I arrive in Shenzhen, China, about 26 hours after leaving my house at 5am. I’m a little worse for wear, and have a mild headache.
Unfortunately, I’ve made a serious mistake, and besides taking a headache tablet, I’ve refused to accept any of the delightful airline food offerings I was presented with. Highly suspicious.
“Passenger in seat M15 please report to immigration staff on landing” Nervous looks from fellow passengers, and some check their bags to see I haven’t snuck any drugs into their unsecured hand luggage.
My first thought was that I’m getting a red carpet welcome and a limo to my hotel. It’s soon clear that the airline staff has reported my dubious culinary behaviour and I’ve been fingered for having the plague.
There are lots of questions. I answer yes to the headache question, but no to whether I have symptoms of vomiting, nausea, diarrhea.
Then they go up a level. Have I butchered an animal, or been around an animal being butchered in the last 10 days? Happily, no I haven’t.
The interrogator doesn’t speak English, but has a handy flipchart of badly-translated English questions. I get to shake my head vigorously to each question while she glares at me suspiciously. Shenzhen is grey – I’m not sure if it’s rain or smog. Well, it is rain, but there may be some smog involved too. I desperately hope I don’t start sneezing.
Rain or smog?
Next question. Have you been inside a wild animal in the last 30 days? I’m tempted to answer yes, but immigration officials don’t always have a sense of humour, especially when protecting their country from African plague-bearers, so I shake vigorously again. I’m fairly sure that in China nodding and shaking have the same meaning as in English. But if not, that could explain some of the later treatment.
The flipchart wasn’t enough. She dials a number and gets me to answer more questions from a voice prompt. I try to put on my strongest South African accent, but the voice recognition is surprisingly good and get’s it right each time. Nothing about wild animals though. But a lot of questions about which countries in Africa I’ve visited recently, and which part of South Africa I come from.
I’ve only answered yes to the mild headache, and happily have no other symptoms. Luckily I landed quite early, about 10h50, but I would like to finish up soon. She puts on some rubber gloves. This is not looking good. She grabs what looks like a needle and leans over to me. She has quite a stretch as I seem to have lurched backwards when I saw the gloves.
It’s a thermometer, and she gets to see whether she can add fever to the list. I wonder how accurate a temperature reading is going to be when you’re groping at someone with rubber gloves, but can only wait and see.
After lots of what I hope is only smalltalk between her and a colleague, and not a back and forth about which quarantine committee to call, she removes the thermometer.
I have no idea what the reading indicated, but she grabs a needle. A real one with a point this time. Now I’m protesting, and she calls in a colleague who can speak some English.
“We have to take some of your blood”. I know how these things go. Don’t co-operate and I’ll spend the week in quarantine, or end up being grilled in another little room, so I reluctantly agree. I’m happy my temperature has already been taken as it’s just gone up a notch.
I presume passing out when I see the needle start filling with blood will only further arouse their suspicion, so I look as far away as possible.
Next, my blood pressure is taken. I’m sure it’s high.
Finally they let me go, and escort me to passport control. Everyone else has long gone, and the lone official has to get out of his chair to open the lane. He has seen me being escorted out of the immigration room, and has a glint in his eye. Today’s the day his training gets put to good use.
He flips through the pages, looking at each one carefully. And back again. He rubs his fingers over the visa and passport picture page, and then rubs them both with another piece of paper, presumably seeing if the forgery would rub off. He looks disappointed. Then he takes out a magnifying glass. By this time another plane has arrived, and a queue is forming. He’s still the lone official on duty. He examines each character through the magnifying glass. Then he flips through the passport some more. He calls a supervisor. The supervisor doesn’t entertain his wild theories about how I’ve undoubtedly forged the passport, and quickly goes back to snoozing on his own chair.
The crowd behind me is grumbling. I’m leaning against the counter rolling my eyes, wondering if the metro will still be open by the time I get out of there.
He takes out the magnifying glass again. My sense of humour is failing, but I manage to resist the temptation to make a break for it.
He finishes re-examining every character. He folds and prods the pages. He tries to slide something under the passport photo to see if it can be lifted. What was a fairly new passport is starting to look like it’s been in the wash.
Aha! He’s found something! “When you arrive America?” I tell him April. As is stamped in the passport… “When you leave America?!” April again.
Now he’s got me. “IS THIS WHEN YOU LEAVE AMERICA?” He shows me a stamp from yesterday, 11 November. No, that was yesterday, when I left South Africa. He looks confused. He calls the supervisor again.
This time the supervisor snaps at him, with one eye on the now large queue behind me, and the official sadly concedes defeat, stamps my passport and let’s me go.
I’m not sure whether to break into hallelujahs, but I fear they’ll think it’s a symptom of the plague, and haul me back again. I think I spent less time driving across Luxembourg than I did stuck in Shenzhen airport. I try to look like I haven’t been inside any wild animals as I prance out of the airport.