I wasn’t expecting trouble when I passed through immigration at the Dublin airport. I’m American, I’m privileged, and I look like I spend a lot of time reading indoors.
I was the second person standing in the non-EU control line. The person ahead of me was a young guy who wasn’t wearing any shoes. Earlier, an Indian Sikh questioned him about it; turns out he’d been going barefoot in public for a long time.
The Irish immigration officer serving the line was a young female. She didn’t like something about the young man’s documents. He probably had a student visa—maybe it was expired. Their discussion lasted 15 minutes. This was the slowest moving immigration line I had ever experienced.
Finally, she allowed him to pass, and he left abruptly and in disgust. She had retained his documents.
Then I approached. I was wearing shoes, so I figured I was safe from scrutiny. At first, her questions went as expected, and she spoke to the passport.
“What is the purpose of your trip? [Vacation.] How long are you staying? [Two weeks.] What is your destination? [Aran Islands.] Do you have friends or family there?” [No.]
Full stop. She looked up at me.
“Nobody you’re meeting for the holidays?”
“Do you have a return ticket? [Yes.] May I see it?”
I took out my file folder of travel documents and passed over my itinerary.
“Where are you staying?”
“A privately owned cottage.”
“And how did you find this cottage?”
She was even more vexed than before.
“But you said it was privately owned. How could you find it online? Don’t you see how you’re contradicting yourself?”
I tried to explain I only meant that a private individual owned it, but that person did not actually live there. Rather, he rented out the cottage.
“So you paid for this?”
“Show me the receipt.” This was the first time I’d ever been asked for such extensive documentation of my travels, and I’ve traveled every continent except Africa and Antarctica.
“All I have is an e-mail exchange with the owner.”
“Let me see it.”
“It’s on my computer.”
I had to remove my laptop from my backpack and pull up the correspondence. I held the laptop at chest level so she could see the exchange through the fiberglass barrier.
“What’s this person’s phone number?”
“I don’t know, we only communicated online.” I could hear her response before she formed the first word.
“You rented a cottage after finding it online, don’t have a receipt for your payment, and haven’t talked to the owner.”
“I have the phone number of the caretaker.”
“Let me have it.”
I gave her the name and number of Bartla, who I had yet to meet or speak to, but lived next door to the cottage.
She tried calling, but no one picked up. I wondered on what grounds she could refuse me entry. Plans too bizarre to be believed? Danger to self? Mental illness?
She turned her attention to some of the print-outs I’d handed over in the meantime, with the owner’s orientation and instructions about reaching the island and the cottage.
“What do you know about the Aran Islands?”
“Only what I’ve read.”
“So you decide out of the blue to come to Ireland over the holidays, not the mainland even, but a remote island. You’re traveling alone, you don’t know anyone, and you’re staying by yourself in a place you’ve never been. Why?”
Looking back, there are so many answers I could’ve given. Perhaps if I simply said I was a writer working on a novel, or that I was taking a spiritual retreat, she would’ve felt like it all made sense. Or maybe I should’ve told her I wanted to put family and friends at ease by visiting a stable country after my experience in Thailand.
But why this place, at this time—and not some other?
It felt like a classic Alan Watts Zen question: Why do you exist as you, instead of as someone entirely different? How is it you came to be?
The existentialist aspect to the question was perhaps not what the immigration officer intended. And I gave a weak, one-word reply:
As ineffectual as my response seemed even to myself, she backed off, aside from asking how I meant to support myself financially for 2 weeks. (Ha, doesn’t she know every American carries several credit cards!)
She finally raised her stamp. As it thunked down on my passport, she said, “You know, we’re looking out for your safety, too.”
I departed down the corridor to pick up my luggage—which was delayed and didn’t arrive until the next day—and wondered about safety. Many friends and family told me to have a great time, plus: “Be safe.”
I’m reminded of a Chekhov quote: “Any idiot can face a crisis. It’s this day-to-day living that wears you out.”
Traveling alone is by far the safest thing I do.