Greetings from Darwin Australia.
The super budget airline, JetStar keeps their fares low by providing the bare minimum of frills... of everything, actually! The Airbus A320 out of Bangkok to the Singapore stop had every seat filled and seat selection required payment of additional fees ranging anywhere from $5 for ordinary isle seats to $15 for more leg room. The stewardesses walked the isles selling stuff, including food items as nothing, and I mean nothing was included, not even water! Fortunately, the short flight lasted only two hours, but I worried my window seat assignment would make toilet visits on the long four hour leg out of Singapore difficult. "No need to worry" the agent assured me in Singapore; "The plane is nearly empty to Darwin." I had the entire row of three seats to myself and for a while stretched out to take an uncomfortable snooze.
Darwin is one of the world's most expensive tourist destinations, something I had previously suspected from my pre-trip research. Still, if I wanted to seriously consider visiting Papua New Guinea, starting somewhere in northern Australia seemed logical. I knew that even in the most exorbitantly priced areas there are "pockets of poverty" hotels, sans the squalor usually associated with drastically limited means. Forewarned, I prepared for a lengthy search for my first night hotel. But, worries about finding affordable lodging would not be my initial top concern.
I never thought I'd be able to add "suspected drug trafficker" to my suspiciously outlandish resume. "Certified nut case," perhaps, but anything criminal or really insane is inconceivable as far as I am concerned. I know some of my close friends might dispute that assertion, but I feel comfortable with the idea!
With the 05:20 arrival at the Darwin International Terminal the formalities proceeded normally through Immigration where a relatively few arriving passengers waited in line to be processed. Stamped and legally accepted for a visit of up to three months, I walked the short distance to the Customs gates and noting the big green "Nothing to Declare." sign proceeded to continue walking on through... as I have done dozens of times before in foreign countries. Out of the way around the periphery of the area still nearly deserted at this early hour loitered several uniformed Australian Customs officers.
This time, one of the officers waved me over to her station and announced in an official, but polite voice: "Open your bag please." Such precautions are now normal during innumerable pre-flight security checks and rechecks in airports these days, so I didn't think much of it and quickly got the main compartment of my carefully packed bag unzipped for inspection. As I worked, a second, more senior female officer joined to observe the procedure. (I later wondered if this might not have been a training exercise!)
"Perfunctory" is not a word I would use for the attention the now two eager agents chose to give this obviously suspicious character's luggage! Belinda, the younger of the two removed every item from my bag creating an array of travel treasures on the table and then proceeded to unzip each closed compartment to inspect all the contents with great attention to details. The older, two stripes on her epaulette officer watched the process a few feet to the side until she spotted her quarry and then scooping up the computers dashed off through doors leading into the inner sanctum "laboratory", returning a few minutes later to replace the items scrutinized.
Belinda, the one striper junior officer who might be thirty years old kept up a constant "interrogation" conversation, repeating some questions in different ways... to "trip up nervous suspects" I presume. It could have been a scene right out of one of those police dramas on TV. Quickly catching on and getting into the spirit of the "game," I watched and participated in the proceedings with good humor, occasionally joking with Belinda and adding embellishments to my answers for clarity. As she tried to understand my bizarre travel habits, my honest answers seemed to increase her confusion, her disbelief. At one point to emphasize my strange travel choices actually reflected reality, I mentioned the detailed records in my enormous website, noting the URL simply was my name dot com. Though I didn't notice at the time, Belinda made a mental note and on one of her sorties into the conference room behind the door actually looked it up. My travels through regions of the world known to be frequent sources for the drug trade aroused particular interest in my interrogators. For her part, Belinda remained professional and focused, but after checking my website slowly softened her conversational tone as apparently she began to accept my worst crime has been improbable travel behavior while living so long.
Ten minutes into my interrogation a second "suspect," this time a girl of perhaps eighteen entered the bag search procedure. Noting we now had company I commented: "Now you have an old one and a young one." Where upon both Belinda and Karen broke into laughter. I couldn't imagine how my comment could be considered funny and asked them to explain.
Glancing at each other slightly embarrassed, Karen who might be forty years old replied uncomfortably: "We thought you were referring us!" So, these two "tough guy" custom officer ladies demonstrated they are human, seeing personal implications of interactions with "suspects." Belinda paused only briefly to join in the humor before quickly resuming her professional inspection duties.
Belinda, my main interrogator remained with me through the entire process and never once took her eyes off me, but five or six other officers popped in and out briefly; one sat off to the side for a while with focused attention watching the proceedings, no doubt the psychologist assigned to observe unconscious body language displayed by guilty nervous suspects. At one point I asked: "Where are all the profiling measures when we need them?"
Belinda nonchalantly responded: "Why? How would that help?"
"Well, I doubt many eighty year old retired physicists are working with drug gangs!" I quipped.
"What does a smuggler look like? On many occasions the most unlikely looking people have been recruited to transport contraband!" she retorted. Pausing to think about her comment, I realized it reflected reality and dropped the subject.
A male officer joined us several times with his chemical sample collection "sniffer." The hand held device had a business end about the size and shape of a checker piece attached to the end of a pencil like "wand" about a foot long (a recent replacement for the amazing drug sniffing dogs used widely in the past). With it he gathered vapor(?) samples from various places around my bag's interior paying special attention to seams, and then disappeared to where his analysis equipment could compare spectra of the samples with known banned substances spectra (I'm presuming mass spectrometry is being used here because of the rapid results, but other technologies also are under development.) On one of his return visits to the "crime scene" he grabbed my cell phone and one of the small zippered bags for evaluation back in the "laboratory."
Finally satisfied she had gathered enough "evidence," Belinda asked if I'd like a glass of water and invited me to have a seat while the analysis conference proceeded in the back room. I joked good naturedly taking the faceted glass: "If you wanted my fingerprints or a saliva sample for DNA determination, you could have just asked."
Belinda smiled wanly, but said nothing. At that point Karen, the older officer with two stripes on her epaulette joined our conversation and with a theatrical serious expression asked if my bag had ever been out of my sight.
"Absolutely not" I blurted out without thinking... and then added: "... well, except in hotel rooms which I naturally leave unattended much of the time... or on rare occasions in a restaurant while using the toilet... situations like that, but hardly enough time for anyone to get into my bag... plus, I pack and repack the bag many times and almost certainly would have noticed anything not mine. I travel so much I routinely set 'tells' around various enclosures to detect intrusions." About this time Belinda returned and sat next to me announcing matter of factly: "We are asking you all these questions because we found traces of cocaine and heroin on your laptop and inside your bag."
So, what do you call someone who lives in Darwin, a Darwinian? Asking several people, it became obvious that is not the right answer! The most frequent answer has been Darwinite.
Christmas Eve 2014 this year marks the 40th anniversary of the devastating Cyclone Tracy which literally wiped out the city of Darwin. One morning after breakfast in the Novotel Hotel I met one of the survivors of that disaster who rode out the storm in a building built strong enough to withstand the onslaught of Tracy. That structure housed the ABC radio broadcasting facility in Darwin. I asked Ashton, now a man in his seventies with a strong Australian accent what he remembered about that night and the days that followed. Eager to share his remembrances, his agitated body language made it clear he would have difficulty presenting an unemotional account.
"People needed information and the government ordered us to keep broadcasting information about the recovery, locations of temporary shelters and evacuation efforts being organized by various government agencies. The Army established marshal law and directed rescue operations and we broadcast information about the changing situation nonstop. I felt very safe inside our sturdy building but outside everything lay broken and scattered, something painfully obvious when the sun came up that miserable Christmas morning." he related in a deep serious tone. Arriving in Darwin only three days before Christmas with the full force of the shopping frenzy underway, it surprised me that stories about the disaster commemorations around town dominated most news broadcasts. On that fateful Night Before Christmas forty years ago thousands of dreams of sugarplum fairies turned to nightmares and nearly 70 people died. Santa in his sleigh would have found no houses with cookies and milk waiting for gift package deliveries.
Darwin is situated below the equator in the southern hemisphere making sun navigation awkward for a northern hemisphere visitor. The arch of the sun's path over head feels unnatural and disorienting. To make things feel more natural one must face north and remember east will now be to the right instead of the left. Even that is made more difficult by the city planners' decision to avoid a north-south, east-west street layouts.
Oh yes, after shocking me with the announcement that they had found traces of drugs on some of my possessions, customs officer Belinda seemed satisfied with my answers and finally released me from my bondage. Reassembling the three dimensional jigsaw puzzle like packing cube system so everything again fit together according to the carefully devised storage plan, I hefted my bag and started the search for an ATM outside the customs area. The darned machine I found spit out two one hundred dollar bills, totally inappropriate for paying any conceivable bus fare. So, I sheepishly approached one of the money changer counters and begged for some small bills.
Even with all the customs hassles I still emerged from the terminal building into a deceptively cool early morning to start the search for affordable transportation into the city. There were plenty of cabs waiting of course and a $20 fancy airport limousine advertised departures every half hour. The city bus system includes a stop just outside the airport grounds, but the #3 bus first required a short ride to the Casuarina Transfer depot for a #4 or #10 bus change into the city. The #3 bus driver explained even my ten dollar bill was too big and said to sit down, that I could pay the next driver the $3 fare good for three hours on all city buses.
Most foreign tourists come to Darwin to visit the nearby national parks: Kakadu, Katherine Gorge and Litchfield with their unique geology, wild animals and Aboriginal rock art. My interests are simpler and merely walking the environs around Darwin City has kept me entertained while venturing out into the unrelenting sweltering heat. As a first night hotel, the Mantra on the Esplanade turned out to not only be expensive, but deficient in way too many ways. Immediately next door sits the four star Novotel Atrium Hotel with its enormous landscaped atrium lobby and high five story ceiling. The dining room is integrated into the landscaping with ponds and a gurgling brook flowing next to the tables. My fifth floor room faces southwest and the first evening a stunning sunset display lingered for my admiration at the bedroom window.
One cannot visit any part of Australia without experiencing the presence of the native people, the Aboriginals. They are everywhere, many still living a subsistence existence, many surviving on handouts by begging in the areas frequented by foreign tourists. Most appear to me to be living much like their primitive ancestors. Those I have observed close hand, like on the city buses, appear to be poorly groomed with little attention to attire or "civilized" manners. For the most part, locals seem to tolerate their presence without complaint.
Of course, another way to read the situation is that as the original owners of this country, the Aboriginals tolerate the presence and excruciatingly organized behavior of the mostly white colonialists. There currently is an enormous cultural divide between the black and white communities. During my two weeks in Darwin I never saw an Aboriginal person engaged in anything socially useful; mostly the people I observed just laid around in the shade or boisterously horsed around with their buddies, frequently intoxicated. One local informant told me many Aboriginals have government jobs which visitors might never see.
Most of the white people, locals and tourists alike dress like they are in their backyard on their day off: sandals, shorts and T-shirts are the uniform of the day... everyday... everywhere! The few clothing stores I've investigated offer stylish selections, but during the heat of the day out in public no one wears anything "fancy" with rare exceptions in the lobby of the four star Novotel hotel where I'm staying and store keepers in the downtown shopping mall. While moderate in their behavior, Australian men are "real men." Assertive and self confident, most display a physique reflecting a life of hard work in the sun. Apparently, getting tattooed is a right of passage because nearly everyone, both men and women are so adorned.
The atrium lobby of the hotel is a welcome oasis in this pervasive heat of northern Australia. Inside, it is easy to forget the sweltering which awaits every venture out the front doors. My sweaty long sleeve shirts need to be rinsed out nearly everyday. An aggravating dental infection gave me a chance to see how Australians get their emergency medical care. A Dr. Janjua saw me in fifteen minutes at a small office on the main shopping mall. Total fee for consultation and prescription: $84US.
I've now determined that most flights into Papua New Guinea leave from Brisbane, so that is my next destination. More when Serendipity presents her happy choices.
Fred L Bellomy
Darwin Australia: Layout of Darwin streets showing the location of the airport and central business district where I stayed.
Darwin Australia: Yet another shot looking down the only shopping mall in the center of town on New Year's day. It is never really crowded... too hot most of the time this time of year.