I stepped out of the plane into Changi International Airport in Singapore with wide eyed enthusiasm. I was doing an international vacation after a long time. The plan was to backpack across a few South East Asian islands with my friend Mahesh, and we were going to be in Singapore for three days before proceeding to Indonesia. We slowly made our way to immigration after spending some time loitering around the arrival gates and checking out the bathrooms (this might sound weird but I love checking out bathrooms. The best mens’ washroom I’ve been to is The Oberoi in Bangalore, but I’m digressing).
At the immigration counter I was in for a surprise. The official scanned my passport and asked me to step aside. He took me to an access controlled room and took my passport away. On the way, he explained that their system had red flagged my passport and I had to wait while they follow protocol. I suddenly felt like Tom Hanks in The Terminal. Thoughts were racing through my mind.
Okay, let’s pause for a moment. What exactly is going on here? I’m not a first time traveller. I’ve been around places including the US and Europe and this country wants to create a fuss. I was curious to know what threat my passport possessed for these authorities to abduct me. My phone was failing me at the wrong time too. The Indian sim showed no signs of picking up a roaming signal because of which I couldn’t receive the OTP for Airport Wifi.
Another official entered soon after. She asked if I had an alternate Indian identity proof with me. She said the photo on my passport was from 2009 and they wanted to see an ID that’s more recent. I quickly realised I was being restrained as a potential impostor. I had a soft copy of my Aadhaar card on my phone and showed it to her. I look like a junkie thug on my Aadhaar photo and it didn’t give me confidence. She went out with my phone, leaving me in the room for another 15 minutes.
Here’s where I started to panic slightly. I looked around and found another Indian who was detained. I didn’t feel like making conversation at this point but he saw me looking at him and started anyway. “Bro, if they reject admission what will you do? Go back?” He was from a small town in Chattisgarh and was travelling abroad for the first time. What’s more, he thought he can wing it without prior accommodation and had nothing on him apart from return flight tickets.
By this time the lady came back and took me to an interrogation room further inside. What followed was a grilling session straight out of crime movies.
“I see you have travelled to a lot of countries. Can you tell me exactly when you made your previous trips starting from the most recent?”
Call it luck or decent memory, I do remember every trip of mine quite vividly with dates. So I went back in time till 2015 until she was absolutely convinced that I am the said person on the passport.
“How much USD or SGD do you have on you?”
“Not much. I’m travelling light and I have enough money on my cards and bank accounts. I find it impractical to carry a lot of foreign currency before I even step foot into foreign soil.”
“Who helped you get the visa?”
“My uncle. He is a citizen of Singapore and this is his number.”
“If you run out of money on your visit here, who will help you?”
“I wouldn’t run out of money. But if I did, my uncle would.”
At this point she left me in solitude and went out to cross check with the fresh information available to her. The silence was eerie. I didn’t have the Chattisgarh guy for company either, not that I’m complaining.
Meanwhile Mahesh had cleared immigration and was losing his mind. He couldn’t contact me and had no idea if I was going to come through or be sent back. He had collected the bags and was waiting for me. Inside, I was frantically figuring out a plan B. If they reject me should I go back to India and book a direct flight to Indonesia in three days time and resume the plan?
She was back in some time.
“Where are you going from here?”
“Bali. On a Monday morning flight.”
“Please come with me.”
I followed her out of the booth where she took my biometrics and let me out through a restricted exit gate (more like entrance to the country). I asked her why the system red flagged me and she said they have an AI that comes up with 25 faces similar to the one on the passport and none of them looked like me. I feel like the developers who built it didn’t think of the need to account in puberty. As I went to the exit lobby and saw Mahesh waiting with the bags looking confused yet relieved, only one thought came to my mind:
“Our trip has hardly begun and I already have a wacky story to tell”