Monday, October 03, 2011

Exotic Customs

Travel. Pain in the arse, right?

E@L is talking travel for work, obviously. Those of us with crucial international roles, though not crucial enough or international enough to interest the APEC people, no longer are enthralled by technically exotic locations and the perceived luxury of our accommodation and decidedly nonplussed by the process of check-in, security, immigration, crap food in airlines lounges, lay-overs, airports in general...

That movie where Tom Hanks was trapped in an airport for years in a bureaucratic jumble, man, fuck, E@L's worst nightmare...

Get me to the taxi, to the hotel, to the hospital (whichever one in whichever country E@L is visiting that day), back to the hotel, back into the taxi, back to the airport and back home where I can scratch where it itches, says E@L.

Each step of getting through the airport is fraught with the possibility of annoying delays and hassles. It's amazing that E@L hasn't blogged about it so much more (he has, but couldn't be fucked cross-referencing).


First you have to manage the check-in.

Sometimes E@L has to fly on airline that not part of the Star Alliance group (amazing but true) and is limited in his carry-on allowance. Problems and hassles.

Once, traveling QANTAS, he knew that his bags were on the check-in allowance cusp so he compressed some of the heavier paraphernalia into his carry-on bag. After coming through the check-in clean, he was about to line up for the immigration queue when an official airline looking person asked him to place his carry-on on a scale. Not an official looking set of scales at all, but one of those rusted and talcum-powder coated things you'd have in your own bathroom. The disc of numbers spun around inside the chipped glass and its oscillations diminished until it reached a halt. Shit. Overloaded. 11kgs instead of "no more than 7kg".

It was that motherfucking Compaq brick work computer that weighed about 7kgs on its own that caught him, not all the books (quite weighty tomes they were) he had in there.

"You have exceeded your carry on weight allowance sir," said the official

"But it's not that heavy really."

"It's too heavy for the overhead lockers, sir. There was a situation recently sir, on a Singapore Airlines flight, where a person suffered an injured neck from a heavy item that fell. We have to enforce this now. All airlines do."

Bullshit, E@L thought. He had just flown Singapore only a few days earlier and they were actively encouraging people to overload the lockers with suitcases larger, and presumably heavier, by far than the bags E@L had responsibly checked in. No-one seemed concerned about the integrity of E@L's cervical spine on that occasion.

Sigh, He had to go back out, buy another small bag and check it in with most of his book purchases, leaving only his laptop to bring on.

Annoying. Just let me get onto the plane, I want to get out of this temporal, spatial and political no man's land, says E@L.


While he was checking in this second bag, the pretty young lady at the counter next to him was having equivalent issues. However, unlike E@L, she had a newborn baby in a pale cotton cloth papoose strung across her tummy. She was traveling alone, well, with her baby.

The QANTAS woman at the counter had rejected her luggage because one of her suitcases was over the limit, even though her second suitcase wasn't. In fact, from what E@L could gather, the overall limit had not been reached. So this lady, with a crying baby strapped to her chest, had to step aside, bend over to open the bags in public and rearrange her clothing and her baby things from the heavy bag into a second lighter bag.

What is with you people? Give the struggling woman a break. Get away her, you bitch. It's only a technical foul after all. E@L reduced his own sense of affront after this watching this embarrassing debacle.


But checkin is nothing compared to the immigration queue,

Not only is it also getting between E@L and his hotel bed or his bed at home but his happiness factor drops to unmeasurable when significant periods of time are spent in line. Why for example does it take one immigration guy in Thailand 2 minutes 20 seconds to process each person (E@L had been at the sticky end of a 20 person queue and was able to measure and average this guy's processing time over quite a large sample) while the next counter is putting each one through in a giddying 90 seconds (and smiling at everyone as well?)

You've got to pick your queue. How many Chinese mainlanders (aka foreign talent)? How many Filipino guest workers? How many with melatonin rich dermis? (I'm not saying that E@L is racist, I am saying that the immigration people are. Are cautious, I mean.) How many kids? How many sporting groups or Greek families are bunched together so that the queue appears shorter but is actually three to four people wide? Ah, but are there any queues feeding two counters? This can be a winner in Bangkok, you live for those days, the double speed queue. It's the small victories.

You have only a second or two to make a decision as the plebs economy class passengers are coming up behind you and the lines are going to double fast. So you make a choice. And you live with it. Unless another counter opens up between yours and the next across. Then it's decision time again. Do you lunge for the new counter, or just sit back and watch the people in front of you disappear. Hey presto you've moved up ten places and did bugger all. Laughing.


The Singaporean (? - going on a faintly heard accent) woman at the front of the queue beside E@L's had two brats kids misbehaving in a mildly meritocratic way, as befits the sibling rivalry of four year old and six year old boys. When she got the counter with kids in close tow, she placed their three passports on the bench. But the immigration officer, a gruff, older, misanthropic-looking Thai gent, held up his left hand. "Only one at a time!"

The woman was disoriented for a few seconds, not sure of what she had just heard. "One at a time!" he repeated.

So she pushed the kids back from the counter and took their passports down. The officer processed (2m20s) her passport only. He then waved her through. While she had realized that this wasn't going to work and had awkwardly tried to come back and place on of the small kid's passport on the bench, the annoyed immigration officer became even more be-grumped. But obviously there was no other way. He took one passport of the children's reluctantly and processed it without leaning over to look at the child. Mum was forced to stand back, she was no longer legally in Thailand. She was waving her hands trying to indicate to the kids to stay there, back behind the line. The children were like, what the fuck is going on, why mum is over there and we are still over here? The second child, the four year old, was getting frantic as mum waved and whispered loudly to him to stay back, stay back. He vacillated, here, there? But he didn't cry, one wonders why not.

E@L saw this unfold and was stunned, completely in disbelief at this arsehole immigration idiot. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he didn't at first realize that the second and third passports were for the children he couldn't even see. He had not been looking at people at all E@L had noticed. But being a grump and a misanthropist, and not wanting to lose face, he was placed in the unfortunate position of making himself look like a total cunt in front of everyone.


It was only a few days ago that two friends of a friend were headed for the United Stated of Paranoia but were stopped at customs at the Mexico Airport by an hyper-efficient official. OK, in fact the suspected (alleged?) smugglers were former and soon-to-be next Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, and the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith...

Suspicious items? Unbeknownst (great, underutilized word) to them, they had each brought a jar of that venerable Aussie staple, Vegemite, in their bags. Two jars, eh? Drugs? Where's my cut?

They had some time to spend in the country for various relatively important meetings, and both of them - hey, they are dinkum Australians - both of them liked Vegemite on toast at breakfast.

E@L is reliably informed the discussion on the finer points of this variably enjoyed yeast extract entered into a state in which voices were indeed raised and nasturtiums were cast on both sides, one side feeling that their diplomatic immunity status had been unjustifiably disenfranchised, the other enjoying the power-fueled semi-orgasmic thrill of a sadistic satrap. (cf: "Prison Experiment, The Stanford.")

Eventually, sense was restored, the honorable gentlemen received their jars back, and the Customs Official person was severely castigated. (Ouch! Mexican justice is harsh!)

You all probably remember when the rumour started going around of the FDA banning Vegemite. The usual reason given is that its relatively high level of folate was of concern. As the article explains, the FDA monitors supplementary folate, but as Vegemite's B vitamins are natural they are not covered by this ruling. Allegedly. The FDA later denied that any such ban ever existed, and...

"Many news outlets are now classifying the weekend reports of a Vegemite ban as a hoax or an urban legend that began with an overenthusiastic border official possibly confiscating a jar of the spread." (source)

It is possible that the incident E@L described here may have been the source of the controversy but for a slight discrepancy in the dates and countries. 2011 Mexico and 2006 USA.


A member of E@L's family had been through a certain country which may or may not have been Laos. A Canadian was in the travel group. Everyone's visa was about $30 USD, with some slight variations across the countries - $25, $32 - but when the Canuck presented her application, the request was for $85 USD. What? Why so much more for a Canadian? What was the special relationship between Canada and Laos?

"Why $85?" she asked.

The immigrations officials looked at each other, mumbled some words and then commenced sniggering, then trying not to, they burst out laughing. They pointed at her and slapped their thighs, crying almost. The first guy then sobered up immediately and with a straight face said, "$85." (Well that's how the No1 son tells it.)

In a line of six people, they queued for over 20 minutes (about 3m20secs, no big deal) while an immigration official examined each visitor's passport meticulously. The routine was, allegedly, something like this: Pretend to look at a page; look up and examine the person's face suspiciously; turn the page; repeat. Show the passport to a colleague who then does his version of the routine. Look at another colleague's computer. Call several other officers over to look at the computer. Then at the passport. Point at the computer and say something in an hushed tone. Return and hold up the passport to compare the face with the passport photo. Stamp this, stamp that. Next.

On the way through, they looked back to the other side of counters and saw that the immigration official with the popular computer had been playing Solitaire all the time.


E@L was entering the political paradise, free-speech haven and democratic bastion that was Cambodia in 2000. Handphones were confiscated. Cameras were OK. Tourists were not allow to spend US dollars in the country at that time - heck, there were no tourists at that time - but had to exchange their cold hard for warm soggy Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC) which were about as attractive to retailers as used toilet paper, had they ever even seen toilet paper, the evidence later discovered was that they probably hadn't. The exchange rate was horrendous.

"FECs $300 USD." "MUST EXCHANGE $300 USD." Signs all over the walls and windows of the immigration area read, "MUST BUY FECs TO VALUE OF $300." May as well have read, "Must give the Military Junta $300 and shut the fuck up."

E@L's colleague went first to the currency exchange counter. E@L could see that he passed some money over and that he took a bound pile of what were presumably FECs in return. As he moved away, towards the entry to Burma, he made a point of walking in a slightly larger arc than necessary so that he could whisper to E@L, "Just change one hundred!"

E@L approached the large window to the exchange counter, most of which was plastered over with those "$300" signs. A tough, scarred, solid armed, short soldier was standing beside the window, holding his AK-47 casually as he chatted to the pretty young lady who, E@L noticed, had whorls of what looked like drying talcum powder on her cheeks. The lady turned to E@L. "How much do you wish to exchange?" she asked in pleasant accent. E@L looked again at the signs - "$300," "$300." Everywhere it said "$300."

"One hundred dollars?" asked E@L in return, softly in a shaky voice.

The lady said, "OK. I give you $90 of FEC. I keep $10, OK? Good for you, good for me."

"Sure," said E@L. The soldier with the AK-47 was smiling. There were 15 people still in the line.


Just take me home, says


(as in the Bruce series, not all E@L's observations here were actually made by E@L. In other words some of these stories might not be his, and may not be 100% accurate.)


marke said...

Ha ha! Lost the magic APEC card have we? ..... me too..... sigh :-(

expat@large said...

Yes, t'is gone. Renewal was refused because my role was - no ultrasound pun intended - too internal.

knobby said...

You may enjoy this.

expat@large said...

Read it on the plane back from Melbourne. Very interesting...

Free Podcast

Related Posts with Thumbnails