The situation was this: by accident, Willow had stalled in one of the metro stations while I kept riding a train towards Causeway Bay. We could not communicate. We didn’t know which would be each other’s next move, but we both knew what we expected the other to do. (Just in case you don’t know, there is a whole branch of game theory, plentiful with essays and research -involving maths, statistics and psychology- for dealing with such kind of problem, called The prisoner’s dilemma. So, don’t think it was so easy to sort out.) Besides, she didn’t have any money on her, and I wasn’t altogether certain that she knew exactly our destination stop. For the moment, I had decided to keep going and wait for her at Causeway Bay.
But once I got there I had second thoughts, deeming more advisable to head directly for the hostel: she might hesitate between Causeway Bay or the previous station, but wherever she got off, she couldn’t miss the hostel. In any case, it started making me nervous why I couldn’t reach her on the phone? All subway lines in Hong Kong have good GSM signal; she had now two mobile phones on her (mine and hers), both with Chinese SIMs; I had seen her making several phonecalls that very morning; but when I tried to call her, both lines were unavailable. Why?
As I learnt later on, though, it wasn’t much of her fault: it turns out that Chinese SIM cards don’t work in Hong Kong unless roaming is previously activated; which -by the way- is pretty odd, considering that Hong Kong is part of China, and that roaming is a term involving two countries. Or is it roaming when you call from England to Scotland? Surely not.
I couldn’t help worrying, but, as everyone will tell you that worrying does not help to sort out problems, I decided to take things easy and see to them calmly. So, I arrived to the hostel and booked a bed, settled in, took a shower, brewed a tea and then got online for summoning all my resources. I tried several other ways to reach Willow: via Skype, email and Whatsapp… to no avail. It was as if she had vanished into the blue. But what on earth was she doing, anyways? Nearly two hours had elapsed; she couldn’t possibly be still waiting for me in the spot where she stalled. True: she didn’t have a dime on her, but she was inside the tube with a valid ticket to Causeway Bay. I tried to imagine, were I in her shoes, what would I do? Very likely I’d go to Causeway Bay. There weren’t many options to choose from, right?
Just in case, then, I went out and scanned around Causeway Bay’s several exits, but no sign of her. Finally I thought: Pablo, she’s not a westerner; she’s a Chinese. And in China -same as in Cuba- people are not taught to think the same way westerners do; actually, they’re not taught to think too much. Thinking of your own is not encouraged in communist educational programs. Most of all college students: those are the most severely lobotomized. Therefore, unlikely and absurd as it might seem, she’s maybe still waiting were we parted. I decided to return to that station where I had lost her, after leaving a message for her at the hostal reception.
I hadn’t stop pinging her every fifteen minutes or so for the past two hours with phonecalls, all unsuccessful, but right before I entered the subway for the second time, I finally heard the sweet ring tones on my earpiece, and inmediately afterwards she picked up the call and answered: wei? I felt very relieved, and asked her where she was. She told me, on her way back to Shenzhen; and then started complaining that she had been so many hours waiting for me inside the metro, that she asked the metro staff about me (??), but I had abandoned her and… I hung up. No mood for reproaches.
I was angry at her, though I shoudn’t have been, because as I’ve said, Chinese lines don’t work by default in Hong Kong. I tried to be reasonable. Shit happens; that’s all. Letting my mood take me over would lead nowhere. So, I started addressing the main problem: how was I to enter China and fulfill my holidays? Difficult question. Asking Willow to stay with me in Hong Kong was out of the table: those exploitive Chinese companies are merciless, and she worked at a small one ten hours a day, six days a week, no holidays, no sick leaves, no health care, no nothing. So, I had to figure out how to go to Shenzhen myself.
Yahooing around, because I don’t google, I read some traveling websites and found two possibilities, though with a bit outdated information, like two years old: the first one was to apply for another visa at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ office in Hong Kong (which is quite weird, because you don’t have a Consulate of your own country in your own country; unless Hong Kong is not China; but don’t tell this to Chinese people), and this visa can be issued in as little as twenty four hours if you bring all the papers and pay the express service fee on top of the visa fee. The second possibility was to go to the border and apply there for a Shenzhen visa, which is a on-the-spot type you can get only in three of the several crossings between Hong Kong and China, valid only for visiting Shenzhen, with a maximum stay of five days.
As my return flight to Spain was for twenty days later, the second possibility didn’t make much sense: though Shenzhen visas are cheaper, I’d need to get in and out of China thrice, crossing the crowded border six times, which meant irreversible waste of holidays and wear of neurons. I have to confess that the idea of just bringing forward my return ticket and simply going back to Spain much earlier than planned crossed my mind a few times, but finally I ruled it out.
Thus, the decision showed as rather obvious: I’d try to get a new tourist visa the next day. There were some papers to download and print, some forms to fill, some buildings to find, some queues to wait and some money to pay; but if I managed to have everything ready early in the morning, I could get the visa twenty four hours later and be with Willow by Friday afternoon.
It was Wednesday evening, an exhausting long day, jet lag included, after a 17 hours’ trip, with almost no sleep in the Aeroflot airplane because next to my seat there were your typical group of four Russian blokes drinking beer and telling jokes all night long. So, I went to my dormitory and set to sleep quite early.
At 6 a.m. on Thursday I was up and working. The visa office opened at 9 a.m., and it turned out to be at a walking distance from the hostel; so, I had plenty of time for preparing everything. However, there were two different websites where to download the application form, and they difered in the form itself as well as in the documents to accompany. It took me a good while to tell which were the ones I needed. Once I had them in my laptop, I copied everything to a pendrive and asked the staff where could I print them. The manager told me a place nearby, an internet cafe on the 11th floor of a given building, but when I got there it turned out they didn’t open until 9:30. Dammit! Shit happens much more often than you’d expect. I went back to the hostel and, when I told the guy, he pitied me and said, ok, we’ll print it for you, just wait ten minutes for my staff to come.
The receptionist came not ten minutes, but half an hour later. It was already 8 a.m. She was much nicer and efficient than the manager, but when she clicked “print” the printer complained: NO INK. Shit! What a waste of time! She gave me the address for another internet cafe: 95-100 Lockhart Road. It looked pretty close in the map, but I was at the other end of Lockhart Road, so it took me half an hour to arrive, and then another fifteen minutes to find the building, because odd numbers were on one side and even numbers on the other side, which meant that there could not exist any 95-100 building. There was 94-100 on one side, and 93-101 on the other. I asked at a bar where a British expat was in his third paint of lager that morning, but the bar tender had no clue about such building nor such cafe, while the Brit advised me to just drop by the National Library, only fifteen minutes drive by taxi, where I could print the documents if I showed some ID. I thanked him warmly. What a great piece of advice, dude!
By then it was already 9 a.m., the Chinese Ministry of FF.AA. office would be already opened and people lining in the queue (according to the web pages I’d read, it usually got pretty crowded). I started sweating. Asking further about the internet cafe, someone told me, yes, it was here, but it’s closed down. The place is now a brothel. Lovely. A prostitute wouldn’t do me any bad, probably. But I had to print those papers, so I went back to the other internet cafe on that 11th floor; it should be open by the time I arrived. And indeed it was; except that it wasn’t an internet cafe, but an accountant’s office. What the hell? When I was about to take the elevator for leaving the building and finding some hidden corner where to cut my veins unnoticed, I spotted a sign by the 9th floor button on the elevator’s button board: E-CAFE. Bingo! It was a neat place, with good, brand new computers, air conditioning, open 24 h (which means that two hours ago I could have finished, had I been properly directed), though no cafe was sold at all, and it was run by an extremely friendly guy who charged me black and white price for color copies. Finally a nice guy!
When I finally impersonated myself with all the papers at the visa office, which wasn’t hard to find, I saw not so many people there. No queue; just half a dozen folks waiting in chairs to be called, and another half dozen filling in forms. I felt relieved. I took an application form and went to the number expending machine, mastered by a boy who thought he was an admiral. When it was my turn, I asked him:
— Can you give me a number, please?
— Have you filled in the form? –he replied.
— No, I’ll fill it while I wait to be attended.
— No, you fill it first, then I give you the number.
Fucking idiot. I filled in the form and waited his queue again. I stretched my hand to get the number, but he asked:
— Show me your passport. –And, after inspecting it and the copy, added–: you need to photocopy your passport along with your entry to Hong Kong permit there –he pointed to a copy machine with a queue of people.
— Couldn’t you have told me that in the first place? Whatever, please give me a number.
— No, you sort out the photocopy first, then come back. –The guy was a full cretin.
In that moment, out of the corner of my eye I saw a sign on a column: Due to local holidays, this office will be closed on Friday and until Tuesday. My heart skipped a beat: today was Thursday. I asked the admiral: “by the way, if I apply today for the visa and pay the express 24 h service for tomorrow…” He didn’t let me finish: “Impossible! Nothing until Tuesday”, he said.
That was a hard blow. Bye bye Willow for now. I totally lost heart and, crestfallen, left the building with downcast eyes. I felt like sending China, Willow and my holidays to hell, along with all the diplomats and migration authorities.
Now, reader, tell me whether or not I had a good reason to consider those 24 hours like the stupidest of my life…
But never give up! If you want to know how I finally managed to enter China again, come along with me to the fourth and last chapter of this story.