I thought about writing this for quite sometime now. I didn’t before, because I felt ridiculously sore about it weeks after. To be a warrior at travelling, I have to accept that bad things happen, we fall, we brush ourselves off, we get up and we go again. (Plus it makes for a good 5-minute dinner party story.)
My boyfriend and I booked a trip to visit the famed Borobudur and some of the volcanoes in Java in February. I was more than psyched because it was close to the top of the to-see list for me. I sold the idea shamelessly to him, and since I did all the legwork as usual — trip planning, booking and all that jazz — he was agreeable. Sounds like another adventure waiting to happen.
A little sense of foreboding nagged at the back of my mind. My psychic mind told me it’s not going to be a volcanic eruption or anything of that sort. I prayed that the budget airlines plane will fly straight.
We landed a couple minutes before noon, a little later than scheduled. A huge spaghetti-esque tangled mess of a non-queue formed where we were supposed to go through immigration. Meh, not to worry I told myself. The airport at Surabaya looked like it was built in the late 60s and haven’t seen an upgrade ever since, save for a few signs with misspellings and bad grammar.
The crowd at immigration thinned out. If you are not exempted from paying the exorbitant visa fee (like any other Southeast Asian country — I feel you, Canadian-heading-to-Cambodia), you jolly well fill up a form and pay up, get your visa and you go through to your hammock-and-mojito holiday. We were used to this bureaucratic bull**** so we were ready to pay up, not me with my shiny Singaporean passport but his French one.
I sailed through the customs easily, the guy at the counter making small talk and giving me quick tips on where to visit. I thanked him and waited on the other side. I watched the last guy, a European man with plenty of iron-on flags on his tattered backpack lug all his belongings and his overgrown beard across into Indonesia.
My boyfriend was nowhere to be found.
Scenes from the movie Rendition flashed into my mind. He didn’t have any extraordinary physical attributes that might peg him as some sort of undesirable or another. Or perhaps it is precisely because he is non-descript that he fits the Jason Bourne bill? Fair enough, he would make a good lead character in a J.D Robb novel, but still… this is real life.
I began to bite my fingernails to the quick.
A customs official beckoned me over, saying that he’s held back for something related to the passport. Uh oh. I already sort of knew what it would be.
There was only one page left on his well-worn passport, and they needed two pages to issue the visa. Talk about ludicrous. I mentally counted the number of ten-thousand rupiah bills in my pocket, thought about my favourite travel book Shantaram. What would Gregory do? The big B word flashed in my mind… it is a prosecutable offence, but this is REAL life. (If you catch ma drift.)
Mr. Important-Looking-Guy-at-the-Customs telephoned his boss to see if there is any way to “work around” the solution. After a few hours, he decided that he didn’t want to supplement his income nor jeopardize his career. We were offered the option to stay overnight in the airport (note the earlier comment about it being built in the 60s) and take the return flight home.
WHA—? We are being deported?! My expression said it all.
No, actually it’s only him, you’re free to go, miss.
And what, roam the streets of Surabaya at nightfall, go ahead as planned but solo? I am an independent woman, but I don’t like to change my plans on the quick like that. It whiffs of trouble, of the sort of things that you live to regret. There is a fine line between being adventurous and being downright stupid.
So we spent the night staring at each other, first incredulously, then completely resigned that our holiday plans were rained out on. The worst part? We have to buy our own flight back. I contemplated refusing to pay. After all, isn’t the whole point kicking us out of the country, whether we paid or not? I was tired of the crap; it was the traveller’s version of “Go Directly to Jail, Don’t Collect $200 when You Pass Go”.
The best part? When we landed back in Singapore, there was little drama about escorting us to the border. There was a stack of official papers, written in Bahasa Indonesia. All of which my boyfriend signed, doubtfully. We hoped that we didn’t sign away our fortunes and futures. The papers were passed from one official but very bored-looking person to another, until we were safely discarded back to where we came from.
In Hollywood movies, we always see very dramatic scenes of lovers and families getting separated at the border, police handcuffing unwilling deportees and shoving them about violently, rain streaming down their tear-streaked faces.
No, in real life, the weather was pleasant and breezy, the customs officials were efficient, polite and even apologetic (well, they better be!), the process was fuss-free, we were back at square one in precisely 24 hours.
Now what? We exchanged blank glances, and looked down forlornly at packed bags of fresh, unworn clothes and unused itineraries, passports waiting to get a new stamp.
They sat there, like a Chekhov’s gun.
Knowing smiles crept across our faces. And before we knew it, we were on a bus, across the other border in Malaysia.