As promised, here is the story behind my failed trip to London last summer.
On Sunday night, July 18th, 2010, Phoebe and I got on our plane headed to London. We were so excited to be in London! When we got off our plane, we headed over to the UK Border Patrol. After standing through a long line until it was finally our turn, the lady officer asked us what we were planning to do in the UK, and we told her we were tourists. For some reason this answer did not satisfy her, so she kept interrogating us.
Customs Lady (CL): How do you two know each other?
Me: We’re friends.
CL: Ok, but where did you meet?
P: We go to the same church.
CL: Ok, what are you planning to do here in the UK?
P: We’re visiting friends.
CL: Can you tell me where you’ll be staying?
P: We’re staying in a place called Bowerhouse just outside of London.
The questions kept on coming until she got suspicious because it appeared we had changed our story. She ended up squeezing out of us that we were volunteering to help proofread a German bible, explaining that the only payment we would receive was free room and board. The more questions she asked and the more we stammered over our answers, the more tingly my face grew as it does when I get anxious. We stood there talking to her for about 10 minutes before she directed us to wait in this fenced-in area with benches while she spoke to an immigration officer. While we were waiting there, my anxiety intensified to the point that I started shivering. We waited there for about 10 or 15 minutes before another person came to let us know that they needed more information so could we please follow them? We followed them to an area where there were some tables where they searched our bags. My stomach was all in knots, but they loosened a little bit when one of the officers started cracking jokes. There was an Indian guy next to us getting his bag searched and he asked the officer, “What, don’t you trust me?” The officer pointed to his own forehead and replied, “Do you see ‘honest’ or ‘dishonest’ written on my forehead? How can I tell if you are honest or not? I certainly don’t see ‘honest’ written on your forehead.” Phoebe and I thought this was pretty funny. The guards were very kind about everything. After they searched our bags, we retrieved Phoebe’s suitcase and they took us to a detention room. Yes, they called it detention. It was my first time ever being in detention. The door to the hallway was locked but the room itself was pleasant enough and the detention officers were very hospitable. There was free food and drink (as much as you want), a TV, plenty of books, a clean restroom, and playing cards. The first thing the officer did was to take pictures of us and fingerprint all our fingers twice (it was all digital—all you had to do was put your finger on the scanner.) Phoebe and I felt like criminals, but not really because the whole thing was just so absurd! We didn’t do anything wrong, but we still had to go through all the red tape. After that we waited in the room and tried to kill time by talking, reading, playing Egyptian Ratscrew and of course practicing our German. It was handy to be able to speak to each other in a language nobody else around us understood so that we could try to figure out what we should say to the interviewer when she came. It was at least an hour or 2 before she finally came. I was feeling pretty anxious at this point because I didn’t know what was going to happen to us. It was possible they might send us back, but I figured that was pretty unlikely. I started to get hungry but I couldn’t eat because it made me more anxious, so I just kept drinking water.
When the interviewer came, I volunteered to go first, and we went into a small room about the size of a walk-in closet. She interviewed us both for approximately 45 minutes each, asking all sorts of questions from what my parents do for a living to what my major is in school as well as having me explain the proofreading project. After that we had an even longer wait before she came back again only to tell us that she was still working on it. We ended up staying in detention for about 10 hours. We weren’t the only ones there; there was an Indian couple who came in only 30 minutes after us and were still there when we left. There were also two other Indians, a college student and an older man, and the college student kept trying to get our phone numbers. I was relieved when they left because we couldn’t get him to stop talking.
At around 9:30 pm I asked one of the detention officers if we could have pillows and blankets. By then the officers had switched shifts, so I got to know new people, both of whom were Indian. And by the way, our interviewer/caseworker was also Indian. I had no idea there were so many Indians in the UK! Anyway, the officer told us we could sleep in the family room, which was nice because it meant we had a room all to ourselves. Phoebe fell asleep but I had picked up a book from the other room so I just kept reading; I guess I was still running on adrenaline. When she woke up Phoebe and I discussed that maybe the reason it was taking so long was because there was a good chance they might send us home. Not long after that, our caseworker came in and told us she had bad news: we were not going to be given access to the UK. They already had us booked on a flight home the next afternoon. I couldn’t help it; I started to cry. That meant $1400 down the drain! We got all the way here only to have to turn back. And to make matters worse, that meant I couldn’t go to Germany either. After a good cry, I felt much better because not that I knew what was going to happen, I didn’t have to worry any more! So I called my dad and let him know the situation, Phoebe called her dad, and then I called the brothers in London to let them know we wouldn’t be coming. There really wasn’t anything they could do. But then I got an idea. The whole reason we were denied access to the UK was because they considered the proofreading project work, even though we weren’t getting paid for it. But my trip to Germany was strictly as a tourist, so why not just go to Germany early and stay there the whole time? This thought cheered me up considerably. Dad called the pay phone back and it turned out he had the same idea I had. So without letting the detention guards know, Dad starting calling around and trying to make it work out.
Meanwhile, the detention guards let us know that if we wanted to we could spend the night over at a hotel so we could take showers and have a hot breakfast. This sounded good to me and Phoebe, so we let them know we would like that. Later Phoebe told me the guard had told her it was a 3 star hotel. I started to get a bad feeling about our decision when the guard asked me if taking a shower was the main reason we wanted a hotel room. He seemed kinda reluctant to send us to this hotel, but I waved my doubts aside, figuring the guard’s hesitation came from not wanting to do any more extra work. After all, it was 1 o’clock by this time. While we were waiting for our ride to come, the guard heated some microwaveable meals for us and we ate dinner. My appetite had improved, but I still couldn’t eat much.
Before we finished our meals, another set of guards came to transport us to our hotel. Before they let us leave, they searched us, even having us take off our shoes. Phoebe happened to have some BFA gospel tracts, so we gave them to our captors before we left. While we were in detention, they wouldn’t let us take any pictures, even prohibiting us from using our cell phones because they were camera phones, so I was looking forward to taking pictures once I got to my hotel room. Finally I would see something of London! But when I saw the car we would be traveling in, I began to wonder what kind of hotel they were taking us to. We put all our luggage in the back and then crawled into what looked like a prisoner van. Once we got in, there was no way we could possibly get out. A sliding gate covered the only side door in the back so that it could only be opened by the outside, and plexiglass like they have in police cars divided us from the driver. At one point I turned to Phoebe and said, “There’s probably not going to let us use anything in our luggage, are they?” The ride over to the hotel was somewhat interesting. I especially liked the roundabouts. But we never actually left the airport, so I never really got to see any of London. When we finally got to the “hotel,” Phoebe and I were surprised to see barbed wire and windows with bars on them. I should have known they wouldn’t take us to some nice hotel; we were considered criminals because we broke a law! Therefore, it made perfect sense that they would put us in prison, right? At this point, Phoebe and I started to get a little nervous. I could have kicked myself; we should have just stayed in detention! It took about half an hour just to get from the front gate to where we were supposed to get out because we had to go through so many metal doors that we had to wait on to open. Then when we finally stopped and our escorts got out of the car, they left for about 10 minutes without telling us anything, leaving us locked in this van alone.
When we finally did get out of the car and inside the building, they directed us to wait in a small room roughly the size of a walk-in closet that had a metal bench. It was pretty obvious to us by now that we were in a prison. Was this the same place where they held suspected terrorists and criminals? As it turns out, yes. Luckily for us, it was 2 o’clock in the morning when we arrived and 8 o’clock when we left, so we didn’t see many prisoners.
Anyway, after being in the small room for several minutes, another Indian lady guard came in to ask us some basic questions, like if we were violent, if we smoked, if we were suicidal, if we did drugs or were addicted to alcohol, and so on. Then they searched us again. While we were waiting on a doctor to check us before we went to our room, the two women at the front desk took our fingerprints and our pictures. Then they gave us a name badge with our pictures on them. The two ladies at the front desk, Amanda and Neena, were very sympathetic toward us and even let me use their office phone to call my dad. Then we each got to see a nurse. When it was my turn, the nurse (whose name was Godfrey) noticed my Bible and was encouraged to see another Christian. He asked me what church I go to , and I told him a little bit about the churchlife. He seemed very confused, but when I told him I loved the Bible and I read it every night, he seemed to think I was ok.
After our check-up with the nurse, they finally took us to our room, telling us that they would try to get some towels to us so we could wash up, but at the moment they were drying. Then they locked us in our cell. It seriously was a prison cell, complete with thin mattresses, barred windows, and not much space. There was a bunkbed, a desk with a chair, a sink, a toilet, a shower, and a TV. And there was a camera in the shower. There wasn’t anything good on the telly, so we turned it off. I slept on the top bunk and Phoebe slept on the bottom. Before we fell asleep at about 3 pm, I read a few chapters from my Bible outloud.
We woke up the next morning at 7 am. We were never given any towels so that we could shower, which was really the main reason we wanted to come to this “hotel” in the first place. Sometime around 8 o’clock our door was opened and we were given cereal with milk. So much for a hot meal. Then finally we were on our way.
Because we were escorted everywhere, I began to wonder if I would get a chance to call my dad again to find out the status of a possible trip to Germany. It turns out the next place they took us to had a phone. It was basically one more holding place for us before we were escorted to the gate. They searched us again and we stayed there until just before our flight. This place was similar to detention; it also had a drink machine and numerous snacks. I waited until 11:00 am (6:00 am Atlanta time) to call Dad. He told me he wasn’t able to get in touch with any of the saints in Germany, so we had nobody on the other end to vouch for us. I knew it was a long shot that we would be able to go to Germany anyway, so I wasn’t too disappointed.
Anyway, after that they drove us to our gate and we walked through customs and toward our gate with our two bodyguards. We went to the front of the line and got on our plane heading back to Atlanta. They let us know that we would get our passports after we had boarded the plane, and sure enough, halfway across the ocean the stewardesses handed both of us envelopes that enclosed our passports, tickets, and removal directions. We got seats on the very last row on the plane, which turns out to be a very good view from the window. By the time we got to Atlanta, we were so glad to be home! All in all, it was quite an adventure.