Monday, August 8, 2011

How I First Came To Australia

Fair warning - this is a long story, and begins in 1999 after my ex-wife finished a PhD in insect biology and began applying for jobs.  The University of Western Australia took an interest in her qualifications, to the surprising extent that they sprung for two round-trip tickets to Perth.

I assumed that this would be my first and last visit to Australia, but a strange series of events occurred in which my ex, with no post-doctoral experience at all and by far the dark horse in this contest, ended up getting the job.  This is how I recorded the events at the time:

November 1999

My First Ever Visit to Australia
The enormous 747 operated by Singapore Air was completely full for the flight from SF to Singapore via Hong Kong.  Singapore Air is entirely deserving of its reputation for service & comfort.  The 11-hour marathon to Hong Kong was made bearable by good food, hot towels, and these nifty little video screens at every seat.  Along with control units wired to each armrest, these LCD screens enabled passengers to watch their choice of a dozen or so movies, play Nintendo games, or follow the flight progress on computer-generated maps showing the plane's position, direction, flight path, airspeed, altitude, ETA, etc.  After getting tired of The Flintstones and every Nicholas Cage movie ever made, that's the one I watched most.

In Hong Kong, they emptied the plane, searched us, checked our papers and tickets, x-rayed our bags, guarded us with beret-wearing, machine gun-carrying guard guys, encouraged us to exchange money, shop & use the facilities, then herded us all back on the plane, give or take a few passengers, for the rest of the trip to Singapore.

If you really have to be stuck at an airport for 7 hours, Singapore is definitely the place to do it.  It's got places to eat, of course, but also a grocery store, several book stores, 31 flavors of really expensive Swiss watches to look at, and generally better shopping than most of the places I've ever lived.  There are peaceful gardens with fish ponds and electronically-generated bird sounds.  There are interesting displays & exhibitions to look at.  It's like a big mall, but with the exits all leading to airplanes.  There are TV viewing areas segregated by viewer taste - a news area, a cartoon area, and 3 sports areas with chairs upholstered to look like soccer balls & basketballs.  There are large reclining lounge chairs along a darkened corridor to sleep on.  It even has an in-terminal hotel where you can get a bed and a shower rented out in 3-hour blocks.  Whoever came up with THAT was a Genius.  

Compared to Hong Kong, Singapore's Changi airport has everything.  Except armed guards.  I reckon I felt fairly safe anyway.

Once we finally reached Perth, Helen's week-long interview commenced. That's five full days, plus evening engagements such as dinners and parties involving all five of the candidates competing for the one position.  Yes, it was weird. Yes, some of the candidates got drunk and embarrassed themselves.  Apparently, that's normal for Australia.

This arrangement left me with a great deal of time to spend on my own seeing Perth.  From our guest room at Kingswood College in Nedlands, a suburb of Perth and home to the university, I set out on a Tuesday morning to explore the city.  I walked to a nearby bus stop and waited.  I stood looking for a bus when I was startled by a bus that approached me from behind!  (Dang left-hand driving!  Got me again.) Does this bus go to the downtown depot, I inquired.  Um, well, yes but you can't get on it here.  You have to go to blah blah blah, mate, then blah blah.  Right?  Cheers!  And off he went again.

I was a little put off, but still game, so I tried to find the bus stop he described.  To the driver of a bus arriving there a few minutes later, I put the same question.  No, no! This bus goes to blah blah blah and then on out to blah blah after stopping for blah blah . . .  as though I should be keenly interested in everything unrelated to my original question.  At yet a third bus stop I asked another passenger whether the bus that stops here would be able to take me downtown.  The gentleman seemed quite confused by my question and didn't really seem to know whether I could get there from here, or not.  Or else he didn't speak English.  Bah!  I'll just walk.

The most direct route from Nedlands to downtown Perth was through a large city park, King's Park, several miles square.  I was told one might see an occasional kangaroo there, and that I should take care to avoid snakes.  I saw neither.  What I did encounter was large mobs of elderly people, walking in a very determined manner, obviously with urgent business to attend to elsewhere in the park.  Note to self: it is evidently customary for all persons to yield the footpath to these extremely busy folks.

At the far end of the park, I found salvation in the form of a bicycle rental shop.  "I'd like to rent a bicycle, please."  Blank stares.  He's not speaking English.  He must be from outer space.  What could he possibly want from us?  "I'd like to HIRE a bicycle, please."  Oh!  Of course! Yes, of course, no problem, you're in the right place mate, just sign on this sheet.  I asked if I needed to leave a deposit or some ID.  She said I seemed a right sort and that I wouldn't be stealing her bicycle, would I.  Then she looked at the sky and said, "Oh - It may rain.  What will you do if it rains?"  "Get wet, I suppose."  She shrieked with laughter, "Hah! you're game!  Here's a map, and a lock  and a helmet.  Helmets are compulsory, you know.  To get down to the river, go to blah blah blah after taking the blah blah then keep left and you'll be right.  Cheers!"  I went in what I calculated to be a completely different direction to the one explained to me, but nonetheless immediately arrived at the river with its unlimited bike paths and great views of the city.

Around noon I stopped at a lunch shack.  Sign said, "Special, $5.25"  The guy there (called a "bloke") said it was basically a ham and cheese sandwich, so we exchanged some of those wacky multi-colored Monopoly-moneys and I took a seat nearby.  Ten minutes later, I got a plate full of basically unassembled sandwich fixings.  I got a DIY sandwich kit.   The guy, er, bloke at the next table got the same thing, so I knew it wasn't some kind of joke they play on us yankees.  If it took ten minutes to put sandwich fixings on a plate (and they weren't even arranged in any sort of order), I wonder how long I'd have waited for an actual sandwich.  Perhaps I'd still be there now. 

I watched to see what the bloke next to me would do with his sandwich kit.  But he was quite old and moved too slowly for me to determine the correct procedure.  So I just ate one item at a time: the unsliced hunk of bread, the gherkins, the tomato, the lettuce, the two large chunks of cheese and the one wispy shred of ham.

Naturally, it rained on the way back.  I pulled in behind the trunk of a large tree, which kept most of the near-horizontal cloudburst off me, until the tree got wet enough to start dripping on me from above.  After returning the bicycle, I still had a 3 or 4-mile slosh back to Kingswood College.  I tried another bus stop, but nothing came for 40 minutes or so.  Probably just as well.  Headlines might have been, "Bus Driver Throttled by Starving, Soaking-Wet American Tourist.  Police unable to determine motive of incoherent man."

Best way to see Australia if you go:  don't drive, don't take busses, don't rent, er, hire a bike.  Get Helen's Uncle Bob to drive you around in his nice, dry 4-WD, mate!  He knows where there's a French restaurant where they serve braised kangaroo.

1 comment:

  1. wow, you are funny! I've never been one for blogs, but this was really good! Thanks for the read, dude!