On The Rocks

I’ve been sitting here for 10 minutes trying to write a pithy introduction to the carnivorous plant show at the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens.  I guess I’ll just show, not tell.

The exhibit was a little bit of art, a bit of science, and a whole lot of Little Shop of Horrors kitsch.  It was fun. It was pretty. I learned some facts that I immediately forgot.

I took a gander in the gift shop and didn’t buy anything.  My plan was to find the trolley for which I’d seen signs directing me to the Opera House Gate.  The RBG is enormous, as are most botanic gardens, and I had visions of covering it all with the aid of wheels and a silver-tongued guide as we had in Melbourne.

After walking 20 minutes to the gate, I couldn’t find the trolley.  Construction was under way for the Invictus Games; more about that later.  Perhaps the trolley was under a tarp.  There were volunteers everywhere, bumping into each other, and none of them knew anything about a trolley.

I passed this sign about the Opera House being the site of Gadigal land.  I wonder if the Gadigal people are comforted by these signs and pronouncements of “sorry.”  Or do they say, “Yeh, sorry is nice, but you’ve still got our land.”

As long as I was in the general vicinity and it was a beautiful day for a walk, I headed over to the area called The Rocks.  This was where the original settlers … um, settled.  I guess it’s called The Rocks because it’s very hilly and there must be gigantic rocks in them thar hills.

I had been urged to visit The Rocks by my Lebanese friends on the dive boat on the reef, and by other strangers.  It seemed the main attractions were “interesting shops and restaurants.”  I never found any, even after much wandering.  Everything seemed closed, and there was lots of construction so I kept hitting dead ends.  There was some charming Victorian architecture, like the Mercantile Hotel, where I had a wonderful fresh, healthy salad.

This was in the toilet.

As I often do when I’m traveling on my own, I pulled out my notepad to jot down some notes.  I was pleasantly surprised to see a young woman at the table next doing the same.

I like the texture of pencil, or a roller-ball pen, on paper.

I was once mocked at work for using a pencil.  I was sharpening one in the copy room and a member of management who wears a perpetual frozen smile said in a syrupy but patronizing voice, “Anne, how old school—a pencil!”  She tried to pull it off as a joke so I smiled back, said nothing, and returned to my desk where I shot off a few lines with my razor sharp pencil, then returned to the copy room and shredded the sheet of paper.

Across the street was Susannah House, an original tenement where immigrants had lived up until the 1970s.

I got there just in time for the 3:00pm tour. This didn’t leave any time to check out the small selection of gift items, but they were all related to household cleaning in the 1980s—think lye soap and wooden scrub brushes—things I could live without.

A very thin man dressed in a period costume led us through the rooms.  He recited the usual types of dreary stories you hear in such places.  You know: ‘This is the bedroom where Mrs. Lopadopalous gave birth to her 14th child after her husband died of alcoholism.  Six of her children had died from smallpox or flu but little George grew up to be the first mayor of Greek ancestry of a medium-sized Australian city.”

I loved it.  In one of the kitchens he told the tale of old Mrs. McGillicuddy’s fight for tenants’ rights against the big-money interests who wanted to tear down the tenement and put up a shopping center.

Then he turned, pointed out the icebox in the corner and said, “That’s an original. The ice came all the way from a vast lake in some place called Mih-neh-soda, in the states.”

 

Explorers, Convicts, and National Sorry Day

Are you familiar with the Morrissey song, “Throwing My Arms Around Paris?” I hear it in my head sometimes when I am throwing myself out into a city—joyfully embracing as much as humanly possible in however much time I have.  The actual song is a downer, obviously—it’s Morrissey after all, the miserablist. But I re-mix it in my head to be uplifting.

I visited the RBG every day for three days.  There’s that much to see and do, and it’s just a lovely, peaceful oasis in the middle of the big city.

On my first day I caught a walking tour.  The morning was fresh from a night rain and the sun had not yet burned the heavy dew off the leaves.

My group included some Canadians, Melbournians, and Germans.  The guide was giving her first tour and said she was nervous.  She was still getting used to holding laminated photos of flowers and referring to them; they were upside down for her.  She was doing her best but kept saying, “I’m not sure about that, I’ll have to check it later.”

She thought this astounding tree was from South Africa.

After 20 minutes I carved off into an inviting-looking dark path through thick trees.  Have I mentioned I was enamored with the trees?  I emerged to see this banyan with knobs drooping downward; they would become buttresses for the growing tree.

What I hadn’t expected to find in a garden were story lines about three important populations in Australia’s history—explorers, Aboriginals, and convicts.

There was a garden named for Daniel Solander, a Swede who sailed with Captain Cook on The Endeavor around the Pacific and collected 17,000 species of plants, 900 of them from Australia.  Most of those were found around Botany Bay, just five miles from where I was standing.

He did this 70 years before Charles Darwin made his famous voyage on The Beagle. Solander didn’t live to read Darwin’s Origin of the Species; he died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage at age 49.

Next I crossed what appeared to be a dinky, unremarkable bridge over a tiny stream.  But no!  It was built over culvert of “high cultural significance” built by convicts in 1816 so the Governor’s wife could cross the stream in her carriage.

I turned around to find about 15 placards about Aboriginal history.  I already knew about the 1967 vote in which white Australians decided to count Aboriginal people in the census for the first time.  I guess it took that long for them to decide that Aboriginals were actual humans.

I didn’t know there had been a Freedom Ride in Australia in 1965, similar to the ones in the US about five years earlier.

I was pleased to see that one of the leaders had a Jewish name—Spigelman.  When I Googled him I learned he had immigrated to Australia from Poland as a three-year old with his parents, who were Holocaust survivors.  His parents are featured in the graphic novel about the Holocaust called Maus, by his American cousin Art Spiegelman.

Spiegelman was born in Sweden after the war.  His five-year-old brother had been poisoned by their aunt, who then poisoned herself, in order to save them from being taken by the Nazis.  It gets worse, believe it or not.

I have Maus sitting on my bookshelf.  If everyone was required to read Maus, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, I wonder if we would ever have another war.

Spigelman went on to become an Australian Supreme Court Justice and patron of many humanitarian and arts causes including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

It’s no surprise that Jews are overrepresented in human rights causes.  But why should it take something as horrific as surviving a Holocaust to motivate people?

Lastly, I was moved to tears to learn that Australia has a National Sorry Day, which “gives all Australians an opportunity to express their sorrow” about the stolen generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who were forcibly removed from their families “for their own good.”

Wow, who expected so much sad stuff in a botanical garden?

I hastened toward a more uplifting exhibit, about carnivorous plants.

On My Way

I love it when I know a city well enough to not worry too much about getting lost, but not well enough that I feel I’ve seen it all.

I set out with no goal in mind except to stop at the dreaded Apple store to see if they could fix my phone, which was apparently confused about my whereabouts and wouldn’t let me check email or What’s App or any other useful thing.

I found the store easily enough—it was like a cathedral, with hordes scruffily-dressed but probably wealthy people lounging around and looking worshipfully at the goods.

I like to think I am not one of the Apple Zombies.  I happened to buy an iphone as my first smart phone.  I kept that one for five years, so I’m not exactly one to jump on every new passing model.  When Apple did that thing where it purposely slowed down all the older models to the point of forcing people to buy new ones, I did not want to go through a new learning curve by switching to an android, so I bought the cheapest iphone, the SE.

I can’t believe I just wrote that.  I think I paid $499 for my phone.  Five hundred dollars, for a phone!  Plus $53 a month for the privilege of being able to check Facebook in the middle of my workout at the Y or during a walk in the woods.

I realize it’s a computer as well as a phone, but still.

The few times I’ve gone to an Apple store in the states I have felt about two inches tall and dumb as a box of rocks.  The “geniuses” have been deficient in people skills, but at the Sydney store a very friendly young woman fixed my phone in 15 seconds and smiled as she handed it back to me.

“You just made my day!” I told her, and I meant it.

I passed a gritty photo exhibition that was mounted on the brick walls supporting the train tracks.  There was an Aboriginal theme.

A white trash theme.

And my favorite, the Sydney punk scene.

As I have from time to time in the past, I expressed silent gratitude that I’d not crossed paths with any punks back in the 80s.  I know I would have taken to the lifestyle with zeal, and probably would have ended up dead from a heroin overdose or infected nose piercing.

If you know Sydney well, you’ll know I couldn’t have walked past all the sights I’ve listed here without retracing my steps or walking in circles.  Ya caught me—they’re not in order. Just take it as a representation of my memories of those last four days, which are a jumble.

I loved this contrast between the Victorian architecture and stark modern high rises.

And this grand old department store, which sold corsets, gloves, “mourning” wear, and costumes.  Swimming costumes?  Halloween costumes?  Costumes for fancy galas?

I passed other buildings from bygone days—a police station and union HQ.

I gazed up at Sydney Tower from different angles in different weather.

I passed this art installation. Or was it another war memorial?

In Hyde Park, I admired this deco-era fountain.

I stepped inside St. Mary’s and felt “meh.”  It was gargantuan, but it felt stodgy and plain compared to some of the cathedrals I’ve seen in Malta, Italy, and Spain.  Of course when I was in Europe I complained that their cathedrals were too ornate.

Making my way along a great boulevard and series of parks, I spied a statue of the Scottish poet Burns dwarfed by yet another giant Australian tree.

And across the street, a trumpet tree.  I don’t know it that’s what it’s called but that’s what I’m calling it.

And then, on into the Royal Botanic Garden or RBG, which I found amusing because a movie by that name about US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was about to be released and there were posts galore promoting it in my social media feeds.

Validated

“You can’t bring electronics in here!” screamed the guards at the American consulate in Sydney as I tried to get through security to find out if my passport was valid or not.  I had paid $10 to check my laptop per instructions but now they were hyperventilating about something else in my suitcase that they could see on the scanner.

“Take it out and show us what it is!”

The one was verging on hysterical.  Would he pull a gun next and throw me to the floor? I kept my mouth shut and obeyed.

He tossed my suitcase onto the floor.  I didn’t know what the offending item could be; he already had my cell phone in a tray. But when I fished my power cord out from among my underwear in front of the whole room of people, they both yelled as if I had tried to conceal the fuse to an IED.

“Electronics!  She’s got electronics!”

I tried to talk, “I didn’t know a power cord counted as …”

“You can’t bring that inside!”

“…electronics,” I managed to finish.

“You have to check it!”

I handed it over and he dropped it into a plastic bag as though it was Exhibit A of my collaboration with ISIS.  I was shaking, but my objective was to get inside so I said no more.

At the service counter with the bullet-proof-glass, I was informed that my passport had not been cancelled.

On to the hotel, the cheapest one I could find on Expedia at the last minute.

I wasn’t going to inconvenience Auntie Margaret, who had already given up her flat for five or six nights so Heidi and I could stay there.  I would stay there on my last night.

What do you get for $169 per night in Sydney?

The room was a concrete cube of questionable cleanliness.  There was a foot-long black hair in the tub. Not that I have anything against black hair, but it sure does show up well against a white tub.  I was on the sixth floor and the views were a jumble of old and new Sydney.

I did not take a photo of the hair, but I did snap one of the toilet to show you a feature of Australian toilets—the number one or number two flush—such a commonsensical approach to water conservation. I see these from time to time in the US but they are far from standard as they are in Australia.

If you don’t understand how it works, I’m not explaining it to you.

I crawled into bed, checking first for hairs, and tried to reckon how much extra my lost/not lost passport had cost.

Expedia hadn’t charged me anything to change my flight.  Yeah!  I take back all the bad things I’ve said about them. I paid $30 for the 3am shuttle bus to Cairns airport—seeing all those wallabies was totally worth it.   The ugly passport photos cost $24.  At least they would not be employed in my passport for the next 10 years.  There was the hotel room, which also charged an arm and a leg for wireless.

Freedom isn’t free, as they say.  In fact your $10 will get you about two hours of wireless.  I hadn’t heard from Heidi but figured I’d find her somehow, eventually, in this city of five million people.  I fell asleep at noon, watching the TV weather.

I woke up at 7am the next day.  The previous day had been an exhausting and pointless. Now I was raring to go.

I had four full days in Sydney instead of two.  Heidi had encouraged me to stay up north.

“There’s not all that much to do in Sydney,” she said.  “You can tick the boxes in two days, easy.”

But I think she was suffering from familiarity syndrome.  She lived immersed in Sydney.  She had “done” the art institute as a high-school kid, and gone to special events in the botanical garden, which was full of (yawn) banksia.

I grabbed some brekky at The Bear, a local ye-olde British-style pub, then walked off to find the botanical garden or art institute, whichever came first.

Power Trippin’

I am a morning person, but 3am?  I sprang out of bed, threw on my clothes, grabbed my bag, said a silent farewell to the Reef Retreat, and met the airport shuttle.

As I wrote at the time, if I hadn’t lost my passport and had to fly back early to Sydney, I wouldn’t have seen the World Wide Wallaby convention on the side of the road.  Those little hoppers made it all worth it.

At the airport I ate banana and a protein bar while waiting for to board.  It was me and about 50 retirement-age Chinese couples who were wide awake and yammering at full volume.  Thankfully the plane was half empty so I was able to lie down in the fetal position across three seats but it was so cold I kept waking up.  I flagged a passing flight attendant and said, “It’s freezing in this plane.”  She gave me a look that said, “You’re crazy,” and when I very politely asked if the heat could be turned up she replied with barely concealed rage, “Ma’am, it’s a plane,” as if that explained it.

She did bring me a cup of very hot coffee a few minutes later, so maybe she felt bad about being a bitch.

Off the plane, and it was a good thing I had done this routine with Heidi a few weeks previous. I knew where to find the train station, which train to take, and where to get off.

On the street, I consulted the paper map I’d marked with red circles.  I found the photo shop and smiled for the camera.  “Don’t smile,” said the photog, so I didn’t, and I walked out with two passport-sized photos of me looking like I’d just been booked at the county jail after a night on the town.

On to the consulate, which was in the MCL Building.  Hooray, I spotted a tower with MCL in giant letters at the top.  But at ground level, there were no unlocked doors.  I walked around the building, dragging my suitcase behind me.  Finally I spotted a delivery man and asked him.

“Oh, you want the new MCL Building,” he said. He was super friendly and helpful, pointing out not only the new MCL Building but which entrance I should use.

I rode to the 10th floor, where a cheery Australian guard informed me I would have to check my laptop.  “There’s a photo shop just down that hall, with rental lockers.”

A photo shop.  I paid $10 to check my laptop, then got in the “American Citizens Services” line outside the consulate.  I was the only American.  The “All Others” line lived up to its name.

There was another elevator ride to the consulate’s floor, with an armed guard. I would have to go through security, fair enough.  As I entered the security hall, the Aussie guard at the baggage scanner was barking at a couple in front of me who were flustered and had lost whatever English they had had.

“Who speaks English here!?” he yelled jeeringly.  They appeared to originally be from India or Sri Lanka.  “Do you speak English?  Speak English!”

My blood boiled, and I also felt panic. I knew exactly what was happening.  I was being “triggered”—to use an overused word—by this bully. All the feelings associated with being bullied, leered at, and jerked around by prison guards while my son was inside came to the fore.

I was next.

“You can’t bring that suitcase in here!?” he screamed, as though it was the first time anyone had brought a suitcase to an embassy.

“You’re going to have to go leave that somewhere and come back,” he said.

“But I have a 10 o’clock appointment,” I said.

“Well it might fit through the scanner, but if it doesn’t, you can’t enter.”

I knew from eyeballing it that it would fit.  He probably did too, but he had to make his point—that he was in charge.

A second Aussie guard, who was manning the scanner yelled, “She’s got electronics in here!” as though he was seeing the outline of a bundle of TNT and a lighted fuse.

Lucky Me

In my last post I wrote about how content and grateful I feel.  And why shouldn’t I?  I didn’t have the easiest start in life, but I am now one of the most comfortable creatures on the planet.

I live simply, in a cheap but nice apartment.  My indulgence is travel, and last year I got to go to Colombia with two great friends, Lynn and Roxana.  Now Colombia is in the news almost daily, since its next-door-neighbor, Venezuela, is imploding and Colombia is taking in its refugees in a model way.

And I got to spend a month in Australia with Heidi and other friends and see the place through their eyes!  My interest had been tepid going in.  Would it be like Canada, with kangaroos?  No offense, Canada, but you’re not exactly exotic to an American.

But Australia grabbed my imagination and heart.  I would love to go back.

Back in Australia.  But not for long.

You may have wondered, as I wrote about snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef, if I saw coral bleaching. Yes, I did.  However, we were told that bleaching is normal, to a point.  It’s part of the ebb and flow of weather conditions.  I’m not an expert so I can’t say how much is normal, but as with most things, it’s more complicated than your friends’ Facebook posts would have you believe.

As I walked into the office of the resort, I knew from Jim’s face what he would say.

“They’ve found your passport.  Someone at the casino-cum-liquor-store turned it in to the police.”

“So if I had waited a day, I wouldn’t have had to change all my plans and lose a day here.”

“Do you feel lucky, or unlucky?” Jim asked.

“Oh, lucky, definitely. I’m nearly 60 and have traveled all over the world—that’s lucky.  And nothing like this has ever happened to me before, so that’s lucky.”

On the “not lucky” side, I didn’t know if my passport had been cancelled and I had a lot of hoops to jump through before I would be allowed to exit the country.

You may wonder why I didn’t retrace my steps and try to find my passport.  I don’t know.  This didn’t even occur to me until I was in Sydney. In an urgent situation I go into “just-deal-with-it” mode, instead of “figure-it-out” mode.  I would not make a very good detective.

This was an instance where it would have been preferable to be traveling with someone.  I know for a certainty that if Lynn or Heidi had been there, they would have suggested, “Let’s go back and check at all the places you stopped,” and I would have done it, and probably avoided all this drama.

Oh well.

I went out for s last walk around Palm Cove. These are Holdens, the Australian car brand that started out as a saddle maker in the 1850s.  Heidi had told me that every Australian family drove a Holden Colorado or Commodore in the 70s and 80s.  Then this venerable company declined and was bought by GM, which shut down all car manufacturing in Australia.

You can still buy a car called a Holden, but it is merely a re-branded import of some other car company’s model, made in Thailand or elsewhere, with the Holden lion insignia slapped on.

This is a Skoda.  I love that name; it sounds like a disease.  I saw all models and makes of cars and utes (trucks) in Australia but if I had to guess I’d say the majority were Toyotas.

I walked along the beach.  Aussies have beach safety down to a science. There were signs about sunburn, rip tides, and marine stingers.

These kids had everything but their faces covered, just like Minnesota kids in winter.

Night came and I was still hanging out; I like this photo of a young woman being asked to snap a photo of some senior holiday makers, as they call vacationers.

Back in my room, I read, then tried to force myself to sleep but my nose was stuffed up and it was futile.  My mind was also stuffed up with worries about the next day.

Grateful

Today, February 4, is the 59th anniversary of my birth.  59?!  How did that happen?

Ten years ago, when I was in the grip of a decades-long depression, I heard about some research that found older people are happier.  I remember scoffing: “No way!  How could you be happier, when you’re decrepit and inching closer to death, and can’t do anything you used to do?”

But in my case, at least, it’s proving to be true—the “happier” part, not the “can’t do anything” part.

Since leaving my job in mid-December, I’ve caught myself thinking on a regular basis, “Today was a good day,” and “Life is good,” and even, “I’m happy.”  These weren’t “if you believe it, it will be” exercises.  These thoughts come unbidden.  And it’s the first time in my life I’ve ever thought them.

And why shouldn’t I be content?

I am working on contract for my former employer.  This month I will submit something like $2.7 million worth of funding applications for Ethiopia and Jordan to the UN and US Government. It’s interesting, challenging, and meaningful work.

Somehow, doing the same work but from home is far less stressful and I am more productive.  I don’t get into office chit chat—which I enjoyed but which ate up time.  I don’t attend meetings except via Zoom and I’m not reading all the corporate communiques.

I no longer commute.  My drive was about 25 minutes each way, and by the time I got through rush hour I had usually yelled “you moron!,” at another driver.  I would arrive at work shaking from being cutting off or just listening to the news of the world on NPR.  I feel agitated writing those sentences.  Now I only drive before and after rush hours.

I am working two short shifts a week at the YMCA.  I love it.  I make 1/10th at the Y as I do writing proposals, but it is something different and it gets me out of the house, very important during the recent polar vortex.  I work in the childcare center.  I can see some of you grimacing at that—your worst nightmare.  But I love little kids, and being around them puts me in a zone—I don’t have to teach them anything; I am just there to play with them and keep them from biting each other.  I am now certified to provide CPR and if you knock out a tooth I’ll know what to do.   I get a free Y membership, so I am enjoying trying out all the different locations and classes.  The sauna was a godsend last month when I had a cold.

Maybe part of my contentedness is my keen awareness of how fortunate I am.  When I had that cold, I was propped up in bed one night feeling sorry for myself and I thought, “Somewhere there is a woman my age in a refugee camp who has a cold.  She can’t prop herself up to breath because she’s in a fucking tent and doesn’t have four pillows.  It’s dusty.  She doesn’t have Breathe Right Nasal Strips or eucalyptus essential oil in her humidifier.   She probably doesn’t even have Kleenex to blow her nose.

I shouldn’t have to make myself feel better at the expense of a refugee, but there you go.

My son and I received our first royalty check last week for the book we published in November.  We’re not going to be able to quit working or make big donations to refugee charities with our proceeds, but hey, we did it—we wrote and published a book!

Finally, yesterday my sister-in-law and I bought four tickets to Japan for June in a big sale through a Chicago travel agency.  It still wasn’t cheap, but it was $600 less than anything posted publicly.  So use a travel agent for big trips—they really can see things you can’t.

It’s my brother’s busiest season as a wedding videographer, so I will go with Akiko and my two nephews and chaperone the second one back home after a month.  I have no idea where I’ll stay or what I’ll do yet, but that will be the fun part.  Suggestions welcome!