Saturday, December 15, 2012

Meeting the Inventor of the Time Machine

My son today reminded me of a story from my days in Guyana. It is short, don't worry. With no great moral or account of derring-do in the great Far Abroad, it relates a little tale about an odd character--and how sometimes a joke doesn't work.

As mentioned before, my first year in Guyana found me manning the visa counter in the barn-like consular annex we then had on Main Street, Georgetown. People desperately wanted to get out of the country, and head somewhere with more possibilities for them and their children. The top three destination choices for Guyanese, in no particular order, consisted of Canada, the UK, and the USA. People tried all sorts of strategies to get tourist, student, or business visas, and then stay, playing the odds that the immigration services of those countries rarely deported anybody. People had all manner of stories and crazy documentation, and made bribe offers of various types--I got offered on one occasion $5,000 for a transit visa (I did not accept it). As a rule, you tried not to listen too much to the story told. You tried not to get pulled into whatever fantasy world the applicant created. You remained aloof, listened politely, most of the time knowing that you would say, "No."

Some stories, however, linger in the memory.

One that stayed with me involved an American expatriate who had lived in Guyana for decades. First, a word on expats. In some countries, American expats prove very troublesome. They often have no good reason to live in certain places, and, in my experience, do so for reasons having to do with escaping alimony payments, dodging imprisonment, engaging in debauchery with minors, or a combination thereof. I did not always find this the case, mind you, but frequently enough. In Guyana, we had a few American expats, such as a well-known felon who had fled Ohio, established a "church" (I don't mean Jim Jones) and ran a goon squad that worked at the behest of Prime Minister Forbes Burnham. This expat thug would drive around Georgetown in an enormous convertible Cadillac. He also had a daily radio show, the thirty-minute long "Hour of Power"--yes, you read that correctly.

Back to the expat in today's tale. He had arrived in old British Guiana prior to World War II to prospect for gold. He had a succession of Guyanese "wives," and never felt the need to return to the USA. He appeared at the consular section every few years to get his passport renewed, and then disappeared into the hinterland. He looked remarkably like Colonel Sanders of KFC fame, so let's call him "Colonel."

One fine warm day, the elderly Colonel showed up with a couple of Guyanese, a woman and a man. He came to my little notch at the counter and presented a huge packet of documentation. With money made gold prospecting, he said, he had formed a "Time Machine Company," duly registered in Guyana. Impressed by the extensive and colorful documentation, I violated the rule against getting into stories, and asked about his company. He claimed to have invented and built a working time machine--he produced complicated "technical drawings"--and that the two Guyanese had become his business partners. He needed them to receive US visas and go to New York to find additional investors and buy a few spare parts. I asked why he didn't go; as an American citizen he could travel there freely. "I am too old to travel," he said. He wanted his younger Guyanese partners to go in his stead.

After reviewing their applications, I, of course, refused to issue the two of them visas. They had no discernible ties to Guyana, other than their link to the "Time Machine Company." No reasonable expectation existed that they would return to Guyana.

The two Guyanese took my refusal well, apparently expecting it. The Colonel, however, seemed distressed. He asked what we could do to change the decision, and began fumbling with his wallet. "Stop," I said, "Do not offer me money or I will have to report you. If you want visas for your associates, I suggest you come back yesterday when I am not on duty." He stared at me in befuddlement. I thought for sure that the inventor of the time machine would understand my useful suggestion.

At the request of the Diplowife, I did not give up my day job to do stand-up comedy.

31 comments:

  1. Excellent! One story, two punch lines! The Diplomad delivers internet value.

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  2. With a story like this you could end up talking to yourself and we all know where that leads to..........

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    1. Voting twice for Obama?

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    2. The eternal election, quick destroy the machine!

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  3. Diplomad, another one of your 8 readers here :) I am enjoying your tales of the Foreign Service tremendously. This one takes me back to my days on the visa line in Peru in the 80s. Also, I'm a sucker for any story with a time machine in it! I keep sending Diplomad links to my family.

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  4. Ahem, ahem. Cough, cough. Speaking as a former American expat in my years before joining the Foreign Service, we're not all oddballs and freaks trying to help people do end-runs around the immigration laws. In Taiwan, I taught English, edited scholarly papers to put them in passable English, did some supply preaching and translation editing for a church, and engaged in a number of other perfectly legitimate activities for which the Government of the Republic of China (Taiwan's official name) duly issued me a document called "Alien Registration Certificate" (外侨居留证--their equivalent of a Green Card) and renewed it--and, in those days, they did not want their country littered with hippies, draft dodgers, bums, and what-not from foreign countries. Come to think of it, in more recent years, it seems the expat community there is made up of lots of people engaged in various legitimate enterprises, including showing the Taiwanese what Western food REALLY tastes like. There's even an EnZedder up in the hills with a sheep farm. I'm even proud to say that while an expat, I got a Museum in Taichung to display its sample of Hebrew Writing correctly, rather than as an upside-down mirror image.

    Now, I know some of the types Diplomad describes from my own consular days. They waste your time with foolproof plans for eternal world peace (Immanuel Kant crossed with the Strawberry Statement warmed over) when you have a room of squalling babies who need their Consular Reports of Birth Abroad and first Passports。Quite frankly, even if the Ambassador, DCM, and Consul General, in their infinite wisdom, demanded that the Citizens Services Officer on duty handle such types, my sympathies were ALWAYS with the expat parents and passport renewers, for I had been in their shoes. Now, I got into trouble because Mr. Nobel Peace Prize Wannabe got his Congressperson to fire off a nastygram about me because I was more interested in Mr. and Mrs. Missionary's little one getting her CRBA and passport, or Bert Businessman getting his passport renewed on time. However, even now, I say to Nobel Peace Prize Wannabe and the Honorable Whoever from Wherever to go 草泥马 ("Grass-Mud-Horse". There: I can finally say openly what I kept to myself back then).

    The fact of the matter is that any country that is doing anything at all right has its crops of decent and respectable expats. I thought it an honor to renew their passports and issue CRBA to their children. When decent and respectable expats are found in the USA, we call them Lawful Permanent Residents, Foreign Investors, Intracompany Transfers, and a lot of other things in official parlance. As for a lot of them who sojourn in the USA, I note that they keep the sinews of international commerce strong, and, in the case of the first-named sort, they often provide a reservoir of foreign goodwill towards the USA that often goes underappreciated (for a lot of my time in Taiwan, I mostly hung out with natives rather than other expats, although I knew enough of the latter and continue to regard them as friends).

    Well, Dip, I thank you for giving me an opportunity to vent my real feelings about a certain kind of expat out there; I still think you've got a wonderful blog; but I am just a little pained that you leave the impression that American expats are mostly trouble.

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    1. Mostly trouble in certain countries, especially those where not even the locals want to live. I have lived as an expat in Europe before my FS days, and caused no problems . . . I didn't invent a time machine either, however.

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    2. Please forgive Kepha but I have to ask, what is "supply preaching"?

      You'll probably understand my questioning as I'm Presbyterian.

      Arkie

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    3. Think interim or fill in Arkie

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    4. Thanks. Kind of figured but as I've admitted - Calvinism.

      Arkie

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  5. I am a new reader of this blog and have been enjoying your stories, er .. experiences very much. This visa story brings to mind my own experience -- I wanted my brother to visit me, just a visit (he was not interested in coming to live here permanently), in 2004 for about 3 months. He said he would bring his younger daughter and I said OK. This would have been the first family member visiting me ever and I was excited about it. I wrote a letter and made a financial statement or some such thing for his visa. I even sent him a gift for air ticket, playing the good host. What does he do? He goes for the interview and acts like a big shot -- he tells the officer he was going there as a tourist and not a word about visiting his little sister at her invitation and keeping up family bond and all that. Obviously the officer was not impressed and refused visa. My brother was chewing about it for years and still does. He felt insulted and humiliated and took it out on me some. He never understood what he did wrong or how he could have communicated better. I tried to tell him the visa officer's point of view but to no avail. So I lost out on all counts. Yeah, he kept the ticket money I gave him.

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    1. In Thailand, a woman from upcountry came to my window wanting to visit her sister in the states (wife of a former serviceman, ran a beauty shop). Ties to Thailand included a fruit farm and a family. Well, after numerous years as an expat in another Asian country, something told me "Here's someone who'd never even think of going twenty miles from home if there wasn't a close relative involved" and I issued.
      My supervisor was furious and put the case in the "tickler" file to check with the Thai authorities if the woman returned (Thailand kept records of who came in and who left and when).
      Well, sure enough, it turned out that Thai customs and immigration records showed that the woman returned to Thailand after about two months in the States.
      I don't think my supervisor ever forgave me.

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    2. You did well. My brother was a hospital administrator (retired now) and had properties and financially if not wealthy quite secure. At his age around 50 then he was far from looking to emigrate and this visit was all my idea. But he didn't make it clear to the officer that he had no interest in living here and gave all the wrong impression -- leaving wife and elder daughter behind (they were not interested in the trip) and taking the younger daughter and not mentioning me or my invitation to his benefit. There he was in front of the officer being all bombastic about going to the US as a tourist.

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  6. My wife is Romanian. When we found out she was pregnant with twins she sent for her sister from home. Young, unmarried, attractive, very attractive come to think on it, ahem, but I digress- she really didn’t have anything holding her in Romania so she was denied a visitor visa. When my wife’s back is to the wall, she becomes formidable (think patton, or, 100,000 screaming Mongols descending from the high steppes). Incredibly she was able to find The Ambassadors email address using some then new-fangled program called google. A charm campaign was begun. Poor bastard didn’t know what hit him. Long story short, my sister-in law got her visa, although the ambassador arranged for her to go through the guy that normally handled marriage visas. Never really understood that part of it. I was amused to find that the embassies webpages were subsequently scrubbed of all email addresses within the week.
    Come to think of it, if I had a time machine I would go back to that time and buy google stock.

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  7. As one of your 8 readers I have been particularly amused by most of your FS reminiscences and have read selected ones to my husband. We both got quite a chuckle out of the one on Diplowife and her creative unorthodox solution to intruders. Hubby says that you remind him of a man he say next to at a dinner once in Sedona. We had gone to an MG car show and the man seated to my husbands left was a former foreign service person such as yourself. He was touring the US in an MG and just happened upon the show in Sedona and asked if he could join in the fun. As MG people are a very open handed bunch he was welcomed with open arms and his car oohed and ahhed over, with general jealousy that his wife had just let him take off in the car to wander all over the country starting in Florida. Hubby said he was pretty funny and had great stories. Sadly I didn't get to hear any of them. I was fending off comments about our impending child as I was quite obviously pregnant at the time-7months if memory serves. Hubby told him to write a book. Don't suppose you own an MG or did 10 years ago?

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    1. I did own an MG, but more like 40 years ago!!!

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    2. Hubby wishes he had the contact info for the man but alas just the memories or a fun intriguing conversation.He's into stuff like this as well as WW2. We have three MG's with their various puddles of oil in various states of running and repair. It's a fun hobby. We have a 4 door saloon that is our main show car since the birth of our son, a 1957 MG ZBV Magnette. Otherwise we have an MGA roadster and an MGB GT in pieces. The man in question owned a rather nice MGTD. Crazy man driving that thing all around the country. We've driven our Magnette halfway across the country but it is a tad more comfortable than a TD for sure

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  8. Arkie--Presbyterians also have men doing supply preaching. It's when a congregation doesn't have a regular minister, and they send qualified men around to preach on different Sundays. And, most of my Christian life I've been in Presbyterian churches, too; although I'm also at home in churches descended from the continental Reformed tradition. Indeed, the real difference between "Presbyterian" and "Reformed" is whether the great-grandparents spoke English or something else (German, Dutch, Magyar, Czech, French).

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    1. Thanks Kepha, as above noted I had rather thought that, just never heard [read] the practice referred to precisely like that.

      - I'll admit to an ulterior motive in structuring my question as I did though. I was attempting to set up a joke, hoping I'd get asked "what's Presbyterian/Calvinism to do with it?"

      My reply was gonna be along the lines of "due to my ignorance I was determined to ask." -

      Of course these last couple days in the US are probably not the best of times for attempting humor.

      Arkie

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    2. If I knew how to do it, I'd add a smiley face. It was a good one.

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    3. Kepha? Press and hold your 'alt' key, tap your numerical one [1] key - release your alt.

      Of course on most of these blog-comments sites, doing alt-code requires holding your 'Ctrl' and twirling your mousewheel until the smiley face is large enough to discern.

      Even after cataract surgery.

      Arkie

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    4. Gentle Readers, I will do the humor on this site, please!

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  9. As a current Consular Officer, I can say that SidVic's sister-in-law never should have received a visa. By definition, if you have nothing better to do that to go to the US to babysit, then you don't have sufficient ties to a residence abroad to compel your timely departure from the US. No amount of letters or Ambassadorial pressure would have changed my mind. So...how long did she stay?

    Kepha, I got your grass-mud-horse joke. But since you were talking about Taiwan, you should have used fantizi.

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    1. Heh, well yeah, you are probably correct in the particulars. As it worked out, my wife’s sister didn’t over stay her visitor visa. Although I must admit that I counseled her to over stay and find a husband. Concerning the babysitting... It seems to me helping a sister and her new hatchlings for a couple of months would fall within the purview of a visitor’s visa. The key question is of over-stay, or immigration-under-false-premises risk. Determining that seems dicey- at best.
      I am a little surprised to hear that you would resist pressure from the Ambassador over issuing a relatively trivial visitor visa. You career bureaucrats must be more insulated from politics and political appointees than I assumed.

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    2. Unfortunately, this dumb computer I use can show me fantizi, but I haven't figured out how to write them. The program to do so uses National Phonetic Symbols from Taiwan, which I don't know (I learned pronunciations first from Wade-Giles Romanization, then from the Yale System--which lets you know how old I am).

      Uh-oh. I fear you may also know what I mean when I call the current occupant of the White House the "O" (if you're familiar with Taoyuan, Xinzhu, and Miaoli Counties in Taiwan, plus parts of Hualian, Gaoxiong, and Pingdong).

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    3. SidVic - Such activity can fall within the definition of visitor visa, but the key is whether the interviewing officer believes the applicant will be compelled to return promptly. Family history and local immigration patterns are pertinent. When you're talking about single Romanian ladies under sixty, well, lots of them won't come back. So tourism or babysitting, we look at the essence and the odds, but not so much at what the person's papers claim. We're not stupid, after all. And yes, we are (mostly) autonomous, but cultivating a mutually respectful relationship with the Ambassador is very important. They can't force us to issue a visa, but they can make our lives miserable. On the other hand, we can damage them if they get too aggressive.

      Without wanting to hijack our awesome host's blog, I am very happy to answer any general questions about consular work. There are lots of misconceptions out there. A lot of it's changed post 911, too, so even our respected host and his contemporaries might not be up-to-date. I, for one, am awestruck and envious that he was able to have his guns in the Foreign Service.

      A Current Consular Officer

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    4. Kepha, if you are a Microsoft user, you can do fantizi right from Windows. Under the regions and languages control panel, add a new keyboard. Ironically, choose Chinese Simplified PRC, then Microsoft new pinyin experience. Once you have the new keyboard selectable from the task bar, change to Chinese, open the language bar, find the options panel, then under advanced options select "traditional" under character set. Done, you can now do pinyin to fantizi. I don't know if Apple has the same ability, but when in doubt, you can use translate.google.com to change jianti to fanti.

      Nope, I didn't get the "O" thing. I'll have to make some inquiries next time I'm in the area--thanks for the research project! 再見

      A Current Consular Officer

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  10. Will you comment on the CT shootings?

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    1. I want to make sure I have something useful to say.

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