Spots of Time

March 25, 2003

Melanie's Magical Mystery Tour

Need a Ride? Melanie's Magical Mystery Tour departs the Launceston Metro Backpackers on Tuesday morning, March 25 - GOING WEST and OFF THE BEATEN PATH! Highlights Include: Stanley and "The Nut", Sheffield's Murals, Cradle Mountain, The Walls of Jerusalem, Hobart's Salamanca Market and much more! No psycho's please. :)

Ok, so it wasn't much of a mystery, but the ad got rave reviews from the two other people in my dorm so I decided to go with it. I'd just rented a 1989 Ford Laser for a week's drive around Tasmania and thought I might as well offer up the other spaces in the car. Renting a car had not been my original plan and I was a little nervous about what I had gotten myself into - especially when I remembered that I didn't know how to change a flat tire.

My first week in Tasmania was over, and I had one more ahead of me. I'd just finished a four-day Island Escapes organized tour that started in the north and worked its way south via the eastern coast of the state. We'd seen some beautiful things but the last two days had been rainy so I decided to stop off in Hobart for the weekend and think about my options. I really wanted to do a tour of the Walls of Jerusalem Park but no one was going and to organize one required a minimum of two people. Everyone I'd been traveling with was on their way off the island so I didn't have many choices.

Tasmania is a very limitedly touristy part of Australia. This is 90% wonderful and 10% frustrating. Limited public transportation makes seeing Tasmania a challenge for those on a limited budget or with limited time. If you had a month you'd be fine with the bus system. But, with less than two weeks your options for maximum coverage are either an origanized tour or renting a car. I'd done the organized tour and decided to try my hand at fully independent travel.

I left this morning (without passengers) and began driving west. My destination was Stanley, a tiny little town on the western side of the north coast. According to the tourist brochure it was the inspiration for Lilliput in Johnathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels." This was enough of a reason for me to visit so I set off. Two hundred and twenty-five kilometers later I was standing on the beach and staring at "The Nut." "The Nut" is Stanley's claim to fame - they call it the Ayer's Rock of Tasmania. Basically, it is a large rock formation on the end of a peninsula that juts out from Tasmania into the sea. The town is built at the foot of the Nut and tourists come to ride the chairlift to the top and look at the views.

But I was curious about the Gulliver's Travels connection. The town was quaint and quiet, and I could imagine that 100-150 years ago it would have made a good model for Lilliput. I asked around about the connection and no one seemed to know much about it. While having a coffee, I decided to ask again. The woman running the cafe said she wasn't sure either but why didn't I ask Ray Lotty. Who is Ray Lotty, I asked? Turns out he was the one who made the comparison - and he just happened to live three doors away.

Ray answered the door and ushered me inside. He was in his 60s with a mad professor mop of salt and pepper hair which he was constantly smoothing down with his hand. His "office" was a hodge podge of video equipment, old pictures and a random assortment of the types of things one collects after many years of living.

We chatted for about 15 minutes. I'd like to say that I left feeling like Swift had truely modeled Lilliput from Stanley - that Ray had somehow found evidence suggesting a link between the book and the town. That Swift had traveled here years ago, or that he'd seen a picture or heard a story of the town. But, in truth, it appears that Ray simply read the book and thought Swift's descriptions were very close to Stanley's reality.

I thanked him for his time and walked back to my car. While I was a little bit disappointed that there was no real "historical" proof connecting the town and the book, the truth was the drive out here was completely worth it and I was glad to have had the opportunity to spend an afternoon in this charming, unspoiled place.

Looking around one last time before I left, I decided I could easily see how someone could imagine this place to be straight out of Gulliver's Travels. And, who was I to say that it wasn't? The more I thought about it the more I decided that I agreed with Ray, historical proof or not. Besides, I rather like the idea of adding Lilliput to the list of places visited on Melanie's Magical Mystery tour. Talk about being off the beaten path...

March 18, 2003

Everyone Has A Story

"I was the Sultan of Brunai's personal chef for four years," Xavier said to me. At this point I did not know his name was Xavier or that he was Swiss or that he was now an artist living in Tasmania. He was just the guy at the table next to mine in the cafe across the street from the Devonport bus station. The guy that almost made me miss my bus to Launceston.

I'd arrived in Devonport, Tasmania the night before, from Melbourne, via the Spirit of Tasmania I - a cross between a very large ferry and a cruise ship. The next morning I booked myself into an adventure tour traveling down the eastern coast to Hobart, Tasmania's capital. The tour left from Launceston the next day.

After buying my ticket I wandered across the street, past the bus, to a cafe and got a coffee and some breakfast. It was during breakfast that Xavier and I got to talking. I'm honestly not sure how the conversation started, but pretty soon we were chatting away, guessing where the other was from (I guessed France, he guessed Canada) and generally having one of those great, random travel conversations.

Everyone has an interesting story to tell - most people just never get asked. I'm not sure what makes people open up to travelers. When it comes to problems, I think it's something to do with it being easier to talk to strangers than close friends. Getting a chance to get something off your chest but also knowing you will most likely never see them again. With good, fun stories, it just offers you the chance to spin one of your well-worn and personally-liked tales to a completely new and appreciative audience.

Every so often during my conversation with Xavier, I would peek my head out the window to see if people had begun to gather around the bus. Every time I looked, it was dark and quiet so I went back into the cafe. I remember thinking what an interesting life this man had led and wondering if, when I was his age, I'd have some equally great stories to share.

I asked Xavier if ever in his wildest dreams he thought he would end up in Tasmania at this point in his life. He laughed and said no, though he had always known he would travel - that is why he became a chef even though his first passion was art. Now, years later, having seen the world, he was back to what he loved most. In Tasmania of all places.

At one point Xavier began telling me about a birthday party he went to at the Sultan's palace. The party was for the Sultan's niece who was turning 18. About 150 guests had come to the party and it was considered quite an honor to be there. After the entertainment announcement was made, Whitney Houston, Elton John AND Bryan Adams appeared on stage. He said at first he couldn't believe it. Apparently, the Sultan of Brunai is one of the richest men in the world. Xavier said he'd heard that Michael Jackson had performed at a previous party.

I asked if the people of Brunai were treated well by their ruler. He said they were and were generally happy. He said that in the middle of one of the cities is a huge amusement park with the latest rides and attractions. The park is open 24 hours a day, year round and is absolutely free.

At that moment I remembered the station master saying that the bus would leave from INSIDE the bus station. I looked at my watch and realized the bus was due to leave that minute. I grabbed my bag, said goodbye to Xavier and ran across the street to the station. The driver was just shutting the doors as I ran on board.

I thought about Xavier and his stories most of the way to to Launceston and wished I would have been able to talk to him a bit longer. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I could have just caught the later bus. They'll always be another bus. How often will I get one degree of separation from the Sultan of Brunai?

March 11, 2003

From the Left, To the Left

Skippy and I were lost. We’d only been driving for an hour, but it was clear that I had somehow missed the M5 toll way that would take me to the Kangaroo Valley. Each of my five maps (two tourist, two Avis, and one purchased) was somehow incomplete. Either they covered an area too large, or one too specific, or a different city altogether. I’m not sure why Avis thought a map of Canberra would be useful to me in Sydney.
The first time I stopped to ask for directions, I was accosted by an elderly Italian-Australian woman. She seemed harmless enough, standing in the doorway of her garage, talking on her cordless phone. But, while trying to provide me with directions to the M5, she repeatedly hit me in the chest. Have you ever tried to talk to someone who would slap you lightly on the chest, every five words, for emphasis? Even though she seemed to know what she was talking about, my mind was so focused on her emphatic “taps” that I thanked her and left without having heard a word she said.

I was near tears when I decided to go back toward my starting point, hoping that I had somehow missed the sign in my excitement of driving, for the first time, on the left-side of the road. I say the “left side” and not the “wrong side” because in Australia – like Great Britain – driving on the left side of the road was completely normal. To me, however, it was like going to a theme park on and getting in one of the cars that loop around a pre-existing track. Except here, there was no middle bar to keep you safely on the road.

One hour later, back to almost exactly where I had started, I left again. “The first hour was practice,” I said to myself. I had determined that my issues finding the M5 stemmed from not having bonded with my car, a white Holden Commodore. This is how my car came to be christened “Skippy.” I named him after the Australian Kangaroo mascot. I figured it was appropriate. A Holden and Skippy the Kangaroo are as Australian as you can get – and in my experience, both of them were all over the place – seeming to have no personal sense of direction.

Confident that my problems were behind me, Skippy and I continued our journey to Kangaroo Valley, a dairy valley getaway that was about two and a half hours outside of Sydney. I’d given up on the M5 at this point and decided that I’d take the back roads. I was in no rush. I’d given the B&B a wide “tentative” arrival time – sometime between 12 noon and 3 p.m. I was sure I could make it. Besides, I was beginning to think the M5 was the equivalent of the high school “elevator pass” – an initiation joke the resident upper class played on the newbie freshmen for a good laugh.

At first, I was completely paranoid that everyone else on the road was looking at me - that everything I did screamed “Yank Driver On The Left Side Of The Road For The First Time – Wide Berth Needed!” But, after 30 more minutes on the road without incident, I started to relax. I even managed to look out the window at the passing landscape. I realized I had missed driving.

After a while, I decided to turn on the radio. I hadn’t up to this point because I wanted to concentrate on driving. Over the course of the past week, I’d had two separate nightmares about driving on the wrong side of the road and they had made me understandably nervous. However, driving on the left was not nearly as hard as I thought it would be. It was surprisingly easy to become accustomed to lane positioning, and in the city, with cars all around me, I just went with the flow. Turning was a little bit of an issue, but an American friend of mine studying in Sydney had told me his secret was just to remember “from the left, to the left.” This became my driving mantra – at first aloud, and then silently. When I finally turned on the radio and heard Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” playing, I figured it was smooth sailing.

And, it was, for the most part. Using the rear view mirror was a bit of an issue at first – it seemed very awkward to look left instead of right. I solved that problem by not looking back and just using my side mirrors to maneuver. This worked for me until I happened to look back and notice the long line of cars behind me. I was in the right lane – the “slow” lane – and had been going at least 5-10 km below the speed limit. I figured better safe then sorry. All of a sudden I noticed a sign that read, “Keep to left unless passing.” This is when it dawned on me that the “slow” lane in Australia was actually the left lane. I quickly turned on my blinker, to indicate my intent, when the windshield wiper began to work. It was not raining. It took me a minute to realize that the blinker was to the right of the steering wheel, not the left. I indicated, properly this time, and moved over.

It started to rain at about the same time that I realized I needed to go to the bathroom. I’d been in the car for nearly four hours and was hesitant to stop until I reached my destination. The light rain soon turned into a full on downpour. Lucky for me, at this point, I knew EXACTLY where the windshield wipers were located.

Skippy and I made it to the B&B without incident. And, I had a lovely weekend. The drive home was considerably faster and less dramatic – by now driving on the left side of the road was old hat. That is, until I got to the parking garage at my apartment. Somewhere between the Kangaroo Valley and Sydney, I thought I didn’t need my mantra of “from the left to the left” anymore. I pulled into the garage and stopped, wondering why the path wasn’t clear for me to enter. I got out of the car, thinking I would ask the attendant to move the sign, when the woman in the lane next to me said, “What do you think you are doing?” It was then I realized I had pulled into the wrong side of the garage. “From the left to the left.” I sheepishly got back into my car and moved into the proper lane. I’m guessing I should keep the mantra handy for a little while longer.

March 04, 2003

The NYC of Australia

It's been just over two weeks since I arrived in Sydney and I am amazed at how quickly the time has gone. As you all know, I accepted a job working with an American company out here and in the space of five days packed up my belongings and moved from Melbourne to Sydney. Though much of my time has been spent working in an office, I have had a bit of a chance to explore this beautiful harbor metropolis.

Sydney is an amazing city. Though not the capital (despite what many American's think, Canberra, not Sydney, is the capital of Australia) Sydney is the largest city and center of what's what in the country - the hub of what's new, what's happening and what's cool. And, Sydney-siders know it. Don't talk to them about Melbourne, or Brisbane or god-forbid Perth - anything that matters within Australia takes place within their city limits.

As you might imagine, there is a rivalry that exists between Sydney and Melbourne, which, by the way, is the second largest city in Australia. Ask anyone who lives in either city what they think of the other, and I can almost guarantee you they will tout the benefits of their city while complaining about the disadvantages of the other. In only a few instances have I found an Aussie who is willing to acknowledge the differences of the two cities as something that is not good or bad but just...well, different.

Sydney is a shiny new penny of a city. The moment you arrive you are mesmerized by the Harbor, the people, the weather, the views. How can you not? Sydney is world-famous for its Opera House and Harbor - distinctly recognizable - and who hasn't heard about the amazing job they did on the 2000 Olympic Games?

Melbourne, on the other hand, has a more understated beauty. It is a quieter city, liberal yet reserved, old fashioned yet with it. Much of its touristic interest lies in historical information - the famous bushranger Ned Kelly was hung in the Old Melbourne Gaol (pronounced "jail"), the Olympics were held here (but in the 1950's) and prior to Canberra's existence, Melbourne was the federal capital of Australia.

It is tough for me to judge either city. My experiences have been as different as the cities themselves. In Melbourne, I worked as a waitress on the most bohemian street in the city and lived in a small Italian/Greek suburb behind a used bookstore. In Sydney, I'm working in a corporate building filled with mobile-phone touting yuppies and living in a corporate apartment in the middle of Darling Harbor, one of Sydney's most famous touristy sights. It would be like comparing an artistic life in New York City and a corporate one in San Francisco - you just can't. Each city has its own amazing qualities, yet you can't call one city "better" than the other - it’s just different.

The best that I have come up with to describe the two cities is to call Sydney a combination of San Francisco and Los Angeles and Melbourne a combination of Boston and Chicago. My observations come some with geographic location, some with city sights, some with people and some with that indescribable "feel" you get from a city that reminds you of somewhere else you've been. But, in truth, it is unfair to burden the cities with labels from a country thousands of miles away.

I feel very lucky that I have been offered the opportunity to live in each of the two cities, even if it is only for a short time. And, when asked about my experiences, I will never be able to say one is "better" than the other.