Epic travel fails and other misadventures of expatriate living

by Lisa McKay on March 14, 2014

A few words of introduction to my post for today…

The essay below was written several years ago now, in an attempt to redeem one of the silliest things I have ever done in all my years of traveling. And, oh my word. There have been a lot of silly things I’ve done involving airports and planes – including misplacing my only debit bank card just before a two week trip to Africa and after all the banks had closed for the weekend. I got out of that one by ringing around my Bible study group and getting five people to each float me $200 in cash. The incident reminded me yet again that it is a really good thing to be part of a Bible study group, folks, because you never know when you’re going to need a thousand dollars in cash on three hours notice.

So, my theory about epic-travel-fails is this: The more you travel, the more relaxed you get about the whole process and the more careless errors you make. When you look at it that way, spectacular travel screw-ups are really a sign that you’re a seasoned travel pro.

Like I said, that’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it.

Now, before I get to the essay itself, I’m going to spell out the take-home here for you just in case you don’t have three minutes to giggle over a cup of tea. This community is, after all, a place to learn from other’s mistakes wisdom about living overseas, and I’d hate for you to miss the practical take home because you were in a rush. So if you remember nothing else from this post, remember these two things:

  1. You cannot travel on an expired passport.
  2. You cannot enter a country that you are a citizen of on the passport of another country that you are also a citizen of.

Got that? Good. Now… the backstory

Aus passport

This, I thought as I stared at my passport, is possibly the stupidest travel-mistake I’ve ever made.

And that’s saying a lot.

During the last five years I’ve been stranded in Germany for a week on account of neglecting to get a visa for the Czech Republic. I’ve traveled to Colorado and left my wallet, all my money, and every credit card I own safely in my gym bag at home. I’ve turned up to the airport in LA to discover that I’d booked a flight to New York on Wednesday all right, but the Wednesday of the previous week. I’ve walked off an American Airlines flight in Chicago and sat down at the first gate I saw that said “London” and had the right departure time, without double checking the flight details on my boarding pass (which might have helped me notice that my connecting flight to London was, in fact, with British Airways instead of American). At various times I’ve forgotten to pack my malaria medication, my phone charger, my power-point presentation, and, yes, on one especially memorable occasion, my underwear.

Given this, you might find it ironic that I make my living at least partly by training humanitarian workers to cope more effectively with their “high transition lifestyles”. In other words, how to hop on a plane, go dashing off to a disaster scene to aid the recovery effort, return home, reorient, and then turn around and do it all again two weeks later. Oh, and stay sane in the process.

One point so obvious that I rarely mention it during workshops, is that it’s helpful to have a valid passport when you’re trying to board an international flight…which brings me to noon on December 15, a confirmed seat on a flight from LA to Sydney leaving at 10pm that night, and… an expired Australian passport.

Here’s how it happened.

Once upon a time I was born in Canada…

OK, OK. But it is relevant. Because of where that most joyous and happy event occurred I have an Australian and a Canadian passport. And it’s a lot easier for Canadians to get visas to work in the US than, well, the citizens of any other country. So at the moment I’m living in the States on a Canadian work visa. That means that I have to use my Canadian passport to enter and leave the US as I go dashing off to all those disaster scenes. Got that?

In July I noticed that my Australian passport was going to expire in October. But the thought of trying to navigate the maze of red tape that would inevitably surround my attempt to renew my Aussi passport in the States while living there on a Canadian visa made me feel exhausted.

So I hatched a brilliant plan. I would just go home to Australia at Christmas and take care of it there. If, for some obscure reason, the Australian immigration officials were upset that my passport had expired I could just pull out my other one, enter the country as a Canadian, and then get busy renewing my passport on home soil.

The plan, clearly, was flawless. But, because I am responsible and organized, I rang the Australian consulate in Los Angeles to run it past them, and a cheerful fellow named Malcolm and I had a brief conversation that went something like this…

“My passport is about to expire. I could get it renewed while I’m here, but I think it would just be easier to wait and renew it at home at Christmas, don’t you?”

“Yeah, mate,” Malcolm said. “Just do it when you get home. She’ll be apples.”

In retrospect, missing from my side of the conversation was the, perhaps vital, fact that the passport would expire before I was due to travel home. But, to be fair here, missing from Malcolm’s side was a detailed query somewhere along the lines of, “wait just a minute, you don’t happen to be a dual national living in the States on your other passport and thinking of using said other passport to enter Australia after your Australian passport expires, are you?” But at the time I hung up satisfied that I’d covered all my bases.

The next six months I was very busy. Busy traveling to Kenya, Colorado, Indiana, Canada, New York, and South Africa. Busy teaching people how to live life that way and be happy, healthy and well-adjusted. Like me.

That busyness might explain why it wasn’t until the morning of December 15 that I had the time to locate the website where an American friend who was going to fly over to visit me for New Years Eve could apply for their Australian tourist visa online. As I cut and pasted the link for him, I noticed a statement saying that everyone except citizens of New Zealand had to apply for a tourist visa before boarding arriving at the airport to board their flight to Australia.

Huh, I thought, I wonder if everyone includes Canadians, and whether that might cause a small hiccup if I suddenly pull out my Canadian passport, visaless, in Sydney airport.

So, trying to do the right thing here, I call the Australian consulate again. My pal Malcolm was gone. Perhaps he’d been fired for not asking enough questions. And in his place, I got Andrew.

“Hey, Andrew,” I greeted him warmly. “I just want to check that it won’t be a problem for me to enter Australia if my passport’s expired.”

“What are you talking about?” Andrew said. Clearly, whatever it was that I was talking about, he didn’t think much of it. “You can’t travel on an expired passport.”

“Huh,” I said, moving on to Plan B. “Okay then, will I need a tourist visa in my Canadian passport to get into the country, since I’m also an Australian citizen?”

“If you’re a citizen of Australia you can’t enter Australia on the passport of another country. It’s illegal,” Andrew said, in a tone that asked where I was in kindergarten when everyone else was learning international law.

There was a long silence while I digested this.

“Right, then,” I said. “Um, could you help me brainstorm my options, because my flight to Australia takes off at ten tonight.”

What?” Andrew said. I don’t know how he managed to pack incredulity, exasperation, and pity for my obviously deficient intellect into one word, but he did.

I wanted to defend myself. I wanted to tell him – hey buddy, I’m a smart, capable, person. I have two masters degrees. I direct a training program for a non-profit. I’ve written a novel, and… and… I can cook. These things happen. They just clearly haven’t happened to you lately.

But I didn’t defend myself. I chose the only option that I thought might get me somewhere. I begged.

“Please! I have to make that plane. I haven’t been home in a year and a half!”

“Well,” he said grudgingly. “You’re probably going to need to apply in person in the consulate at LA for an emergency travel document. That’ll take five working days. Your only other option is to call the airlines, explain the situation, and see if they are willing to call Canberra and get authorization to uplift you without a valid passport. But, the airlines don’t generally go for that sort of thing, and Canberra might not grant it anyway…”

As he spoke I had a vision of spending the first precious week of my holidays hanging out in the lobby of the Australian consulate in LA, and a second week trying to finagle another seat on a flight to Sydney before Christmas. There had to be another way.

“So,” I hazarded, looking around furtively as if the foreign affairs swat team was about to swoop into the office and take me into custody right there and then. “Hypothetically speaking, if a citizen of Australia was to show up at the airport and present another country’s passport, what do you think the chances are that the airline would figure it out and stop them from boarding?”

“I cannot advise you regarding that course of action,” Andrew said primly.

What is my country coming to? Doesn’t he know it’s his job to represent Australia around the world? Doesn’t he know that he is duty-bound to proclaim our national motto “no worries mate, she’ll be right” with nonchalant assurance in any and every situation? And where was some of that convict spirit we’re so famous for?

As I walked into LAX that night and presented my Canadian passport, safely impregnated with an electronic tourist visa that I’d applied for online, I was sweating. I like to think of myself as someone who could, if they chose, break laws with panache and style. But I could feel all my style clinging to me damply.

My grand plan was just to make it onto the plane and get to Sydney, whereupon I would confess all my sins and throw myself on the mercy of the immigration officials. I figured they would probably be cross, but I couldn’t see they’d have much choice about letting me into the country. I mean, they couldn’t very well deport me back to the US, could they? Can you even be deported from your own country?

But as I disembarked in Sydney I had second thoughts about the wisdom of confessing. Who knew whether, in my absence, Australian immigration officials had become as mean-spirited and irrational as American ones? Maybe they would deport me. I hesitated, and then joined the lengthy queue for non-citizens.

While I mourned the fact that I was wasting my one opportunity a year to sail through an immigration checkpoint in the citizens line (not to mention the money I’d paid for the tourist visa for my own country), I had plenty of time to wonder whether my name would flag the existence of my other passport and bring wrath and, I suddenly realized, possibly a hefty fine down upon my head.

In teaching others how to cope well with high transition lifestyles one of the things that I always talk about is the importance of having a sense of humor. And, when things like this go wrong, I can usually shrug and see the bright side in that fact that I provide so much raw material helpful for keeping mine in good working order. But at that moment I couldn’t see the funny side of the situation.

Possibly, as my father would point out later, because there wasn’t one.

Way too soon I was next in line. I glanced at the immigration agent and debated my options. Would it be too obvious to proclaim excitedly, “I’ve been looking forward to this trip for years, and I can’t believe it’s finally here!” Maybe my accent would give me away, even with a well-placed Canadian, “eh?” So I handed over my passport, reminded myself to breathe, and tried for my normal mien at this stage of the immigration process – bored and exhausted.

With just a glance and one casual anticlimactic flick of his wrist, it was over. Never have I been so glad to see a stamp come down and hear the words, “welcome to Australia.”

I was home.

Well, home as a tourist, anyway.

Welcome-to-Australia

OK, your turn. Don’t leave me hanging out here looking like an idiot all by myself. Tara Livesay has already shared a wonderful tale of taking a mastiff on home leave (bottom line: don’t), but I’d love to hear from the rest of you.

If you’ve had an epic travel fail or some other expat misadventure, tell us about it in the comments or leave us a link to a blog post that tells the story.

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About Lisa McKay

Lisa McKay is a psychologist and the award-winning author of the memoir Love At The Speed Of Email, the novel My Hands Came Away Red, and several books on long distance relationships. She lives in Laos with her husband and their two sons.

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