Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Customs Story

If you’ve been an avid reader – despite the ailing frequency of updates – then you know that I have a tragic history when it comes to travelling. I’m plagued with a perpetual incidence of mis-adventures, contributed by a kaleidoscope of factors that lists carelessness, ignorance and stupidity as contributors.

I could say I’ve almost done it all. Missed a flight, ran on the tarmac to catch my flight and even found myself on a cross-country cab ride back to SG. I’ve learned to accept that I am a magnet for disaster, but up side to that of course is that it makes a great read.

Some weeks ago, LB, RotiPrata and I decided to drive into Johor Bahru after our golfing session for a dinner. It was a last minute unanimous decision to unwind from our torrid time at the driving range because out instructor is quite possibly the worst qualified coach ever and to date, all I’ve managed to pick up from him is that gloves are worn on the left.

This is the second attempt we’ve tried to get into JB this year. I must confess. I screwed that up because when I got home and couldn’t find my passport, I was convinced that I had left it in the office. And when I got back there and couldn’t find it there either, I thought I lost it. And it was on my room table all this time when I was wondering if I had left it on the cab.

I have serious issues.

This time round, I had my passport, there was a smooth traffic to Woodlands checkpoint and it sure didn’t look like rain was going to spill from the sky. What could possibly go wrong?

Everything it seems.

As soon as we gave our passports the officer took a glance into the car and then stepped out of the booth and started walking over to the passenger side of the car where I was seated. If you’ve been across the causeway, you’d know that this is not the standard procedure and something is going down just as you would imagine if you were to go for a anal probe and the doctor brings in a mule and a video recorder.

The officer then signals me to wind down the window, which I diligently obliged.

Officer: “XXX XX”

He reads out the first name. LB waves his hand to acknowledge the identity. The officer looks at him, glances back at the passport then moves on to the next one.

Officer: “Tan XXX XXX”

There was silence in the car. LB and RotiPrata had confusion written all over their faces because they had no idea who the person was. Certainly it wasn’t any of us, none of us even had that surname so surely it wasn’t a case of mispronunciation.

The officer recites the name again, his glare shifting between our faces.

Then it hit me as a million things ran through my mind. Somehow, just somehow there was a tinge of familiarity to that name. Then it hit me, harder than a bevy of bad silicon implants, I had taken the wrong passport.

Me: “Errmm, I think I took the wrong passport.”

The officer glares at me.

O: “Where is your passport?"
Me: “I think I mixed up the passports.”
O: “So where is Tan XXX XXX?”
Me: “I have to idea..”

He pauses. A long silence fills the cabin of the cozy sedan. For a moment, I swore I saw a that look of disbelief that shot across the customs officers face. I had probably given him the most exciting moment of the year because he had no idea what he was going to do about the matter either.

O: “Wait here.”

He made a comms report back to what I would imagine to be the office, relaying the absurdity of the matter. And all this while my mind spiraled into a frantic recovery of ailing memories on how I could have ended up with a swapped passport with my friend, while I flooded my speed dial with calls to him that never got though.

And just when I thought things could never get worse,

LB: “Dude, I just remembered. I have cartons of undeclared cigarettes in my boot.”
The only thing that could possibly make the situation any worse was if we ran out of gas and a flash mob of breakdancing customs officers jumped out to make an arrest.

Then I figured it all out.

A week ago..

Prior to my trip to Hong Kong just a week earlier, I’ve already had a distinguish record of having a travelogue that would make great bar stories. I have after all, missed a flight - near misses on many, told to chase down a plane on the tarmac and refused alcohol on board a flight among many others.

While I am not proud of it, this is also a necessary process for attaining maturity, like puberty, but just a lot more costly.

If Hong Kong thought me anything, it was that I am capable of more fuck-ups in travelling than I ever thought possible. I will not lament on the details – for now - on how I missed 2 flights and a hotel stay just to make it back to Singapore, because this is a proclivity I’ve come to be associated with. Oh yes, two fucking flights. I am a quite a travel prodigy it seems. This is another story all on it’s own.

Now, I know for one, I definitely had my passport with me when I crossed the immigration counter because how else could I possibly have made it pass the biometric prints. It all boiled down to a simple switch up when one of them took my passport to purchase duty-free alcohol.

Fast track a week later, and I’m sitting in the car frantically trying to get my friend on the line. What is going to happen to me? And more pressingly, what is going to happen if they searched the car?

Finally, the customs officer signals us to park the car to the side and follow him to the main office. In there, I spend the next 5 minutes explaining to the chief officer why I had apparently in their opinion, tried to enter
Malaysia with another person’s passport.

I don’t know if they understood the concept of a ‘taking the wrong passport by mistake’ or if they had drawn their judgment on me and was convinced that I was en route to becoming the dumbest criminal caught on film, because I had to answer questions that just made you dumber simply by listening to it.

Officer: “Why did you try to enter Malaysia with another man’s passport?

Officer: “Do you know it’s illegal to pass through immigration with someone else’s passport?

I don’t know if I was getting through to them that this was all a huge misunderstanding, because I had to explain in specific detail on how I came to be in possession of somebody’s passport and why I would even try to cross the border with a passport that clearly didn’t resemble me. It was like trying to get vodka out of a brick.

Having finally convinced them that I was in fact not trying to get into Malaysia illegally, I had to give an official statement and sign off on some document. I was then asked to contact the owner of the passport for a final verification.

Finally, I managed to get my friend on the phone.

Me: “Hey, I’ve got a problem. I’m stuck at Woodlands checkpoint because I took you passport by
mistake. I need you to come down here with my passport."

There was a mild pause. Then,


The laughter went on for nearly a good half minute. At the point of sitting behind the desk at the customs office, having spent the last 15 minutes being held up, I could not see any hilarity in it.

Me: “Dude, you know what's really funny? Your passport has been confiscated.”

And there was silence.