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MAD MICHAEL: BANNED IN AUSTRALIA
By Michael Matthews
July 1, 2010 -- Dame Edna Everage, diva of Australian culture and its most famous citizen, should be banned from the United States. It would be a fair exchange since I am, in all probability, now banned from Australia.
It started at 5:30 in the morning on June 5 at Brisbane Airport. The darling wife and I had landed there after a flight via Los Angles and Auckland that had lasted nearly 24 hours. I had duly completed our landing cards and had paid no attention to the announcements by the purser on what was allowed into Australia.
After passing through immigration, we saw a number of barrels asking arriving passengers to jettison any foodstuffs they had. The darling wife got rid of her prunes.
We then hit customs and that's where it got ugly.
An extremely officious little man in a uniform called me over to his lane.
"Did you pack these bags?" he asked. I acknowledged that I did.
Waving our customs documents in my face, he then asked: "Did you sign this form?" I said that I had.
"Are you aware this is a legal document? Your wife's an attorney, so you should know that." The officious little man had apparently noticed her occupation, which I had duly written on the forms.
By now the officious little man was puce in the face and almost shaking with outrage. "You've broken the law!" he thundered.
Let me tell you a secret: At 5:45 in the morning, I really don't like a petty little civil servant shouting at me. But it was obvious that this fellow was determined to make an example of me for whatever real or imagined misdeed I had committed.
"Open that bag," he said, pointing at my carry-on.
I opened and he rummaged. Then he finally extracted a packet of Trader Joe's Trail Mix.
"What's this?" he harrumphed in triumph.
"Trader Joe's Trail Mix," I answered.
"You may not bring any foods into Australia without declaring them. It will be an automatic $100 fine, payable now."
"What?" I asked credulously.
"One hundred dollars," he repeated.
The officious little man harrumphed again as he began pawing through the snack bag with unwashed hands, a fact duly noted by the darling wife. Then he withdrew from the packet one solitary almond, which he studied as carefully as one would examine a diamond of similar size.
He then proceeded to cut the almond into two pieces with something that looked like a toenail clipper. And he was almost apoplectic.
"This is a raw!" he spluttered.
"That doubles the fine. It will now be $200."
At this point, the officious little man's supervisor, who had remained quiet throughout the previous proceedings, intervened.
"You can pay now or go to court," the supervisor said.
"I'm not paying," I said. "Take me to court."
I then realized that this whole fiasco would make a good column, so I pulled out my notebook and started to write down the officers' names.
"Why are you writing my name down?" asked the officious little man.
"You've got mine. It's only fair," I said.
So, Mr. Mike Butwell--Truly, his name was Butwell!--you have now made the pages of JoeSentMe. Congratulations.
"Where are you staying in Australia?" asked the supervisor.
Thinking quickly, I told him The Four Seasons in Sydney, which is about 600 miles south of Brisbane. With that, the supervisor disappeared to fill out a myriad of forms to begin the process of my court appearance for the crime of smuggling a packet of Trader Joe's trail mix containing a raw almond.
When he returned, he handed me the completed documents. I signed them, meaning that I legally acknowledged that I wanted to go to court.
"You won't be coming back to Australia, will you?"
Smiling at him and using my Australian, I said, "No bloody way, mate!"
The process servers in God's Country missed me in Sydney and they missed me in Hobart. Then we escaped to New Zealand with no trouble.
In all probability, there is a warrant out for my arrest in the Land Down Under. I fully expect to be extradited at any moment.
Surely I will be banned from Australia. Which will be a great pity as Australia is a truly a great country with great people. Mr. Mike Butwell excluded, of course.
A note to readers: You can read about Australia's quarantine rules here. Australia's rules about on-the-spot fines are explained here.
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ABOUT MICHAEL MATTHEWS Michael Matthews has managed and marketed fine hotels around the world for more than 45 years. He spent 14 years in Hong Kong building the legendary Regent International group. He has also worked with St. Regis, Ritz-Carlton and Rosewood hotels. Matthews is currently based in Arizona. He began writing Do Not Disturb in early 2004.
THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Michael Matthews in the spirit of free speech and to encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Matthews. This column may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Michael Matthews.
This column is Copyright © 2010 by Michael Matthews. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.