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Going Cold Turkey at US Embassy

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7 July 2014

Non-immigrant. Tourist. Business and pleasure. I will be attending a user experience (UX) event in California so I applied for a US Visa.

It’s my first time by the way, so everything was quite a surprise – both fascinating and a grand test of patience.

Worldwide Problem #1: Parking

Six a.m., my wife J and I drove past by the embassy. From a distance it looked like there’s a rally – so many people standing, waiting for something.

“I’m going to be the last in line!” I panicked.

“They are really competitive,” I thought. Fifteen minutes before seven-thirty – just as it was suggested in the website – won’t cut it.

A few blocks away, we were looking for a parking space. There were buildings and establishments and parking lots that partnered with them – but they all seemed full of parked vehicles already.

Cruising by, a parking attendant flagged us down and motioned where we could park.

“Magkano? (How much?),” I immediately got down to business.

“Sir, sa embassy ba? (Sir, are you going to the embassy ba?),” he replied with a question.

“Oo. (Yes.),” I said.

All of us has a mechanism to detect even the slightest fluctuation in the normal flow of things – some are stronger than others and some fluctuations are more obvious than others.

The guy paused for some milliseconds or so – either to think of a fee or he hesitated to declare the fee for someone who’s applying for a US Visa.

And finally, “Wan handred lang sir. Unlimited na ‘yun. (Sir, for only one hundred you get to park in front of this shop – that I’m unconnected to – for as long as you want!),” he said with a dose of salesmanship.

The man was a real parking attendant of the side of the street. He was wearing a polo shirt with a tiny governmet-y seal-type logo. To make it more legit, he was clutching a thick booklet of, I assumed, parking receipts. And he was courteous.

“Ok,” I said without bargaining. We pay more for convenience, right?

At the corner was a Family Mart convenience store. J settled in comfortably with her breakfast from the mart and I took the documents I prepared the night before.

Leave your life behind

For non-immigrant Visa applicant, please bring the following:

  1. Appointment letter – check!
  2. MRV fee receipt – check!
  3. Valid passport – check!
  4. DS-160 confirmation page – check!
  5. 2×2 in. color photo – check!

“No electronics, no gadgets, no nothing,” I mumbled in my head. My mom scared me with a story of her friend who was forced to throw a flash drive because it wasn’t allowed in the embassy.

It’s been raining the past few days so I also brought a cheap umbrella. There might be a form to fill up so I brought a cheap ballpen. Just in case those things wouldn’t be allowed inside, it would be easy to give them away.

You see, these types of uncertainties were instilled into my mind when it comes to government agencies. You can never be too sure that what they say in the news and websites is what’s actually being implemented. There’s always something to surprise you.

Remember the time when inflated balloons were not allowed in the MRT? Couple that with a big teddy bear nicely wrapped in a gift box. Expect that it will be unwrapped by a security guard, poking the poor stuffed toy with a detector drumstick. Got food as lunch baon? Leave it with them – not because they like your food but because in their eyes you can turn sinigang into TNT. That’s not all. You got CDs? Compact Discs? CDs! were also banned at one point. And at the airport, I spaced out for a second staring at a trash bin full of umbrellas. I know an expensive umbrella when I see one.

To the film shooting

Stoplight
Three cars at a stoplight at Roxas Blvd.

Roxas Boulevard is a fine boulevard. That’s where I first saw stoplights with countdown timers. This is the best thing that happened in Manila, I thought. And it should be the type of stoplight everywhere.

I crossed the street and walked by the embassy towards what looked like an FPJ shooting where lots of people were watching. There were security guards by the main gate and a soldier riding a stationary army jeep installed with a machine gun. I could only guess since it was veiled by a cloth – maybe to avoid frightening passersby but when bad guys came crashing in, I was pretty sure they will be wiped out immediately with some casualties at the other side of the road.

Just before I reached the crowd, a guy greeted me, “Anong oras ka, sir (What’s your time slot, sir)?”

“Seven-thirty,” I hesitantly answered. We all know this too well – helpful people almost blocking your way offering some kind of assistance. They are fixers in some government agencies and they are salespeople in some.

“Ballpen sir, may ballpen ka na? Bawal ang sign pen (Got ballpen sir? Sign pen isn’t permitted),” the guy spieled while walking along with me.

“Meron na (I got one),” I said while the guy retreated to find another prospect.

There were several lines of people in the crowd. Another person greeted me with the same ballpen line, this time a woman. I smiled and said that I got one.

She pointed me to the seven-thirty line and I stood by the end. Right away, I took a mental note of the person in front of me – white caucasian male, 60s, red and blue striped polo shirt, white hair, eyeglasses, with female companion. I had to do this every time I stood in line – thanks to MRT and shopping malls during rush hours – they will teach you to be vigilant of your queue, otherwise you won’t reach the top of the line. Innocent people and those pretending to be innocent will take over you every chance they get.

The first ones that got their lines moving were the seven a.m. batch. Soon enough the eight a.m. batch formed to the right of our line. I was standing there with an empty stomach and a full bladder. All this time I was alone with my thoughts, I could hear my tummy and I could clearly observe the surroundings.

Outside the embassy, a marketplace

The crowd outside the embassy is a host of people coming from all walks of life and it was just a matter of time before I could spot an obscure Master Showman TV personality emerge from a car. This is also a market for different kinds of businesses and it fascinated me to see all these salespeople trying to get your pesos.

“Boss, may CR ba dito (Dude, where’s the comfort room)?” I asked an elderly man renting out monoblock chairs.

“Naku, malayo, doon pa (Yikes, it’s far away out there),” pointing his lips to the other side of the road.

“Magkano silya (How much to sit down)?” I asked out of curiosity.

“Trenta lang, walang limit sa oras (Thirty pesos only, you can sit for as long as you want),” he answered.

I admire them mainly because my profession is in the industry of building internet platforms that enable other businesses to build on top of ours. And you bet I could get simple strategies from them.

“Five pesos lang unli na for twenty-four hours (Five pesos, unlimited for twenty-four hours)!” If you’re a prepaid mobile user, you know what I’m talking about.

The man is only one vendor. I could create a menu for all the products and services offered outside the embassy.

To be continued…

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