My Blunder in Brunei:
My Blunder in Brunei
Many years ago, when I had recently arrived in Asia and still wet behind the ears, I was sent off to wrap-up a business deal in Bandar Seri Begawan. Bandar Seri Begawan? You know; the capital of Brunei. Oh, THAT Bandar Seri Begawan. Before I could collect my wits enough to mount a proper defense, my company had me on the next flight out and a few hours later, I was disembarking at the oil rich sultanate.
For a country as wealthy as Brunei, I was surprised to find myself outdoors, at the end of a long queue of ‘suits,’ – mostly investment bankers hoping to get within sniffing distance of the Sultan’s billions. There I was, on a broiling hot tarmac, under a blazing equatorial sun, waiting to clear immigration. Wait I did and eventually it was my turn to get my passport stamped.
It is the very instant when you fathom that you don’t the required visa, that a few hundred thousand volts of fear course their way through your entire neuromuscular system.
“Where’s your visa?” barked the immigration officer. “I don’t need a visa,” I replied with all the confidence I could muster. A raised eyebrow and a slight sneer was all that was needed to confirm that not only did I need a visa, but I didn’t have a visa, and anyone without a visa is in a world of trouble.
Before I could say “third-party relo,” I was being frog-marched across the runway back to the same Malaysia Airlines DC9 that had brought me to Brunei. Evidently, they had advised the plane to wait, confident they would nab another illegal immigrant and they would shortly be booting him out of the country.
Up the ladder I climbed into the plane, grateful not to be staring through iron bars of a jail cell. I had barely taken my seat when the aircraft door closed, the engines spooled up and we started taxing to takeoff. It was at that point that it occurred to me that I had no idea where the plane was going. I flagged down a passing stewardess and asked where the plane was going. She gave me a disbelieving look that said how could anyone be on a plane and not know where they are going. After a brief pause, she said “Kuching” Huh? “Kuching” she repeated. “Gezuntheit,” I said, “Now where are we going?” ”Kuching” she said one final time before she hurried off.
Fighting panic, I scrambled to find a copy of the in-flight magazine and quickly flipped to the route map looking for some country that sounded like someone just sneezed. Sure enough, there it was Kuching – right next to Brunei. And it was in the middle of Borneo. My mind flashed back to a TV documentary I had once seen on the Discovery Channel about headhunters, dengue fever and large, poisonous snakes. I remember the word Borneo figured prominently in that show along with lingering, painful death.
As soon as the plane touched down, the flight crew, led by the pilots, bolted off the plane. I’d never seen anything like it. OK, it was the end of the day but common – paying customers first! As I was heading down the plane’s stairs, I noticed that all the lights in the terminal started to blink off. As the light faded and the darkness grew, an ear splitting cacophony of jungle noises washed over me, and thousands of pairs of yellow beady eyes stared at me. I was dressed in a suit and wing-tip shoes so I might just as well have had a sign saying: “Tonight’s dinner – come and get it.”
Unblinking, staring straight ahead, I walked carefully towards the terminal hoping to be spotted by a rescue party. I went immediately to the nearest phone and dialed the emergency number. When the operator came on the line, I told her – yes, that this was an emergency and please connect me immediately to the nicest hotel in Kuching. I still didn’t know if I was pronouncing it properly so I just made a sneezing sound. She must have understood because she complemented me on my accent and connected me to the newly opened Kuching Sheraton.
I quickly explained my predicament and made sure that she understood that my safety and well-being was at imminent risk. She promised to send a car straightaway to fetch me. As the jungle noises grew louder, the yellow beady eyes got closer; I retreated to a corner and waited for my Mercedes Benz rescue limo to emerge from the darkness.
Fortunately, one did. I climbed in, breathed a sigh of relief and made for the hotel. Once at the Sheraton, I ran to the bar without even bothering with check-in. A few beers later and I was finally in control of myself, enough so to check into hotel and head for my room and a well-earned night of sleep.
Author: Rob Chipman Asian Tigers Hong Kong