Overseas travel requires serious paperwork, one of the most important being the Incoming Passenger Card, which everyone must present when arriving in Australia.
The flight attendants pass out the cards as a preliminary announcement that your plane ride is just about over. This slip of paperwork identifies you to the Customs officer, describes your country of origin, your job, your purpose for being in Australia, how long you’ll stay and where you can be reached, who to contact if plans go awry (if a spider bites you or you step on a snake), the airship you came in on, and your passport number.
Your signature verifies that you have no illegal intentions and that you are not bringing into the country anything you should not, including dairy, parts of animals, or any dirt clinging to your hiking boots. For this trip, the agent seemed somewhat bored with his work, slouched in his chair and tersely noting that Tom must remove his hat. The Agent asked me whether I had visited Africa, South or Central America, or the Caribbean in the last six days. (Oops. I forgot to fill out that part of the card.) Customs Agent questions are generally easy enough, but they can also seem random. Once, the agent wanted to know why Tom wasn’t wearing a wedding ring, while I was. The answer was simple (he’d misplaced it before we left Fargo), but I was glad that I carry a copy of our wedding certificate in my backpack when we travel out-of-country. Only straight-forward answers are accepted here, as warned in the sign that said: “Think before you speak,” followed by a caution to NOT make jokes with the Customs Agents.
Clearing Customs in Australia is an easy enough process if you dot your i’s and cross all your t’s and if you do not take any photos in the airport—they will be instantly confiscated (or deleted from your digital camera) and you will be chastised soundly. Sometimes it is not so easy to clear Customs upon return to the United States, particularly if you are arriving in Los Angeles. In the past, the process of lining up has been dramatic, with officers—stationed at various points around a large receiving room—yelling for people to line up here or there, depending upon your passport status (US Citizen or Not), long and slow-moving lines, and heated tempers. Once, a woman’s little girl ran out of the queue and under the straps that held our lines together. As soon as the mom took chase, she also became chased. Two officers raced into the crowd, yelling Stop! They saw only the woman and not the child running through the airport. It was a tense moment, heads turned, and the shouting alarmed everyone else into silence. I believe the officers were as relieved as anyone else when the situation was sorted out and no one had to be tackled.