Category Archives: Culture shock

Alice, Sans Springs

Alice Springs. I knew little about it except that it was in the middle of a vast country.  It held a mythical status in my mind, maybe because it was named after a person—in this case, the wife of one of the men who built the overland telegraph line. There were no springs in Alice Springs except underground.  If you were dying of thirst and you could make out the outline of a river in the desert, you could secure water by diffing down six feet through sand and rock.  The rivers never flowed above ground unless there was a flood.  Perhaps that’s why it’s usually referred to as just Alice.

“They have something called the Henley-on-Todd Regatta every year,” Heidi chuckled, “where they race ‘boats’ on the dry riverbed.”  I found some photos online; it looks like a good time.

Alice is also the midpoint of the legendary Ghan, the train that runs almost 3,000 miles (4,828 kilometers) from Adelaide in the south to Darwin in the north.

Originally called the Afghan Express, it was built for the British by immigrants from what is now Pakistan, who imported camels from India and Afghanistan to help with the job.  The camels did very well.  In fact, Australia now has over a million of camels running wild in packs in the outback.

I had checked out the Ghan and it would have cost me about $700 to get to Alice from Adelaide.  This didn’t line up with my plans with Heidi but I would definitely go back and do it someday.

First, we had breakfast.

Someone had taken the trouble to decorate the stairwell of the motel with painted scenes from nature.

“You wonder if they were taking the piss,” Heidi said as she traced the names Boobialla and Cocky Apple with her finger. Taking the piss means “to joke mockingly.”

Each of the three mornings we ate breakfast in the motel restaurant, we sat for over an hour drinking coffee and talking.  This is my favorite part of traveling—spending lots of time with people I like.  Heidi and I talked about our families, our jobs, our pasts, our plans, travel, men, news, culture, and everything else.

Finally we stepped out into the heat of Alice to get our bearings and find the Royal Flying Doctor Service Museum.

Alice struck me as more of the Wild West.  Now, obviously I never lived in the Wild West and don’t even know exactly what I mean by that except it includes images of cowboys and Indians and dusty towns with saloons and lots of drinking and gambling and perhaps a gun fight.  There was none of that in Alice that I saw, except for the dust.  The people were definitely scruffy—I guess it would be nicer to say they were casually dressed.  It was a contrast with Sydney, where men wore expensive suits and shoes and women sported skirts and heels.

There were a lot of Aboriginals, and many of them were barefoot.  Their feet must have been tough to withstand the heat of the pavement.  There were also plenty of Aboriginals dressed like the rest of the non-tourist population; that is, as bus drivers and students and shop keepers.

I am not Aboriginal nor an expert on Aboriginal culture.  I have felt guilty writing about what I observed, when it could be construed as negative.  It is my understanding that Aboriginals are plagued by the same troubles as many Native Americans: Obesity and its attendant health problems, alcoholism, domestic violence, and poverty.  Beyond these statistics, I don’t feel like their story is mine to tell, beyond what I saw firsthand.

And about drinking in Australia.  My expectation had been that everyone would be guzzling Fosters and stumbling around in the streets.  This was also an impression several of my American and British friends shared before I left.

I think this impression came from our encounters with Aussies in London and elsewhere.  Once I thought about it, these had been mostly young people living away from home for the first time.  I should have known that they didn’t represent the entire Australian population, who didn’t appear to drink any more than Americans.

The Road to Alice

Google maps will not plot a route from Kings Canyon to Alice Springs. There is no direct road unless you have a four-wheel drive vehicle and want to go 40 mph (64kph) over corrugated surfaces for six hours.  The only place to see along the way is an Aboriginal community called Hermannsburg, population 600.  It’s the birthplace of Australia’s most famous Aboriginal painter, Albert Namatjira.  This is the monument to him; I was okay with not stopping to see it.

We took an indirect but smooth route.  In five and a half hours, there were no towns and no landmarks, only sand and spinifex and a few scrubby trees in a landscape that varied from flat to undulating.

This is a photo from an Australian Broadcasting Company promo for the “Secret Sex Life of Spinifex.”  That must be fascinating.  I’ll be sure to watch it someday.

There was no Internet.  The Canadian guy, who was sitting diagonally from me, finished his novel after an hour and I could feel him eyeing my New Yorker magazine. I felt his pain.  I had another issue in my backpack and I handed it over.  Heidi snoozed while I read a very long article about Rudy Giuliani.  Yawn.  I read one of my Somerset Maugham short stories and tore it out of the 800-page book to lighten my load. Four more hours.  I took out my souvenir kangaroo-themed notepad and jotted some notes to jog my memory for blog posts later.  Usually I can kill time by making lists.  To-do lists, to-buy lists, people-to-call lists; but I couldn’t summon the energy.

It may sound excruciating, but this was one of the highlights of the trip for me.  How often are you cut off from outside communications, and from anything to do except read or write—and even those are challenging due to the slight vibration of the bus, and because I felt brain dead as the bus soared monotonously through the desert like a plane flying over the Pacific.

“Brain dead” sounds bad.  I like to think of it as my computer being shut down—for the first time in months or maybe years.  For a few hours I had nothing to say, do, or think.  This ennui somehow felt good and right and overdue.

After four hours we reached the one human-built place to stop, Eldunda Roadhouse, which bills itself as the “Centre of the Centre.”

It was a Wild West place, and I don’t mean in a Disneyworld kind of way.  This was the real thing—a barely-stocked grocery with uninteresting souvenir t-shirts that looked like they’d been there since 1972 and a petrol station peopled with Wicked Campers, whatever that meant.

There was a bar.  I would have loved to have a cold beer because it was a million degrees outside, but there wouldn’t be a bathroom until Alice.  There was a barefoot group of Aboriginals roaming around, hollering at each other in Pitjantjara.  Were they loaded, or just bantering, in high spirits?

There was a motel; I’m sure it was worth whatever it cost if you were in danger of nodding off behind the wheel.

Of course there was an Emu farm.

As in most other places that advertised free wifi, I couldn’t connect to it by the time we had to leave.  Was it a slow connection, or my iphone?  Heidi let me connect to her hotspot so I could see how many people had liked my photos on Facebook.  So important.  When we first arrived I noticed my sense of desperation to connect.  Now it had decreased to a mild curiosity, and I was okay as we drove off into the desert again and the connection vaporized.

Meg pulled into Alice and began dropping us off at our accommodations, which ranged from luxury hotels (for the British Aussie family) to a backpackers hostel (for the German girls and Swiss couple) to a three-star motel (for Heidi and me).  We had only spent one full day and two nights together, but it felt like a week.  Nonetheless, there were no lingering farewells as we tumbled out of the bus to seek hot showers, AC, and clean white sheets.

Pests, Animal and Human

Up before dawn, I held my bowl of muesli while blearily reading the camp rules.  I liked this one: “Be aware, the fire is always hot.”

The rest of the group was watching a gecko hunt a moth.

“It’s like mini Nat Geo,” said the British Aussie guy.

“Go, go, go!” came anguished cries from the German student teachers as they rooted for the moth.  The gecko had failed to nab it but had damaged its wing, and stalked it as it hobbled away.

The German wife shrieked as a very large beetle crawled onto the table; the Chinese father unceremoniously whacked a plate on top of it.

Megan stepped into the chow hall and gave us the day’s drill.

“We’ve got a short drive to King’s Canyon, a three-hour hike, then a very long drive to Alice,” she outlined.  “The hike has 500 steps.  Do Not Go near the ledges!  Are you listening to me?

“Don’t be that person who backs up to the edge of the cliff to get a selfie and ends up a mangled pulp at the bottom!  If you go closer than two metres to the edge, I will send you back to the bus. If ya think 500 steps is too much, there’s a couple other walks that aren’t as bad, so come talk to me,” she finished.

I sidled over to her.  “Tell me about the other hikes.”  She probably assumed I wasn’t fit enough for the 500-step hike, but the truth was I wanted to hike alone.  I wanted to see wildlife, and hiking with a dozen people who were talking would scare it away.  I wanted to “hear” silence, so rare in our lives.  I just wanted to be off by myself for a couple hours.  I felt a bit guilty—I always feel like a weirdo for wanting to be alone.  But when we were on the bus and I told Heidi, she said in her easygoing way, “Aw, Annie, it’s your vacation, just do what you want to do!”

And so I did.  The alternate hike had “only” 367 steps, so I still got a good workout.  The track, as Aussies call a trail, was rugged.  Once I was at the summit it was still a matter of stepping up and down and around boulders and jumping across gaps in the rock.  It took concentration. It was beautiful.

There were no other humans for an hour.  I paused near a cliff to listen.  Eagles soared on the updrafts.  The wind whistled quietly. I turned. A wallaby appeared, made three boing, boing, boing leaps, then was gone.

When you see them, you can’t help using the word boing.

A wallaby!  This was my first sighting of a jumper. I later learned from interpretive signage that it had been a Euro, and that there are lots of wallaby species: Swamp wallaby, rock wallaby, red-necked wallaby, hare wallaby, agile wallaby, black-footed wallaby, etc.  Mine hadn’t even been a wallaby, but a wallaroo, which are larger than wallabies and smaller than kangaroos.

I sat on a rock and ate the granola bar Meg had doled out.  Why was there a warning that it contained lupin?  Lupin—as in the wildflower that grows in northern Minnesota?

The “easy hike” took two hours, and after descending I followed a flat path that stretched up the middle of the canyon to fill time before the group returned.

The valley was green and lush. I was taken aback by a sign asking people in that very polite Australian way to not vandalize the trees.

Who vandalizes trees in a national park?

Suddenly I heard a loud whirring noise, and looked up to see a drone.

“Who flies a drone in a national park?” I asked a family standing nearby.  “How annoying!”

“It’s ours!” returned the father proudly, while his daughter stomped on a line of leaf-cutter ants.  I hoped the drone didn’t have a camera, and that my comments wouldn’t go viral on YouTube.  No, wait—I hoped they would.

I realized this was the first time I’d felt irritated with my fellow humans in a week.  Normally, I am irritated with them almost every day. Is it just me?

An App for Magic

It was Day Two on our Intrepid tour in the Outback, and it felt like we’d been together for a week.  I had introduced myself to most of my fellow travelers, and some had introduced themselves amongst themselves, but here had been no “formal” introductions that included all.

So as we sat around the fire I suggested we introduce ourselves.  It was one of those moments when I wondered if they would all think, “Bloody pushy American, so overfriendly!  Why can’t we spend 48 hours in a bus, sleeping, hiking, and eating together and remain anonymous?”

I was the oldest member of the group by a good 10 years, so I like to think I was just more mature and had better social skills than the rest of them.

Everyone thought it was a good idea.  We went around the circle, each person saying his or her name and where he or she was from.  When we got to the Chinese pair, the young woman stood up and gave a speech with her Chinese name, her English name because no one could pronounce her Chinese name, where she was from, where she lived in Australia, the name of the bank she worked for, her job title, and her leisure interests, which of course included travel.

We then turned to the older man beside her; he was sitting a ways outside of the circle and staring into the bonfire as he slowly took drags off his cigarette.  I waved a hand at him, “Hello! Would you like to introduce yourself?”  He stared straight ahead, giving no sign that he was aware of us.

The young woman said, “He is my father, and he doesn’t speak any English.”

That didn’t explain why he wouldn’t join in. He could have asked her to translate.  Was he autistic? Antisocial?  Shy?  Depressed?

Heidi chatted with the Canadian couple.  The woman was a marine biologist and he was a book editor for a publishing house.  They lived in separate cities and were engaged and would have to figure out where to live where they could both work.

We had all been examining the sky.  Rare is the night I can see stars in the city.  I had gasped with awe to see the Milky Way in August in northern Wisconsin.  It had been splashed across the sky in a horizontal arc.  Here, it seemed to rain down vertically.   Was that because of where we were, or the time of night, or the season?

The English-Australian guy was pointing out the Southern Cross, which was also tattooed on his calf, and one of the German girls excitedly pointed out the Big Dipper.

The Canadian guy had been fiddling with his cell phone and then sprang up, “I’ve got this app to show us the constellations!”  He held it aloft and it showed lines connecting the stars composing the Orion Belt.

The Swiss guy, not to be outdone, held up his ipad, which had a similar app but with more bells and whistles.  The apps were cool, but the magic was gone.  There was no searching, no excitement upon finding, no mystery, no helping fellow travelers by pointing and painting a verbal picture.  It was Stars for Dummies.

I left the group to join James, the Korean cook, who was sitting by himself.  No one engaged with him, perhaps because his English was so rough. Or maybe it was because he was the only solo traveler.  I’ve been that solo traveler on many a journey, and people do tend to ignore you.  We’re so uncomfortable with people on their own.

James confided that he was depressed and very anxious about going back to Korea.  He didn’t want to go, but it hadn’t worked out here.  He was a failure. I tried to reassure him, “But you tried! You took a risk, which is more than most people ever do.”  I don’t think he bought it.

“Awwwlright you lot!  Brekky at five,” Meg yelled.  “Be on the bus by 5:30 for another three-hour hike—and this one’ll be a killer!”

In our tent, Heidi and I could hear the Chinese dad yapping incessantly to his daughter in the next tent.

Steaming and Swagging

The Aboriginal story was one of the most intriguing things to me about Australia.  Maybe it was because I didn’t feel like it was told very well, but only hinted at.  I’m sure there are loads of books on the subject.  Our friend Dean, who we would stay with the following week, teaches at an Aboriginal school.  I looked forward to learning more from him but for now it was a lot of, “There’s a dreamtime story about that but we can’t tell you what it is because you’re not Aboriginal and it’s sacred.”

There may have also been a factor of Aboriginals losing their culture by being forcefully removed from it.  This was one of the similarities between Australia’s Aboriginals and Native Americans.

“I went to a powwow in Wisconsin a few years ago,” I told Heidi, “and when I asked my Native American in-law what a certain dance signified, she didn’t know.”  Was that because the meaning had been lost to time, or because she personally just didn’t happen to know, or something else?  It felt like a sensitive subject and I didn’t want to ask a follow up question for fear of implying she was ignorant about her own traditions.  But a lot of natives and maybe Aboriginals are not well versed in their culture, because in both countries children were taken away from their families and forbidden to speak their language or practice their traditions.

Heck, I don’t speak any Czech or German and I know nothing about those cultures except as it relates to the World Wars.

I sure wasn’t going to ask of the Aboriginals, “Are your people plagued by alcoholism, diabetes, and domestic violence, like Native Americans?”

Our next destination was Kings Canyon, where we would hike the next day.  It was a four-hour drive from Ularu, halfway between nowhere and the back of beyond.  The road and the hours unrolled, flat and monotonous; I sat up front in hopes of seeing a kangaroo but no dice.

After our one toilet break, which was a fetid, smelly “long drop” toilet, I sat in back with Heidi and tried not to drink any more water.  My Restless Legs Syndrome started to torment me, as it sometimes does on long flights or drives.  Heidi had caught a signal on her phone that morning and I had piggybacked via her hotspot but now there was nothing.  Heidi leaned over on the window and slept while I wiggled and kicked my legs.

If I could just get up and walk around … I got my wish, as Meg pulled over and put us to work collecting firewood on the side of the road.

“Man, it’s roasting out today,” she remarked as she watched us load parched wood into the back of the bus.  “No wonder we haven’t seen any roos.  You know they don’t sweat, so they literally bake to death if they move around too much in the heat.”

That seemed like a very counterproductive natural adaptation for an Australian animal.

Back on the bus, we entered the Kings Canyon Resort.

“Ooh, this looks nice,” said Heidi.

“I wonder if there’s a pool?” I said excitedly.

Then we passed a sign that said Campground and Meg announced, we’ve got another 20-minute drive over some pretty rough … argh!”  The bus lurched sideways, then rocked to the other side, and I was grateful I didn’t have sciatica on this bone-crunching trail.

I just looked up George Gill; he was the editor of a Navy journal.  Interesting choice for a desert campground.

The site was beautiful.

Katie was there with a burrito bar for us.  After wolfing it up we built a bonfire.

Megan gave a swag demo. Swag = an outback bedroll.

“Just make sure there’s nothing in it before ya get innit,” she advised.  “Like a snake or a spider.  And if you wake up and there’s a dingo staring down at you, don’t panic.  They’re more afraid of you than you are of them.”

Yeah, right.  I’ve heard that before, about bears.  I would miss the star gazing, which was bound to be awe inspiring, but I would wake up with my face intact, in the tent.

More Questions than Answers

Meg drove around to the other side of the rock and we disembarked again.

“After a little talk ‘n’ walk with an aboriginal guide, we’ll visit the cultural centre and then head out to our next camp for the night,” she explained.

“Cultural center …” I said to Heidi, “I wonder if it’s the same one we were at yesterday?  I could buy those pillow cases?”

“Yes,” she replied, “How exciting.”

We were invited to sit in a circle on the ground by a young white woman who introduced herself as Donna.  I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get up again, so I remained standing.  I can hike, bike, or swim for hours but I have a hard time getting up off the ground due to my scoliosis.

“This is Bessie,” Donna said, introducing the woman next to her wearing a t-shirt that said:

I used to think I would do something important with my life, but I kept getting distracted by Sparkly Things.

The work sparkly was, of course, bedazzled with glitter.

“Bessie is our local guide,” explained Donna.  “She lives in the nearby community.”

Community, I learned, referred specifically to Aboriginal settlements.  I had heard something about some indigenous people somewhere not liking their photos taken, but Donna said to go ahead and snap away.

“I’m a PhD candidate in Aboriginal Culture at [some university],” continued Donna.  “And I’ll be translating for Bessie.”

She said a few words in what I assumed was Pitjantjatjara, the local language.  Bessie said about four words in response.  Then Donna translated, “Bessie says ….” and talked for 10 minutes.  Who knows, maybe Pitjantjatjara packs a lot of meaning into every word.

This was repeated; Bessie didn’t seem into it, or maybe she was just tired, or maybe Aboriginal Australians also wear the dead-pan expression common to Native Americans.  She would force out four or five words and Donna would wax on about various customs and objects which she passed around, including a boomerang.

“Contrary to popular belief, most boomerangs are not designed to return to the thrower.  They are designed to break the legs of an animal like a kangaroo, and you wouldn’t want that coming back to you!”

It went on for some time and I felt self-conscious about standing.  If Bessie could get up again I should be able to.  So I sat, and then Donna said, “Now we’re going to walk over to those caves and Bessie is going to tell us about the paintings.”

Heidi helped me up and we walked a short distance.  The paintings were beautiful.  They told stories using symbols for things like people, emus, and the sun.

I had expected to learn something about the Dreamtime and creation stories, but as I wrote previously, most of them are sacred and not shared with outsiders.

The Cultural Centre was a different one from the one we’d already visited.  It was a circle of shops and workshops and a café around an open plaza.

“There’s a museum-like thing if you can find it,” bawled Meg as we jumped off the bus.  “The café is super slow so get in line now if you want a cuppa!  You’ve got one hour!”

Heidi and I got in line and took turns keeping our place.  It took 50 minutes to get two coffees.

The gift shop was extremely expensive; I was relieved not to see “my” pillow cases.  There was a workshop where Aboriginal women sat on the ground painting while tourists watched.  I realize it is the Aboriginal way, to sit on the ground, but I felt very uncomfortable, like I was watching animals in a zoo.

There were signs everywhere that said No Photos.  I think they are trying to prevent people from taking photos of the paintings and then just printing them out without paying for the labor that went into them, which is substantial.

Meg had been right, the museum was hard to find and once we did find it we had only 10 minutes left.  I would have skipped the coffee and the shop for an hour here but it was too late.

Back on the bus!

Feeling Like Home

Walking around Ularu was a good example of a common dilemma: should I stop every five feet and take a photo, or should I stop every five feet and just look at it and be?  Should I try to capture it, or just see it—really see it?

I chose photos.  As the sun rose, the light changed minute by minute. The sky, the red earth and buff-colored grass and the red rock went from hue to hue.

You can barely see it in the photo below, but it looked like a line of ants crawling up Ularu. Climbers.  Meg had further explained the Aboriginal perspective on climbing.  “They feel responsible for the rock, as a sacred place, and that means they feel responsible for the people who climb it. Every year stupid people get hurt, or dehydrated, and who wants to be responsible for that?  Just his winter, an old Japanese bloke died up there.”  Meg wasn’t one to mince words.

“What’s the view like from up there?” someone asked.

“It’s crap—its just red dust and spinifex as far as you can see,” replied Meg.

Spinifex, a tufted grass that comes in hundreds of varieties, including one that’s as sharp as shards of glass.

We were going on our third hour, and approached the base.

It was very pretty—the was a (currently) dry water hole surrounded by glorious gums.

A sign informed us that the Aboriginals waited by the water hole until the last animal in a herd had drank its fill, then they killed that one animal. This was so the rest of the herd wouldn’t panic and never return.

Another sign asked us not to take photos of a “sensitive” place called Mala Puta.

“That’s ‘bad whore’ in Spanish,” I told Heidi.

“It doesn’t look any different from the rest,” she replied.

“Do you feel any juju?” I asked.

“No.”

“Me neither.”

We walked on, in and around the rock formations.

As I’ve written before, I’ve been to a lot of places like this that are or were sacred to a culture, or from which civilizations mysteriously disappeared.  Machu Picchu, Tikal, the Western Wall, Petra, Dzibilchaltun, Lalibela, and the Native American burial mounds near my house. I had an out-of-body experience at the Western Wall, felt a strong “something” in Petra, a little something in Tikal, and nothing at all anywhere else.  I’m pretty sure it’s all based on my state of mind and how much time I have to overthink it and imagine I feel something.

But who knows. From thoughts of the sacred to the sensible, I headed for the toilet, having downed two liters of water as instructed by Meg. A helpful guide informed me that I was hydrated.

We gathered near the bus in the parking lot for 9am tea, which was date cakes but no tea.

Heidi and I chatted with the Aussies who had immigrated to Australia.

“We just love it here,” said the husband, whose arms and legs were totally tatted.  “We’ve only been back to the UK twice in 20 years.”

“Don’t you have family there?” queried Heidi.

“Aw yeah, but we just like it here better,” said the wife.  She was the second woman I’d seen on this trip who was wearing false eyelashes.  One of them was coming unglued.

“Awwwll right you lot!  Back onboard!” bawled Megan.

“Did you think it was strange,” Heidi asked in a low voice, “The British couple have only been back home twice?”

“Yes! I wonder if there’s some family feud.”

“I lived in London for almost as long as they’ve been here, and I came home every year.”

“Where do you feel most at home?” I asked her, thinking the answer would be London.

“Austria,” Heidi replied.  Her mother is Austrian.  “But I can’t get a work visa because they base it on your patriarchal heritage.”

“That’s so sexist!”

So the British couple love Australia, Heidi would rather be in Austria, and I feel at home in the UK.  An Indian friend of mine feels Minnesota is where he is meant to be.

Is the draw to a place something spiritual, or a story we manufacture in our minds?