An Odyssey for a Visa

In November 2019, after receiving my acceptance letter to the SCM Master’s program at MIT, I felt unshakable, like nothing could knock me down. But life has a way of surprising you when you are most inattentive.
Written by Rafael Illipronti

In November 2019, after receiving my acceptance letter to the SCM Master’s program at MIT, I felt unshakable, like nothing could knock me down. But life has a way of surprising you when you are most inattentive.

I decided to enjoy my summer, my first without online classes in a while. I was visiting Ubatuba, a tropical paradise just a four-hour drive from my home in São Paulo, Brazil, when I caught a moment of news footage on CNN. 2020 had started with some international turmoil and now a virus was making an appearance in the news. At that time, I thought it was nothing special, just another H1N1.

The tropical paradise of Ubatuba

Fast forward to February, and the virus outbreak is becoming a serious issue. Many people are dying from the highly contagious disease. But I’m not worried. More people die each year of the common cold and I see on the news that China is already on their way to develop a vaccine.

February 22nd is my birthday and the start to Carnival in Brazil. People are crowding the streets and the heat is almost unbearable, so all I want is a cold beer and a chance to party. Unlike Lent, days go by fast during this Catholic tradition. I go back to the office on the first week of March only to find that the virus has arrived in Brazil. The stock market collapses. But it is all still fine, I’ll work from home for a few weeks and then this should be over, just like with H1N1. The vaccine is on the way, so by this time next year I will be enjoying my time at MIT.

Even when taking into consideration my Calculus II exams in college, I have never been more wrong.

In the blink of an eye, we speed from March to October. (Apparently, there was a time contraction that would confuse even Einstein.) By this time, I was already resigned to the fact that my MIT experience would not be ideal. However, it would still be MIT and that is acceptable. As they say, if life gives you lemons, make lemonade. In October, I find myself looking for appointments at the US visa office in Brazil. I only see open appointments in São Paulo in January, far too late to be in Cambridge by the start of 2021. I assume that I will have to travel to Rio de Janeiro, but Rio is even worse with no appointments until March! What about Recife? Only February openings; not helpful. My heart rate went up by 30bpm for every location I tried without success. Porto Alegre? Also nothing. I panicked.

Where am I going to get a visa? I need to travel to Boston in two months, the program starts in early January 2021!

I called on my most valuable resource, my network of other MIT students. Marcos, one of my future classmates at MIT, added me to a WhatsApp group for Peruvian students with similar visa complications. There I found valuable tips and came to one conclusion: I should go to Ecuador to get the visa.

I paid the visa processing fee (again) and booked the earliest available appointment in Guayaquil, Ecuador for January 28th. I went to bed devastated that night. I was going to miss 20% of my in-person program. I laid in bed, reasoning and trying to come up with a crazy plan to make it work, but I simply could not. I wondered to myself briefly, “maybe I should give up, on the visa and MIT, and find something else do”. Throw the first rock, he, who in a moment of despair and frustration, has never thought about giving everything up to move to a tropical paradise and sell coconut jewelry on the beach. In my case, the tropical paradise was just a car trip away, back in Ubatuba, so resisting the temptation was a herculean effort.

Finally on campus, in front of MIT’s Great Dome

The next morning, I woke up and decided I was going to accept the situation. I had a huge opportunity to be at MIT after all, arriving just one month later wouldn’t be the end of the world. For the next three weeks I tried it all. I think I lost track of the number of embassies I called to see if they would allow me to travel to receive my visa approval. No success, COVID had shut everything down.

December 2020, I wake up like I do every morning, with Alexa reading me the news of the world. “Chile is opening the borders for Brazilians to travel for business.” I leap out of bed and lunge for my phone to call the embassy in Santiago. “Can I get my visa here? When is the first date you have available?” “Yes”, the agent replied, “the earliest availability is in two weeks, on December 17th.”

Two weeks later, on December 17th, my visa is approved. I quarantine in Chile for another 14 days in order to legally enter the US on December 31st. On New Year’s Eve, 2020 I board a plane headed to Miami, Florida. After this odyssey, I am finally going to be at MIT in time for classes to start. Ulysses would be proud.

A view of Chile from the plane window as the author arrives