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.

Down Day

I allowed myself one down day in Australia, in Palm Cove.  I didn’t plan anything, I went where I was called.

I took a couple long walks on beach.  I had not realized that crocodiles swam in the ocean, but that helped me decide I would not be swimming here or renting a kayak.

I had wondered, before arriving in Australia, if the whole crocodile thing was overblown—something they played up to titillate the tourists and TV audiences.  But no.  As I wrote before, on the shuttle on the way from the airport I had seen signs that warning people not to swim or wade in streams, and just beyond the signs were people standing in the water up to their thighs, fishing.

“So … isn’t that dangerous?” I asked the driver.

“Yeah, it is.  A ranger was doing the same just last week with her family. She was an Aboriginal. You would think she would have known better.  One minute she was there, the next she was gone. They found her body a couple days later.”

I walked through the jungle around Palm Cove.  There were paths and boardwalks so I knew I wasn’t crazy to be walking here, but there were also warning signs about crocodiles everywhere.

I’m normally a pretty intrepid hiker.  My mother would freak if she knew some of the deserted places I have hiked alone down by the Mississippi River.

All the time I was in Australia, I never felt afraid of crime.  I’m sure crime happens there, but I never saw warnings about crime like one does everywhere else.  You know: “Be vigilant on trains and on the street for pickpockets.”

I would take my chances with a pickpocket any day, I thought, over a crocodile.  I was really on edge, watching for signs of fast movement on the sides of the paths.

It really wasn’t very relaxing, so I headed back toward the beach, past a new housing development. I imagined walking out my back door to find a big croc in my pool, or leaping out at me as I gardened.  No thanks.

I stopped for a fried barramundi sandwich at the corner restaurant/grocery and perused the Sunday papers while I waited.  I don’t know who this guy was, what really happened, or what his greatest triumph was, but he was handsome in a Cro-Magnon Man way.

They had all manner of fried snacks that sounded like exotic variations on fish sticks; I imagine my five-year-old nephew would find them appealing.

There was this sign explaining why they don’t issue plastic drinking straws.  Because of the glare you won’t be able to read it, but trust me—straws are bad for sea turtles.

I checked out every shop along the promenade and bought a few things but it was basically resort wear—nothing I would have occasion to wear in Minnesota.

Back in my room, I pored over the brochures, then arranged with Jim at the front desk to take an excursion through the Daintree Rainforest the next day.  I was excited; it would involve a train ride through the jungle, then a couple hours in the village of Kuranda, where I could buy more trinkets and have a beer, then a hike through the rainforest, then a cable car ride back.  I would be gone all day.  I couldn’t wait.

I sat by the pool and read my book.  I was half way through my 800-page Somerset Maugham short stories.  I was tearing them out as I read not only to lighten my load, but because he uses the N word and other offensive language.  He was a product of his time.  These were the words people used.  But I would not be leaving this on the take one, leave one shelf.

I took a dip in the warm salt water pool, gazing up at the pointillist canopy of gum tree leaves way above me.

I capped off the day with a gag-inducing “Japanese” dinner.  Imagine sushi made with “local fish.” Now think—like I didn’t—that the local fish is not tuna or shrimp or  salmon, but barramundi, which is nice fried, but not raw.

 

Palm Cove

After a 20-minute drive I alighted at the Reef Retreat in Palm Cove.  This was my big splurge. I had read about the place in Frommer’s Easy Guide to Australia; it wasn’t easy to find the website and when I did, it was fully booked for some of the nights I wanted.  I went back and forth for a month before securing five nights there, then I added a sixth night when I was in Blayney.  I felt so lucky to get the place I wanted.

I wanted it because it was one block off the beach, which was traced by a road full of traffic. I didn’t want to stay in a B&B because I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I didn’t want to stay in a chain hotel. I didn’t want to stay in a sterile high-rise where you had to take an elevator and walk down a long hallway.

This was the photo that got me.  The red square outlines the Reef Retreat.  Two stories of rooms were built around a central courtyard with a pool and, basically, a miniature rain forest. I could be close to the action but feel like I was in the jungle.

And it was only $95 a night.

The place did not disappoint.  I checked in with Jim and Joanne, the owners, who would soon become my personal support group.  I loaded up on brochures from the Wall of a Thousand Brochures, then rolled my bag through the courtyard to my room, which was up a flight of about 20 stairs.  This was the only downside of the place—you would have to stay on the first floor if you couldn’t manage stairs.

The rooms were clean and bright and had everything one needed to be a hermit in paradise.  Balcony screened by trees, couch and TV, and fridge.

These are the views from my balcony.  The big screen is to keep people who are using the barbie from being barbecued themselves, by the sun.

I hung up my dank clothes to air for the first time in weeks, then hustled out to buy supplies.  The books in the “take one, leave one” shelf in the laundry room were typical of a resort that attracts an international crowd.

I would pass on “Analfabeten” but I had a couple books with me and I could read by the pool every day!  I could catch up on blogging.  I could sleep late.  I could take long walks, rent a bike, maybe a kayak.  I would alternate excursions, like to the reef, with down time.  This was going to be great.

This was the night I would lose my passport.  This was not going to be great, but I didn’t know it yet.

I walked on the beach and took a few excellent photos, for once.  They somehow vanished off my phone, so here’s a photo from the official tourist site.

I have been to tropical beaches in Belize and Colombia in the last two years, and I have to say that one beach looks very much like another to me.  There’s sand, and water, and palm trees.  But that’s not to take away from their beauty.

I walked along the promenade and bought groceries, then donned my rain poncho so I could keep my bag from disintegrating until I got to the casino/bottle shop where I could buy wine and beer.  The 16-year-old kid who waited on me asked for my ID, and I fumbled with my poncho, backpack, and grocery bag to find it and show it to him.  If you like casinos, you would have loved this place.  I hate them so I hurried to get back to my quiet retreat.

I watched TV; there was the Ernie Dingo Show, where an Aboriginal guy walks around the outback and shows sites of cultural significance to a white guy, whose job is apparently to nod and show keen interest in everything Ernie says.  Megan and Harry were on the news, as they would be every night during the Invictus Games.  Harry was climbing Sydney Harbor Bridge, and it was raining hard.  “Guess I picked the wrong day to cross the bridge,” he quipped.

People with Points

As I waited for my flight, I reflected on how wonderful it is that people welcome me into their homes.  I knew Dean and Lisa from UK days, but we hadn’t been close.  I had never met Auntie Margaret.

Getting to know new people, and getting know acquaintances better, is such a huge attraction of travel for me.  Spending time with people I care for, like Heidi, is a luxury.

That said, I do like my alone time.  I’m an introvert who likes people, but I’m still a loner.  I can happily spend days in my house without hearing a human voice.  I’m never bored.  I get lost in household projects, a book, or long walks in the woods.

After 18 days of being crammed into planes and trains and cars with fellow human beings, I was ready to be alone.

As I boarded I was diverted from these lofty thoughts by a woman behind me asking the flight attendant for a seat belt extender.  This was my first knowledge that there was such a thing.  Australia doesn’t have quite as high a percentage of its population who are obese as the US (33%), but it’s up there, at 27%.

A flight attendant asked if I would like something to drink.  I replied yes, a Diet Coke please, which was when she informed it would cost $3.  Three dollars for a can of coke!  Way to nickel and dime, Virgin Australia!  I asked if I could have a cup of water, if it was free, and she gave me one, smirking like I was a cheapskate.

I read the thick weekend edition of a newspaper from front to back except for the sport section.  I compiled a list of new Aussie vocab to Google when I had wireless: squiz, spruiking, chook.

There was an article about young members of rich Aussie families who posted photos of themselves with products on Instagram.  They had millions of followers and made millions of dollars which they didn’t need.  They were beautiful, vapid, and dull eyed.

Another article was about an immigration scheme to make people settle in “regional areas,” meaning underpopulated areas that need workers.  To quote:

“Australia is in the self-inflicted paradox of having vast amounts of space but no room.

“Australia has pursued a big immigration intake for the entire post-war era for the very selfish reason that it’s in the national interest.  It boosts the economy.  It lowers the average age of the population.  This means that national aging is slowed.  As a result, the rising cost to the taxpayer of healthcare and aged care and welfare is slowed.  And it adds skills.  And cultural richness.”

The debate is: is it unconstitutional to dictate where people must live?  Is it impossible? Is it unconscionable?

“It is none of those things.  Australia already has such a program in place. It’s a category known as designated area migration agreements. There’s only in in effect, in the Northern Territory, but it exists in principal and in practice.”

In the proposed national scheme, people applying for Australian work visas will be given extra points if they indicate they are willing to live in Tasmania, for example.

Why can’t America have debates like this about immigration?  All we talk about is whether to build a wall or not.  A wall—such a 15th Century solution.

Australia has its version of a wall.  It’s the island of Nauru, where desperate migrants from Syria and Congo are penned like animals. But there seemed to be a lot of other ideas afloat.

It’s about control, right?  Any country justifiably wants to know who is entering and how they will contribute to the common good.  The US is one of few countries with a diversity lottery—most countries manage immigration based on merit, conferring extra points for engineering degrees, fluency in the native tongue, or big bank accounts.

As we approached Cairns, I looked down at the verdant scenery.  No wonder people want to come here.

I made a note to partake in the airport wine tasting ahead of my return flight.

My van driver was a British immigrant.

“Twenty years on, and me and the wife ain’t never been back.”

Prawns and Prisoners and a London Souvenir

After a lovely day with Puffing Billy, it was time to face facts that we would leave in the morning.

I would fly to Cairns.

Heidi and Danielle were hashing out how to get each of them back to different places with one car in one day.  They could retrace the route we took to get here, with Heidi dropping Danielle off in Blayney.  But Heidi wanted to stop in Canberra to see her friend Moira. Danielle was up for that but it would add another day.

People everywhere talk about how to get from A to Z: should we fly or drive or take a train?  “If we drive, maybe we might as well stop in Hooterville since it’s kind of on the way.  But the train would be more relaxing…but driving would give us more control.  But flying would be faster…not really, when you factor in getting to the airport and getting through the lines, and we wouldn’t have a car on the other end.”

And so on.  People everywhere do this, but I think for Australians the stakes are higher and they spend more time thinking and talking about getting around.

But first, a farewell feast.  Dean would barbeque and we would contribute three salads.

I made tabbouleh, my go-to salad.

“I’ve got shrimps on the barbie,” Dean joked, “except we don’t call them shrimps, we call them prawns.  There was an Australian Tourism advert …”

“Starring Paul Hogan—Crocodile Dundee,” inserted Danielle.

“Where they had to say ‘shrimp’ instead of ‘prawn’ so you lot would know what it was talking about.  I’m also making sausages and grilled veggies.  We do make other things besides shrimp on the barbie.”

I noticed the box of red wine on the counter top.  “Oh, these are the crimes people could be sent to Australia for?”

“Yeah,” Lisa responded, and we read them out loud.  We had to Google a couple, like “Impersonating an Egyptian” (a Gypsy, or Roma, who were considered rogues) and “Embeuling Naval Stores” (stealing).

“Murder isn’t on here,” I commented.

“Aww, you would have just been hanged immediately for that,” Lisa explained.  “These are all mostly property crimes that poor people would commit out of desperation.”

“Yeah,” added Danielle as she reviewed the list, “Don’t threaten an English lord’s right to own everything, from your house and land to the fish in the river and the rabbits and firewood in the forest.”

Back in December at my cookie baking party, I provided a few bottles of 19 Crimes and visitors had fun with their very clever app which brought the convicts to life.

I couldn’t help snapping a photo of Lisa and Dean’s shopping list the next morning.

Heidi was up before me, undoubtedly anxious about the long day of driving ahead.  Dean had harvested some gorgeous lemons and gave her and Dani a supply.

It was frosty, and as we huddled in a circle drinking our coffee we laughed when we looked down at our feet.

“Socks and flip flops,” Danielle commented, “Australian spring fashion.”

“Not thongs and camel toes,” I quipped.

That killed the conversation.  Sometimes I go too far with my language observations.

“Can I see the cab before I leave?” I asked Dean.

“Yes of course, give me a few minutes.”

I wandered around outside, enjoying the fresh air and this quiet Kookaburra on the sign post.

Dean called me over to the garage, where he’d lifted the door to reveal the souvenir he and Lisa had brought back from London.

“I’m just waiting for it to be old enough to register as a classic car, which’ll make it a lot less costly to drive,” he said.  “I was thinking of starting a car hire business with it but maybe we’ll just have fun with it ourselves.”

Heidi and Danielle and I said our adieus; I would see Heidi again in Sydney. Then Dean and Lisa drove me to the airport, a 45-minute drive on this early Saturday morning. I always enjoy dropping people off and picking them up at the airport.  It reduces their stress and it’s nice to say good-bye and hello to friendly faces, isn’t it?