Blue Folder

   98    
251

“There is no God,” shouted Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin through the hole in his bushy beard that turned out to be his mouth. It was 1840 and he and some Ukrainian soldiers were in a hut where his ilk gathered to drink vodka, thump their chests and talk trash. Their tethered horses brayed and stamped their hooves in the snow outside. “And I will bet you twenty gold pieces that there is no predestination.” Grigory said for the whole bar to hear, placing said gold on the table. 

Vulič, a rangy lieutenant of the dragoof of the Tsar, a man of Serbian origins, a man of great passions, of gambling, of drinking, stood up,  drink in hand, and gallantly declared, “I accept your challenge!” He chugged his beer, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand then took his pistol from its nail, cocked it and poured gunpowder onto the pan. The room stared. “Gentlemen, who will pay 20 gold pieces for me?” Vulič growled, pressing the muzzle of the pistol against his forehead. He turned his face towards Grigory, “throw a card in the air, Grigory.”

Grigory threw a card in the air and when it touched the ground Vulič pulled the trigger. The click sound was so loud it reverberated in the awed silence of the room. The room gasped. These were hard men not accustomed to gasping or flinching. Men who were willing to die in the cold ditches of war for honour and glory. Vulič then cocked his pistol and aimed it at the service cap hanging above the window. A shot rang out and smoke filled the room.

And just like that, Russian Roulette is said to have been born. 

Approaching US Customs and Border Protection when you land in the US  is something like  Russian Roulette. It’s one bullet in the chamber. It’s a card in the air. It’s a horse braying outside in the snow. 

When I landed at Hartsfield Jackson Airport in Atlanta last week I was so tired I stood in the queue feeling half dead, half alive. I was thinking of a hot shower having been on the move for almost 24 hours with two layovers in Paris and London. Plus I was in the Cattle Section of the plane for the two legs of the journey. You never realise how important money is, how low in the social ladder you are, until you get on a long-haul flight. There is that sobering moment when you board when the flight attendants look at your ticket at the door and say, “this way sir,” and you turn right towards the cattle section but not before you take a quick glance at Business Class, at heaven, with its massive seats and warm throws and someone who looks rich sipping champagne from a long flute or using a hot towel on their face and the wider smiles in Business. The smiles in the plane are different, sure you get smiled at in the cattle section but you should see the smiles in Business Class.  They are almost genuine. The plane  is where the haves and have-nots are distinguished by the fundamental question; do you have leg room? 

I picked  the aisle seat so that I could stretch one leg on the aisle when people go to sleep. There is always a real chance that you could lose both legs in the Cattle Section because of the cramped space. I figured that with an aisle seat I could save one leg. 

One leg is better than no legs, no? So I normally leave a leg stretched out in the aisle. Problem is there are people who drink on flights and have a bladder the size of a thimble, so they use the bathroom every two seconds and they will always climb on your leg on their way to emptying their thimbles. So either way, you lose a leg in the Cattle Section. The Economy Class is a lose-lose situation. 

The Customs and Border agent, a man with very wide shoulders and a very open face, beckoned me to step up to the booth. He had a gun and a badge and a small rungu for rapping over your head if you keep saying, “I’m sorry?” because you are from Karachuonyo and you can’t understand how fast they speak in that accent. Did I tell you my varicose veins were already throbbing? No? Did I tell you my mom died from deep vein embolism and I forgot to wear my compression socks and I was thinking, shit, I could collapse here and die? No? Hang tight. I will. Maybe. 

“Ha ya doin, sir?” He drawled. 

[‘Ha’ here is how, for those from Nyahururu and beyond]

It all immediately started with a lie because I said I was doing fine even though I wasn’t; my leg was hurting and I  could smell myself and everybody else in the plane I had just disembarked from. I could smell their food and their sleep and my sleep and the carpet and the dreariness and drudgery of air travel on me. I was bone tired and I needed a hot shower and something warm to eat. Something that wasn’t pre-prepared and heated in a microwave. I missed eating with a normal fork, the weight of it in my hand. I bet you the passengers offboarding from Business Class smelled like fresh lemons.

He flipped through my passport and asked, “what’s the purpose of your visit to the United States, sir?” 

I like how they say it, with such privilege, with aplomb. It’s probably the kind of questions they ask you at the Pearly Gates.

I said, I was visiting friends and seeing the country. 

“You gat  a visa?” He asked flipping through my passport. 

I said I did. 

He said he couldn’t see it. 

“It’s right there,” I said, “that one.” I pointed at a page. 

He studied it.  

“This is a business visa, Sir,” he said. “Where is your tourist visa?”

“Tourist visa?” 

“Yes. You need a tourist visa, not a business visa. You have the wrong visa, sir.”

And just like that my trials and tribulations started in the land of milk and honey.

Mike Tyson once said, ‘everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.’ In my case you think you have a visa until you don’t. What you have is a situation and of all the situations you want, you don’t want one involving the US Customs and Border Protection. At least not when you have been in the same underwear for 24 hours. 

“You need a tourist visa not a business visa for this trip.” The officer said, leaning back as if resigned to this conversation. He held my passport in his hand like a cat can hold a dead rat in its mouth. Like my passport was evidence of great wrongdoing. 

“I…was not aware.” I said in a voice that was increasingly not recognizable as mine. 

“How can you not be aware of the kind of visa you need, sir?”

“I was here three years ago and I used that same visa to travel – “

“Yes, but your primary reason for coming to the US was for work, not tourism.”

“That’s right.”

“These are two different things, sir.” 

“I didn’t know that,” I murmured. ” I assumed I could still use that same visa.”

“Yes, for business not tourism, sir.” He growled, peering at something in his monitor, maybe my blood group, or my children’s allergies. You never really know what information these people have on you. 

At this point one of his colleagues, a burly and nasty looking man who had been standing near the booth to have a word with him said, “Of course you knew that. You cannot say you didn’t know you needed a different visa from what you have. It’s not honest, sir. You gotta be honest.” The nasty man said. I wanted to kick him in the shin and say, “you are a bad man and you will never see heaven.” He probably would have retorted, ‘This is heaven, sir.” 

“Did you carry any meat products with you?” the officer asked. 

Meat? I thought I heard him wrong. Why would I be carrying meat? Did he mean, mint? Did he want mint from me? I didn’t have mint but I had lip balm because when you fly for long your lips normally look like you kissed Lucifer. 

“I’m sorry?”

“Meat, sir. Did you carry any meat product?”

“No, no meat.” I said. “But I have biscuits and crisps for a friend of mine.”

“You have what?”

“Biscuits and crisps.”

“Creeps?”

“No, crisps…you know, crisps, for snacking. Crisps. ” I didn’t know how to make a crunching sound. 

“Do you have over 10,000 dollars on you  in cash?”

I wanted to laugh. 

If I had 10,000 dollars do you think I’d be looking this haggard in old underwear after a brutal journey in the Cattle Section? I’d be smelling of champagne. I’d be bright eyed and bushy tailed. I’d be clicking my heels in a tap dance. I’d have a chauffeur in a hat waiting for me outside. 

“You don’t have the right document to enter the United States, sir,” he said and my heart sank in my shoe like a stone, “ So what I’m gon do is I’m gon put this passport in this blue folder right here and you will be seen by an officer.” He placed my passport in this transparent folder, the type you see in court scenes in movies, which contains evidence like bloodied socks, bloodied knives, a gun or a bloodied watch. Suddenly a  very old and elfish  Hispanic lady in uniform appeared from nowhere and received my evidence.  “Please follow me, sir.” She said and I followed her. We took a turn, walked down a corridor. A glass door automatically slid open. “You will wait here until you are called.” I stepped into the glass room. It looked like an airport waiting lounge complete with a television. A holding area. Not long after, a frazzled girl was brought in by another agent. I was seated with my feet elevated to help with the varicose nonsense. . 

“Hey,” I said to her. 

“Hello?” She smiled and looked at my elevated leg.  

She had dark eyes and a long face. She looked nervous. I looked nervous. It wasn’t a room accustomed to laughter. 

“Where you from?”

“Iran.”

Oh, I thought to myself. It’s not a good time to be Iranian in this room with what’s happening right now. 

“You?”

“Kenya,” I told her, “ever been?”

She shook her head and chuckled, in a way that seemed to say, what do you think I am, David Attenborough? 

“You should come,” I said, doing Magical Kenya’s job for exposure. “Nice place.”

“Yeah,” she said, “one day.” She said it with the same conviction of someone saying they liked having a root canal done without local anaesthesia. 

Her name was called, the sliding door opened and she disappeared around the corner. Moments later I saw her dragging her suitcase away with a spring in her step, passport in hand. A Pakistani couple with a baby was escorted together with a elderly man in a wheelchair. The man, a kilt spread over his legs, looked ill. The younger man, his son, I figured, fussed over him. The elderly man looked at me curiously through his cataract eyes, as if trying to remember where he saw me in Peshawar. 

My name was called. I stepped outside towards a counter with three stern looking agents. The middle one summoned me to him, “This way, sir.”

“Ha ya, doin, sir?”

I’m good, Ha ya doin? 

Good. 

He didn’t look like he had ever smiled once in his life. I wondered when he last laughed or chuckled at a joke. I wondered if he had children who he tickled and laughed with.

“Are you aware you have the wrong visa to enter the United States?”

“I’ve just been informed. I was unaware of this fact, I assumed I could still use my Business Visa which has another year on it.”

“No, that’s not correct sir. You cannot use a business visa for the purposes that bring you to the United States.”

I stood there, feeling despondent. 

“How long do you plan to be in the United States?”

I said three weeks.

“What do you plan to do during this time?

I said I was planning to stay in Georgia for a few days,  then fly to New York. 

“What’s your itinerary while here, what do you plan to see?”

“I have nothing particular  in mind, I will play it by ear.”

“You have come to Georgia for tourism reasons but you have nothing specific you intend to see?” Raised eyebrow. 

I said a friend had that sorted. They would show me around. 

“And who is your friend, sir?”

I told him she was called Eva Wambui. 

“What’s her status in the United States?”

“Single, I think.”

“I mean, is she an American citizen?”

“She is.”

“And she is your friend.” The way he asked it I felt like he knew her more than I did. I felt like perhaps Eva had told him we weren’t even friends. 

“Yes.”

“Do you know her address??”

I showed him the address from my phone. Somewhere in Kirkwood. 

All this time he’s consulting with his computer. His face as blank as a slab of cheese.  

“And what takes you to New York?”

“I want to watch a play on Broadway.”

“What play?”

“It’s a Michael Jackson musical.”

“How are you going to get there?”

“To New York? I will fly.”

“You have the plane tickets?”

“Yes.”

“May I please see the ticket?”

I showed him my ticket from my phone. 

“It’s one-way.” He noted suspiciously. 

“Yes, I intend to take the Greyhound to New Orleans.”

“You want to use the bus back down to New Orleans?” He sounded cynical, even suspicious. I felt like I had suggested that I wanted to use a donkey. “You know how far that is?”

“Yes, sir. I want to see the country. Best way is by bus.”

“Do you know anyone in New Orleans?”

I said I didn’t know anyone in New Orleans. 

“Why New Orleans?”

“Jazz, food, culture?”

Creased brow. 

“Do you have more than 2,000 dollars in your account?”

I said I did. 

“Can I see it, please?” 

So I prayed that Stanchart doesn’t experience issues, but they didn’t. I showed him. Thank you Stanchart. He said, is that all the money you have with you? I said I had wired some via someone in Nairobi to Eva.

“Why did you do that?” 

“For a good exchange rate.”

“Who did you wire the money to?”

“To Eva.”

“How long have you known Eva?”

“A year and change.”

“You wired money to someone you have known for a year?” That suspicious edge surfaced again subtly. 

I said, she didn’t strike me as someone who could run away with someone’s money. 

Now I’m nervous. I’m really nervous. 

He  told me that there was no way I could be allowed in The US with this Visa. I have the wrong documentation. “What happens?” I asked him and he said I would probably be deported back to my home country. “But I need to consult my supervisor about that. Doesn’t look good, sir.” He said. 

Suddenly shit was very serious. Suddenly it was real. I could be headed back on the next flight out, chained on both legs. I could be back home before I unpacked, before I showered or slept well. My body clock would be sent in a spin with all the time zones I’d have crossed. I’d lose sleep for days, driving aimlessly in the middle of the night, nipping into bars and sitting at the counter with troubled men who couldn’t recognise their homes anymore.  They’d ask me, why are you in a bar in pyjamas, are you okay? I’d say, no, I can’t sleep. I’m in America. They’d ask, does your mama know you are here? I’d say, my mama is dead. So is my lemongrass. Or I’d be sipping tea on the balcony at 2am, listening to dogs of the night bark and wondering what language dogs spoke in. Or I’d be making eggs at 3am and feeling very sleepy during lunch the next day that I nod off in the car while waiting for a driver while I reverse parked.

He handed me a flyer. 

“I might have to gain access to your phone, sir.” He said. “To verify a few things.” At this point I was ready to give them my heart to verify. I couldn’t imagine doing another 20 or so hour trip back. Sure, look at my phone please. You will be amazed at what you can do for a hot shower. 

I read the flyer. It said one singled out for  inspection of electronic devices could be because of incomplete travel documents or visa, you have previously violated one of the laws the customs and border protection enforces or you have a name that matches a person of interest in one of the government enforcement databases. He remained with my phone and asked me to go back to the small glass room. I had become a person of interest. 

I sat alone in the room feeling very criminal and guilty and humbled. No nation will humble you more than the Americans. You might make noise and talk shit until they have you in a small room. It felt like an episode of the TV series Border Security. The room was quiet and I was alone with my thoughts thinking about everything that would go wrong. I dreaded the idea of being held in a bleak holding area as they waited for the next flight to send me back home like a fugitive trying to sneak into the US. I wasn’t trying to sneak in. Because I have watched so much TV I was sure someone in a room somewhere was watching me through that camera in the room that looked dark, round and ominous like a monitor lizard’s eye, just watching me. I bet the behavioural scientist was looking for clues of my body language, to see if I was nervous. So I avoided licking my lips or breathing. I just sat there holding my breath. Don’t let them see you breathe, Biko. 

I was nervous as hell. Tired to my last bone. I hated my clothes. I was also worried, especially because he had my phone and he could have been looking at the nudes I have saved under, the folder Pesticides Mbita. I just hope that he at the very least appreciated my taste in nudes. Maybe we have the same taste and perhaps that’s what was going to be the thing that tilts this thing in my favour. 

I sat in the room for what seemed like an eternity. Just stewing in my own thoughts. Thinking about ludicrous things like two burly men in uniform, coming in the room and sending me to another windowless room and asking me, “we know you are not Jackson Biko. The question is; who are you really?” And me looking back at my reflection in their sunglasses and asking myself in a whisper, “yeah, who am I?”

I heard my name called. I dragged the big wrecking ball tied to my leg  to the window and the officer sighed and said, “well, it’s your lucky day. You won’t be going home.  However, I have to cancel your visa.”

“Oh”, I said.

“You will have to pay $585 for the temporary visa.”

My mouth formed a small ‘o’. That’s 70K. 

“We take credit card,” he said. 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

251
98 Comments
  1. WHAAAT ,this is funny and terrifying at the same time ,who are you really Biko?also the nudes part got me lol ,nice article sir

    10
  2. WOW! that’s a pretty penny for the Visa. Is this US not rich from the Viisa fees alone? because Man! the way pple pay arm n leg to get into that country, me thinks that’s their core export!

    6
  3. So sorry Biko.
    For a moment, I almost thought you were taken into the interrogation windowless room. Where you are met by two stone faced officers. One silent, just observing you from afar and the other telling you, in a rather stern jilted accent, ” Look here, this can be easy if you only cooperate but if you’d want it the hard way, we’re not here to give a damn about anything.” Slams his pen on the table and stands to your direction. Meanwhile, the IT team had already scrutinized your identity and matched your face and finger prints.
    You can’t afford to joke with the American immigration and border team.
    Joke in the UK, but as long as traveling is concerned, USA and Australia are a no joke zone.
    Confirm your documentation over and over again. It even gets worse in Australia.
    Hopefully, you earned a rest Biko. So sorry for that experience.

    8
  4. I sure would hate t be in that position. Fagged out and people running you through PET scans s you can visit their country, where you could be shot dead for being black. Enjoy your tour of the land of the free, Biko.

    1
  5. ” The elderly man looked at me curiously through his cataract eyes, as if trying to remember where he saw me in Peshawar …” Man, you do not want a geriatric in a wheelchair recognising you from your tour of Peshawar, buddy.

    3
  6. So Non-Smiler IO ( Interrogation Officer) leads you out of the Office to the Underground Parking at International Terminal. It’s a 1978 Chevrolet, or close. Tells you you are going for “a little midnight ride .”
    Entire drive, no talking, no radio, no nothing – maybe he is swigging from a bottle of hard stuff in the glove compartment.
    Gets off the freeway, drives up north past Cascade Springs, preeettty in the moonlight.
    Swings up West into the 10 B past the Word of Faith Church. You think of the song ‘Say A Little Prayer …’
    Gets off the 10 B into the ’41’ , he whistles as ye cross the Westview Cemetery, tombstones like moonlit marble.
    Gets off the dirt road, into another dirt road – leading deeper into the Deer Lick Park – and deeper still …
    At a break in the wood, parks. Barks for you to get out, pistol in hand.
    Pops the trunk, there’s a shovel up there, right on top of the spare tyre.
    Still stone-faced, growls: “Welcome to jazzy ‘New Orleans.’ Your journey through America ends here. Start digging, son …”

    5
  7. If I had 10,000 dollars do you think I’d be looking this haggard in old underwear after a brutal journey in the Cattle Section? I’d be smelling of champagne. I’d be bright eyed and bushy tailed. I’d be clicking my heels in a tap dance. I’d have a chauffeur in a hat waiting for me outside.

    What a piece!

    4
  8. Biko, aki umenivunja mbavu. Thanks for the long flight made lighter on laughter of matters serious. If only we had some self respect and strong convictions on reciprocity. We need to charge them same visa fees, when they visit our Njeri and wildlife. Something beyond opinions that are null.

    1
  9. Will sure Cop this!! “She said it with the same conviction of someone saying they liked having a root canal done without local anaesthesia”

  10. Bwana pole for the dramatic odyssey. Did you try telling them Obama is your cousin… wait, you aint a politician. Next part please?

  11. I have an fb page where I write my thoughts, give stories with or without moral lessons among others but when my uncle introduced me to Biko I read his pieces and am like, when will I arrive at this level but after all, a journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. Honestly, am never bored reading your work. The humour is always so loud to be ignored. I just can’t help but imagine watching you live giving these stories with all those facial expressions….

  12. I have an fb page where I write my thoughts, give stories with or without moral lessons among others but when my uncle introduced me to Biko I read his pieces and am like, when will I arrive at this level but after all, a journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. Honestly, am never bored reading your work. The humour is always so loud to be ignored. I just can’t help but imagine watching you live giving these stories with all those facial expressions. Probably I will meet you siku tu moja.

    1
  13. I learnt something new today that there is a difference between tourist and business visa when I left my previous workplace I still had an active US visa and always contemplated travelling to US on it for leisure since I had always travelled for work damn I would have gone through the same experience

    1
    1. It was his unlucky day. I have traveled to the US on a Tourist visa for a subsequent business trip. I had the nicest immigration officer in Seattle. But my colleague that day was held back and grilled for an hour mpaka they called the airline company who said he was coming there. He had the correct Visa. I’ve had a nasty experience and I wrote and complained about it later. I have no desire to return coz what you see on TV is exactly the same kwa ground. But no human traffic on the side of the road. Everyone is indoors and walking or driving outdoors feels eerie.

      2
      1. Am headed there in a couple of weeks, I just pray I get a kind officer at the counter upon arrival…otherwise weuuuh..

  14. US travel stories coming up shortly. Thanks Biko na pole sana kwa masaibu in the land of milk and honey 70k boss for a temporary visa. 1st world.

  15. Lips looking like you kissed Lucifer…..
    Maybe your taste for nudes saved you, who knows ??
    We missed you Biko..thanks for this piece. Seeing your email floods my brain with dopamine. Haha

    1
  16. Yesterday, I was doing a short trip to town and decided to use a mat. The fare was 40/= Gave 200 . I was busy trying to remember the stage that I forgot change. Was yapping all over how I had been robbed. I felt pain of deceit,…Now in this BIKO situation. 70K for temporally VISA….I DIE.

    3
  17. Ooh this is so scary and funny at the same time. Biko I hope you finally got your hot shower and meal…weuuh that nation can humble people indeed.

  18. Wa there is a business visa & tourist visa?? Thanks Biko for paying the price for all of us who just go ‘yippie I have a US visa’ without checking the fine print.

    As usual you made the experience sound joyful when it wasn’t.

    Lakini Boss how do u send cash to someone u met a yr ago? & u have no itinerary? & then say u r going from NYC on road trip to a destination which is typically 3hr away by flight? & u don’t know anyone in New Orleans?

    2
  19. Nasty people!. Pole Chocolate, how dare they?. Anyway, please leave no detail in the story that’s coming please!! Enjoy your stay in the “humble” land.

  20. Biko i felt your pain. I was once turned back to US at an aiport in Colombia, because i brought my kenyan passport…walked back into the same flight back to US. luckily the crew knew this and offered first class seat and free drinks.

    If you get time to stop by Houston after New Orleans, i would love to host you and show you around Houston. There is a small Kenyan kajoint that sales, ugali and mbuzi choma that you migth enjoy meeting Kenyan locals.

    Enjoy your visit,

    2
    1. He will pass, in an earlier piece i think on a trip to Lusaka or somewhere that end he insinuated he stays foreign when he goes foreign, maybe doesn’t like the idea of KAZ outside Kenya.

      1
  21. Something about the US is giving me sleepless nights. God willing, the coming year, I’ll be met at the airport. It’s a dream, I must live it. I’ll not be shut in the same room with cows though, neither will I be smelling of lemon grass from the business class. I’ll have travelled the normal Ena coach way.

    I hope you enjoyed your Jaz down New Orleans

    1
  22. It’s that piece you did on “Visa denied” circa some five years ago that still haunts you .Uncle Sam is watching, you are on their radar.

  23. Great piece, been laughing a lone n i guess guys are wondering what’s going on. As a travel agent 1st thing I should ask you if travelling out the country is your Visa status, type n duration. We see a lot of this happen n so prior info to your destination is key. [email protected] for travel plans. This is your free advice my in-law.

  24. Been in that room couple times. It’s all about intimidation. Americans like feeling big. But it all ends well.

  25. Oh man! Biko you’re a real piece of work 😀 In between uncontrollable laughter I kept murmuring to myself ‘Please don’t say cattle section.. Please don’t say cattle section.. ” and then there it was! Again! Ha ha ha!
    I am so glad I was alone while reading this piece coz man, I’ve not laughed this hard in a long time.
    Read through, then went back to ‘Visa Denied,’ then came back here for the laughs!
    *
    Anyway, what a dreadful experience. Who would ever know you couldn’t go sightseeing in the US on a business visa? Strange. Unfair, mostly.

    1
  26. Bloody Hell! Pole sana
    Sounds more like “Banged Up Abroad”
    Enjoy your stay kabisa. Make it worth going through sh*t

  27. So my “friend” had saved his Pesticide Mbita contents under “SDA Choir” folder until the Aunt borrowed the laptop and decided to listen to some godly music….
    A nice read Biko, I was lost in the beginning though!!

    3
  28. Did he mean, mint? Did he want mint from me? I didn’t have mint but I had lip balm……….HAHA

    “What’s her status in the United States?”

    “Single, I think.”………HAHAHA

    I just hope that he at the very least appreciated my taste in nudes. Maybe we have the same taste and perhaps that’s what was going to be the thing that tilts this thing in my favour. ………HAHAHAHA

  29. Hell no! I didnt see that ending coming lol. Defnitely a good one. I laughed so hard. And ive been there, not the yuese, but rather being pulled aside, the worst, oh my goodness, you start questioning everything, smh. This was a good read though too abrupt an ending. Tell us more.

  30. It’s been a long time since I last was here. Anyway, Mr. Jackson Biko, have you ever had to explain that the unga you are carrying with you from Kenya is not cocaine? This article reminded me of a lot especially now that it’s summer bunnies time to return home with their UCLA baseball shirts.