A while back I took a brief trip to the Middle East. I think it may have put me on some kind of watch list. I really don’t know. This particular journey had an unmistakably different vibe however to the dozens I’d taken during the last decade… especially the return journey. At the time I was living in Seoul, South Korea.
On this particular Thursday after work I headed for Seoul’s Incheon International Airport, arriving about 90 minutes before my departure time, which was fine. Check-in took around 15 minutes. I walked through the first checkpoint at 7:06, screening at 7:09, immigration at 7:13 and found my gate at 7:16 with about an hour to spare. Signs everywhere proudly proclaimed Incheon as voted the world’s best airport for eight years running. It is indeed a fine airport.
Anyway, despite the ludicrous operational speed of Seoul’s international airport, the woman at the immigration desk took a moment to quiz me about why I was flying to the Sultinate of Oman and returning the following day. I told her it was for a business meeting. She took another sideways glance at my Alien Registration Card, then back up at me as if suggesting that poorly dressed foreign English teachers (E-2 visa holders) such as myself do not habitually spend our weekends flying across the continent on business trips. Then she tapped a couple of keys and sent me on my way.
At about midnight local time I landed in Bangkok for a super-convenient ten-hour stopover, so I took a taxi to the infamous Khao San Road strip, which on this particular night was strangely subdued. I had a few beers, retraced my steps, found my next flight and landed in Muscat midday Friday, 24 hours after leaving home.
The change of pace was noticeable, in the way you might notice you’ve just driven off the freeway and into a lake. The people were also smiling a lot more.
Friends picked me up at the airport and we spent the next three hours catching up, driving around, trying to decipher the directions I’d been given to ‘a large white building complex’, which describes pretty much every buidling complex in Oman.
I stayed the night, got up, attended my meeting, did some sightseeing and headed back to the airport for the 27-hour return journey home. This trip was slightly different.
Bleary in Bangkok, Sunday morning local time I staggered off the plane.
“Um… that’s me,” I said to the young Thai woman, trying to process the situation. I couldn’t. The woman holding the hand-written sign bearing my name 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. Gathering dwindling strength I explained that I was entitled to and fully intended leaving the airport during my 12-hour stopover. They told me I’d be leaving at my own risk, which sounded a bit strange. 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, which was another first, as was the money exchange teller’s slight 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 in Seoul early on Monday morning I was making my way to the arrivals lounge when from the corner of my eye I noticed a customs official striding purposefully toward me.
“Excuse me sir, random baggage inspection. Please follow me,” said the small woman.
I followed her to a table where 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, the multiple security inspections, warnings and weird airport re-entry fees (all of which were a first for me after seven years coming in and out of South Korea) were a coincidence. Maybe I’m a touch paranoid. I did have a weird, slightly unnerving sensation that my movements were being noticed from the moment I told the Incheon immigration official I was travelling to the Middle East for 36 hours.
For the record, everyone I met in the Sultinate of 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. A surprising number of people have asked me if I was at all nervous about traveling to the Middle East (to which of course the answer is ‘not at all – why would I be?’). After all, only a couple of months ago a crazy dictator not far from here was threatening all-out nuclear annihilation.
Big thanks to Irina, Martin and Simona in Oman and to Tyler and Dasha in Thailand for one exhausting, very cool weekend.