A Plastic Bag Full of Wine: Adventures in Coming Home to a Muslim Country

Posted by Chloë Lai & filed under Travel.

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin mosque in downtown Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei (Geocities)
Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin mosque in downtown Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei (Geocities)

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There are few things less fun than walking up to a customs agent knowing you’ve just done something that might upset them. Like telling a hilarious bomb-related joke to a fellow passenger in the queue behind you at the US border, only to realize that you’re at the front of the line and none of the customs agents are laughing.

By the same token, at the customs check into a Muslim country that forbids the sale of liquor within its borders and permits a limited quota of alcohol importation for non-Muslims, it’s probably best not to show up with a Duty Free bag that has three inches of red wine sloshing around freely in the bottom.

Hello, Brunei. It’s me again.

Sitting right on the northwestern shoulder of the bear-shaped island of Borneo, the whole sultanate of Brunei Darussalam takes up just 5,765 square kilometres and is home to less than half a million people. Compare that to our next door neighbour Malaysia, which is nearly 300,000km2 and houses over 29 million people, and you’ll understand just how tiny our nation is. We pack a lot into a small package, though. The highways are lined with lush rainforest. There are over 30 varieties of bananas, many sweeter than maple syrup.

The weather is warm and impossibly humid. Sweat patches spread through shirts at near-epidemic levels. To avoid these, we are quite willing to drive around the block for twenty minutes, to find a parking spot right next to the entrance so that we can lunge from our air-conditioned cars into the air-conditioned buildings before our bodies realize there’s been a change in temperature. Most of us still end up having to change clothes at least twice a day anyway.

Brunei marked in purple. (Image courtesy of Borneo Tour Specialists)

Brunei marked in purple (Borneo Tour Specialists)

The locals are mostly Malay, Chinese or indigenous peoples, with a handful of expatriates mixed in. In the decade since I headed out to study in Canada, I have met maybe 20 people who had heard of Brunei Darussalam. On my annual trips home, I would bring back $1 bills, postcards and videos to try and introduce my friends to a country that they sometimes joked was like an Asian Narnia: fantastic, but only accessible to those who know where to look.

Then, in April last year, the country introduced a strict Islamic penal code that sparked concern in the global community. Reading the news from my apartment in Vancouver, I worried that these new restrictions might sour the usually amiable Bruneian community, and made a mental note to be extra conscientious about the rules the next time I went back to visit my parents.

Fast forward to September 2015: I’m wandering the Bangkok airport on my way to Brunei for my best friend’s wedding. I do my annual airport-store-run and stock up on things my parents love but are hard or impossible to find in Brunei: two packets of dried mangosteens, a mooncake and two bottles of South African shiraz. The bottles, wrapped protective foam and plastic sleeves, nestle safely against each other at the bottom of the bag.

Until I drop them as I’m getting off the plane.

The bottom of one bottle promptly shatters, turning the duty-free bag into a puddle of fermented grape juice whose distinct aroma quickly spreads. In a ‘dry’ (ie: liquor-free) country, I am now a walking cloud of airborne alcohol molecules. I silently will people not to breathe in too closely to me. There is nowhere to dispose of it either; pouring red wine into an indoor trash can so that this smell can linger long after I’ve gone is not going to make me any friends.

Shuffling guiltily toward the customs agent with my liquor-importation declaration form, I mumble an apologetic explanation of the situation. He looks at the bag. He looks at the form. I resist the urge to distract him (and myself) with a well-timed joke.

Suddenly, he laughs. “Why don’t you drink it?” he says, waving me through with a familiar gesture.

I’m home.

About Chloë Lai

Chloë Lai
Chloë is a Vancouver-based writer who has lived and worked on several continents. She has degrees in English Literature and Creative Writing, because it seemed like the best way to emulate James Herriott without becoming a country vet.

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