Razor sharp after a midnight departure from Vancouver and 15 hours in the air, I squint again at Question 9. The series of 11 questions had started with a seemingly innocuous lead-in: “Are you bringing into Australia . . . .” Now what’s in that dot-dot-dot is giving me fits on this day/night in early November, 2014.
And it had all started so well . . .
With a winning smile, the flight attendant hands me the Incoming Passenger Card issued by the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship. Little knowing what is to come, I take it with an answering smile.
I handle Question 1 confidently, calmly denying that I’m bringing into Australia any goods either prohibited or subject to restrictions: medicines, steroids, firearms, illegal pornography, weapons, illicit drugs.
I waste no time on Question 2. Since I’m not carrying any liquor or tobacco products, all it warrants is a glance. In golf parlance, it’s a gimme. But pride goeth before a fall, and Question 3 brings me up short.
Are you bringing into Australia . . .
3. Goods obtained overseas or purchased duty and/or tax-fee in Australia with a combined total price of more than AUD$900, including gifts?
Umm, I might be. After all, the goods I’m carrying for a month of travel were all obtained overseas from the Australian perspective—suitcase, camera, binoculars, smartphone, clothes—and they might well exceed AUD$900. After some reflection, I decide that I might be overthinking this form. I tick “no,” but now I’m a bit uneasy.
However, I pick up my pace again with Question 4, quickly disclaiming the carrying of goods/samples for business/commercial use.
I buzz through Question 5, stopping only to think that I’d be glad to have $10,000 in anyone’s currency to travel with.
I pause briefly on Question 6, but decide that the chocolate bar in my purse doesn’t count as meat, poultry, fish, seafood, dairy, fruit, or vegetables.
So far, I’ve been helped in my analysis by the target being so clear: In every case the right answer is obviously “no.” No, no weapons. No, no liquor. No, no books to sell. No, no, no. But my slight puzzlement over Question 3 and my hesitation on Question 6 are a sign of trouble to come, just when I’m getting to the hard questions.
With their long lists, Questions 7 and 8 slow me down. I mentally scan my luggage for the forbidden grains, seeds, bulbs, nuts, plants, parts of plants, traditional medicines or herbs, wooden articles, animals, parts of animals, animal products including equipment, pet food, eggs, biologicals, specimens, birds, fish, insects, shells and bee products that these two questions want to know about. I have no idea what “animal products including equipment” might be, but am pretty sure I didn’t pack any. But with so many things on the forbidden list, I feel that I’m probably bringing in contraband all unawares. Was there quinoa in the granola bar tucked into a pocket at the last minute? Are there still toothpicks in cellophane sheaths lurking in the bottom of my purse?
Taking a deep breath, I squelch my irrational guilt, go back to the form, and hit a hard stop.
Are you bringing into Australia . . .
9. Soil, items with soil attached or used in freshwater areas (e.g. sports/recreational equipment, shoes).
Shoes with soil attached? Huh? On the face of it, this question is asking if I am bringing outdoor shoes into the country. And that’s clearly a “yes.”
I stare at the form as if at a snake—Is it a trick question?—and look around the airplane’s cabin at my fellow passengers. No one else is looking around for guidance, empathy, or a snake stick. Quite a few people appear to have already completed their forms. Bastards.
I glance ahead at Questions 10 and 11. Hurray! Two quick ones: Having neither been on a farm in the last 30 days, nor in Africa, South/Central America, or the Caribbean in the last 6 days, I’m good.
Well, almost good. I still have to decide how to answer Question #9. I read it again, but I’m still baffled, and squinting doesn’t help. I mean, what can I say, if challenged about my footwear? “No sir, I’m wearing house slippers that have never touched the ground?” I don’t think so.
I sit there, irresolute, wondering whether to throw myself and my incomplete form on the mercy of the border official. After all, I intend neither to immigrate to Australia nor to apply for citizenship: I just want to be let in for a few weeks. Surely under those circumstances a 90.9%-complete form should suffice.
As I sit there, stumped, it occurs to me that if ever there was a question designed to make liars out of an entire planeload of people, this is it. With that realization, I tick the “no” box, and just like that, I’m done. Hah! How hard was that?
Tucking the form into my purse with the toothpicks, I reflect that this isn’t the first time I’ve noticed that my day job has rendered me unsuitable for everyday tasks. After 25 years of looking at all the possible interpretations for a seemingly innocuous question–an activity not only helpful, but downright necessary in that job–I am less and less able to see the straightforward intent underlying badly phrased questions.