October 4

I saw a fake nail in the gym today.  It was lying all alone by a yoga mat and two 4kg weights and although I am no expert, I am positive that the pink, plasticky-fingernail shaped object was a fake fingernail (at least I hope it was fake).  And it just really bummed me out.  And then it reminded me of how Myra and I didn’t get our Greece visa.  I’m not sure how my brain made the association between the fallen nail and our dashed hopes of bare feet burrowing in white sands and sneakered-treks to the Acropolis… maybe cause the nail bummed me out and not getting the visa bummed me out and all bummy thoughts are shoved together on the same shelf inside my mind? (Of course it is organized inside there.  I alphabetized my books for crying out loud.)

Or maybe the forlorn nail reminded of the word ‘rejection’.  Nobody likes that word.  In fact, we are terrified of it – it makes our stomach plunge, gives us nightmares, aims for our confidence and self-esteem like Mohammad Ali aiming for a knock-out.  There are so many ideas, so many paths we want to traverse but the fear of meeting the intimidating, demeaning, ego-shattering Rejection at the end – or midway – makes us baulk, shake our heads, quickly look over our shoulders to see if anybody noticed we were going to do something potentially crazy and awesome, no, safe to drop it all and turn away.  And so, there are dreams and ideas that we put away, fold into tiny, tiny squares and slip beneath our mattresses, pretending to forget till we eventually do.
Submit a story to a competition, float the idea for a quirky café to a potential investor? Apply to the best university, to the fine arts program we salivated over months ago but now that the deadline approaches… nah, let’s do something doable and mundane, something that is expected, something that is less likely to push you into Rejection, which stands like a stony, silent wall, not even noticing when you collide into it and break into tiny pieces.

Relationships, jobs, schools – there are too many places where the word looms. 

And then there are things we rush into, cartwheeling and skipping merrily because the odds are stacked so high in our favor that we can’t even see the small pile of warnings meekly trying to attract our attention.

“You will get the visa, I am 99.9% sure!” my father and my uncle were both certain likely only men in our family can be certain.  And honestly, it made sense to me too; Myra and I are unthreatening females, have studied in the US and have successfully gotten visas to multiple countries – including Schengen which we were applying for to visit Greece; we had all the required documents, two cousins who wanted to chill out on a balcony in Athens and sip some juice, lay on the beach at Santorini and thank God for it all.  Our success rate with visas had been 100% and we were rationally arrogant, nonchalantly cocky.

Our plan started as a whim, dreamed up simultaneously by Myra and I, and then slowly pieced together logically: an eight-day getaway first in Athens and then Santorini, an island a few hours away by ferry.  I spent too many afternoons meticulously drawing up a day-by-day plan, browsing Tripadvisor, reading comments and sifting through photographs, typing up notes for the Best Trip Ever 2013.  It had headings. And subheadings. And hyperlinks to visual depictions of stated idea.   

Looking back, if there was a clue about the eventual disappointment this non-trip was going to be, it was the morning we went to the embassy to submit required documents.  Located on a main road in F6 with limited to no parking, the embassy is a hidden bungalow behind trees and gates.  The guards outside have the (legitimate or not) authority to send people away without ever letting them in past the gate.  And nobody gets to go inside the bungalow it seemed.  After being gruffly told to sit here, not there, stand further, not this, go there, breathe slower, wait – a lady pokes her head outside to take our documents.  She returns and asks us to separate the documents.  We separate the documents that we can – our travel bookings, tickets, hotels and sponsor letter can only be separated if we tear them into two pieces.  We are after all travelling together.  We explain the situation to her and she nods.
She returns. “They’re saying separate your documents.”  The first hints of frustration dot our skins and prick at our patience.  I repeat how we have already separated things we could.  “I explained but they said separate…” we haggle for a minute or so and then she finally goes in for another try. Why are there incompetent go-betweens, I wondered, why is the lady who checks our purses also performing the duty of an unnecessary messenger for the embassy officials? It was like we were forced into a game of Chinese Whispers, wondering if our messages were relayed properly.

When we finally got called in for the interview – one by one – I was told to walk up to a black screen and speak into a microphone.  I couldn’t see who I was talking to but she could see me as I answered her ridiculously long and winded questions (she also asked me how I knew Mr. Koltek, mispronouncing the name of my uncle’s company and mistaking it for his name.  Definitely a star employee, this lady behind the screen here).  Myra’s was shorter but she was asked to submit another unnecessary document and as we left we talked about the ridiculous setup. We’d both gone through some annoying embassies but this topped the list of inconveniences.

There were a few people standing outside who had travelled from outside of Islamabad to come here, probably not really dying to see Athena the goddess but having more imperative reasons like family and employment waiting for them in Greece.  It was frustrating even to watch the treatment meted out to them.  I can only imagine how they must have felt.  The forms are in English, complicated, and they require you to book your tickets in advance, have hotel reservations and traveler insurance.  Is there really nobody designated to help people less-versed in English with the application process?   
“But I don’t know what is wrong with my paperwork…” a man says in bewilderment, his smile turned upside down by his short excursion into the embassy, the guard looks at the documents and together they guess at what the issue could be.    

After Myra submitted the extra paperwork, our wait began.  After two weeks ended we started to panic because our travel date was coming up fast, and we realized we might not get our visas in time.  Myra called, I called, she visited the embassy and faced the same frustration with the less-than-literate messengers that scurry back and forth between the black screen lady to people outside in what seemed to be a mind bogglingly inefficient system.

And then finally the Thursday before our flight (embassy closes early on Friday and stays shut till Monday. Flight is on Monday night) we visited again and were told the Greek embassy officials had forwarded our request about urgent travel dates but they hadn’t heard anything and frankly, they couldn’t give a damn.  Okay, so they didn’t really use those words but it didn’t take a genius to figure out nobody really cares whether you’re losing thousands of rupees over mismanagement and lack of support in a needlessly complicated procedure.  Doesn’t Greece need our touristy money?  I thought their economy wasn’t doing so well!

After Friday we both decided to come to terms with the fact that we couldn’t go.  Of course a little tendril of hope remained suspended in our hearts, like an annoying child who keeps tugging at your shirt for more candy even though you yelled at him a minute ago, incorrigibly silly.  And then Monday played out like a Bollywood/Lollywood depiction of a cricket match.  When Myra called the embassy they told her we could pick up our passports on Tuesday, 9:30 am.  Our flight was four hours earlier! The thought of missing our dream vacation by a thread was too painful and Myra started making some phone calls.  Our two-pronged strategy was to try and get the passports that same day or push our tickets back a little without incurring too much additional cost.  Finally Myra told me she was going to go pick up our passports.  I was – to use a North American white girl expression – super excited.  I did a little bhangra for mum (who of course was not super excited that I was going to Greece with just my cousin) and started laying out my outfits for the eight days, checking the weather in Athens and Santorini.  And then as I walked into my room with my pink pants, my phone rang again. 

“Our visas were rejected.”  Oh that awful word.  “We didn’t get them!”

It was like I had been unexpectedly tossed on to cloud nine and then a few minutes later the cloud evaporated.  Not only was it terribly disappointing, it was also kind of embarrassing.  Who was going to put away all these colorful jeans and shirts!

I eventually got over it, just like we get over our other First World/Third World Elite problems – sitcoms and McDonalds.  But other than the disappointment, we were also really angry.  It didn’t seem fair.  If complete paperwork like we had submitted received a rejection, what of all the people waiting outside, barely able to understand the idiosyncrasies of visa forms, accidentally ticking the wrong answer?  And the guard who kept sending people away, the safety-check lady who lost messages in translation like water in a sieve, the embassy official who couldn’t differentiate between the name of a man and his company?  The people who spent thousands of rupees to visit the embassy only to be told to ‘come later’ for no conclusive reason?  “I took a day off from work, I live a 100 kilometers away from here,” one man had argued.   

It makes me sad.  This world has so much to offer –craggy cliffs, sprawling glaciers, whales in the deep blue ocean arching gracefully like silky black rainbows in the water, deserts, forests, cable cars that carry you to the top of the mountain where lounge chairs sit at the edge, looking out at the tops of beautiful mountains… amazing feats of architecture, incredible natural treasures, so much diversity, so much that can help expand our minds, create peace and love and surround us with the fleeting gift of happiness.  Whenever I see something amazing a part of me is always sad at this person or that friend not sharing it with me, and I would think of the kids in small city schools, in Pakistan and in America, that I worked with, and I would wish they could see this.  They would be bowled over with excitement and awe…

If only there was a train that anyone who wanted could board and then travel anywhere in the world.  A universal express that cost nothing and went up mountains, through hills, over bridges and in ferries, creating connections, writing cheesy, cheery messages in the blue sky with its old world locomotive smoke…

Instead we have borders and restrictions and stupid visa regulations that separate families and reject spontaneous happy plans.  Sigh.  

Rejection.  Such an ugly word.


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