[Sara.a: The View from Inside the Holding Cell]
“Houston, we have a problem”
I stare out from behind the cold steel bars, my eyes taking in what they can in the dim lit area. Some empty desks, cameras that watch me from corners, and the occasional guard. I sigh. I glance behind me, to where an old, rotting blanket lays waiting on the floor for me. I close my eyes.
I’m no longer in the cell. I’m on a beach, in Mexico, drinking mojitos and chatting up a bevy of tanned beauties. An endless ocean lies before me. Freedom is all around me. There’s no need for blankets or bars here.
I open my eyes to the grim new reality that seems more fantasy than anything else. I was supposed to be back in bed by now. Shit happens, I guess. And shit does not take a vacation when you do.
I look at the clock: 2am. I reluctantly take a place on the freezing floor, a floor that’s as hard as it is cold, and pull the disgusting blanket over me. My thoughts unwillingly turn to the unmarked door. I try to not think about it, instead forcing myself to think about other things. I think about my family back home in New Zealand who I haven’t seen in two years. They have no idea I’m here, in this cell. Maybe I should have mentioned it on the phone? But I didn’t want to worry them.
My thoughts eventually give way to darkness, and I embrace it as I fall asleep. I dream about Portland, Oregon in the U.S. where I have been living for the last couple of years. I came with nothing, and have built an entire life for myself. I am head chef of a successful kitchen and have lots of new friends. I’ve been enjoying the American lifestyle. My hope is to go back to New Zealand soon, but not quite yet.
I head outside into the huge backyard of the house I live in. The house is also huge, fitting 14 people. It’s the dying days of summer but there’s enough sun to grab a seat and sit topless while I read. As I sit, I think that my little American adventure has turned out quite well, and that everything is okay.
“Time to go”.
A gruff voice stirs me from my slumber. The small, comfortless dark room comes back into focus around me, and the smell of the rotting blanket once more fills my nostrils. I am forced to my feet by two fat guards. Fuck you both, I think, but stay quiet. I know I’m in a delicate situation. I have no power. I am in the middle of nowhere and no one who really gives a damn about me knows I’m here. I could have my skull bashed in and no one outside these walls would be any the wiser. My hands and feet are once again handcuffed and chained together, and as I am escorted out of the facility I catch a glimpse of the clock: 5am.
Outside the first rays of dawn offer some glimmer of hope. A new day. Perhaps a better day. I am pushed into the back of the armored van, and take a familiar seat. I try and stifle the now recurring feeling of panic, and tell myself there’s nothing to worry about. But I know that I am being blindly led to wherever they want to take me. Just like last night.
It’s 10pm and I’m fucking exhausted. I’ve been interrogated the better part of 10 hours. I need a break, I need to get away from this place. How much longer? He said it would be soon. Another hour passes. And another. And another. Finally, after what seems like an eternity a door to the side of the room opens. 3 guards in uniform enter. They have guns and batons hanging from their sides, leaving no doubt as to who’s in control. They survey the landscape before them, full of cockiness and misguided self-righteousness. Their eyes fall upon me and stop. Curiosity creeps across their faces. I am intriguing, I am different from the others in the room.
“What’s he doing here?” the fattest one asks.
This is not unexpected. I am clearly the odd one out amongst the crowd, separated by the color of my white skin and European features.
“A misunderstanding…” I start to reply.
He laughs. I’m sure he doesn’t care for excuses, he’s probably heard them all before.
One by one they have us stand in front of them and tie us up. This is my first time in handcuffs, and the steel is cold and tight. A chain links the cuffs on my hands to the ones on my feet, and I am only able to take very small steps. Any thoughts of escape that had played in my head are immediately put to rest. We are ushered out through the side door, and down some stairs. This proves far trickier than imagined.
We all find ourselves being put into the back of a windowless armored van that smells like vomit and pee. Opposite me two grown men have tears streaming down their face. I can’t remember ever seeing grown men cry like this, and behind their eyes I see only fear and the absence of hope. They are dejected and must know that they are going away for what could be a very long time. I keep telling myself this will not happen to me, but I cannot be sure. I attempt to have a conversation with the men, perhaps I can reassure them somehow, but their English is very bad and my Mexican is worse. We end up sitting in silence, all pondering bleak scenarios and scared. Our thoughts are interrupted by the van slowing down.
Someone shouts: “Open the gate”.
Mechanical noises. The van moves forward again then stops. The doors open and we are ordered, with guns aimed in our direction, to get out and follow one of them. We oblige. As we walk I catch a glimpse behind me of a huge 20 meter steel gate with barbed wire across the top of it. This gate turns into a concrete wall and stretches far into the darkness of the night. My gaze returns to in front of me as we are marched to another door. I wonder what lies behind this one.
We are in a room, no bigger than a bedroom. Guards surround us. The handcuffs are taken off me. There is no such luck for the other men. They are pulled to the side, before being roughly taken to another room with yet another door. It is a plain, unmarked door. It could be a door to anywhere. One of the guards opens the door. I catch sight of the horror inside and all words fail me. Never have I seen anything like it.
One of the men who had been crying has new tears streaming down his face, and as he is pushed through the door and engulfed by darkness along with the others, his eyes catch mine and we share a moment that seems to last forever. His eyes foolishly plead to me, look to me for some sort of help, but I cannot give him any. My eyes begin to prickle, and I feel the unfamiliar feel of tears in my eyes. I take a deep breath, calm myself down and look away. That room, that unmarked door is sure to be something that I will not forget.
I am soon thrown into a cell, a cell that has no bed and no toilet, only a blanket in the corner.
I remember what one of the guards had said, “No, nothing like jail”.
After 30 minutes of winding roads the van comes to a halt. I am taken out, and immediately feel relief as I realize I am not about to be killed and left for dead in the middle of nowhere, but am being returned to the room that I was interrogated in just yesterday. It already seems so long ago.
After sitting down, I am given some breakfast: a small cup of fruit and a muesli bar. It’s not much, but I wolf it down. I feel guilty about the food when I think about the crying men and the unmarked door. I try hard to keep those thoughts away for the next few hours. Occasionally, I go up to one of the unsmiling faces at the counter and ask them for an update on what is happening to me (“we’ll let you know soon”) or to ask when I will receive my luggage back (always “soon”).
That is my name. I look at the clock: 2pm. I stand up and move to the front.
“We’ve got you a flight. You’ll now be escorted onto the plane by John…”
The lady nods her head towards yet another fat man in uniform. He wears big spectacles and looks like an idiot. He acknowledges me with a grimace and his fingers pass over his baton in a threatening manner.
“What about my luggage? I still haven’t got it…”
“It’ll probably have been put on the plane by now. You can check when you board the plane”.
I feel frustration inside me, but swallow my tongue and leave with the spectacled idiot with quiet indignation.
The spectacled idiot proves just that, trying to start a conversation with me after a few minutes of silent walking through the airport by accusing me of being a liar and coming to the country with false intentions. His heavy Texan drawl makes him seem stupider than the others.
“Y’all shouldn’t have lied. Y’all like every one of them…”
Like who? Fuck you, you racist asshole. I remain silent.
We are moving very quickly. Maybe it was the slow, grueling nature of the last day and night, but suddenly things are happening. We bypass every security checkpoint, and before I know it we are approaching a boarding gate. I can barely process it all, and am a mixed sea of emotion.
“… Y’all getting what you deserve. Y’all should admit what y’all did, cause y’all were wrong …”
With those words, he manages to part the sea so that only anger remains. Enough is enough, and with the protection of thousands of potential witnesses around me, I finally retaliate.
“Look, you need to be quiet because you don’t know anything about what happened. I did nothing wrong, and it’s none of your business, it was a misunderstanding and you need to stop talking about it”.
Whether it is shock that forces him to finally stop talking to me after that, or our arrival at the gate, I do not know, but I am just thankful he has.
I stand to the side as he explains to the boarding crew who I am and what is to happen. I interrupt before he is done to ask about my luggage, and ask if it is joining me on this flight. It is not. I find out there has been a screw up and my luggage has continued on its north-northwest trajectory to Portland.
I vaguely remember something about how in Shakespeare’s Hamlet Hamlet says that he is only mad when the wind blows north by northwest. I think madness is a suitably encompassing theme for the events that have been unfolding.
The boarding crew assures me they will have my luggage redirected to New Zealand, but that I will be without it for the trip home. Fucking great. Just fucking great.
Following “proper procedure”, the spectacled idiot takes me onto the plane. As I am taken to my seat, a countless number of faces turn to stare at me. I can hear their post 9/11 thoughts “Who is that guy?” “Why is he being escorted onto the plane?” and see the uncomfortable shifting in seats. After I am seated and the guard leaves, a few of the glances linger but people seem to be more at ease. “Surely if he were dangerous the guard wouldn’t have left” “He’s white anyway, terrorists aren’t white”.
Unfortunately one thing that doesn’t go away is my body odor. I do not know how many people have ever got to a point where they can not only smell, but are nauseated by their own body odor, but I now found myself past this point. It’s the smell of sweat, a rotten blanket, urine and vomit, and the lack of clean clothes or a shower in the last 40 hours. I remind myself nothing can be done, so I grin and bear it.
Everything feels surreal as I look around. I am no longer in a cell. I am on a plane. Surrounded by people without guns. The knot that had established itself in my stomach begins to untangle. It was going to be ok. I’d made it onto the plane and I was flying back home to Auckland, New Zealand.
The captain’s voice interrupts my thoughts.
“Welcome aboard flight 749, Houston, Texas to Tokyo, Japan.”
Fuck. I take out my boarding pass that had moments ago been handed by the spectacled idiot to a flight attendant and then to me. I read: Houston, Texas to Tokyo, Japan. To my dismay it does not end there. I also have a ticket for Tokyo, Japan to Christchurch, New Zealand, and another from Christchurch to Auckland. Three flights. I lean back in exhaustion. My eyelids begin to grow heavy and my breathing shallow.
The unmarked door. It stands in front of me. I feel fear, unparalleled fear. My hand reaches out and turns the door knob. I slowly push it open. I gaze inside, and once more I see the countless figures, all handcuffed, all broken. The room is small, the figures are many. Hollow eyes turn in my direction.
I wake up in a cold sweat. Haunting images linger in my mind; faces filled with despair and not a trace of hope. Sleep eludes me the rest of the way.
10 hours later, I get off the plane in Tokyo, Japan.
“Welcome to Houston, Texas” says the man behind the booth, with no real conviction or enthusiasm in his voice. “What’s the purpose of your visit?”
“I’m just flying back to Portland, Oregon. So just in-transit.”
More boredom. He ruffles through my papers, and then seems to liven up and starts sorting through some stuff on his computer screen. He signals a guard over, and they converse in hushed tones and discreet looks.
“You’ll have to step aside and follow me this way please sir.”
“But I have a connecting flight…”
The “please” is dropped as the guard repeats what he said. I follow him.
I am led into some sort of security room. The walls are a boring dull white, and the room is no bigger than 10 meters by 10 meters. Inside are 20 or so people, many with worried expressions on their faces. The majority of them are Mexican. I assume a lot of them have been caught illegally trying to cross the border.
I am briefed by two men in uniform that there is an error with my paperwork, and the legality of me re-entering the U.S. is brought into question. I explain that they are wrong, and a mistake must have been made as I have been dealing with a specific immigration officer who has assured me I have done everything legally. I give them her number. Unfortunately, it is a Saturday and immigration offices are closed so she cannot be reached.
The situation soon escalates, and takes a more unfriendly tone. It becomes assumed that I am trying to enter the country illegally from Mexico. I am taken to a private booth with a desk. Soon, the questions become more like an interrogation and before I know it they have lasted for 6 hours. I get a break, during which I am fingerprinted and then stripped down to my underwear and searched by a balding guard with over eager hands. I ask repeatedly about where my luggage is as I need my clothes as it is cold. They assure me it will have been picked up, and they’ll have it here “soon”. I get a sandwich to eat, and then the interrogations resume.
I do nothing but tell the truth, while I hear countless others in the room lie around me. One guy near me has 3 different passports with 3 different names. Their lies eventually fall apart, but my truth sticks. After another 4 hours of interrogation, I still cannot convince the customs officers that I am telling the truth, so I am told I am to be deported back home to Auckland, New Zealand.
I ask what my rights are, and if I can wait in the airport till Monday when they can get a hold of my immigration officer. An ugly lady, high on power and who has just joined the interrogations, tells me “You have no rights”.
That doesn’t sound right to me, and I want to tell her to go fuck herself. But I don’t. I’m not in a great position of power. I get offered a phone call, and call home. I let my family know that I have a good surprise - I’m coming home unexpectedly. I do not tell them why or what has happened.
After the phone call, I realize how late it is: 10pm. I ask someone if my luggage will come soon.
“Not tonight, the place that holds luggage will be shut by now-you’ll get it tomorrow”.
“And am I going to have to sleep here?”
I look around the room full of uncomfortable chairs, several of which are still filled like mine.
“No, you’ll be taken to a facility to spend the night soon” she replies.
I nervously ask “this facility’s not like jail, right?”
“No, nothing like jail” she lies.
In Tokyo I find myself sitting and waiting for my second plane to board. I look around at all the people walking around. I think about the unmarked door, a door that is like so many others and could be any door that I have ever walked through, and yet is so different. Does anybody here even know that door exists? If they did, would they care? Or just continue walking?
Everyone and everything around me keeps moving, oblivious to where I have been and what I have seen. They do not know that behind an unmarked door somewhere in Houston lies a whole other world, a world with no hope, where there are only confinements and no freedoms exist. A room where time stands still. I think about how many times I have looked at a clock in the last few days, and yet for those men behind that door time would mean nothing. There would be only darkness day in and day out till… I don’t know… I didn’t know what would happen to them…
A few hours later I’m on the second plane and Christchurch bound. I look out the plane and see endless ocean outside.
I had always wanted to go to Mexico and stretch out in the sun before an endless ocean. So when the opportunity came, I took it. The only thing I had to make sure of was that it was okay with U.S immigration. I’d been living and working in Portland, Oregon for two years under the watchful eye of immigration and with a work permit in hand. I’d done everything by the book. I called up my immigration officer who gave me the all clear, said she’d make a note of it in the system, and a week later I was off.
Landing in Christchurch I feel a sense of excitement to be back in New Zealand. The excitement is tainted though with the agony of being so close, and yet so far. One more flight. The sound of kiwi accents surround me, it’s both strange and comforting. I call my family and let them know when to pick me up from the airport. I give them minimal details about what has happened and soon am on the third flight.
The minutes tick by like hours. The agonizing wait of being home and seeing my family is almost over. I am full of emotions, and yet even with one eye firmly on the future and the joy and relief that awaits, one eye looks back at what I’ve seen.
72 hours, 3 flights and almost no sleep after leaving Mexico, I arrive in Auckland looking bad and smelling worse. I find out my luggage has beaten me here because of my numerous detours. It is almost like a final insult, and I can’t help but smile at what I have been through.
I make it through customs okay, and as I head closer and closer, step by step, to being reunited with my family I do my best to focus on the positives. I am alive, in good health, and I am home. But as I exit the final door that separates me from my family, and I walk into the light, it is a bittersweet moment and I cannot help but think about that unmarked door that makes the world shine just that little bit less bright.