Category Archives: Culture shock

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.

Suspended

Last summer I took swimming lessons in hopes of feeling confident enough to get scuba certified, but observing the dive instructors on the ship, I knew it would have been too much for me.

The ship was a “speed catamaran” with “state-of-the-art computerized ride control systems.”  This meant we got out to the reef faster, with less choppiness, and for that I was grateful.  It still took an hour to reach the reef, and one hour of seasickness would have felt like eternity.

The dive instructors had convened the tourists who would scuba in the front of the ship.  Most of them weren’t certified—they would get one hour of instruction and dive with the instructors.

As I watched, I recalled my mother exhorting me, 50 years ago, to finish my food with her mantra, “Think of all the starving people in China.”

They aren’t starving anymore.  All the divers were young Chinese.  The base tour wasn’t cheap—$176 US—and they would pay extra for each dive.

The instructors were hunky, sun-browned he-men.  They demonstrated scuba hand signals, “This means low on air,” said one as he held his fist to his chest, “and this means out of air,” as he slashed his hand across his throat.

No thanks.

Suddenly a crew member yelled, “Dolphins!” and everyone rushed to look.  Dolphins indeed!  There were a dozen cavorting in our wake, and when a crew member went out on a wave runner they jumped for joy around him. It was absolutely delightful.

Everyone around me was taking photos and video but I desisted.  There was no internet out here, and I had decided to leave my phone wrapped in a plastic bag with a small amount of cash and my Minnesota driver’s license. For all I knew my passport had been stolen.  Maybe Aussies weren’t as honest as I’d thought.  Would someone pay $176 to spend the day on a ship and pickpocket their fellow passengers?  Probably not, but I wasn’t going to leave my phone in the open.

I took two photos of the sea all day, at our first stop. Then I decided to just enjoy and not try to capture it.

We snorkeled and dived for an hour at a site called Stonehenge, where rock formations jutted from the ocean.  I understand the naming system, but Stonehenge is part of Agincourt Reef 3.  The ship stopped at three sites out of 35 in the vicinity, depending on weather conditions.

The fish were astounding.  There were angel fish with yellow, blue, and white vertical stripes and yellow tails and beaks.  Whatever kind of fish Nemo the cartoon is, it was there.

I glanced down and make a muffled exclamation into my mask, “Giant clam!” My dad had played Giant Clam with us when we were little—sitting akimbo on the floor and pretending to eat us—the little fish.  Giant clams really are giant—maybe four feet across.

When I am fortunate enough to be in an environment like this, I feel a peace and oneness with everything.  I don’t believe in god but I do believe in heaven-like places and states of mind, and this was one.

The horn sounded and we exited the water for lunch.  There was an enormous buffet with fresh seafood, fruits and veg, and healthy hearty salads.

As I ate, three women in the adjacent booth invited me to join them.  They were Lebanese-Australians from Melbourne.  They appeared to be my age but they all rocked bikinis. Was it their Lebanese skin they should thank for their faces being without a wrinkle?  They were well-educated, smart and funny world travelers who were very kind to invite me to join them.

After lunch we stopped at Barracuda Bommie.  A bommie is an underwater tower.  I floated face down, mesmerized as I watched thousands of barracudas swirl around the bommie—down, down, down into the darkness until I couldn’t see anymore.

Why do scenes like this bring on such a feeling of peace, at least for me?  Perhaps because it’s so humbling.  I realize how vulnerable I am, and how insignificant.

At our last stop—Blue Wonder—the sea began to swell and I hit a wall of exhaustion and nausea.

Lost

I lugged my laptop all over Australia with the intention of trying to live blog.  this reinforced what I already knew, that I love travel because I can be in the moment.  I don’t like feeling like I have to post before I can do anything else.  So my laptop just added four pounds to my load.

I had flipped it open once, to add an extra night in Palm Cove and change my return flight.

Now, after tearing my room apart to no avail in search of my passport, I flipped it open a second time to visit the US State Department website.  If you like stories about people fighting with their internet provider or getting root canals—well, what’s wrong with you?—but you will appreciate this story.

The US Government gets a lot of flak for treating foreigners badly and being a bureaucratic abyss.  Surely things would go better for me—a US citizen—right?

I read the lost passport info and learned I would have to appear in person in Sydney to get a replacement.    This was the auto reply to my email in which I asked if I could possibly see them on Friday, the day I was already scheduled to arrive in Sydney.

The answers to most inquiries can be found on our website:

  • If your inquiry can be answered through one of the links, you will not receive another reply. 
  • If your query warrants a more detailed response, we will endeavor to provide a personal reply within two (2) business days.
  • If you have emailed about renouncing your U.S. citizenship, please allow 10 business days for a response.

I wondered how often people send an email to renounce their US citizenship.  Related to my concerns—two business days before I could expect a response?

But then someone named Alex did respond: “Due to routine maintenance in the building our office occupies, there will be a complete supervised power outage beginning Friday afternoon.  We expect to return to normal functionality by Monday afternoon.”

Seriously?  In Australia?

I would have to go to Sydney early.

Alex also listed the things I would need to bring with me to my appointment:

  • Completed (but not signed) Form DS-11: Application for a U.S. passport;
  • Completed and signed Form DS-64: Statement Regarding Lost or Stolen Passport. Please include the Police Incident/Report number on this form;
  • Evidence of identity (if available);
  • 1 x U.S. sized passport photograph. (Note: these are a different size from Australian passport photographs);
  • Applicable fee. (All fees are subject to change without notice)

The only form that could be submitted online was the missing passport one.  I submit six- and seven-figure grant applications online all the time; I know how to submit online forms. I got an error message, and when I emailed the Help contact I got an autoresponse saying they would get back to me in two days.  No one ever did.  Even if I found my passport now, I had no way of knowing if it was cancelled or not.

I wept a bit as I booked the last available appointment this week at the consulate in Sydney.  It was for 10am in two days’ time.  I filed a police report online.  I tried to change my flight, but Expedia required I call them, so I wiped my face, traipsed down to the office, and asked Jim if I could use their landline.  I don’t regret not paying ATT $10 a day for phone service in Australia. After 20 minutes the flight was changed back to my original date with, amazingly, no charge.  Jim print out the forms I needed, cancelled my last three nights, and booked a van ride to the airport for 3:30am.

“Do you still want to go to the reef tomorrow?” he inquired delicately.  I must have looked like I was on the verge of a meltdown.

Yes,” I replied without hesitation.

I moved through my last day there in a zen-like state.  This was it—my last chance to enjoy the sun, warmth, humidity, scenery—I appreciated how lucky I was.

I was going snorkeling on the fucking Great Barrier Reef!

Crocodile Adventures!

Day 21 of my Australia sojourn. I waited eagerly in the reception area of the resort to catch my 7am bus to the Daintree Rainforest. As I’ve mentioned, I’m sort of obsessed with plants.  I also love heat and humidity, so rainforests are my kind of environment.

A German couple sat on the couch opposite and we chit chatted about where we were going. Their bus came and went.  An Aussie couple I had made small talk with at the pool came out, said they were going on “a brekky reccy,” and left.  It was 7:15.  An English family of four came and we didn’t talk because their bus pulled up as if queued to their arrival and whisked them away.  I began to feel anxious.

Jim had said 7:00, right?  Maybe I had misunderstood.  Maybe he had said 7:30; it was just 7:30 now, and maybe the bus was late.  It was probably me—I had gotten too relaxed yesterday.

People came and went.  It was just past 8:00.  The Aussie couple returned and were surprised to see me.  Maybe I imagined it but I thought they looked at me pityingly.

Pangs of emotion welled up.  It wasn’t all the couples and families and no one else sitting by themselves waiting for a bus that never came.  It was not wanting to waste a day.  One day of leisure was enough for me.  I want to do and see everything.

Jim arrived to open the office and did a double take when he saw me.  It turned out there had been a mix-up on the tour company’s end, and he apologized.

“It’s not your fault,” I told him.  “What can I do, still today?”“All the tours are either full day or half day,” he said as he rifled through piles of brochures.  “It’s too late for the full day ones,” so the reef and the Daintree are out.”

“The two things I came all this way to see,” I replied glumly.

“There’s Hartley’s

Crocodile Adventures,” he suggested weakly.

I had seen ads for this place in the airport, on the street, and in brochures for other attractions. They certainly were good self-promoters.  I felt a surge of fear at the word ‘crocodile.’  Did I want to spend 5 hours in being surrounded by them?  The place sounded like a totally tacky tourist trap.

“Sign me up.”

Hartley’s turned out to be pretty fun.  There was much more wildlife than crocs.  Did you know Cassowaries are prehistoric Kung Fu fighters with giant claws with which they can disembowel you?  They’re actually very shy and avoid humans, but here’s video about how to survive a cassowary attack in case you decide to plunge into a jungle, locate one, and provoke it.

There was an interesting small exhibit about the break-up of Gondwana, the mega continent that had included almost all the continents.

And about first encounters with kangaroos.  People back in Britain thought the explorers’ tales and early depictions of roos were tall tales until someone managed to bring back a live specimen.

There was the obligatory croc boat ride, where a young blonde guy named Matt fed dead chicken parts to gigantic crocs and made dismemberment jokes.

Having worked up an appetite, I had a burger in the café.  It had beets in it; beets on burgers are an Australian thing.

I toured Hartley’s crocodile farm. I’m not sure to which end of the spectrum this sign was directed—animal rights activists or poachers.  Maybe both.

Our very earnest guide downloaded so much knowledge about breeding and raising crocs I felt confident I could start my own crocodile farm.

You could pose with a Koala for $$.  The poor things.

I bought yet more souvenirs in the gift shop.  All my unsuspecting friends’ and family members’ birthdays and holiday presents for the next year were now covered.

Which nativity scene would you have chosen—kangaroos or koalas?

I went to pay, the cashier asked for ID, and that was the moment I realized my passport was gone.  She let me pay anyway.  I said the only logical thing: “It must be in my room.”

But I knew it wasn’t.