Monday, February 15, 2016

Expat Troubles and Immigration Woes: Time to Flee the Country!

"The kids' visa extensions were denied," Scott texted me while I was sitting at the beach, peacefully collecting shells with the girls. "We need to leave in twenty-four hours." "Shit" I replied. This is not the kind of text that one wants to receive when living as an expatriate on a small island. The word "denied" stung like a personal affront. Had they no heart!? Didn't they realize these were *toddlers* we were talking about?! My phone pinged again: "We'll have to stay for a few days. Should we ferry to St. Thomas or do you want to take the boat?" It took me exactly .02 seconds to respond with: "Sail." Staying in a single hotel room with three kids three and under for three days on a neighboring island, to some, might sound like a nice little vacation. To me? That sounds like the tenth circle of hell. But let me back up and explain...

Scott and I are legal residents of the British Virgin Islands (for a year anyway, we must file for renewal annually which - we are told - is not *too* painful of a process). Our girls, however, have been living here on tourist visas because we were awaiting the government's approval on their status as our "dependents". This small title change would allow them to be residents as well, but not until we got that coveted approval. The confirmation that they were accepted as "dependents" came through a couple of weeks ago at which point we were granted two weeks to take them out of the county, do some medical tests and return. I can’t really explain the reasoning behind the fact that we must leave the island to do these things that could easily be done here, but it’s the rule and if there is one thing you must know about life as an expat on a small island it is this: There is very precise protocol that must be followed when it comes to any governmental procedure (immigration/work permits/residency etc.) Not following these formalities *exactly*  and *perfectly* will project you into a Groundhog Day-like loop of red-tape madness, endless immigration lines, and mind-numbing levels of frustration. So we don't ask questions. We just do what we are told. Side Note: following government protocol "exactly and perfectly" is pretty much impossible since it changes with the wind, so the aforementioned is almost a guarantee. Be warned. 

When that two weeks was up and we still hadn't left the country to get our t's crossed and i's dotted by the powers that be (mainly because Scott works every. single. day.), Scott donned his Sunday best and headed to immigration to see if they would grant us an extension. Having government do you a "favor" down here is not unheard of, but something of a crap shoot. Or Russian roulette. Okay, maybe a small miracle; like witnessing a deer give birth to twins in your back yard or something. Not impossible, but not an everyday sort of occurrence. And this time was no different. We got a big, fat: DENIED and were given 24 hours to leave the territory. Hence: Operation Flee Country.

Point for living in a home that moves and for a US island a mere four hour sail away!

The logistics of packing up three small kids, sailing to a neighboring island, and coordinating a medical test might not sound like much, but given that we run a very busy business and covering Scott's duties as well as timing medical results so that he could return to work ASAP was...tricky. As far as what needed to happen while we were gone, the twins needed simply to leave and come back, but Isla needed a medical exam to ensure she wasn't bringing diseases (typically reserved for 18th century prostitutes) into the territory. The tests were simple enough, but results would take a few days and we weren't allowed back in without them. In a desperate pinch, Scott found trusted people to fill in for him while we were away, and we were told we'd have the results we needed by Friday so he could return to work Sunday morning. The successful completion of this sequence of events was far from impossible, but certainly aggressive. Given that Murphy's Law prevails down here, combined with the "island time" phenomenon, meant the possibility of hiccups was high. The fact that we were traveling with three small children did nothing to ease the situation. Kids - while wonderful, mind-blowing and cute - complicate things.

We, along with our friends the Sunkissed Soeters, decided to leave at 4:30am with the hopes of arriving in daylight when our kids would be waking up. From there we would go ashore, clear in with customs (as one must do when they move from country to country), head to the various medical clinics we needed to visit (there were two), and call it a day. Sounds simple enough, right?

Except that when we started our engine at 4:30am, Haven woke up in a panic of epic proportions which, in turn, woke up Isla and Mira. I helped Scott get us off the dock and went below to try, unsuccessfully, to calm them all back to sleep. Have you ever tried to calm two wailing babies by yourself? It's difficult at best. Isla tried to help, but her presence only excited them. They would have none of it and were much more interested in a cuddle fest in the aft cabin. It was going to be a long day.

We arrived in Red Hook as the sun was coming up and our kids were coming unglued. Scott and I were positively exhausted, but time was of the essence and we needed to get to "Doctors on Duty" ASAP. We dinghied ashore with the Soeters, grabbed some breakfast and some desperately-needed coffee, and after unsuccessfully trying to rent a car for nearly an hour, decided to cut our losses and hop in a taxi. One thing that is a huge pain in the butt for cruisers with small children traveling to the United States Virgin Islands is that everyone aboard must be present to clear in (as opposed to just the captain) which means we ALL had to go ashore (Note for those 'in the know': yes, we are members of the SVRS but we forgot to file a float plan. Won't forget that again!) This was going to not only be a day that began at 4:30am for our normal 7am-ers, but one in which they skipped their coveted two-plus hour midday naps. Oh joy! Wigged-out, poorly-rested, two year old twins are NOT for the faint of heart, I tell you. I prepared for battle with an impressive arsenal of toys, snacks aplenty and took a double dose of patience.

By the time we had cleared in, visited the two medical clinics we needed to visit, and return to Red Hook, it was 5pm. Over *twelve* hours after our day began. That is a lot to ask of little children! While there were some definite meltdowns, lots of deep breathing on my part and a couple of moments where I had to extricate the twins from situations due to toddler anarchy, I was - overall - so pleased with how our kids held up. The twins sat in our (amazing, life-saving) tandem umbrella stroller most of the day, and that is no fun for very active two year olds. Isla was a gem, with her only real low point being the fit she threw when a nurse came at her with a needle to give her the test shot for tuberculosis. All in all, the day was a success, albeit incredibly long. To celebrate, Scott and I took the girls to an early dinner at Molly Malones in Red Hook where they continued to run around like giggling heathens and mommy and daddy enjoyed some (well deserved) rum drinks. We ended up back to the boat around 6pm, showered everyone up on the aft deck and the girls and I were fast asleep by 7:30.

With the "business end" of our trip over, we could finally relax, get our darlings back on their normal sleep schedules and simply enjoy being on the water, at anchor (which is bliss, by the way). What had initially begun as a very hectic, stressful and forced trip turned out to be a nice little vacation where we were able to enjoy dinners out with friends new and old, meet up (and party a little too hard) with fellow cruisers who are like kindred spirits, and enjoy the vast bounty of American products and services that St. Thomas has to offer (it felt very much like Florida to us; there's McDonalds, K-Mart, Home Depot, Walgreens, Subway, surf shops galore and even a Cost-u-Less, which is a Costco equivalent!) It was like being in the land of plenty compared to where we live in the British Virgin Islands. We took advantage of the plentitude and, truth be told, it was nice.

The mission was a success, and while we thoroughly enjoyed the time away and the mini-vacation, it was a welcome treat to sail back to our adopted little island of Tortola where the roosters wake us up, where there's not a big box store or chain restaurant in site, and where our girls will finally, hopefully, no longer be tourists.

At least for a year.
Almost  in Red Hook and ready to set the anchor. Tired kiddos.
This child is a gem to travel with. Three years old and fully adaptable and ready for adventure!
Very, very tired daddy.
Sunrise from our boat, anchored in Red Hook, St. Thomas USVI
This is what two families and five kids look like in a customs office. This is where the twins were falling apart.
They have *NEVER* napped in a stroller. Mainly because they never have to, but this time - they did! I would be lost without this stroller!
Dinner time shenanigans. We eat out very early when no one else is around so our girls can run around and be kids.
"Thank God I have a job I can do from anywhere!" Minus the captain part, of course. Here's Scott taking MORE bookings.
Dinghying back home after a very, VERY long day. Red Hook, St. Thomas, USVI
Bright-eyed and bushy tailed the next morning. Isla loves waving to passing boats. Red Hook, St. Thomas, USVI
My little sweat pea, Mira. Red Hook, St. Thomas, USVI
This was our neighbor. 7am, pipe in mouth, reclined and reading a paperback as the sun warmed up. Red Hook, St. Thomas, USVI

I honestly love that our home is the best jungle gym our kids could ever want. They love nothing more than being on deck.
Mira, mastering a new move. Red Hook, St. Thomas, USVI
This child is part monkey, I tell you! Super coordinated and strong.Red Hook, St. Thomas, USVI
Putting our dingy in the water with daddy. Red Hook, St. Thomas, USVI
Lowering the dingy in the water. A little lesson in physics. Red Hook, St. Thomas, USVI
Absolutely LOVE our Sailor Bags Back Pack and our Turkish Bath TowelsRed Hook, St. Thomas, USVI
Pippy Longstocking looking on. Red Hook, St. Thomas, USVI
When we got our test results, we decided to sail over to St. John for a change and to break up the upwind sail home.
Sailing for 2-3 hours with these girls these days is a pleasure. We sit on deck and talk, sing songs, and watch the ocean.
Sunset in St. John. It was an early night for all of us. Still catching up on sleep! Maho Bay, St. John, USVI
Mommy made pancakes and sausage the next morning. We love to eat in the cockpit with the breeze in our hair! Maho Bay, St. John, USVI
Seriously, if I loved our three girls any more I might explode. For real. It's impossible to love any more. Maho Bay, St. John, USVI
I rigged up a new line from the bow to the mast for the girls to swing on. It was a big hit. Maho Bay, St. John, USVI

We set sail for Tortola after breakfast. Sir Francis Drake Channel, BVI
This child. Sigh. She is a force. A delightful and joyful one though! Sir Francis Drake Channel, BVI
My little mermaids. Adore them. Sir Francis Drake Channel, BVI
Mira and daddy, enjoying the sail home. Sir Francis Drake Channel, BVI
Home, sweet home. Back at our beloved home port of Nanny Cay, Tortola BVI. 


Jason said...

Great read as usual. Awesome pics!! The price you must pay to live in paradise! I'm sure well worth it.

blondjane said...

I'm exhausted reading this. But what a glorious place to be, such tales to share and what memories your kids will have. Beautiful pictures. I do think you are living and enjoying the dream and one of the most beautiful spots on the planet. I'm living vicariously through you and so glad I stumbled into your page on Fb.

blondjane said...

I'm exhausted reading this. But what a glorious place to be, such tales to share and what memories your kids will have. Beautiful pictures. I do think you are living and enjoying the dream and one of the most beautiful spots on the planet. I'm living vicariously through you and so glad I stumbled into your page on Fb.

I_amcdn said...

It's many years ago now...2010...but on our one visit to Red Hook we anchored over by the beach on the side opposite Molly Nalones. While we had our sundowners a couple of guys backed a horse trailer up to the water and unloaded a race horse. One of the guys then backed the horse into the water and "swam" the horse through our anchorage. Would be amazing fun for the girls to see that happen. Pics are here>>>>

Cheryl @ Mid-Life Cruising! said...

Glad it all worked out. LOVE these photos ... all three girls are adorable, and what great scenery!

Windtraveler said...

We saw horses swimming!!! The girls went nuts!!!!

sailinglunasea said...

That sounds like an adventure!
Glad to see the girls are getting big enough to really enjoy passages these days.
Can't wait to make it down that way ourselves!

Cockney Mallard said...

A brilliant read. Cheered me right up. The first time I sailed to the USVIs 20 years ago I was deported and things never got much better in later visits. John (

Rick said...

You guys are awesome parents! And. . . you kids are amazingly cute - almost as cute as my grandkids ;-).
I love reading how you manage and train your kids. God bless your business and your family!

Maggie Lee said...

A wonderful story. You're such an illustrative writer. Miss you guys!

Lisa Hanneman said...

These pictures are awesome! No doubt The girls charmed the pants off everyone - even when totally overtired and along for the ride. xo

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Awesome pictures. They are too cute... God will bless. Thank you for sharing. Keep sharing with us. We are expecting more amazing pictures and waiting for that. Thank you for sharing :)

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