The events described herein occurred on and around November 11th, 2018. They are true and can be corroborated with visual and audio recordings. Identities of some ICA officials involved known but withheld out of fear of retaliation.
“I grew up in communist Romania,” Oana said as she reached into her carry-on pulling out a thick hardcover book. The title was ledgible from a distance. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. “Give it a read,” she said, “it explains a lot,” as she slipped the book neatly back into her travel bag.
Oana and I met in the holding room at Ngurah Rai airport in Bali. She was the first person I’d spoken with since being woken by armed guards at Changi, shortly before being detained and deported to Indonesia. That was 14 hours ago already. I was starting to feel hungry.
“It’s winter there now,” Oana suggested, as she peered down at her open-toed shoes. I empathized calling to mind the brutal Chicago winters I’d grown accustomed to back in America. The thought chilled my bones.
Oana and I were told by immigration officials at Ngurah Rai we’d have to fly back to “our” countries. For Oana that meant flying back to Romania—a place she and her husband had left after losing their jobs earlier this year. In my case that meant a trans-Atlantic flight. A solid twenty-four hours in the air, not including a layover to refuel.
I thought about my cats in Singaraja, a three-hour car ride from the airport on the far end of Bali island. They would be safe while I was gone, I decided. They were in good hands with my “pacar ku” and her family.
“I’ve been living here for almost two years now,” I explained to Oana. “You don’t have to clear immigration in Singapore to catch a return flight,” I explained, as I flipped though my passport revealing my back-to-back visas.
“ICA told me I didn’t have to enter Singapore,” I said, “that I had a choice,” but we both knew it not to be true. Recent terminal changes had now made it physically impossible to make visa runs to Changi without first clearing Singapore immigration. And I should know, this was the airport I always used.
Without passing immigration now I would have simply become trapped in Changi’s airport mega mall — a cornucopia of high-end retail shops and calm-inducing blue-wave lighting subtly designed to maximize traveler wealth extraction. Like Tom Hanks in The Terminal one could make a life for themselves at Changi. At least until they were unable to appease the armed guards.
Save for hard-to-find tech gadgets I try not to spend much money in the island-state. Why spend money in a place some associate with the term panopticon?1 After all, Singapore is an island. And it’s not well-known for its diligent police work.2
Though had I known this time a sequence of events was unfolding which would have me flying back to the States at a time freezing temps were the norm I might have splurged on a pair of shoes before being put in captivity by ICA at Changi.
But that was never an option. Like Oana I was traveling with just a carry-on, clothes for one day, and, like her, I was in the process of being expelled from Indonesia due to Singapore’s immigration denial.
Just then my pacar ku arrived at the holding room door at Ngurah Rai. She was accompanied by a uniformed military escort — a subordinate to her father, who had served in the Indonesian army and, at one point, as a hired guard for then President Obama. She arrived holding the long-term stay visa documents we’d planned I would bring to the embassy in Singapore, before we ran out of time.
“They told me I have to fly back to America; I can’t stay here,” I explained to my pacar ku, as Oana quickly got back to texting her husband – likely still waiting for her outside the airport.
At my words, my pacar ku, Dwi, burst into tears. “They can’t do that,” she said. I held her closely as she weeped. “They can’t do that,” she repeated.
After a few minutes Dwi collected herself, and began speaking to her escort in Indonesian. They turned to the Air Asia security staff whom had placed in the holding room to monitor Oana and I and asked to see immigration.
Twenty minutes passed as I nervously awaited their. Dwi has a way with words and I was hopeful she would return with good news.
Then, finally, she arrived. And she started to cry again as she entered the holding room. “Immigration said you have to leave,” Dwi sobbed. Not the good news I was hoping for.
Dwi explained how she had visited immigration. There were two separate offices in the Bali airport. She went to both. And she begged. She pleaded, showing officials the visa documents we’d worked on. Asking them why I was being forced to leave. But they gave her no reason.
In the end, however, immigration at Ngurah Rai did make one concession. I no longer had to produce a flight itinerary to the United States. Dwi explained we had a choice of flying to Malaysia or Thailand to visit an Indonesian embassy so that we could apply for my social visa. Either we fly to visit an embassy or she was going to fly to Singapore with the documents and confront ICA herself while I remain in custody.
Visas in Singapore can take 2-3 days, and sitting in holding that long didn’t feel right. Malaysia felt too close to the panopticon so I purchased us two tickets on a red-eye to Bangkok. We were going to Thailand.
With four hours before our flight Dwi left the airport to borrow some clothes from a good friend, and buy me some cigarettes for the trip.
Three hours later I signaled the Air Asia security guard stationed by the door in the holding room, who was killing time playing a first-person shooting on their handphone. It was time to get ticketed for the flight.
Just then Dwi sent me a video message from outside airport security. “They’re not letting me in,” she texted. I need the itinerary with my name on it. But I’d already sent her everything I had. The app used wasn’t listing passenger names.
While I was fumbling to find more information immigration arrived at the holding room with another Air Asia security guard. He was holding my passport! They had me step outside the holding room.
“Mau Passport,” I said, as I stared at my passport intently. There were three people now, standing around me, speaking in a toungue I didn’t yet understand.
“Passport! I need see.” I said, clutching it tightly after convincing them to let me look at it for a moment.
With passport in hand, I pointed toward the airport security checkpoint, where Dwi was, and used what little Bahasa I had.
“Pacar ku,” I said, as I showed them the video Dwi had sent me. They saw the video, but no one responded. They continued talking. It was starting to become clear they wanted my passport back, but didn’t know how to get it.
“Pacar ku!” I demanded, as I pointed, showing them the video again.
During the commotion I saw Oana step outside the room and take a photo of the name plate hanging on the wall: HOLDING ROOM the sign read in English.
“Tunggu. Tunggu, pacar ku.” They staff stayed close to me, now looking visibly irritated given the situation.
I wanted to make a break for the entrance to go find Dwi. I wanted to call out to her. But decided against it. We were standing near the nuditrons, recently installed to augment the metal detectors, and I didn’t want to scare anyone let alone undo the work Dwi had done.
Another man arrived. Airport security of some kind. A bigger fellow this time. He looked calm and started conversing with the others. I stood waiting, arms folded. Then he looked at me, his face grew stern, and he started to approach.
I showed him the video. He seemed to understand a little English, and after I explained myself he unfolded his arms and started to relax.
Just then Dwi arrived. Without a ticket she was able to talk her wait past two security checkpoints. She approached the large man and explained the situation.
“They want your passport,” Dwi told me.
I refused. “How do I know I’m going to get it back when we land in Bangkok,” I said. “What if they detain me when we arrive in Thailand and force me to fly back again? No one’s even told me why I’m here. There’s no reason for this.”
Dwi translated what I’d said, and convinced my security detail to let her hold my passport until we boarded the plane. The group dispersed, and now it was just Dwi, one Air Asia security staff and myself.
No sooner did we get to the ticket counter Dwi started to cry again. “You’re right,” she said. “What if they don’t let you in. What if they take your passport and put you in a room? Make you fly back here and then to the US?”
My left-brain kicked in. “Well,” I said, “it’s not really my passport.”
This I knew for a fact, as the last time I transferred at LAX — my first time setting foot in the US after a year outside the country — I was detained for questioning by borderland security and informed as much.
“The passport you’re holding is the property of the United States government,” I told Dwi. And if I really need to I can stop all of this right now and get the US embassy involved.
But our course had already been set. The path of least resistance now was Bangkok. And Dwi held my passport all the way to the tarmac.