I fully acknowledge that I was not in a rational state of mind when the following occurred, and my sensible, well-rested self might have interpreted and handled this whole situation far better.
It was 7 am when my flight from Bangkok landed in the Amman airport.
I had not slept for a moment of the 9 hour flight over the 4 hour time difference between Thailand and Jordan. For those who can’t be bothered to do the internal clock math, this means that in my mind and for my body, it was more like 11 am. I had spent the night in a tense non-verbal stand-off with my seat neighbour, a large American man who decided that the leg space in front of me was fair game for him to take over. The constant pushing to-and-fro to defend my floor territory meant I had to remain vigilant throughout the night. Adding to the drama of the flight was the fact that Royal Jordanian Airline opted not to turn off the overhead lights on the plane on this overnight flight.
So I was going into a particularly cranky hour #27 of being awake when I arrived in Amman. You can imagine that I was in quite a loopy state of mind wandering around the airport looking for my next departure gate.
Now if you saw an arrow pointing down and a staircase next to it, would you not assume that the sign was directing you to go down the stairs?
For future reference, for those of you transiting through the Amman airport, the arrow pointing down did not mean ‘go down’. It meant ‘go straight’, through the duty free shop to the far side where the remaining departure gates are located.
Unfortunately, I did not go straight.
I went down, and down did not lead to my departure gate for my flight to Milan. Down led me out of the transiting passengers zone to the far side of the customs and immigration desks on the lower level. Down meant that I was now illegally on Jordanian territory without an entry stamp or a visa of any kind in my passport.
Have you ever felt your stomach lurch and drop to the floor? Have you ever felt the blood drain from your face and then rush back in such force that your eyesight went spotty? Has your mind ever gone blank because you are in a complete panic and cannot fathom what to do next? That’s approximately what happened to me the moment that I realized this predicament.
And then a single thought bubbled up from the nothingness in my brain.
I am going to prison.
Ridiculous as this now seems, at the time I was certain that I was doomed. I braced myself and began a lengthy and painful conversation with the nearest airport official that I could find, which was a man at the immigration desk. Here is the short version:
“Hello, I got lost and am in the wrong part of the airport. I am trying to find the gate for the flight to Milan. Here is my passport and my tickets from Bangkok and to Milan.”
The man rifles through my passport and tickets and back to my passport, checking all the pages.
“No stamp?” he asks gruffly.
“Yes, there is no stamp. You see I just arrived from Bangkok and got lost. I’m going to Milan.”
“No stamp?” he repeated several times, with me explaining the situation several times back to him.
My heart sunk as I saw that this gentleman did not speak much English and clearly did not understand my story.
I’d like to say I problem-solved this obstacle in a mature and calm manner, but I didn’t. I burst into tears.
This poor man had no idea what to do with a blubbering girl who didn’t speak Arabic so he ushered me to his supervisor’s office. His supervisor didn’t speak much more English than him. They had a fast-paced conversation in Arabic with many gestures at me and my passport pages with no stamp, during which I became convinced that they were sending me to jail and my panic attack resumed. This made me cry even more, which made them even more uncomfortable. I was in every possible way lost in translation and it was awful.
As much as I am mortified by the sheer amount of weeping that I did at that airport, my tears rescued me from this impasse. Another traveller passing by this office overheard the commotion and popped his head in the door to offer to translate for us. He was a businessman from the States who spoke fluent Arabic. Once the language barrier was overcome, everything was resolved in a matter of minutes, and thankfully the resolution did not involve me going to prison.
The airport officials were incredibly nice and escorted me right to my gate to make sure I didn’t get lost again. They also asked that I not hold this one bad experience against Jordan and urged to come and visit their country on a better day in the future. To have received such understanding, sympathy and graciousness from these three strangers on a day when I felt utterly vulnerable and helpless made me tear up in gratitude. But we had all had enough of me crying for one day, so I suppressed the tears and smiled instead.
I wish I could remember their names or their faces. I will never forget their kindness and decency. If I should meet them again, it will because I have gone to Jordan again on a better day to explore their beautiful country and see the ruins of Petra.