It’s never a good sign when you stop moving as you’re taxiing out to the runway; things usually only go downhill from there. When the Captain comes on over the loudspeaker and announces that the plane is experiencing some “minor engine trouble”, you know you’re in for the long haul. Three hours and a 90 degree cabin later, my plane for Sydney was finally airborne. The scenario flirted with the possibility of being absolutely miserable, but luckily the selection of in-flight movies was decent enough to keep me entertained, and to their credit, Air New Zealand really did a great job of deflecting the situation by offering free drinks and dinner to everyone on board. I was supposed to check into my hostel in Sydney at 5:30 pm; the desk closed at 8:30. Because of the delay, I arrived just a few minutes before 8:30. Frantic, I called the hostel and was assured that they would stay open until I had arrived. Then I stepped off the plane and into part two: Australia.
For no particular reason, when I walked into the Sydney Airport, I felt completely out of my element. The phrase “You’re not in Kansas anymore” kept repeating itself in my mind, which is odd for a number of reasons, the least of which being that I was never in Kansas to begin with. I found my backpack and subsequently almost fell over trying to put it on; I swear it gets heavier every time I touch it, despite the fact that I’ve long since devoured the dozen or so trail mix bars that I hastily shoved into every empty crevice the morning that I left. I clumsily ambled my way towards Customs, cursing the fact that the room was unnecessarily warm, the line impossibly long, and the most disturbing part-there were only two officers working. Oh the horror! The inefficiency! I fumed to myself. As sweat rolled down my back, I began emitting a serious of loud and deliberate sighs and impatiently fanning myself with the only fan-like thing I had available-my American passport. Stereotypical. Wait…what?
After what seemed like hours, it was finally my turn. I always get a little nervous when I interact with Customs, which is odd because I dealt with them frequently at my last job, and I’m not trafficking drugs or even honey. As their x-ray eyes pierce mine searching for some hidden agenda, I start to feel guilty. Am I smiling too big? Do I seem too happy about being here? Why do I feel nervous and suspicious? All of this is going through my mind as I step up to receive the verdict of my fate.
I silently hand over the Australian Entry card that I filled out on the plane. I’m smiling, but not too obviously. More coy and refrained than usual; it says that I’m an accomplice in their game, not a piece that they can control. We have an instant understanding, this man and me.
“What have you done here?” He asks me, amused but slightly exasperated.
“What, the purple doesn’t work for you?” I reply with the same refrained level of amusement and only a slight undertone of panic. (I only had a purple marker in my purse, so I used that to fill out my card).
“Uh, no. Not at all. You’ll need to fill out another one”.
He hands me a blank card and a black pen, and as I re-fill the card at lightning speed, I can feel the hot, angry breath of the thousands of people waiting behind me. I’m sweating profusely now, absolutely positive that at any moment a mob will form and attack me and my purple pen without warning.
I make it through, and head to the second level of security. My bags seem impossibly heavy now; I’m bent over slightly and panting. The woman looks at me, at my card, and back at me.
“You have over 10,000 Australian dollars?”
I laugh nervously and assure her that there’s no way I’m carrying that sort of dough.
“Then why did you fill that out on the card?”
Now she’s getting suspicious, and I’m about to admit that I’m planning on buying copious amounts of some illegal substance at the Farmer’s Market on Sunday, when she makes some indistinguishable mark on my card with a decided flourish and points me in the direction of a third level of security. As I wait for someone there to acknowledge me, I watch the herds of happy travelers escape to freedom, oblivious to the fact that there’s a man down. Visions of lengthy interrogation and slow torture fill my mind, but all that happens is that the officer cleans off my hiking shoes a bit and waves me through.
Having barely made it, I’m parched and traumatized. The first thing I see is McDonalds, and I find myself being pulled helplessly by forces of nature to the counter, where I order a large diet coke. It costs over $3 and she only fills it up ¾ of the way, but I’m already feeling better about life. I make it on to the train without much of a problem, finally make it to the hostel after heading the wrong way from the station (apparently my directional instincts need some sharpening), and gratefully throw my bags down on the couch as I check in.
One of the first questions I ask the girl behind the desk is if there’s a place to get a cheap massage around the area. She gives me an odd look from the corner of her eye and shakes her head slowly, confirming the negative. I thought it was all a little strange; I may be a backpacker but I’m still entitled to small luxuries every once in a while, right? I found out the next day that the hostel is located in the “Red Light District” of Sydney, and I opened up my stay by basically asking where I could find the cheapest happy ending.
Yep, definitely not in Kansas anymore.