Illegal: a true story of love, revolution and crossing borders [Ch.13]
I'm a journalist for publications such as The Guardian, Vice, The Diplomat and Narratively and my first book, a memoir, came out just over a year ago [Amazon link]. It's won numerous awards and sold thousands of copies. And now I want to give it away. This is the fourteenth installment [Prologue | Ch 1 | Ch 2 | Ch 3 | Ch 4 | Ch 5 | Ch 6 | Ch 7 | Ch 8 | Ch 9 | Ch 10 | Ch 11 | Ch 12] and every few days I'll post another chapter. From the back cover:
A raw account of a young American abroad grasping for meaning, this pulsating story of violent protests, illegal border crossings and loss of innocence raises questions about the futility of borders and the irresistible power of nationalism.
Deported to the United States [Chapter Thirteen]
During my month in the U.S. I talked with Lucía every day, and I was excited to return home to Ecuador and see her. The fight before I left coupled with my long trip out of Ecuador could have ruined us. We could have made a clean break; and maybe we should have. But she was the first woman I ever loved, and I wasn’t even considering it. The fight only made me more anxious to get back so we could move on from our mistakes.
Lucía called from Latacunga full of enthusiasm a week before I was set to return, and told me, “I found an apartment near the bus station. It has a nice kitchen, and I think you would like it—I can’t wait for you to see it.” The next day, after riding buses through the night she was with her mother on the campaign trail and spoke with the same infectious energy. “Today we took a canoe to a village on the river. There are no roads to get there and everyone speaks Shuar [an indigenous language in the Amazon]. It’s so peaceful, when you get back I’ll take you there. And baby; we’re going to win.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“The election. Rafael Correa is going to win. He came with us today and there’s something special about him. When we win, my mom says that we can go with her to celebrate with the new government in the capital.”
“I can’t wait to come home, baby,” I told her.
On the plane ride down I wrote her a long love letter to pass the time, and when the flight finally landed, I saw her. Just before new arrivals go through immigration, they pass within a few feet of a food court open to the public, and there she was, smiling broadly and waving frantically, waiting for me. I slowed my walk just enough to smile and think how happy I would be to hold her in my arms. When I saw her through that glass, all I thought about was how much I loved her, and how great things would be.
I rushed down the stairs and through the vast open space where lines formed for immigration, beating most of the people from my flight for a spot near the head of the line. I handed over my passport, smiled at the policewoman, and asked how her day was going. Usually, I would have had my passport back in hand by the time she’d answered, but the policewoman held on to the document, staring at her computer screen. She was a few pounds overweight with black hair tied tightly in a bun. Her cheeks were colored red with makeup and her eyebrows outlined with a thick black pencil. She seemed unsure of herself and unhappy as she punched each key and stared ahead, ignoring me and my question.
When she did look up, her face was blank and her eyes darted away from mine. In rapid fire she asked me a series of questions: How long have you been in Ecuador? What are you doing here? How did you get your visa the previous month in Colombia? The policewoman stepped away with the same empty look on her face and told me to wait; she took my passport with her.
Immigration control sat at the far end of one enormous room. The escalators that carried all the passengers down from the various gates slowly churned out their human cargo, pushing them toward the other end where they could be processed and stamped. Underneath the stairs a cluster of police sat idly, hidden in plain sight. The ceiling was at least fifty feet high, and during busier times the vast space turned into a maze of lines—but when I stood at the desk it was late, and the room was nearly empty. The failed crossing from Colombia a month earlier was still fresh in my memory and I was extremely anxious standing there alone at the abandoned counter. Still, I held out hope that it would be okay. That everything would be okay.
During my week between nations on the Colombian border, I realized that different immigration branches interpreted the same laws in different ways, and they seemingly knew nothing about how the other branches operated. I knew my visa was unusual and I assumed that was the cause of the policewoman’s confusion. In the end it would be okay and I would walk through the glass doors straight ahead, and into Ecuador. At least, that’s what I was hoping.
As the minutes dragged into an hour and everyone from my flight not only went through, but picked up their bags at baggage claim and left, I began to lose hope. I started to seriously consider that I might not be allowed back into Ecuador, and the thought terrified me. The single duffel bag I’d checked completed a series of loops around the baggage claim until finally someone picked it up, put it on the ground and turned off the conveyor belt. About fifty feet straight ahead, sitting on the floor with no one around, it was waiting for me. Lucía was waiting for me. Ecuador was waiting for me.
When the policewoman finally returned, she handed me my passport open to my newest stamp: EXCLUIDO (BANNED). Three police appeared and stood behind me in a tight semi-circle as she explained that airport immigration was not recognizing my latest visa, and as a result, I was being deported.
“No! I got the visa last month in Tulcán. You can’t do this!” I yelled.
She looked down.
I went on, “Please, no. Please, I live here. I work here. Please, you can’t deport me, you can’t, this is my home!” Water rolled out of my eyes and dripped onto her desk. I became more desperate and gripped the desk with both my hands as the police moved in. “My girlfriend is waiting for me. I saw her in the food court waiting for me, I have to see her! I have to!” I yelled.
She never responded. She never even looked at me.
Two policemen grabbed me by the shoulders, pulled me away from the counter, and led me to the far corner of the enormous room. “What did I do wrong?” I asked them as we moved together, like one solid mass connected by the tight grip at the top of each of my arms.
Underneath the stairs a group of police formed a perimeter around my body, locking me inside.
I pushed and pleaded until, finally, they let me see Lucía. We cried on each other’s shoulders and exchanged kisses and whispered plans before she had to leave.
“I will fly to Colombia and sneak across the border. Nothing else matters. I love you,” I told her.
When she walked away, escorted by one police officer while a group of them stood guard around my body, I felt a void. Before a policeman led her away, Lucía gave me a sunflower. Then I watched helplessly as she faded into the sea of people.
It didn’t seem real. I thought I had found direction and meaning. I thought I finally knew my place in the world, and that had filled me with hope and dedication. I wasn’t conscious of it then but things were never as good as I imagined. I was never as good as I imagined. The politics, Lucía, my effort for personal revolution, all of it was flawed. But I closed my eyes to everything that didn’t fit. Part of me must have known that even then, even while forcing a smile when one of our guards took a photo of Lucía and I. Still, at the time, I believed my life was a dream come true—a dream I was dangerously close to losing.