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Welcome to the United States! All That Trouble to Start a DLSL Exchange Program with a La Salle School in California

At the front gate of the St. Mary's College of California, a Lasallian school.

It was May 2000; and Brother Rafael Donato really should have known better than to announce during the employees’ general assembly – no less – that I and a colleague, Arnold Capuloy, would be crossing the whole wide expanse of water that is the Pacific Ocean in September to visit a De La Salle-operated school in the Bay Area, California. There was mild applause when the announcement was made; but since I had yet to apply for a visa, I was actually cringing inside.

As was bound to happen because going through the eye of a needle seems to be the story of my life, my visa application was initially denied. Do not ask me to go into the morbid details as I will only get angry. Suffice it to say that I was totally affronted by that non-human at the consul’s window that I told Brother Rafael that I did not want to make the trip anymore.

“No! You are going to the States!” Brother Rafael’s booming voice could be terrifying so I immediately went into meek sheep mode and said, “Yes Brother…” How else could I have responded?

To make a long story short, Brother Rafael pulled a string here and pulled a string there; and in three weeks after my initial denial, a courier delivered my United States visa at the External Services Office, where I was Director at the time.

After a tough encounter with a US Consul, I found myself flying out to the West Coast.

That ended a three-week spell of torture when the questions would-I and would-I-not played and replayed inside my head incessantly. By September 11 – exactly a year before you-know-what – my colleague was already due to fly out to the West Coast. I was with a party of fellow administrators attending a Catholic educators’ convention at the PICC, and Brother Rafael arranged for us to meet with Arnold, who was already departing for the West Coast, so we could give him a right proper send-off.

Here’s what! Brother Rafael, hopeless optimist that he was, bade me to pack my suitcase and bring it along on the off-chance that his contacts inside the embassy could pull a rabbit out of the hat and have my visa delivered in time for me to join my colleague on the same flight. Duh???!!!

I was totally against the idea; but whoever won an argument with Brother Rafael? So there I was attending a convention with a large suitcase packed with two-weeks of clothing waiting in the middle of the vehicle to satisfy Brother Rafael’s just-in-case. Of course, I could not even try a cheeky I-told-you-so when the just-in-case time came and went and I was left feeling silly returning home tugging a large suitcase behind me. Thank goodness for whoever invented suitcase rollers.

At the Golden Gate Bridge.

Two weeks later, I did fly out to the West Coast. By myself… For those who do not know me very well, that was quite an achievement on my part. Put things this way… I am never the spontaneous type. I do not just get up and go. Even if I were just to go on a trip to – say – Alabang, I have to think and rethink the trip for days on end.

And there I was flying out to San Francisco all by my lonesome…

My colleague, who had been in constant e-mail communication with me since he arrived in the West Coast, was apparently asked not just a few questions by the immigration officer before he was let through. He suspected it had something to do with his casual attire.

So, I wore a tie and a jacket over my shirt.

I have written before that I hardly ever sleep when I am vertical. Hence, I crossed the Pacific – all twelve hours of the flight – with my eyes wide open.

I was, naturally, anxious about the possible scenarios that would greet me when I arrived in San Francisco. I knew my eyes were blood-shot from lack of sleep, so I worried that the immigration officers would mistake me for a drug-crazed terrorist. I also never liked American cigarettes; so, I wondered if my bag would be opened and I would be questioned about the two reams of Philip Morris that I was – technically – smuggling into the United States.

Our host was Br. Brendan Madden, a frequent guest of DLSL.

What a waste of nervous energy! When I finally stood at the immigration line, I was so tired I was practically sleepwalking. I could not care less anymore if I mumbled gibberish to whatever questions I might be asked by the immigration officer.

As things happened, the officer turned out to be a young man in his mid-twenties who pleasantly asked me no more than a few questions. “What would be the purpose of your visit, Sir?”

“I am visiting a school called St. Mary’s College of California.”

“Oh? Where is that?” the officer asked.

“It’s in a place called Moraga.”

The officer’s eyebrows went up slightly. “Where is that?” he asked.

Inside my head I thought, “Are you not the one from here?” Instead, I answered him, “I really have no idea…”

That first night in San Francisco, I was hosted by Bernard Valdez and his friend Jackie.

That could not have been the most convincing reply, but the officer apparently did not see anything in me that was in any way threatening to this country. So he stamped my visa and waved me through, “Welcome to the United States!”

Arnold, of course, was just outside waiting for me with Brother Brendan Madden, a frequent visitor to DLSL with whom we had become good friends. I had to stay for one night with Bernard Valdez, an employee of St. Mary’s who had visited us earlier in the year. When we arrived at his place, he took one look at me and said, “What’s with the tie?”

I told him, in not so many words, that it was my way of convincing the United States that I was not a terrorist trying to sneak into the country. Strange how a few actually did just one year later to do unspeakable damage that history will remember for the longest time…

My host, seeing my blood-shot eyes and my very tired face, said to me, “I have just what you need.” He went off for a while and returned with a glass of warm rum.

It was probably not even rum. It was more like a magician’s tonic! I did not even have the energy to take a shower. I just dropped onto the bed, and I remember thinking, “Welcome to the United States!” And the world turned black…

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