Suvarnabhumi Aiport, Check-in Counter 1, Row W: I’m at the check-in counter of a low-cost budget airline with an indemnity form staring at me – as if mocking me, telling me you had this coming.
There are four women and three men, all discussing in detail, what I believe are my passport details, in indiscriminate Thai language.
At one hand, I see wrinkles on the foreheads of my flight’s cabin crew and immigration personnel, and on the other hand, the sheer architectural beauty of the Bangkok airport refuses to wear down my excitement. The schism and ambivalence is uncanny.
After nine splendid days of uninterrupted exotic days of merriment, my passport has caught up with me.
I am enroute Singapore from Bangkok.
Gleefully, as most tourists would, I approach the check-in counter. I am the first one in line. Yes, I am excited. I would meet my college best friend after more than two years for the first time since she moved out of Pakistan after graduation.
As I near the counter, a local airline operator greets me with even a bigger smile. Even in times of peril, the hospitality of the Thai people cannot be missed – they are absolutely delightful.
When I present my passport, I feel there is a problem. Within minutes there are more airline personnel around me. Some are making calls, others checking my flight details. The supervisor seems confused. Her expression worries me.
‘Is there a problem with my passport?’ I ask earnestly – clueless as to what had happened.
‘Please come with me, sir,’ the supervisor requests with utmost politeness.
They ask me how much cash I am carrying.
‘Four hundred US dollars,’ I reveal.
Inquiries came my way. Why are you in Bangkok? Why are you going to Singapore? How long for? Where will you stay? Do you have a double entry visa for the Kingdom of Thailand?
My head starts hurting. I see no reason for this sort of treatment.
After an hour of waiting, with all those behind me in line – possibly buying expensive liquor from the duty free – about to board the plane, the supervisor comes to me and says in a thick Thai accent:
‘If you [want to] travel to Singapore, you must fill [this] form, sir.’
What? What form? Are you kidding me? What did I do?
Before I could make words out of my thoughts, the more perceptive of the crew members says:
‘Indemnity form. From now on, you take full responsibility [of your luggage and yourself]. You don’t hold *** airline responsible if Singapore immigration send[s] you back!’
‘We [are] not responsible for you anymore, sir. Okay to board?’
My confusion has reached incomprehensible levels. Apparently, with low-cost airlines , immigration is very strict. Especially if you are Pakistani. You must have 10,000 Singapore dollars in cash to show at immigration – a fact no travel agency in Pakistan is willing to vouch for – a fact I will learn later.
If I do decide to travel, the airline supervisor says, immigration in Bangkok will let me through, but 90% chances are that if I do not meet even one of the basic entry requirements, they will send me back to Bangkok. Once I’m back they will not let me enter Bangkok city, and I will be required to go to my home country immediately because I will have an entry rejected in one of the countries of my transit travel.
Being caught up in the adrenaline pump, I would’ve taken a shot. The problem is my ticket to Karachi is four days later. And my airline says if you are ‘escorted’ back from Singapore, we will be unable to change your ticket to Karachi and you will have to spend four days in a ‘detainee centre’ (euphemism for a prison facility, I assume).
Sign the indemnity form – which says you have been made aware of all possible options and agree to take full responsibility from hereafter – and you can board the plane. Goodluck!
I love my friends and I really want to go ahead with my vacation as planned. But I’m not stupid. I am aware and conscious of my limitations when it comes to international travel. I ask my supervisor, who seems like a warm lady, genuinely concerned for me, what I should do?
Without thinking much she says:
‘Don’t go, you don’t have sufficient amount to travel. You [might] get into a lo’a trouble, sir.’
Turns out my $500 ticket is non-refundable.
Trying to be the man my dad would want me to be, I try hard to hide my tears as I walk away from the counter. I feel violated. I feel I had done nothing wrong.
The supervisor sees me and walks towards me. She says yesterday, a Pakistani passport holder was deported back from Singapore to Bangkok just because he didn’t have the exorbitantly high amount of cash on him during travel.
‘They never ask anyone to show the money. But you [are] the only Pakistani passport in the entire flight. They [will] catch you[‘re] passport and give you trouble very easy.
‘It’s your passport naa..’
Her words make my heart sink deeper.
I just wish for a moment I was not Pakistani. I’m not being unpatriotic. It is the most sincere feeling I’ve had in a while.
Club X, Silom Road, Soi 2: I decide I won’t let this ruin my three nights in Bangkok, and what lifts you up more than some drinks in a good club?
I take a cab, change (hip-hop style) and hit a club. At the entrance the bouncer asks me for an ID. I show him my Pakistani NIC card, which has my date of birth printed in English.
He looks and at me and says in a nonchalant manner:
‘Where you from, friend?’
‘Pakistan!’, I say in a pumped up voice, my head moving with the beat of the song – the airport debacle long forgotten in the waves of music’s rhythm.
‘Palestine?’, he screams back.
‘No no, Pakistan!’
‘Oh! Hahah! You carry no bomb right?’ he says, pulling my leg – with the six people behind me in the line laughing.
I let out an embarrassed smile.
‘Don’t blow up my club!’, he screams behind me, as I walk into the club, needing more drinks than I had expected.
Aboard flight TG0 507: ‘Please fasten your seat belts.’
I am finally going back home.
Not very excited though. My experiences have given me some bitter memories. And I continue to wonder why?
Lost in my thoughts, from the corner of my eye I see an airhostess and two Pakistani young men engaging, in what seems like an unpleasant exchange of words.
‘Sir please switch your phone off. Please fasten your seatbelt.’
The two men laugh, refusing to obey flight instructions.
Two more members of the cabin crew arrive at the scene and have to physically switch off their cell phones. The crew members look annoyed – and let me add, I have seen many things but a rude or annoyed Thai.
They look at each other bitterly and in a hush-hush way mumble: ‘Pakistani!’
Things start to make sense to me. We are treated in a particular manner because we beget it.
Right then I get one of the saddest realisations of my life: Home is near, but it doesn’t seem right.