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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Out of South Africa, Part II

More of stylist Haidee Findlay-Levin's visa woes...

After barely making the launch of Luke Smalley's new book, I snatched an hour of sleep before heading back to the airport for the trip to Mexico. I had asked my agent to check at least three times whether or not I would need a visa, and the answer was a firm "no." That was, until I tried to check in, only to be told that it was a very definite “yes." I felt instantly sick, and not only from a lack of sleep or jet lag. Several panicky calls were made to my agency and to the Condé Nast offices in both New York and Italy. Apparently no one was aware of my South African nationality, despite having worked and traveled for them for the last five years.

Truth is, Cuba was my final destination, but the ticket and visa obviously couldn't be obtained in the U.S. The plan was to get them in Mexico and then fly on to join my European team for the job in Cuba. Turns out I needed a visa for Mexico, too. In a mad panic, my team and I looked into any destination for which I wouldn’t need one: Jamaica, Panama, The Bahamas, Guatemala, Argentina. Yet, as all connecting flights to Cuba were remote and most required a two-day layover, this solution was impossible. I would have to arrive when the shoot was pretty much done. By now, I had missed the flight to Mexico and was soon to miss the one possibility to Jamaica, when I suggested going to the Mexican Embassy to plead my case. There was the distant hope of catching a flight out to Mexico City in the early hours of the morning.

The car returned to the airport, we packed in the luggage and raced to the Mexican consulate, which was closing in less than an hour. We stopped on the way for a passport photo, with my weary face captured at its most unglamorous ever. There were so many people lined up outside the embassy that it looked like a small riot. I muscled my way to the front, pulled an unlucky number, 31, and waited my turn in line, only to be told that they would only take 30 people before closing. I wasn’t having any of it, pleaded my case and was reluctantly let in past hundreds of migrant works applying for papers to stay in the U.S. (It seems everyone wants to go where they are not welcome.) After six hours, I negotiated a multiple-entry visa to Mexico, which would allow me to pass in and out on my way to and from Cuba. I walked out to the car, visa in hand, and headed back home for a few hours, briefly stopping off at the Marc Jacobs office to return a pair of neon gloves that they desperately needed back for Vogue, before I had even shot them. When I told the publicist I had missed my flight and would in fact be over shortly to switch them out, she was delighted. I didn’t appreciate her enthusiasm.

This journey was feeling like a sequel to the film “After Hours” and I was anxious how the rest of it would pan out. Within hours, the suitcases went back down the four flights of stairs to the car, which was back to collect me for the airport. I finally found an American Airlines official, only to be told the flight to Mexico City was canceled. That familiar wave of nausea was rising and any remaining color drained instantly. With a bit of research, we realized there was, in fact, a flight with Air Mexicana, their partner airline, at terminal 8. This was terminal 4! I rushed as best I could with heavy suitcases and a shortage of energy. A few more people inhabited this terminal and they all looked Mexican, so I was somewhat hopeful. The flight, however, was delayed. I slumped into a chair near the gate, slipping between consciousness and unconsciousness until I guessed they were calling the flight, in Spanish only.

The delay naturally had serious repercussions. I rushed through immigration and baggage claim, found a porter to take me to departures, where I was to buy my flight to Havana. Ticket in hand, I was sent to another office across the concourse to buy the visa. Of course, Air Mexicana had different luggage allowances from Havana's—that meant my 47 kilos was well over the 23 allowed. So back to the cashier to pay the overweight, after which I literally ran for the gate, the pounding of my feet matching the pounding in my head. I was trying not to calculate the hours of my life spent in airports merely lining up for one thing or another. How many hours of sleep sacrificed? Did someone say something about my life in fashion being glamorous? Did I hear the words jet set?

Getting through immigration and customs in Cuba, although somewhat surreal, was more or less event-free, in comparison to what had preceded it. Each bag came off a different carousel. I could feel myself age with every minute of this journey. Customs officials were a little surprised by the amount of luggage I had for only a few days, but I assured them my travels were not over.

The pain of this journey was relieved ever so slightly by the arrival at the Hotel Nationale and the well rested faces of my crew, ready to whisk me off to the location shoot. Armed with a bottle of water and some headache tablets, I set to work. Havana and the shoot were a story in itself, a wonderful experience that passed too quickly.

The Brazilian model and I were due to leave Havana at 7 am. I had only left her dancing and drinking a few hours before, so I was somewhat anxious when she was not there by a quarter after. I gave her more time, then called. No answer. My hell was clearly not over. I reached her boss, who was equally alarmed but still in bed far away. At any rate, in a matter of moments, I was exchanging money for Cuban pesos to pay for airport tax, overweight luggage and a taxi to the airport. I made my flight by the skin of my teeth, only to arrive in Cancun to a six-hour layover.

I can't say I didn't appreciate the forced downtime. After failed attempts to connect to the internet at the airport, I put the cases in a locker, hailed the nearest cab and asked to be taken to the closest luxury hotel on the strip—The Hyatt, I think. I strolled past the reception, got directions to the pool, changed into my bikini and, like a guest, I dropped onto a lounger overlooking the unnaturally blue ocean. I just sat and stared in awe, perhaps there was a fleeting moment of glamour in all this. I showered on the beach, was handed a towel by an attractive lifeguard, dressed and headed back to the airport to catch my flight home.

I repeated the same familiar sequence of events: endless delays at immigration and customs, meeting drivers, grimacing at locked elevators and dragging suitcases up multiple flights of stairs. There was, of course, the additional visit to lost property at baggage claim as I had left my brand new Bose noise-reducing headset on the plane and, of course, they had not been turned in.

Back in New York, I went into machine mode, unpacking and bagging the clothes to be returned the next day while simultaneously repacking for Miami. I had only a few hours to get ready with another hour of stolen sleep, before I was back at the airport to catch the last four days of Art Basel. I calculated that I had been in three countries and four cites in less than 24 hours by the time I arrived in Miami.

This story could go on ad infinitum. It's the story of my life, my lifestyle. I was barely off the plane from Miami, switching out the luggage, but this time for a more complicated itinerary: Tokyo, L.A. and Maui, with no gap in between until I return for a day in January, before heading to Paris. I sit writing this from my (okay, somewhat glamorous) business-class seat to Tokyo to consult a designer for his show at New York Fashion Week in February. I have not caught up on sleep lost during Art Basel's party fest, and my last night in New York I chose to forgo sleep to see some special people I won't see for a while, forcing one in particular to join my all-night vigil until the car arrived in the early hours to take me, once again, to the airport. After all, I have work to do.

—Haidee Findlay-Levin