“When someone approaches you seeking help, feel free to ignore them for as long as possible. Finish what you are doing first and quickly look for other items to make you appear busy.”
–from The Russian Customer Service Handbook
A recent Twitter conversation with Simone di Santi (@ARoadRetraveled on Twitter) concerning passport horror stories reminded me of one of my bad experiences with overseas travel. Here’s my story.
I was on my first trip to Moscow in 2003, which is intimidating enough given that I barely spoke the language. Add to that all of the Cold War conditioning I had growing up, and you have the stage for the ultimate in potential travel disasters. Despite that, my two-week trip was a wonderful experience. All of that came unraveled when it came time to depart. I had no inkling of the coming adventure when I went through check-in, passport control, and boarding. The plane backed away from the gate, and stopped. And sat. And sat some more. Finally, after two hours of sitting on the tarmac, the captain announced that he had a light on in the cockpit and would be returning to the gate. He explained the light was an indicator of a mechanical problem and would require an overnight repair. Our flight was cancelled for that day. Great.
We were de-planed and dumped into the terminal waiting area. No one knew what to do with us. We had checked out of the country and were basically in no-man’s land. The airline, who shall remain nameless but rhymes with HELL-ta, was of very little help and offered no guidance. Many people around me complained (and did so quite loudly, as if that would help), but of course their complaints were in English and the Russian-native airline staff who spoke little to no English would just stare. I pulled out my cell phone and at $5/min spoke with the travel agency and our liaison office in Moscow, both of whom said to sit back and wait for the process to work itself out. Very well, I was resigned to put my faith in the hands of people who wouldn’t know customer service if it hit them on the side of their head. I found a spot on the tile floor in the duty-free shop area and took a nap.
Finally, after 12 hours of sitting in the terminal waiting area, we were suddenly whisked away through passport control to cancel our departure and re-enter the country, after which we were dumped into a nearby hotel for an overnight stay without our baggage. The next day, we were returned to the terminal and were left on our own to figure out how to negotiate departure. For me, the challenge concerned my visa and passport – would passport control recognize and acknowledge the cancelation mark from the previous day and let me depart? Could I adequately communicate the situation I faced yesterday? Or would I be hauled off to some Soviet-era jail for illegally entering the country?
I approached passport control and said in my broken Russian, “Yesterday. Fly. Canceled.” The passport control clerk, dressed in olive drab military-looking garb resembling the worst in Communist Cold War fashion, stared at me, stared at my passport and visa, stared at me again, then stamped my visa and passport. Whew! I boarded the plane, and the rest of my return trip home was without further incident.