Friday, June 12, 2009

Heading Overseas? Behave yourself!

Today we hear the news of a distressed Aussie mum who can’t take her kids to Disneyland, because the US won’t issue her a VISA. It seems a few months back, the mum found herself in hot water in Thailand for the theft of a ‘bar runner’, a cloth used in bars and pubs to soak up spilled alcohol.

She stole what?

Well apparently a friend put it in her bag (I’ve heard that one a few times in the Sydney airport customs hall myself). The Thai authorities weren’t too impressed, neither with the details, nor with the offer made by her travel mates to ‘pay a fine’ to settle the dispute. Anyway, a few days later after much indignity, she plead guilty to end her horror and was deported back to Australia.

As any traveller knows, the jumping through hoops that is currently required to enter the USA, requires you to declare any criminal conviction. Duly noted, our despairing mum now finds herself without an entry permit to the Land of Walt, and probably won’t score one for the next 5 years or so.

What a shock!

Actually, it shouldn’t be. Now, I’m no fan of any country’s draconian laws or customs that may seem inappropriate or outdated from our point of view, but I certainly do understand the need to respect such laws and customs, irrespective of whether I’m visiting a foreign nation or a local pub. I’m all for national reform of oppressed populations, but until that takes place, I’m always sure to be courteous, well mannered and respectful of any authority when travelling overseas, no matter how corrupt I may (mistakenly or not) believe that it is.

The mum in Thailand got off easily. Consider for a moment Nasrah Alshamery, the 44 year old Sydney woman sentenced to two years in a Kuwaiti prison for insulting the country's ruler. This followed a ‘misunderstanding’ between family members and an airport official last year, in which she was accused of screaming obscenities and insulting the emir.

She denied the charges, and her lawyer claimed witness testimony was contradictory.

She had appealed her sentence last week and was waiting to hear the outcome when her sentence was suddenly suspended. According to her lawyer, the Kuwaiti's government's decision to instead deport Mrs Alshamery's was a "satisfactory political solution to a sticky problem."

Her family is well relieved.

I’m familiar with that part of the world, and while there are many ‘traditional’ laws and customs in the Middle East that ‘westerners’ may find confronting, they are certainly not for challenging when visiting such countries, whether in private, in public, or least of all, at the airport.

That said, there are signs all over Australian airport check-in counters saying ‘We take jokes very seriously’. That is, don’t joke about drugs, bombs, guns or any other security issues. You'll probably find yourself questioned, delayed and missing your flight, all for being a goose. Holidays are fun times, but that doesn’t mean your regular candour should also take a vacation. Consulates can do little when local laws are broken, but as recent events have shown, it takes very little to find yourself in an awkward situation, either stupidly or unintentionally.

Illustration: Cathy Wilcox