Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A Tale of Two Cities - Visa Quest

This blog is about a tale of two cities - not the London and Paris of Dicken's novel but rather a tale involving Bangkok, Thailand and Vientiane, Lao People's Democratic Republic. Although I have been mad as the dickens, this tale does not involve a revolution or even violence. The subtitle, "Visa Quest" , has nothing to do with the similarly named 1985 film "Vision Quest" starring Matthew Modine as a coming of age high school wrestler although my tale of two cities does involve wrestling - wrestling with the United States bureaucracy.

Almost a year ago to today's date this tale begins. My wife, Duang, and I took a 8.5 hour bus trip to Bangkok and spent the night in a hotel the day before Duang's scheduled morning appointment at the American Consulate. The purpose of her appointment was to be interview in regards to her application for a B-2 Tourist visa to visit the United States.

I had reviewed the US Consulate's website, the US State Department's website, and the application form along with associated instructions. Based upon the information from all three sources, I prepared her application and associated documentation. We paid the required $131 fee here at the Thai Post Office and brought the receipt with us to Bangkok. We also had to pay a $10 fee in order to make an appointment over the Internet - the only method allowed for making an appointment at the Consulate in Bangkok. Prior to leaving our hotel for the short walk to the Consulate, I double checked the document package to ensure that it was complete.

To obtain a Tourist visa to the United States an applicant must provide documentation and convince an interviewer that they have close ties to their home country and that they would return to the homeland at the conclusion of their visit to the USA. Typical documents that are anticipated to be submitted during the interview include bank records, employment records, home ownership, and motor vehicle registrations. Duang does not work but she does own two homes here in Thailand. Her document package included our marriage certificate, a Thai passport with her last name as "Hale", a Thai National ID card with the last name as "Hale", photographs of our home, photographs of our wedding, some photographs of her grandchildren as well as extended family here in Thailand, a copy of our 2008 joint US Federal Income Tax Return.

We arrived at the appropriate time for her interview. I knew that I could not accompany her to the interview - that is made very clear on the Internet websites. I was familiar with the layout inside of the Consulate and had concerns about Duang finding the correct location to submit the documents and purchase an envelope for her passport to be returned to her by mail if she was granted a visa. From previous personal visits to the Consulate, I knew that I could enter into the Consulate without appointment for "American Citizen Services" which was a short walk from where Thai citizens go to be processed for visas. I had what I thought was a bright idea to accompany Duang inside on my way to "American Citizen Services", point out where she needed to go, and finish my business before waiting for her outside of the Consulate. I was stopped at the Security Counter by the hired Thai staff. They asked me why was I there. "I replied that I was going to "American Citizen Services" to have additional pages inserted in my passport. The Thai woman thumbed through my passport and told me that I had enough pages in my passport and instructed me to leave the Consulate. I was not angry and figured that I had given it a good shot. However, I must admit that I was a little miffed at a foreigner telling me, an American citizen as well as taxpayer, that I had enough empty pages in my American passport and denying me access to American Citizen Service. However with the Thai Security Officers around the area and with my wife needing to get to her interview, I dutifully obeyed and left the Consulate. I waited outside on the public sidewalk until I and the other people waiting with me were ordered by Thai Security people to wait across the 6 lane divided road that runs in front of the Consulate.

After two hours, Duang and I were reunited. I asked her if she had been approved. She said that she had not been approved because her documents were incomplete. The interviewer had asked her about my passport, my banking records, and documents related to my previous employment in Thailand - all documents not listed on the websites or application form. I knew that the decision could and would not be reversed but I was confused as to the specific details for her application being rejected. I took her hand and reentered the Consulate entry foyer. I introduced myself to the Thai Receptionist. I explained that my wife was asked for my passport and since it was not listed and I was not allowed to accompany her, she did not have it. I showed my passport to her and stated that I was available to answer any and all questions related to me. I requested to speak to an American official regarding the matter. She proceeded to tell me that their procedures would not allow for that to happen. I reasserted to her that I was an American citizen and I wanted to speak with an American official about the specific documents that were lacking or would be required. After some discussion back and forth, she brought another representative over to speak with me. This representative, another Thai national, with the official name tag of "American Consulate Greeter" instantly reminded me of the Walmart Greeters that you find back in the USA. This person, although very pleasant, was also just as useless as the Walmart Greeters. This did nothing to satisfy my request now evolving into a quasi demand to speak with an AMERICAN OFFICIAL. She continued to quote the procedure to me and indicated that we could reapply ($131 + $10 + transportation and lodging at any time). I pointed out that we, or more specifically I, did not want to go through all the expense and time to only find out that at some future time to have the application rejected because we were lacking "a note from my Mother, a note from the Parrish Priest, a letter from a Rabbi or the Pope or perhaps a note from President Obama" (my words exactly). She reaffirmed that she was sorry to which I replied that I knew that she was not sorry about the rejection but was sorry that I was standing before her giving her a hard time. In the corner of my eye I could see that the Thai security personnel were looking uncomfortable. Looking further down the corridor in a separate room with glass windows, I saw some obvious American security people in civilian clothing looking interested in what was transpiring between me and the "Greeter". Not wishing to push my luck or try my patience any further, we left the Consulate. The "Greeters" parting gift was a piece of paper with an email address that I could write to about the situation.

After our 8.5 hour bus trip back to our home, I wrote an email to the email address explaining the situation as well as requesting specific reasons for the rejection and a list of other documents required to prevent a recurrence. In my mind I knew what slippery slope that I was embarking upon but I forged ahead. My email was quickly responded to from the Consulate stating that they get so many emails that they can not respond to them without additional information. I was instructed to resend the email with certain specific words in the subject line. There were three different options for words to add to the subject line depending upon the actual situation (Think in terms of automated answering machines when you call a large company with a choice of numbers to select - all of which do not define your situation or need). I selected the word choice that most closely matched our situation. Again I received another prompt reply which did not address my specific requests but in a form letter type response reiterated the policy roughly "The burden is on the applicant to show evidence and convince the interviewer that they will leave the United States" I was very irate. After talking or rather raging to an old friend back in America, taking his advice, and realizing that my wife really wanted to meet my family back in the USA, I decided to reapply once again and provide all the documents that had been asked for but not listed. I paid another $10 to be able to make another appointment. I went on line to schedule another appointment only to discover that earliest available appointment was three months later in September! That was the last straw. Our visa quest for 2009 was over. The tale of one city, Bangkok, was to continue in 2010.

Last week it became evident that I needed to return to the United States to tend to family business on an emergency basis. I wanted my wife to accompany me since the trip would be a month or longer in duration. I researched the Bangkok Consulate website as well as the State Dept website about obtaining a visa for Duang on an emergency or compassionate basis. The best that I could determine was that we would have to apply per the procedure, arrange for an interview, and once we had an interview scheduled request an expedited early appointment to supersede the scheduled appointment. If we did not hear from the Consulate in 5 days regarding our request for an expedited appointment it would mean that our request was denied. This did not exactly meet our needs, so I found the direct line phone number for the Visa section of the Bangkok Consulate. I called the number but could not get a connection. Undeterred, and I should have realized by then - foolishly, I found the phone number of the Consulate and called them. My call was answered by a Thai employee. I explained our situation. She replied that I needed to contact the Visa section. I explained that I had called the listed number and she said that they do not answer the phone and that I had to contact the Visa Section by email. Continuing my unjustified confidence in the Bangkok Consulate, once again I foolishly followed the Consulate's instructions and sent an email. My email response was quickly replied to by the same notification to resend with the multiple choice of words to add to the subject line that I had received before. Once again none of the choices actually defined my situation or needs. Only the gentle touch of my 15 month old grandson on my leg as he came over to stand by me, prevented me from doing damage to my computer or to myself. However because he doesn't speak Thai or Lao yet let alone English, his presence did nothing to stop me from loudly and colorfully expressing my opinion of the US government.
It then occurred to me to look into how the US Consulate in Laos might be able to help us.

Now begins the tale of the second city - Vientiane, Laos. I called the US Consulate in Vientiane. The phone was answered by a Lao national. I asked if we could apply for a B-2 Visa for a Thai citizen in Laos. They enthusiastically replied that we could. I asked a couple of specific questions and the person indicated that I needed to speak with her supervisor who she put on the line. She answered my questions but when I asked a question that was perhaps too technical indicated that she was not in the Visa section but if I liked she would transfer me to the Visa Section. I was transferred to the Visa section and had my question answered. I then filled out the new electronic form for requesting a visa. After submitting the form electronically, I needed to make an appointment for Duang to have an interview. I clicked on a link to make an appointment. There was no need to pay $10 to make an appointment however the website indicated that interviews were only conducted on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Since it was Monday, my best hope would be to have an appointment on Thursday. I continued the process and to my shock and amazement, there were appointments available for Tuesday - the next day. Any need or process to get an "Expedited Appointment" evaporated.

Today Duang and I went into Laos early in the morning to be at the US Consulate for her 10:00 A.M. appointment. Around 11:00 A. M. Duang came out of the Consulate and informed me that she had been denied a visa once again. In response to my questions, she indicated that the man did not look at any of the documents in her briefcase. He told her that she did not need a visa to go to America and that the man told her that we needed to send papers about our marriage to America to be reviewed as well as approved. This was very confusing and did not make sense to me. Duang and I spoke and agreed to go into the Consulate to find out what was going on. It seemed to me that the Interviewer had mistakenly interpreted Duang's request for a B-2 Tourist Non-Immigrant visa to be a request for an Immigrant Visa. We entered the Security Foyer and explained to the Lao security officer our issue. She indicated that we could come back at 1:00 P.M. after lunch to pursue the matter. We went to our own lunch, returned, and waited to reenter the Consulate. At 1:00 P.M. we were allowed in, explained our situation, cleared through security, and allowed into the American Citizens Services area. Duang and I explained our issue with the Lao national behind the window. Duang did not know the Interviewer's name but remembered which line number he handled. We were told to wait, and that upon his return from lunch, he would speak to us. After awhile we were instructed to go to the applicable line number. We were greeted by an AMERICAN official. I explained the situation and indicated that I thought that there had been a misunderstanding. He very politely and professionally explained what had happened.

First of all, US policy is that they assume all tourist visa applicants will not leave the USA. It is then up to the applicant to prove and convince the Interviewer that they will leave the United States. This is sort of like saying you are guilty until you can prove that you are innocent. OK, it is their game and we have to play by their rules. Not exactly supporting the pretty words of welcoming foreign visitors and how their visits culturally enrich America and develop bonds between nations and peoples. At least now, the rules are being clearly defined.

Secondly, being married to an American citizen does not really help get an applicant approved. Each applicant must be evaluated on their own merits - i.e. income, savings, home ownership, employment. The fact that the American spouse will be paying the bills, has the economic resources and has strong ties to a country outside of the USA is not a consideration. From the official I got the very distinct impression that a spouse with no job and no savings stands very little chance of being approved. In fact Duang had told me that of the 55 people (55 x $131) interviewed that morning -2, two, deux, dois, song ... people had been granted visas,

Lastly the Officer recommended that since we were married we should apply for Immigrant Visa even if we did not plan on living in the USA. We could maintain the Immigrant Visa by visiting the USA once a year. Duang had reported back correctly but just not completely. The paperwork for Immigrant Visa is submitted to the USA for review and approval. Once the Immigrant Status visa is granted, tourist visas are not required for travel to the USA.

At last, we had and explanation. At last we had spoken to an AMERICAN official.

I recounted to him our experiences in Bangkok and expressed gratitude to him for explaining the reality of the process as well as his recommendation. I pointed out that although I did not like the decision, I understood, and I could accept the situation. As I used to tell people who worked for me in the past "I may not like the truth, but I can handle the truth." So it was today. I suggested to the Official not as a criticism but as an improvement, that the websites be rewritten to more clearly indicate that if the applicant does not have a job, does not have money in the bank - they are going to waste their money applying for a Tourist Visa even if their spouse is an US citizen.

We know of some people who applied 5 times (5 x $131) to get a B-2 Tourist Visa. At her last interview in Bangkok, Duang witnessed a Thai woman yelling at the US Consulate employees where they could go and what they could do to themselves after being rejected for a third time. This is undoubtedly good for the image of the United States. This creates a great deal of anger. Duang and I are not alone in this situation and predicament. It had cost us $413 plus travel expenses to determine that applying for a Tourist Visa is a waste of time and money for our particular set of circumstances and conditions.

According to US State Dept statistics in each of the past 3 years 72% of Lao applications for Tourist Visas have been rejected. In terms of sheer numbers for 2009 1,173,505 applications for tourist visa were rejected, in 2008 1,248,865 were rejected and in 2007 1,204,294 were rejected worldwide. Approximately 26 to 28% of all Tourist visa applications are rejected each year. Some rich countries have rejection rates around 4 to 6% whereas poor countries like Laos are around 72%.

It appears that the US government is more concerned about perceptions than they are in communicating reality ergo the truth. In my opinion the image of the United States as well as its esteem would be better served in dissuading certain peoples from applying for Tourist Visas than encouraging people to spend their money initially and more importantly additional times fostering the illusion that they have a good probability of obtaining a Tourist Visa.

As I have written many times before regarding life here in Southeast Asia - "Things are not always what they appear to be" This statement is not limited to just Southeast Asia.

The same is true of the statement "Things are not always what you expect them to be"

So ends the Tale of Two Cities. So ends Visa Quest.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Baan That Rocket Launches

Sunday, 01 May, was a holiday here in Thailand just as in many other countries in the world. It was also the day that the rocket builders of Baan That had told us that they would be launching their rockets. We left our home in Udonthani around 8:00 A.M. with a special guest to accompany us. Peelawat, our 15 month old grandson, had spent the night along with his mother at our home. I suggested that it might be nice for them to join us along with #4, Duang's youngest brother, on our day trip out to Baan That. We headed out under an overcast sky, hot, and rather humid conditions. May is the start of rainy season and true to form we had had another big thunderstorm the previous evening. During the rainy season our precipitation typically is in the form of afternoon or night thunderstorms.

On the road north towards the Lao border we encountered some sprinkles. The very slight shower did not deter us. Weather around here is always interesting as well as unpredictable. There are many micro climates which vary greatly resulting in torrential downpour in one area and dry as a bone weather no more than 1/2 mile away. Once in Pattaya south of here and on the coast, I saw a downpour on one side of a road and not a drop of rain on the other side. True to our hopes, the slight shower, several kilometers from Baan That was just localized.

We retraced our way from the previous trip. The village school, where the International Rocket Festival was staged , had all traces of the festival removed except for the trash. The school grounds were littered with plastic - plastic bags, plastic straws, plastic bottles, plastic cups, and plastic ground clothes. It was a real mess. Hopefully it will be cleaned up after the holiday.

As we approached the center of the village, our destination became apparent. A spiralling plume of smoke streaked from the ground high into the sky. A rocket had been launched revealing to us where we needed to drive to. In no time we were at the launch site. This was another area covered with litter. There were 15 launch pads set up on the edge of a flood plain. Three of the launch pads were for very large rockets with the remaining twelve pads more suitable for launching 6" diameter by 5 foot long rockets that we watched being fabricated on our previous visit. The launch pads were made of prefabricated reinforced concrete columns and were heavily blackened - evidence of many previous launches undoubtedly associated with the rocket festival. The launch ramps were slightly angled from vertical to ensure that the rockets were fired over the empty flood plain rather than directly above the launch area. There was a large elevated stage at the far end of the rocket launch area. We pulled into the unpaved grounds and parked to the left of the stage. We found out that a Mahlam Lao stage show was going to be starting soon. Rockets, Rocket Launches, Mahlam Lao show, and Go-Go Girls - this had the makings of a very interesting day.

The dirt road that ran along the length of the launching area was lined on both sides with booths and motorcycle push cart vendors. The booths as well as the push carts sold soft drinks, ice cubes, beer, ice cream, whiskey, cooked foods, fruits, and snacks - everything that you would need for a good time. We walked down towards the launch pads but Peelawat was not thrilled with the rockets. When the rockets are launched there is a large plume of smoke along with a loud roar. Although Peelawat did not cry, his eyes and body language indicated that he was afraid. Duang, her daughter, Peelawat, and #4 returned to the area around the stage. This was good for Peelawat in that next to the location where they decided to sit there was a booth where people could throw darts at balloons to earn prizes. #4 quickly won a large stuffed toy almost as big as Peelawat. This kept Peelawat occupied for much of the day. He is babbling quite a bit now and for most of the trip to Baan That he had been "talking" to a pillow in the back seat of the truck. At least now he could talk to an object that had a face and ears.

I wandered about the actual launch area and was quickly reunited with the rocket building family. They recognized me and brought a metal cup of Lao Kao, moonshine whiskey, for me to drink. They were having a family outing - three generations out to enjoy launching their rockets. Like all the other rocketeers that day, they had a canopy to provide protection from the sun, rain, or possible falling objects. While the men put the finishing touches on each of the rockets, the women and children sat underneath the canopy on sahts.

The rockets arrive to the launch facility without their ignitors and fuses installed. The rockets have a temporary cover removed from their nozzle to allow the men to slightly ream out the rocket fuel. Water and cotton swaps are used to prepare the rocket for the fuse/ignitor assembly. The rockets are ignited with a truck battery near the base of the launch pad. Each team provides their own battery for launching their rockets. Thin wires run from the battery up the launch ramp and into the rocket. The fuse which has been installed inside of the rocket is a thin strip of fabric that has been soaked in the tailings of gunpowder and water tailings from reaming the rocket. The nozzle of the rocket is plugged with a bunched up rag that has also been saturated in the fuel tailings. The Battery heats up a wire which ignites the fuse which in turn ignites the rocket solid fuel. The process of preparing the rockets and strapping them to the launch pads is a very dirty business as the day wore on the rocketeer's arms, hands, as well as clothing became covered in heavy black soot. Whereas there was no smoking at the rocket production facility, just as previous launches in Tahsang Village, most of the men were smoking as they worked on their rockets.

When we first arrived there were not many people at the launch area. As the morning turned more into afternoon, more and more launch teams as well as spectators arrived. There were not many falangs, foreigners, at the event. I saw four other foreigners in attendance. They appeared to be local residents rather than tourists so the event was a local celebration as opposed to the previous festival. I prefer the local events rather than tourist focused festivals. I find it to be much more interesting as well as educational to observe and sometimes to even participate in the local focused events. The Lao Loum people are very friendly and curious. Yesterday the rocketeers were busy drinking, mainly their version of moonshine whiskey, so as the day wore on they became even more friendly. Many of the booths located around the launch area sold bottles of the whiskey.

Rockets were constantly being launched. Several times two rockets were launched at the same time. Once three rockets were launched simultaneously. So many rockets were being launched that from his position near the stage, Peelawat overcame most of his fear. When a rocket was launched he would look to see it, point at it, and issue a little sound that seemed to mean "Look".

One of the rockets blew up on the launch pad. The explosion covered the ground with burning fuel, bamboo splinters and shards of PVC while filling the area with large billows of heavy smoke. Men on the nearby launch pad continued preparing their rocket seeming oblivious to the excitement below them. I had squatted down for a better perspective of the launch. Through my lens I could see the shards and burning fragments flying through the air and rolling along the ground. It definitely got my attention. Back at the stage area, Duang had noticed the explosion and was soon at my side, telling me not to get so close to the launch pads. I didn't tell her that she didn't need to tell me. I had already learned my lesson but I appreciated her concern. My friends the rocket builders offered me some more whiskey but I declined and indicated that with more whiskey I would blow up just like the rocket.

Shortly after noon, the mother of all rockets was launched. This rocket was approximately 14 inches in diameter and 10 feet long. It was massive. Upon launch, the rocket sat on the ramp burning fuel, blowing heavy clouds of smoke and flame behind it. After a long while it sped up the ramp. The rocket cleared the launch pad with a load roar, rose vertically for a short period of time and fell into more of a horizontal flight out over the flooded plain. At the far end of the flood plain, the rocket exploded sending burning debris towards the ground amongst various smoke trails. Despite the delayed flight, low altitude achieved, and short duration of the rocket's flight, the spectators as well as rocket builders were ecstatic about the launch. Apparently unlike some things in life, size does matter for rockets. The smaller rockets flew faster, longer and higher but not as loudly or impressively as the mother of all rockets. Several minutes later, the debris was still sending smoke up into the sky. I pointed this out to one of its builders and he indicated that it was smoking because that is where the rocket exploded. No one seemed concerned. I thought about the consequences if it had been in America and smiled to myself as I remembered what Duang often tells me "Darling, Isaan not the same as America". It is on days like Sunday that I am aware of that truth and happy for that.


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