Welcome to Australia
Six Day Trip to Adelaide and Melbourne, Australia
In October 2002, four of us flew with Qantas from Christchurch to Adelaide, via Melbourne (transit). Perhaps we seemed an unusual group: Father, daughter, son and me.... What made us unusual (?) was that the other three look different from me - they're Asian and I'm Caucasian.
Surely that should be 'no big deal' I hear you ask, and I would most certainly agree with you, however, it was all we could think of that could vaguely explain the curious treatment we received at the hands of Australia's finest customs and airport staff.
It began in Melbourne, where we were transiting on our Christchurch to Adelaide flight....
"China Airlines passengers this way" the sign said very loudly, pointing up a one way escalator to nowhere.
"Excuse me" I asked the female ground staff member, marching on her way somewhere, "We're on our way to Adelaide from Christchurch... would we go through customs here or in Adelaide?"
"Of course here, no one transits in Melbourne from Christchurch to Adelaide!" and she rushed off to where-ever it was she was going
Not quite convinced, we dawdled reluctantly toward the beckoning immigration queues. Another ground staff member appears, stomping towards where-ever it was he had to go...
"Excuse me Sir, do you know if passengers transiting from Christchurch to Adelaide would go through customs here or in Adelaide?"
"Of course here in Melbourne, no one transits in Melbourne from Christchurch to Adelaide!" and he stomped off to where-ever it was he was going.
"It's no problem for me", I said to my friends, "I can just come back through customs, but you're all only on single entry visitor visas! I think we need to apply the 'ask-three-times' rule, as one would in China."
"Excuse me, do you know if passengers transiting from Christchurch to Adelaide would go through customs here or in Adelaide?" I asked the smiling ground staff member leaning against the handrail besides the immigration desk.
"It depends, most do, what's your flight number?"
"Hmm, that's an unusual number, I don't think that's a domestic flight, You'd be better off going up the escalator - if its the wrong way, it'll be easy enough to get you back down here - better that than coming back through customs"
"OK Thanks very much!" I said, as he walked us to the bottom of the escalator.
|Up in the international departure lounge, things began to
take on the appearance of the famous Australian TV commercial where the
female customs agent gets the cute male passenger to strip down to his
underdaks before he can get through the metal detector machine with out
tripping it off.
Having ascertained that our flight indeed was an international one and not domestic, we attempted the metal detector machine. After unloading Jacket, cell phones, cigarettes, diamond watch etc, my friend was still setting off the metal detector machine. "Its his braces" the customer officer said
"Strange - nothing happened leaving Auckland" my friend complained
Finally he was convinced, under protest, to remove his braces, and passed through with out any further comment from the machine. His feathers ruffled, he redressed and we carried on. I looked back to see three younger customs officers 'jamming' as if in a band - beating their hands on various parts of the metal detector machine... "Very happy, very relaxed crew", I thought.
At the boarding gate, I was curious and asked the airhostess at the counter "Have you lost any passengers today?"
"Not that we know of...?"
"Well two of the ground staff downstairs would have had us going through customs down there in order to make this flight.... just thought you might like to know...."
"Oh I'm sorry about that - there should have been someone there to direct you up the escalator!"
I shook my head and said "You might want to see if there's any other passengers from Christchurch going the wrong way"
Later, landing in Adelaide I was struck by the appearance of the airport there - so much like Christchurch's International Airport - as I remembered it about 20 years ago, well I guess they are sister cities.... Christchurch must be the older sister.
We took our time disembarking as we knew we had our own rental car, no tour buses waiting for us, no rush at all. We looked forward to checking into our hotel and enjoying a little snooze as we'd had a very early start that morning from Christchurch.
Whilst queuing at immigration a short woman singled us out and asked us "Why have you come to Adelaide?"
"My friend's daughter here wants to study at one of your hotel management schools here next year and we've just come to have a look at it. We've made appointments with the director of international students there".
I was shocked by her next question
"Do you have any proof?"
rather surprised I said, "Well no, everything was conducted by email and phone calls, there's a stack of emails in my computer back home"
"So you don't have a laptop or anything?" she asked disappointedly
"no I don't, sorry" I answered her, shaking my head.
"It'd be nice if you had some kind of proof."
"Where are you staying? - You've only written 'hotel' on your arrival card.
I thought "Well since I can't actually remember how to spell 'Hotel Rendezvous Allegra" at this time of day and the fact that we were going on to Melbourne to stay at "The Westin" as well, which wouldn't all fit into the pathetically small space left for us to write in, I felt the word "Hotel" was sufficient - it had never been a problem before."
I said, "Oh sorry about that, I didn't realise you needed a specific name - its called 'The Allegra'I think"
"How long will you stay for?"
"Just four nights, then we go on to Melbourne for two nights, then back to Christchurch."
Like a dog with a bone, she then asked "And how do you fit into this - what's your relationship with this family?"
At this stage I started to get really concerned as things could really start to get out of hand here (by this time we'd reached the immigration desk where the new recruit carefully took our passports and started to examine them and us, one by one).
Anyone involved in the travel industry here, would probably know from where my concerns were arising...
see the box below:
To be caught in New Zealand "unlicensed with paying passengers" is a real major offence and I was concerned my new little friend, might just start to see me in this light...
Fortunately she was distracted by something else and left off for a while.
The new recruit at the immigration desk, then asked us why we were coming to Australia and I had to explain it all again. By this time, everyone else off the flight had passed through immigration. An officer, watching over the recruit's shoulder also asked us some questions before letting us proceed to baggage check with The Australian Quarantine Inspection Service. Turning away from the immigration desk to walk on to AQIS we were approached by yet another (short) officer asking what was going on here and why were we coming to Australia. Fearing an imminent Jacque Cousteauesque feeding frenzy I hastily gave him my now well practiced spiel.
He then asked to see our passports
In the meantime my friend is spouting vociferously on Australian customs officers ineptitude and lack of professionalism, with the usual Chinese references to things that should have been done to their mothers...
"What's wrong with your friend? What's he saying?"
"Well he's actually expressing his disappointment at the way he, as a potential client of an Australian school where he'll be forking out probably in excess of 50,000 AUD in school fees and accommodation per year, is being treated here today".
"Well I'm sorry that he feels that way, but we have to make sure people are who they say they are, I'm sure you'll be out of here soon".
We headed for green, still holding our passports he walked us to red.... "Bugger" I thought
At this stage there must have been about 20 officers hanging around trying to look busy.... giving me the distinct feeling that something was up....
The short immigration officer then took our passports away and started showing them to other officers and looking at us occasionally.
We were then split up, my friends to one inspection bench, my self to another... the female officer assigned to me being incredibly obsequious introduced herself to me and told me she was my customs officer and that she would have to inspect my luggage "Your name is Andrew Boyd? Do you mind if I call you Andrew!?"
My skin crawling from the unnecessary fake spiel I was getting, I thought "No I want you to call me 'Mr Boyd', - bitch!"
I said "You can call me what you like"
"Why have you come to Australia?"
"Just a short holiday"
"Are you friends with these people?"
"Yes, I've know them for about 6 years - I've helped him keep an eye on the kids while they've been at school in Christchurch - they were in Homestays most of the time, now they live in their own home..."
Helplessly I looked over to the other bench where the daughter's baggage was being completely emptied out onto the bench and ravaged by three white pointers while a fourth (could have been a blue) nipped in and used some kind of swab-cum-sniffing device to swab around the inner lining of her suitcase and then take that swab to a machine on the other side of the room to see if it could find something the Labrador in the immigration queue couldn't.
At this stage, my friend on seeing his daughter's distress (she was in tears by now) was so enraged he said to me "Fuck this we didn't come here to be treated like criminals, Andrew, ring up the travel agent and have her get us on a flight tomorrow back to Christchurch. There's no way I'm going to have my daughter have to go through this sort of palaver alone, next time she comes back into Australia, we might as well not waste our time here - in this place where birds wouldn't lay eggs and dogs wouldn't even bother to shit."
"Oh dear" my officer said "What's wrong with him? What's he saying, why's she crying?"
My friend then said to the customs staff next to him, in English: "Tomorrow we go back to New Zealand - my daughter not study here!"
I replied to her "He just doesn't get off on being treated like a criminal - do you treat all your incoming Asian passengers this way?"
At this stage the manager came out and said "We have to do these checks its all part of our job!"
"Why don't you tell us what your concerns are? No one has told us why our passports have been taken off us! Why all the mystery - its like as if someone has told you to expect us and that we're big deal crooks or something. Welcome to Australia - now go home! I can see you guys are way overstaffed here, your thoroughness here with this little family is like using a shotgun on a mosquito!"
"We have to do it, its our job" she repeated
Finally, unbelievably we were let go, the adrenalin rushing, we fled outdoors for a smoke. I couldn't help noticing the contrast in staffing - the worlds largest rental car company desk was manned by a phone with a sign: "please call this number and someone will come over from the domestic terminal"
While waiting for our car we reflected on what had just happened
"Andrew, when I get back to Taiwan, I'm going to go to the Australian embassy and throw eggs at it!!"
Later: "Andrew, When I go back I'm going to go to Taipei and make a formal complaint, this is just not on, I know they have their job to do, but when you go through someone's luggage you don't have to take everything out like that - I've never seen it done like that before, everywhere else I've been they just go through it layer by layer they don't actually need to take it all out for God's sake! And they're much more polite! And what's with the continually asking us what we were doing there? Are they deaf?"
"You know, I don't think they're that experienced - I got the feeling that our flight was like some kind of lesson for them and we were just their guinea pigs"
"It must have something to do with heightened security since 911 etc"
Over the next two days we managed to visit the two schools and were given a good tour around them. My friends decided to cut short their stay nonetheless and headed back to Christchurch directly from Melbourne. Since I was flying from Melbourne back to Auckland my friend suggested I stay on the extra two nights by myself in Melbourne, and "you'll need the car, can't get around without a car. Enjoy yourself for a couple of days, and we'll see you in Taiwan at the end of the year?"
Bear in mind that they have a job to do, they deserve respect, and must get very tired living on their nerves in these troubled times, and learners may be a bit more suspicious than they need to be, especially when they are first developing their "nose" for potential trouble. Customs people are the first line of defence for the airways of any country. The fact that your friend said he'd never had any trouble with Customs before made my husband worry that it might have seemed like you were trying to draw fire off them by drawing attention to yourself. It must have been humiliating and embarrassing for his daughter, for him too, desperately wanting to protect her and not being able to. How impotent he must have felt. My husband has been worried by a few of the TV programmes we've seen lately on the hard time customs officials give to suspects, especially anyone who makes stupid references to what might be in their baggage. He should be writing the stories!
Personally I have no problem with people doing their job, when its done properly. There's no need for that number of staff to be doing what one could do. It felt like a situation that needed better management and was out of control. At the end of the day, you just can't get around the fact that they were just doing their job, its as simple as that.
Perhaps a more experienced officer may have been more forthcoming with explanations about why they were doing what they were doing.
Once, in Auckland Airport coming back from Taiwan, I was also given the complete once over by a very pleasant officer who went from one end of my luggage to the other - even looking into my shoes to see if I'd hidden anything in there. At no time did I feel intimidated, my only concern being that I was holding up my friends who'd come to pick me up. One person managed quite adequately.... Hmm one New Zealander doing the job of twelve Australians, no wonder there's so much unemployment here!
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