Friday, July 22, 2011

No Man's Land

2 countries, 1 border, 500m apart, after sundown, and only the mafia for company... and if you’re an Indian in a foreign land, nothing goes your way...


It was evening and we were on schedule to reach the Sadao border before sundown. It had poured heavily all day and the evening had given way to a very pleasant breeze. As the van raced towards the finish line, fate had different plans.


I am currently holidaying in Penang (Malaysia) and like most, couldn't resist the chance to make a weekend detour to Phuket (Thailand). My friend, Flo' Mendes, and I had a blast, dancing, partying for a full 3 days and were finally returning, much tired and sleep-deprived.


Now visa and immigration laws are interesting. While most countries claim they are thorough about checking documents before handing out visas, they can still be quite a pain to deal with at the time of entry. Somehow, that rule does not apply Europeans and Amriki junta. Maybe they ran an algorithm to derive some fact which says that those guys are not human enough to commit crimes or be entering the country to cause trouble.


On multiple occasions, even while crossing into Thailand, I was put through a 'special' interview to find out why I wanted to have fun in Thailand and why it was that I had chosen their god-forsaken country for a weekend getaway! But I guess its a common thing now for Indians. Not just is our country a target for terrorists, the entire citizenry has been labelled mischief-makers.


As we crossed the Thailand border, into no man's land (NML), we halted a bit at the Komplex (a mall sort of), the only place for some duty free shopping. As a tourist, while entering any country, you are required certain documents, one of the more important ones being a return ticket. I held mine in my hand with my passport while I browsed a wide selection of daaru that you can buy, but not carry into Malaysia (being a Muslim state). Sometimes I just wonder if the shops are set up simply to mock us.


While I would usually like to think of myself as a 'safe' traveler, somehow, when I finally came out of the Komplex, my ticket was gone. I looked around, a little shaken, but I was too happy to find my passport still there and guessed the missing ticket wouldn't matter as much and we made our way to the Malaysia immigration.


Once again, I was made to wait at the Malaysian border in a separate room, as they took my passport for 'checking' while Flo' got his stamp, along with another Irish guy and an Indonesian family (all of whom were traveling with us on the van). After almost half hour, the official returned saying that they would need to see some other ID (because I guess passports aren't internationally accepted anymore as valid proof :-/) to confirm my identity. I really wanted to point out to him that I had a valid Malaysia visa, and stamps from UK, USA and a bunch of other gora countries and that they couldn't possibly treat me like this. But, knowing better, I remained shut, handing them my driver's license. Another million passed before he came back. As fate would have it, he asked to see my return ticket, almost with a knowing smile that I would not have it.


An hour later, I was outside, back on NML, after my many requests and explanations of having lost my ticket fell on deaf ears. I offered to show it them on my email using their computer. But they were adamant they wanted to see a physical ticket. Period. At this point, the van had left, with some passengers grumbling about getting late to catch a movie! Even though he had officially been stamped and entered Malaysia, Flo' had stayed back, refusing to leave until I get my entry. Whatta guy :)


By now it was already sundown and the stretch of road had bare minimum lighting. Maybe they have bill-sharing issues. We walked to the Komplex, only to find it about to close. Looking for the ticket seemed a little pointless in a three floor mall, and I decided to ask one of the stores to print it for me. 10 shops later, all with Internet access, it was clear that none of them wanted to help print a ticket. Every time that word was used, they got freaked out and said no, as though I had asked them for some bomb recipe!


Finally, tired and irritated with this treatment, we sat outside, hoping some fresh air would bring some new idea. And just then, came this guy, barely speaking English, making signs of an airplane and a blank piece of paper. In times of distress, most of us lose our common sense, or whatever little of it we posses. I jumped at this chance which seemed like the only way I would be getting out of this mess. When he quoted me his price, even Flo', who earns in Euros, was a little taken aback. 800ringgits (that's like Rs.12k!). There seemed no point debating with a person who didn't understand English, and with night drawing closer, risking the border closing down. He gestured us to wait at the Malaysian border while he went off towards the Thai border.


We waited and waited. And waited a little more. No sign of him. It was almost 11pm now and the Malaysian border official told Flo’ that he would have to cross over now or risk felony charges. It was a weird moment. And it wasn’t as though he had been left with a choice. While I tried to control my heartbeat, he was a little less cool, muttering French abuses to the both countries and the immigration system. (Here’s something funny about him. He had been in Malaysia over 2 months now, but did not have a Malaysia number, his France number did not work here and in general dint communicate with his family. I guess Europeans are built that way). So, with no means of communicating with each other, he finally crossed and took a cab and left. It was a pretty emotional moment and I might have even said a couple of filmy dialogues like “If I don’t make it, please tell my family.....” etc. Made sense that time, I was dealing with the mafia!


I walked back to the Komplex, alone. From a distance, I saw they were all having a beer fest. They had taken my money and were now blowing it away. If its one thing I hate, its being cheated. In a fit of rage, I walked up to them, very very pissed. Bad decision.


Already drunk, the mafia people were in no mood to answer my questions, not that they could understand what I was saying anyways. I made signs, asking about the ticket, and they ignored me again and again. Finally, one of them took notice and went to his bike. My relief was momentary, as I saw him return with a chain saw. Eff, I said to myself. I could have just walked off, but now I would be hacked and dumped - in no man’s land! He threatened me with it bringing it tantalizingly close to my throat as I frantically gestured for apology. But I guess I had psyched him out. After many sorries (I at least knew how to say sorry in Thai :)), he retreated his weapon, and said 200ringgit. F***.


I walked away from the Komplex, shaken, shuddering and scared to death with a little chillar in my wallet. I had decided, I had to go back to Thailand, whatever that meant. Apparently, immigration laws allow you to cancel the stamp of outgoing-transition if you do it within the same day in case the other country refuses entry. But I only found this out a few days later after returning to Penang. If I had known this, I would have gone back much earlier.


I spoke to the Thai officials about my ticket problem, and for the first time, saw them actually trying to help. They allowed me to cross into Thailand without the stamping procedure, asking me to be back before midnight. Thanking my first piece of luck, I rushed, looking for a place to print my ticket. Finally, after much searching, found a cafe where I printed it. Phew.


Rushing back, I realized it was almost 11:30 and the border would be closing. And going by my streak of ‘amazing’ luck, I could very well be denied entry even before that. This time around too, the Malaysian official was less than friendly. He checked my ticket for a full 10 minutes, checking as though I might have made it on Photoshop, and giving up only just few minutes before midnight, he stamped my passport. I could have kissed him.


I walked out, took a cab and was off to my hostel within minutes. Finally, out of No Man’s Land...


This is the story of one person, me, someone who had the money to feed the hungry mafia...
This is also the story of Indian tourists and how we are treated all over the world...
I strongly suspect foul play in my ticket getting stolen... Maybe I am just being paranoid...
From racist attacks, to employment prejudice to menial treatment, it happens to us again and again... Our ambassadors get treated rottenly, our people are victims of hate crimes... Why don’t we raise our voice? Don't we all wish it was different, just for once...