Savvy Expat Traveler or Overconfident Traveling Idiot?

by Rachel Pieh Jones on September 19, 2016

We’re expats and we fly a lot. Right? We can fill out a lot of immigration forms with our eyes closed, have passports stuffed full of visas. We can use several different currencies, even in a single transaction. We know how to pack liquids, how to sail through airport security lines, what kinds of snacks work best on long haul flights. We know just how much medicine our babies need in order to sleep (or was that just me?) We can navigate airports no matter the language and can use whatever type of toilet is available, with or without TP, water, or walls.

zen traveler

We’re expats, international travel is what we do and we’re totally calm about it. Or at least competent.

That’s what I thought.

I recently spent a month in Europe. Two weeks in Italy, a few days in the Netherlands, and two weeks in the UK. In Italy and the Netherlands I was on my own. By the end of those two weeks I was feeling pretty confident. Like, hey-hey, I’ve got this European travel thing down. On top of thirteen years of doing the African travel thing, I considered myself savvy.

Then, I flew to London. Here, I thought, is where I will really shine as an expert traveler. Everything will be in English! It will be so easy!

Wrong.

I got flagged in the immigration line. I was ushered into that roped off area where ‘suspicious’ travelers go. I was grilled by immigration officers. I gave terrible answers. They were all true, they just didn’t make a lot of sense because my arrival plans were complicated, my previous travel had been convoluted, explaining it all meant including places like Somalia and Djibouti.

Plus, unlike the savvy traveler I thought I was, I had forgotten to write down the name and address of the place where I was staying. I had the information on my phone but needed to access Wi-Fi, which wasn’t working in the immigration terminal.

The officer stared at me, hard, and said, “You university students think everything in the world revolves around technology.” Well, thank you sir, for thinking this 38-year old woman is a student, but no I don’t think that, I just forgot to write it down.

“What would happen to me,” he said, “if I went to the US and didn’t have an address?”

I wanted to say, “I would expect the Wi-Fi to work,” but didn’t want to make him even angrier, so I shrugged. He told me to sit back down behind the ropes.

It took a minor miracle to get me out of the airport.

I was mortified. I know better. I know how to pack and plan and how to not waste the time of people coming to pick me up. I’m not the person who gets flagged in security.

But.

Apparently I am that person. And I am that forgetful. My overconfidence led to an incredibly stressful afternoon and had me nearly dry-heaving in the lock down section of Gatwick Airport.

How about you?

Tara Livesay has provided us with hysterical examples of expat health unpleasantness and gave us the opportunity to share our one-uppers. How about sharing our travel oopses?

I don’t mean when our flights were delayed and it took us five days to get from Minnesota to Djibouti (no lie). Or when our luggage was lost and found after multiple trips around the world. What about those times when we felt oh-so-prepared and rather smug and looked condescendingly at newbies only to find ourselves locked up, in tears, or so confused we can’t remember what country we are in or where we are supposed to be headed? (Or is it just me?)

Any other travel fiascos out there?

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About Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel was raised in the Christian west and said, ‘you betcha’ and ate Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Family Fun, Running Times, and more, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble.

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