Friday, August 14, 2009

Why I'd Make an Awful Political Prisoner

I'm back in the states. (sniff) I had two weeks of downtime in Bulgaria, but I kind of screwed it up. Basically, I outstayed my visa, and I couldn't stop worrying about it. It's a long, convoluted story. Maybe I'll get to it later in this post. Otherwise, it was a great two weeks.
I started out by going and visiting the host family for a few days. I was well taken care of - as always. Good, fresh food from the garden. It was so hot, however, that we didn't do much. I spent the first day just lying around, and I was tired all of the time. After a while, my "sister" and I started getting kind of testy around one another. I decided that it was time to get moving on. I told her that I would be going, and she started crying. So, I promised that I would come back. I wanted to leave a bag there anyway. I had a lot of stuff and didn't feel like hauling it around the country.
I then went to Rakitovo and stayed there for about a week. I had a good time there, but it was again overshadowed by my worries about my visa and the arrangements that were trying to be made to change my flight and get one of my cousins over here. More on that later. I saw a lot of people, which was great. I got a lot of hugs from the kids. I felt very loved. One of the groups in town even gave me this fancy certificate with a wax seal on it for the work that I had done with them during my service, and I got an autographed copy of a book one of the members published. Fancy... and most undeserved.
Probably one of the best things about the trip was seeing three of the nearby, currently-serving volunteers get together for a friendly baseball game with their kids. They used the equipment that was donated to me a few years ago. They were great with the kids as well, and they all wanted to play again once it was over. I was impressed with the volunteers. They were so calm, and the kids were calm around them. It made me think that I probably yelled too much at the kids when I was doing baseball.
I finally pulled myself away from Rakitovo, and I went to visit one of my Pre-Service Training colleagues in Dupnitsa. She and her parents were in the midst of a remodel, but they took great care of me. More excellent food. Good times. They made me promise to come back.
I then went back to visit the host family for a couple of days. In all these places, it was hard to say good-bye, but there were no tears this time around. People would ask me in all seriousness why I didn't just get a job in Bulgaria full-time. Then they would joke with me that I should have found a Bulgarian to marry. I actually did get a marriage proposal, but it was from someone that I honestly could never seriously consider marrying. I think our good-byes were tearless because I had already come back. I mean, some people had never expected to see me that soon, and I came back. I think they realize how much I'm tied to Bulgaria, and they figure that I'll be back again soon. I'm not so sure, but it was better than a second, tear-filled good-bye.
The night before my flight, I went to Sofia. I had to be up at 4 a.m., so I needed to make sure that I was there the night before. I met up with a couple of friends and had dinner, and then another friend stayed the night with me as she was scheduled to pick someone up at the airport the following day. I was a bit nervous and agitated, but I still had a good time.
So, the saga that overshadowed my final two weeks:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
- Matthew 6:25-34

I kept thinking about these verses, but I still couldn't stop worrying. I'd wake up in the night and think about it. I'd talk to God about it. I still couldn't stop worrying. It was clouding my final weeks in Bulgaria. I hated worrying, but I couldn't seem to stop.
So, I outstayed my time in Bulgaria. According to laws regarding foreign tourists in the country, I had ninety days to spend, and then I'd have to get out. Otherwise, they could hit me with fines ranging from 500 - 5000 leva. (It's a lot of money, trust me.) Or, they could possibly put some sort of stamp in my passport not allowing me to come back for a while. By the time I realized that I needed to get my visa extended, I was three days over. Peace Corps had sent a letter over asking for this from the beginning, but I'd missed my window, and I was screwed.
It's a long, convoluted story that I won't share here. I talked with a lot of people. No one could give me a straight answer as to what would happen. Discussing it only made it worse. I even got a hold of a connection to someone who works at immigration in Sofia airport, and she couldn't even tell me what would happen. "It depends on whose hands she falls into and what that person decides to do with her." Nice.
This is why I say that I'd make an awful political prisoner. They couldn't detain me - at least not for long. All they could do was fine me and ask me not to come back anytime soon. This thought alone terrified and tormented me. It shouldn't have. This isn't North Korea - where detained journalists were recently in the news for obtaining freedom and returning to the states. This isn't Pakistan - where people are threatened with death by the Taliban. This is Bulgaria. Lighten up, Apryl. I just couldn't. I joked about being a criminal, but I really felt like one, and I felt horrible about it.
In addition to this, my cousin was wanting to come and visit. She wanted to be sure that she could fly back with me on the same flight. I had to have Peace Corps work to arrange my ticket back. They couldn't turn authorization over to me. Each passing day saw the ticket prices for my cousin go up. I was stressed, and I couldn't sleep at night. I had to change to another location, 'cause I wasn't sure that I could get back in Bulgaria. The prices for my cousin were outlandish. Finally, I got a response from Peace Corps. Changing my ticket would be prohibitively expensive. I might as well buy a new one. I couldn't guarantee that my cousin and I would be on the same flight. Forget it. I apologized to my cousin and told her that we'd try another time.
But then, a light opened up. An idea came into my head that wasn't there before. It was so simple, I wondered why God didn't reveal it to me before. I was riding a bus, and it struck me: I have a stamp that allows me to be here until the end of October!
Last year, when I was still a volunteer, I was getting my "lichna karta", or personal ID card, renewed. I would only be in the country for another month, but I had to get it renewed for an entire year. At the time, I thought it was ridiculous. Now, I think God was looking out for me in advance. In addition to the ID card, which I no longer had, I got a stamp in my passport verifying this. The only problem was that it was in my Peace Corps passport in the U.S.
I begged my mom to send me photocopies of my passport information and the stamp. She took it to my grandfather and had him do it. I couldn't believe how clear the pictures turned out. There it was... plain as day - a stamp allowing me to stay in Bulgaria until the 31st of October. I printed out some copies and prayed it would work. I also prayed that whoever I met at immigration would be understanding.
I got to the airport, checked in, and went straight through security. I wanted to be there early in case there were any delays. I thought I'd be a bundle of nerves, but I felt surprisingly calm. I looked at the booths for immigration and saw a woman looking my way. "Here goes, God," I thought and walked over to her. I said good morning, handed her my passport, and here's the conversation that ensued:
Woman: (After inspecting my passport for a while) Do you speak Bulgarian?
Apryl: Yes.
Woman: You've outstayed your tourist visa.
Apryl: I know.
Woman: So, you know that you're only allowed to come in for three months.
Apryl: Yes.
(Long pause. I was waiting to see how she would react, but she didn't seem to know how to deal with it.)
Apryl: But I have a stamp in another passport that allows me to stay until the end of October. The only problem is that I mixed up my passports (may God forgive me for this lie), and I left it at home. I have a photocopy of it, however, and the stamp.
Woman: Let me see this photocopy.
I pulled it out and handed it over - explaining that there were two pages. She cut me off. She got it.
Woman: (After inspecting the photocopies) Where is this stamp that allows you to stay until the end of October?
I probably should have been terrified at that point. What? The stamp wasn't there? I knew I had checked and double-checked. But she handed the copy back right away, and I could see it - plain as day. It practically took up the whole page, and I was wondering why she couldn't see it. Maybe she was testing me?
Apryl: Here.
Woman: But you don't have the 'lichna karta' that goes with it?
Apryl: I had to leave it behind. It's not mine. It's your government's property.
She smiled and nodded knowingly. She then shuffled some papers. I knew I was in the clear.
Woman: I don't know how long it took you to learn Bulgarian but....
Apryl: Oh, many, many years.
Woman: (After stamping my passport) When will you come back to Bulgaria?
Apryl: (Radiant smile and quiet sigh of relief) Oh, that's what I wanted to hear. I hope it will be soon. Thank you.
She smiled.
Apryl: And thank you for being so kind to me.
The smile vanished. Maybe she knew that she had let me off the hook and just wanted to be rid of me. I didn't need another invitation. I grabbed my passport and scuttled out of there - thanking God for taking care of me. Then I flew back to the states. The best thing is, I'm still able to go back to Bulgaria whenever I want. I hope it will be soon.


Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

Richard J. Ackel said...

I am a US citizen married to a Bulgarian right now living in Bulgaria but the company who was going to give me a work visa and stff feel through and now im working to return home and I too have overstayed my visa and I too am scared to death. I have my own blog on blogspot and was mixed after reading your post. We are married and have all the paper work but i have no ID card and not sure how to get it and i have overstayed and im scared out of my mind i just wanted to be with my wife and be here and i had a job and for a while things looked good but then it didn't work out and im over my stay and i can only figure going home and working on her papers to be with me in the states. Is there any advice or information you can provide to me in this time of extreme stress and worry. I didn't want to do things this way and I went everywhere and talked to everyone about what I could do, im not hiding and im not a fan of overstaying i cant make moeny here and it makes me stressed so thank you for your post and I hope you get back to me.