Have you ever felt like you are being watched?
Being watched is having the strange feeling that someone is watching your every move, like a shadow, just waiting to reveal themselves. Even though you are not doing anything wrong, you feel like there’s always someone behind you.
Imagine walking on the streets, heading for a quick dinner, but every time you cross the street you get this weird feeling that you are being followed. You look back, there’s no one. You get to the next corner. Getting suspicious of every look you look back again. Someone IS looking at you. Is it a stranger? Is it someone following you? You don’t know.
This is my story when back in 2015 I visited Saint Petersburg in Russia during a work trip.
In light of recent discussions about ominous mass surveillance and terrifying documentaries, this trip came to mind.
We have all seen Russia in movies or on TV where the country is portrayed as a rigid authoritarian government that dictates people’s lives. That was pretty much the preconceived image I had in my mind when I hopped on a ‘only-Brazilian-on-a-flight-full-of-Russians’ plane heading towards Saint Petersburg.
I was expecting grey scenery, very misty, people wearing dark clothes, looking down as they walk around, smoking cigarettes in the corner of the streets as if they were ready to meet some foreign spy.
But little did I know that I was very close to not even being allowed in the country. Here’s why.
If you ever plan to travel somewhere new, my suggestion is, do some comprehensive research on the local culture, travel requirements and how to get around, how to get from point A to point B, especially when you don’t speak the local language. Don’t be like me.
I say that now because I had some erroneous assumptions about how other cultures work. I assumed that all cultures were the same.
This is a big multicultural world. People behave in distinct ways. Their habits and customs may be different.
Now, back to the Saint Petersburg Airport where I’m getting off the plane. This cold feeling, mixed with anxiety, driven by not understanding any of the signs that would take me to the baggage carousel. No internet connectivity to the external world, not even a WiFi connection I could use to message my mom and say “I’m in Russia.”
My program manager at the time asked me if I was willing to go to Russian for a quick work trip helping one of offices to migrate some serious services. Per his rapid research Brazilians don’t need a travel visa. Great, I thought. So I went ahead and bought and booked my tickets and hotel. And I started thinking about how to pack.
Since this was such a short notice request I didn’t have the chance to do much research about the place I was staying. At that point I had travelled around Latin America so I thought it couldn’t be much different. Right?
Fast forward a few days I’m in the immigration line in Russia. I hand my passport to the irritated immigration officer who promptly asked me, in a heavy English-Russian accent, about what I was doing there. Thinking nothing of it, I say “I’m here to work in the office this week, to supervise some migrations.”
“Work papers, where?” he said. I had none, nothing, nada. I wasn’t aware of any papers I should have brought with me, up to that moment. Now, imagine the two of us trying to talk in English while I try to explain to him that on my six seconds Google search, business Brazilians don’t need a valid visa to come to his own country.
He didn’t take my answer well, and at that moment I understood. Brazilians on business trips are not exempt from visa requirements. “I’m going to get deported, this is it”, I kept thinking to myself. There’s no recovery from this.
My last attempt was explaining that I wasn’t really touching any of the equipment, but only supervising the work of contractors. He bit that and allowed me to entry his country for the next one week.
But the next few days were weird... Feeling that I was being followed. Feeling that in any of the corners I’d meet the “papers, where?”-officer. Feeling that they were watching me and if I dare to touch anything in the office I would be immediately be taken away. Feeling I’d be put on the next plane back to Brazil.
The truth is, when I was in the foreign office, I touched every piece of the mother-russian equipment that the unamused officer had advised not to. There was no other way. I was the only one there to migrate the internet services so people would be able to work on Monday.
My impossible mission was complete. At that point I thought that if I had to leave, or even if I got expelled, at least I was able to migrate the services.
It was a tough night. I couldn’t sleep. My hearing was hypersensitive to people talking in the hallway, thinking that in the morning I’d be waking up with immigration officers around my bed. But, that didn’t happen… Instead, I made the most of it and decided to do some sightseeing. I went to local museums. I went to local restaurants. I went to a local bar where I chatted with, guess what, locals. Slowly but surely I was painting a colorful picture of how Russia was different from the industrial-grey-everywhere I’ve been told about.
Back at the airport to my return flight. No questions asked. I get past the immigration with my best poker face. I’m in clear and allowed to go back to my country.
I will be back one day, but next time, as a simple tourist.
Well, what did I learn from all of this? Do your research. Do not assume that if you have a passport it automatically grants you entry to a different country. It does not.
Russia was scary but it was amazing. I’m definitely going back with the right documents, motives and time.
And to the angry russian agent reading this, yes, I did touch all the equipment in the office but it was for a good cause. I’d explain better if I knew any Russian…