“No, no, no. This is not right!”
The female border guard admonished me in stern tones, dismissively tossing my completed customs form into her trash basket.
My temper at the petty bureaucracy flared. Ire duly raised, I opened and then quickly closed my mouth. Best not to antagonize. The object was, after all, to get through this border crossing, not to be shooed back to Kyrgyzstan.
The woman was in her late twenties, maybe early thirties with manicured hands and painted nails. She had obviously spent time on her hair and makeup before coming to work. She was pretty and looked stylish in her uniform. Even though she was bugging me to my back teeth right then, I felt a little sad for her, the very definition of all dolled up and nowhere to go.
I sighed, took another blank form and started copying out my passport details for the third time.
As my hand wrote out the familiar information, I felt more like an observer than a participant. I wondered what her life was like, as the only woman at this rural border crossing between Osh (Kyrgyzstan) and Andijan (Uzbekistan). Was her sternness with me a Central Asian version of a woman trying to be better than her male co-workers?
On cue, a guffaw echoed across the partition from the office next door where, it seemed, my husband was holding court with the male border guards.
“OK. Here you go.” I handed over the new form.
She started to review. I passed the neatness check (yay!) and she asked for my passport (yes, you read that right, there was a neatness check before a data check).
“This cannot be!”
She stared at me, this time definitely suspicious that I was going out of my way to cause trouble.
“Your passport is from Ireland. Why have you written America as your country? That is not possible.”
“I live in America.”
“No. You cannot have a passport from one country and live in another.”
Another open mouth, close mouth goldfish impression from me. I really didn’t know how best to play this one.
At this point, I think she decided I wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. Decisively, she struck out AMERICA on my form and wrote in IRELAND for me. With a flourish she tore off my copy and dropped it in front of me imperiously.
“You can go.”
“OK. Can I take my stuff?”
(Call me cautious, but I thought it best not to make any assumptions at this point).
She nodded. She was done with me.
It took me a good five minutes to gather all my belongings and re-pack my bag.
I went outside and took a seat on the wall between my boys. I could see Murph still in animated discussion with his new best friends – and still making them laugh.
He saw me sitting on the wall, said something to his buddies and came running over, cheerily calling “just two minutes” back to the guards while saying “I need the kid’s passports” to me. But when he stood in front of me he hastily reached under his shirt and palmed our four U.S. passports into my hand.
“We can’t let them find these, it’ll just be too complicated.”
And then he was gone.
I made a show of standing my (checked, cleared) pack up and tightening the straps with one hand while hiding the offending passports through a hidden side zip with the other.
“Mom! What are you doing?” BigB asked, just a touch too loudly.
“Nothing, nothing sweetie, what are you reading?”
Distraction, a parent’s greatest tool – in any situation.
Finally we were done. Start to finish it had only taken two whole hours to pass into Uzbekistan.
We compared notes are we walked down the road. Murph made fun of me when I told him how the woman had commanded that I must live in Ireland. I couldn’t understand how he’d managed to get away with having an Irish passport and a U.S. address. I figured it must have been because he’d made them laugh. “Humor wins again”, I thought.
Two weeks later we were at Tashkent airport leaving Uzbekistan. Murph pulled out his papers and realized that the Country of Residence on his form has been changed too – he just hadn’t noticed