Down Under – Australia

I hope your winter was good. Mine definitely was.

I am back in Chengdu after going to a remote part of Sichuan, Australia, Hong Kong, and Yunnan province in southern China. Since we last chatted, I have taken 9 flights, two overnight trains, a 4WD 11-passenger roadster, a cable car, a chairlift, a high speed ferry, an electric rickshaw, a 20 minute long escalator, a sailboat, and innumerable buses of all sizes.

I’m not sure whether I should first explain how I ended up playing tennis with a Indian yogi at a Chinese country club, or flying through the clouds of Shangrila, or singing the Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On at the opening ceremony for a business (painful for all who listened I assure you), or watching gently rocking mast of a sailboat move silently though the Southern Cross and the Milky Way off the coast of Australia, or seeing a goldmine that pulls almost $2 million dollars of gold a day and the gold-mining town that goes with it (complete with men’s poker clubs and bartenders and sheriffs)?

I don’t think I’ll spill this all at once, but I want to get something down before I head to Tibet next week.

So let’s start with the strangest place of all: Australia.

(*) It says “Look Right” on the pavement in front of the curb. So while I was looking down at this sign like Alice in Wonderland, a bus suddenly hurtled within feet of me… from the right. The first backward thing about Australia that struck me (almost literally) is that they drive on the left side of the road, just like the Brits, and that it’s incredibly disconcerting. You wouldn’t think it, but it makes you feel stupid in a number of subtle ways, like bumping into people on the street who pass you on your right, or pushing a revolving door the wrong way, or waiting for a bus going the wrong direction (that happened twice, doh!), or getting into the passenger side of parked car, or that moment of panic when you think there is no driver in the car coming at you, and of course every time you cross the street. I couldn’t master it, so I ended up doing what I should’ve been doing all along: I looked both ways before crossing the road.

(*) Shortly after my (first) near death experience crossing the street, I went to fuel up on a coffee. So I go to a deli and ask for a coffee. The server looks puzzled. “Flat white? Short black? Cap? Latte?” she asked. (Down the rabbit hole I went.) Eventually I learned Australia doesn’t do drip/perc coffee; even the convenience stores have espresso machines to do the brew. Accordingly each caffeine hit will set you back $3-5 Aussie bucks, which was my first major price shock upon arriving at the upside-down part of the world.

Having said that, their coffee is awesome. Awesome. I got a cappuccino everywhere I could — including an Aussie Rules Footy game in Melbourne. The foam so frothy! The milk how mellow! The coffee to which you just want to say, “Hello!”

(*) The quality of the coffee compensated for the bananas tragedy. A cyclone (aka hurricane) hit the east coast of Australia and completely decimated the banana crop this year. Bananas went from $3/kg to $15… and I sure as hell wasn’t going to pay $3 for a single banana. Whereas other countries might have just, I don’t know…, imported bananas from some convenient nearby major banana producer like the Philippines, Australia is paranoid about importing didlifoo (you know with their misfortunate fate with the rabbits and all. I’ll come back to rabbits later.) I read an article which suggested that bananas would be less than $1/kg (which is how much they are in China and in the US) if Australia opened its doors. But they won’t. So a full 9 month term until the next crop. Protectionism? Ecology? Dunno…

(*) Australia is an island. If the world collapsed they still would just keep hopping in their various marsupial ways. There’s a laid back ease that accompanies a major, cappuccino-drinking, wealthy, population-sparse country that is sitting on every delicious commodity you’d want; they just signed a deal selling uranium to China for instance, and investors on the foreign exchange market trade the Australia dollar as a proxy for gold. Perth, a city on the isolated west coast of the land no one else in Australia’s been to, is the capital of Western Australia, which is sitting on a good chunk of the goods. Therefore the city itself had parts that spoke to each side of affluence: Manhattan-like shiny glass-walled giant-sculpture decked corporate buildings, Bostonian red brick museums dedicated to culture and history, Miami-esque glitzy strip of seedy bars with illuminated palm trees, Napa-like endless rolling plains of vineyards, golf courses on white sand beaches, and script-fonted thick-stock pre fixe menus. But the people don’t seem worried or competitive about money. Yes apartments are expensive, but wages are high too — even though people don’t tip, minimum wage for bartending is a comfortable $15/hour or some such. Social care is universal, though like Canada, many people use private insurance to cut the queues and get better service. And the weather’s good, even in the winter….

(*) So being on the part of the planet tilted away from the sun right now, Australia’s “winter” is supposed to be cold. It was pretty darn mild. I wore a jacket but c’mon, it never neared freezing. The only way you noticed you were on the other side of the planet was the days suddenly got shorter. In China the sun set near 8, but down under, it was closer to 5:30. The stars are different too — Southern Cross and what not…

(*) And because you’re going to ask me: I couldn’t get the toilets to flush the other way. The water just went straight down. Bummer, eh?

(*) What I’ll miss the most: Potato wedges with sour cream and sweet chili sauce and canned beets on hamburgers. Just trust me.

(*) As soon as I learned there was a three day train from Sydney to Perth, my mind was set. If you don’t know this about me, I am a train junkie. I believe there is no better way to travel. You get on a train, and get to see the place you are going through. No shoulder on the road, no McDonald’s and rest stops, no clouds obstructing the view like in a plane.

And you can hang out and meet fellow passengers. Only interesting people take trains. I met the Golden Girls — a 75 year old woman who asked me to call her Grandma, and a 65 year old widower traveling with her former husband’s sister, who spent all three days drinking beer and telling crude jokes.

For two of the three days, we traveled across the desert inland of Australia. Little blue bushes. No towns, cars, trees, water, hills. Nothing. Two days. For 478 km, the train doesn’t even make a turn. If you ever want to contemplate nothingness, take this train. It was riveting. Once, the emptiness was interrupted when the train honked. I leapt up, shouting “there she blows! there must be kangaroos!” My fellow kangaroo-watcher and I ran to the window and saw… five camels. Yep, just five random camels wandering across the train tracks.

I later learned a few dozen of them helped build this railroad, and then were just let loose. They’ve been wandering in the desert ever since.

(*) On the train, I would alternate between jotting things in a journal, talking to my fellow passengers, making sardine sandwiches, studying Chinese, listening to my iPod, looking for kangaroos out the window (I only once saw a glimpse of one) and reading Bill Bryson’s brilliant Down Under book about, well, Australia. I saw no kangaroos after the first one, but was captivated by the search: and as a reward, I got to see the continent of Australia dragged across my window like a movie. I spent a few countless hours looking at the sunset as we chased it west. It’s the kind of beauty you don’t forget: the bluebushes captured the pastels of the sky, and the soft earthy red carpet of the Australian soil played off the gentle hues of the sky. The trees, which in California and New York, are bushy and round, here instead are two-dimensional, designed to be seen as silhouettes against a vibrant sunset; their leaves arch like eyebrows over the tops of the branches, leaving the sinewy branches unadorned, bare, streaks of black across the sky. At times the sky is unmarred blue, deep and rich at the top fading into clear and clean whiteness near the flat, eternal horizon. Other times, the streaky white clouds drag the white sun rays up into the smooth blue sky, blindingly. I love Australia.

(*) At one point, a group of six aboriginal people got on the train. There aren’t many of them in Australia, but their history is fascinating. Anthropologists figure that 60,000 years ago they managed to make their way over the open sea to this island in the hundreds, which is a pretty sophisticated feat. Then they populated this completely inhospitable land, learning to dig for water, and eat the sparse flora and fauna of desert. Then the Brits came and the story is similar to that of Native Americans too — the aboriginals got pushed to the least desirable parts of the country, had to decide between cultures and have been having troubles as a people ever since; alcoholism is rampant, many have forgotten or don’t want the old culture, and have trouble fitting into the western world. This process was damaged even more when the Australian government forcibly pulled aboriginal children out of their families, put them into boarding schools, and tried to teach them to assimilate into the modern world, creating what’s called the Stolen Generation.

It’s interesting history, but the thing is, this isn’t history at all. The debate, what to do with the aboriginals?, is still going on. One key feature is land use. Remember the wealth of Perth etc, the goldmine that yanks out 2 bucks a day of the Glittery, the empty space that spans over two days? It’s not clear who owns this land. Australia has given a lot of it back to the aboriginals, but there is always controversy when some rich natural resources is discovered; was that land actually sacred and used by them, or are the aboriginals just trying to profit from it? Throughout my trip, whenever I raised the topic of the aboriginals with Aussies, fireworks would explode. There don’t seem to be any good answers.

But until these six folks stepped onto my train at the city of Port Augusta, I had never actually seen an aboriginal person. (I empathized a bit with the Chinese folks who see a white person for the first time.) The train was stirred up and the other passengers seemed rather uncomfortable; the aboriginals didn’t speak English it seemed and were sitting in the wrong seats.

Then a day of desert plains later, the train stops. I look out the window, and see a wooden bench and a sign: “Watson.” That’s it. No no 7-11, no cappucino shop, no town, no lamp, no payphone, no gas station. Just a jeep and two dirt tracks through the low blue bushes and red dust, fading into the distance. The aboriginals get off the train and get in the jeep as our train pulls away for another day of nothingness.

I asked the conductor, bewildered, Where are they going? He told me that there’s no town nearby, but apparently there’s a community of 100 somewhere in the desert, just out of sight. The train picks them up for free to take them in for social services (healthcare and such) in one of the cities, and drops them back off again to go live in the desert, as they have for 60,000 years.

(*) Last century, Australia has a “White Australia” policy, limiting immigration to “white” people. But this all fell apart when they started letting the Italians in, apparently…. So Australia starting letting other non-“white” people in, like the Greeks, who have a very strong (and tasty!) presence in the country. And now, Australia is definitely one of the most diverse places I’ve been. And I don’t think that’s just in contrast to China.

(*) And it’s definitely Asian. My seatmate on my flight back to Hong Kong was East Timorian. When Aussies go on holiday, it’s to places like Samoa and other Pacific Islands that seem amazingly exotic to me. It’s odd, you know, flying to the other end of the world, past places like Laos and Java, just to find a culture there that watches Desperate Housewives and speaks English and in almost all ways could be America (sans the left-side-of-the-road driving, the lovely accents, the transparent plastic window in their currency bills). Prime Minister Howard is buddy-buddy with Bush, and Australia definitely considers itself Western, even though its further south and east than South East Asia.

So in summary, I knew that three things would determine how my trip to Australia went: the places I went, the people I met along the way, and the weather. I could control one of them, but when I jumped on that plane to Sydney, I had no itinerary. Fortunately I think my Sydney/train to Perth/Fraser Island/Whitsundays Islands/Melbourne route was just the ticket.

Some parts were amazing and got all three right — the wine tour in Swan Valley had flawlessly cool and comfortable weather, awesome wines, and a great tour and tour-buddies. Others got two out of three: Fraser Island is a huge island entirely made of sand with a rainforest growing out of the dark sand in the middle; you can drive along the beach in a 4WD car at 30 mph for almost three hours straight, just as long as you mind the tides. I was not interested in participating in Survivor politics with the other 10 people in our 4WD, and it rained both tent-sleeping nights. But had the weather been good and the group more jelled, it would’ve been the trip of a lifetime.

Plus then I got to hang out on a sailboat and snorkel in the Whitsundays with amazing travel-mates (especially the self-proclaimed Peanut Gallery), swing of a rope like a pirate, lose myself over the kaleidsope of corals of the Great Barrier Reef, place frisbee is clear waters on white silicon sand beaches, and lie in the net off watching the water churn under the bow of the boat. If you are ever in the neighborhood, go on the hundred year old Solway Lass; it’s awesome.

For the most part the weather was on my side (rainbows in Sydney!). And the people I stayed with were wonderful — generous friends of friends (of friends) whom I now just consider friends.

You meet people traveling like this, in China and in Australia, who are perpetual wanderers, whose only address is their email address. Who come and go. Settling in the clouds, some find people find long distance relationships, most find temp jobs (hey traveling is expensive!), and many get cellphones. But mostly they wander.

I met a woman a few years ago on a flight back from California to New York, who had gone to Australia for a few weeks holiday. Then she met a man, and was now, three years later, traveling back with him for the first time to introduce their one-year old son to her parents. Since then I have occasionally asked myself, could I do that? Just give up everything and start again? Could I just travel indefinitely, doing random jobs to pay for the next train ticket?

Don’t worry, Mom. I learned I am not one of them — I was happy to put down my suitcase back home in Chengdu, with my own shower and internet connection and unsticky keyboard and bed. I realized Down Under that I missed being Up Over.

Keep New York hot for me — I’ll be back.

— Liz

P.S. So about those rabbits. Do they secretly rule the universe? I’m not hopping to any conclusions, but a few stray facts that I learned over the past two months suggest they do. First, apparently in Chinese folklore, rabbits populate the moon, hence the craters (seems pretty incontrovertible to me). Second, rabbits took over Australia when just two dozen of them were introduced. They have solidified their place in the celebration of Easter, and no one has ever given me a good explanation what bunnies have to do with Jesus. And have you ever wondered by we don’t eat them often, even though they are quite tasty? And lastly it is the only explaination I can think of why Asian people often hold up rabbit ears in photographs…

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