- I fucked up. I'm illegal now. We came one day too late.
- Shit! So what are you gonna do?
- I have only one option, and it's not even guaranteed...
It has been almost three months since we entered Central America, and my visa was soon to expire. To renew it, I needed to present the paperwork at the immigration office and bring a local as a guarantor. Salva agreed to do it. I added a two-day buffer before the deadline, just in case. Everything was ready. Immigration is my job, it should be fine.
Salva had an emergency so we postponed the trip one day. We got to the immigration office where a fat lady with a sinister look attended me. Why do I always get the grumpy one? I put my crutches away and handed her the application with my most charming smile. She reviewed the documents and closed the file. Then in her best poker face she said: Your visa is expired, you should have come yesterday. You are illegal now.
I counted 3 months instead of 90 days and overstayed my visa by one day, one day! She told me I must pay a fine and leave the country immediately. Worse, I wouldn't be allowed re-entry anytime soon. I explained my situation but nothing made her flinch. ''I don't make the rules'' she said.
A tornado of catastrophic scenarios swirled in my mind. Being banned from the country meant leaving la Chichona behind, having it seized by customs and in the end losing it. It meant the end of the trip. I couldn't take that for an answer. I agreed with her and told her she was right. Yet, some rules have exceptions. If she did not know the exceptions, for sure her boss would. I kindly asked to talk to her boss.
She left me with my anxiety and disappeared behind a tainted glass office. Think, stay calm and think. There must be a way out of this. I needed a sound plan. The grumpy fat lady returned twenty minutes later. With the same poker face she announced that her boss agreed to see me. Haaaalellujah!
I followed her behind the tainted glass where a lovely lady invited me to sit down. I dragged my crutches and took a whole minute to catch up my breath, overdoing it. The more she pities me the better. I sat down and thanked her for her time, then waited for her to speak first. She asked me to explain the situation. Now is my chance to tell my story.
I used everything I learnt in a lifetime of sales to convey the most heart-breaking story. The story of a hopeful traveler who met a terrible fate since he entered El Salvador. I emphasized my misfortune and resignation. If the story was to end here, in her office, then so be it. I would accept it like everything else. “Para mal tiempo, buena cara” I said with a sad smile.
My bitter complaints were worthy of Calimero. She listened with attention, her expressions coming alive with every misadventure. I felt her compassion through my silences. When I was done, she thought for a while then said there was only one option for me to stay in the country. She wasn't positive though. I waited while she called a colleague, trying to look as pitiful as possible. Indeed, there was an exception. The only way I could remain in the country despite my expired visa. To be granted refugee status.
I could claim the refugee status under humanitarian and compassionate grounds. For that, I would need to bring forth all the proofs to support my claim and return with a full application in two weeks. Salva had been waiting all this time. He couldn't believe what happened. He exclaimed: ''A Canadian filing for refugee...in El Salvador. Now we've seen it all!''
A hectic race began. I needed to collect a new police report, two medical certificates and all the facts detailed in a letter with supporting pictures. Basically, any proof that would play in my favour. I returned to the immigration office with my best smile, an 18-page file and a bouquet of flowers for the boss. She was convinced, and satisfied. She said she would support my claim for refugee status. Wow! My story must have resonated with her.
She was my saviour. I told her I would praise her in my blog. Mentioning la Chichona life to spanish speakers always cracks a laugh. The atmosphere was more relaxed now, even the grumpy fat lady was less grumpy. I told them about the shenanigans I had with la Chichona at every border. In the US, then in Mexico, then in Guatemala, and now in El Salvador. They were absorbed by every detail, asking what came next, like little kids listening to a good campfire story.
They asked about the next destination. I was planning to go to Nicaragua but the recent events were scary. Government protesters were being killed by the hundreds, it wasn't the best time to venture there. I couldn't go back to Guatemala either because of the volcano eruption. So yeah, I was stuck in el Salvador with no foreseeable options besides waiting for things to calm down.
The boss casually picked up the phone and put it on speaker. Then she asked another lady about the situation in Nicaragua, and informed her of my itinerary. It turned out she was speaking with the ambassador of Nicaragua. The ambassador assured her I wouldn't have any issues as long as I stayed out of Leon and Managua. She then noted my name and car plate to inform the folks at the border. This is crazy, not in a million year!!!
She hung up and smiled at me, I was set. I gave her my passport and squeezed her hand with tears in my eyes. I wanted to hug her, to cook for her, to teach her to kitesurf, anything to show my gratitude. She managed to make an exception and turn a desperate situation around. She is the reason I am still travelling. Thank you Señora, I am eternally grateful.
People would do incredible things for you, if you strike the right chord.