Monday, 1 October 2012

Visas Blues in Phuket

Some cool Graffiti in Phuket town by the French artist NOE TWO.

Living in a foreign land has its moments of frustration, and Thailand is no exception. Mundane tasks like going to the market can turn into epic misadventures for the uninitiated. Daily, I observe foreigners with knitted brows and twisted features gesticulating manically at ticket touts. For some, dealing with a traffic attendant can cause a twitchiness in the left arm that will one day have them curling up in pain like a like a caterpillar on floor. Subtle differences in culture unknowingly result in resentment for unsuspecting travelers and locals alike. Over the last decade or so, I have lived, for extended periods of time, in a number of countries, China being one of them. And in all places conflict ebbs and flows between the local population and bright eyed visitors. However, nowhere suffers from this problem quite so acutely, in my experience, than Phuket. A paradise island it may be, but for the ten million visitors who grace its golden shores annually, certain cultural nuances cause them to act in ways that leave them searching deep inside themselves for answers.

Choosing a place in Phuket that epitomizes the above is not easy due to the fact that there are so many, but, if one feels like having a peep at the darker side of human nature, a place where grown men are reduced to blubbering messes and cultural arrogance meets theatre, then Phuket town’s immigration office is your first port of call.

For those who have not been to Phuket Immigration office, count yourself fortunate. It is a stuffy little box in which six distinct sets of people frequent for visa reasons: leather faces old men with droopy elbow skin, women with leather faces with even droopier elbow skin, gangly Russian women hobbling about in tasteless 10 inch heels, hung over thugs in sportswear stinking of booze and stale cigarettes, stoic faced men in suits staring at Blackberries, and yacht people wearing deck shoes and knee length chino shorts with sun glasses on their head. All are here for to get an extension on their visa and all anxiously avert eye contact. A silent, frantic atmosphere envelops the room and the only sounds that can be heard are conversations in broken English between the officers and the expectant visa hopefuls. All of which are tinged with mistrust and the threat of violence.

“I wanna apply for my marrage visa.”

“You, sign your name!”

“I did already, see?”

“I said, you sign name! You have name?”

“There it is right there!” (points with finger)

“No name. You have name, yeah? You not have name? You come back. You not correct paper.”

“Look, I was here last week and he (points condescendingly at another officer) told me which documents to bring. And here they are.” (sarcastically drops papers onto the desk; mouth opens to reveal tobacco stained teeth; right eye twitches in rhythmic spasms.)

“You go get son birth certificate.”

“Why do I need that for a marriage visa? I have done this for 10 years and never before have I needed that, and what’s more, HE said I didn’t need it. (points again at the other officer who shuffles uncomfortably in his chair.)

“You go.”

“What do I need to bring!” (teeth clench and spittle forms and the corner of the mouth; eyes red and protruding.)

In situations like this the officer is in full control. The visa applicant is wholly dependent on him and the man in uniform plays this game in full knowledge of his powerful position. It can be painful to watch. Two diametrically opposed cultures are at logger heads and at pains to meet half way, but the reality is that there can only be one victor; therefore, the applicant inevitably leaves either happy or embittered, and the officer doesn't care. Why would he? He’s only doing his job after all.

After experiencing many encounters like the above I am not really surprised that the officers act in this way. Every day they come face to face with angry foreigners who are frustrated by the often nonsensical mountain of bureaucracy that they have to climb. Consequently, both parties are frustrated and short tempered and fireworks are inevitable. For me, though, I refuse to let this formality get the better of me. I smile and am always well prepared. Nothing can fluster me while I am in the chair. I wear blinkers, blocking out the silliness around me, focused on my goal. This goal was achieved again last week when I was granted another one year visa. As I walked out the office and the midday sun caused me to squint, I smiled warmly at a pensioner and his twenty five year old wife, safe in the knowledge that it would be ninety full days until I had to set foot in the place again.

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