Category Archives: Living abroad

In a Pink-Skinned Country

We had a few hours to kill before joining the tour that would take us to Ularu/Ayers Rock and other natural wonders with two names like Kata Tjuta, formerly The Olgas.

“Our tour is with Intrepid,” Heidi said as she read the deets, “And we need to meet the bus at the Lost Camel Hotel.”

So we left the bunkhouse behind, with no regrets, and walked past Ayers Rock Campground, the Outback Pioneer Hotel, Desert Gardens Hotel, Emu Walk Apartments, Sails in the Desert, and Longitude 131, each of which was successively more upscale. That last one cost $3,000 a night and there’s a minimum of two nights.  We looked at the brochures to see what you got by paying 40 times more than we had paid.

“It’s glamping on steroids,” I said.  The rooms were permanent tents with private views of Ularu.

“I stayed in a place like this in Kenya, on safari,” I told Heidi.  “It wasn’t as deluxe as this, but it was one of the nicest places I’ve ever been and it sure didn’t cost $3,000 a night.  I don’t think I paid more than $1,200 for the whole week.

“The thing is, if I was paying $3,000 a night I would feel like I had to stay in the room the whole time so I would get my money’s worth.”

Heidi laughed.  “Aw, anyone who can afford $3,000 a night—it’s nothing to them!  And I reckon they don’t drink ‘sparkling wine’ on their private deck.  It’s real champagne, baby!”

We happened upon a Cultural Centre with displays about Aboriginal history, desert wildlife, and the geology of the area.  It was a great little free museum, basically, so I take back all the snide remarks I’ve made about the Ayers Rock Campground being price gougers.  I snapped one photo before I saw the signs that said, “NO PHOTOS.”

Since you probably can’t read it, I’ll reproduce some of it below.

Aboriginal people first took action for land rights in the early 1960s when the Yirrkala people in Arnhem Land submitted a petition to the Australian government requesting recognition of their rights as traditional owners.  In 1971, their claim was rejected … ruling that the traditional owner property system was not recognized under Australian law and that Australia was “terra nullius,” an empty land, prior to 1788.

Let that sink in.  The Englishmen whose tall ships arrived in 1788 near what is now Sydney were, according to Australian law, the first Australians.  The English made all the laws, naturally stacked in their favor.

There was an Aboriginal civil rights movement in the 1960s, and in 1967 90% of Australians voted yes on a referendum that meant Aboriginals would be counted in the census for the first time.  It also allowed the federal government to make laws regarding Aboriginals, instead of the states.  As in the US, federal laws tend to take better regard of the rights and needs of all citizens. So, for instance—the federal government, in theory, makes more humane laws regarding segregation or voting rights than would, oh … Louisiana or Mississippi.

I was seeing Aboriginals around for the first time.

“Does Australia have anything like African Americans?” I asked Heidi.

“No.  We’ve got people of European ancestry, Asians, Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders, and that’s about it.  Obviously we had a Somali cab driver the other day so there are some African immigrants.”

“No Hispanics?”

“No, not really.”

I encountered one guy from Argentina in my month in Australia, the owner of a fabulous Argentine tapas restaurant.

“Wow.  We’ve got 11 million ‘unauthorized’ immigrants in the US.”

Most of them are Hispanic, although 1.5 million are Asian.  ‘Unauthorized’ is the new gentler, kinder term for ‘illegal.’

The Australian census doesn’t ask about race, but it’s estimated that 91% of Australians are white or multiracial people who are mostly white, 5% are East Asian, 2% are Indian (dot, not feather), and 2% are Aboriginal.

By comparison, whites make up 72% of the US population.  Hispanics are 16%, African Americans about 13%, Asians 5%, Native Americans 1%, and 9% are another race or mixed race.

Ninety-one percent white—no wonder it’s called the sunburnt country.

Field of Lights

It was time for the Field of Lights tour.  We boarded a bus, got off 10 minutes later, walked around, and were back at the bunkhouse 40 minutes later.

“We could have almost walked to it, with flashlights!” Heidi said.

“I know.  It’s one of those things you don’t know until you’re there, and then it’s too late.”

But it was really cool, and beautiful.  There was no “tour,” unless you counted the 30-second orientation to the night sky given by a young guy with an extremely heavy Chinese accent who stood on a milk crate and pointed out the Southern Cross.  What this had to do with the lights wasn’t entirely clear.

The lights were a work by British artist Bruce Munro—50,000 of them glowing organically in the desert.

Heidi and I wandered in separate directions, lured by whatever instinct called.  I wandered a bit too far and started walking back briskly when I realized our 20 minutes of off leash time was almost up.  It was so dark that I headed in the wrong direction.  I imagined being stranded out here all night.  Would they turn the lights out?  Would I, as a Minnesotan, be able to survive the desert cold dressed only in light clothing and flip flops?  Would I have to stay awake all night to fend off the dingos? What if I stepped on a scorpion in the dark?  Could I collect enough dew from the spinifex grass to wash it out?

My daydreaming was interrupted by the sight of someone kneeling on the ground and vomiting violently.  I could make out that it was a man and his friend was standing over him patting his back at arm’s length.  “Must ‘ave been something ‘e ate, I reckon,” said the friend.

At the bus I let the Chinese star guide know there was a man down, and he hurried off.  He’d probably be in trouble if they got off schedule and the next batch of $42 tourists was delayed.

“Did you see that guy throwing up?” I asked Heidi as I sank into my seat.

“Yeah, how awful.  I wonder if it was from the $210 Sparkling Wine Sunset Dinner?” she asked, deadpan.

I woke up early and walked up to the lookout to see Ularu at dawn.  On my way back the quiet was broken by raucous cries coming from the branches above my head and I looked up to see a dozen large rose- and grey-colored birds squawking.

“Heidi, Heidi!” I whispered loudly back in the bunkhouse.  “Look at these birds I saw—they’re amazing!”

She looked blearily at my cell phone as I shoved it in her face and laughed, “Aw, Annie, those are Galahs.  They’re like your squirrels.”  Galahs, also known as the rose-breasted cockatoos.

“Well, we don’t have them in Minnesota,” I pouted.  “How d’ja sleep?”

“Not so well, thanks to this heat pipe two inches from my face,” Heidi said as she whacked it with her fist.

We knew today would be another long day, so we had paid $25 apiece for the breakfast buffet.  There was a $5 discount if you paid the night before.  I thought maybe this was so they would have a head count, but when we rocked up to the buffet I began to suspect that they didn’t want people to know how it was until it was too late.

Everything was cold.  Not cold as in refrigerated; as in “formerly hot but now not.” Cold, limp bacon.  Cold spaghetti (spaghetti is a real fav in Australia). Cold baked beans.  The scrambled eggs were sitting in a half inch of pale yellow water.  We stuffed ourselves with things that weren’t supposed to be hot, like yogurt and fruit and rolls.  The hostess, a middle-aged white woman, was friendly and attentive as she poured the lukewarm coffee.

“What’s the deal with tipping here?” I had asked the first day.  Heidi was adamant that no one tipped unless you were at a fancy restaurant with a large party and the service was exceptional.  Then you might round up the bill.

“We just pay people decent wages,” she explained, “so there’s no need to tip.”

Caravans and Bunkhouses

Last week I wrote a Facebook post which went sort-of viral:

Long post but important, I think.

There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about immigrants, migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. It’s important to know that asylum seekers Are Not Eligible to receive government benefits (no subsidized housing, no food stamps, no welfare, etc.) and they also are Not Allowed to work in the US for five months after their arrival.  

Most of the people in the so-called caravan in Mexico are hoping to claim asylum. They have the right to do so under international law. That Does Not Mean they will be granted asylum; the process can take years, and only 10% will be approved.

Asylum seekers are people who have been tortured, imprisoned, raped, and otherwise abused by their own governments, militias, gangs, police, etc. This may have been because they were fighting government corruption, organizing small businesses or unions, they were related to someone who was doing these things, they were the wrong religion or ethnic group, or they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. 

How would you survive for five months if you weren’t allowed to work and you couldn’t get any public benefits? While they wait for their cases to be heard, asylum seekers literally depend on the kindness of strangers. Many clients of my organization, the Center for Victims of Torture, depend on two local religious orders, the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Franciscan Friars, for housing. When you are thinking about year-end donations, think about contributing to one of them.

I don’t know why this particular post spurred people to share it.  When I started working where I work, I remember being shocked that asylum seekers could not work or get government benefits.

“But how do they survive?” I asked one of our social workers.

“Barely, that’s how,” she replied. She explained that they go from couch to couch in the homes of friends of friends who belong to their same nationality, or they sleep in homeless shelters, because there’s no way the Sisters of St. Joseph and Franciscan Friars can house all of them. “You can imagine,” she continued, “how stressful it is for someone who’s been tortured and is having flashbacks and is afraid of being sent back—how stressful it is to be in a homeless shelter, with people yelling and fighting with each other.”

Heidi and I arrived at Ayers Rock Airport, located in Yulara, a five-hour drive from Alice Springs.

Here, I would have a comical flashback to my son’s time in prison.

Heidi, with the help of her sister—a travel agent—had planned this whole thing.  I had followed Heidi’s instructions to bring only a backpack. She had also urged me to bring a pair of shoes I wouldn’t mind tossing when we left, since rugged hiking and the red dust would destroy any footwear but hiking boots.  I don’t own boots and I didn’t have time to break in a new pair.

A bus took us to Ayers Rock Resort, which holds a monopoly on accommodations in the centre.  There is every level of price and comfort, from a luxury hotel to caravan park, all owned by the same people.

Heidi had booked us in to a bunkhouse.  “I reckoned we’re only here one night, so how bad could it be?”

It was actually named the “Pioneer Lodge.”  There’s a reason they don’t show photos of the interiors on the website.

These people are outside because, well, who would want to spend any time inside?

 

“I feel like we’re in an episode of Orange is the New Black,” I commented as we surveyed the place.

“We’ll certainly get our thirty-eight dollars’ worth,” quipped Heidi.  It was, indeed, only for one night—this was an adventure.

We “fought” over who would sleep up top with the giant pipe.  Heidi sleeps through the night, while I get up several times to use the bathroom.  “You can’t climb down that ladder in the dark,” she insisted.

“I could hold a flashlight in my teeth,” I suggested feebly.  Heidi didn’t get much sleep, since the pipe turned out to be a hot air pipe.

Bondi Beach

Day Two in Australia, and more experience of what it is like to get around Sydney.  We waited 20 minutes for a bus and were lucky to get the last two seats.  It was standing room only afterwards.  It took an hour to get to Bondi Beach.

Sydney is a very big, sprawling city.  Americans think of LA as the ultimate example of sprawl, at 503 square miles.  By comparison, London is 607 square miles.

Sydney covers 4,775 square miles, including dozens of bays and coves formed by the Paramatta River. It’s a wonder anyone gets anywhere at all.

We waited 20 minutes for a bus, got the last two seats, then rode for an hour. I’m not complaining.  Buses are a great way to see a city if you can get a window seat.

I had never heard of Bondi before planning my trip.  If you’re a surfer, it’s legendary.  When I’ve mentioned it, half a dozen people have said, “Oh Bondi—the famous beach!”

Bondi was populated by surfers, skateboarders, potheads, volleyball players, and graffiti artists. We took in the scene and then I said, “I’ve got the idea.  We can go now.”

It was cool and stormy—not a beach day anyway—our plan was to hike from Bondi to Bronte beach.

This was the first incidence where my photos, no thanks to me, turned out spectacular.

The storm came closer, whipping our hair and scarves around our faces.  Rain began to gently patter down.  It was so beautiful we didn’t want to stop.  “Let’s just walk around one more bend?” I kept saying.

Then the sky broke open and we made a run for it back to Bondi. There was nowhere to shelter except under the cliffs, where other tourists were already massed. So we kept on, and got soaked.

We dashed into the nearest building, which happened to be the place Heidi had wanted to eat anyway.  It was the Icebergs Club, Sydney’s winter swimming club, which runs a bar and restaurant that overlook the beach.

“So what’s with the clubs?” I asked her, looking around.  We had gone to the Skiff Club the previous day.  This place reminded me of a cross between an old-timey American supper club and a VFW hall.

“I don’t know,” replied Heidi.  “Does it seem unusual?”  You often learn new things about your own country when foreigners visit.

“The only similar thing I can think of in St. Paul is the Curling Club.  I think anyone can go in and watch the playing, and I think they serve cheap drinks in plastic cups.

“Maybe sports clubs like this are everywhere, and I just don’t know about them because I’m not sporty.”

You learn things about your own country by visiting others.

It was my first official day on vacation, so I had my traditional “I’m on vacation!” drink—a rum and Diet Coke.  Okay, I had two.  We sat and talked for a couple hours, catching up, watching the storm come and go, then we started the long journey back to the flat to get an early night.  Tomorrow we would fly to Ulara, in the Red Centre.

I woke up at 3am to the sound of drunks yelling down by the point.  “Fuckin’ fuck, fuckity fuck fuck!” pretty much sums up their sparkling banter.  This went on for about 20 minutes.  A siren started up in the distance and slowly came closer.  When it got within a half mile, the loudmouths dispersed and I sunk down into a deep sleep again.

I remember this story because it was one of only three times I heard a siren in Australia.  Three times!  I hear sirens almost every day in St. Paul.

I withdrew some cash at Sydney airport.  Every ATM, even for the same bank, gave me a different amount.  Half charged no fees, half charged varying fees.  I had opened a second checking account before leaving home that doesn’t charge Foreign Transaction Fees.  I thought briefly about saving all my receipts and figuring out which banks or ATMs gave the best conversion rate, but I just didn’t care that much to know who ripped me off.

Sydney Reccy

Reccy: Aussie slang for reconnaissance mission.

While I hung out waiting for Heidi to finish up at St. Pat’s, my eye fell on a list of rules for uniforms and grooming.

It’s very specific, especially with the haircuts.  I must be old because I don’t know what lines, steps, “under No. 2 in length,” or the other prohibitions even are.  I do know that “fringe” is what we call “bangs” in the US.  When you think about it, fringe is a lot more descriptive than bangs.

I wandered the halls a bit and learned from a display that St. Pat’s most famous “old boy,” as they call alumni, is Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler’s Ark, the novel upon which the movie Schindler’s List was based.  How did an Aussie come to write a book about the Holocaust?  Heidi Googled this later and read the story to me. On a visit to Los Anglese, Keneally went into a luggage store to buy a suitcase and happened to talk to the owner, Poldek Pfefferberg, a Holocaust survivor.  When Pfefferberg learned Keneally was an author, he told him about Oskar Schindler, a German businessman credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews, and urged him to write the story.  The rest, as they say, is history.

There were display cases featuring Cricket awards.

It reminded me of Eton, but spacious, bright, and new.

There was a physical acknowledgement of the Darug Aboriginal people, upon whose former land the school stands.

When Heidi was done with her year-end odds and ends, we walked across the street to the bus stop and waited.  And waited.  She consulted her transport app and reckoned it would take as long to wait for the bus as to walk, so we gave up and ambled toward the train station.  That was fine with me because it was a nice day and the neighborhood we walked through was lovely.

Houses in Australia tend to be one story (think about heat rising).  It was spring, and everything was in bloom.  These are some photos of Australian houses I took elsewhere, but they seem pretty typical of what I saw near the school—Victorian or Edwardian with beautiful gardens and massive trees.

We took the train into the CBD.  That’s Central Business District, for those of you who like to spell things out.  We headed for the QVB, or Queen Victoria Building, and here I will use the word massive again.  So many things in Australia are massive.  The QVB, constructed in 1893, fills an entire city block.

We wandered around inside and gawked at window displays of the high-end shops and the architectural features.

You can’t see it because of my lousy photo-taking abilities, but the clock is incredibly detailed with lots of—literally—bells and whistles and a train that runs around it at the lower level. Just think, this was the era when clocks used to be the proud main feature of buildings.

We sat down for lunch at a tea shop, and I noticed the tables adjacent to us had Chinese newspapers scattered on them.

I could say this over and over but I’ll just say it here—there is such a big Chinese presence in Australia that I sometimes had these weird moments where I had to check myself and ask, “Where am I?  Am I in China?  No, I’m in Australia.”

When you think of the geography, it makes sense.

 

There are Chinatowns in Sydney and Melbourne but also Thai towns and Japan towns and probably Korean and Vietnamese neighborhoods.  So if you like any of these types of foods, you’re in luck in Australia.

After lunch we hit a couple shops where Heidi returned some clothes, then she led me to Hyde Park, the “Central Park” of Sydney.  It is dominated by St. Mary’s Cathedral, which seemed to be the most massive church I had ever seen.  And I’ve seen a lot of churches.

It’s frustrating that photos cannot capture the scale of things.  I tried including Heidi, and a lamppost, in these two photos to give a sense of scale of the trees, but that didn’t really work.

This is the ANZAC (Australia New Zealand Army Corps) war memorial.

Next stop: Bondi Beach

Boys, Boys, Boys

Sitting in the back of the gym at St. Pat’s, I was struck by how 95% of the boys had black hair.  In Minnesota, it would have been 75% blondes due to our Scandinavian and German immigrant history.  Many St. Pat’s families had come from Italy and Lebanon. There were a few redheads, maybe kids of Irish ancestry, some Chinese kids, and one Aboriginal kid who was on an exchange with another Catholic school in Alice Springs. All of them wore smart uniforms.

The ceremony opened with what I learned was standard in Australia, an acknowledgement of the Aboriginal people who originally lived on the land on which the school was situated.

This was followed by remarks by the head of the school, which included a statement about how bullying and intolerance were just not anything in which any boy should participate—including bullying of fellow students who were gay.  This took me by surprise.  It was a Catholic school after all, and while I wouldn’t expect them to encourage bullying of gay students, I was surprised it was mentioned explicitly. The church my mother’s husband belongs to didn’t allow me to stand on the altar at their wedding because I am Jewish.  I’ve heard there is a sign at the entrance now making it clear that practicing homosexuals, divorcees, and other sinners must not take communion.

I asked Heidi about it later. I wondered if the Catholic Church in Australia looks upon homosexuality in a “hate the sin, love the sinner” way, or if they “love” gays as long as they are celibate.

Heidi looked thoughtful, then said mildly, “It’s just not an issue.”  She is a regular church-goer, if not every week.  “I can’t recall it ever coming up at church, or at St. Pat’s, except in the context of bullying.  One kid posted a homophobic comment on social media a few weeks ago and the boys came down on him.  He’s a good kid who had a moment of poor judgement, and he was embarrassed.”

Australians voted to legalize gay marriage last year. So the law is catching up with general opinion, if indeed is it so open minded.  Of course there are people who opposed the change.

“Does the Pope know what’s going on down here?” I asked.

“Oh, probably, but he’s likely more concerned with other matters.”  Like priest sexual abuse.  There’ve been almost 5,000 claims.  The Australian Church is paying out hundreds of millions of dollars to survivors.  To its credit, it started facing this issue early on—in the 90s—and has done a better job of apologizing and making up to survivors than other countries, from what I’ve read and heard.

The ceremony was very moving.  It involved announcements of which year-twelve (senior) boys would hold leadership positions next year. These included things like social action, sports, house leads, and so on (the boys are organized into “houses,” like in Harry Potter).

As each boy’s role was announced, he and his parents came forward from wherever they were sitting to meet at the front.  Some parents gave their boys big bear hugs; others shook their hands and gave them a clap on the back. The parents then gave the boys a pin they would wear to indicate their leadership role.

Afterwards, Heidi and I had tea in the Diverse Learning office and I met her coworkers.  They were friendly and talked about where they would go on their break, which started the next day.  One was going camping in Tasmania and I told her how one iteration of my trip had included four days in Tasmania.

“Aww yeah, you can’t do Tassie in a few days,” she said.  “And you would need a car.”

When the head of the department learned that I work for the Center for Victims of Torture, she asked if I would talk to the boys about it after the holidays.  I was game, but made a mental note to buy some professional clothes.

I wandered around in the hall and noticed this poster.

Some smart alec had stuck sticky tack on the poster kid’s nose.  Boys will be boys, after all.

Getting Around

My plan is to write one post about each day in Australia, since I had so many days there.  When I recall all we did on just my second day, I’m doubtful.  Here goes.

Day Two was a work day for Heidi. Classes had ended at St. Patrick’s College, where she is a teacher, but there was some kind of assembly she wanted to attend.  I jumped at the chance to go along for the ride.  I love doing things like this when I travel—things off the usual tourist menu.

“College” in Australia doesn’t mean higher education.  St. Pat’s, which is Catholic, is a boys  school with grades five through 12.  Heidi works in the “diverse learning” department, which is a combination of what, in the US, we would call “special ed” and “gifted and talented.” She works three days a week but will go up to four next year.  She loves the boys at St. Pat’s, especially after chaperoning a group of them on a 10-day trip to remote Papua New Guinea this summer, where they had no internet, phone signals, or hot water for showering.

Heidi was dressed smartly in a grey skirt, blazer, and heels. She looked at me appraisingly. “Do you have any close-toed shoes?” she asked delicately.  I did look pretty scruffy.  My clothes had been shmushed up in a suitcase for 72 hours and I didn’t have anything formal.  I put on the battered but closed-toed sandals I’d brought for camping in the desert the following week.  I realized I was wearing the same loud, flowery top I’d worn to an awkward meeting in London last summer where well-dressed attorneys had sneered down their noses at me.

We walked to the train station, uphill about five blocks.  We caught the train to Central Station, where I noticed the entertaining mix of names that were English (Epping, Richmond), Aboriginal (Katoomba, Bullaburra), and just funny sounding (Emu Plains, Rooty Hill).

We took another train to Strathfield, then caught a cab to the school.  I had begun to appreciate how long it takes to get around in Sydney. Heidi stays with a cousin in Strathfield some nights, which helps cut down on commuting time.  She doesn’t have her own apartment or car.  She always looks remarkably put together for someone who lives out of a suitcase.

The cab driver appeared to be Somali.  We have about 80,000 Somalis in Minnesota so I feel pretty confident about that.  He was on speaker phone talking to the dispatcher and carrying on a diatribe against the police.  He didn’t know where the school was and wasn’t paying attention to where he was going.

“They stop me because my passengers were not wearing seat belts and mark me down three points!” he complained.  Apparently this would involve a sizable fine and go on his driving record.  The dispatcher asked, “Do you have passengers right now?”  When he answered in the affirmative, she suggested they continue the conversation later.

“They only want money!” he said to us over his shoulder as he rubbed his thumb and fingers together to insinuate that the police would personally benefit from his citation.

“I don’t think police in Australia take bribes or get a cut of fines,” I replied, irritated. I didn’t know for sure in the moment, but I just looked it up and Australia ranks 13th out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Index (with 1 being least corrupt). Somalia is 180th (the US is 16th).  I guess if you come of age in the most corrupt country on earth, it’s hard to imagine a country that isn’t.

He went on for the duration of the ride about how it should be the passengers’ responsibility to put on their seat belts, even while acknowledging that the law says taxi drivers hold this responsibility.

“They were Chinese,” he declared, as if that explained everything.

St. Pat’s has a lovely, serene campus.

“Look! What are those birds!?” I exclaimed excitedly.

It took Heidi a moment to understand what I was excited about.  “Oh those?  Those are ibises.  They’re real pests.”  Well they were exotic to me.

And that was the first two hours of the day.