the Vietnamese government then they completely ignore me: who smokes, who giggles, who minds his own business, who goes to call other colleagues. Nauseated by the despotic attitudes of colonizers and invaders who came one after another over the centuries, the unusual morning situation must have infused that calm well-being and healthy good humor that portray the triumph of the just, the redemption of the oppressed ones.
Verdict: expulsion and repatriation. My passport and flight ticket are confiscated; they don't even let me make a phone call. Resigned, I ask if I can at least retrieve my luggage: they make faces but allow me. Escorted to boarding for Kuala Lumpur, they hand me over to a flight assistant who will keep my papers and entrust them to the Malaysian State police. They make me sit in business class not out of consideration but because illegal immigrants should not mix with other passengers. I feel like I’m in a surrealist picture, in a Kafkaesque situation: I must look completely numb.
Once at the Malaysian airport I am the first to get off but I have to wait in a separate room for the police to come and take me into custody. Discouragement is such as to inhibit any kind of reaction. A big fat olive-colored man takes over my documents and my tired person and drags them to his superior humming ‘o sole mio!!! At the command, the human samples are the most dismal, and I can imagine - just a little - how refugees and illegal immigrants must feel like when intercepted by the border police off of our coasts. On my turn I simply tell the truth and I suggest to not be embarked for Europe but to be allowed to enter Malaysia instead - where a visa is not needed - just long enough to go to the Vietnamese embassy and get me one. Shared tip.
"There is no better opportunity to […] face latent fears and test the hidden sides of your personality. [...] And more than anything else, you will experience the exciting sensation of being able to go in any direction - literally and metaphorically - at any time […]”.*
It is evening now, the dark sky and the tropical temperature are those of another hemisphere. I don't know anything about this country and I don't know where to start from. I would have stayed in Kuala Lumpur for 12 days, getting by very well and even falling in love, but at that moment I didn't know. I take my knees in my arms and bow my head. I cry in silence. Finally.
* From “Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel.” by Rolf Potts.