Tehran flags (Shutterstock)
Blog Words : Nick Boulos | 28 October

Confessions of a travel writer: going undercover

Some countries don't welcome journalists – so how do you travel under the radar? On a recent trip to Iran, Nick Boulos took on an alternative job title: Sales Manager. But who fell for his facade?

My passport felt heavy in my clammy palm and my heart pounded slightly faster than normal as the queue grew shorter and shorter. It was my turn next. The immigration officer beckoned me forward with a casual flick of the hand and I stepped forth feeling like a character from a John le Carre novel. “Welcome to Iran,” he said breezily. “What’s the purpose of your visit?”

Immigration is rarely a pleasant experience but it’s particularly stressful for travel writers. Many countries are deeply suspicious of writers and impose strict conditions on those who are visiting in the name of journalism: embassy appointments, interrogations, inflated fees, the list goes on… And in a bid to combat this, many of us fib our way across international borders, claiming to be chefs, plumbers and primary school teachers. If asked, I usually say I’m a copywriter, which, technically speaking, is true but doesn’t set alarm bells ringing like the ‘J’ word does.

‘Journalist’ is certainly not a word you want to utter too loudly around passport control unless you want to be marched off for secondary questioning. A friend of mine learned that the hard way, landing in Los Angeles without the appropriate visa she naively mentioned to the immigration officer that her trip was “mainly a holiday apart from one short interview.”

Instead of hopping in a cab to Beverly Hills, she was put in a holding cell for 12 hours and sent straight back to Blighty. No shopping on Rodeo Drive, no star-spotting in Hollywood, no interview.

The trouble is travel writing is not really like most other forms of journalism. It’s somewhat of an anomaly. My job is, essentially, to review holidays, not deliver some big Panorama-style expose on sweatshops, drug cartels or rigged elections. In theory, I go somewhere and aim to have the same experience that everyone else on that flight is planning on having. But high-ranking officials don’t understand that: to them, a journalist is a journalist, all hard-hitting hacks digging for dirt.


Many of us fib our way across international borders...


Some countries are trickier than others. My recent trip to Iran (read all about it in the current issue of Wanderlust) was probably the most extreme I’ve experienced. Its past problems and tense political climate has made the Iranian government deeply suspicious of writer types and I was advised in no uncertain terms that I should avoid stating my actual occupation on the visa form. So, overnight I became a Sales Manager.

The tour operator I travelled with remained worried that I would be denied a visa. One quick Google search would reveal the truth but my passport was returned with a lovely pink-hued visa granting me entry into the Islamic Republic. That’s usually the hard part but you have to tread carefully in a country as tumultuous as Iran.
   
On the ground, I continued to proceed with caution. Iranians, being the friendly bunch that they are, would often ask my job (usually after enquiring what I thought of their country and whether I was married). More interestingly, though, was the tour guide asking whether we should be honest with the fellow travellers on the trip.

I don’t like outright lying to people (some are supremely gifted it at) but I don’t see the point. It’s rude, unnecessary and almost impossible to keep up the pretence. Besides, I’d make a hopeless plumber and an even worse chef.

Follow Nick on Instagram: @Nick_Boulos

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Main image: Tehran flags (Shutterstock)