Spots of Time

September 02, 2003

Escape From Australia

Immigration raided the Sydney offices of the American company I worked for just one week before I was due to leave the country. To say the experience shook a former coworker of mine (also American) would be an understatement. But, hey, maybe he was overreacting? What IS the proper way to respond to the news that six Australian immigration officers, asking after your company, are in the lobby and blocking all the exits to the building?

To recap for those of you who missed Part One, the start-up I worked for in Sydney and its American partner dissolved ties, closing offices in Singapore, India, China, New Zealand and Australia and letting go all but four employees (including the CEO). Due to a paperwork snafu, the company refused to pay me for my last invoice, a total of several thousand Australian dollars. My attempts to reason with the venture firm controlling the funds were fruitless. I was advised and cautioned by most involved to let the matter drop and move on with my travels - and well, I almost did.

Almost.

Instead, I hired a lawyer.

You see, the situation became bigger than just the money. There was principle behind it. A company that advertises its mission statement as "Our Word is Our Bond" and then tries to get out of paying money rightfully earned, with its CEO lying to my face and playing dirty, well, that is just wrong. And, though I realized I had an uphill battle to fight, I knew that win or lose, at least this way I will know that I did everything I could and didn't just cower in the corner, another victim of the system.

The battle started with a letter which lead to some phone calls and after a few weeks my lawyer informed me that the company was now trying to get money out of me! Wait a minute - they owe me money and they expect me to pay? Unsure of what to do, I asked for his advice. In his perfect South African accent he said:

"Melanie, I would advice you to leave Australia as soon as possible."

Excuse me?

"Once you are gone I can get more aggressive, but if you are here the company can make a lot of trouble for you - they have already threatened to call immigration and the taxation board."

So, here I sit in a guesthouse in Bangkok, mulling over the nine months, one week and five days I spent in the land Down Under. Don't get my wrong - Bangkok and Asia were part of the travel plan - but I had rather hoped to leave of my own accord as opposed to rushing for fear of immigration detainment.

Before I left, an Aussie friend said to me, "It's a shame that this experience has tainted your time in Australia." I agreed with her, but later wondered - had it really?

Sure, being legally advised to leave the country wasn't EXACTLY how I pictured moving on, and potentially entering into a legal suit also wasn't on my list of "Things To Do In Oz." But, at the same time, I never thought I would do corporate work in Sydney, go to Darwin or the Top End, see two koala bears duking it out in a tree, camp next to a crocodile-infested billabong, get hit on by my surf instructor and about 500 other things that weren't part of my original "plan."

So, while I'll admit that I'm not sure I have much of a chance of getting back my money, I've decided not to stress or worry about it - and DEFINATELY not let it affect the wonderful memories I have of my time living, working and traveling in Australia. As a sign in the MRT (subway) in Singapore said:

"If you cannot help but worry, understand that worrying can not help you either." Pretty good advice in my book.

Oh, and regarding the immigration raid in Sydney? Well, after rightfully freaking out, my co-worker set up a meeting with one of the immigration officers. A nightmare of inaction on the part of the American company, they finally put him in touch with two lawyers, both of whom accompanied him to the meeting. The officer looked a bit surprised to see my co-worker flanked with representation and reiterated that their meeting was "simply an educational forum to update your company on the Australian policies of hiring non-resident workers." An educational forum huh? Oh, well that makes sense - OF COURSE you would need to send six officers after one person - for the sake of EDUCATION.

********

Next week: "Asia for Beginners"

August 26, 2003

Televised Regrets

This week’s column was scheduled to be on my recent experience in a sensory depravation floatation tank – a story that is more than halfway written at this very moment. However, instead of being able to finish it, I’m finding myself turning around in my chair every two minutes and staring at the television, alternating between stunned amazement, extreme sympathy and abject horror.

The subject of my attention is “Australian Idol – The Bad, The Mad and the Ugly,” a “special” showing highlights of "reject" audition tapes from thousands of young Aussie hopefuls wanting to be the next singing sensation. Hypnotized by the painfully horrible singing, unbelievable outfits and stinging judges commentary, my flatmates and are physically unable to avert our eyes. While Rick is laughing his ass off, I’m cringing each time I see another poor kid baring his soul and being ripped to shreds – even if his voice does make me want to run for the hills.

Torn between my looming deadline and the train wreck happening behind me, I finally abandoned my floatation tank storyline in favor of musings about that which was currently keeping my attention – Australian television.

When I first came to Australia I was intrigued by the diversity of Australian television. Unlike American TV, where 99.9% of the programming is “Made in the USA,” much of Australian television is imported from the US and the UK. Initially I found it refreshing. Not only was I learning about Aussie programming, I was also getting a taste of the UK – and, as a bonus, could still see some of my favorite shows from back home.

Unfortunately, my interest soon waned. Try as I might, I could not find myself drawn to even one of the Aussie television programs. “Neighbors,” an evening soap that launched the careers of both Kylie Minogue and Natalie Imbrulia, was dull and predictable. “Home and Away” another evening serial, was full incredibly bad actors and actresses. My hopes hung on “The Secret Life of US” for a while – in vain. As popular now as Melrose Place was during its heyday, I found it poorly written and completely dull. Try as I might – and I did watch it weekly for a month – I could not get interested in any of the characters or storylines. And, the same goes for dozens of other programs I sampled throughout my 9 months in the country.

In all fairness, I should explain that between work and travel, I only average, at best, a few hours of television per week – and mostly out of the corner of my eye while someone else has it on in the background. As such, my cursory study of Aussie television is not really a fair assessment of the industry. Other people will tell you "The Footy Show" is hilarious, that "McCloud's Daughters" is wonderful or that I just haven't watched the right programs. And, maybe they are right. Still, one would think that the odds were in my favor to find at least one show that captured my attention. Unfortunately not. But then the British surprised me.

Truthfully, I had planned to give all the British programs a miss right away – like most Americans, I find that I just don’t “get” most British television humor – at least those that I had seen in the US (can any one say “Benny Hill?”). Though there were a few exceptions - programs like Absolutely Fabulous and Monty Python spring to mind - I wasn't really a fan of much programming from the UK.

But, then I got lucky. Randomly one evening I started watching a British import entitled “The Kumars at No. 42!” A combination sitcom and talk show, the program focuses on the Kumar family, an upper class Indian family living in the UK. The adult son, Sanjeev is desperate to move out of his parent’s house, but his family has built him a television studio in their backyard where he hosts his own talk show – “Sanjeev!” All guests coming on his show (real people from the non-sitcom world) must pass through the house and the questioning of Sanjeev’s parents and racy grandma – always in character – before coming on to his show. But they aren’t safe there – all three sit on the couch next to the interviewee and interviewer and provide a running commentary – much to Sanjeev’s dismay.

While it sounds bizarre, I found it really very funny – and completely unique in concept. The Aussies already have their own version – “Greeks on the Roof” and the US is not far behind. Turns out NBC recently shelled out $6 million dollars for the rights to the concept of “No. 42.” I’m very curious to see how the American’s do this one. I’m picturing Kato Kaylan hosting a talk show from OJ’s pool house, with real guests being interviewed while on floaties in the water.

But, I digress.

Turning my attention back to the “Australian Idol” special I found it hard to laugh along with my flatmates – as horribly funny as some of the auditions were to those not intimately involved with the contestants. Some of it was the scathing judges commentary – everything from “That voice should come with a government warning” to “Between the two of you there is not enough talent for even one of you (regarding twins)” to “The only good thing I can say about him is this – at least he isn’t a twin.” More than one contestant broke down in tears, either immediately or after they left the judges view.

But the bigger issue for me was that the “reject” audition tapes were being shown at all. While some of the auditions were clearly jokes or bets being fulfilled, most of the kids auditioning were very serious about wanting to be taken seriously – and crushed when they realized their dreams of singing were not going to come true. And now, to add insult to injury, their failure was being broadcast all across the country. Well, to me that just seemed like cruel and unusual punishment.

But maybe that is because I am too close to this particular situation. Maybe it is because not only can I sympathize with these kids, but I can empathize with them as well.

You see, about five years ago, on a whim and much younger and dumber than I am today, I decided to submit an audition tape to “The Real World” on MTV. I had forgotten all about it until I started watching the special. I’m quite sure I didn’t read the fine print in the application form, and I’m guessing that somewhere in the bottom, in really tiny 8-point type, is a sentence that explains that all tapes are the property of MTV – for use as they see fit – in perpetuity.

I’m dreading the day - when and if it ever arrives – that my tape finds the light of day. Sure, I’m not singing on it, and I know that whatever I wore isn’t even close to as hideous as some of the clothes I’ve just seen. However, watching the auditions for Australian Idol, broadcast nationwide, with side commentary from both the judges and the contestants, all I know is this – I WANT MY TAPE BACK.

Um, I don’t suppose anyone knows someone at MTV that might be able to go on a reconnaissance mission for me? Please? Anyone?

August 19, 2003

Saturn's Return

I'd like to tell you that I threw my back out skydiving. I'd like to tell you I threw my back out adventure kayaking. But, as I recently read that writers are meant to tell the truth, I have no choice but to admit to you that I hurt myself by trying to apply sunscreen to the hard to reach places on my back. I realize lame doesn't begin to describe it.

Salvation came in the form of a tie-dyed wearing, holistic masseuse named Renee. She and her daughter, Indigo, had been walking along just a block from the hostel when the desk clerk rang her mobile. You see, I was in Rainbow Beach, population 900, a town without a bank or a traffic light, much less a doctor or a chiropractor. In no position to be picky, I gladly accepted her services.

Minutes later I was lying on her massage table. "Melanie," she asked, starting to work on my back, "Have you been under a lot of stress lately?" I know it sounds like a joke - a traveler on a perpetual vacation being under stress - but really, it is possible. Except, I didn't think I was under a lot of stress, so I said no. "Hmmm," she said, kneading my back. "Are you the type of person who takes on other people's issues?" I admitted that I had a tendency to get wrapped up in other people's issues, mostly familial, but I didn't think that was the cause of my aching back. Then she asked me how old I was. When I told her 29 she got quiet for a while, then said, "You know, this might be due to your Saturn Return." My what? "Your Saturn Return - it usually hits around age 28/29." Oh, well sure, that totally explains it. HUH?

I should probably explain that while I tell people I'm from San Francisco, California, where words like "life force," "Saturn Return," and "cosmic energy" can be part of every day speech, my roots are Midwestern Indiana, where people eat red meat and potatoes, think vegetarians are a deviant subculture, and shake their heads when people from California say things like, "put it out to the universe and the universe will provide." After five years in California I was pretty hip to most of the spacey stuff, even subscribed to some of it - however, "Saturn Return" was not part of my vocabulary - yet.

Renee told me that a person's "Saturn Return" was a time of angst and frustration, and of working out of one's issues. She said it was a time to find what in your life made you happy and to grab it with both hands. It was also a time that tested you - and the choices made during this time in one's life would indicate what one could expect for the next 29 years of life. Great - so what she was saying was that everything I was dealing with now in my life had to be sorted out or I would face 29 more years of uncertainty and confusion - no pressure there. Thanks Renee. I could feel my back tighten just thinking about it!

When I got back to my hostel my back was still sore, but better. I decided to spend the next few days taking it easy and doing as little physical activity as possible. The relaxation, while good for my muscles, allowed my mind to spin wildly out of control. My head was a jumble of confusion - Was my back injury a sign for me to slow down and think about things instead of just pushing forward with what I had been doing? What did Saturn's Return have to do with it? What was it that made me happy? And, if I didn't find it before Saturn completed its cycle, would the next 29 years of my life be miserable? I needed more information.

An Internet search provided me with the necessary background on Saturn Return (thank you Google!). According to a variety of astrologically-themed Web sites "Saturn Return is the period in one's life between the ages of approximately 27 and 30 years of age when the planet Saturn completes its first cycle through your birth chart and returns to the spot it occupied when you were born." Great - but what did that have to do with my back and my life, other than being mildly interesting?

Apparently, one's Saturn Return coincides with (or causes - depending on your perspective) a time of reevaluation of your life - a time "when people turn inward and reflect on their individual destiny...examine true needs and desires and the role you want to play on the world's stage." In the Web sites I perused, I found a person's Saturn Return described as everything from "a time of self meeting self" to "one of the most important times in your life" to "a necessary period of consolidation when you must retreat from the distractions of the outer world and focus on yourself at your most fundamental level."

Interesting. On the one hand, I was intrigued. I would be lying if I said that the years from 27 to present were all sunshine and roses. In fact, I considered 27 and 28 to be among the hardest years in my life to date. Yet, I wasn't totally ready to believe that my frustration and confusion was due to the planet Saturn's tour through the birth signs and its return to the position it inhabited when I was born. Was this "astrological coming of age" really due to a far off planet, or just a coincidence?

A couple of years ago, when I was traveling in Cuba, a friend and I were discussing the meaning of life, as you do when traveling, and determined that every one of our friends, in their late 20s, were going through a "change" - a difficult period in their life when they were questioning what they were doing, where they were going, and who they were with. I can't remember what my friend called it, but we chalked it up to being a "quarter life crisis" - a buzz phrase at the time.

I had totally forgotten about that conversation, until Renee brought up Saturn's Return.

Now, lying on the beach, physically immobile but mentally running a marathon, I was thinking about it again. Looking at my life, and that of my friends, I realized that the late 20s are a time of great change for most of us. In my life specifically, I have seen friends get married, have children, go to grad school, move to new cities, change careers, or go on extended travels - all in their late 20's. They have all "chosen" paths - many times, paths that a few years earlier seemed unthinkable or totally contrary to their personalities. Was this all a big coincidence?

The Web sites all said that a person's Saturn Return was "the astrological equivalent of becoming an adult - marking the end of youth and the beginning of the productive adult years." And, funny thing, at least for me, this past year I've suddenly felt quite grown up. Everything I am doing is on my terms. I feel, for the first time, responsible for my own destiny. And, while incredibly exciting and freeing - it also scares the shit out of me.

I can't tell you if the thoughts and feelings I have been experiencing, the questions, the challenges and the confusion about my place in this crazy world - I can't tell you if its all part of my Saturn Return or just part of growing up. Truthfully, I just don't believe strongly enough in the concept - that the cycle of a planet has that much control over my life. But, I also can't tell you that learning about this astrological phenomenon hasn't made me look back over the past few years of my life and think - "hmmmm, I wonder?"

All I know is that the past few years have been challenging and wonderful and hard and lonely and crazy and beautiful - all at the same time. And, for some reason, a time when I've done more than ever before to make a conscious effort to take control and responsibility for my life - whatever the final outcome.

Interestingly enough, the last Web site I looked at with regards to Saturn Return said this:

"Saturn Return is one of the most crucial turning points you ever experience, when you assume the greatest responsibility of all: responsibility for your own life."

Though I still won't admit to being a full believer, at least I can feel confident that in terms of the cosmos, I've got my bases covered.

August 12, 2003

Talk To Strangers

I noticed him right away. Standing across the street from me and waiting for the same downtown traffic light to turn green. His oversized arms were effortlessly carrying an enormous swag (a canvas outdoor sleeping bag and tent all rolled into one) and a duffle to match. His huge back dwarfed the tiny daypack he was carrying, making it look child-sized. He was wearing worn blue jeans, a tall hat and a belt buckle that shone in the sun. I was sure this man had not worn a suit to work a day in his life.

He strode across the street to the bus stop, dropped his gear to the ground on either side of him, swung one leg over the swag and sat down. Elbows to knees, hands hanging freely, he surveyed the cosmopolitan clutter around him through a sun burnt face and squinted eyes. He looked exactly like my picture of a true Aussie outback bloke. Which made me wonder - what was he doing in downtown Perth? Who was he? Why was he here? And, most importantly, where was he going?

"Don't talk to strangers." It's not something that children instinctively know, so parents and other tall people are constantly reminding them of it. If you have ever watched two little ones eye each other across a crowd of grown-up knees, you see the natural curiosity that draws children (humans) together. When one is five years old its easy to walk up to another five year old and say "Hi." Odds are, you'll be running around the playground moments later, best of friends. But, the older you get the harder it becomes - then one day you realize it's no longer adults that are telling you not to talk to strangers - its the voice inside your own head.

I crossed the street, still watching the stranger. I walked within two feet of where he was sitting, hesitated a fraction of a second, and then kept walking. I walked for about two blocks, telling myself to go back and talk to him and then almost immediately talking myself out of it. Then I remembered a tale that a travel columnist friend of mine had written several weeks earlier - the basic premise being that travelers should approach travel like a travel writer - ask questions, be curious, follow up on your thoughts. I stopped walking, took a deep breath, turned around and walked back.

"Excuse me, can I take your picture?" I said, fully expecting him to say no. This wasn't the opening was hoping for, but that was what popped out.

"Sure," he said smiling easily. "What for?"

Hugely relieved, but not wanting to look foolish, I hesitated. Then I decided what the hell - one of the great things about traveling is knowing that if you really make a fool of yourself it doesn't matter because you'll be moving on soon enough.

"Because you look exactly like what I thought an Australian outback man would look like before I got to Australia." I said hesitantly. He laughed - one of those giant belly laughs - and that made me start to laugh too.

"I'm Roy," he said, as we shook hands and introduced ourselves. "Where are you from?"

"San Francisco - you?"

"Alice Springs."

After I took his picture, I asked him where he was going. "Heli-mustering cattle up north for a month," he replied. Heli-mustering? "It's like herding cattle - but you bring them in with a helicopter instead of a horse - a Robinson 22 from America to be exact." A Robinson 22? And, so began our conversation.

The next thing I knew, I was learning all about heli-mustering from a man that - up until a few moments before - had been a complete and total stranger.

Roy worked for a heli-muster company out in Alice Spring and was frequently "loaned out" to large ranches in various parts of Australia. His job? To fly a tiny one-man helicopter around a large ranch and bring in mobs of cattle - anywhere from 300-3500 cattle. Days can be long - 12-14 hours - and the work is hard. "You don't stop to eat until you're done so sometimes all you've got in you in a cup of coffee," he said. And, since ranches in Australia are so large, it sometimes takes several days to muster all the cattle.

Where do you sleep, I asked, even though I already knew the answer. "This here's me bed for the month," he said, slapping the swag on its side. He pointed to his duffle and said it held his work clothes for the next month - up to three months if need be. Heli-mustering is seasonal work, he told me, so he was frequently on the road. When I asked about his family, he said he had a wife back in Alice Springs - but it sounded like a new arrangement. "It's a lot easier when you're single - I've been home 6 months of the last 18," he said.

After a while, the conversation had run its course and I figured Roy's bus would be coming soon. I stood up to go, saying "Roy, its been great talking to you." He agreed and we parted ways. I thought a lot about Roy and his life as I continued my walk toward the water. How different it was from my own. Yet, it had been so easy for us to talk to each other. After the initial awkwardness - which was mostly on my part - the conversation had flowed freely. I think Roy was pretty jazzed that someone was interested enough in his life to ask so many questions. And I was thrilled that he was willing to answer them.

The more I travel, the more I realize that traveling is about the people. You can go to a beautiful place and leave disappointed if your interactions with the people - travelers, locals, whatever - is unfulfilling. Or, you can go to an average place, meet some wonderful people, and leave raving about your experience.

Traveling around Australia these past 9 months, I have found that I usually meet more travelers than locals. Backpackers are catered to so comprehensively, that unless you make a conscious effort to talk to locals or just non-backpackers, you won't get the chance. And that is a huge mistake. The core of any country, any culture, any place - is its people. Not the people that come to see the country on a two week or ten month escapism holiday, but the people who live there day in and day out - like Roy - because it is their reality.

As James Mitchener wrote, "If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home."

I heartily agree...so don't forget to talk to strangers.

August 05, 2003

Swimming With The Fishes

The cold, salty water shocked me. The waves were choppy and I had trouble keeping my head above the surface. Why was I surprised? I had 20 kilos of scuba gear strapped to my back and waist - I certainly wasn't going to bob like a cork. I felt like a gangster in 1930s Chicago who just snitched on Al Capone and whose payment was cement booties and a one-way trip to the bottom of Lake Michigan. Except I voluntarily paid for this privilege. My sanity was definitely in question.

"Learn to scuba dive in the beautiful Great Barrier Reef!" the brochure had said, tempting me with pictures of tanned men and women smiling benevolently beneath a bright sunny sky. Pictures of candy colored fish swimming around gorgeous coral formations. The sky and sea a beautiful warm blue. After a few weeks in chilly Sydney I needed no arm twisting - sign me up and take me away!

Still struggling in the swirling water, I switched to my snorkel - like I learned in the warm, waveless and shallow dive center pool. I promptly swallowed a mouthful of saltwater. Coughing, I spit out the snorkel in time to see my instructor signal it was time to go down.
I inserted the regulator into my mouth and stuck my masked face in the water. All I could see was a murky blue bottomless expanse of ocean. This was not in the brochure.

Most of the group was already underwater, so I forced another shallow breath and followed the masses down. Releasing all the air in my BCD (air vest), I slowly sank down into the dark, cold waters of the Great Barrier Reef. A meter or two underwater my brain woke up in a panic - this was a mistake - a HUGE terrible mistake. God had given me lungs that breathed air for a reason. If he had meant me to breath underwater I would have been born with gills. Water was leaking into my mask, I was sucking on my regulator like a woman possessed. Suddenly, it became clear. If I kept going, this was going to be my last earthly vision - masked humans pretending to be fish.

Self-preservation instinct kicked in as I wildly signaled to my instructor, Joe, that I was not doing ok. Without waiting for his response I kicked up to the surface. I wrenched the mask and regulator from my face and began gasping for air. Within seconds, Joe was by my side.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

"GASP! Water...mask leaking...salty...GASP!...cold...can't do it...COUGH!"

He grabbed me by the shoulders, inflating my BCD so I could float unassisted and put his face inches from mine. In all honestly, I can't remember exactly what he said, but something to the effect of "calm down...it is just salt water...we can fix your mask...breathe...you ARE ok...you CAN do this."

I stared into his calm eyes with panic in mine. Something in the sound of his voice - sympathetic, yet using the slightly amused tone normally reserved for children scared of monsters in their closets - calmed me down. I don't know how. At that moment I decided that maybe I wasn't going to die. That MAYBE I would consider going back under the surface of the water.

I put my regulator back into my mouth and adjusted my mask I CAN do this, I thought. At least once. If I hate it, I never have to go back in. Realizing I had control of the situation, I signaled - rather unconvincingly - that I was ready to go down.

Five minutes later I was under several meters of water and concentrating with all my might to keep breathing regularly. The number one most important rule of scuba diving is to never hold your breath - to keep breathing evenly and slowly. The best I could do was suck air in and out like Darth Vader with an asthma problem. Breathe in...bubbles out....breathe in...bubbles out. Every few minutes, Joe would turn to me and flash me the "Ok? Ok!" signal - which I would dishonestly return, terror in my eyes.

Breathe in...bubbles out....breathe in...bubbles out...suddenly a brightly colored fish darted in front of me, looked me in the eye, then swam off. Cool! Look at that fish, I wonder what kin...SHIT! Breathe in...bubbles out...breathe in...bubbles out. Concentrate idiot!

But, the damage had been done - I'd glimpsed a taste of the wonders of the underwater world. And, even though I wasn't ready to admit it then, I wanted to see more.

Two days later I was a PADI certified diver. I'd made 7 more dives, including one creepy crawly night dive (another story completely!), seen multiple sharks, three sea turtles, and hundreds of parrotfish, damsel fish, and butterfly fish - not to mention dozens of different types of coral, giant clams and sea stars. On our first dive sans instructor I was even chosen to lead our graduated group of three.

To be honest, I'm not sure what got me in the water the second time. Maybe it was being afraid to look foolish in front of my group. Maybe it was because we'd already had two people drop out of our group and I didn't want to be another. Maybe it was the type-A inside me refusing to give up. Maybe it was because I had paid good money to learn how to swim with the fishes. I don't know. But, after that second dive, I realized that maybe - just maybe - I could get through the course. And, maybe - just maybe - I would actually be able to enjoy it.

In life I usually maintain a philosophy of trying almost anything at least once. After all, how else will you know if you like it? Scuba diving taught me that sometimes you have to try something more than once - or twice - to really give it a fair chance. That first impressions, while often unfamiliar and scary, aren't always the impressions that stick with you.

It is too soon to tell what I will remember most from this scuba education adventure. But, I can almost guarantee that it won't be choppy water or leaky masks or swallowing salt water.

On one of our final dives, my two buddies and I hired a digital camera to take photos underwater. For 30 minutes we swam around the Great Barrier Reef - turning somersaults, chasing fish and taking silly pictures of each other underwater. It wasn't until we climbed back aboard the boat that I realized I hadn't once worried about breathing regularly or choaking on water. I had been completely mesmerized by the water, the animals, the coral and the moment. I was just swimming with the fishes.

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.

June 24, 2003

The Tour from Hell

I was sick. Not hung over sick, or tired sick, but honest and truly sniffling, sneezing, coughing, aching, stuffy head, and sore throat sick. All the classic flu-like symptoms that made me want to crawl into bed and sleep until I died, or at least, felt better. But, instead, I was leaving on a 5-day "camping-under-the-stars" tour of Kakadu National Park, at the Top End of Australia near Darwin.

Now, some may question my sanity in making the trip. You are not alone - I questioned my sanity many times throughout the trip, starting on Day One and continuing through Day Five. However, the tour was pre-booked and pre-paid and the tour company would not allow me to post-pone the trip until their next scheduled departure. I was told that if I could not find someone to take my place, and I did not go, I would forfeit the $650 I spent on the tour. And, so I went. Armed with a belly full of chicken soup and an assortment of OTC flu pills and throat soothers.

In hindsight, I imagine that the travel insurance policy I took out might have covered me for this type of situation. In hindsight, I imagine that I could have asked to talk to the owner of the travel company and pleaded my case. However, as I had been sick for a couple of days, and hadn't really slept in 48 hours, these ideas did not occur to me at the time.

After traveling with friends for the past few weeks, I was back on my own and eager to meet some fun new travel companions. My tour was billed as "adventure travel for young, fit people between the ages of 18 and 35" which sounded perfect. Except, looking around at the faces on my tour something wasn't right. Over half the group was more than 50 years old! Now, while I actually enjoy an eclectic mix of ages when I travel, this was a bit much - especially considering the expectations I had when I booked.

Our group of 10 travelers was made up of a young English couple, a 30 year old American girl and myself. The oldies included an elderly librarian/birdwatcher and her friend, an Aussie grandmother and her second husband, and a fit but mature New Zealand bushwalker.

Sick from the start, I was able to commandeer the front seat, the only thing that made the over 1000 km round trip manageable. However, this gave me a front row seat for the vehicle breakdown we had about 2 hours outside of Darwin. The tour guide, a white woman with an Aboriginal name, whom I will call Flower Blossom (not her real name) was completely inept at vehicle repair, even though the brochure had advertised that all drivers were "mechanically inclined."

Five hours later we were still sitting there, waiting. The police had come and gone. Other vehicles had pulled over and tried to help. In between there had been sparks and shocks coming from the battery since Flower Blossom did not know the proper way to attach positive and negative jumper cables. We had lunch. And I spent the majority of the time curled up on the benches in the back of the van, raising my pounding head occasionally to ensure that we were still stuck and that if the van caught on fire someone would wake me up.

You know it is going to be the trip from hell when you are counting down the days and the hours and you aren't even 200 km outside of your departure city.

After the break down, Flower Blossom lost confidence in the vehicle. We lost confidence in her. And the tour went downhill from there.

Back on the road, I started telling Flower Blossom about a previous tour where we had encountered a number of dead kangaroos. She silenced me halfway through my tale. "Tour guides are very superstitious," she said. "There are three things you never talk about or tell stories about - vehicle breakdowns, dead animals, and injured people. At least, until the tour is over."

I apologized and was silenced, but in the back of my head I was already thinking - hmmm - we've already broken down. I wonder how long before we hit an animal or someone gets hurt? Looking back at the oldies in the van, I assumed an injury was our next order of business.

I was wrong. Less than an hour later, a large black and white bird came swooping down near the windshield. Flower Blossom did her best to avoid him, but to no avail. SMACK! The bird's body hit the window, feathers flying. "Damn it!" the guide said, and then, turning to me accusingly, said, "See - what did I tell you? You can't talk about those things!" Did I mention that it was still Day One?

By the morning of Day Two, I had lost my voice completely. The dysfunctionality of the group showed when it took most people until our lunch stop to realize that I simply wasn't speaking. No one said good morning, no one asked how anyone else had slept, people just ate their breakfast in silence, washed their dishes and got back into the truck for the next destination. This was not my idea of fun, but without a voice, I couldn't do much to change the dynamic of the group.

Day Two also included our first injury - the Aussie grandmother twisted her ankle during our long hike at Kooplin Gorge. This was not a shock - of the five oldies, it was apparent that three (the grandmother, the librarian/birdwatcher and her friend) were not truly fit enough for the hikes - some of which were 8-10 km per day. Our pace was slowed considerably, which made for some very late nights. We didn't make it into camp once during daylight hours, and I don't think we ate before 9 p.m. any night. The bickering grew (especially from the birdwatcher/librarian and her friend) and extended to the tour guide, who was quickly losing patience with everyone. I remember thinking, if I get my voice back tomorrow, I might just pretend I don't - just so I don't have to talk to anyone. Sad.

On Day Three, still without a voice (legitimately) I volunteered to sit in the back seat, not wanting to hog the front seat for the whole trip. It only took about an hour on the dry, dusty roads for me to start coughing. Coughing so hard that I couldn't control the coughing, could hardly breathe, tears, snot and saliva dripping down my face. The guide stopped the car so I could get out and collect myself, after which point I was put back into the front seat. The coughing fits continued however, and I found the only way to keep myself sane and breathing was to wet a bandana and breathe through it any time we were in the car and during dusty parts of the hikes. My level of misery was growing and there was nothing I could do about it but keep moving and count down the hours until we were back in Darwin.

Without a voice I was powerless - that is, in addition to not being able to communicate effectively, I could also not defend myself. Some of the tour members apparently thought that my lack of voice also meant a lack of hearing. I overheard more than one unkind word about my participation on the tour while I was clearly ill - and my coughing keeping the camp up at night (even though I sequestered myself as far away from everyone as I could). I cried myself to sleep that night.

By Day Five I finally had my voice back, though I sounded like a cane toad and didn't speak much unless it was necessary. Thinking we were in the home stretch, I relaxed a bit, actually enjoying the last day's boat tour over crocodile infested waters. Maybe that had something to do with the boat tour guide - who actually explained to us what we were seeing, vs. Flower Blossoms minimal commentary, mostly in response to questions.

Pulling away from the boat tour we traveled down a dirt road toward the main highway and our final stretch back to Darwin. Suddenly, from the bushes a wallaby (similar to a kangaroo but smaller) jumped across the road. Flower Blossom slammed on the breaks and tried to swerve but at the last second the wallaby hesitated. THUNK. His body hit the front of the truck and it was all over. Flower Bloom was heartbroken - she turned the truck around so we could go back and check on him. His tail twitched twice and then, nothing. She got out of the truck and grabbing him by the tail, pulled his body over to the side of the road. We were all silent for a while, and even though I tried to stop it, I couldn't help but think, "the perfect end to the perfect trip."

As we neared Darwin, Flower Blossom turned to me and only half jokingly said, "You know, if I get sick, I'm blaming you." I looked at her for a minute with surprise, and then said, "Actually, if you get sick, its is your company's fault. I knew I was not fit to go on this tour, but they told me my only option was to go or forfeit the money. So if you want to blame someone, blame your money hungry boss." By now I had lost all patience with the group and couldn't wait to get out of the truck and get away.

I had a feeling that Flower Blossom felt the same way. I'm willing to bet any amount of money that for the next 6 months, when she talks about the "tour from hell" it will be a blow by blow description of our trip. And, I don't blame her. Even in my misery I frequently felt bad for her and what she was going through - don't let anyone tell you the tour guide's life is all sunshine and roses.

The irony of the trip is that most of this was completely lost on the birdwatcher/librarian and her friend. During our last night (Day Four) both a bit tipsy on their boxed wine, they proposed a toast, "To us - we've been a great tour!" Flower Blossom looked at them incredulously and then, quite sarcastically said, "You're the best tour group I've ever had." Most of us laughed, knowing the truth. However, the birdwatcher/librarian and her friend didn't get it. "What are you laughing about?" she said. "I think we've been a great group - we haven't complained at all - even though people kept us up all night with their coughing and others slowed us down because they were hurt. I think we've been great - to us!"

If I had a voice at that moment, I think I still would have been speechless.

June 17, 2003

Heading Bush

The rain came in big splashy drops, quickly turning into a downpour. Our group rushed back down the hill to the van, but our efforts were in vain. By the time we all piled in we were drenched - but laughing. A good sign that our group was finally bonding. While everyone was friendly enough when we met, we hadn't been making a lot of headway in the bonding department - that is, until the sky opened up. It's funny how a little bit of shared adversity bonds a group together. It's just as if the rain were meant to come - to loosen everyone up for the adventure that lay ahead.

The day after our train arrived in Adelaide, Alex and I left on a ten-day outback camping trip called "Heading Bush." Ten days of 4WD off-road driving from Adelaide to Alice Springs, camping in swags along the way and traveling with 9 strangers through some of the most remote country Australia had to offer to those willing to go off the beaten path. In my travels to date I had never been on a tour that had lasted for more than 4 days, so 10 days trapped (er, traveling) with 10 other people was new territory for me - and I was a little bit apprehensive.

Our group was an international mix of three Germans, one Swiss, one Irish, one Belgian, an Israeli couple and an Australian tour guide and ranged from one teenager to one 40-something with a mixture of 20 and 30-somethings in between. With the exception of Alex and I and the Israeli couple, everyone else was traveling solo. On the afternoon of the first day I looked around with the sudden realization that that fate of my trip rested on these 10 strangers. And I wondered, would we all get along?

Traveling is not just about where you go. In fact, I would say that where you go only accounts for about 50% of your trip. The other 50% of your trip is the experience you have while you are there - and that is almost always dependent, to some extent, on the people you interact with while you are there. I have incredibly fond memories of rather unremarkable cities - simply because of the wonderful people I met while I was there. Similarly, I have horrible memories of otherwise lovely cities - again, because of the people I met while I was there.

Luckily, both halves of the equation with regards to this tour were excellent - a great tour with great people. But that wasn't a given - getting along with a group of strangers thrown together for 10 days of eating, sleeping, and traveling takes some work and some compromise. In addition to different ages, we were dealing with different personalities and different nationalities - more than half of which were speaking in a language that was not their native tongue. And, we were dealing with less than ideal conditions - long, hard road travel, exposure to the elements, bug attacks, lack of regular showers, and 11 people sleeping in the same space for nine nights. Not to mention different ideas about humor and sharing and responsibility. And yet, somehow it all worked out - well.

From Adelaide to Alice Springs we drove through some amazing areas. We stopped in towns like Williams Creek, with a permanent population of just 6 people, and Coober Pedy a city where 3/4 of the people live underground to escape the heat of the desert. We saw natural wonders like Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) and Uluru (Ayres Rock), saw amazing sunrises and sunsets over desert landscape, and woke up to the sound of dingoes and galahs. We learned how to bake bread in a camp fire, shared traditions from different countries and cultures, told jokes, played games, passed around pictures, and generally got to know each other. I'm convinced that 90% of all the worlds issues could be solved if world leaders were forced to get to know each other a similar environment - without their handlers, press agents and speech writers.

I recently returned from another tour - one that did not work out so well. In fact, I am willing to bet any amount of money that the tour guide from this tour will use our tour group as her "tour from hell" story for at least the next 6 months. I know I will. While only a five day tour, and this time with all native English speakers, it just didn't work. But that is a story for another time. :)

So, while a big thanks goes out to Mother Nature for all the natural beauty we saw (especially the amazing desert sunrises and sunsets) I want to sent out a special thanks to the people - to Avi and Idan from Israel, to Bart from Belgium, to Suzanna and Tine and Lilly from Germany, to Peter from Switzerland, to Sara from Ireland, to Alex, and to our tour guide Simon - for an excellent tour.

June 10, 2003

"Don't Count Your Quokkas..."

Biking around Rottnest Island this afternoon I had my column all planned out: the benefits of off-season travel to high tourist locals - the quiet, the tranquility, the lack of screaming children and vacationers hell bent on having a good time. I even had the title - "Off-Season Island Oasis." However, there is a reason the saying "don't count your chickens before they hatch" exists - though in my case, it would have been better to say "don't count your quokkas."

The Dutch "discovered" Rottnest island, located 19 kilometers off the western coast of Australia (near Perth), in the 17th century. They gave it the name "Rottnest," which means rat's nest, mistakenly assuming the island marsupials were very large rats. Of course, the Aboriginals had already known about the island, which they called Wadjemup (meaning "place across the water") and had their own name for the little animals - quokka. Quokkas are in the wallaby family (think a smaller version of a kangaroo), and are native to the island - the only place in all of Australia that they exist.

I had heard about the island and these friendly little animals, said to run rampant around the island and friendly to boot, so, my last day in Perth I decided to take the hour long ferry down the Swan river to the island. Though it was raining when I left Perth I had high hopes for better weather on the island. I was not disappointed - though still overcast, there was no rain and pockets of blue sky were visible.

I rented a bike - de rigueur on the island as cars are almost totally absent and visitors don't get the option of bringing their own or renting once there. Since the island is only 11 km long and about 4.5 kilometers wide, it was fairly easy to bike around the whole island in a day. For $20 I received a multi-gear bike, a bike lock and the mandatory helmet.

From the Thompson Bay settlement (the only thing resembling a town on the island) I biked north, stopping frequently to walk out to sandy bays, explore a lighthouse and check out the near-deserted vacation cabins and condos. Though I passed a few people here and there, my experience was fairly solitary. My first quokka experience took place within 10 minutes of my ride. The little fellow calmly posed for a picture and seemed nonplused by my presence - even though I was about three feet away from him. His eyes glazed over and he looked like he was half asleep. Later I found that quokkas are nocturnal animals - and, as it was about 12 noon, my little friend must have been sleepwalking when I came across him.

At Parakeet Bay, on the top of the island, I stopped to explore one of the many beaches. Though there were a pair of fresh footprints along the water's edge, I couldn't see a living soul in either direction from where I was standing. The water was turquoise blue intermixed with a deep midnight - reminding me of a much more tropical location - though the weather was brisk (about 15 degrees C, 60 F). Standing there, alone, I was thrilled by the solitude and calm - a product of the time of year more than the location. Earlier, at the bike shop, weaving my way though row after row of bicycles and helmets, I was told a story of a much busier time of year. I patted myself on the back for the "discovery" of this tourist-free time of year and congratulated myself on my off-season visit.

Continuing west I barely noticed the dark rain clouds that covered the sky - until they let loose a torrent of tiny raindrops. "No worries" I thought, putting on my raincoat and turning back toward Parakeet Bay and blue sky. Except there was no more blue sky. And now the rain was coming down in much bigger raindrops. As I peddled my mind suddenly remember something about the promised Mediterranean-like climate." While summer promise hot, sunny weather, winters are known for being mild - but wet.

I peddled as fast as I could toward Thompson Bay, a mere 20 minutes away according to one tourist sign. By now the rain was lashing at my face and hands, soaking the tops of my pants so they stuck to my legs like cling wrap. I peddled on while huge drops of water collected on the edge of my mandatory helmet and every so often splashed down before my eyes, temporarily blurring my vision. Not that I passed any other pedestrians or cyclists. Two service vehicles passed me along the way, and I managed only a half-hearted acknowledgement of their existence before pressing on. Suddenly, the solitude of the island and the lack of visitors made sense. Who in their right mind would want to bicycle around an island during a rainstorm?

Once back at Thompson Bay I took shelter at a cafe and ordered a hot tea. As I brushed wet hair out of my face I imagine I looked like a drowned quokka - which, by the way, I hadn't seen any more of since my soporific little photo model. Apparently, the little buggers are weather indicators too. I walked into the bathroom and surveyed the damage. My jacked had done a good job of keeping my torso dry but my pants were soaked. I leaned back on the edge of the sink, propped one foot on top of the trash can and tried to dry them as best as I could under the hand dryer. It was awkward at best and I quietly hoped no one would walk in while I was performing the balancing act. I would have taken the pants off completely but it somehow seemed more dignified to be found in the balancing predicament than standing there in my hiking boots and underwear.

By the time I saw down with my tea, the rain had stopped. By the time I finished writing this story, the skies had returned to a slightly overcast but pale blue hue. But, by then, it was near time for the ferry to pick me up and take me back to Perth. Damn. Like the Dutch, I spoke a bit too soon - there is a reason why location have a high -season and a low-season. Next time, I'll do more research before proclaiming "Eureka!"

June 03, 2003

Slow And Steady Wins The Race

The only thing visible from the windows is the reflection of the inside of the train and its passengers. The motion is noticeable, with a vibration you can feel coming up from the tracks, through your shoes, up through the seat, and radiating into your spine. It is just past 7 p.m. yet many passengers have curled up to sleep - the rocking motion of the train lulling them to dreamland. Everyone's body clock is shutting down with the setting of the sun and the knowledge that our journey will be a long one.

Train travel has always held some kind of romance for me - and I know I am not alone in this feeling. I'm not sure why - my experience with train travel has been limited - I never even did the European rail pass experience. Maybe it is old movies or maybe it is the foreignness of the form of travel that appeals to me. Either way, I knew before arriving in Australia that I would travel by train whenever possible.

I first heard about Australia's rail system by reading Bill Bryson's book about Australia, "In a Sunburned Country" (or "Down Under," depending upon its country of publication). Upon arrival I found that while train travel was possible throughout much of the eastern half of the country, the only really efficient trains were those three that traveled the southern half of the continent. Packaged together as the Great Southern Railway Pass, a "backpacker" could purchase a 6 month pass for unlimited travel on either The Ghan, The Overland or The Indian Pacific for $450 Australian dollars. Done deal.

My rail adventure started when Lindsay, Alex and I left Sydney on The Indian Pacific, traveling west to Adelaide, Australia's fourth largest town. The journey was 25 hours - for us. However, The Indian Pacific's route spans the continent of Australia - from Sydney through Adelaide to Perth, located on the country's western coast. The Web site boasts it to be "one of the world's longest and greatest train journeys." The total distance from Sydney to Perth - 4352 km. Needless to say, this was not a minor undertaking. Though we had originally planned to do the entire distance in one trip, the timing of our 10 day Outback adventure tour (which left from Adelaide), required that we break up the journey. In retrospect we would be patting ourselves on the back for this decision.

Our travel companion was Nigel, a tall, blond Canadian that distinguished himself by being one of only a handful of Canadian travelers I have EVER met that didn't travel with a Canadian flag prominently displayed on his pack. We liked him immediately. His impressions of us were a little more vague. Throughout the trip he quietly studied our group with his intense blue eyes and I could see him alternate between mild amusement and slight fear at the thought of 25 hours with three slightly wacky Americans. Nigel, more adventurous (or crazy?) than the three of us, was traveling the full 4300+ kilometers in one trip - more than 60 hours on a train traveling solo. I was impressed and worried about him all at once.

Bill Bryson traveled and wrote about his experience from the comfort of the first class sleeper cabins. Our group did not have this luxury. We were traveling via Red Kangaroo Daynighter seats - reclining airplane style seats - though slightly wider. Though the booking agent had said the train was completely full, we left Sydney with only about 50% of our carriage's seats taken. This was a blessing as it allowed us to commander two seats each, and, by turning the seats around to face either other, create our own little "beds" - Nigel and I on one side and Alex and Lindsay across the aisle from us. Following Alex's overnight long-distance bus travel experience, we all took a sleeping pill to help us sleep through the night. A huge help - even coming from this pill-commitment phobic individual.

Speed is not the main benefit of train travel in Australia. Alex, who had traveled on many a European "speed" train was shocked at how slow the train was traveling, even after it was far outside the Sydney station. "I think that guy in his wheelchair out there is beating us," Alex said. "And look, a child learning to walk is moving fast than we are!" She was exaggerating - but only a little bit. If speed is your main priority, then traveling by air is the way to go. However, if you aren't as concerned about the destination, I highly recommend train travel - and this is why.

Lindsay and Alex had been traveling for two weeks before they met up with me in Sydney and were consequently relaxed, fun and just the slightest big insane. I had been working on a major deadline for the past month and was stressed, still thinking about work and decidedly unfun. If we had flown directly to Adelaide (a flight time of about 2 hours) I would have arrived as stressed as when I left Sydney. However by traveling slowly through the countryside, I was allowed time to slowly say goodbye to my Sydney work life and embrace the upcoming 6 weeks of travel and adventure - without the usual air travel whiplash. Traveling by land has a grounding affect on you - no pun intended.

(I must stop here to say that the following information - like much of what I learn, sticks in my head with no context whatsoever - as easily attributed to Cosmopolitan, The New York Times or a random conversation with a passenger on a bus. I only mention its enigmatic origin as a desperate attempt to avoid any kind of charges of plagiarism in case I've actually taken it from a travel book or a quote by a famous writer. So, if you are my source, know my source or have read my source - please let me know. Thanks.)

I once heard/read/was told that a certain traveler/individual/writer only traveled by ground and only by day because slower travel allowed you the benefits of a constant uninterrupted flow of destination to destination - allowing one to get accustomed to the leaving of one place and arrival at another without the jarring reality that comes from a relatively quick plane ride or overnight journey. Now, while I realize this is not an option that most of us have due to time constraints, huge distances or barriers - such as say, the Pacific Ocean - the idea of what this individual said stuck with me.

While long-distance train travel is not exactly staying true to this individual's theory, it is much closer than jumping on a plane to your next destination. The 25 hours on the train allowed me time to chill out, let go of the work world, watch the sun set, listen to Alex and Lindsay's stories from the past two weeks, read up on Adelaide, write in my journal, meet and actually talk to an interesting traveler, sleep relatively well, and wake up to the sun rising. All in all, a rather pleasant experience.
Though I know even my leisurely long-term travel schedule won't allow for this type of travel in all circumstances, if I have the option, slow and steady definitely appeals to me. To quote another random mysterious source - it's the journey, not the destination.

May 28, 2003

I'd Like To Tell You But ...

It's 11:33 p.m. and I'm jammed behind the blaring television and under the staircase of the Blue Gallah hostel in downtown Adelaide. I've just returned from a two-day tour of Kangaroo Island, which followed a 19-hour train trip from Alice Springs which followed a 10-day 4WD camping trip in the Australian outback. I've been bitten by a 10-inch centipede, frozen in a swag, woken up at 5 a.m. for sunrise, eaten alive by sand flies, learned how to say "good morning" "good night" and "dig in" in German, Flemish, Herbrew and Swiss German, gone without a shower for more than three days, and heard the morning cry of dingoes in the wild. Tomorrow I'm booked on a tour of the Barossa Valley (Adelaide's wine country). I should be the happiest girl in Australia but instead I'm tired, I'm cranky and all I want to do is go to sleep.

Welcome to the not-so-glamourous side of traveling life.

Not that I have any room to complain. I don't. I have put all of this on myself. Burning the candle at both ends can happen whether you're working in the real world or playing in the traveling world. Being halfway around the world where everything is new and different and knowing you may never be back can make even the most layed back person a bit frantic to "fit it all in." And while I am not at the extreme of the type-A personality spectrum, I would be lying if I didn't say I did fit in there somewhere.

The past two weeks have been amazing and wonderful and hard and scary and annoying and perfect and beautiful and long and sleep-deprieved and confusing and normal - all at the same time. And, I have so many great stories to share with you all. HOWEVER, as we speak my body and brain are beginning their emergency shut down procedures.

So, while I really do want to tell you the creepy crawly story about the kamakazie centipede attack, my brain is thinking about how comfy my bed is going to feel the moment I finish this column. And, while I would like to tell you what a group of dingos sound like at 5 a.m. when you are camped in the middle of nowhere with nothing between you and the elements but a down sleeping bag and a canvas swag, my brain is trying to compute exactly how many hours of sleep I will get before the bus comes to pick me up tomorrow morning.

The fact that I saw two koala bears fighting today is certainly worthy of a story, but my brain is having trouble focusing since the television that is two inches from my head is blaring some kind of Russian soap opera and my usual filter has ceased operation for the evening. I'd love to tell you stories about the very cool Israeli, German, Belgium, Swiss, and Irish people I met on my recent Outback tour but I can't seem to remember their names much less any interesting facts about them.

My sand flies story includes meeting an old Serbian opal miner at a natural hot spring in the middle of nowhere and finding out he was one of the men responsible for the amazing underground Serbian Orthodox church I toured in Coober Pedy. I could go on but at this time I can't remember any more of the story. I'd ask for details from one of the friends I am traveling with but at this time they are all tucked into their beds - warm, quiet and sleeping. Which is exactly where I should be.

So the bottom line is this: you will have to wait until next week. Assuming you are reading this column in the first place - which I'm not sure if you are and at this point don't even care. Because I am THAT TIRED.

So, Good Night. And, Guta Naght. And, Gooda Avunt. And, Layla Tov. And, Gwat Naght.

May 13, 2003

Do You Speaka My Language?

You have to love a country that actually defines "woop-woop" in the dictionary.

woop-woop /wup wup/ n. 1. a jocular name for a remote outback town or district. 2. an imaginary remote place.

Last week at work, while finalizing the edits to the company’s Web site, I happened across the definition for woop-woop. It was my last week in the office and I was frantically trying to finish everything on my "to do” list. I’d created a lot of extra work for myself by not setting the Word spell checker to Australian English when I initially created the Web site documents. At the time I didn’t realize that there were spelling difference between the two versions of the language. Oops.

While looking up some of the words, woop-woop caught my eye. In just a few days I was scheduled to leave Sydney for a six-week journey to Western and Southern Australia – traveling through places that would genuinely live up to the dictionary definition of “woop-woop.” Though I had heard the term before and knew generally what it meant, seeing it in black and white reminded me that all English was not my English. According to an American friend also living in Australia, many Australians don't even consider what they speak to be English - they call it Australian. To paraphrase a saying, "Australia and the United States are two countries separated by a common language."

Before I arrived in Australia, I'd already heard terms like "G'day" and "no worries." I also knew words like "shelia" (girl) and "bloke" (guy) - no biggie. But when people started saying things like "She'll be right" and "I've got a sticky beak" and "paddock" - or when one of my co-workers called me a "Sepo" I knew I better get up to speed on the "Australian" language.

Spelling is just one tiny part of the difference. Just as the British spell certain words differently (colour, theatre, honour, etc.) the Australian's also follow their own spelling patterns. Australian's don’t use the “z” or “zed” (as they call it) as much as in America. Words like “realize” and “minimize” and “customize” are actually spelled “realise” and “minimise” and “customise.”

A very Australian word is "mate" - a term that Aussies (pronounced "Ozzies") especially men, use to describe their friends. Its usage comes closest to the term "buddies" in the US. "Reckon" is a popular Australian word, as is "heaps" - I reckon I could think of heaps more, mate, but lets move on.

While many of Australia's phrases, such as the ones above, are truly Australia-unique, some have been adopted from the country's first European settlers. As most people know, the first Europeans to settle Australia were primarily convicts from the UK. Many of these convicts were London Cockney's - known for their rhyming slang. This rhyming slang stuck in some parts of the country is still used by many Australians. While I have not heard all of these used in practice, the following list gives a good sampling: "blood and blister" (sister), "ducks and geese" (police), "ham and eggs" (legs), "steak and kidney" (Sydney) and "optic nerve" (pervert).

Aussies are notorious for shortening words too - Christmas is Chrissy, breakfast is brekkie, sunglasses are sunnies, mosquitos are mossies and Tasmania is Tassie. Being agro means agressive, a dero is a derelict, and avo is afternoon. Then there are some words that don't have a logical history. For example, tucker is food, a billy is a can, and whinging is whining. "Back o' Burke" is similar to woop-woop - a remote area in Australia.

In Australia, you don't call someone - you ring them. If you have a "sticky beak" it means you are an inquisitive (sometimes prying) person. To "go walkabout" means to be missing. And, then there is my personal favorite - the ideal response to a question. Why didn't you meet me out last night? I couldn't be bothered. Why didn't you clean your room? I couldn't be bothered. Its not that I was tired, or didn't feel like it, or didn't want to - its just that I couldn't be bothered.

Below are a few of my other favorites - some of which threw me for a loop when I first arrived to Australia. Try your luck and see how many you can get right. The first response with the most correct answers wins a package of Tim Tams and a congratulatory mention in a future column. Special thanks to Lindsay who let me "borrow" much of her list, as well as the theme for this column Good luck everyone! :)

1. Fairy Floss
2. Capsicum
3. Kumara
4. Singlet
5. Flat White
6. Flat out
7. Dad 'n Dave
8. fairy bower
9. little vegemites
10. Septic tank or Sepo
11. paddock
12. Fairy Floss
13. Car Park
14. Rice Bubbles
15. Pashing
16. Pom
17. Doona
18. Sultana
19. Icy Pole
20. Technicolor yawn

May 06, 2003

The Urban Jungle

The alpha male of the pack begins his approach, circling the targeted female slowly. She looks briefly in his direction but ignores him, continuing to drink at the watering hole. He assesses the situation, sees his opening, and is suddenly by her side. He marks his territory with a drink and the other males in the area move aside.

It was Friday night and I felt like the lone documentary filmmaker in the middle of a National Geographic special about mating habits. Except we weren’t in the wilderness and I didn’t have a camera to record the activities of the male urbanus homus erectus.

An unplanned series of events led me to my present situation – the only female out with a pack of guys. Without a personal agenda for the evening, I was happy to be a spectator – leaving the action – or more precisely the “thought” of action – to the males in the group. This is the only way to enter into this type of situation – as being “one of the guys” takes a certain squelching of your own desires.

Our group was diverse in age and I found the dynamic between the older men and the younger men to be fascinating. Like a fraternity or a group of taunting schoolboys, the older more experienced players egged on the younger recruits, alternating between brotherly encouragement and merciless taunting. The main obsession of the evening was one particularly scantily clad female, whose presence (body) was not lost on most any man at the bar. One by one guys would approach her – and one by one they would be turned away. No one in my group tried their luck, though more than one was encouraged or directed to give it a go.

It is important to note that the behaviour of the male in a group is different than that of the lone male – and Australia is no different than the United States (or most other westernised nations for that matter). When alone, the lone male can be the “perfect” guy - a chameleon able to blend into his surroundings and assimilating himself to the acceptable social mores of the environment. However, when surrounded by other guys, his behaviour changes and more frequently than not, the IQ of the group drops – to just below waist level. Especially when they are out drinking with the guys and beautiful women come into view.

Before every guy I know starts to hate me, I should mention that this pack mentality is not unique to the male species. A lone female also has the potential to be the “perfect” girl, adaptable in every situation. But, put her into a group of her closest female friends, add alcohol and a bar or club environment and suddenly even her boyfriend can hardly recognize her or her behaviour. To put it another way – while men may be from Mars and women from Venus, both planets revolve around the same sun.

As the evening progressed, I alternated between fascinated spectator, bemused friend and slightly offended female representative. Being “one of the guys” is harder than it looks.

My own natural feminist instincts were suppressed – I was walking a fine line with my presence and knew it. Bring too much attention to yourself and you’ll be moved to the “target” camp – too little and you’re totally ignored. Being a good listener, offering up the proper encouragement, agreeing with proposed tactics, and removing even the HINT of guilt about their behaviour from your vocabulary is required to be accepted within the pack – even if it is only a temporary acceptance.

In truth, the evening did not offer me any amazing insights into male group behaviour. It was all relatively harmless actually. The most that was exchanged was a few looks and the occasional phone number – though I doubt any of them will actually be dialled. However, as any good documentary filmmaker knows, the mere presence of an outsider changes the dynamic of a group. As I reflected later on the evening’s events, I had to wonder how much my presence affected the potential outcome of the evening. And, in truth, I really don’t want to know. Some of the mysteries of nature are meant to stay that way.

April 29, 2003

The Blue Blobs At Bondi

One minute Al and I were talking about the differences between American and Australian culture – the next, he was ripping off his sunglasses and stripping off his shirt, running as fast as his legs could carry him. I was in mid-sentence and momentarily stunned – but not offended.
Al, an all-American blond haired expatriate, is a Surf Life Saver on Bondi Beach, the most internationally famous of Sydney’s beaches. We’d been chatting about his experiences in Australia when Kate, the patrol captain, heard the call for help. The source was a rotund German tourist who’d been caught in the rip. Within seconds of his call, the guard station was abandoned as Al and another life saver ran into the water. Kate stayed on dry land but oversaw the action from the water’s edge, eyes glued to binoculars.

Despite my many weeks in Sydney, it wasn’t until Easter weekend that I made the pilgrimage to Bondi Beach, a place that conjured up images of hot Aussie men tackling the raging surf of the Pacific Ocean. The recent four-day Easter weekend was a wet one, the rain finally letting up on Monday morning. Despite the still overcast day, I decided to go to the beach.

Walking barefoot along the water I sidestepped dozens of little blue blobs – washed up jellyfish ranging in size from a silver dollar to a clenched fist. I’d remembered reading something about some of Australia’s jellyfish being poisonous, but noting the unaffected crowds playing happily in the water I assumed these were safe. Still, better safe than sorry.

I marched up to one of the life guard stands and, not one to beat around the bush, said, “Excuse me, but are these the jellyfish that can kill you?” The five life savers there tried hard to conceal their smiles and laughter. Well, all but Al – his grin was six feet long. They quickly assured me that these jellyfish, called Blue Bottles (similar to a Portuguese Man-of-War), were relatively harmless. While their sting was somewhat painful, it was not fatal – unlike that of the Box jellyfish, which makes the waters of Australia’s north and northeast coast effectively useless for swimming for several months out of every year. Doing some online research later I found out that the Box jellyfish could grow up to the size of a human head and has tentacles that are each up to three meters long. A far cry from the little blue blobs at Bondi.

Curious about the Aussie life saver story, I started chatting with Dazza, a layed back native with long brown hair who’d been a surf life saver for eighteen years. He was the first to inform me that in Australia, he was called a surf life saver, not a lifeguard as in the US. I asked him what made Bondi Beach so famous. Dazza reckoned that Bondi and its surf life savers became famous in the late 1930’s – during what is known in Australia as Black Sunday.

“First, you have to remember, back then going to the beach was a regular activity for people – there was no television or computers,” said Dazza. “Spending the day at the beach was entertainment and the beaches were always crowded.”

February 6, 1938 started out as a usual summer day, the beach crowded with nearly 35,000 people. All of a sudden, three freak waves hit the beach in quick succession, pulling over 200 panicked people out to sea. Chaos ensued.

As luck would have it, 60-80 surf life savers were on the beach at that time, many preparing to compete in a surf race for the club. According to reports from the day, the life savers were in the water within seconds, pulling out as many as three and four people at a time. After twenty minutes everyone was out of the water and the tally stood at an incredible 250 people saved – an amazing feat, especially considering the lack of modern-day life saving equipment. Only five people lost their lives that day. The hero image of the Australian life saver was born.

Back in the 1930s, surf life savers used reels and lines in addition to surfboards and surf skis, to rescue individuals that needed assistance. This is a far cry from the modern equipment, including an inflatable boat with motor, that today’s life savers have at their disposal. Though the beach at Bondi was considerably less crowded that Monday during my visit, the presence of the surf life savers was vital nonetheless. Just seconds after the German tourist cried for help, Al and the other life saver were in the water at his side, assisting him as he held onto a surfboard. Two additional life savers joined them, in the inflatable motorized boat.

What makes the commitment and bravery of Australian’s surf life savers even more amazing is that they are all volunteers – a fact that frankly shocked me. In fact, they are required to paying dues to belong to one of the hundreds of Surf Life Saving Club all along the coasts of Australia. Clubs bond together and participate in a variety of club competitions, testing their skills against others in the area. Rivalries are strong and loyalty is high. During my time with the North Bondi club the camaraderie between the life savers I spoke to was noticeable.

To be a member, one must pass the mandatory Bronze Medallion class. The class is given on a regular basis and involves learning, among other things, First Aid, how to send signals from the water, Resuscitation (CPR) and much more. Members must also be able to run 200 meters, swim 200 meters, and then run 200 meters – in only eight minutes. There are quite a few surf life savers in each club, so most only get a shift every few weeks. Since being certified and joining the North Bondi club in December, Al had only worked three or four shifts.

I asked Kate if there were a lot of women life savers on Sydney’s beaches – during my visit with the North Bondi club she had been the only female on duty. “It’s still male dominated,” she said, “though that is changing – you have to remember that women were only allowed to join 20 years ago.” Tall, with long brown hair in a braid down her back, Kate looked fit enough to bring in even the most well-fed tourist. When I asked if requirements were different for the female life savers, she shook her head and said the requirements were the same regardless of sex.

The average age of a surf life saver varies. In the North Bondi club, most of the life savers are in their late 20’s and early 30’s. But, just down the beach at the Bondi club, the average drops. Kate said some clubs are run mostly by life savers in their late teens and early 20’s. Dazza’s 18 years of service was impressive, but not unique. According to Kate, after 10 years of active duty, a life saver becomes a long service member, continuing to enjoy the benefits of membership without the required beach duties.

Before I took leave of the group, I asked them what “stupid” questions they received from visiting tourists. They were hesitant to answer, at first, though Dazza did say he was frequently asked if the kangaroos ever came on the beach. Al smiled widely and said, “Well, this one American came up and asked if the jellyfish on the beach were the kind that killed people.” Ouch – didn’t see that one coming. I laughed gamely but inside I was torn regarding another question I wanted to ask. I hesitated, unsure if my query would be added to the list of “stupid” questions.

A few years back the American sitcom “Friends” ran an episode in which Monica was stung by a jellyfish while walking on the beach with Joey and Chandler. Far from help, one of the guys recalled an article that said urine was the best way to alleviate the pain of a jellyfish sting. Since Monica was unable to alleviate the pain herself, the guys stepped up to help. Since seeing the episode I’d been a bit curious to see if urine was really an affective weapon against the pain of a jellyfish sting.

I asked Dazza, as a professional life saver, what was the best way to stop the pain caused from a sting. “Ice,” he said, “And, you gotta give it time.” I paused, waiting to see if he would offer up any other “methods.” When he didn’t, curiosity got the best of me. I relayed the “Friends” story and asked him if this was a true technique.

“Well,” he said, unable to hide his smile, “It’s not in our manual.”

April 22, 2003

Will the Real Australia Please Stand Up?

A few weeks ago I received a highly amusing forwarded email, playing up the misconceptions that tourists have about Australia. According to the email, the questions were posted on an Australian Tourism Web site. Though I cannot confirm the accuracy of this claim, nor give due credit to the author of the email, I thought it would be an amusing way to share some of the popular myths about Australian culture. The answers to the questions, by the way, are all Australian.

Australia? Is That Somewhere In Europe?

As one of the last major continents to be discovered, and one of the “younger” countries on the planet, Australians have had to contend with a general lack of knowledge about their country, their culture and their geographic location.

Q: Can you send me the Vienna Boys' Choir schedule? (USA)

A: Aus-tri-a is that quaint little country bordering Ger-man-y, which is located in Euro...oh forget it. Sure, the Vienna Boys Choir plays every Tuesday night in Kings Cross. Come naked.

Confusion with other countries and places was common. A Surf Life Saver on Bondi Beach told me that during the first modern Olympics – in Greece in 1896 – Australia’s lone athlete won one of the events. During the medal presentation ceremony, he stood proudly, unaware that the AUSTRIAN flag was being raised behind him.

Q: Can you give me some information about hippo racing in Australia? (USA)

A: A-fri-ca is the big triangle shaped continent south of Europe. Aus-tra-lia is that big island in the middle of the Pacific which does not... oh forget it. Sure, the hippo racing is every Tuesday night in Kings Cross, straight after the Vienna Boys Choir performance. Come naked.

A few years back some American newspapers ran stories exposing the fact that many US students were unable to accurately place their own country on a map of the world. The news came as a shock to many parents. However, it appears that being geographically challenged isn’t just limited to American children…

Mommy, Can I Take Home a Pet Koala Bear?

Australia boasts some pretty unique wildlife, from the well-known kangaroo and koala bear to the lesser-known duck billed platypus and wombat. But all Australian wild life is not cute and cuddly. Australia is also home to some of the most poisonous snakes found anywhere in the world. One, the Inland Taipan, is considered to be the most deadly of all snakes – one bite carries enough venom to kill 100 people.

Q: Please send a list of all doctors in Australia who can dispense rattlesnake serum. (USA)

A: Rattlesnakes live in A-meri-ca, which is where YOU come from. All Australian snakes are perfectly harmless, can be safely handled and make good pets.

Prior to our first hike in Tasmania, Disco Dave, our tour guide, asked our group to gather around him so he could talk to us about snakes. As this was my first real hike I was quite interested to learn which snakes were dangerous and which ones were harmless. “There are three types of snakes in Tasmania,” Dave said. “Brown poisonous ones, green poisonous ones and black poisonous ones. Any questions?”

Q: Will I be able to see kangaroos in the street? (USA)

A: Depends how much you've been drinking.

Despite Australia’s population growth and the subsequent depletion of many of Australia’s native animals, kangaroos are still plentiful. Unlike the cows of India, however, kangaroos are not sacred animals and do not freely roam the streets – much to most tourists disappointment. Though I did once see some kangaroos on a golf course in a small town, they are not common occurrences in any of the cities – unless you happen to be looking at a dinner menu.

How Far to The Next Watering Hole?

Q: I want to walk from Perth to Sydney - can I follow the railroad tracks? (Sweden)

A: Sure, it's only three thousand miles. Take lots of water...

Distances in Australia are huge. Most people do not realize that the island of Australia is comparable in size to the United States. Travelling from Sydney to Perth is similar in distance to travelling from New York to San Francisco. And, unlike the hospitable farmlands of the United States, crossing Australia means going through some of the most desolate, uninhabited and dry land in the entire world. Many people have died attempting to cross Australia – from original explorers on horse and camel to tourists in ill-equipped cars – all jokes aside.

Q: Does it ever get windy in Australia? I have never seen it rain on TV, so how do the plants grow? (UK)

A: We import all plants fully grown and then just sit around watching them die.

I’ve been told that about 95% of Australia’s population lives within 5-10 kilometres of the ocean. And, all seven of Australia’s major cities (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Darwin and Hobart) are located on the coast. Yet, I’ve also been told that it is the dry, barren centre of the country that truly captures the heart of Australia.

This past year was one of the worst droughts that Australia has ever seen. Water levels were incredibly low forcing water restrictions all over the country - even in some of the coastal cities (Melbourne being one of them). However, much of Australia receives plentiful rain – especially up north. The city of Darwin is much like the tropical cities of SE Asia – defined by its Wet and Dry time more than traditional seasons.

I Said, Do You Speaka My Language?

Most of Australia's native inhabitants, the Aborigines, were systematically killed off during early colonization of the country, much like the Native American tribes of the United States. Australia, like the United States, was mostly populated through immigrants. So, an Australian is just as likely to speak Greek, Italian, Mandarin, Thai or Japanese, as English.

Q: Will I be able to speek English most places I go? (USA)

A: Yes, but you'll have to learn it first.

Back when I was in Melbourne, I had the good fortune to meet up with Maureen Wheeler, the co-founder of Lonely Planet, the most successful guidebook series in the world. We were discussing how few Americans traveled, especially as compared with the people of other first world countries. And how, as a general rule, most Americans lacked in depth knowledge about foreign lands. I protested slightly, saying that while that might be true in some places, people from, say, the Bay Area were quite educated about the world and well traveled to boot. While Maureen agreed that Californians tended to be more well-traveled than much of the rest of the country, she did relate the following story to me, which made me realize how far we still had to go.

One of Maureen's first trips to the United States was in the early 80s, when she traveled to California to open the US offices of LP. At some point during her trip she found herself chatting with a local women who, upon finding out that Maureen came all the way from Australia, commented, “Wow, your English is really great – what language do they speak in Australia?”

April 15, 2003

What Goes Around Comes Around

Learning to throw a boomerang is not hard. Learning to catch a boomerang is another story. Welcome to Boomerang School.

I found “The Boomerang School” when I first came to Sydney – back in November of last year. I went right inside – after all, what is more typically Australian than a boomerang? The owner, Duncan MacClennan, let me know about the free boomerang school he ran every Sunday morning. Unfortunately, I was moving to Melbourne the next day, but the idea of learning to throw a boomerang stayed with me and I vowed to come back.

Since returning to Sydney from Tasmania I’ve made Boomerang School my new Sunday morning ritual. Though I am sure my grandmother would be more pleased with regular church attendance, there is something exotic and exciting about learning how to throw a boomerang while in Australia. The “school” is located in a park in Rushcutter’s Bay, a beautiful harbour suburb of Sydney – next to the yacht club with views of North Sydney and the Harbour Bridge. Somehow a stuffy church just can’t compete.

Sharp as a Tack…

Our teacher, Duncan MacClennan, has run the Boomerang School for 40 years – first from a kiosk in the park and then moving to his own shop in Sydney’s Kings Cross neighborhood. Considered by many to be an “expert” in the field, he was taught by an older aboriginal man many years ago. Duncan is 81 years old and partially disabled, yet watching him throw a boomerang is like watching someone take a sip out of the fountain of youth. He throws with a dexterity and power of someone half his age.

At one point during my first lesson Duncan commented that it might be time for him to think about retiring. I asked him who he was training to be his replacement – to pass on the knowledge and the tradition. “Awhh, Australians just aren’t interested in learning to throw a boomerang,” he said. I found this to be incredibly sad. Asking around it became apparent that all the other participants were young backpackers or out-of-country visitors – most finding out about the school through a guidebook entry or when purchasing a boomerang in Duncan’s shop.

Duncan is sharp as a tack and well read – he works seven days a week in his little shop which consists of a desk, a long display case and row after row of boomerangs hung on the walls. Every time I come in he is reading the newspaper, usually with a magnifying glass, and he is as up on current events as anyone I have ever known. During one visit I made the mistake of expressing my distaste with the current US foreign policy. For the next 20 minutes I was lectured like a naughty child about the importance of supporting my country and the history of beneficial US involvement around the world. Apparently Duncan was a veteran of WWII and had fought side by side with US soldiers – they were “mates” and that was all there was to say about it.

Success – well, almost…

I was quite pleased with myself last Sunday after a particularly good throw. I watched the boomerang sail smoothly through the air and arch gracefully to the left. I was so happy I did it right that at first I didn’t realize it was coming back – directly at me! I started to prepare myself to catch the boomerang (the proper way is to sandwich it between your two hands) when all of a sudden – thwack! – the sound of wood hitting skin – and bone. Unfortunately, my throw had not been as perfect as I thought and the boomerang came in low – knee level to be exact. If I ever had any doubt that a well-thrown boomerang could kill an animal, it vanished at the moment the wood struck my knee – drawing blood.

Of course I tried to be macho about the whole thing – laughing it off and calling it my first “battle scar” but the truth was it took me a few minutes of limping around and massaging my knee to confirm that the damage was not permanent. Another lesson of the boomerang – it is not a toy and should be used with caution. Before throwing Duncan always looked around the park to make sure no one was in the potential flight path – which is a large area considering we were all beginners. As the park is popular with non-boomerang throwers, there were frequent delays while we waited for people to move out of the way – a tricky situation as many were unaware of the danger and watching for us to throw again!

During one pause in the action, a white haired man in a silk bathrobe waved from the third floor of the posh apartment complex across the street. “Hello Duncan,” he said. “Hello there!” said Duncan waving back. He turned to me and said, “He’s Dutch but has lived in Australia for years.” Later he confided to me in a quieter voice – “Did I tell you he was accidentally hit by one of the students a few years ago? He had to go to hospital and it required stitches. I was really worried – he’s in his 70’s. Anyway, I went over to check on him the next day. The first thing he said to me was this: I’m not going to sue you – don’t worry.” He laughed. “We’ve been friends ever since.”

Ancient Egyptian Boomerangs

There are many different types of boomerangs – ranging from the small, well-known banana-shaped returning boomerangs to the larger hook-shaped hunting boomerangs. Boomerangs are hand-specific too – a lefty can’t accurately throw a right-handed boomerang any more than a right-hander can throw a left-handed boomerang.

When most people think of boomerangs they usually picture those created and used for thousands of years by Australia’s native inhabitants, the Aborigines. However, boomerangs have been found in many parts of the world from Eastern Europe to Northern Africa. According to Duncan, boomerangs were even found in the ancient Egyptian tomb of King Tut!

Non-returning boomerangs were first used as hunting instruments. The speed and power a boomerang picks up when thrown properly makes it a formidable weapon. According to Duncan, the small banana-shaped boomerangs were used primarily for hunting ducks – and no, when they hit something, they do not come back.

“Aboriginals didn’t set out to create a returning boomerang – that’s just ridiculous,” Duncan said. “A boomerang was a weapon – you threw it to kill dinner for your family. Creating a returning boomerang was just an accident.” Most anthropologists agree – believing a returning boomerang was simply a matter of trial and error.

Proper Technique

Before throwing a boomerang you must first be facing the right direction – which depends completely on the direction of the wind. Start by bending down and plucking some grass. Throw it in the air to determine the direction of the wind. Then face in the same direction as the wind is blowing and turn 45 degrees to your left. Throw directly ahead of you.

To throw a boomerang you first grasp it in your hand, painted or curved side toward you (flat side away from you) and “elbow” pointing back (the elbow is the bent part of the boomerang). Tilt it 10 degrees to the right. Then, take it directly over your shoulder like you would when serving a tennis racket – do NOT throw it like a baseball. Take a step and bring your arm forward, letting go of the boomerang before you completely straighten your arm – while your elbow is still bent at a 90 degree angle. Keep your eye on it as it curves back around and when attempting to catch it clap it between your two hands. Using your knee to stop the motion is not recommended.

The best words of advice on catching a boomerang came from Duncan a few minutes after my unfortunate knee encounter. “If it starts coming at you and you aren’t confident you can catch it, move out of the way,” he said, “That’s your self-preservation instinct kicking in - listen to it!” Now he tells me.

**********

For those of you really interested, a great resource for throwing a boomerang can be found online at www.howstuffworks.com. You’ll find more detailed information on why it come back, too. (Thanks Ed!)

April 08, 2003

The Soundtrack To My Life

Every time I travel, I chose a theme song for my trip. It helps me to set the tone for the journey and usually invokes a variety of emotions in me when I hear it – inspiration, melancholy, and wistfulness to name a few. The first time I travelled on my own I chose “Good Riddance” by Green Day. To this day that song reminds me of my first trip to South America and hearing it floods my mind with fond memories.

For this particular trip I went a step further than just choosing a song. In anticipation of travelling for such a long time, and as a result of the influence of my very musical household in San Francisco, I decided to put together a collection of CDs to take with me. I wanted music that would inspire me when I needed inspiration, would pick me up when I was lonely, and would, when needed, remind me why I was travelling in the first place.

Last night after work, feeling a little low and missing my friends, I went home and put on one of the CDs – entitled “Wanderlust.” The first song on it was “Wide Open Spaces” - my chosen theme song for this particular travelling adventure.

The Power of Music

It took me longer than most to realize the power of music. Though I was properly introduced at a young age – my first 45 was Elvis Presley – “Hound Dog” on side one and “All Shook Up” on side two – it wasn’t until I was older that the magic of music really became apparent. That said, it still amazes me how listening to songs from my past throws me back in time – reminding me of school dances and first kisses, of boyfriends and best friends, and of good times and bad times.

In junior high I went through a phase where I became obsessed with knowing all the words to popular songs. Every night I’d listen to “Jam it or Slam it,” a radio program that played a new song and then asked listeners to call in if they thought it would become a hit. Looking back, I now realize my obsession was a desperate attempt to fit in after moving to a new school. Somehow I was sure that I would be cool if only I knew all the “in” songs. Thankfully my musical taste has evolved from this time period of radio popularity but there is still a little part of me that feels out of the loop when everyone but me knows all the words to a particular song.

My musical tastes have almost always been influenced by others. I can’t listen to the Grateful Dead without thinking about my post-high school pre-college summer romance with a college-aged “dead head” that was pre-med (a combination that only now seems odd) who listened to them constantly. University opened the door to an eclectic mix of music – a college boyfriend made me a mixed tape that I lament losing to this day. It included classics by Louis Armstrong and Harry Belafonte and introduced me to musicians like Jackson Browne and Harry Chapin. It also taught me that there was amazing music to be found in all genres

While music certainly helped me celebrate the good times, it was even more necessary to make it through the bad times. John Denver will always remind me of my mom, even though I don’t know for certain if she was a big fan of his music. I just remember one night during the summer that she died staying up late and watching his “Wildlife” concert on PBS. My mom, who was sick at the time, was asleep in the same room and I remember lying on the floor, close to the television with the sound really low, watching and crying softly so I wouldn’t wake her.

A Vital Part of Life

Music heard while travelling almost always cements itself into my memory. The Gin Blossom’s “Hey Jealousy” and Counting Crow’s “Mr. Jones” will always remind me of my study abroad trip in Salamanca, Spain. Shaggy’s “Angel” brings back dancing in the nightclubs of Cuzco in Peru. Two of my friends, after different trips to Europe last year, came back with the hit song that put Kyle Minogue back on the US charts – I’m sure neither of them can listen to the song without being back in France or Germany, at least for a second.

But it was living in San Francisco that made music a vital part of my life. After my failed attempt to “become cool” through musical knowledge in junior high, I decided to let friends do all the work of introducing me to their favourites. Trena's introductions brought me Dar Williams, Lyle Lovett and Mary Chapin Carpenter. My first job in San Francisco, as a publicist for musical theatre, educated me on the world of musicals – from “Rent” to “Evita” to “Phantom of the Opera.” Roommates Kelly, Michelle and Kate educated me on everyone from John Mayer to India Arie to Nelly to Eminem. And, my education continues every day.

Last night, while listening to “Wanderlust” and a couple of other CD’s I had made for my journey, I came across a song that will forever remind me of two people who were a big part of my music education – my old roommates Kelly and Michelle. Throughout the evening my selections had me reminiscing about my life in San Francisco – my old apartment, my friends, and the city. One song – the last song on one of the CDs, brought back a particularly vivid memory. I’m sure that I will never forget the night in San Francisco – one of my last nights before I left for Australia – when a vinyl clad prostitute, a big-haired beauty queen and a blond dominatrix drove wildly through the streets of San Francisco singing a certain song at the top of their lungs. Thanks for that memory girls – I’ll never forget it.

April 01, 2003

Too Much of a Good Thing

The lunatic asylum in the ruins of the Port Arthur penal colony in southern Tasmania is located side by side with the solitary confinement prison. This layout is not random but a planned move, as it was found that too much time in solitary lead to insanity among the inmate population.

I was to discover this first hand during my “alone time” in Tasmania.

Renting a car in Tasmania had seemed like a good idea. With only six days left on the island it offered me the most flexibility to do and see what I wanted, when I wanted, and how I wanted. And, in truth, the thought of driving alone didn’t bother me – except for my previously mentioned lack of flat tire changing ability. When my “ride share” advertisement failed to draw any takers, I was not fazed and simply took off on my merry way.

A day or so later, while cruising past the green paddocks (fields) sprinkled with sheep and dotted with eucalyptus trees, I was shocked to realize that I had forgotten some of the words to “The Star Spangled Banner,” the American national anthem. This might seem like an odd realization to have in the middle of the Tasmanian country side, but in truth the fact that I was at the time actually singing the national anthem is far stranger. Let me step back a moment.

My rental car, Bruiser, was an older model vehicle with numerous “battle” scars. It became apparent the first day that the radio did not work. This was a disappointment, as I particularly like singing along with the radio when driving alone. It is like being a “shower-only” singer except with a far less likely chance of discovery as you are a constantly moving target in your own getaway car. Though the car had a tape deck, I did not have any tapes with me and decided to move ahead in silence.

Considering my mobile environment and lack of proper music, I was not too concerned to hear myself begin to sing random bits of songs to break the monotony of the trip. Though Tasmania is a small state, with relatively limited distances between towns, the roads can be windy and it takes a while to get from place to place. This paired with the Tasmanians apparent tendency to drive below the posted speed limit makes for slow going on most of the state’s roads. My experience was no different.

My a cappella repertoire was incredibly limited and would have been painful to all ears but my own. It included a bit of the newest Counting Crows song (something about “paint paradise and put up a parking light”) which had become stuck in my head before I left on my driving adventure, some select John Denver tunes (no comments please), and some random songs from my childhood. My most frequently sung piece was undoubtedly Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” which I realized was one of the only popular songs I knew from start to finish.

I also noticed that I had begun talking to myself. At first it was little things – chiding myself for taking a turn too fast or congratulating myself for avoiding yet another wombat road kill. Soon I was encouraging Bruiser to speed up and overtake slower vehicles. However, it was when I began asking and answering my own questions about directions that I began to get a little worried.

It was the national anthem, however, that really made me re-think just how much alone time was healthy for the average person. I think I was in somewhere in central Tasmania when, running out of new material, I began to sing the anthem. My shock at realizing I didn’t know all the words was quickly surpassed by my shock that I had been singing the national anthem at all.

It was about this time that I realized I needed to be with people. No matter how much I valued alone time, this was going a bit too far. So, I turned Bruiser south and drove all the way to Hobart, Tasmania’s capital city. It was the next day that I toured Port Arthur, the last penal colony in the state of Tasmania as well as the country of Australia.

My guide at Port Arthur, a white bearded gentleman whose voice sounded exactly like actor Sean Connery’s, explained that Port Arthur, though populated primarily by convicts, was not a prison but rather a working penal community. Therefore, when the convicts misbehaved, and the whip was no longer an effective punishment, it was necessary to put them somewhere where they could be controlled. The solitary confinement prison was such a place.

Convicts were placed in tiny cells, no wider than a queen-sized bed and only slightly longer with a small window high on one wall and a cot on one side. They were allowed no human contact other than that of the guards, only allowed out one hour per day for exercise and strictly forbidden to make noise of any kind – talking, whispering, singing – even clearing their throat was enough to send them to a place even worse than where they were. A place where their current situation would seem like paradise – the punishment cell.

The punishment cell was about 6 feet long and four feet wide and had no other ornament or provisions. It had walls that were a meter thick, no window and one door – that when shut, isolated the prisoner from light and sound. A prisoner could scream for hours and no one would hear him. Prisoners were not removed except for one hour every three days for exercise in the courtyard during which time it was easy to see the affect of the cell on their spirit.

My mind lingered on this picture while the guide finished his tour, leaving us directly in front of the prison. I decided to go inside and check the place out for myself. While walking through the narrow hall that separated the two rows of individualized cells I noticed a sign pointing left with the words “Punishment Cell.” Drawn forward I followed the path to a thick door and peered inside. No one was around so I took a deep breath and stepped inside, closing the door behind me. I was plunged into darkness so thick that I quickly became disoriented. It was cold, quiet and utterly disconcerting. I could imagine the tricks that a man’s mind could play on him in such a situation, especially one that was not voluntary.

I quickly opened the door and stepped outside, walking a little too fast and following the exit signs to the outside of the building. Here I stood for a moment, taking in the sunshine, listening to the birds sing and watching the people walk freely among the grounds. As I began working my way back to the visitor center I passed the lunatic asylum and paused briefly outside the entrance. From the outside it looked like a pleasant enough building, painted a pleasing pink and white – stark contrast to the dull grey walls of the prison next door. I was sure there was interesting information inside about the history of the building, its inhabitants and their reasons for admittance.

Instead I turned and walked down the hill, back to my car and back to Hobart. That night a band from Cuba was going to play a free concert in the town square and I didn't want to miss a minute of the chaos of thousands of people jostling for a good view. It was just what I needed.

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.

February 25, 2003

Fashion Foot Forward

London Fashion week just ended and seeing the photos did nothing to inspire me to shop. They rarely do. I’ve never really understood high fashion. To me, the epitome of fashion would be clothing that made my legs look longer, my waist smaller and provided the illusion that Jennifer Lopez and I had the same derriere. I wouldn’t care if the designer was Target.

I’ve never been much of a fashion foot forward female. If my clothes are in fashion it is usually by accident or good timing. If I find something I like, I’ve been known to buy multiples, in various colors, creating a stockpile. I learned this quickly during the height of three-quarter length sleeve shirt popularity also known as “the year Melanie could not find a long sleeve knit shirt to save her life.” Knowing that the fashion winds constantly blow in contradicting directions, my stockpile frequently allows me to wait out the storm until my tried and true comes back into vogue (which it always does, sooner or later).

With this information it might surprise you to know that while in Melbourne I did a three-week stint in women’s retail. I was working for a chain of stores called Table 8 which specialized in stylish somewhat conservative women’s clothing. If you live in the US, think Ann Taylor and you’ll have a pretty good idea of our style and selection. My friend Lindsay was the store manager of one outlet in a huge shopping center that was closing down as they had chosen not to renew the lease. Three weeks before the store closed, one of the girls landed another job and had to quit on the spot. Enter Melanie, Jill-of-all trades and sick to death of waitressing.

Even though I had no retail experience I picked it up pretty quickly. Step one: smile at customers and welcome them to the store. Step two: take merchandise from them and start a fitting room (which also means you get credit for the sale – who knew?). Step three: compliment them on their sense of style. Step four: assure them that their behind does not look huge in those pants. Step five: repeat with remaining 10 pairs of pants they try on. Step six: ring up their order. Step seven: hand them their receipt. Step 8: Repeat with next customer.

Interestingly enough, three weeks in retail was about my limit. Lucky for me, the job opportunity in Sydney came up during my last week with the company, and four days after I finished, the call came saying I got the job. Before leaving I decided to go shopping for a few more appropriate clothes for my new corporate life. I knew most Australians were layed back, even in business, but somehow I didn’t think my Reef flip flops, khaki shorts and Pooh T-shirt were going to cut it in corporate Australia.

While working at Table 8 I’d spend most all my breaks wandering around the shopping center, even though I almost never bought anything. One observation that struck me was the uniformity of fashion in Australia. Store after store contained the same or similar merchandise – identical colors, fabrics and styles. Looking for a tiered white calf length skirt? Turn into nearly any store and you’ll find several options. You’re in luck - the style is on its way out so the skirts are on sale too!

My friend Danni, and Aussie who lived in San Francisco for a couple of years, said she didn’t realize how totally into the minute Australian fashion was until she returned from the US. She determined that even if you hated what was in fashion in San Francisco you could always find something else somewhere. Here, she was having some issues.

When I arrived in Australia the “gypsy girl” look was of the moment. Long tiered skirts in black, brown and white, pastel tank tops in pink and blue, turquoise and antique-styled jewelry, and flowers for your hair dominated the window displays. The recent “sale” signs in stores indicated that the season was changing and with it the “gypsy girl” look was on its way out. Replacing it was brown – the “new” black – mauve, burgundy, Asian inspired prints and styles, embroidery, and velvet.

Brown as the new black was my biggest issue. When traveling with a limited wardrobe, I’d been told it is wise to chose one base color – brown, black, grey or navy – and try to coordinate everything else around it. That way, you can limit shoes and come up with a mix and match wardrobe of coordinating separates. Even though I normally prefer brown I chose black, hedging my bets that it would be easier to find replacement clothes along the way. Bad timing. Everywhere I looked I found browns – from tans to chestnut to khaki to mahogany. The selection of black was much more limited.

I’ve come to no conclusions about my observations other than to think it’s quite handy that I personally like aspects of the “gypsy girl” look considering it’s everywhere and currently on sale. And, though quite a task, I have managed to piece together a decent array of pseudo-corporate clothing (black-based) that I’ll be able to mix and match for the next month or so. With regard to any pearls of wisdom from my time in the world of retail fashion, I can only say this. I'll never say no again when someone offers to start me a dressing room. And, I'll never ask the sales person if my behind looks big in these pants.

February 18, 2003

A Curve Ball You Can Catch

I woke up this morning in a corporate apartment in Sydney's Darling Harbor. My apartment. In Sydney. I got ready, made coffee, ate breakfast and walked across the bridge to my office. Day two of corporate life in Australia had just begun.

Last weekend I packed all of my belongings and left my life in Melbourne, my home for the last three months. A few days before, I'd been offered and accepted a one month contract to work in the Sydney offices of an American technology company. It all happened so fast. One day I was waitressing in Melbourne and the next I was flying to Sydney for an interview with the CEO. Before I knew it I was reading my contract which listed my position as the "Company Technical Writing project manager and Company Public Relations advisor (for Asia Pacific regional activities)." What was I getting myself into it?

It is ironic how life throws you a curve ball just when you are comfortable thinking you have things all planned out. Just a few weeks ago I put together my "Master Plan" for my upcoming round-the-world travel schedule. Though there were still a few holes, I was confident that the next few months were pretty secure. I would work in Melbourne until the end of February, go to Tasmania at the start of March and then travel up the coast to Cairns. There was no place in my "Master Plan" for a stint doing corporate work in Australia's largest city.

But, the job came at the perfect time and offered amazing benefits I could not pass up - the chance to live in Sydney, a fully furnished and paid apartment, the opportunity to work in corporate Australia, and more money that I would ever make waitressing in Melbourne. Even so, I debated the idea for a while - because it wasn't part of "the plan." Then I remembered my first big trip to South America.

I was twenty three and had never travelled on my own. I had spent weeks planning and perfecting my trip, including where I would go and what I would see. My priorities for the trip included seeing Angel Falls in Venezuela, the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador and Macchu Picchu in Peru. After four months I returned home without accomplishing one item on my priorities list. Was I disappointed? No. Did I have a rotten time? No. Should my trip be considered a failure? No. The simple truth was, for various reasons, my plans just changed. And, in the end, my trip was defined not by what I did not do, but all the wonderful things I did - many of which would not have been possible if I had stuck to my original plan.

Before I left for the interview, Lindsay told me that this opportunity was a curve ball, but "a curve ball I could catch." She said it was exciting to think of how many curve balls I would be thrown in my upcoming travel adventures and that it would be totally up to me what I decided to do with them. I had never thought of it that way. In the end, I decided to go with this one. As for the future curve balls, I'll cross that base when I come to it.

February 11, 2003

Take It Out of My Tips

"Hi everyone. My name is Melanie and I'll be your waitress tonight. To answer your first questions, my accent is American. To answer your second, I don't agree with my president's actions. Everything else will work itself out as the night goes on. Now, who'd like to order a drink?"

It was Saturday night and I was working the upstairs party room at Volare. The guest of honor was Michael and it was his 27th birthday. He'd assembled about 20 of his nearest and dearest. The room was packed. Being on the bottom rung of the seniority ladder at a restaurant has its disadvantages. This is one of them. The upstairs room, besides its undesirable location at the end of a LONG flight of stairs, is always hot, packed tightly with people, and hard to maneuver. Big parties, though not necessarily more demanding than smaller parties, are notoriously bad for last minute additions. Just when you think you can sit for a second, the one person who didn't want a drink the first four times you asked decides they'd like a beer. Did I mention all the food and drinks are located downstairs?

At one point during the night, my aisle was blocked with presents. One of the guests in the far corner had asked for some sweet chili sauce and I couldn't reach around to give it to him. I handed it to Michael and asked him to pass it down. "No worries, he said. "That will be five dollars." "No worries," I said. "Take it out of my tip." One of his guest interrupted - "Oh, we don't tip here," she said. "I know," I said. "I figured I was safe." Everyone laughed as I headed downstairs for yet another quick "addition."

In the US, waitressing and working a big party is usually a benefit. Though it's hard work, you are almost always rewarded with a nice big tip. But here, tipping is not ingrained into the culture, except at some of the nicest restaurants. As one of my coworkers said, about 30% of the people tip well (well being defined at around 5-10%), about 30% might leave the change, and the rest don't tip at all. Though I know I sound like I am complaining, it's not quite as bad as it seems. Waitresses are also paid better than their US counterparts. Though it varies depending on location and type of restaurant, in my neighborhood about $10-$12 per hour is pretty standard. As you might expect however, service is not up to US standards. When you know you most likely won't get a tip, there is not much incentive to provide the perfect dining experience. :)

Ending a night with good tips depends as much on your coworkers tables as it does on your own. While in the US a server is designated a certain table to manage for the night, in Australia, the whole serving team manages all the tables at the restaurant and then splits the tips at the end (after tipping out 30% to the kitchen). So, while you take the order at table 10, you might not see them again until dessert, if at all - while at the same time, you'll deliver meals to tables you never saw before that moment. This took some getting use to, and a lot of double questions to customers until I got the hang of things. While this type of "zone serving" has some advantages (and once you know the system is easy to understand), I have to say I prefer the US way better. Besides being easier to know what needs to be done next for a table, you have the time to establish a relationship (ie flirt) with the customers, which usually allows for a bigger tip. In general, I've found that establishing a relationship with the table does help when it comes to tips. :)

That night I was pleasantly surprised with a better than average tip - $8.60. Of course, the bill came out to over $500 dollars. Still, I was pretty excited. Mostly because my expectations had been set especially low following the previous Saturday's party - a 20 person hen's night. That night, I had set my expectations pretty high.

For those unfamiliar with a hen's night, it is the Australian (and British) version of bachelorette party. As it was wedding season, we'd had quite a few coming through the restaurant, but that night's group took the cake. They had been drinking quite a bit throughout the evening and getting pretty rowdy, and it was well into the night when the hen's best friend pulled me aside and told me to keep my eye out for their stripper. Stripper? No one had told me there would be a stripper. This was going to get interesting.

About 10 minutes later the stripper showed up. "Hi, mine name is Chaz," he said. Of course - what else would it be? I showed him to his room to get "ready" and went back into the party to get the hen's friend. By now the group had moved all the tables to the sides of the room to create a dancing space - and were they every dancing! Abba was on full blast - and had been looping for at least two full CD cycles. The friend followed me out to talk to Chaz. I was clearing dishes but over heard him say, "...and don't worry about the grandma - even though I'm going to take off my G-string, I have another one on underneath.." Of course.

By the time he came out, I hardly recognized him. He had on at least 10 layers of clothing and was dressed like a drunken bum. He handed me his CD and asked me to hit play when he came in. No problem. I have to say I was a bit intrigued by the whole thing. I'd never been to a bachelorette party where there was a stripper and I was curious as to his, ahem, "act." However, it was not to be. Just when things started to get good, Martin asked me to help out downstairs and leave clearing the dishes until after Chaz left. Damn.

The party lasted until late, and the women were the last customers to leave the restaurant. As they left many of them called out to me. "Bye Melanie!" "You were the best - thanks for everything!" "Good luck on your travels!" "Thanks!" The hen had to be guided out of the restaurant, though she could - mostly - walk on her own. Martin, the owner, was sitting at the bar and watched them leave. "How much did they tip you?" he said, noticing the wad of cash in my hands. "One dollar, twenty cents," I replied, stunned. "How much was the bill?" he asked. I looked down at the total. "Over $600.00," I replied. "Australians don't really tip," he said.

No kidding.

February 04, 2003

A Night of Few Words

Good poetry has the ability to say, in a few words, what it takes a novelist chapters - or so said a friend to me a few years back. I think this statement is generally true. Though I have never been a prolific reader or writer of poetry, I have been known to throw down a few lines on occasion, when inspired. A smattering of times stand out in my memory - exploring an old antique shop in Bloomington, in a hotel room in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and on a morning train through fields of sunflowers near Madrid, Spain.
The most recent time occurred Saturday morning, following a Friday evening of drunken debauchery on the town with my friends Craig and Lindsay. If you are pressed for time, you can skip straight to the poem at the end and you will have a good idea of the course of the evening, at least for me. However, if you have a bit of time, the background story is interesting as well.

Due to my waitressing schedule, I had only been "out" in Melbourne a few times, and almost never on the weekends. Lindsay had been after me to live in the moment, reminding me that my work visa was coming to an end and that I would regret it if I didn't hit the town at least a few times before I left the city. I knew she was right, but as most people know, I'm not the biggest drinker, and going out, especially in Australia, usually entails throwing back a few cold ones.

I follow a hard and fast rule to never have more than one drink when travelling in a foreign land with people I don't know or trust. For a traveller going it solo, this is a smart philosophy - keeping your wits about you at all times is one of the first rules of travelling. For me, dubbed "One Martini Melanie" by my San Francisco roommates, this is a necessary one. It doesn't take much to get me drunk - which at times is a blessing and at times a curse.
However, when with close friends, friends I know I can totally trust, I have been known to let my guard down just a little bit. This was one of those nights.

We started at Brunetti's, a well-known Italian restaurant on Lygon Street, a little Italy of sorts. Dinner started with wine - a bottle, not a glass. My two friends were strangers to each other, but after my standard get-to-know-you introductions I found everyone getting along like old friends. As the night progressed we mastered the art of upside down digital photography, writing on paper table clothes, and the specials board. We’d also bonded with our waitress, Hedvig, a student from one of the Scandinavian countries – which one, I can’t for the life of me remember.

By the time dinner ended, we'd finished two bottles of wine and decided the night was just beginning. We took a few more pictures, bid farewell to Hedvig, and caught a cab for the nightlife of Brunswick Street. After a few false starts, we settled in at Black Pearl, a small trendy bar located just a few blocks from my restaurant job. We met a group of cool Aussies and spend most of the evening chatting with them. I don't remember how long we were there before the round of tequila came, but I know that was the turning point in the evening, at least for me.

As for the rest of the evening, I think it can be best summed up by the short poem I wrote after I woke up Saturday morning.

“One Martini Melanie”
Walking down stairs from my bedroom
The contents of my stomach heavy in my hands
Double-bound in plastic shopping bags
The night was great
Until the tequila

January 28, 2003

Food Glorious Food

The department store shelf display included Jiff peanut butter, Honey Smacks cereal, Dream Whip topping, Jiffy corn bread mix, and cans of Spagettios. The sign read "American Food." Walking past the display, I couldn't help but laugh at what the Australians considered to be the staples of the American diet.

In truth, the American and Australian diets are not shockingly different. Both are young, English-founded nations with a large population of immigrants, and the food is a reflection of the diversity. From Italian to Greek, from Chinese to Indian, from Thai to the ubiquitous American institution that is McDonalds, they have it all. You certainly won't go hungry in Australia, even if you are the pickiest of eaters.

Admittedly, my exposure to Australian "cuisine" has been limited at best. On a backpacker budget, I don't exactly have a regular table at any of the respectable establishments in Melbourne. However, I have been exposed to some interesting Aussie edibles and offer you the highlights. Disclaimer: Since I have only been in Australia for two months, and most all of that time has been in the two largest and most multicultural cities, lets consider this to be part one in a two part instalment. Part two will come once I've spent some time in the Outback and the bush. :)

Coffee. Nearly all coffee is espresso. When I first arrived, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. A "regular" coffee for Aussies is a latte, a cappuccino, a flat white (a cappuccino without the foam), or any other espresso-based drink. I asked around about regular coffee and was frequently given blank stares until I learned they called it "filter coffee" here. As far as I can tell, the only places in Melbourne you can get filter coffee is Starbucks (yes, they are here too) and at the Opera during intermission.

Lamb. After a couple of confused experiences with "beef" burgers in restaurants, I am now convinced the Australian government has been poaching sheep from New Zealand and passing it off as ground beef for so many years that no Australian knows the difference. My American friend Lindsay and I have yet to eat an "all beef patty" that doesn't taste like lamb. Its not that I don't like lamb - I do, but not when I ordered beef. :)

Kangaroo. Though initially it seems equivalent to eating the American bald eagle, kangaroo is actually a very environmentally friendly choice with respect to meat. Unlike beef and pork, kangaroos are native to the land and therefore less damaging to it - not to mention they are everywhere. In addition, the meat is very healthy and low in fat. My first experience with Roo was over Christmas, and I must admit to being a fan. And no, it does not taste like chicken.

Meat pies. They are as plentiful here as hot dogs are in the US and the quality is about the same (that is, it varies greatly). Coated with ketchup, I've seen many a late night clubber kid munching on one as a snack from the local convenience store. My one experience with a meat pie was rather memorable, but I'll save that for another story.

Desserts. Two Australian desserts have gained international recognition and both were named after famous performers in the arts. The first, Peach Melba, was named after Helen Porter Mitchell, a famous 19th century opera singer whose stage name was derived from her hometown of Melbourne, Australia. The second, the Pavlova, was created in Perth in 1935 by Chef Bert Sachse. It was named in honor of ballerina Anna Pavlova (some say because it was as light in texture as she was in on her feet). According to the Research Center for the History of Food and Drink at the University of Adelaide in South Australia, the Pavlova is widely considered to be the "national dish of Australia." (Oh how I love Google!)

Tim Tams. Another in the dessert category, but deserving of its own paragraph. The formula consists of a chocolate creme filling sandwiched between two rectangular chocolate wafers and covered in chocolate. Since my first bite I have become a total convert. You see, Tim Tams are meant to be eaten a certain way, and that way combines two of my loves - chocolate and coffee. First, bit both ends off the Tim Tam. Second, dip one end in a cup of coffee. Third, put your lips around the other end and suck until the coffee comes through (kind of like a wide, chocolate straw). Once you can feel the coffee, pop the Tim Tam in your mouth and feel it disintegrate within seconds. Yummy!

Finally, we'll end with the most Australian of Australian foods - Vegemite! No column about food would be complete without commentary on the incredibly popularity of this salty, sticky, black substance that has been part of the Australian diet since 1923. Vegemite, made from yeast extract, is as Australian as it gets (though, interestingly enough it is made by Kraft Foods). Similar to the American cult following for Oscar Mayer Weiners, though without a Vegemitemobile, Vegemite has its own song ("Happy Little Vegemites") and more than one fan site. Celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, the offical web site is great and worth visiting:

http://www.vegemite.com.au

Click on Sing-A-Long and you two can print out the sheet music to "Happy Little Vegemite!" It is times like this that I just LOVE Australia. :) My own experiences with Vegemite have lead me to agree with Felicity Robinson, a Pom (English person living in Australia), who wrote an article on Vegemite in Sunday's paper. She ends the article by saying: "I'd argue it's a triumph of marketing over taste..."

Makes sense to me. Otherwise, how can you explain America's love of bologna?

January 20, 2003

The Australian Open

A Strange Display of Multiculturalism

"Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!"
"Oy! Oy! Oy!"
"Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!"
"Oy! Oy! Oy!"
"Aussie!"
"Oy!"
"Aussie!"
"Oy!"
"Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!"
"Oy! Oy! Oy!"

The Australian national cheer sucked the silence from the air. I cringed inside, certain we'd be kicked out of the stadium within minutes. While Australian fans are known for vocal support of their sports teams, this was not a cricket match or a day at the footy (Australian Rules Football). We were sitting in the stands of The 2003 Australian Open and a serious game of tennis was in progress.

Our group numbered close to 200 people and ranged in age from 14 to 30 years old. We were all wearing the Australian colors (green and yellow) in the form of bright yellow T-shirts, green and yellow face (and sometimes body) paint and colorful pointed Asian-styled bamboo hats. Wimbleton this was not.

My neighbors in Melbourne had invited me to join their church youth group on an outing to the Open. It wasn't until we arrived at the gate at 8 a.m. that I had any clue to what I was getting into. The majority of the group had arrived at 7:30 am - the gates didn’t open until 9 am - and were first in line across all 10 of the entry gates. They weren't kidding when they said we wouldn't miss them!

Once the gates opened we took our positions on Court Three, ready to cheer on the first of two Aussies playing that day (Jaymon Crabb). For such a large group, we were amazingly organized - the cheers were funny, silly and unique - but always coordinated and well done. Many of the group had spent the night at the church, learning and practicing the cheers. I was particularly impressed with a synchronized musical mobile phone interlude. The other spectators were equally impressed - our cheers were frequently applauded, and at any one time at least 25% of the audience eyes were on us instead of the players. Audience participation was also high – from hand clapping at appropriate times to the singing of the National Anthem to doing the wave (in fast and slow motion).

Admiration of the group's enthusiastic support of the Aussie players also extended to the media. EuroSport asked Matt Cutler, our fearless leader and the group’s coordinator, to do a brief commercial break for the station – followed by loud group cheering. And, the next morning pictures of our group were in THREE separate papers - including a large picture in the front section of The Age, Melbourne's main newspaper. The caption read: "Australians come out in mass to support their players. Here the fans wear Vietnamese-styled painted hats in a strange display of multiculturalism." Matt was also interviewed and quoted in several articles that showed up in the days after our appearance at the Open. This was his sixth year coordinating the group, and the numbers had swelled from 6 the first year to close to 200 this year. In a post-Open email he sent out recently, he said he has high hopes for group tickets to Center Court next year. I have no doubt he can get it done and am a little sad I won't be part of the crew in 2004.

At noon our group decided to move stadiums to cheer on the other Aussie player - Joseph Siriani. This was no small feat for 200 people who all needed to sit together. It was decided we would infiltrate and surround a large group of Dutch fans that were already in the stadium. Once the Dutch player finished, it was likely the fans would leave and the space would be ours for the taking.

We arrived midway through the match, and slowly made our way into the packed stadium, filtering in around the Dutchies in groups of two and three. Once most of our group was settled, we joined the Dutch in cheering on their fellow countryman. Though none of us spoke Dutch, a few did their best to imitate the Dutch cheers - usually to a disastrously humorous end. Toward the end of the match, in appreciation for our added support, one of the Dutchies yelled out: "Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!" Our group responded enthusiastically and appropriately, and the union of forces was cemented. Finally, at the end of the match, the Dutch fans stood up to leave. Our temporary alliance was about to be dissolved, but what to say? We looked at each other quietly as the group began to filter up the stairs. Then, all of a sudden, one of the Aussies stood up and cried out: "Dutchie! Dutchie! Dutchie!" The Dutch fans broke out into huge smiles, and without missing a beat answered the call:

"Oy! Oy! Oy!"

January 14, 2003

Nature Calls

I was drunk. I couldn't walk in a straight line, giggles escaped the dopy grin on my face, and I'd taken to spinning - just because. The thing was, I hadn't had a drop of alcohol all day - or the day before either. I was drunk on nature. Standing on the beach at the base of the Twelve Apostles on the Great Ocean Road in Southern Victoria, I was intoxicated by majestic cliffs, crashing waves and a slowly setting sun.

My inspiration for this particular adventure was Alain de Botton, the author of "The Art of Travel." Not a guidebook, nor a travel narrative, "The Art of Travel" focuses on concepts of why we travel - what compells us to pack our bags, say goodbye to loved ones and leave what we know behind. Whether it be desire for the exotic, simple curiosity, or a quest for the sublime, Botton, using a variety of poets, philosophers and artists as "guides" - digs deep to determine what brings us there in the first place. Earlier in the week I'd come upon a section of his book touting the benefits of nature as the elixir for the stresses of city life. The chapter was founded on the philosophy and writings of the poet William Wordsworth. Wordsworth felt that cities were corrupting forces - not just on man's body, but on his soul, inspiring feelings of envy, greed, desire and status. He believed that sufficient time in the country could help man to fight these destructive forces. Though his poetry was initially rejected as fluff, his popularity slowly grew with fans eventually reciting his poems of flowers and meadows by heart.

Though I had never read Wordsworth, this section struck a cord with me, and repeatedly flashed through my head throughout the next few days. Desperately in need of some kind of change and realizing I'd spent all my time in Australia in cities, I booked a upcoming "Great Ocean Road" day trip. The tour promised rainforests, exotic animals, sandy beaches, towering cliffs and an escape from city life. It was just what Wordsworth (and I) thought I needed.

By mid-afternoon we arrived at the Twelve Apostles, a series of towering rock formations that time and the elements had separated from the mainland. Earlier in the day we'd seen koalas and kangaroos, hiked through a rainforest and generally let the weight of the city slip from our shoulders. Looking out from the mainland at the sublime beauty before me, I felt my stress vanish. The problems I had been experiencing didn't seem so difficult anymore. In fact, I was having trouble remembering exactly what had been troubling me in the first place. Not that I spent time trying - I was too busy breathing in the ocean air, taking pictures of rock formations with names like The Razorback and Lock Arc Gorge, and later, skipping and dancing in the waves on Gibson Beach as the sun slowly settled in for the night.

On the ride home I stared out the window and replayed the day in my head, a smile creeping up on my lips. Though de Botton questioned the benefits that limited contact with nature would have on ones psychological outlook, Wordsworth argued that exposure to these scenes of natural beauty could be cemented in memory as "spots of time" we could recall at future necessary moments - putting things back into perspective. De Botton later admitted his own experience with one of these "spots of time" - a tranquil scene of oak tress appearing to him in a moment of stress and anxiety on the streets of London, and calming him, at least temporarily.

The day after arriving back to Melbourne, the stress of the city was again catching up to me. Though I was mostly able to recall memories of my trip, I worried that I hadn't retained a specific spot of time - one that would stay with me for when I really needed it. But then, cleaning the sand out of my backpack, I found two rolls of film I'd snapped during the trip. Modern technology offered me a leg up on Wordsworth - the ability to capture the visual aspect of my spots of time. Instead of relying solely on my mind, whose credibility was frequently in question, I would have a tool to jog my memory. Then, when the stresses of city life got to me, I could flip through my photo album and put things into perspective. I get the pictures back tomorrow - I can't wait to get back to nature.

January 06, 2003

The "Ugly" American

It comes as a shock to many Americans that venture overseas, particularly those that spend significant time with locals or non-Americans, that we as a nation do not have the best reputation as travelers - or as people, for that matter. While the "ugly American" sentiment may initially appear as nothing more than rival country government propaganda (Fidel Castro's thoughts on Americans, Ossama bin Laden’s video messages), the truth is, even in modern, western nations, the stereotype is firmly entrenched – and not without reason. For those of you who are still unaware, picture this: a loud, demanding, obnoxious, xenophobic, fanny pack wearing, yell-louder-if-they-don't-understand-English American. I know what you are thinking – those people are few and far between – most American’s aren’t like that. That may be true. But, it doesn’t take all those traits to create an ugly American – they can pop up when – and from whom – you would least expect.

My New Years 2002/2003 was spent with Aussie friends in Sydney. It was my first New Years outside the US and I really wanted to watch the fireworks explode at Sydney Harbor. Happily, my friends loved the idea, especially when I volunteered my travel companion, Alex, and myself to stake out a good spot early in the day. They dropped me off at Milson's Point, perfectly situated on the north side of the Sydney Harbor, to one side of the Harbor Bridge, and with a postcard view of downtown Sydney and the Opera House. It was 12 noon.

Alex and I spent most of the day doing nothing but staring lazily ahead at the view, eating Tim Tams and reapplying sunscreen. By 6 p.m., my friends had returned, bringing fresh picnic supplies and two more Americans. D and S were friends of friends, and nearing the end of a three-week vacation in Australia. They seemed like fun guys, and we were thrilled when they bought some wine and champagne to add to the picnic spread.

Two sets of fireworks were scheduled - one at 9 p.m. and the grander finale at 12 midnight. As 9 p.m. came and went, we were informed that the fireworks were cancelled due to high winds. The crowd’s disappointment was audible. Those with small children began to pack up and leave, and our group looked to each other for revisions to the night’s plan. This is when the ugly American came out to play. The majority of the group wanted to stay for the midnight session. However, D did not. "This sucks - I want to go party! Lets get out of here and go to a party!" he said repeatedly. Alex and I explained that we had been waiting since 12 noon and had been imagining midnight at the Harbor since we first realized we'd be in Australia for New Years. He was not moved. "This is lame - I want to go somewhere, drink and get fucked up - that is what New Years is all about." Oh right - I forgot.

Multiple tactics were tried. His friend tried reasoning with him, Alex tried humor (“Sorry D, the tribe has spoken and you’ve been kicked off the island”), and I appealed to his nostalgic side. I pointed out that this experience could be once in a lifetime, while going to a pub and getting wasted would eventually blur with all his other New Year's memories. He began to get louder and more belligerent, at which point I realized the alcohol that had seemed to be such a great idea in the beginning now seemed like a big mistake. "I just met you guys, and I'm not going to have my New Years ruined sitting here - what if the fireworks are cancelled again? Fuck that!" he said. While he had a point about the uncertainty of the fireworks, his behavior, tone and language were totally inappropriate. His friend tried to talk to him again while our hosts threw each other uncomfortable looks.

During D’s tantrum, I looked around the crowd and noticed that some of those sitting around us could hear what he was saying. I cringed inside, knowing that this experience was one of those that would add to the stereotype of the ugly American - pouting and yelling when he doesn't get what he wants. Even though this was a minor occurrence, and in truth D was soon quieted, it only takes a couple of instances of ugly American exposure to keep the stereotype fires burning brightly.

The really sad part about the ugly American stereotype is that any one of us can be – and probably have been – the ugly American. When traveling somewhere exotic, especially on hard-earned vacation dollars with limited vacation time, the pressure is on to experience the “perfect” holiday. Too often we forget that the “perfect” holiday – just like the “perfect” anything – rarely exists outside of travel brochures and tourist videos. The reality of the matter is that shit happens – buses don’t show up, sails are cancelled due to inclement weather, tours are overbooked – something almost always go awry that can make our blood boil. If we let it. While we can’t control Mother Nature or overbooked tours, we can control how we respond to disappointing news. And, when we consider that each of us is, in some way, an ambassador for our country, do we really want our mark to be that of a red-faced, squinty-eyed, yelling tourist?

Later in the week, our group reunited for drinks at Bridge Bar in Circular Quay (pronounced “key”), an area of docks and cafes on the south side of the Sydney Harbor. I was not thrilled with seeing D again, especially in a drinking environment. However, as the night progressed, Alex leaned over to me and whispered that D was actually a pretty nice, ok kind of guy – even interesting. He had apologized for his behavior the previous night and was entertaining the group with stories. Alex, a bigger person than I, had given him the benefit of the doubt and been pleasantly surprised. It is unfortunate that none of the people from New Years night would be able to give D another chance. It only takes a few seconds to make a first impression, but once formed, trying to undo a negative one is exponentially harder than maintaining a positive one from the start.

December 23, 2002

Daily Life

The Homested

When I first arrived, I was living with my friend Jacqueline and her mom, Lynn. They were incredibly generous and kind, and did not rush me to find a new place, but I was getting itchy and wanted to settle down. Not to mention they have a cat and I am allergic. Hmm, maybe that explains the itchiness? ;)

Anyway, after a full week, I still had no leads. That Saturday, the paper came out with all the new listings. I awoke that morning and was bound and determined to find a place to live. I then began what I like to call "The Great Melbourne Apartment Race."

9 a.m. -- Wake up, go to corner and get newspaper and VERY large coffee 9:30 a.m. -- Read paper, circle appropriate ads, begin calling to set up appointments to view rooms

10 a.m. to 5 p.m. -- Hit the ground running and literally dissect the town going from north to south, east to west. Encounter, among other things, an interesting British Sculptor/Poet with a bed sit (tiny studio), a novice witch and her black cat (no joke), several nice, rather normal people with normal apartments, a killer deluxe apartment with a pool and amazing view of the city, and a room in an apartment behind a secondhand bookstore. The bookstore won out, of course, as it is my retirement dream to run a little bookstore somewhere and be found most days with a cup of coffee in one hand, a book in the other, and a cat curled up on my lap (I'm hoping my allergies will diminish with age). The house is made up of Joyce, the owner/landlady, her daughter Zoe, their cat Minou, which causes me surprisingly little strife, and a student from Indonesia named Elna. Joyce is American born (Alabama), but lived all over including the UK, Australia, San Francisco and Tasmania. She is incredibly nice but very shy, almost painfully so. But, I think she is beginning to come out of her shell - how can she not with me jabbering in her ear daily? :) I feel like I am living in some kind of television dramatic series, unlocking the bookstore every night when I come home from work, leaving through there every morning. Whenever I ask Joyce a question about something (Philosophy, Tasmania, Aussie Slang), I am rewarded the next morning with a pile of books on the subject, sitting right by the coffeemaker on the kitchen table. It makes me very, very happy. :) Working Stiff

As for the job front, I am currently working two jobs. The first is at Via Volare, a great little cafe/restaurant on Brunswick Street, a hippy/yuppie enclave with a ton of cafes, bars and clubs in the inner suburb of Fitzroy in Melbourne. I really like it here and was hired my fourth day in Melbourne. Unfortunately, they are not as busy as they need to be to keep me fully occupied, so I only work here 2 days/nights per week. My second job was harder to find, but last week I was hired at The Red Olive, an Italian restaurant/upscale pizzaria in North Fitzroy. The restaurant is huge, the pace is frantic, the owner is young and inexperienced, and the whole place is rather chaotic. However, the job is located two blocks from my apartment, and you know what they say about location. :) As I am so new and still learning the ins and outs of how this place works, I should be fair and give it at least two weeks before I pass any (public) judgement. All I can say now is I have a few reservations about this place and I am planning to keep looking for alternative employement. Stay tuned. :)

Hope you all have a wonderful Holiday Season!

December 06, 2002

Thanksgiving, Aussie-Style

As a thank you to my friend Jacqueline and her family, for putting me up when I first arrived in Melbourne, I offered to cook a "traditional" Thanksgiving dinner. Jacqueline thought this was a great idea and soon we had a group of 8 (Jac, mom, dad, sister, sister's boyfriend, Jac's friend Jo, and mutual friend Adrian) excited for the event.

In my opinion, most Americans look at Thanksgiving dinner as the quintessential "banquet" meal - something for a home cook to aspire to. But, since I was not a novice in this field (I've actually done it all myself more than once) I didn't think it would be too difficult. Silly me. The first "snag" came when Jacqueline informed me that most of her family was vegetarian. Right. "No worries," I said, even though in my minds eye I was picturing the Turkey centerpiece and realizing that the one thing I know how to do well is a Turkey. "I'll work something out." Flash forward to me surfing www.epicurious.com to find some vegetarian recipes. To their credit, they had many options. But it was then I realized that most all of the traditional Thanksgiving foods are those usually found during the "harvest" or fall season. It was late spring in Melbourne. Strawberries were much more plentiful than cranberries, and I hadn't seen a pumpkin anywhere. Still I was upbeat - no worries.

The next "snag" came when we went grocery shopping for the event, my recipe print outs from epicurious in hand. "How much cream do you need?" said Jac. "Two cups," I said. "How much is two cups?" Jac said. Right. Australians follow the metric system, Americans do not. "No worries," I said, "I'll just estimate - how far off can I be?" Yeah, right. In my head I was beginning to panic, but my outer layer was still cool and composed. "What else do you need?" said Jac. "Canned pumpkin." "Hmm, I don't think we have that - but I can get you fresh pumpkin." Ok, that should work. Then she brought back something that looked remarkably like a butternut squash. "What is that?" I said? "A pumpkin," she said. Suddenly, the idea of cooking Thanksgiving dinner in a foreign country seemed rather unadvisable, if not downright stupid. Did I mention that with the exception of the sweet potato dish, I had never cooked any of the planned menu? Oh yeah.

Thanksgiving day arrived, bright and sunny, and I got straight to work cooking. Jacqueline and her mom were out, so I had the house to myself. The night before, we had found an exchange guide that would allow me to transcribe the recipes. Good thing - baking the stuffing at 375 degrees F in a Celsius oven doesn't exactly make for edible cuisine. Still, with the exchange calculator, I was not too worried. Until I saw how grossly I had miscalculated the ingredients. I either had twice what I needed or half as much as was necessary. I quickly pulled out my journal and wrote down the following: Thanksgiving Day, 2002, Melbourne Australia. "Next year, I will order Chinese take out on Thanksgiving day. Regardless of where I am on the planet."

Amazingly, however, everything worked out. The family arrived, the meal was eaten, compliments were thrown around. I was actually pretty impressed with how it all turned out. And, I didn't miss the Turkey as much as I thought I would. My favorite part of the evening came when the family started asking me questions about Thanksgiving, why it is celebrated, what it means - and, the best, are presents exchanged? I gave them a run down (Pilgrims, Indians, Hard Winter, Big Harvest, Joint Feast, sharing what you were thankful for, football, leftovers, etc.). Then, with regards to gift giving, I let them know it was only traditional to give gifts to the person who cooked. :)