* This entry was edited and posted after my return to America.
G’day from the home of vegemite and road-ragin’ ‘roos, Ernie and Hads! The land down undah – Australia! Aussieland! OZZZZ! Well, I’ve got a new name for it, ya mongrels, and that name is, well, meh.
That’s right. Meh.
Now don’t get me wrong, ya *****. Under different ‘stancies, some ace plannin’, a few more lobstahs in me purse, and maybe a legless rootrat or two, I imagine the land of crocs and barbies would be worth a frothy piss-up with some of me closest brucies. But this visit? Well, if I’m being dinkum, mates, this visit left me feelin’ like I got a stingah t’me goolies.
Eesh, okay, sorry about that, guys. Normal English is hard enough for the two of you, never mind when it’s turned into incessantly annoying slang. Also, it was amusing for the first 10 minutes of Crocodile Dundee – in 1986 – but by the 11th minute it felt as forced as a five-foot-nothin’, 135-lb Australian waif with leathery progeria playing a romantic lead who takes over the mean streets of New York. And yet, for me, Paul Hogan might still be the most likable thing about the continent.
To be fair, some of this was my fault. I did arrive in Cairns without much of a plan beyond three bucket-list destinations: The Great Barrier Reef, Uluru-Kata, and Sydney. I’d already been to over 25 countries on this journey alone, and had been able to get around pretty well on the fly. But Australia proved to be a different animal, guys. It’s enormous, for one, and getting around ain’t easy. In fact, on a backpacker’s budget and limited time, it’s next to impossible without a helluva lot of advance planning.
To begin with, Cairns is a crazy expensive seaside tourist town where breakfast alone costs more than my private, two-story, waterfront villa in Amed, Indonesia. It’s a place where even clown car rentals cost $150 per day. A place where I walked three-and-a-half miles from the airport with backpacks on because I couldn’t justify a $25 cab for such a short ride. Of course, had I known I’d spend the next 10 hours walking those streets in the scorching sun, unsuccessfully trying to find an available room in its many hostels, homestays, inns, and motels, I would have ponied up. The only available rooms I could find were in hotels, but they began at four hundred bucks a night.
To add to my woes, I hadn’t eaten a thing since dinner on Seminyak Beach in Bali the night before, and since JetStart Airlines doesn’t allow passengers to board even with bottled water bought in the terminal, I was dehydrated by the time our wheels touched terra firma.
In other words, the recipe for disaster was coming along just fine.
By lunch, I’d exhausted myself to the point of nausea, and despite my hunger (there don’t seem to be any sandwich joints in Cairns), I couldn’t even stomach the thought of eating anything that smelled remotely like actual food. In fact, at the Cairns Mall, where I’d gone for the air conditioning, a SIM card, and to power my phone, the only thing that kept me from going into the mens room to vomit was my sympathy for the janitor who’d walked in just seconds before. Sure, cleaning public bathrooms is the poor bastard’s job, but it seemed like puking while he was standing at the sink, staring into the abyss of his own reflection and wondering where it all went wrong, might have been enough to crush his very soul.
While I would manage to force down a protein shake, it would be 6PM before I’d find a room – a $41 bed in a four-person, ensuite dorm at Gilligan’s Hostel, a huge and legendary party place. I’d tried them earlier in the day and was scouting their hedges as a possible bed for the night when I discovered they’d had a last minute cancellation. I’ve never been so deliriously happy to share a small room with three complete strangers – young Louis from New Zealand, young Susie from the UK, and Big Frank from Tonga, age indeterminate. Concerned my roomies would think I had Covid instead of a simple case of life-threatening heat exhaustion, dangerously low blood sugar, and severe dehydration, I discovered I had a hidden talent I call the stealth vomit (DM me for deets), the sound of which is exactly opposite of the one Ernie makes when coughing up a half-digested field mouse at 2AM.
Sure, I would check my bucket-list box on the Great Barrier Reef, but at the risk of sounding like an entitled, spoiled little tool, I paid $125 for a two-hour boat ride with forty-nine other folks to snorkel reefs that were pretty similar to those I’d reached from the beach in front of my villas in Amed and Gili Air. Those only cost three bucks a day for mask and snorkel, and I could walk in and out of the water at my leisure and have a cold Bintang in my hand in less than a minute. The reefs of Indonesia aren’t nearly as big, that’s true, nor are the fish, but they were just as colorful and plentiful, with more turtles to boot. If I’d never been to Indonesia, then sure, the Great Barrier Reef would have been the bomb, and it was still pretty goddamn cool, but so far, it wasn’t making me forget Katja, Bianca, Fari, and Adrian in Indo. But then, I still had Uluru-Kata.
Or did I?
I’d soon discover that getting to Uluru-Kata in central Australia wasn’t going to be easy, however. One-way flights from Cairns were $400+. Driving would take 29 hours – which to me seemed like a fun adventure in itself – but there were no cars available, even if rentals had been within my budget. Buses weren’t going there, and hitchhiking in Queensland is illegal, or at least it’s posted as such. I was less concerned about the popo than I was being stuck somewhere in the middle of the outback with the sun setting and the dingos downwind. I tried online rideshare apps, Facebook travel groups, and even walked to the nearby hostels all over again, checking and adding to their message boards, offering to share expenses for a spare seat. This was as close as I’d come…
I would soon discover that even if I could get there, the only rooms near Uluru-Kata were well over $300 a night. I had no gear for the campgrounds – no sleeping bag, and no tent, the latter of which is essential in a country filled with crocs, cattle-eating snakes, and spiders whose gross, furry black bodies could blot out the morning sun if they crawled atop my sleeping face to lay their eggs (I’m no Arachnologist, but I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what they do). I’d begun to sour, with the lure of Uluru-Kata quickly deteriorating from an intriguing UNESCO World Heritage Site to nothing more than Australia’s version of a land-based iceberg. In other words, a fucking rock.
I had limited options even for local enjoyment. Getting to the nearby hills for hiking required a rental car or taxi, and a later roommate, Kevin, from France, found the local trails to be more concrete than dirt. Truth be told, by then I was so resigned to my fate that I was having more trouble with the fact that I’d just met a Frenchman from Paris named “Kevin.”
Kevin? It doesn’t exactly conjure poetic verses from the musical, Les Miserables…
“And so Javert you see it’s true, this man bears no more guilt than youuuuu. Who am I? Who am I? I am Keviiinnnnnnn.”
At the nearby beach, crocodile warning signs pushed all the sun worshippers back to the grassy park, where grabbing a spot to casually eye the bikini-clad European girls lying about seemed decidedly more creepy than doing so on a sandy beach. On the other hand, the local brewery – Hemingway’s – held some promise…
…until I discovered they were out of IPA, XPA, most of their lagers, and their large tee-shirts.
“Jesus H. Christ,” I suddenly heard Dad’s voice say inside my head.
And that meant only one thing – it was time to cut my losses and head for Sydney.
At the risk of sounding like a whiny little wallaby, things didn’t get a whole helluva lot better, guys. While the sun blazed in Cairns, Sydney was in the cold, wet grasp of a La Niña winter. They’d had something like, I don’t know, 500 straight days of rain, which is admittedly a rough estimate, but one with which I’m sure most Sydneyans would agree. Cold, gray, wet, and raw – and by now I was not only in full curmudgeon mode, I also had nothing but clothes for the sunny blue skies of Bali.
Ohh, Bali, can you ever forgive me for walking out on you?
I’d see the Opera House, The Sydney Bridge, St. Mary’s Cathedral, a couple of museums. I’d have a happy hour pint or two at Harry’s Bar in Surry Hills, and on Saturday afternoon I’d walk the historic Rocks neighborhood, watch singers entertaining outdoor diners at restaurants I couldn’t afford, and eventually find the packed Fortune of War, Sydney’s oldest pub, with live music and tipsy locals singing along to Piano Man and Bohemian Rhapsody.
One of the highlights in Sydney was a roommate in my even smaller, four-bed, $50 per night dorm at Wake Up! hostel. David was closer to my age, while our other two roommates came and went and slept as you’d expect from twenty-somethings on holiday.
David Antony Gerard was staying and working at the hostel while awaiting his new apartment to become available, and he didn’t hesitate to share stories and drop names. He grew up a child of The Brethren, a cult in which men cannot wear ties and women cannot cut their hair, to name just a couple of their less-creepy rules. He escaped its grasp in his mid-teens and set off on his own. His brother and father would be ex-communicated from the cult, his late-teens brother for cavorting with women before marriage, his dad for being caught innocently socializing after work with non-Brethren coworkers from his dental practice. The marriage of his parents disintegrated when mother and father were forced to live separately in their own home. Drugs and alcohol and depression would ravage each of them before their time, leaving only David today.
“Each death led to the next broken heart,” he told me.
A highly educated intellectual, David said he was a classmate and social acquaintance of Hugh Grant at Oxford. He tutored children of The Royal Family, and did work with the grandmother of Helena Bonham Carter, befriending Helena in the process. He was friends with Jackie and Joan Collins when he lived in L.A., and also Chelsea Clinton, not to mention his connections to The Pope and the Archbishop of the Russian Orthodox Church, to namedrop just a few. He’d recently gone back to school to study film, and his 4-month class project, Alessandra, had won awards. He would ask me to critique two different, edited versions of the film. David talked enough to make me feel like a mute, which for any who know me, is saying something. But the conversations were fascinating, his life autobiography-worthy.
And this brings me to the Australian people themselves, their pace of life, and the forebodings of my impending return home to America.
I’d admittedly gotten used to a much slower life pace, having spent a few months in Africa, where time is measured by sunrise and sunset, and in Southeast Asia, where every question became a genuinely kind conversation. The priorities of those I met had changed as well, beginning somewhere around Slovenia, where farms and cattle and mountain trails dominated the stunning Lake Bohinj landscape, where one café, which doubled as a bar, was more than enough. Where my AirBnB hostess of maybe 80 years welcomed me with homemade cookies, fresh eggs, and a shot of booze. Europe is very western, sure, but they take their personal and vacation time seriously. The Italians are a bit crazed, but about love and family and wine and food and singing aloud in public. Lunches and dinners in Greece took all the time they needed, far more than for the eating itself, the delicious food simply a reason to spend more time with family and friends. In Turkey, the hotel manager gave me his personal cell number and told me to call him if I had any difficulty anywhere in his country. In Jordan, Mohammed, the owner of the hotel in which I stayed, left it in the hands of his young daughters for an entire day in order to drive me 90 minutes, one way, joining me for a tour of the red sand desert of Wadi Rum. No charge. Nothing in return. Just conversation, tea, and stories of his life as a military officer, husband, father, and devout Muslim, the tenets of which were on full display when he cooked the most amazing meal for me and a family from Italy so we wouldn’t feel so far from our loved ones on Christmas Day. In Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Indonesia, the only social competitiveness was in seeing who could get in the last bowed thank you.
But things changed abruptly in Australia, and I was entirely unprepared.
I’d arrived early on a Sunday, and on my walk to town at 7AM was taken aback to see a woman whiz by in a matching spandex jogging suit, pushing a $1000 stroller. It suddenly seemed absurd. Unless you’re a pro, form-fitting spandex is little more than a fashionable luxury (I know, I know, cue all you defenders with your lists of why those outfits are so much more than that, blah blah pffft). I’d also gotten so used to seeing infants being carried around in little more than a kanga, that a luxurious stroller with four-wheel independent suspension seemed otherworldly. Sure, kangas don’t come with a cooling cushioned mattress made of the same material NASA astronauts use to help them sleep comfortably in a tin can floating in space, no, but they do keep babies close to their mother’s skin, her warmth, her heartbeat. I don’t think I saw a single stroller in Africa, Thailand, or Indonesia, as a matter of fact. But you know what else I didn’t see? A single kid with peanut allergies or ADHD.
The majority of automobiles here were shiny pickups and SUVs, decked out to survive the outback should their drivers take a wrong turn on the way to brunch or the mall. Even on a Sunday morning, cars flew down the streets, racing to somewhere that was anywhere but where they were at that very moment. Whenever I dared jaywalk an otherwise empty intersection, lone, distant drivers would step on the gas to make sure they closed what had been a comfortably safe gap. Making me pick up my pace for those last few steps would certainly show me who’s boss, I supposed.
The people weren’t unkind, no, but they weren’t exactly kind, either. And I wasn’t the only one who noticed. Sure, they answered my questions – Is there a message board in this hostel? Do you know where a hobo can get a sandwich? What the fuck is a wallaby?
But the answers were short, the people curt. “There, mate,” someone might say, motioning with a head-nod before turning and walking away. Small-talk with a decidedly unbusy bartender was met with a disinterested glance, a plunked down pint, and a turned back more than once. An inquiry about whether a hostel had rideshare postings was met with a simple “no” more than once as well, without a why, without further inquiry. I held a door for an older woman at a market and she turned and said “Thank you, there aren’t a lot of people who do that anymore.” Her words were kind, but disheartening.
Not all of my interactions were bad, to be fair. Upon leaving Cairns, my uber driver, Grant, after hearing about my travels over the prior many months, refused to take my tip.
“Buy yourself a beer, mate,” he said.
But Grant was in the minority. I realized that I’d been spoiled for some time, of course. In Thailand, if I asked where I could get some lunch, a man might walk out from behind his own counter and walk me down the street to a local restaurant before we engaged in a contest to see who could be the last to bow our thanks to one another. This sort of kindness also wasn’t uncommon in many of the other countries I’d visited.
But was that being spoiled, or is that the way it’s supposed to be? It’s not that hard, after all. It takes such little effort. And everyone is happier at the end of such an exchange.
It was then that I realized Australia reminded me very much of another country. My own. America, where people are polite enough, but not always so nice – and too often, neither – especially when it costs their time, in a place where we’re all taught that time is money.
Money. Career. Real life. It was all suddenly looming.
I sat next to two women on the boat out to the Great Barrier Reef. Their conversations began as most do, talking about their careers, both painting glorious pictures of their titles and responsibilities, the amazing things their companies do in their respective industries. But with two hours out, and two more back, their conversation inevitably turned to truths. Their poor life-work balance, the pressures of attending conventions and board meetings and preparing budgets and giving presentations, tales of incompetent leadership, bloated management, looming cuts to staffing and resources, and how they knew goddamn well how to fix the problems their leadership didn’t, while also knowing they’d just be banging their heads against figurative walls if ever given the chance.
It’s all bullshit. A glorious sham. They know it. I know it. You know it. Life is about more than that, isn’t it? It’s about what I’ve experienced in the past year, the places I’ve been, the things I’ve seen, and the people I’ve met. People with nothing, who don’t hesitate to give what little they have, be it food and shelter, or time and kindness.
It was here, in Australia, guys, that the reality of abnormal life once again began to loom large. I miss the two of you, Mom, family and friends, but I suddenly don’t think I want to go back. I don’t want all of this to become little more than framed memories of a single year from my life. I want this to be my life. Well, not this, not Australia, because if I’m being dinkum, mates, Australia was just kind of meh.