Wednesday, September 5, 2012


* INSTRUCTIONS: If you haven’t read Part I of this two-part special, I’d suggest you scroll down and do it now before you read this one.

HAVING planned our holiday like a demonic genius, I swaggered to the ANA check-in counter at Beijing airport. Six-thirty on a Sunday morning isn’t normally good for swaggering, but I was proud of myself. I’d been in a state of organisational overdrive which called to mind D-Day.

“You could have trained a monkey to plan D-Day,” I told my wife. Stef loves details. In fact she demands them. For fun I threw her a bone, mentioning we’d be driving into Bryce Canyon at 8.25pm on July 9, day nine of our scheduled 28, in our 22-foot, six-berth, automatic Ford RV which averaged 18 miles to the gallon.

At these times she smiles and says something encouraging like “Go, organised baby!” This is nice, although I know she has more belief in an imminent calamity than in me.

“Four for San Francisco via Tokyo!” I beamed to the young Japanese woman behind the desk.

“Tickets please,” she said politely, although she didn’t bow, which was disappointing.

I turned to my wife. Her eyebrows creased. “I haven’t got them!” she said.

“I thought you had them,” I said.

“Noooo,” she growled lowly, “you said YOU had them.”

I did have them. I always do this at airports, just for fun. You have to lighten the mood. For I don’t know if it’s just me but something strange has always happened to the women I’m with in airports. Outside on the footpath, they’re normal human beings. Inside, all previous knowledge counts for nought. They’re like werewolves, only werewolves aren’t this crabby and nervous. In fact if ever a relationship got stale in the past, I’d take that girlfriend to an airport, go in and just walk around for an hour, just to feel like I was with a different person.

It’s not so bad on arrival, scene of my other airport joke. When we wheel our trolleys out before the waiting crowds I always start waving and screaming: “There they are THERE THEY ARE! KEN! PAT! WHAAOOY!

There’s never anyone there for us but none of these people know that, only my wife. But don’t listen to her – this never stops being funny. Granted, though, it might keep our marriage fresher if I changed the names. I could come out screaming my own.

“Trevaaah! TREEEV!”

Who hasn’t wanted to do that?

Or I could go celebrity.




And I’ve always loved some of the English names people from places like Zimbabwe are given.




Terminal decline?
The American Association of Marriage Counselling
says two out of every three marriages will end in
divorce. In an airport.
This belies the ostensibly peaceful scene above
in Beijing's No.3 international terminal.

Things are often not so calm elsewhere, however.
Here, passengers on a Chinese aircraft prepare to
disembark moments before touchdown.

This is an archival photo of a Great Leap Forward-era
"People Powered" aircraft designed by
Mao Zedong himself!

And this is a file photo of locals negotiating an average
Beijing intersection.

Beijing Airport, yesterday.

I handed over our tickets and passports and started humming happily. Like in an airline disaster movies, I told the kids what our holiday would be like.

“In America there’ll be ice-cream, hot dogs and lollies,” I said as their little eyes widened. “And bunny rabbits! And democracy and free speech!”

And then it happened.

“Visas?” the woman asked.

For a split second my heart raced. “Oooh,” I said, relieved, “they’re in the passport.” I showed my China residency permit.

She surveyed it. “No no – your US visa.”

I looked at her for a moment. Then I tilted my head.

“Ooooh no no no,” I smiled. “We’re Australian. We don’t need a visa to visit America, silly!”

“It says here you do.”

I thought for a few seconds.


“It’s what it says.”

This was also like a movie, only my wife was in it. And she was right next to me, so there was no way of “protecting” her from this news.  My pulse started to race. So did my mind, plotting a course of action which began with 1. Find divorce lawyer; 2. Find our travel agent; 3. Harm our travel agent.

Happier times: The author, seen here
relaxing at home last year with his
favourite meal, Leftover Surprise.

The author, at Beijing Airport.

A Lego person, also freaking out
at Beijing Airport.

Another person freaking out at Beijing Airport,
as depicted by a mad old Spanish woman.*

How could we need visas? Weren’t Australia and the US friends? Hadn’t my country spent the past decade sucking up to America like an embarrassing little brother? Had we not handed over enough lunch money?

I opted to phone a friend, another Beijing-based Australian, because he’d been to the US recently and likes getting calls at 6.30am on a Sunday.

“You #%!@ing get it when you %!$&ing land,” he said.

Aah beautiful. Scare over.

I told the woman. She smiled and said: “Not on our airline you don’t.” Their system wouldn’t check us in without a visa. My friend had flown United. They had different rules. It was then I called our travel agent and learned one vital fact: she doesn’t answer her phone at 6.30 on a Sunday.

Our kids were playing happily, in sharp, sharp contrast to my wife. We were now asked to perform the shuffle of shame – moving out of the way of those passengers who weren’t completely losing it.

With time evaporating, the airline said we could get to Tokyo and try again, an idea best described as the “See If That Works” plan.

“What if we still can’t fly from there?” Stef said.

JAPANESE HOLIDAY!!!” I shouted. This ignored the thousands I’d spent pre-booking things in the US, but it sounded upbeat. “Hey kids – Pokemon!” I said. They were still blissfully unaware of absolutely anything. What a life.

So can someone please tell me what this was all
about??? Australian Prime Minister John Howard
enjoys touching George W. Bush in 2001. A new
book from a former Prime Ministerial aide has
revealed Howard has not washed that hand since. 

As the bilateral relationship deepened, Bush
bestowed upon Howard the Man of Steel award.
An emotional Howard then secured Bush's
signature on the BFF Treaty of 2004.

There were slumber parties
and everthing.

"A can of Bud and some fries thanks son."

The PM wore his Man of Steel medal to bed
every night until this tormented day in 2007,
when a disillusioned Bush stripped a weeping
Howard of the honour after realising he
wasn't "the Austrian guy". Australians have
required US visas ever since.

Finally there came an angel of God, dressed as an ANA employee, who said we could apply for visas online. I moved to kiss him on the mouth, but was blocked by my wife and an iPad.

The US Immigration site said visas would cost $14.00 each, which seemed cheap. I’d have paid $1400 at that point. Still there was much work to be done. I had to answer an array of questions which, in my panic, were suddenly baffling.

Was I suffering from the dreaded lymphogranuloma venereum? Perhaps I’d caught some of the granuloma inguinale that had been going round and didn’t know it?

Had I ever done any terrorism? Genocide? And what was I up to between 1933 and 1945? Anything Nazi? Had I ever committed moral turpitude? Surely I had. And what the hell was my middle name?

I opted to tick “no” to everything and answer questions later. I filled out the kids’ bits and my wife’s, then my heart sank again: I had to declare we all had electronic chip passports. In truth, that could have meant Stef staying behind, which may have been what she deserved with her dowdy old passport. Instead I ticked “Yes”. Surely I had now committed moral turpitude. I hit “send”, convinced the US government knew Stef’s passport was not micro-chipped. Worse, the site said our applications would be assessed “within 24 hours”. We had about that many minutes.

I consoled myself that this wasn’t all my fault, that our travel agent would be getting divorced too. It had been a fun ride but surely the game was up now. I lapsed into introspection, identifying how I'd gone wrong and what I would do differently next …



Triumph! I’d done it! I’d wriggled out of another debacle. And I’d tricked the all-seeing US government. Now that is heroism.

We raced back to the now deserted check-in. “Ah - we can check you in now,” the angel said. Oh the relief. It was worth going through that just to feel the relief. It was smiles all round as we …

“Oh wait,” the man said.

“WHAT NOW?!?!” I said.

“It’s letting us check all of you in …”


“… except one”.

The suspense was unbearable.

“Which one is … Evie?”

“The little one!” I screamed, as Evie looked up at the wrong moment. “We can’t leave her behind! She’s five!”

This was becoming a problem morning. We could all fly to Tokyo and re-apply there. “Would we leave her there by herself if she can’t get one?” her big sister asked. It sounded feasible.

With minutes left I went back online, where my wife noticed I had misspelled my own daughter’s name. Not the main one, just the middle name, which I hadn’t even wanted in the first place. (I do know how to spell it. This was a typo. Honest.)



Checked in!

We raced to immigration, rode the really slow skytrain, raced to the gate and – of all miracles – finally collapsed into our seats.

I wanted to cry. Instead I thought I should say something meaningful to my wife after what I’d put us through. Our eyes met, and it was then the words came to me:

“Well that sucked.”

*Jesus restoration pic from If you haven't caught up on the saga by now, google "Spanish fresco restoration"; Lego pic from Udronotto. "Beijing runway" image from New York magazine.

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