One of the things I love best about traveling with Loraine (aka, the Viking) is that it doesn’t take us long to decide to travel somewhere. Our “planning” for our trip to Australia at the end of August consisted of me calling her at the end of May and saying, “Flights to Australia have dropped by about $1,000. We should go,” and her saying, “YES. I’ve never been to Australia. Let me get my calendar and we can pick dates.” All in all, it takes us about two minutes to decide to go somewhere, find mutually convenient dates, and then call the airline to coordinate flights.
It’s easy to be excited about going to Australia, because, come on, it’s AUSTRALIA. It’s on the other side of the world, and everyone speaks English with that beguiling accent. Here are some things that happened to us while getting to, from, and around Australia.
Loraine and I had an additional reason to be excited about heading Down Under, which is that Australia recognizes the Global Entry program of the U.S. If you’ve stood in line for customs and immigration coming back from an overseas trip, you’ve probably seen the kiosks and the
people who use them to sail through the process. That’s Global Entry, and it’s the best. (I would recommend applying and going through the background check to get it, but I am selfish and don’t want more people to use the kiosks and slow down my trek through customs.)
Sure enough, when we got to Sydney, we bypassed the lines to hit the kiosks. The kiosks there read your passport, then spit out a ticket that you use at another machine that takes your picture. This is where the process broke down for us. Everybody who had a ticket but got sent to the special line to have a conversation with a human was wearing glasses. We confused the facial recognition software. I’ve always said that if I really wanted an accurate picture on my passport, I should be sleep-deprived, have matted hair and a greasy face, and be wearing my eyeglasses. The Australians agree.
Telling the Truth
Because we are rule-followers, Loraine and I both checked the box for “yes” on having drugs. The “no” box tempts me to check it, but an overseas trip means traveling with Ambien in addition to my constant companions, Advil and Flonase. The police officer could not have been less interested in talking to me about these drugs – I didn’t even get a chance to tell him about the Ambien. This resulted in a fast exit, but it struck us that people who have things more illicit than Ambien and Flonase probably aren’t going to check the box for “yes,” and even if they do, they’re unlikely to reveal the illicit items along with their Advil. At the same time, if you’ve ever watched one of those border protection reality shows, you’ve learned that you can spot many dishonest people a mile away. Also, you don’t want to be like Sylvester Stallone and be that dumb American who got caught in a lie.
We had a similar experience re-entering the U.S. Loraine brought back fourteen bottles of wine; I had four regular-sized bottles and three tiny ones. We both exceeded the individual alcohol allowance, which is one liter. Loraine managed to get through the kiosk with no problem, but I got sent to talk to a human again. He asked about the “no” box that I checked, and then he had several questions about the wine: “Just wine?” Yes. “Special wine?” No. Well, Australian wine. “But regular wine?” Yes. “Ok, thanks.”
Loraine had to stop at customs to pay the duty on her bottles of wine. She did some research before we left (research! another reason that the Viking is my travel soul sister) and discovered that it was under $2 a bottle. This is many times less expensive than shipping a case of wine to Texas from Australia and well worth the price to avoid the psychic damage that would have occurred if she had not purchased any of the delicious wines that we tasted. She had her wallet out to pay while she talked to the customs officer. He typed some information into the computer and then waved us away like we were troublesome children asking for candy. It pays to be honest.
My streak of unusual, uncomfortable interactions with taxi drivers continued in Sydney. After getting through the flight, customs, baggage, and the drug police, I was in the twilight state I’m always in after a transoceanic flight. I was sweaty and more than a little light-headed. I did manage to remember that in Australia, the first seat a passenger occupies in the taxi is the front seat, so when we got to the head of the line, I jumped in front while the driver loaded our bags into the trunk.
The thing about sitting in the front seat is that there isn’t any division, artificial or otherwise, between you and the driver. It’s harder, at least for me, to be mute sitting next to the driver while he drives. He’s a service provider, but you’re sitting in the same spot that you would be if you and the driver were pals. And that, in combination with my conversation habit, resulted in Loraine and me getting a lot more information than we expected.
The conversation started innocuously enough, with him asking us where we were from, and us asking him the same. It turned out that he was from Afghanistan and had been in Australia for 20 years. He told us that much of his family was still there despite him trying to get them to Australia. I noted that it’s difficult to immigrate to Australia, and that’s when what I thought was idle chitchat took an unexpected turn.
Here are the topics we discussed:
- immigration bribery in the Australian government
- the rampant theft and kidnapping and violence in Afghanistan
- criminal officials in the Afghani government, placed there by the CIA
- CIA facilitation of the high-quality opium trade
- CIA distribution of opium as a soporific for the populations of formerly communist countries
- CIA shutdowns of newspapers in Afghanistan that tell the truth
- men raping virgins in an effort to force an unwanted marriage
- Taliban castration of men who rape virgins in an effort to force an unwanted marriage
Y’all. The drive on a Sunday morning from the airport to the central business district in Sydney is only thirty minutes.
Remember what traveling was like ten years ago? There was an x-ray machine, but you didn’t have to take out liquids or electronics, and you didn’t have to take off your shoes. You didn’t have to have a ticket to wait at a gate for a friend or to see friends off on their trips. Nobody checked your ID to see if it matched your boarding pass. It seems like a dream to us now in the U.S., but this is reality in Australia. Loraine and I flew from Sydney to Adelaide to get to the Barossa Valley wine region, and nobody asked for our IDs once, not even when we checked boxes of wine coming back. The gentleman responsible for examining people’s bags and hands for explosives picked me in Sydney on the way to Adelaide; Loraine won the random selection in Adelaide on the way back. That was the extent of the additional security measures.
As someone whose flights almost always include an embarkation or debarkation point in the U.S., this felt giddily convenient. But like my friend Caroline said on Facebook, it also feels vaguely unsafe. I don’t know whether the Australians are able to do with less security because their population is only a fraction of ours; I suspect instead that many of our security measures in the States are in reality security theater. There’s also the fact that nobody hates Australians, while many, many, many people hate Americans.
My friend Johnny lives in a suburb of Sydney with his gorgeous partner, Natasha, and their twin boys. Sunday was Father’s Day in Australia, and Johnny and Natasha invited us to join them for a leisurely lunch in Palm Beach. Johnny mentioned that it would probably be a pretty expensive cab ride but that there was a bus from Sydney that stopped right in front of the restaurant. When we asked the informative cabbie how much it would be, he said $100. Each way. Yikes.
Luckily, one of the concierges at the hotel took the bus we needed himself on a daily basis. He told us that the bus stop was about a ten-minute walk away, and it would only take an hour to get to Palm Beach. I e-mailed Johnny to let him know we’d see him at 12:30. We relaxed in the executive lounge for an hour, then headed for the bus stop. Loraine and I each paid $4.70 to take the 11:20am L90, secure in the knowledge that we’d be ten minutes early and have those minutes to check out the beach and any shops that might be open.
The concierge did not take into account the impact of a perfect Sunday in Sydney. September 1 is the first day of spring for them, and the temperatures were in the upper 70s with the bluest skies you can imagine. The L90, after it gets out of Sydney, drives north through what seemed like all the beaches. People in swimwear transporting surfboards crammed the roads. What was supposed to be a one-hour ride took two, including a five-minute stop where I was startled to see our bus driver walking away. No worries, mate, it was just a shift change. Because neither Loraine nor I had cell service in Australia, we had no way to tell Johnny and Natasha that we would be late.
Here’s what I learned on my first day in Australia. Normally, my stress levels would have ratcheted up as every minute after 12:30pm ticked by. But when you’re in Australia on vacation, and the weather is gorgeous, and it’s Sunday, and you’re meeting good, true friends, being an hour late doesn’t matter. After the hugs and introductions, and after the apologies for being late are waved away, you sit down to a sumptuous, five-hour lunch of French food and Australian wine, and you pick up where you left off twenty years ago and seven years ago like it was yesterday. And instead of being sad that your good friends live so far away, you are grateful to have so many people to love and visit scattered all across the wide world.
As “The Viking’s” mother I really enjoyed your account of the trip. I must admit I think your’s is the first blog I’ve ever read. Very well written and entertaining. I can see why you two make such good travel companions. I loved the picture of you and Loraine on the bridge.
Thank you very much for reading and for the compliments! I’ll be writing about our bridge adventures next week.