His nameplate said Mai and Mai looked tired as he glanced up from his screen and gazed at the horde of people waiting to go up before him. It was already half past nine, a Friday evening, and he wasn’t going home anytime soon. None of the officers on duty were. The queue had no ending as streams of bedraggled people – Filipinos, Singaporeans, Indonesians, Chinese, and a Mexican – emerged through the doors from what seemed like a never-ending journey. After two stopovers – Singapore and Manila – we finally landed in San Francisco, and my body was screaming for a shower and bed. But there was still the final hurdle to the journey – immigration and the snaking queues for the non-citizen visitors section were far from heartening.

I wasn’t quite sure if the officer was pleased or annoyed with my answer to his question when it was my turn. The first one was easy – it was where I was staying for the duration of my sojourn to San Francisco. The next one was odd.

“Do you have any food in your bag?” he said stoically.

“I took the bun from the plane,” I said mildly, wondering how he knew I stashed my roll in my bag.

“Does it have any filling inside?” he continued stoically.

“No, it’s just a regular bun.”

Then one more question after which he exclaimed, “This is the longest day of my life!” to no one in particular. He then handed me my stamped passport with the departure card stamped to it.

“You’re good to go. Have a good day,” he added.

The last question threw me off slightly off-guard because before that last comment of his he had this look of incredulity on his face. He couldn’t figure out from which rock I had crawled out from. He had asked me when my last visit to the city was and I said 12 years ago. His eyes rolled and his lip curled up a wee bit to complete the look of disbelief, which mixed in with the overall weariness of his mien.

It was 1999 when I last set foot in San Francisco, and I flew in from Los Angeles. San Francisco figures prominently in my mind; my family and I used to go up to the city from Palo Alto in the late 1980s onboard the Caltrain. I like the city despite the coldness of the place. And now, 12 years later, two trips to the US Embassy in Jakarta, and a fortunate Lebaran holiday, I’m waiting for the sun to part the wintry shade of clouds in my old high school friend’s house in Danville on a Sunday morning.

Hello San Francisco! It’s good to be back. Brrrr!


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