My final memoir will focus specifically on the toughest incident I had to deal with throughout my travels.
I crossed the Oman Border at Al Dhara. The sound of the exit stamp was final; “Sultanate of Oman, Exit, March 1st, 2015” it stated. I knew I couldn’t get back in land. After all, they don’t issue visas for any Thai citizen on land; only if you’re flying into Oman by air. I walked the dreaded 100 meters exiting Oman, directly into the UAE border control office. Oman Air assured me that I would get through the UAE border. They sent all my information regarding my flight re-routing via Dubai to the staff at the UAE office. I walked in and handed my passport to the officials, feeling a bit queasy about the whole situation. The man laughed at me, and explained to me (as though I were a little child), that I need to apply for a visa in advance. Then he laughed even harder and said the dreaded words,
“You are not an Omani. You are not from the UAE. You currently hold no visas to either country. How do you plan to go anywhere.”
And it dawned on me… I was stranded in the Middle East, in limbo between two countries, and I have absolutely no to enter either country.
It all started with my adventures through Oman. After having traveled through the country over the past week, it was time to head to Khasab, located in the northern strip of Oman, in the Musandam Peninsula. This section of Oman is split off from the rest of the country, with the UAE cutting directly through the middle. It’s known as the Norway of Arabia, and it really was, with its endless picturesque fjords.
Photo Credit: Nations Online
Without crossing the UAE border, the only way to get there was either by ferry or by flight. Since I didn’t want to deal with the hassle of getting a UAE visa, I opted to take a roundtrip flight from Muscat to Khasab. This meant I was taking a domestic flight in Oman, and I already had a 14-day single-entry visa for Oman.
During my time in Khasab, I had heard rumours about flight cancellations, but didn’t think too much of it, since my flight from Muscat to Khasab was not an issue at all, and there were no warnings provided to us regarding any cancellations that were taking place. When I was travelling through Khasab, a taxi driver mentioned that I was very lucky to have arrived here. He further explained that there was only one flight that made it to Khasab that entire week, and it was mine. The rest were all cancelled due to “bad weather”, was the reason he cited. That made sense to me. It is the coastal area after all, and the weather here was extremely windy and unpredictable. He later went on to assure me that their was nothing to worry about, as the weather is looking good for the next few days, and that it was a rare occasion that flights are cancelled outbound from Khasab. Little did he know, he would soon be proven so very wrong.
I explored Khasab for 2 nights and 3 days. It was time to leave again, air bound back to Muscat, in order to see the beautiful capital city for the day and fly home back to Bangkok the following morning. As soon as my driver escorted me inside the Khasab airport, I asked him, “flight cancelled?”, and he nodded just slightly and smiled at me. I thought he was joking, or at least in that moment I wished he was joking. But no, it was true. I saw the pandemonium and chaos at the airport.
It was a small airport, with flights going to- and fro- Muscat. Normally, there are two flights per day, each flight a small 2-engine propeller plane that could seat approximately 40 passengers. It wasn’t a lavish airport by any means. There was one guy running the entire show, and it became obvious very soon as stranded passengers lined up outside his office to have a word with him to figure out their next course of action. I heard the man in front of me complaining to Mr. Al Sheshi, the Oman Air coordinator who was in charge and taking care of all the passengers, whom I would later get very well acquainted with, and have a “hate-hate” relationship with. The man in front of me was holding his flight tickets in hand, as he complained to the Oman Air coordination. The tickets were for February 21, 2015. It was February 28, 2015 today.
The only flight that had actually left Khasab that week, was the one that I had arrived in. And now, like the rest of them, I was also stuck indefinitely, with three major thoughts running through my mind:
- I won’t make my flight back to Bangkok from Muscat, which was scheduled to depart tomorrow.
- This means I won’t make it to work by Monday.
- My Oman visa is expiring in 3 days.
I needed to find a way out of there. Oman Air had organized transportation for all the foreigners who could enter via the UAE without any issues. The foreigners were taken by bus to Dubai, and caught a flight from Dubai to Muscat. Unfortunately, I was left behind, as I would not get a visa on arrival at the UAE border. I already knew this fact, which is why I opted to fly to Khasab to begin with.
I remembered that I was debating taking the ferry to Khasab, and thought that maybe I could take the ferry back to Muscat, so I checked the schedule. Normally ferries go out every Saturday and Wednesday. Today was a Saturday, I was thrilled. But just as my luck was going that day, the ferry was also cancelled due to bad weather. This meant, I would have to wait until March 4th to get the next ferry. That was entirely too much of a wait, and frankly, I didn’t want to spend my birthday stranded in Khasab, nor could I miss that many days from work (my birthday falls on March 3rd). The ferry option went out the window quickly.
The only solution that was offered to me was a “priority” on the waiting list on tomorrow’s fully booked flight (March 1st). There were a number of uncertainties…
- Would the flight get cancelled again?
- It’s a fully booked flight. What are the chances, that my priority “waitlist” will actually pay off into a seat on that flight?
…but I just had to work with what I had at the time. I rebooked all my flights from Muscat to Bangkok that was departing from March 1 to March 2nd, not knowing if I would actually be able to get on the flight. It was all a gamble, and an expensive one, because I had to pay Emirates the rebooking fees as Oman Air holds no responsibility towards me catching my next flight or not, as I wasn’t flight back home with them. In addition, I forfeited a hotel night’s stay in Muscat and a car rental that was booked and paid for.
I asked Mr. Sheshi regarding my complimentary hotel stay in Khasab for the night, as this was an inconvenience towards me. Instead of offering me a hotel voucher, he tried to put me up at his friend’s place. I told him that as an Oman Air employee and the only responsible person that seemed to have any authority at the airport, he needed to organize an actual accommodation with meals for me. After a lot of back and forth bickering, I was clearly on the losing end, and I didn’t understand why. All I received was a transport service (that also, by his friend), to an accommodation that I had to book and pay for myself.
I decided to lodge a complaint to the Oman Air Call Centre to see if they could help me with anything, as Mr. Sheshi was not at all helpful. The Call Centre staff told me that I had to follow the orders of the man in charge at the airport, and they couldn’t do anything for me; only he could. So this utterly useless man was my one and only ticket out of Khasab, which meant I needed to be on my best behaviour or he wouldn’t even try to help me get out of this city.
I woke up that next morning and checked my phone right away to see the flight status: “CANCELLED” it stated in bold letters… yet again. I knew right away that today would be an even more strenuous and demanding day; an uphill willpower battle and I needed all my focus and energy to figure out yet another solution. I could not afford to reroute my Emirates flights to Bangkok yet again. This was not an option. I was getting out of Khasab, no matter what it took.
When I arrived at the airport, the staff cited the same reason, “Ma’am, the weather’s been really bad, so we can’t fly out lately. Sorry.” I look up at the sky. The weather was NOT bad. Actually, it was nice and warm outside, with a little bit of wind. The weather was perfect. There had to be more to this story that I wasn’t aware of. It can’t be the weather. They can’t expect me to believe that bullshit anymore.
My brain started drawing on random conversations I’d had with other fellow travellers that were stranded. I later found out that there are 2 small planes that fly back and forth from Khasab; one transporting passengers, and the other transporting oil. The aircraft transporting oil had faced some technical difficulties, so they have been substituting it with the other flight, that was meant to transport passengers. I had another realization at this point: I would not be leaving by air at all. I would have to find another solution that involved land. I would have to find a way to make it to the UAE, and I would have to find a way to get a pre-approved visa, which normally takes 4 – 5 working days.
I tried to re-discuss my options with Mr. Sheshi at the airport. I insisted that he had to provide me with a solution. I couldn’t afford to rebook everything yet again. He proceeded to yell at me and was completely not helping with the high stress and costs that I was bearing. I tried to keep my composure. I couldn’t afford to piss him off; this much I knew. I stepped outside, and I just needed to release my emotions a little, so I cried for about 10 minutes, and pulled myself together again.
I went for a walk to clear my head, and when I returned, I noticed that some Omani citizens were able to board a military plane to Muscat. I asked the security guards and the soldiers if this option was available for me as well. I practically pleaded. I almost saw the light at the end of the tunnel, until they apologized sincerely, and stated that for security and safety reasons, they could only transport Omanis on their military flights. I understood it. It was a fair reasoning, and they were part of the country defense team after all.
With all my willpower, I went back to face Mr. Sheshi. I asked him if he could organize a way for me to get through the border of the UAE without a visa, perhaps through an Oman Air official release statement or validation of flying out from Dubai. I got nothing. It was as though I was talking to a wall, except a very arrogant wall who spends more time playing the victim in all of this, than actually helping the stranded passengers. Also, he already knew in advance that the flight today would be cancelled. Why did he bother to give me that kind of hope? And more importantly, that kind of additional expense when he knew I had to reroute my return flights to Bangkok. I was livid, but I kept my cool… still. He told me I should go to the police, and maybe they could help me out with an official statement.
I did, but the police weren’t able to speak any English. I soon realized that the police of Oman wouldn’t have anything to say to the border control of UAE. They didn’t have that kind of power either. With my head down, I went back to the airport to devise a new strategy. As I sat, mentally exhausted, on the airport floor, a man in an expense black suit and leather shoes walked towards me. He said he recognized me, and asked me if I needed any help. I kept wondering who he was, but at this point it didn’t matter. He wanted to help me, and perhaps he might be able to. He had two body guards beside him. He looked important; this was good. I told him my story and he said that he will get some of his guys to contact the UAE border and get back to me with a response. He took down my number and told me he would call me if he recieved any news. Before leaving he said, “By the way, if you end up having to stay in Khasab for another night, come back to my hotel, Atana. You were my guest last night as well, and I remember you from the bar. My name is Mohammad.” I looked at him, and I knew he was offering me a free night’s stay at his 5-star hotel if I needed it.
Backtrack: I was pretty stressed from the flight cancellation yesterday, so I decided to book the most expensive hotel in Khasab, and spend the rest of my evening and night there. Also, Atana was the only place in Khasab that served alcohol, and I seriously needed a beer last night.
Throughout the last 24 hours, I was in contact with my dad, to try and work out a solution from Bangkok as well. He got back to me and mentioned that he had a contact in Dubai who could organize a visa for me within the day itself. I was ecstatic. I took photos of all my documents and forwarded them to him for processing my visa. He told me I would have my visa by 4:00pm that day. It was currently 12:00pm. That’s fast, I thought, but didn’t question how he planned to get it done in time for me. I just trusted it, because honestly, at this point, I didn’t have anything else.
As this was going on, Mr. Sheshi was insisting that I take his transportation and go to the UAE border and try my luck anyways. This I knew, would be a stupid idea. I’m not new to travelling, or visas, or dealing with immigration and border control. I couldn’t just “hope for the best” or “try my luck” at the border. The world does not work that way, I explained to Mr. Sheshi. I think he had enough of me at that point, so he just wanted to ship me off somewhere, far away from him.
After organizing my documents with the contact in Dubai, I decided to take Mr. Sheshi up on his transportation offer across the border. It was 12:30pm, and I knew I wouldn’t have a valid visa for the next few hours so I wouldn’t be entering the UAE anytime soon.
Mr. Sheshi called “his best guy” to drive me across the border. He came in a Lexus, looked rich and spoke decent English. I started to wonder why he was appointed to drive me across the border. It was Mohammad. He was behind getting me this free transportation and his friend was my driver, not just to the border, but all the way to Dubai, and that too, in a Lexus. I never met the hotel owner again, but he was god-sent, and the only person that truly tried to help me in any way he could. Mr. Sheshi was barely involved in providing this transportation. I knew I was in safe hands now.
So here I am sitting at the UAE border with the passport control officer laughing at me, and my driver sitting beside me, trying to encourage me, and constantly speaking with the officials to check on the status. I knew I was not getting out, unless that visa really did come through. Worst of all, Mr. Sheshi called the driver, and told him that he didn’t need to wait with me, and that he should just come back and leave me at the border by myself. Luckily the driver was appointment for me by Mohammad, and he told Mr. Sheshi that he planned on staying with me until I was through passport control in the UAE. I felt bad to put him through that, but I needed him to be there with me. If he decided to leave, I didn’t actually know how I would make it to Dubai once I passed passport control (that’s IF I get through to begin with).
I called my contact in Dubai to see how far along the visa was coming. He told me not to worry that it’s currently being processed and I would get it by 4:00pm. It was 2:00pm, I was sitting at border control, and playing a waiting game, alongside a staring contest with the UAE security guards. They really thought I was delusional and didn’t have a chance of getting in. They told me I should prepare to spend the night at border control, because there’s no way I was getting a visa issued within a day, especially considering the embassy stops processing visas at 2:30pm. I didn’t let their bullying get to me. Instead, I just decided to sit and wait.
It was 4:00pm now, and my visa still didn’t come through in the system. According to my contact in Dubai, it’s been processed and could take some time to appear in the system. I received the approval from immigration but because it hadn’t yet appeared in the federal system, the passport control officers couldn’t see it, so technically I was still stranded without a visa. I had to continue to wait, 4:30pm, 5:00pm, 5:30pm, and finally … 6:00pm… Oh the anticipation was killing me. Did my visa really go through, or was it all just one giant lie? I started questioning and doubting everything, and I mentally prepared myself to spend a night or more at the border, without any food or water for the last 6 hours. In desert heat, going that long without water was torture for my body.
I got a call, “It’s in the system. I’ve emailed you a copy of your visa. Check your email.”
Oh, the joy. I think I cried more at this point than I ever did in the last 36 hours of this mess. It’s all that pressure held in to be strong in the situation. And now, I can finally let my guard down. I can finally cry my heart out, because this time, I was getting into the UAE, and I was going back to Bangkok.
I walked over to the passport control officer, and he couldn’t help but smile a little for me as well. I secretly think he was rooting for me the entire time to be honest. He looked stern still, but I saw a twinkle in his eyes. As I walked out of the UAE border office, and into the UAE, a victory song was playing in my mind. The driver, who had been waiting patiently with me for the last 5 hours, was also ecstatic for me. He didn’t complain once about having to wait. He didn’t question me once. He trusted that I would get the visa, and he was my biggest supporter there. We celebrated by buying large bottles of water, and hydrating. This was absolutely necessary. As we drove from the border to the Dubai airport, I watched the sunset.
The day was over, and I got out. I was finally going home, after a 72-hour struggle. I arrived Bangkok at 12:15am, March 3rd, just in time to ring in my 27th birthday.
Note: After filing a complaint along with all my expense receipts on Oman Air’s Customer Service online, I was reimbursed 700 Euros, of the total 1,000 Euros I spent getting out of this mess. This reimbursement was validated two months after the incident occurred.