Spots of Time

July 29, 2003

Gone Fishing

Actually, that's it. I've decided to take this week off. I'm "fishing" at the Great Barrier Reef, one of the natural wonders of the world. More on that next week!

Cheers, Melanie

p.s. Photos of life at the reef:

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July 22, 2003

A Mosquito Has 47 Teeth

"Recovery is complete, if you survive."

Sitting in the doctor's office, that statement did little to reassure me. In fact, I could feel my heart beating faster as my stomach contracted. Granted, the disease was Ebola. And, it was only endemic to a few countries in Africa. And, I was here to get vaccinations for my upcoming trip to South-East Asia. Regardless, I was not reassured.

Thinking about a trip to a third world nation is easy - and exciting. The reality of pre-trip preparations is a little more complicated.

Australia, like most first-world nations, is fairly benign when it comes to pre-travel protection for diseases. Sure, there are dozens of poisonous spiders, snakes, jellyfish and the like that can kill you - but these are visible threats. The invisible ones are the ones that really get under your skin (sometimes literally). And, while almost nothing is 100% effective, a visit to a doctor for pre-trip vaccinations can be your only line of defense against contracting certain illnesses overseas.

I've heard it quoted that nearly 80% of international travelers get traveler's diarrhea at some point during their travels. Though most folks would gladly avoid it, besides some minor discomfort and frequent trips to the bathroom - it's really not that bad. Especially if you consider all the other possibilities.

Hepatitis A, Typhoid Fever, and Poliomyelitis (Polio) are all viral diseases transmitted through contaminated food and water. Hep A infected individuals can be incapacitated for up two months. Typhoid Fever can cause death if untreated. Polio, eradicated in most countries, is still found in areas of Africa and India. All three have pre-trip vaccinations that offer "excellent long-term protection." And don't think that your childhood inoculations are still good - many vaccines require boosters every ten years to remain effective.

Vaccines are not required for every possible disease. Some, like Cholera, which sounds quite serious (who's read Death in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez?) is actually fairly benign, at least to the international traveler. A bacteria-caused disease, think of it as an extreme form of traveler's diarrhea. Properly treated with replaced electrolytes and fluids, most adults can recover completely within two days. While a vaccine does exist, most doctors don't recommend it. And, in 1973, the World Health Organization (WHO) abolished the rights of countries to require a certificate of vaccination from international travelers.

Some ailments, like worms for example, have no vaccination. Heard of Roundworm (Ascaris)? Easily contracted from contaminated food, roundworms usually cause no symptoms. Great, right? Sure, until you find out that the only way to know you have them is when you see the adult worms - white, wiggling creatures - in your feces or toilet bowl. I really wish I made that up - but I didn't.

Then there are the insect-borne diseases. Malaria jumps to mind right away - but that is just the beginning. Ever heard of Dengue Fever, Japanese Encephalitis or Yellow Fever? All mosquito-transmitted diseases, they range from relatively harmless to life threatening.

While the name - Dengue Fever - sounds scary as hell - in terms of insect-borne diseases, it's really not so bad. Contracted by urban mosquitoes during daylight hours, Dengue Fever produces flu-like symptoms in those that are infected. Treatment includes bed rest, extra fluids and OTC pain medication - with most people recovering in one to two weeks.

Japanese Encephalitis, on the other hand, is a bit more serious. Typically found in areas of ground water, especially rice paddies, this disease can result in a serious brain infection in humans - in some cases progressing to a coma and resulting in permanent brain damage or even death. Did I mention that with the exception of the vaccination, there is no specific treatment available?

Yellow Fever is another mosquito transmitted disease - and one of the most serious. It is the only internationally required vaccination for travelers, and only if you are or have traveled to parts of South America or Sub-Saharan Africa. So called because of the severe jaundice caused by liver infection, the death rate in unprotected individuals is 50%.

A pre-trip vaccination doesn't seem like such a hassle anymore, does it?

But, by far the scariest of the diseases is one called Lassa Fever. Listed under the "Exotic Infections For Your Interest" section of the health guide I was reading in the doctor's office, its write up follows the paragraphs on Anthrax and Ebola.

"Lassa Fever is caused by a virus, which is transmitted to humans from the urine of infected rats. Lassa Fever has an incubation period of between 3 and 21 days and is manifested initially by fever followed by bleeding from all body openings."

I stopped reading, feeling sick to my stomach. I began recalling every horrible disease-related horror movie I'd ever seen. Looking back at the brochure, I scanned for infected countries and possible vaccinations. While I found none, the section ended like this:

"Although the risk to international travelers is extremely low, the existence of this disease nevertheless underscores the importance of seeking medical attention for any fever while traveling in high-risk areas."

"Melanie, the doctor will see you now."

A hypochondriac is born.

**********

For those interested in more information or to confirm that the above is all true, check out www.traveldoctor.com.au. By the way - the brochure really did say that a mosquito has 47 teeth - and, that after feeding on your blood is able to fly carrying a load twice its body weight. Wow.

July 15, 2003

Our Word Is Our Bond

One week ago I renewed my tourist visa for Australia. Looking through the form, I checked a steady stream of "no" when asked questions regarding issues I'd ever had in entering foreign countries - ever being denied a visa, ever being removed from a country, ever entering a country illegally, etc. I was clean - no black spots on this record. I paid my $195 dollar renewal fee, got a new stamp in my passport and was on my way.

Less than a week later, I found out there was a good chance I was dirty. And, it seemed, the only way to protect myself and my passport from a permanent black mark was to let the corporate world take advantage of me financially - a pawn in the chess game of international business. As I write this, I'm in the middle of a battle for the money I was promised. I'm over my head and I know it, so I'm spilling the story - and hope that someone out there might have a bit of advice for me.

Unlike other tales of travel misfortune, which are horrible at the time but end up being quite funny later, this one will not make you laugh. You see, life is never as simple as one might like to imagine. Just when you think you have a good thing going, you realize it is not just black and white, right and wrong, or cut and dried. Sometimes you get screwed over in a bad way. Walking the streets of Sydney today I passed the FCUK flagship store. Looking inside at the T-shirts, I realized that those shirts illustrated exactly how I felt at that moment in time - FCUKED.

Most of you are aware that in February I landed a contracting job in Sydney. I was hired to work for a start up that was staffed by a well-known American company and financed by an Australian venture firm. What most of you don't know is that the job ended - suddenly - just a few weeks ago - and the company is refusing to pay me for work I've already done.

Unbeknownst to me, and while I was traveling around Australia, the start-up was undergoing a major reorganization. In the space of a week, they closed down the offices in Hong Kong, Singapore, India, New Zealand and Beijing, and laid off 90% of the staff. The start-up was effectively absorbed back into the US parent company, with a skeleton staff of just four people left in Sydney to run all the accounts in the Asia Pacific region.

Needless to say, I was one of the 90% laid off. In truth, I was not too fussed by this announcement. After all, this was just a temporary gig for me anyway. I expressed my regrets to the CEO, emailed my last invoice and began planning the next phase of my trip. Though I was a bit annoyed that no one told me what was going on sooner - I was only made aware a few days before my scheduled "return to work" date - there was nothing I could do so I went ahead with my travels, returning to Sydney to pack up the belongings I'd left at my apartment.

Later I found out from the CEO that the company had "closed its books" and they were unaware I had an outstanding invoice. He expressed the company's regrets, but said they would be unable to pay me - "a line had to be drawn." I was in speechless - this was not an insignificant amount of money - and besides that - I worked the days and deserved to be paid for them. He said that because my invoice was not received earlier, there was nothing that could be done - that I had been notified by email to turn in all invoices. I told him that I had been unable to access email, a fact I had written to him about in early June - asking him to write to me at my hotmail account. He ignored what I said and again stated that his hands were tied and there was nothing he could do. The amount owed? Several thousand US dollars.

Though first I was stunned and unsure of what to do, I eventually came to my senses and appealed to the CEO of the Australian venture company (my CEO's boss). My appeal fell on deaf, unsympathetic and dishonest ears - a shock since the company's mission statement (published on their Web site) places Integrity ("Our Word Is Our Bond") as its first priority. Bullshit. The investor maintained that since I didn't get my invoice in on time, and I was contacted regarding the invoice, there was nothing they could do. When I told him that I had proof to show I was unable to access my email and had communicated that to the company, he ignored me and said he could only go on what my CEO had said. Which led me to believe I'd been thrown under the bus by my own boss.

Normally, this would be a cut and dried situation in which I could threaten legal action - after all, I was working under a contact and since the company was not in liquidation (bankruptcy) they would have to pay me. However, there is a wild card. My work visa.

When I started working for the company I was still on my original working holiday visa - no problem. However, as I knew it would run out after my first month on the job, I asked the CEO about what I needed to do to keep working for the company. He said it was not an issue, as I was an independent contractor. The work I was doing for him could be done from anywhere - Bali, the US, France, etc - hence, I didn't really need a work visa. I was a bit skeptical, but not knowing the laws myself and being seduced by the paycheck, I trusted the CEO. After all, not only was he a former lawyer, but he was an American who had been living and working in Australia - running Australian companies no less - for the past 10 years.

As LeeAnn Rimes sings, "Should have known better but I didn't and I can't go back."

In desperation, I contacted the offices of the organization that first helped me get a working holiday visa in Australia. After telling them my tale, they also agreed it was cut and dried - except for the visa - a technicality they were unsure about as well, but were willing to look into - keeping my name out of it. I told them to find out what they could but - if push came to shove and my travel record/passport could in any way be "dirtied" - I would abandon my pursuit of the money. They promised total anonymity.

So now I sit and wait. I can't leave Sydney or make concrete plans until I have a final answer one way or another. I'm furious at myself for not checking out the work visa issues, for not protecting myself from a situation like this, and for trusting my boss who said it was all ok. At this point, the money isn't even my primary objective. I want revenge. Not that I will get it - I have too much to risk and travel is too important to me. Which they (the American company, the Australian start up and the Australian venture company) are counting on. Because they are even more dirty than I am.

In the middle of this mess I found out that the American company has also placed multiple US employees in the Asia Pacific without proper work visas - some of them on the same travel visa any of you would get if you decided to come to Australia on a two week holiday. If caught, the employees risk deportation as well as black marks on their passports. I'm not sure what the US company risks, but after what I've seen happen in Australia, I don't believe that they really care. The job market in the US still isn't great - I'm sure they could find replacements in a heartbeat. After all, what 20-something wouldn't jump at the chance to work overseas for a big American company?

TO BE CONTINUED....

July 08, 2003

Strange Bedfellows

Returning to Sydney after two months of vagabond travels around Australia, my flat mates Ed and Rick and I decided to take a little weekend getaway to wine country – the Hunter Valley and surroundings. Having traveled in backpacker mode for the past two months, I convinced the guys to travel my way – booking us into a hostel instead of a hotel. As neither of them had ever stayed in a hostel, both were a bit hesitant, but I assured them it would be great – and an adventure. They were warming to the idea when I reminded them to bring towels and said that I would check into bedding. I could see the look on Rick’s face saying, “What are we getting ourselves into?”

As I usually prefer length of travel over luxurious travel, I’ve mostly traveled the backpacker or budget way. In accommodation terms, this means sleeping in hostels. Though hostels vary from country to country, in most westernized nations they are communal living situations with anywhere from 4-10 people sharing a room with bunk beds and a bathroom. Some are great, some are average and a few are really horrible – but as a general rule, I don’t mind them and they are a great way to meet people – especially when you are traveling alone.

My flat mates, Americans working in Australia, are both travelers. However, they are corporate travelers – more accustomed to high end hotels and room service than communal bathrooms and bunk beds. I was more than a little apprehensive about how they would respond, especially since you never know exactly what you are going to get with a hostel until to arrive.

We spent Saturday cruising through wine country, visiting a few wineries before lunch and a few afterwards. Being winter, the vines were bare – but the tasting rooms were still full of tourists and Sydney day trippers. The Hunter Valley, like most wine regions in Australia, does not charge for tastings – a refreshing change from California’s Napa Valley. By 4 p.m. we’d had enough and turned the car toward the coast and our lodging for the night.

As budget accommodation was tough to find in the Hunter Valley, I chose a YHA-affiliated hostel in Newcastle, Australia’s sixth largest city. Newcastle, New South Wales’ second largest city (after Sydney) was the site of the second European settlement in Australia and, like most of Australia’s early settlements, was originally a penal colony. Known these days for its great surf in the summer months, the town was incredibly quiet when we arrived.

All of us were a bit cranky after the long day of driving and wine tasting, so we were thrilled when we made it to the hostel. We were placed in a five bed dorm and selecting our bunks just as one of our roommates arrived. “Susie” (not her real name) was a non-traditional hostel visitor and a non-backpacker. In her 40s, she explained she was in town to see her daughter play netball, but as she was only able to come last minute, all the traditional hotels were booked and she decided to give the hostel a try. She was very friendly and chatty and we spoke a bit more before the three of us left the room and headed out to dinner.

We ended up at a café around the corner where we had a leisurely dinner. It was still early when we decided to return to the hostel, but since all of us were tired it made sense to make it an early night. All three of us curled up in front of the fireplace in the common room and read, with Star Wars: Episode Two playing in the background.

It couldn’t have been more than 10 p.m. when Rick and I went upstairs (Ed had gone up about 20 minutes earlier). Opening the door I could see our roommate Susie, jeans halfway down, struggling to keep from falling on her bed. I was about to suggest that Rick wait when I realized Ed was in the room and Susie could care less. We walked inside just as she fell backwards onto her bunk (thankfully, she had the bottom one). She continued to struggle with her pants while Rick made a quick escape to the bathroom. I stood there slightly confused as she made suggestions regarding who I should share a bed with that night. Just as I was about to make my own escape, Ed popped his head up from the top bunk and made a gesture of holding a bottle to his lips. Suddenly, the situation became clear.

In the bathroom I told Rick what Ed had communicated to me, just as two young guys walked in. “You two aren’t in room 12, are you?” one of them asked. When I said we were, they responded, “Oh man, sorry to hear that – you’re in the room with the lady who’s pissed.” They went on to tell us that she burst into their room an hour earlier, already drunk, and brought tons of alcohol with her. They drank with her for a while, but she became too much for them to deal with so they kicked her out – which is right about the time we got back to our room to find her struggling with her pants.

Just as I was leaving the bathroom, I heard a thump on one of the stalls and saw Susie, in her pajamas, stumbling through the bathroom. She was hardly able to walk, and I am amazed she was able to find her way this far from the room. I watched as she maneuvered herself around the bathroom and finally into one of the stalls.

Back in our room, Ed was giving Rick a play by play of what had happened before we arrived. Ed, in the bunk above Susie, had been feigning sleep and was thrilled when Rick and I first came upstairs.

A bang just outside the door indicated Susie was back from the bathroom. As she walked in she mumbled, “You can stop gossiping now.” We all looked at each other and were silent. Pausing in front of her bunk, she made a comment about all of her clothes being strewn about and started to pick them up. I suggested that she would have plenty of time to clean them up in the morning, worried she would bang her head on the bunk or the wall trying to collect her things. Satisfied with that suggestion, and happy to hear that I was setting my alarm for 8 a.m., her preferred wake up time as well, she either fell asleep or passed out – with only occasional snoring breaking the silence of the room.

The next morning, as we were getting ready to check out, Susie came into the room bright eyed and energetic, collected her things and cheerily said goodbye. There was no sign of a hangover, at least one I could detect, and it was as if the night before had not happened.

Walking to our car and still talking about the evening’s events, I turned to the guys and said, “Look at it this way – you’d NEVER have gotten an experience like this if you’d have stayed in a hotel.”

July 01, 2003

Odd Man Out

"And, on your right, you'll notice a group of backpackers, sunning themselves on the sandbar like geckos," the riverboat guide said, his amplified voice booming across the gorge. We looked up from our lunches and waved at the capacity tour boat as it chugged slowly along the river. The passengers waved back and I laughed thinking how funny it was to be pointed out like a bonefide tourist attraction.

We smiled knowingly at each other and returned to our lunch, wordlessly expressing preference for our slower and more challenging mode of transportation - brightly colored yellow canoes. Even with sore arms and sun burnt shoulders, I would not have traded places with anyone on that boat. While they cruised along with a schedule, we were free to paddle along as we liked. While they were herded on and off the boat at designated ports of call, we could stop when and where we liked.

Katherine Gorge, also known by its original Aboriginal name, Nitmiluk, is the main reason people make the journey to Katherine, a small town south of Darwin in Australia's Northern Territory. There are two options for seeing the gorge - by a riverboat cruise or by canoe. Traveling alone, my plan was to meet up with someone else who would be interested in canoeing and tour the gorge that way. Though I knew there were single canoes available, I wasn't confident enough in my skills to go solo - so, even though it was a distant second, I kept the river boat cruise as a backup plan.

Upon arrival at the backpackers, I started "advertising" my availability as a canoeing partner. Unfortunately, my four roommates, all solo travelers, had already coordinated themselves and were planning on canoeing the next day. I wandered around to the other rooms, but everyone had either been to the gorge already or was traveling in pairs. Still not willing to go alone, I resigned myself to waiting another day, hoping someone new would arrive.

Val, the owner of the hostel, asked why I didn't go in a solo canoe and tag along with the four in my room. "It's a little more expensive, but I'm sure if it gets too hard someone won't mind switching it out with you along the way," she said. This wasn't my ideal situation - I wasn't keen on being the odd man out - but as I was afraid to wait around in case no one new turned up, this seemed like the most reasonable option. I hesitantly pitched the idea to the group and they were game.

We left at 8 am via shuttle bus and traveled about 30 km to Nitmiluk National Park where we rented our canoes. My travel companions consisted of Linda, a pixie faced Scottish girl with a thick almost understandable accent; Monika, a no-nonsense young German with a mass of curly dark hair; Yearina, a tiny Mexican girl with a tongue ring she played with constantly; and Claudio, a Swiss guy with 70s style hair that he was constantly brushing out of his face.

We were each given a map, a pony keg sized waterproof drum for our stuff and a lifejacket. Monika and Claudio led the way, followed closely by Linda and Yearina. In my tiny one person canoe, waterproof drum wedged between my legs, I was dead last, like the youngest child trying desperately to keep up with older siblings. It had been years since I last canoed, and it showed. Every few meters my canoe would inexplicably turn left so that I would end up paddling in a circle, like a dog chasing his tail. I immediately dubbed the canoe Lefty. Looking ahead at the others, effortlessly paddling forward, I was annoyed and frustrated at being left behind and started thinking that maybe it would have been better if I'd waited for a partner instead of going off on my own.

After a while I saw that Yearina and Linda has stopped their canoe and were waiting for me to catch up. "You're paddling too hard man," Yearina said. "You gotta steer with your paddle, otherwise you gonna wear yourself out." She showed me what she meant and after a few more meters I had the hang of it. Though still awkward for me, the canoeing became suddenly manageable. That was when I finally had a chance to look around.

Tall, steep sandstone cliffs lined the walls of the river with trees and smaller shrubs growing through the rock crevasses, hanging precariously over the edge. The shining sun would send dancing snakes of light, a reflection from the water, onto the sandstone cliffs, looking like some kind of moving artwork. These reflections were almost hypnotic, and as I watched my canoe again began to veer left - but this time, I let it, taking in the 360 degree view of my location and beginning to think this wasn't so bad after all.

The river is broken up into 8 or 9 gorges, separated by rock bars and sometimes rapids. For a day rental, we were only allowed to go as far as the third gorge, a 7 hour round trip with time for lunch and a swim. In between each gorge we were required to carry (portage) our canoes across the rocks and rapids to the next gorge. It was here that I was most grateful for my companions as it would have been near impossible for me to carry my canoe, however small, across some of the rock bars.

Once to the third gorge we turned around in search of the sandbar we'd passed earlier, our chosen lunch spot. On the way I heard the sound of water trickling from a height and noticed a small "waterfall" seeping out of the rocks. The park ranger had told me that the water in the river was safe to drink, but to be on the cautious side he recommended finding a place where the water trickled from the rock. "It's filtered through the rock for one to five years, so its as pure as it gets," he said. While filling my water bottle, two turtles became curious and swam around our groups' canoes - getting as close as two feet away, their head sticking out periodically to get a better look at us. Their feet were flat and wide, like little paddles and they moved effortlessly around us as we scrambled for our cameras.

After lunch we had a quick swim in the water, a cool and refreshing relief from the sun's heat. None of us swam out too far, however, well aware that freshwater crocodiles inhabited the river. Even though it is considered safe to swim in the water - "freshies" are shy reptiles who rarely attack and only if cornered or provoked - we were all still a bit apprehensive. We'd heard all the stories about the "freshies" cousin, the estuarine (or saltwater) crocodile. Also a protected species in the Northern Territory, though not an inhabitant of the river, these "salties" are aggressive and known to attack and kill humans.

On the way to the 3rd gorge we'd followed the rules and carried our canoes and gear across the rocky rapids instead of trying to make our way through them. However, on the return trip, the current in our favor, we decided to brave the rapids. It was here that the benefits of my smaller kayak-like canoe became apparent. While the others struggled, getting stuck on rocks, my streamlined little canoe effortlessly passed through the rapids and down to the next gorge, a brief but exhilarating experience. Looking back at the others, each group stuck and rocking back and forth in an effort to free themselves from the rocks, I couldn't help but laugh. Sometimes, its not so bad being the odd man out.