Trouble at Customs

Let me preface this by saying that whatever negative rumors you've heard about Australian customs are probably true. Because whereas most Aussies are generally friendly and easy-going, these guys in uniforms don't mess around. I know they're just doing their jobs but, seriously, do I seem like a threat to national security?


I suppose my downfall was that after disembarking at Sydney Airport shortly after 8pm, I stopped to use the bathroom, purchase a bottle of wine at the duty-free shop for the friend hosting me for the weekend, and make use of the perfume samples to mask the plane smell that still clung to me, such that by the time I had collected my luggage from the carousel almost all the other passengers had cleared customs. Maybe the agent had a quota to fill or, after making it through countless other airports in the past weeks without incident, my luck had simply run out.

"Please follow me," said the agent when I handed over my immigration card and passport.

We passed several empty stations before arriving at a stainless steel counter that gleamed ominously in the harsh light. My purse and suitcase were placed on top. I recall him asking permission first - a mere formality, of course - but before I knew it the agent was donning a pair of nitrile gloves and pawing through the entire contents of my bag.

Questions were flung my way as I stood by, helplessly watching. But judging from the careless way some were repeated multiple times it seemed as though they were more for my benefit; you know, just so that I had something to do instead of wringing my hands and lamenting this sudden violation of privacy.

One particular line of questioning that he really drove home as he flipped through my passport (now pretty full of stamps and visas, nbd) was that I am and have been traveling alone. I've gotten this a lot from pretty much everyone, usually phrased as something along the lines of "OMG, you're so brave!" or "Wow, you're doing this all by yourself?" and it's often tinged with the same condescension offered to a toddler who just managed to piss in the toilet by herself for the first time. It wasn't as friendly coming from the customs agent, obviously, but it was just as annoying. Why? Because a guy traveling solo would never be questioned like that.

Intentional or not, it's as inherently sexist as Tina Fey getting asked in interviews what it's like to be a woman in comedy. So I'm on a round-the-world trip and I also happen to have been born with two X chromosomes. What of it? As Ann Friedman wrote in a fantastic essay earlier this summer, a man hitting the road alone is lauded for being adventurous; when a woman does the same it raises alarm.

Moments later the agent opened an outer pocket and came upon my collection of business and post cards - records of museums, hostels, restaurants and shops that I liked - handling each piece of card stock like he was defusing a bomb. (What can I say? I'm kind of sentimental, I guess). But this reaction paled in comparison to his increasingly furrowed brow as he leafed through my journal. Whether this was merely due to the sheer effort involved in deciphering my messy scrawl or a response to its contents, it's moments like these that make you painfully aware that things that seem perfectly normal to you may come across as strange or even morbid to others.  

I thought about this as the seconds stretched into minutes and he continued to read, not because the notebook contains my deepest, darkest secrets (it's a journal not a diary) but rather there are portions that, taken out of context, wouldn't make sense to an outsider. Sometimes when I'm too lazy to write, for example, I'll jot down a brief memorable encounter to expand on later, which is why certain pages read things like "a wheelbarrow full of animal organs" or "a middle-aged polygamist."

That was the worst part of the interrogation, and then all of a sudden it was over. He typed something into the station's computer, returned my passport and simply said, "All done." 

No explanations, no apologies. But I didn't really care. I just wanted to get out of there. And when I came out to the arrivals hall proper and spotted my friend, I don't think I've ever felt so relieved to see a familiar face.


I typed this on my iPad with the Notes app instead of writing it out longhand first like I normally do. I mean, it would have been amusing if the next customs agent were to have read this in my journal. Maybe. Actually probably not since apparently they have no sense of humor.