An Irregular Column
by Mykel Board
for MRR 289
"That's what moving about, traveling, is; it's this inexorable glimpse of existence as it really is during those few lucid hours, so exceptional in the span of human time, when you are leaving the customs of the last country behind you and the other new ones have not yet got their hold on you.” --Celine
I'm stranded on my own. Stranded far from home.” --The Saints
I slip my hand inside. Pushing upwards, going on touch alone. Straining, my finger tips reach the goal. A brief jerk of pleasure. Found it. I keep feeling upwards, around the curvature. Then I look for the break, the opening, the edge. None. I move more, twisting my hand in the narrow slot. Still no edge, no break.
A frigid breeze comes from somewhere, bashing itself against my naked thighs. A chill runs up my spine as I push my hand even further upwards. There it is. The hard roundness I'm seeking. Still no opening. I dig in my nails... and tear. One two three. There comes a ripping. I pull down hard. Finally, the toilet paper comes out of the opening and I can clean myself off. My first shit in this archipelago of a country.
I begin this column laying in bed in Wellington New Zealand. On the road for two weeks now. Within those two weeks I've been on almost a dozen planerides, in 3½ countries, petted a kangaroo, and rode a rescue boat in the coastal waves off Sydney.
My sense of geography has changed. I pictured Australia as an upside down America. Then, if Australia took a shit, two of the turds would be New Zealand. I pictured New Zealand as a hop skip and a fart from Sydney. I figured the same climate, same people. I figured wrong.
[It could be worse. Ilka told me that some Australian TV team showed a map of Australia to Americans. They asked them to find South Korea. The Americans pointed to Tasmania.]
The reality is that Northern Australia is tropical and redneck. Southern Australia is moderate, and so laid back it makes Los Angelans look like New Yorkers by comparison.
Southern New Zealand is cold, white, with pounding surf and hurricanish weather. You can see Antarctica from the southern tip. There are penguins!
Northern New Zealand is more multi-cultural. Punks here have a sense of humor. One guy wears a SKREWDRIVER t-shirt to my show. That's the spirit. Non-punk Kiwis, however, are generally grumpy.
What else can I tell you? The weather shifts from spring to early winter-- in a day. Houses are underheated. Insulation? What's insulation?
But let's go back to the beginning of this journey. Before we do, I need to tell you more than you want to know about my psychological peculiarities.
Most people are nervous fliers. The idea of being several thousand feet above the ground makes them shudder. I am not like most people.
Flying relaxes me. Taking off is like being rocked in a cradle. A little turbulence is like a jeep riding through the Gobi. A lot of turbulence is like a roller coaster. Yeah!
Although I enjoy being on a plane, there are things that can make the experience a little less fun.
I grab the crying tot by her pink bib, twisting it around her neck, picking her up off her mother's lap and dragging her to the emergency exit... the one over the wings. With one hand, I pull the lever that opens the exit, bracing myself against the seat to keep from being sucked out of the plane. Using the bib like the tail of a lasso, I spin the kid over my head before letting go. A slight gurgle bubbles from the flying child as it sails past the wing gracefully plunging, arching downwards toward the blue pacific waters... I wish.
What am I doing here? On a flight from Houston to Hawaii. A packed 767, in an aisle seat in the middle section, behind the only seat tilted back. I'm in a pissy mood. Slight headache from caffeine withdrawal and lack of sleep. Not only is the woman ahead of me enough of a bitch to lean her seat back, she's the one with the baby.
Besides the baby, there's a cough-til-he-pukes guy two rows up. In back of me sits a card shuffler who not only shuffles at a volume greater than the engines of this plane, but whacks the cards after each shuffle. Maybe he's trying to infuse luck into his solitaire hand.
And what am I doing here? Why am I on a flight from Houston to Hawaii when I'm going from New York to Australia? The little digital clock in the corner of my computer screen shows that it's 11:49 somewhere. The map on the plane video screen shows us nearing the middle of Mexico.
Until 2 hours ago, I had no idea I'd be going to Hawaii. My ticket gave me 3 boarding passes. One from Newark to Houston. One from Houston to Guam. One from Guam to Cairns, Australia. Even that's an odd route. Look at a map.
I made the arrangements 6 months in advance.
“I see you're using frequent flier miles,” said the Continental Airlines Customer Torture Agent. “We'll see what we can do about finding you some way to get there. You know, Continental only flies to Cairns.
Is that in Australia?” I asked.
“Heh, heh,” comes the reply.
[I declare WAR on the woman ahead of me. She just pushed her seat back again. She keeps bumping my knees. Every time she does, I lean on the table attached to her chair. Pavlov's dog. Hmmm, maybe I'll try loud dead baby jokes too. The matron sitting next to me doesn't look very receptive.]
“So,” says the Continental inquisitor, “I think I've got something figured out. You could fly from Newark to Houston. Then, we have a flight to Guam. And from Guam there's a flight to Cairns. That looks like it.”
The plane leaves Newark at 5:30... in the morning. Then I have one hour in Houston... if the plane's on time. In Guam, I wait 6 hours. Then, I arrive in Australia at the convenient hour of 12:30 AM. That's the information the agent gives me. That information is wrong.
But the Newark time is right. And for me to get to Newark at 3:30 (2 hours before check-in) I need to leave NYC at 2AM.
There are no trains at that time of night...er... morning. That means call SUPERSHUTTLE and ask 'em to pick me up at 1:30. (Their site says to figure 1:30-1:45 to account for traffic.) At 1AM I'm at the door ready. At 1:50, I call the shuttle company to find out where the ride is. At 2:00 the driver calls me and says he'll be late.
Waddaya mean WILL be late, you're already late.
Somehow he gets me and his other two passengers to Newark Airport by 3:00. The airport is closed.
Like I said, flying does not make me nervous. Airports make me nervous. Security. Security. Security. Beeping metal detectors. Taking off my shoes. Putting my change, my cellphone, my computer, my wallet, my camera in a little tray. Going back and forth under a metal detector while some stranger swipes a metallic paddle over my body.
Right now, a few people sit on a few uncomfortable chairs waiting for someone at the ticket counter. The electronic check-in machines all have one of those Microsoft progress bars on the screen. UPDATING they say. TRY AGAIN LATER. At 3:30, the bars are gone. I try again.
Your ticket needs special attention. Please check-in with Airport personnel.
By 5AM I can check in. My boarding pass lists times much different from the ones I got on the phone. Nowhere is there more than an hour to spare. My plane lands in Houston and I make the change. Just. The plane in Guam is due to leave at 7:45. We're supposed to land at 7. Back in the current plane, the screen in front of me gives a Guam landing time of 7:14 now. We've run into headwinds. The most secure transfer, I thought. Is now the most precarious. I'll prepare everything in hand when I leave. The gate has to be at the other side of the Guam airport. I wouldn't be surprised if it were on the other side of the island. (ETA now 7:15). Actually, I could handle a day in Guam. If Continental pays for the hotel. I'd have to call my Cairns hosts and the Youth Hostel, but I could handle it. We get to Guam with 20 minutes until the next flight leaves. No problem. I'm there with enough time to breath. The plane is late in taking off.
Suddenly, I get it. All flights are scheduled to connect within an hour. They all wait until the others arrive. I can't miss a connection. I shudda relaxed.
The 5 hour flight from Guam to Cairns is fine. An attractive Australian girl shares my row. But my first hour in Cairns is among the worst hours in my life.
First, the setup: A 4 hour planeride from New York to Houston. A planefull of screaming babies, shuffling card players, coughers and sneezers. Then, 8 hours from Houston to Honolulu. Then, 7 hours from Honolulu to Guam. Finally, another 5 hour planeride from Guam to Cairns.
So that's 4 plus 8 plus 7 plus 5. My mathematical mind puts that at exactly 24 (22 sleepless) hours in the air. Not counting the gate to gate runs. Not counting the wait for the van the day before or that, since I left at 2 AM, I hadn't slept for 15 hours before the trip started.
You can imagine the condition I'm in when I finally arrive in Cairns and go through customs and immigration. No you can't.
As much as airport security makes me nervous, Customs and Immigration makes me even more nervous. I hate it. I shake at the counter. My voice quivers. I've been stopped, questioned, stripped, enough times to make a dozen warning: this could happen to you public service announcements. Maybe I don't have an honest face.
Sometimes they find something. In East Germany, they found the Commie money. I was smuggling in $20 of forbidden currency. In England, when I was 20, it was the jar of vitamins. They opened it, sniffed it, asked me about it. I was sweating bullets. How did they know, that bottle had been stolen? Naw, they didn't. In Buffalo it was marijuana. I'm not cut out to be a smuggler.
I always find something to worry about. Even if I don't have Commie money or a bottle of stolen vitamins, there's something. Here I was worried about my electronic visa. You have to purchase one before you get to Australia. I called and registered by phone. I MasterCarded the required $30.
“Can I have a confirmation number or something?” I ask.
“You don't need one,” says the voice from the other side of the phone. “You've paid and I've recorded that.”
“But what if it gets lost, or there's a mistake?” I ask, confident of my bad luck.
“It's impossible to get lost,” says the exasperated voice.
“It's in the computer! It can't get lost.”
Ah, that gives me confidence. Yeah, right.
So I'm on the FOREIGNERS line waiting to go through customs at Cairns airport. The immigration agents are all women. It's the only place I've seen this in the 43 borders I've crossed.
As I approach, the Australian line ends. I'm shuffled over to the former Australian-only immigration lady. She's slightly chubby, with her dark brown hair pulled into a bun behind her round face. I hand her my passport. She types my name into her computer.
“Yes, Mr. Board,” she says. “I have your information right here. And what is the purpose of your visit to Australia?”
“I'm actually visiting a friend in New Zealand,” I tell her (true). “I decided to make a trip of it and see the country while I'm here. I'll do a little sight-seeing, then visit my friend.” (Not exactly the whole story.)
“Ok,” she says, “that's all.” And she stamps the passport. I thank her and walk through the line to go to the baggage claim area. That's when the hell begins.
Is it something about my trench coat and boots in the middle of shorts and sandals? If I were a smuggler or terrorist, would I dress like a smuggler or terrorist? Come on guys!
Maybe they think I'm super clever. They think I think that they'd never stop someone who looks like a criminal, because that person would never really be a criminal. So they're surprising me, and stopping me.
A thin blond woman with extremely large teeth smiles at me when I enter the area with my bags.
“Do you have any checked baggage?” she asks.
I shake my head.
She smiles wider as she asks the question and continues smiling through the following third degree. It is not the sadistic smile of Ilsa, She-wolf of the SS. Rather it is the vague, empty, smiling-is-all-I-do smile of the Stepford Wives. [If you don't know those movies, see them. Then return to this column.]
“Could you come with me to this inspection station?” she says, using a question intonation, but obviously not asking a question. “Let's chat on the way, shall we?”
Every sentence, question or not, ends in a rising intonation like annoying valley girl talk. Here, the intonation is more sinister than stupid.
“You're here on vacation?”
“And your job is...?”
“I teach English,” I say. “I've got a business card. Would you like one?”
“Yes, I would?” she says.
I hand her one.
“And you're here on vacation??” she asks again.
“You said you were going to visit a friend in New Zealand?”
“That's right,” I tell her.
“Can I see that ticket? The one to New Zealand?” Again, this is not a request.
I fish through my bags, pull out the confirmation of the New Zealand flight and hand it to her. She looks it over and hands it back to me.
“And while you're here, what are you going to be doing?” she asks. “You're here on holiday?”
That's right, I nod.
“And what exactly do you plan to do here?” she intones.
“Oh lots of stuff,” I say, “I'll go to the beach and...”
I frantically try to remember what was in the guidebook. An awful book, called INSIGHT GUIDE. It gives you an overview of the land, pretty pictures, but nothing you can use to bullshit a customs guard. Nothing about what's in the town, nothing about the local clubs, celebrities, statues. Where I can get a picture taken with a kangaroo. Nothing like that.”
“...I want to have my picture taken with a kangaroo.” I tell the customs lady.
By this time we're at the special inspection station.
“I'm required by law to ask you these questions, do you understand?”
“Yes,” I reply.
She points to the customs form. “You've signed this form and this is your signature?”
“Yes,” I say.
“And you understand the nature of the form and all the questions on the form?”
“Yes,” I say.
“And everything you've said is true?”
“Yes,” I say.
She nods, still smiling.
“Please open that bag?”
I open the bag and take out the few books I brought with me. I also take out my personal diary, the OLD PUNKS NEVER DIE, THEY JUST WRITE BOOKS t-shirts, half a dozen wishful thinking condoms, and a bunch of promo postcards for my books.
She picks up my diary and thumbs through it. Then she goes for a sheaf of paper: the text of my readings: Sex with animals and extensive drug use. She asks, nothing, only raises her eyebrows and reaches for the promo postcards.
“And these are?”
“Oh, I wrote a couple books,” I tell her. “I figured while I'm traveling, I could do some promotion.”
“You're here to promote your books?”
“No, I just thought I might... I can talk about the books while I'm here, can't I? If I don't earn any money I'm not working, right?”
“This is Australia,” says the customs agent. “Customs and immigration are separate. I'll get an immigration agent who can answer your question?”
She leaves, returning soon with the woman who first stamped by passport.
“You told me you were coming for tourist reasons,” said the woman. “Now I hear you're going to promote your books. According to Australian law, you are not permitted to work: paid or unpaid. You're not permitted to do anything that has the appearance of work. You may stop in a bookstore casually, but if you have a series of meetings with bookstores, don't come back and say immigration allowed it. We did not. Do you know the penalty for immigration violation?”
Death? Castration? Hanging? 30 hours of Hillary Clinton speeches? I say nothing.
The officer answers her own question. “Your visa will be canceled. You will be deported. You will not be able to return to Australia for 3 years.”
“I understand,” I say.
“You may go now?” says the customs lady. “Out the hall turn right. There are the taxis.”
For the rest of the trip, I'll be looking over my shoulder. This does not bode well for things to come. The boding seems to be correct. More next month.
ENDNOTES: [email subscribers (firstname.lastname@example.org) or website viewers (www.mykelboard.com) will get live links and a chance to email comment on the column]
-->Thanks department: Wow! There are so many people who helped on this tour: Krystie, Shawn, Rich, Vera, Keiran and Chrystie and probably a ton of folks I've forgotten. I couldn't have done it without you! Also thanks to Larry Livermore for showing up at the reading in Sydney, then writing about this super collector nerd as “the only guy I've ever seen who can shut Mykel up.”
-->Nervous Flier Dept. Today's Christchurch Morning News reported that first class travelers on British Airways to New Delhi found one of their fellow passenger was a corpse. A woman had died in transit and was being shipped back to India in first class. The dead woman's daughter sat next to her and spent the entire trip wailing over her mother's corpse. I guess that proves that a kid-free airline won't solve all the annoyances of flying.
An interesting sidenote: passengers complained. They paid more than $4,000 each for first class. Instead of comfort, they got a corpse and a wailing woman. The airline told them “Get over it.” No other compensation was given.
-->Were they training for Iraq? dept. The same newspaper also reported that 170 Swiss soldiers on night training practice got lost and marched into the neighboring country of Liechtenstein. An army spokesman said it was “highly unlikely,” there would be serous repercussions for the mistaken invasion.
-->Just found out dept: http://www.networkadvertising.org/consumer/opt_out.asp lets you disable internet cookies that follow you from site to site. Those cookies check your browsing habits and "tailor ads to your desires." Since there is no way in hell they can tailor ads to my desires. I'm opting out, thank you.
--> What's next, humorous feminism? dept: Dutch performance artist, "Iepe the Fool" has been crowned world champion of CHESS BOXING. In that contest, the participants alternate six rounds in the boxing ring with five rounds on the chess board. Iepe's next match is in Tokyo on April 17th.
-->Credit where it's due dept: Sometimes I have problems with the ACLU. I give 'em a few bucks a year, but their shift from being first amendment protection advocates to something vaguely liberal bothers me. For example, their concern for enforcing “orders of protection,” and other feminist issues bothers the shit out of me.
Still, when I read this, I have to stop and take my fedora off to them. This is from a recent mailing:
In response to new, potentially restrictive criteria, The ACLU has decided to turn down $1.15 million from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations. The ACLU said the new language used by the foundations was unnecessarily vague, which could have a chilling effect on civil liberties. The language includes potential prohibitions on free speech and other undefined activities such as "bigotry" as part of the war on terror.
The loss of funding is significant and it will have profound implications for our programs. But while it may weaken our finances, it also strengthens our resolve," said ACLU president Romero.
The ACLU made a similar decision in August to pull out of the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC) because of a new requirement that groups accepting funds check their employees’ names against government-compiled “terrorist watch lists.”
I only wish MRR had thought about that before it turned its subscription list over to homeland security. Who's that knocking on your door... right now?
-->Yuck dept: Trung Nguyen is “Vietnam's premier coffee shop,” and that's a big deal, since Vietnam is second only to the US in per capita coffee consumption. One of their specialties is Legendee.
In Vietnam, the weasel is famous for its ability to select the juiciest and ripest coffee beans. And they're even better once they've passed through the weasel's entire digestive tract. The adverts are not clear in whether these beans are naturally harvested, or artificially induced on factory weasel enema farms.
PETA? Are you investigating?