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Friday, April 13, 2018

Crossing borders: Australia to New Zealand

On our flight from Darwin to Sydney I was sitting in the middle seat as usual. The guy in the aisle seat, and the woman in the opposite aisle seat, were American. I heard them talking loudly, but that’s not how I knew they were American; one has to talk loudly to be heard across the aisle of a plane.

Darwin, even today, has a large military population and some of these are from the U.S. I’m not sure what the Marines are doing there, but the folks on the plane had been out with one the night before, and were laughing about the culture shock of someone “who’s never been outside the U.S.” On one thing they agreed with him though: restaurant service in Australia. “You have to order your own food at the counter!” “And then you have to go up to the counter and pay!” “And no tip!” Well yes, that’s your 15% savings for having to do it yourself. “I might as well have stayed home!”

Swimming pool opposite [some of] the Australian navy
I’m not sure what their business was in Australia, but they were funny to listen to. We were on our way to Sydney for a few days of R&R. I don’t mean by that the military euphemism, but a few days when we weren’t either 1) on the road, or 2) boiling hot. Just the ability to be outside without 95% humidity was a treat. Our cousins are out of the country for Maya and Ryan’s wedding, but their friend was housesitting and proved to be a more enthusiastic walker than I am! We walked all the way into Sydney and around the Botanic Gardens, finishing up outside our old haunt the Opera House. It was lovely.

Not content with having walked and taken the train across Sydney Harbour Bridge, the next afternoon we thought we’d explore it in a different way. Many years ago, T. had a ride on the back of a Harley motortrike in Sydney, and when we were here in February I considered doing it, but they were about to close for the day. This time we were in luck. Billy took us flying across the Harbour Bridge and back, spinning around a little on the side roads too. We paid for a fifteen-minute ride but he gave us extra, after stopping at the gas station for fuel. We drew a lot of attention there, and were so busy waving at people that Billy had to remind us to hold on before he took off again. It was faster than a tuk-tuk but then, we had motorcycle helmets and seat belts in Australia.
 We had other business in Sydney. Our friends Kim and Ibon and their daughter Kailani were expecting an addition to their family, and we got to meet her. Amelia had been born just four days before.
The weather was warm, but not too hot, and we enjoyed riding the ferry and seeing the harbour from many angles. But there was one more reason for us coming back to Sydney, and that was onward flights out of the country. Our online visas for Australia allow us to enter the country multiple times in twelve months, but we are only allowed to stay for three months at a time. And that was about to finish. What better excuse to book a trip to a country neither of us had ever visited before: New Zealand?

Now, we’d booked tickets to Auckland before we ever landed in Australia, because technically, the immigration authorities can ask to see evidence that you will leave the country within the allowed three months. Because we did not raise any red flags with the profilers, we ended up entering Australia without any of those questions, but we had this trip anyway—two weeks for which we hadn’t planned or researched whatsoever. And in our months in Australia, we’d gotten pretty slack. Domestic flights half the time don’t even involve an I.D. check, so we showed up at the Sydney airport all casual. I can’t even remember the last time we printed out any documentation.

Don’t make this mistake, Discreet Travelers. The airline wouldn’t check us in without proof that we would leave New Zealand. Our flight back is with a different airline, so it wasn't showing up as a round trip on their computer. Fortunately the airport’s free WiFi was working and T. managed to find it in her e-mail. Then the airline started insisting that T’s visa was about to expire, which was not correct. Her three-month stay was about to expire, but the visa gave us permission to enter multiple times until July, which T. eventually found in another e-mail. The airline official still had to get on the phone to immigration to confirm this, which made me wonder why their system didn’t show an accurate expiration date. This must happen all the time. (I don’t know why my visa didn’t raise similar issues. Canadian passport holders get something slightly different, though the terms are the same.)

Luckily we were at the airport in plenty of time. We finally got checked in, and I flew across the Tasman Sea wondering what hardass New Zealand border officials had in store for us. In the event, we didn’t even speak to one—just swiped our passports through an electronic gate! It was the easiest border crossing I ever remember. The only person we spoke to was a customs official, who was more interested in whether T’s gumdrops or our hiking boots raised any problems (they didn’t). Discreet travelers note: It can be the airline who has all the concerns about an onward ticket, visa, etc.—in case you get turned back at the border and have to return on their flight. We ran into this in South Africa and Mauritius as well.

I can’t leave Australia without mentioning the security official who, like many people we encounter now, had a look at the many flag patches on my daypack. “Hungary,” she said, “Slovenia. Where is Croatia?”

I recognized this woman’s accent. I heard it from the stewardesses on Croatian Airlines, who were much more direct with ignorant passengers than the usual “As the seat belt sign is still switched on…” “Will you please sit down!” I remember them saying. I assured the woman that I had been to Croatia, just not on this trip.

“That is discrimination against me,” she said solemnly. Of course, I was still in her line and hadn’t made it through the machine yet, so it was important to have a sense of humor. I actually get a kick out of these folks caring whether I’ve been to their country, and chatting for a moment about it. It makes a human interaction out of an otherwise dehumanizing process.

And so, we entered New Zealand for two weeks. Something we’ve learned on four continents now: However much we travel, we only ever get a taste of whatever country or region we're visiting. We never check off “bucket list” items on our travels; we only add more places.

So we already know that we are not trying to get everywhere in New Zealand, but just get a taste. This time. People keep saying “Ah, there are so many places to see, especially on the South Island”—even when we tell them we’re limiting ourselves to the North Island! But that is the way these travels have been. No matter how many months we spent in Asia, people want to know why we didn’t go to India or some other country. No matter how many European flags I have on my pack, what about Croatia?

The road trip through central Australia taught us not to try to cover so much distance next time, but to slow down and enjoy places more, rather than more places.
Auckland airport. Any Lord of the Rings fans know who this is?
And here, I have to acknowledge the arbitrariness of the “six continents” that we are visiting. Europe and Asia are by convention two continents, although anyone can see that they aren’t separated by an ocean, rather joined by Turkey and Russia. Likewise, this part of the world has Australia, a continent by convention, and a lot of other islands. Some of those islands are Australia, some are various South Pacific countries, and some are New Zealand.

What to call #4? The term Oceania is the most accurate one used to denote the part of the world containing Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea, etc. I’ve never actually heard it said out loud. Anyway, we are here. And maybe it’s just as well there’s not a good way to lump Australia and New Zealand together, just because they are in the same geographic region of the world. Because as much as they are associated by people from far away—i.e., everywhere else—they are immensely different countries.

This shouldn’t surprise me. Immigrating to Canada from the U.S.A. was a steep learning curve in how different two English-speaking cultures can be. And having been steeped in Australian accents for months, I can clearly hear the difference in a New Zealand accent now. Doesn’t mean I’d have any confidence identifying someone from here or there abroad, though. I have to listen to certain sounds just to distinguish Americans from Canadians! Maybe that’s because I’m both.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Some annoyances at the airport, but mostly good memories here, both in Sydney and in your visit to New Zealand, which is off to a fine start. We're guessing the statue in the airport is Gandalf! G & P