#UmurundiInAmerica (Part I)

About a month ago I offered myself a little trip to the United States of America. Okay, I didn’t just wake up one day and decide to go – my life isn’t that fabulous. I had been planning the trip for almost two years after I promised my buddy Henoc I would be at his graduation from the Oklahoma Christian University. But I wasn’t just going to fly across the Atlantic (for the first time), stay in one place and go back home either… I had to make the most of my trip #GuhombozaTicket.

I called family and friends in the North, South, East and West to tell them I was coming, and that’s how, in the span of a month I got to visit New York City and Albany (New York), Portland and Bangor (Maine), Victor and Hamilton (Montana), Edmond and Oklahoma City (Oklahoma), San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco (California). #GoodTimes which included seeing people I hadn’t seen in a long time, making new friends, sightseeing, boat and limo rides, driving tractors and convertibles, fishing, shooting, getting stranded, wandering aroud NYC like I owned the place, chilling in Hollywood, eating too good, sometimes too much, watching my favourite series as they were being aired for the first time on TV, and many other fun things I got to do. The White House was on my list of places to visit, but something not so fun happened on the way there… And here is story number one.

So it was me, my cousin Libère, who studies at the University of Syracuse (New York), and my super friend Bertrand who happened to be in the States visiting his family at the same time as I was. (Well, to tell you the truth, my trip was planned around his visit and Henoc’s graduation). After a day and a half in New York City, I wanted to visit relatives who live in Lancaster (Pennsylvania), Libère (a proud geek) wanted to take us to see some famous biotechnology institute in Maryland, and we’d go to DC for half a day, before heading back to New York. Since we wanted to do all those things in so little time, we figured it would be more convenient to rent a car, which we did from Newark airport (cheapest option).

We spent the night in Lancaster, and as we were driving to Maryland the next morning, we got stopped by the police… for speeding. Libère was driving. In normal circumstances, when you are caught for speeding, you’re given a speeding ticket and you go on your way. But the policeman who was on duty that day was special, to say the least. When he looked at Libère’s ID/Driver’s license he was like “the State of Pennsylvania does not have an agreement with the State of California (where Libère is usually resident) which would allow you to pay your ticket there. Therefore I cannot let you go without paying the fine. You’re going to have to see a judge.” Libère, showing him his student card, was like: “But I’m a student at Syracuse and I live there. Surely you have an agreement with the state of New York?” And our guy was like “Yes, but a student card is not proof that you are resident in New York.” … Really?!
So he took Libère in, as Bertrand and I sat there wondering wt* just happened. In normal circumstances, I would have driven the car and followed them to whatever police station they were going to, but clearly this wasn’t a normal situation. We were “advised” not to drive as we had foreign driving licenses. So we were left sitting in the car, at some gas station off the highway in the middle of Pennsylvanian nowhere…
A few minutes later Libère called to let us know the judge would only be coming in at 8PM. All this happened at around 9AM, on a Sunday (I like to think we were lucky that this judge was willing to come to work on Sunday night). After the call, he switched his phone off – standard procedure when you’re being arrested – so no way to get in touch with him. We had forgotten to ask where he had been taken.

As we sat in the car wondering what we were going to do with our day, there, at the gas station, I remembered Henoc telling me that foreigners are allowed to drive with their home licenses for a year in the States, so I took my phone out and started searching the net for legal references. It didn’t take me long to find one in the Pennsylvanian State Laws #MikeRossBeLike …So I jumped on the wheel and Google-maped our way to the closest police Station, assuming that’s where Libère had been taken. But it was closed #SundayBlues  What to do? Call 911 to ask them where the hell they had taken my boy! Good thing is, when you call the emergency number in the USA, somebody does actually pick up… and they were helpful. They got an officer to come out of the station (which we weren’t going to leave without information), and he gave us the address of the Courthouse where Libère had been taken, in some town called York. We drove there and parked the car in front of the Courthouse. The Courthouse being closed and not being able to get in touch with Libère (we weren’t going to call 911 again), we decided to stay there until he came out… It was 10PM when he did. 10-flippin-PM is when he came out, with a speeding ticket… nothing but a speeding ticket which had Syracuse as his home address on it! The land of the free you say? Puh-lease! Tired, hungry and disgusted, we decided to give up on DC, head back to New York to proceed to the rest of our journies from there. I’ll spare you the details about how we arrived in cold NYC, with all my bags, at 2AM, meaning there was no transport out of the city until the next morning (we had returned the vehicle).

If there is anything I learnt from this little adventure it’s that the American police force isn’t as ‘professional’ as they make it look in movies. It has its own share of unprofessional and ignorant officers, who can also be jerks, racist, or all of the above.
On a positive note though, as Bertrand and I wandered around York looking for food, we learnt that the town was the first capital of the United States of America, and the Courthouse in which Libère had been detained was on the site where the first Constitution had been signed, or something like that. We didn’t see the White House but at least we can say we got to see the original DC #Kwihumuriza

Now before you start feeling sorry and thinking that this was the worst part of trip, please allow me to stop you. America kept the worst for last. What happened is that I got robbed in San Francisco… just seven hours before my flight back home. Well, I had to fly to New York first, and then leave the States from there.

San Francisco was the last stop on a three-day road trip my cousin (another one, not Libère) and I had started from San Diego. We had spent the previous day in Los Angeles where we got a little bit too excited, meaning we left quite late and arrived in San Francisco, eight hours later, at night. We drove around the city for a bit, before going downtown for dinner.
I’ve been telling myself that we were too tired and hungry to think properly, which would explain why, when we left the car parked on some side street, we didn’t bother to take our laptop bags with us or put them safely in the boot, like we usually do. Instead, we left them sitting on the backseat and when we got back to the car, somebody had smashed the rear window and stolen them. Mine had my laptop, my iPad, my external hard drive, a few other gadgets I had for people back home, and most importantly, my passport. I had a panic attack when I realised what had happened. However, I’m still thanking God that I had my wallet on me. I usually kept it in the bag. It had the two things that allowed me to get home: my driving license, and a passport photo – photo of which I took with my phone and e-mailed to the embassy so they could make me a replacement travel document.

The little story on how I got home goes like this…

We first went to the nearest Police Station (after calling 911, again) to file a report. However, with regards to my “going home” situation, they told me I would have to speak with the airlines taking me home, or with the airport people. Since I had already checked-in online (hence all I had left to do was drop my bags), it wasn’t hard to get through check-in after explaining what had happened and showing them my Burundian driving license as my only form of identification. I thought security would be harder, but after telling my story all over again and reminding them that I was going home, they were kind enough to let me go… after putting me through a full body search – with my clothes on (calm down), but yeah, no part of my body was left unsearched. Instead of getting pissed and embarrassed about it, I had begun to find the whole experience quite amusing… consequences of stress maybe.

So, I didn’t actually have a direct flight to NYC. I had to transit through LA for one hour. I had planned to use that time to call the embassy in DC and ask them for help (I got robbed at night so I had to wait till the morning). Now, my phone was dying and my charger’s wall adapter had gone with my bag.  As soon as I landed in LA, I looked for a charging station that accommodated USB plugs, sat by it and started making calls. I didn’t realise how time flew, and by the time I remembered I had another flight to catch, it was too late. The flight was gone #UnMalheurNeVientJamaisSeul
I would have landed in New York at 5PM, leaving me enough time to go downtown to our embassy at the United Nations to get my laissez-passer made and come back to JFK in time for my 11PM flight. That was the arrangement proposed to me by the lady at our embassy in DC. She told me our embassy in NYC doesn’t usually deliver travel documents, but since DC was too far, and my case was exceptional, they had been asked to help.
But now my flight had left me behind. The next available flight (which I got booked on free of charge, thank God!) would arrive at JFK at 8PM. Meaning: impossible to go downtown and get back in time for my flight home. Panic attack, number two.

Meanwhile, Bertrand (he had already left the country by the way) had been checking on me like every half an hour from when I got robbed… #FriendsInNeed. When I told him about the missed flight incident, he suggested I e-mail the embassy a photo, ask them to make the travel document for me and to send it to the airport. Making the laissez-passer could be done but the embassy had no means to send it to me at JFK: the only vehicle they had was for official use, and the ambassador, who was absent, was the only one who could allow such errands. I didn’t let that annoy me as they had already done enough to help, including accepting to not close the embassy until my document was collected. As I was trying to figure out how to get the document to JFK without having to go get it myself, (i.e. getting a courier service to pick it up and drop it at their JFK office), my dad called to let me know an old friend of his, who works in NYC had agreed to collect if for me from the embassy and bring it to me the document at the airport #itOnlyHappensInMovies. The rest is history. No need to give you the details about how I hadn’t slept or showered for 3 days when I landed in Bujumbura on a Wednesday afternoon (I got robbed on Sunday night), too tired to even speak but so happy to be home. I have never been so happy to be home. Never!

Eh, by the way, a week after my arrival I got an e-mail from the SFPD saying they had found my passport. It should be reaching me some time this week #ToutEstBienQuiFinitBien

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4 thoughts on “#UmurundiInAmerica (Part I)

  1. Beautiful and compelling. Wish you’d broken it down into at least 3 series so that you exhaustively give us account by daily account of all your journey. But thanks nevertheless. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

  2. Great article!!! My last comment got zapped, but I just wanted to agree with the above comment – you should have written several series!

  3. Pingback: Dear people who buy stolen goods, | Ramblings of a Third World Elite

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