The Journey to Singapore
Each Christmas, I try to travel to a new place, but this year, things were a bit more complicated. I live in a place that tends to experience turmoil, and it is not unusual for problems to occur quickly and without warning or even for rules and regulations to change as quickly as they are introduced. In my case, the city I live in does have an international airport, but because of political issues and disputes, all international flights out of the country from the airport have been suspended until further notice. Now, in order to go anywhere, a short flight to Baghdad is required before moving onto your final destination which effectively adds another stop to any travel itinerary. This means that if I want to head to Austria, I need to fly to Baghdad to Istanbul or Amman and then then to Austria. In the past, I would be able to fly to Istanbul or Amman then to Austria.
Flying into Baghdad was not the main issue, nor was it my main worry. For myself and many others, it was the visa. Any foreigner who did not have an Iraqi visa would be required to pay a $400 exit fee and then another $400 upon return. Luckily, my place of employment had been working on getting multiple-entry visas for everyone, and we finally received them after a lot of waiting and wondering about when they would come.
However, the only way for us to get the visas would be to get them while we were transiting in Baghdad International Airport. This did not seem too problematic. The way it seemed to be was that we would fly into Baghdad, go to the visa desk, present the paperwork, wait, get the visa, and we'd be on our way. The process seemed relatively straightforward and painless, and based on my communication with friends and colleagues who had flown out prior to me, it seemed to be the case.
On the day of my departure, I got picked up from my apartment and headed to the airport. Everything ran smoothly, and the flight to Baghdad was quick and easy. It was less than an hour, and it reminded me of flying from Chicago to Indianapolis on Southwest Airlines when I was a university student. I remember that flight being very short (30 minutes or so). This was my first time flying on Iraqi Airways, and it was not too bad. The seats were comfortable, and the food wasn't too bad. Since it was such a short flight, it was literally two slices of white bread with cheese in the middle and a bottle of water. Despite its simplicity, I still think it is better than some of the US-based airlines who will barely provide anything and charge a lot for checked bags.
Upon arrival in Baghdad, I was a little bit worried. I only had about an hour and a half layover. Generally this would not bother me, but because I needed to get a visa, I was not entirely sure how long it would take. I had been told it took anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours, and I certainly could not afford 2 hours let alone 3. However, a lot of people who had flown out before me got their visas within 30 minutes, so it seemed alright. After getting off the bus from the plane, I saw the door to the visa office, but it was closed and locked. When I saw that, I was worried. I hoped that someone would come along soon. Since I could not do much, I got into the immigration line with everyone else and gradually made my way to the immigration officer.
The immigration officer took my passport, looked through it, and asked "Visa? Where?" I told him I needed one, and he told me/gestured for me to sit in the seating area for five minutes. Those five minutes turned into 10 then 15 then 20 minutes. It was clear the immigration officers were not going to do anything, and time was ticking down, so I decided to make some calls. After waiting for a bit longer, someone finally showed up at the visa office. They originally wanted me to wait for 30 minutes, but I had lost a lot of time waiting for the office to open, and when I showed my boarding time, the guy said "alright, 20 minutes." I then sat down and waited and hoped there would not be anymore delays.
Eventually, the guy returned with a multiple-entry Iraqi visa in my passport. I paid the money with no problem and promptly went back to the immigration line. The immigration officer casually looked it over while smoking a cigarette and then let me go. Because I had less than 45 minutes until boarding, I rushed upstairs with my boarding pass. However, upon getting upstairs, I found myself at the end of security line. I found a guard and told/gestured my predicament, and he let me skip ahead to front of the line. Once I got through security, I raced past the check-in gates and to the passport control. I then realized I did not have my boarding pass.
It had dropped somewhere during my rush upstairs. After looking around frantically for it and seeing no sign of it, and with time ticking down until departure, I made some more calls, and headed to a check-in desk. Thankfully, the lady who was at the desk spoke good English and could understand my predicament. She printed me out a new boarding pass and then took me to passport control. The official at the desk and her discussed my situation in Arabic, and it was times like this I really wished I understood Arabic.
Eventually, they let me pass. I went through the second to last security check, and headed to the gate. Once I got through the last security check at the gate, I got on the plane. As I settled into my seat, I breathed a sigh of relief. The drama in Baghdad International Airport was something that I could have done without, but I got on my flight. Within a few minutes, we were pulling out and heading to Dubai.
If I had to be honest, there were numerous times when I seriously thought I would miss this flight. However, it did not happen, and I made the flight, but it was a little too close for comfort. Next time I fly through Baghdad Airport, I am going to make sure to not have such as a tight connection. Definitely a lesson learned.
The flight to Dubai was uneventful, and I was thankful for it. When the plane arrived in Dubai, I could take it easy since I had 9 hours to kill until my flight to Singapore. Even though I could have left the airport for a bit, I decided against it. For one thing, I did not want to cart my stuff through Dubai, and secondly, I was exhausted. I had been up since about 2am, and I just wanted to check in and then chill out in a lounge. However, it did not happen like that.
For those who do not know, Dubai has three airport terminals in different parts of the city. You cannot walk. I arrived in Terminal 2, and I mistakenly thought I would check-in there as well. Not quite. When I got to the check-in area, I noticed everything was for FlyDubai and a few other miscellaneous airlines. I was scheduled to fly on Emirates. I headed to the information desk and found out I needed to go to Terminal 3, which would cost around 30 Emirati Dirhams ($8 USD) via taxi. I wasn't too bothered by this because I had a lot of time to kill, and I was certainly not worried about missing my flight. After getting some Emirati Dirhams, I got a taxi and within about 15 minutes, I was at Terminal 3.
Once check-in and security was completed, I still had about 7 hours until departure. Therefore, I just headed to a lounge, chilled there, and filled up on curry chicken. Eventually, at about 9pm, I was on a plane sitting next to a French family with a loud baby whom the flight attendants loved. This was kind of fortuitous in a way. Not only am I studying Arabic, but I am also reviewing French, and I was able to understand what the parents were saying to the baby in French. Therefore, for about 11 hours, I got to hear the parents talk to each other in French and talk to their son in French when he wasn't sleeping. A review is review regardless of how it happens. Even though the flight to Singapore was long, I was so exhausted that I actually slept reasonably well for a good portion of the flight. After being awake since 2am December 20, the flight arrived in Singapore at 8:30 in the morning on December 21.
Initially, I thought of saving some money and taking the train from the airport to the hotel, but after seeing all the station transfers in order to get where I wanted to go, I opted against it. I was still tired and just wanted to get to the hotel as quick as possible. Upon arrival at the hotel near Clarke Quay, I was told it was too early to check-in unless I wanted to pay an early check-in fee of about $150. Even though I was really tired, I immediately rejected that idea and decided to have them lock my luggage up while I explored the general area for a bit.
My first impression of Singapore was that it was extremely hot and humid, but while walking around, I could not help but smile and feel extremely grateful that I had finally made it to my 72nd country, especially since this trip almost did not happen.