Saturday, March 12, 2011

Chocolate, traffic and visas

My car was full of chocolate aero bars. I'd stuffed three in the glove compartment, two in the cup holders and now I was trying to find homes for another five. Clearly, some rearranging was required.

I was parked at the duty free store by the US-Canada land border near Niagara. While this leg of the journey should have taken only an hour, I had left home at 9:30 am and it was now 2 pm. The heavy snow the night before had taken not only me by surprise, but caused a tractor trailer to jack-knife on the highway, blocking all three lanes and resulting in near-stationary traffic for hours. This had led to repeated texts to my friend providing ever longer estimated arrival times.

I supposed I should count myself lucky. As I had sat there flicking through the radio stations and failing to find any traffic news, a car carrier truck had drawn up beside me loaded with three mashed-up vehicles. I suppressed the temptation that had been growing within me to start ramming the car in front.

Despite the fact I was anticipating spending at least another hour at the border office getting a tourist visa, I had pulled into the duty free to use the bathroom. Feeling that someone should benefit from this chaos, I had bought another US residing (a.k.a. the country without aeros) friend more of her favourite chocolate while in the store. Well, it was better than the other (rather tempting but probably regrettable) option of accepting the free samples of ice wine.

For reasons designed to vex me, the US air and land ports have different policies regarding entry visas. The airports have moved over to the electronic ESTA applications and consider these so shiny and superior that they confiscate the old green paper visas on sight. The land border, by contrast, has rejected this crazy modern technology and wants you to have the green slip in your passport. The upshot of this is that I am either sulking in the land border office waiting to be called to the counter or watching sadly as the airport guy destroys my paper visa like a mother weaning a child off a pacifier.

Before pulling onto the bridge, I called my friend and told her I should be in Buffalo in about two hours, depending on the queues and busyness of the border office. I hoped for once that I wouldn't have send the follow up text telling her to double that estimate. Then I stuffed the chocolate into my bag and slid onto the road.

"Reason for coming to the USA?" The border control guard took my passport and flicked through its pages.

"I'm meeting a friend."

"How to you know them?"

I'd long ago learned to outright lie to this question. The friend I normally met when driving over the border I knew from an internet fan group for Japanese anime. If that didn't sound like something for which I should be detained and questioned for 6 weeks, I don't know what does.

"College," I said, my face bland. I watched the guard examine my collection of visas and took a long shot. "I've entered the US recently," I explained. "Less than a month ago through Atlanta airport. There's a stamp in the back."

A visitor visa to the USA lasts three months before you have to renew it. Every other time I had passed through though, the lack of the green paper slip has meant that I have to get a new pass done. Still, I'd never explicitly tried pointing out that this should be unnecessary.

The guard examined the stamp. "Okay, carry on."

....Seriously? I was so surprised, I nearly forgot to put my car back in gear. It was a good job I'd stopped to use the bathroom at the duty free. I drove slowly through the gates, reaching for my phone to text:

"25 minutes."


  1. You know what, you need to marry a Canadian and get Canadian citizenship. Then no more messing around with these I-94W forms.

  2. That is indeed quite tempting! I'd probably gain back several years worth of time from not waiting at borders.

  3. Sorry to hear about yet another painful border crossing story. Although nothing I've gone through is as bad, I do have one U.K.-based incident:

    I initially entered the U.K. through a connecting flight in Ireland, which was cheaper than flying direct to England. The Irish airport officer never asked me what I was doing, and never saw my work Visa -- and never stamped it. He just saw my passport photo and shoved me through. So when I got to Heathrow, from that other EU country, I just walked out the door no questions asked. That actually made me worry, and stop still right after I walked out of the doors, as I was expecting for somebody to see the Visa. What was the point of having it then? But I was already past the point of no return, and couldn't go back into the arrivals section.

    So, the first time I went to the U.S. and back directly to London, the officer asked when I start work. I was honest and told him I already started it. Mistake. Because my Visa hadn't been stamped, he thought I was already illegally earning money. The situation wasn't that complicated, but he just didn't get it. Actually, I don't think he knew how to read the starting eligibility date on my Visa correctly :-) Eventually he wagged his finger at me and reluctantly let me through, fully thinking he was right and I was in the wrong.

    Also, I had an opposite- Aero bar situation: at the U.S. airport, the first thing I did was go to a newsstand and buy 4 quad packs of Twix PBs (which are very tough to find in Florida, so I don't know if you ever had one). During my stay in the U.S. however, I ate 3 of the packs. So before the return journey I bought 5 more quad packs from that same news stand. The cashier was looking at me funny. Thankfully, I've found that moderate to large supermarkets do carry peanut butter here, but rarely is combined with chocolate anywhere.

  4. The worst thing about your story is that I did know that this happened if you went through Ireland because Mike Barker had *exactly* the same problem. He was a grad student at Florida who moved to Edinburgh... I can't remember if you two overlapped? He had to actually end up leaving the UK specifically so he could re-enter and get that stamp. Damn Irish and their backdoors...

    Peanut butter is a strange thing to put in a chocolate bar. It should not be encouraged :|

  5. Wow. I think this calls for an email to the department administrator to help other newcomers avoid going through this same situation.

    Mike and I actually did overlap, but just for a few months. We actually saw each other a bit in Scotland in 2009; he's the one who introduced me to the simultaneously disgusting and delicious Irn-Bru!