After enjoying a week’s holiday with my best friend in Tasmania, I was driven to Hobart airport to return home. I walked in and met pristine white walls and floors with a few, perhaps 8, conveyor belts at the opposite end that were the only barrier between your entry to the airport and exit into the plane. The belts scanned the luggage you were taking and appeared to be the only security circuit available, or rather necessary, at Hobart airport. And that makes sense, I mean, who wants to bomb Hobart airport?
Apparently I did.
There were about 3 staff at the check-in desks and a total of not more than twenty passengers waiting in the hall, all white. An elderly gentleman in a white shirt with epaulettes and navy pants lumbered towards me and opened his mouth to say the words I had become so accustomed to hearing:
“You have been selected for a random security test, please come-“
“-this way. Yes, sure.” For an old man he lumbered quite enthusiastically, stimulated into activity by the sight of a lone brown person daring to enter his turf of security. I complied and stared off listlessly until he satisfied himself, sticking his white-tipped baton into my once-private property and coming out clean.
After making sure he was actually done and that I couldn’t get arrested for non-compliance, I zipped up and walked dejectedly towards my gate. In an unsuspecting place like Hobart I would never have thought I’d have to deal with that. So my usual guard when travelling elsewhere was down and the treatment I received really got to me. To put it in context, I had just spent a wonderful week being welcomed into the bosom of my bestie’s family whom I had only just met. I was naïve to believe that feeling would last me till I was home. Instead, I was being sent away a stranger – a threat, no less – again.
When the man gestured right instead of left to me, I already knew where I was heading. I was the chosen one again.
When travelling outbound from Australia I almost invariably get checked. Perhaps it’s just my luck, although sometimes I know what it actually is. I think this occasion was just circumstance but it happens so often that it exhausts you and all you want to do is shove your passport in their face and flip through all the pages of immigration stamps in languages they don’t know, haven’t even heard of, and scream, ”Look! I’m so bloody well travelled and I’ve never blown up ANYthing, promise! I’m a compliant citizen of the world, of your own country even, please just let me travel in peace.” But no, that type of thing could get you arrested. Or worse, blacklisted from travelling and then make things truly difficult.
So again, I complied, and let my bags be tested. Once in the clear I walked back into the customs queue next to the security checks and instinctively reached for my book buried in my bag to keep me distracted while waiting in the queue. When I pulled it out and saw the cover, my lungs shriveled and my eyes widened in alarm. I refuse to connect my being chosen for a spot-check with the book I just took out but I had to admit, I had exercised some truly poor choice in selecting literature for a high security flight:
In my first year of university I shared a flat with another Sri Lankan girl and we missed home cooked food terribly. Occasionally she would cook but no matter what we did we couldn’t get our amma’s taste. So when I visited Sri Lanka, her mother had gone all out, cooked several curries with her grandmother and gave me no less than 18kg worth of food to take back to my flatmate in Sydney. They gave me the additional money for overweight luggage and two bags in tow I made my journey back to university and the prospect of a full, exciting fridge.
Border security in Australia is so terrible an ordeal for the average passenger that in 2004, it became the subject of a reality show. This was the first time I was entering Australia as an adult travelling alone and I was treated, of course, no better than an illiterate child.
“What’s in all them cans, miss?” As I confidently explained that they contained food hygienically prepared and then packaged to comply with quarantine standards in Australia, I realized that the man speaking to me neither believed me nor cared.
After taking out individual cans and rattling it about to figure out what exotic concoction was trapped inside, he questioned me about the contents. The cans were indistinguishable and I fumbled pathetically attempting identification. A colleague walked over to see what the fuss was about and stood with hands on his hips examining the pathetic spectacle of 18kg of lovingly prepared food about to be seized.
My aggressor turned to him and said, “Should we call customs?” His colleague shook his head dismissively, obviously aware that those cans didn’t contain conspicuous quantities of drugs, just the poor but delicious choices of an immigrant student. He walked away to resume his duties and my bags continued to be searched by security officer number 1.
Then he discovered my mother’s unpacked love cake. No sterilization, no fancy, expensive canned packaging to attempt being more compliant with Australia’s needs… just cake wrapped in baking paper that my mother characteristically did not tell me she hid in my bags.
“I thought you said these cans were the only food you had?”
Wanting to teleport back to Sri Lanka and scream at my mother, I explained that my mother must have snuck it in as comfort food. Perhaps he took pity this time and attempted to understand, instead of reflexively throwing away this new discovery. His attempt was poor to say the least. He pulled out a card full of images of ‘exotic’ foods and said, “Point to what it is.” I scanned the images of blatantly Indian food and said, “This is a British dish called love cake. I’m not entirely sure of all the ingredients that go into it but it is definitely not on that picture card.”
“I don’t want you to try and tell me what you think is in there, just point to what it is. Is it Goolab Jayman? Jellybees? What is it?”
Shaking in fear and anger I tried to remember the contents of the many bowls of raw batter I licked as a child and I repeated, “It is a British dish, it isn’t on that card because that’s all Indian food. I know it contains things like semolina, sugar, nutmeg, raisins, currants-“
“Right, right, look just don’t bring food into the country next time. I’ll let you keep this one thing this time. Pack your bags, you can go, we are discarding all the cans.”
An expensive additional weight bill, an empty luggage case, and a pound of love cake in my left hand, I staggered out of Sydney airport, defeated, dejected, and sick of Sri Lankan food.