No pictures allowed

It’s a scene out of a Microsoft commercial. Divorced woman in the jungles of Vietnam approving a rental applicant for her condo in Wrigleyville, Chicago.
Nice kid. Right out of school. Job at some tech firm.
No credit record yet as he hasn’t used his credit cards. No record of him anywhere, not even on Facebook, which has sadly become the obituary section for middle agers.
I was him once, someone without a record.
Actually, I was him at the China-Vietnam the day before.
China had no record of me, or the new me, Virginia Sinsabaugh ever entering the country and my virgin stampless passport was a quagmire.
Let’s rewind half a day. I had taken the night train from Kunming to Hekou Bei, about fifteen dollars and seven hours for a fast and frugal trip to Vietnam. I got the bottom bunk, giving me an interesting view of a middle-aged woman who climbed to the nosebleed section in her black tights and leopard skirt and striped panties, non of which appropriate for her physique.
I got my Vietnam Visa online, so all I’d have to do was flash it at the border control and literally walk across Sông Hồnge River’s friendship bridge.
Easy cheesy lemon squeezy.
But this time it is just the lemon.
When I returned to China in July, I was still Virginia MacDonald. I would legally change my passport in Chengdu as it was faster and cheaper than doing so in the USA, plus, I would be able to eat bubbly candy apple red hotpot with some good friends. The last passport with Virginia Sinsabaugh hadn’t been stamped since the 90s.
The guard pushed up his wire-framed glasses. His nose crinkled as he fanned through the pages.
“Where you entrance stamp?”
I thought of the certified link letter the US embassy gave me to connect my old passport name and number my one.
It was in my underwear drawer.
Thought I needed for work reasons, not a trip to get some pho.
“Okay, Okay, Follow we.”
Avocado Green uniforms. Shiny gold buttons. Broken English. Stern school teacher faces.
The guard leads me to one of those beige rooms at border control that you never notice until you are brought into one. Visions of episodes of Locked Up Abroad flash through my mind. Cavity searches. Sniffer dogs. I look for a sign with the Chinese version of the Maranda Rights, if there are such a thing. No. And a sign I do understand. A camera with an “X” through it.
No pictures allowed.
The guard points to a huge wooden couch shellacked and shiny.
“Sit. No very much worry.”

Meanwhile, my heart was throbbing like a popcorn kernel wanting to explode.
Luckily, I had a scan of my old passport on my phone –with my old name–and the world’s worst passport picture —one that carried me through the worse trip of my life—my divorce. It was taken by a woman with a buzz top and tobacco-stained teeth who took it upon herself to photoshop off my a good portion of my hair.
“Here,” I point, “This is me.”
Even the guards laugh at the picture.
After a short interrogation, I was free to roam the world.
So now in Sapa, what will I do?

After a cup a French roast WiFi, I snapped a picture of a Vietnamese Hardware store to send to “Ben the Door Guy” at Lowe’s in Wicker Park who is helping with a project.

New tenant, new door. I look at the applicant. Who are you? What will your life be? Will you clean the refrigerator on a regular basis? Will you get stopped at border control?

I indulge in some Ban Cuon for breakfast as a smorgasbord of languages assaulting my ears. French. Spanish. Hebrew. German. Global trekkers swarm around Sapa, in the latest spandex with a tangle of dreadlocks and a few body piercings.
Were any of you stopped at border control and brought into that beige room?


I wander to my hotel where I meet Bao,   a jovial Black Hmong woman whose persistence charmed me as much as her Buddha-like features.

“Look, look” she shoves a coin purse in my face. “How much you pay? You buy two, better price.”
The purse was obviously machine stitched in China, but Bao tried to passit  off as her own. But she was so loveable.
“Buy, buy.  I have baby in village.”
“Okay.”
We talked for a while and I showed her pictures of my family. I broke down and bought a purse, one eyebrow arching up in doubt. I pay for the purse but decline a “I’m here and you’re not” photo.
Bao runs down the mountain to her village in CatCat. “Me must take care of baby. You come with? Only twenty American dollar.”
“Next time.”

I pull out my passport and take a look at my new stamp.
I think back to the first Virginia Sinsabaugh, who like snakeskin, I’ve outgrown many times. Twenty years old, on my way to Europe after a skydiving accident, not the foothills of Sapa or to a condo in Wrigleville.
In that passport picture, you could see a glimpse of my three-point Jewett back brace (imagine headgear for your abdomen). I was going to spend spring term in London, meaning, I’d get class credit for going to museums, pub crawling and reading Sherlock Holmes.
My dad brought me to the Detroit Metro airport on a snowy March day, his Kent cigarette dangling from his mouth, my new Timberland boots on my feet, a far cry from Bao’s flip flips.

“Now be safe.” He slips me an envelope of traveler’s checks and a few spare pairs of wool socks. “Please call once a week. Collect. Don’t want to worry your mother.”
I give him a hug, never realizing at the time how proud he was of me, and how he knew that I wouldn’t return the same person. I would forever hunger for adventure, never be satisfied with being still.
Even when I visit that beige room at border control.

3 comments to “No pictures allowed”
  1. Oh my! Your picturesque words tantalize my slumbering adventurous spirit! Glad you’re safe. Loving your vantage points. Moved by your memories. I love you my friend. Explore some more so I can be entertained on my sofa!!!!

  2. I love reading your blog! You are a fantastic writer. I was taken to a beige room in Korea once…one of the scariest moments of my life 😛

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *