She looked at me with pity in her eyes, “I’m sorry miss, but you’re going to have to spend 24 hours in the immigration detainment center.” She grabbed my arm gently, but firmly as if at any moment I would begin running. We took an elevator down a few floors and walked into a grey room with bright white fluorescent lights. “Someone will be here to pick you up tomorrow,” she said. I walked into the room and watched the door slowly close.
Friday February 3rd
My flight left Goa at 5:10 p.m. It was bittersweet. I felt sad to leave behind this part of my journey, but I was incredibly excited for everything that was coming. I would be flying from Goa to Chennai to Bangkok.
Saturday February 4th
I arrived in Bangkok without any problems. As I walked to immigration, my shoulders ached from the weight of my bag, but I didn’t care because I was in Thailand. While I waited in line to get my visa I made a quick FB post letting my friends know where I was. When the officer saw my Mexican passport he said, “You don’t need a visa,” then pointed me in the right direction. I then was redirected a handful of times until finally I made it to the right place.
I watched the officer carefully studying my passport, confident that he would stamp it any second now. He called someone over who called another someone over. “Why you have no visa??” asked a woman in broken English. I told her that I thought you got a visa upon arrival. I sat on a couch while another officer filled out some documents. Then a man in a dark green uniform escorted me to an office somewhere in the basement of the airport.
Downstairs, another officer slowly filled out sheet after sheet of paperwork. I could hear the soft snoring of someone sleeping under his desk. Two other men waited in line behind me. I felt nervous, but assumed everything would be okay. I hadn’t purposely broken any laws. I wasn’t a criminal trying to smuggle in drugs. I was just some kid bouncing around SE Asia.
“You have two options, either buy a ticket to a country with no visa requirements for Mexican citizens or fly back to India since you still have a visa,” explained the officer. Apparently I had made a major mistake. As a Mexican citizen, I was supposed to have applied for a visa before arriving, but because I had a US Green Card and had always traveled without issues, it hadn’t occurred to me that Thailand would have different polices.
I began looking at flights. He informed me that Spice Jet, the airline I flew through, might fly me back to India for free since they were responsible for selling me a ticket without informing me of the visa requirements. I will be ok. I will get outta here. I asked one of the men who was waiting how he got stuck in this little office, his response: “I spent a year in a Bangkok prison.”
Two other airport officials arrived, a male and female. “We’re going to fly you back to India Sunday morning. You’ll just have to wait 24 hours,” said the female. I breathed a sigh of relief. “Yes. Okay. Great,” I said. I texted my mom saying everything was resolved. She asked, “Where are you going to sleep until the next flight?” I responded, “ I don’t care. I just want to get out of here.”
The officer who had been helping me before said something to the other officers in Thai, and then said to me, “You’re going to have to pay for the ticket.” I was confused. Why would I have to pay for a ticket to go back to where I came from? Couldn’t I buy a ticket to somewhere else? I politely told the officers this was a mistake, that I needed to talk to someone at the airline, that I needed answers.
“Miss you’re going to have to come with us,” said the female. I wasn’t sure what was happening. I looked at the kind officer from before for guidance. He smiled sympathetically and said, “Good luck Sofia, I hope you can get a visa and come back to Thailand.”
“The airline refuses to pay for your ticket because they’re saying you should have looked at visa requirements. Miss you’re going to have to wait for the next flight out to Chennai,” the female explained. I asked the officer if I could leave on a flight to Malaysia in two hours instead. Slightly flustered, she said that I had to stay in holding and fly back to my city of origin. I had no choice. It was the law. Heat rippled through my body. I took deep breaths. I followed in silence.
We entered the detainment center where a man with a white mask and gloves checked my bag. “Miss someone will come pick you up in about 24 hours for your flight,” said the female. “I’m sorry for your situation,” said the male. Although they seemed genuinely apologetic, it did not ease the frustration of being held against my will. I wasn’t told when they would be coming for me or who would be coming for me. A guard led me into a medium sized room that split into two rooms – one for men and one for women.
Each room had grey walls and grey floors with metal bunk beds all connected to each other so the mattresses were literally side-by-side. A young woman with dark hair and massive bags under her eyes was siting on the ground in silence next to an outlet with her phone plugged in. Two other women were sleeping. I saw men in the room next door shuffling around side to side. It was quiet. The bathroom was clean. The room felt sterile.
I dropped my bags and sat down on the floor.
Throughout the entire process, I had been messaging my mom freaking out. It didn’t matter that I was 22 and legally an adult, I needed help. So after they put me in the room, I called her to explain everything detail by detail. She told me to contact the embassy – I called and she sent an e-mail, but because it was Friday at night time, we weren’t able to reach anyone. Fortunately, one of my mom’s great friends, an ambassador, made immediate contact with the Mexican authorities in Thailand. A woman from the Mexican embassy explained my rights and said they would do everything in their power to make sure I arrived back in India safely. When we hung up I felt assured that I would get out soon. With a massive smile on her face, the woman sitting next to me enthusiastically said, “You speak Spanish!?!” and introduced herself as Claudia. I asked her how long she had been stuck here, and her enthusiasm turned into watery eyes, “15 days, maybe more. I’m not really sure.” I instantly became overwhelmed with love for this woman and wrapped her up in a massive hug.
For 15 days, maybe more, she had been held against her will. For 15 days, maybe more, she had vomited after every meal. For 15 days, maybe more, she had been unable to actually communicate with anyone due to the language barrier. For 15 days, maybe, more she saw people come and go. For 15 days, maybe more, she had been a prisoner.
Here’s the thing about time, 15 days doesn’t feel like 15 days when you can’t see the sun and the sky, when you don’t have access to fresh air, when you don’t have clean clothes, when you have to sleep next to strangers, when you are locked in a room with no escape. I asked her how she ended up here and as soon as the question left my mouth, I saw her eyes go dark. She said it was complicated.
A man walked in while we were talking, and when he heard me switch to English, he introduced himself as Z and said, “You talk to her,” he motioned to Claudia, “and ask how she’s feeling, and tell her not to cry.” He had been trying to communicate with Claudia, but the language barrier made it difficult. He suggested I try to offer the guards money to get us real food. Because he’s been there so long, sometimes they shut him down, but since I was fresh meat they’d likely say yes to me. I grabbed some cash out of my purse, knocked on the door from the inside so they would let me out into reception, and walked up to the counter with a friendly smile.
“Hey I was wondering if you could maybe get us some food,” I said to the woman sitting behind the desk.
“What do you want?” she responded.
“What are our options?”
“How about Burger King?”
“Yes! That sounds amazing. How much for a burger, fries, and a drink?”
It didn’t even occur to me to do the math, I handed her the money and walked back into detainment to patiently wait for the food. Z asked, “What are they getting? How much did they charge you?” I told him, and flabbergasted, he said they had robbed me. I looked up the conversion rate. 600 baht was $17. I felt stupid and naïve, but when I bit into the fries and saw how Claudia reacted to the chicken sandwich, I knew that I would have happily paid double that. I asked Z how long he had been here for, he grimly responded “5 months.”
“I used to work at a fast food restaurant back home, and I hated this stuff, but I can’t remember the last time I had such a good meal,” Claudia cheerfully said while popping a fry into her mouth. I told her that whenever she was ready I would like to hear about how she got here. She paused for a moment and again her eyes began to tear up, “It’s a really bad story.” I looked her in the eyes, grabbed her hands, and said, “I am not here to judge. I am here to listen.” And so she began…
The following is a transcription from an audio recording of our conversation. It has been translated and edited and for clarity. She allowed me to share her story because she wants to make sure it doesn’t happen to other women, but my hope is that we can make a difference in this woman’s life and create a ripple effect as we take on the beast that is sex trafficking. Her name has been changed to protect her identity.
I’m originally from Medellin, Colombia. I worked at a restaurant. My life was good. Simple, but good. One day, a friend of mine told me, “In China they make more money, they even get paid in US Dollars.” I have a daughter. My friend said that in one year I could make the kind of money that would change her life, “We can go out there to work at a hotel or bar, make great money, and then come back.”
At first I thought that moving to a new country would be terrifying, but the prospect of changing my life and my daughter’s life was too alluring to shut down. We got in contact with the woman who knew about the job in China, and she explained everything to us. She said the job was at a bar/restaurant. She would help us acquire the visa and pay for the plane tickets in exchange for a small fee that we would be able to pay after less than one month of working. I was sold. My friend and I traveled to Bogota, where we filled out all the proper paperwork and visas to go to China. Everything was done legally. However, by the end of the month, my friend and the boss were fighting too much, so the woman decided to buy my plane ticket first, and then send out for her later.
When I arrived to China, I lived with the woman and three other girls. I didn’t work the first week because my boss said she had to find the right job for me since I didn’t speak English. I noticed that the other girls would leave late at night and come back the next morning. I thought it was strange, but disregarded it. At first, she treated me like her guest. She took me out, showing me the city, the malls, the restaurants. At the end of the week, she said that she found me a job at the club where the other girls worked. I didn’t know what I would be doing at a club, but I said okay.
There were lots of girls. She had a few men there, who were our security guards. Because of the language barrier, when men walked up to me, I didn’t understand what they said.
“Go with one of them,” my boss said.
“To where?” I asked confused.
“What did you think? That you were just here as a tourist or what?” She laughed.
I saw a man hand her a $100 bill, then he took me to a hotel. When we arrived, I called her on the cell phone she had given me, confused, asking her what I was doing there.
“Sweetheart you have to wake up to the reality of life. This is now your reality,”
“What do you mean? I’m not a fucking whore,”
“Well honey, now you are.”
“No. This isn’t what I came here for.”
“You better step up to the plate. You owe me $18,000 and you’re not leaving until you pay me back.”
How couldn’t I have seen it? It never occurred to me that I would be in a situation this bad. I knew she wasn’t helping me for free, but I didn’t know it would be $18,000 – that’s enough to buy a nice house in my country.
She said, “Don’t forget that we know where you live. We know where you family lives. I know you have a daughter. You owe us that money.” I felt trapped, degraded. I didn’t want to do the work, but I was terrified that they were going to come for my family.
I began working, hoping that I’d be able to pay off my debt as soon as possible and go back home. When I went to hotels to meet with men, she would give me my passport so I could give it to reception, and when I left the room, one of her men would be there, waiting for the money and my passport. My night’s started at 10:00 p.m., and I couldn’t go home until 5:00 a.m. If I didn’t go to the club to pick up men, she would leave me to be raped and abused by her friends. She said that didn’t count towards the $18,000 I owed either, that I was just entertainment for them. They did whatever they wanted to me. I don’t know how I survived that. I still wake up from nightmares of those nights.
I wanted to leave. I felt depressed, and I felt severely violated, but I stuck. I stopped eating and got sick; she told me that I needed to go back to work or they would harm my family. They asked what it would take to get me working again. Alcohol. If they got me drunk enough, I couldn’t feel anything. As long as I was blackout drunk, nothing mattered. I don’t even know how many times I was raped. Most of the time, I didn’t know who was doing it or what they were doing.
I remember a few times men were violent when I wouldn’t comply. My boss didn’t care if I came back hurt or bruised – all she cared about was the money. Two of the girls were able to escape and contact the police. I tried to call them, but they took our phones. They were monitoring our calls and messages to make sure we stayed in line.
I tried to refuse to work. I threw myself into walls. I acted crazy. In response, she threatened my family, my daughter, and I would go back to work like normal. Eventually she got tired of me, so after two months she sent me to some of her friends, two couples in Thailand.
I would be doing the same thing with a new boss and a new set of girls, but this time it was worse because one of the bosses became obsessed with me. Instead of sending me out to work, he would tell his wife and the other couple that I was sick and keep me at the house, repeatedly raping me and beating me. I told him that I wanted to go work so I could pay off my debt, but he didn’t care. I spent two weeks like that.
I was terrified because he was from my hometown. He said, “I know all of the families there. Everyone knows who I am. If you tell my wife, I will make sure to kill everyone in your family.” Then he would show me pictures of my house, of my daughter, and I knew his threats were real.
His wife was no better. At the old house, we were always fed, but here if you didn’t work, you didn’t eat. They didn’t care what you did, as long as you brought a certain amount of money home by the end of the night. Girls would get creative, dance with men, flirt with them, anything to reach the quota. And we didn’t get to keep a cent. In five months, they didn’t let me send anything to my daughter. Even if we brought home extra money, it was all for them. I tried to ask how much I owed, so I could keep track of everything, pay my fee, and just go back home. I was desperate. I begged, saying I would pay anything. I told them I would keep my mouth shut. I just needed to get back home.
They decided to send me to another man who would sell me to men paying top dollar. They said that this would help me get home faster. They sent me to Bangkok so I could fly from there to Singapore, where the other man was. When I got to immigration, they asked for my hotel info, where I would be staying, who I would be seeing, and what I would be doing. The bosses had sent me with all of the reservations on my phone, and everything was going fine, until immigration asked me how much cash I had.
Singapore is very expensive, and they only gave me 2000 baht (less than $50). I said I had a debit card, but since I had no way of verifying this, they started to get suspicious. With my broken English, I kept trying to find answers for their questions, but nothing I said made sense. They took my phone, and I was terrified that they were going to find something out, but the bosses had made me delete everything related to work, so I guess they didn’t find anything. They deported me. When I got to Thailand, immigration asked the same questions.
They asked me where my hotel was and how I would get to my hotel without money. I told them a friend would come pick me up. Immigration said they would release me to my friends, so I called my old boss to explain my problem. I said they were going to hold me in a detainment center, and she just laughed and said, “That’s not my problem anymore. Figure your shit out and remember not to say anything because we know where your family lives.” I asked if that was a threat, she told me it was a warning.
I spent the night here, and the next day immigration told me I would have to fly back to Colombia. I called my old boss asking for help again, and once again she laughed in my face. Now that no one was watching my phone, I called my friend back home and asked for advice. She said, “Don’t be stupid. Do you know what this means? This means you’re free from them.” I told her that it didn’t mean anything because they would come for my family. Days passed, and I was stuck here. Immigration kept on asking why I didn’t have money to pay my ticket, how could I be a tourist travel without money?
I called my friend, and she insisted I tell the truth. She promised that my family would be safe, that I would be able to get out. She gave me the number of someone at the Colombian embassy who could help, and after a few days, I finally decided to call. The woman asked if I was in any kind of trouble. I lied, saying I just wanted to get back home. She explained that every person is assessed case by case, and it wouldn’t be so simple, but if they could get the money for the plane ticket they would be able to find a way to get me home.
Then I had a small miracle. An African man was detained here and asked me why I was stuck. I told him that I couldn’t leave because I didn’t have money for my plane ticket. He asked how much I needed, and I looked it up online. The ticket cost $1000. When he left the detention center, he gave the front desk the money and told them it was to buy my plane ticket. I thought finally I would be able to get out, but I was wrong.
The officers then informed me that I owed over $300 to the government in fees for being detained. Every day you stay here, you have to pay, as if you were staying at a hotel, not some prison. (They charge you to stay and if you can’t pay the fee, you’re forced to stay longer. Makes perfect sense, right?) They told me that I didn’t have enough to fly back to Colombia, but with that money I could enter Singapore. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get into Singapore because I had already been deported. I called the embassy asking for help, and they suggested I look for a cheaper ticket back home. Monday I was supposed to fly back through Air Emirates, but the airline refused to fly me because I was being deported, so now I have to wait and see if Air France will allow me on one of their flights.
I’m still receiving messages from them with threats. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I think back to my life in Colombia and I feel so stupid. How was I so ungrateful? I had so much in my country, but the poison of ambition told me I needed more.
Although there were tears forming in her eyes, there was no waterfall outpour of emotion. She’s gotten stronger. I asked her age, and she said 23. Then she said, “Wait, what year is it?” When I responded 2017, she said, “Oh wow, I missed my birthday. I completely forgot about it while I was working in Thailand. I guess I’m actually 24.” She laughed. Despite being frustrated by her detainment, part of her feels hope that maybe this is how she can escape her old bosses. She said that even though she feels trapped, she feels safe here, and she’s glad that there’s food, even if it tastes awful.
I asked Claudia what day she was sent here, and when we did the math we realized she has been in detainment for 22 days, not the mere 15 she had originally thought. She’s lost track of time, but she hasn’t lost hope.
I’ve always felt like everything happens for a reason, so when she finished her story, I thought I knew why the Universe had sent me to that detainment center.
As frustrated as I felt for being stuck in this prison, I knew I would be able to get out. I felt certain that any time now, someone would come to escort me to my next flight. Would I like to drop $200 on a plane ticket back to Goa? Absolutely not, but I have the financial means to do so. As an English speaker I can communicate in most countries I travel through. I know how to contact my embassy, and I have friends all over the world who are willing to help if I need it. And I have a mother who would go to the end of the world to help me. I felt calm knowing that everything would be ok. For me, this was a minor set back in my traveling plans, but for almost everyone else here, this was a fight for survival.
I remembered I had an extra pair of Mala beads in my bag and went to grab them.
“I can’t imagine how awful you must feel inside, but you can’t loose faith. These are Tibetan prayer beads. It’s like a Rosary. The Buddhist monks use them when they meditate. When you start loosing your light, come back to it.” I told her.
She put the beads on immediately, running her fingers through them.
We discussed forgiveness and faith and love and light, until we both grew silent in thought.
An Asian man asked if he could buy my soda can off of me, and I insisted that he have it, no payment necessary. He looked at me as if I had given him the greatest treasure in the world. These are the humbling moments in life that make you realize how blessed you are. Claudia and I were sitting on the floor chatting when we heard someone sobbing. Z came in and asked if I spoke any Russian – he wanted me to help calm down the woman outside.
I walked out and saw a beautiful young woman with red hair in an all pink tracksuit and matching pink lipstick. She was in hysterics, yelling in Russian. Z pulled out his Google translate app and instructed me to ask her why she was here and how we could help. The translations must have been completely off because she looked at me like I was insane. Security brought her into the back room. She continued sobbing, and my heart ached for her. I fell asleep to the sound of her softly whimpering in the bed next to me. I woke up less than 30 minutes later to another Asian woman talking loudly on the phone. The center was starting to get traffic.
Lunch time. White rice, chicken, and veggies, not the worst meal I’ve ever had. Every few hours someone came to clean, but it didn’t matter how much disinfecting spray they used, the place still felt dirty. There were bugs crawling on the floor and walls, and the air felt stale. I laid back in bed and dozed in and out of consciousness trying to make time move as fast as possible. At some point the Asian guy I gave my Coke too, brought me a coffee. It didn’t matter that I had only been there for a few hours – they had already accepted me as one of their own.
“I’m being released at 3:00 p.m.,” said a Vietnamese woman very excited. I’m not sure how long she had been waiting. When they came to get her, we all celebrated her release together. Throughout the afternoon, several different people came to my bunk to introduce themselves and ask how I had gotten there.
“I’m being deported back to Pakistan,” said one man, “but I’m happy because today they’re finally sending me home.” He explained that he had been working in Korea for six years, but his boss got angry with him and decided to throw him out of the country. When I walked into the men’s room to ask Z for help with something, I saw that there were many more men there than women. In total I would guess it was 15 of us, all with complex stories, all stuck.
I laid in silence waiting.
Dinnertime. After they brought us food, they locked the doors of the Men’s and Women’s room from the outside to keep us separated. Time went by both fast and slow. My mom called to check up on me regularly. I could her the fear in her voice, “If they don’t let you out tonight, I’m booking a ticket for tomorrow morning. I don’t care what I have to do. We’re getting you out. I promise.”
Despite the situation, I felt eerily calm. I’ve always been an overly emotional person, but I felt no desire to cry or yell. I washed my face, brushed my teeth and put on a fresh set of clothes. Fortunately I had a carry on with clothes and toiletries, but many of the other people there had no access to their luggage because the airport was holding it with their passports.
The Russian woman was still crying next to me, so I used Google translate to type up a message, “Crying won’t fix anything. Stay strong. You’re going to get out of here.” In retrospect, I realize it might have been insensitive to tell her not to cry because I didn’t know the complexity of her situation, but I wanted to give her strength. Now was not the time for tears, now was the time for action. The longer you wait to find a solution, the harder it’s going to be.
I looked up plane tickets, detainment center fees, and texted every friend I had in SE Asia asking for advice. I was in combat mode, determined to make it out as soon as possible. A good friend of mine connected me with someone in Goa who owns a hotel, and he offered to let me stay for as long as I needed. Another friend made suggestions on how to deal with the airline. I was grateful for everyone who was showering me in support. When I felt like I had done everything in my power to resolve my situation, I laid back down in my bunk. The Russian went into her bag, pulled out a piece of chocolate and gave it to me smiling. I squeezed her arm conveying the message of “Everything is going to be okay.” Compassion is a universal language that knows no barriers.
When I heard a loud knock at the door, I knew they were coming for me. “Miss Cano, come to the front,” said a man. A beautiful female airline employee stood at the desk waiting for me.
“The fee is going to be $300 miss,” she said politely. The plane ticket from Bangkok to Goa was less than $200, and the detainment fee was only $20. I wasn’t sure where that number was coming from, but I kept my composure, knowing that the most important thing at the moment was to get my ticket. “Can I pay with card?” I asked. She responded, “No miss, only cash.” No wonder people get stuck. Even if you have friends or family able to pay for your ticket and detainment fee with a card over the phone, you’re basically screwed unless they can transfer it to your account. Fortunately, with a few clicks on the Bank of America app my mom was able to send me money, I had the cash in my account within seconds. She took me to an ATM, and I withdrew the amount.
“The ticket is going to take you to Chennai, “ she said.
“No, I need a ticket back to Goa. That is my city of origin.” I responded.
“Miss you have to fly back to Chennai. If you want to fly to Goa from Chennai, you can buy another ticket.”
I kept on going back and forth with her, but it was useless. The flight to Goa connected through Chennai, just like the flight I had taken to get here. I didn’t understand why they were trying to make me buy a separate ticket. I stopped arguing and decided to just buy the ticket to Goa online.
When we got back to the detainment center I gave her the cash and said, “I want a full break down of where those $300 are going – a receipt of my plane ticket and detainment fee.” The woman looked at the other people in reception, said something in Thai, and giggled, “If there’s any change, I’ll bring it to you.” Anger began searing through my body again. “Your flight leaves at 3:35 a.m., someone will be here to pick you up at 3,” she told me. I responded firmly, “3:00 a.m. seems a bit late, if I miss that flight, it will be on you.” Again she said something in
Thai to the rest of the staff and laughed, “Okay, yes miss, someone will come get you.”
Sunday February 5th
I panicked, called my mom and she advised me to call the embassy immediately. I contacted the embassy explaining the airline’s refusal to book my ticket back to my original location and expressed my suspicions about the woman trying to steal from me. My contact told me that by law they are legally supposed to fly me back with the same itinerary. The airline is responsible for making sure I get back safely, but she suspected that they were trying to dump me in Chennai, so that I would no longer be their responsibility. She told me she would contact the airline.
I went to the front desk demanding to speak with the woman who had previously assisted me. The woman at the desk didn’t understand English, and the man standing next to her just kept laughing. I took a breath and slowly looked for the right words to explain what I needed. “Oh miss, she won’t be back for two hours,” said the man when he understood my request. I felt frustrated because I knew that by waiting until last minute to come pick me up, they were trying to push me into a corner so I would comply.
“You have a phone call,” said a man. I went back to the front desk and a very friendly voice started speaking, “Hello Miss, your embassy has been in contact with us. We apologize for the inconvenience. We are getting your ticket to Goa and will bring your change. Someone will be there for you at 2:30.” It seemed like everything was resolved. I called the embassy thanking them for their help.
Another phone call for me came through,
“Miss the ticket to Goa is very expensive.”
“Okay, well this is your mistake, it’s your responsibility to fix it. You should have originally booked my ticket to Goa, not Chennai.”
“No, you were supposed to say something to my staff.”
“I did. Your staff refused to listen to me, but you know what, that’s fine. I’ll buy the ticket separately. Please bring me my change. And I want receipts of every thing. You will be hearing from a lawyer for all of the trouble you put me though.”
“Okay miss, someone will be there in 30 minutes.”
I spent the next half hour trying to buy my plane ticket from Chennai to Goa, but without wifi and awful cell service it wouldn’t load through.
Someone knocked on the door again, “Sofia, it is time to go.” I said goodbye to Claudia, and told her to stay in touch because we would be getting her out. The Russian woman gave me a sad smile. I strapped on my backpack and walked out one last time to reception. Another young woman was waiting for me. She handed me an envelope with my change in bahts. “Excuse me, I paid in dollars, why am I getting bahts back?” I asked. She gave me a look of panic and said, “I’m sorry miss, I didn’t buy the ticket, someone else did.” I felt bad for her. She was a new player and had just been dragged in last minute. “That’s fine, but I have to exchange this back to dollars now.” While she walked me to the exchange center, I successfully managed to buy the ticket to Goa on my phone.
According to the Spice Jet website, the plane ticket to Chennai from Bangkok was just under $100. I saw online that the detainment fee was 500 baht, so about $17. In total I spent another $190 flying back to my original destination, plus the detainment fee. And I lost money when exchanging my bahts back to US Dollars. In the grand scheme of things, loosing about $300 might not seem like a lot, but I was still furious because I’m certain that I’m not the only one who this has happened to.
I take responsibility for not double-checking the visa requirements, but the airline is also responsible for selling me a ticket to a country I wouldn’t be able to get into. Several countries even have laws stating that in the event that a person can’t get into a country due to visa issues, the airline is responsible for flying them back. The airport staff was extremely difficult to work with. I spent about 20 hours in holding, where they tried to take as much money from me as they could. I was degraded and locked in with five other women somewhere only slightly bigger than my old bedroom. And I am certain that I received much better treatment than everyone else because I spoke English and had the Mexican embassy on my side.
I boarded my plane to Chennai. I had the entire back row to myself and fell asleep. When I woke up, I double checked my visa and started to panic because I saw it expires 02/07/2017 and it was already February 5th. Fortunately, in India, Mexican citizens can apply for a visa upon arrival. I crossed my fingers and prayed to the Universe that I’d be able to get in.
I landed in Chennai. Because my ticket was only to Chennai, I would have to exit the airport and go back to the front desk for departures to check-in to my next flight. I felt knots as I began walking to immigration again, but I kept on repeating everything is in perfect order, everything is in perfect order.
I made it to customs, and said to the officer, “I think I have to apply for another visa. Mine expires on the 7th and I plan on being here for a bit longer.” He looked at me bewildered, “No it expires July 2nd.” I double-checked it, and then I realized I had been reading the date wrong. In America we write the date month/day/year, but everywhere else in the world they write it day/month/year. He stamped my passport, and as soon as I walked out of the line, the tears finally came. I was free. I had really made it.
The rest of my journey went by smoothly. My friend’s friend had sent a taxi to pick me up, and when I arrived at his hotel, the staff went out of their way to take care of me. I ate a delicious meal of prawns and salad at the hotel restaurant. Then I went back into the room. When I finally showered, I visualized the water both literally and figuratively washing away the past 48 hours. I went to sleep at 5:00 p.m. and woke up Monday at 9:30 a.m.
Wednesday February 8th
Monday and Tuesday were spent recovering from my ordeal and brainstorming ways to help Claudia. I published her story with a call to action, e-mailed as many organizations as I could in hopes that one of them would help, and set up a GoFundMe page to raise money to buy her ticket back home. I felt determined to find a way to get her out as soon as possible. According to End Slavery Now, an organization that fights sex trafficking, it is estimated that every year 4.5 million people are sold into slavery. That number felt daunting, I didn’t know how to help all of those people, but I knew that if I pulled together the right resources I could get Claudia out.
Around 11:20 p.m. I received a message from Claudia.
“Hey Sofia! How are you? I’m really happy. I had to pay double what I was supposed to. They took more money than they should have, but I’m at the airport in Paris.”
I responded asking for the full details, but received no reply. I couldn’t believe it. She was out.
I waited over 24 hours for her next message, and my head was racing. How did she get out? What happened? Who helped her? Did she make it back safely? Had she been telling the truth? The longer I waited, the more twisted the story became in my head. Until, finally, she sent me another message.
Claudia explained that the embassy paid for her plane ticket and with the $1000 the African man had left her, she was able to pay the room fee. The airport officials charged her twice and completely tried to take advantage of her, but she didn’t care because she had made it home back to Colombia safely.
The past few days feel surreal. I’m still processing everything that happened, but my detainment hits even harder in the context of Trump’s America. How many people out there are still stuck due to language barriers and corrupt staff trying to steal as much money from clueless travelers? We must open our eyes to the injustices that our privilege shields us from.
This isn’t just about my story, this is the story of the millions of Claudia’s who are sold into sex trafficking, the Z’s out there who have been waiting five months for help, the Russians who don’t speak English, and the people out there fighting for a better life. We must find a way to give a voice to the voiceless. Most of us live in a bubble, but I urge you to break through.
Originally, I thought I was brought to that detainment center to help get Claudia out, but thankfully, the embassy was able to help her. She told me I gave her hope though, in a time of darkness, I brought her light. Perhaps the real reason I was put in that center was to tell her story, or perhaps it was to push me into a deeper growth. Right now, I don’t know what’s coming next. My mom flew from Italy to meet me in Goa because she insisted she had to see me. My detainment had left her terrified and she needed to know I was okay. I feel so incredibly blessed to have a mother who so fiercely protects her baby cub, even if I don’t quite feel like a cub anymore. Furthermore, I’m extremely grateful for the Mexican embassy that held my hand along the way – without their help who knows how long I could have been stuck there. That entire experience was a humbling slap in the face that reminded me of what a blessed life I live. I have always been a woman of faith, but know my belief in something greater is all the more unshakeable.
As I sit watching the ocean, I feel at a crossroads. I don’t know what’s coming, part of me wants to continue traveling through SE Asia and part of me wants to return with my mom to Europe. But I feel shaken, once you’ve broken through your bubble, it’s hard to go back to normality. I don’t feel ready to make any decisions yet, so for now I’m going to continue watching the waves and see what the Universe brings to me.
May we all find ways to shine light in the darkness.