Sunday, October 13, 2013

Flying Woes and Immigration Blues in Coolangata, Gold Coast - The Long Road to Oz Part 3

If we are to take stock of our waking hours, how does one account for the hours spent some 30,000 feet above the Earth? This brings me to a plane ride with Air Asia-X that covers a distance of 6518 kilometers (4050 miles) to get to Coolangata, the southernmost suburb of the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia. The ride itself seemed manageable. My plane took off from the KL tarmac at 10 AM and touched ground by 8:20 PM (Queensland time, which is 2 hours ahead of Malaysia). Do the math and that’s 12 hours and 20 minutes just sitting on a chair. 


I don’t particularly remember much about the day except how I wished I were still performing the airline’s “Eye in the Sky” task. There was this elder flight attendant (probably the head stewardess) who completely ignored me the whole flight through. The first time I called her attention, she just walked by without even batting an eyelash, pretending not to have heard my several calls. Was she deaf? I could donate a hearing aid. She was acting eccentric. Flight attendants with chips on their shoulder were a deviancy. That goes against the fabric of their raison d’etre.  But this woman just looked morose; it was easy to deduce she must have plugged something somewhere and it got stuck ‘til kingdom come. What do you reckon? I mostly don’t require their service, but at some point during a 12 hour flight, you would need something lest you go a bit crazy. I would have understood if this particular woman looked pleasant. When you’re rancid-looking, the best way to make yourself presentable is to smile. Smile makes ugly people acceptable. It was a curiosity why Air Asia-X failed to rein in on the demeanor of their international crew.

Lasagna for my second meal. I inadvertently pre-ordered two. The first one was pancake with honey.


In the dead hours, you try to make sense of the madness of flying. Surely, it isn't one of the most pleasant things to partake during travels. Your back hurts. Your legs cramp. You’re annoyed by the sonorous snoring of the passenger in front of you. You can’t digest the food you take in. But this unpalatable experience is a means to achieve endless hours of new discoveries, thus you try to make the best of it. Like that bitter pill you take to get better, to enrich the soul. I looked outside my window and saw the void. In all my years of travel, I have never seen the sky like this before (photo below); a cacophony of gradually transitioning hues from blue to pink, from orange to purple, like a gateway to the void.

Meanwhile, I tried to enjoy the two empty seats beside me. This wasn't serendipity. Air Asia, through Option Town, offered the prerogative to “upgrade”. With an additional fare, I could “purchase” two empty seats beside me. By check-in time, they would re-assign my seat and provide me 3 adjacent empty chairs. If this wasn't available, money is refunded. The opportunity provided minor luxury that would allow me to rest “horizontally”; to stretch my legs with nary an intrusion from anyone. But even this doesn't really offer the comfort that a bed affords, which I wasn't willing to purchase. Maybe when I’m Bill Gates?

The multicolored void up there.


When my plane finally touched down Gold Coast Airport, formerly Coolangata Airport, I was on tenterhooks. There’s something about Australia’s immigration that unsettles me. The airport looked smallish for an international transport hub. Most carriers that fly in the region arrive in Brisbane International Airport (about an hour north), not Coolangata. But airport size was the least of my concern. Curiously, this is the only airport in Australia that straddles two regions – New South Wales (where Sydney is) and Queensland. While this was running in my head, I queued for my entry stamp. Ahead of me were two Asian guys who got the third degree inquisition from the immigration desk, and I was obviously Asian as well. God, I hate being unnecessarily defensive before strangers. But here goes.

Turns out I was sort of exempted from rigid screening. It seemed odd that Australia doesn’t actually issue Visa stickers pasted on passports. They instead hand you an authorization number written on a piece of paper, which wasn't even asked from me. “How are you, mate,” the immigration officer warmly greeted. “Hello,” I replied tentatively. It felt like we were small-talking in a bar. “What’s your purpose of visit?” “Holiday.” “You have a friend here?” “Yes, I do. She’s a doctor, and she’s waiting outside.” This tete-a-tete was more pleasant than the Air Asia attendants. In fact, the officer supplied the answers he asked. Then it abruptly stopped. “Enjoy your holiday, mate. Cheers!” He handed me my passport and that was it. I was of course taken aback by the short exchange. What did I do that didn't merit a Nazi interrogation similar to the two Asians ahead of me? My profession, perhaps? Was it even noted in the disembarkation card, I forgot?


As I was moving towards the customs counter, I noticed signs that warned against misdeclaration or non-declaration of “dutiable goods”. I've earlier written down that there was nothing to declare. Most Asian countries regulate optical media (CDs and DVDs), inflow of cash, liquor and cigarettes. Surprisingly, these were items of no concern to the Australian customs. What Australia strictly regulates instead are (drum roll!) medicine and food stuff of any kind; live plants and animals too. Nothing edible leaves the airport. The aforementioned have to be declared and surrendered.

I was anxious because I remembered I had a bottle of vitamins and emergency medicine(s). At some point, after claiming luggage, the path towards customs forked into two. Customs official would randomly pick arriving passengers whether they should get screened or head straight to the Green Channel, the airport exit. Most passengers, in fact, were pointed towards the screening queue. If authorities find undeclared items in your luggage, you will be further questioned and duly fined. A$5,000 isn’t a walk in the park! That’s a staggering P200,000. Bearing that in mind, I put on an innocent face. Guess what? The lady guard pointed me straight to the exit. See? A smile goes a long way. 

Gold Coast Airport in Coolangata, Queensland.

 At close to midnight, the airport lobby looked deserted. I was among the first to come out of the building. Unlike other Asian airports with a bevy of tour counters and taxi bays, this was all abandoned space; a slumbering joint that yawns at midnight.

I was excited because I was to meet Girlie, a dear friend whom I haven’t seen since our Vietnam trip several years ago. Since 2004, she had been incessantly inviting me to visit her, but there was always another country that was easier to visit. Almost a decade later, I finally made it to the land of exotic accents, koala bears, kangaroos and a populace (22.6 million) that’s barely a fourth of the Philippines’ 95 million, spread across 7.7 million square kilometers of land mass. (The Philippines has a land mass of almost 300,000 square kilometer; a minuscule archipelago compared to Australia’s vast lands. )


Girlie drove her VW for 30 minutes, plying Gold Coast Highway, taking me to Surfer’s Paradise, the most frequently visited site in the area. But on a Sunday night, I could only hear the rush of the waves which was otherwise pitch black. At midnight, it was an eerie place cloaked in darkness and inactivity. Even the roads were dim and equally deserted. Most commercial establishments have long closed shop, except the few bars in the area. This wasn't how I pictured Queensland was like, that’s for sure.

We proceeded to where a famous casino (Conrad Jupiter’s Hotel and Casino) operates, but even Spinners Seafood and Steak House had closed shop. “Tap Dogs”, a spectacular all-male tap dancing musical revue, was playing there, which was fortuitous considering that I've seen them almost ten years ago when they were touring in London.  I suggested that, since it had been a long day for me, I was okay with a take out. I had enough adventure for the day. And if I go much further, it would all fall into a blur of a memory. Besides, I couldn't wait to finally see Girlie’s house, a gorgeous structure borne out of hard work and perseverance; a testament that good foreign doctors can make hay even in the land down under.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Girlie's VW with its verbose and hard working GPS.

Gold Coast's famous strip looked almost deserted after midnight.

Conrad Jupiter's Hotel and Casino in Gold Coast, Queensland.

Homey ambiance and sophisticated veneer in Girlie's Helensvale home. 

A painting on the wall at Oystercove Promenade in Helensvale.

Route map from Coolangata's Gold Coast Airport to Girlie's Helensvale digs.

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