Panic at the Airport

by Aysha Griffin

Who’s the most organized person you know? Until a few days ago, I would have said me.

As a “digital nomad” – one whose work is “portable” and “location-free” – I’ve had to be. Over the past four years of traveling and working remotely, I’ve chosen to de-clutter my life. In a gradual but ruthless process, I downsized from a 3,500 square-foot house to two large suitcases and a carry-on bag. So, you’d think I’d know exactly where every piece of everything resided. 

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I’d planned this trip to Rome for three months while visiting friends in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. In the days preceding my departure, I organized paperwork and cash – carefully separating documents pertaining to my Mexican residency and pesos (I have established residency there), U.S. citizenship and dollars, and European registrations and euros.  

The morning of my late-night flight, direct from Mexico City to Rome, I was ready. Passport, wallet, and flight information were highly organized in my handy red leather cross-body purse. 

At airport check-in, the Alitalia clerk asks, “Are you a Mexican resident?” Sí señora, yes! She hands me a familiar form to fill out and get stamped at Immigration on the other side of security. It requires my Mexican residency card number. I know I packed it somewhere… but where? In my mind, I needed it to re-enter the country, but not to leave it.

After so many flights in and out of Mexico, how could I forget this required step for leaving my country of residence? Since receiving my permanent residency card, I’ve been thrilled to return from trips abroad to quickly walk through the “Mexican-only” immigration line, receive a Bienvenidos, and not have to wait for Passport Control with “All Others.” I always feel pleased that I obtained permanent status to live and work in Mexico. As a traveler who fantasizes a global passport, this is a small but significant accomplishment.

I flash back to 2015. I am leaving Madrid to be in San Miguel de Allende precisely on Sept. 18, as per my Mexican attorney’s instructions, to receive the permanent residency I’d anticipated for four years. The attorney hands me the laminated card with this admonishment: “Do not lose this! It’s a big pain in the ass to replace it.” His English is perfect. 

Back to the present. I continue to check in, receive my boarding pass and receipts for two checked bags. I move to a quiet corner to look through my purse and carry-on for the residency card amid the various pouches of separated papers, cards, and cash. I can’t find it, but no problem: I have a paper copy of all essential documents. I’ll just show that to Immigration. 

I pass through security and stroll up to the Immigration counter. In Spanish, I explain I don’t have my residency card but here’s a copy!

“Originals only!” barks the clerk and looks away.  

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I rush to the ladies’ restroom. On the floor, near the back of the mustard-yellow tiled room, I tear into my carry-on and purse, checking pockets of clothing, the electric toothbrush case, shaking book pages apart, as my heart races and my brain says, “Be calm, it will all work out.”

I try not to think about my Mexican attorney’s admonition: “Do not lose this! It’s a big pain in the ass to replace it.” 

I talk myself down. So I don’t have the card. Big deal. I’ll get on the plane and contact my Mexican attorney to get me a new card for my return. I zip my carry-on and proceed to the gate to wait with my fellow travelers. When it’s my turn to board, the attendant says, “You need your visa stamped by Immigration.” It seems my boarding pass is marked “RES” for resident. "But I have a copy," I plead. “Sorry. We can’t let you on the plane.”

Where could the card be? I know it’s with me. I packed it so I’d have it to re-enter Mexico. It must be in one of the two big suitcases I’d shipped through! Of course, under so much stress, I know I’m being totally irrational, but that doesn’t stop me. I instinctually put my hands to my ears to block out the voice of my Mexican attorney, "“Do not lose this! It’s a big pain in the ass to replace it.” 

A sympathetic supervisor with Alitalia makes some calls and minutes later my two maximum-weight bags arrive at the gate waiting area so I can look through them. All passengers have boarded as I frantically unzip the Pullman-size bag and look at all the stuff. It’s hopeless.  No way would I have put the card there! My heart is pounding in my chest and ears. I tell the supervisor to let the plane go without me. He comforts me by saying, “If you can find the card, come back tomorrow and we’ll get you on the same flight.”

Maybe I wasn’t meant to go back to Italy. Maybe this plane was going to crash and I was being saved. Maybe there would be another earthquake in Mexico City, as there was just two days before, and I was meant to die in it. 

Or maybe I had left the card somewhere in San Miguel and would take the four-hour shuttle ride back there and return within the next 18 hours. 

I take a few deep breaths and try to think calmly and reasonably. The only possible place it could be in San Miguel is with a dear friend who is safeguarding copies of paperwork for me… just in case. I call and wake her from a deep sleep at midnight. She diligently looks through my file. Nope. No card. “How could you not have it with your passport?” she asks. "Stupid me," I reply. 

Meanwhile, my bags have been taken away to clear customs. I wait with an Alitalia rep, a terse, tight-lipped young woman who’d normally be off-duty by now but has to babysit this incompetent old American broad. Finally, she escorts me like a criminal to the basement where baggage handlers hang out in a stark, low-ceilinged world of steel machines and giant conveyor belts. I confirm these are my bags, prove my identity and, after one final baggage scan, (What? Had the baggage guys implanted a bomb?), I am up to street level and free to go… but where?

I’m resigned to getting a room for the night at an airport hotel. I’ve softened my handler’s condescending, bad attitude by talking about San Miguel de Allende, where her cousin had a “muy bonita” wedding the past summer, and ask her to help me. I slip a 200 Peso note (about $9) into her purse, knowing that money habla, money talks. She finds me a porter, explains my situation, reminds me I can return for tomorrow night’s flight and bids me a hasty “Hasta luego!

The porter, a gentleman of few words, loads all my bags on to his dolly and we trek to the Marriott Hotel attached to the terminal. I don’t care what it costs. It is 1:00 a.m. and I need a shower, a bed, wifi, and a safe place in which to dismantle everything from every bag. 

“Sorry. We’re entirely booked,” says the cheery guy at the hotel counter. Right. Of course you are. How about any of the other hotels at or near the airport? He makes a few calls. “No, sorry, all airport hotels are full.” 

My trusty porter takes me to the taxi stand where you pay in advance for your ride. “Where to?” The only hotel I know is The Gillow in Centro Historico. The porter smartly suggests the ticket vendor call to confirm there is a room. Yes!

Thirty minutes and twice the normal fare later, after a ride through the post-earthquake, eerily quiet area near Mexico City’s main plaza, the Zocalo, I am in my room at The Gillow. Although exhausted, I unzip every bag and empty the content on the floor. Nothing unexamined. I am possessed. It must be here! 

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I find the card in the back of my checkbook, in the red cross-body bag I've been carrying all day. I had stashed some cash there too and didn't see the card hidden from view, hidden from me. 

That found, and my three suitcases exploded around the room, I Skype-call a friend in Italy who alerts my landlord I will be a day late, re-books my driver from the Rome airport, and cancels a surprise party that was to be held in my honor. The logistics, the hassles, the setbacks! “At least,” I tell my immigration lawyer in my mind,”I have avoided the pain in the ass.” 

I lie down at 3 a.m. and dream of a sweet cottage overlooking the Mediterranean where I never have to leave again. I have the whole next day to enjoy some exhibits in Mexico City and then get on the night flight to Rome. Easy shmeezy. No worries.

The next morning, with an adrenalin hangover, I discover that all government and civic buildings are closed to check for structural damage from the terremoto, so there’s nothing to do but walk around, take a nap and wait for evening. The newspaper headlines scream death and damage tolls, and I am reminded that the problems of one silly person – who misplaces her residency card – don’t amount to a hill of frijoles in this world. 

I have to do a lot of self-forgiveness talk to get over this blatant lack of competence. Friends offer stories via email of losing passports, getting to the airport a day late, etc. But they are small comfort given how much planning I’d put into this. 

I show up again at the Alitalia counter with a filmmaker’s “Take Two” attitude. The surly woman at the counter to which I am directed calculates I need to pay a penalty of $360 for a change of flight. There is no arguing... either I agree or not. I pay, disgusted but grateful that I can.

I show my residency card and am stamped through Immigration, board the flight to Rome, arrive the next evening. I am met at my apartment by Roman friends who take me to a bar in Trastevere to drink Prosecco and toast the arrival of one who is forever humbled in her pride of organizational skills, and deeply, deeply relieved. 

 

Aysha Griffin is an international business consultant, writer, life coach and workshop facilitator, traveling in search of her next home, partner and standard poodle. She can be reached via www.AyshaGriffin.com or her blog, www.InhabitYourDrreams.com

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