As a keen traveler my jaunts have included Russia, Iran and North Korea. I’m fairly certain I’m on at least a few “lists” now, and will most likely be subjected to some extreme vetting if I care to visit Trump’s America. I was never so obviously profiled though as the time I flew to the middle east for the weekend.
One Thursday after work I headed for Seoul’s Incheon International Airport. Signs everywhere proudly proclaimed Incheon as voted the world’s best airport for eight years running. It is indeed a fine airport. As usual I breezed through screening and passport control in about fifteen minutes, but not before getting a strange vibe from the woman at the check-in counter.
She asked why I was traveling to Oman, and why for such a short time, while staring at my Korean resident card (there called an ‘Alien Resident Card’) for longer than seemed necessary. I told her I was traveling on business. She looked me up and down, then back at my resident card which stated my visa status as ‘E2’… an English teacher. Her manner in every way suggested that English teachers don’t spend their weekends in the middle east on business trips. Then she tapped a few more keys than seemed necessary and sent me on my way.
I was going to Oman for a job interview, but I don’t always feel the need to tell every stranger my every move. After all, I hadn’t told my boss of five years that I’d be spending my weekend interviewing for a better gig.
Oman was humid and already hot in April. Friends picked me up at the airport and we spent the next three hours driving around, trying to decipher some very shoddy directions I’d been given to ‘a white building complex’, which describes pretty much every structure in Oman.
I stayed the night, attended my interview, then headed back to the airport for the journey home. Bleary in Bangkok, Sunday morning local time I staggered off the plane.
“Um… that’s me,” I said to the young Thai woman holding a hand-written sign bearing my name. She directed me down an empty hallway to a security checkpoint where my bag was x-rayed, again, and I was told I could not leave the airport. Though sleep-deprived, I managed to explain that I was entitled to and fully intended leaving the airport during what was, after all, a 12-hour stopover. I was told I’d be leaving at my own risk, which sounded odd. Nothing like this had ever happened during my several previous trips to and through Thailand. I went into the city to see some old friends.
Returning to the airport I was charged a 700 Baht (about US$25) re-entry fee (another first), as was the money exchange teller’s change of demeanour upon seeing the yellow piece of paper I’d been told to present her, and her insistence that the minimum amount I could exchange was US$50 (which to my knowledge is complete bullshit).
Back at Incheon airport I was nearing the arrivals hall when a customs official came striding purposefully toward me. I’d noticed her from about 50 feet away.
“Excuse me sir, random baggage inspection. Please follow me,” said the small woman. It was almost impressive that she managed to say that with a straight face.
A man was waiting to look through my suitcase, which he politely did before wishing me a pleasant day.
Maybe the questions about my travel motives, multiple baggage inspections, warnings, veiled threats, and weird airport re-entry fees (all firsts, and I’ve traveled enough) were a coincidence. Seems unlikely though. From the moment I checked-in for my flight to Oman I had that weird, slightly unnerving sensation that I was being watched… or at least monitored.
For the record, everyone I met in the Oman was extremely friendly and laid back, just as I’d been told. It’s a pity, the stigma attached to that part of the world, which is largely a product of the western media. The middle east isn’t actually one big, generic war-torn wasteland.
Oh, I got the job, by the way… and living happily in the Gulf still.
Big thanks to Irina, Martin and Simona in Oman and to Tyler and Dasha in Thailand for a productive, exhausting, very cool weekend.