Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Thorny Cities

Australian statue at workI asked a friend of mine to give me some tips about things I should do or see while I was in Australia. His response: “Uh.... drink beer?”

So maybe this isn't because of his advice, but there's definitely been a lot of drinking in the last week  Not always beer-- the first evening I spent in Sydney, I sat on a hostel rooftop quaffing something called Goon-- a very cheap boxed wine with a warning on the side saying it might contain fish or dairy products-- along with a ton of homemade sushi while I debated politics with the sushi chef-- a German conspiracy theorist with a definite anti-Semitic bent who couldn't figure out why I wasn't intimidated by his Superior Intelligence. Then came St. Patrick's day, and then a ton of other parties and gatherings, from sitting in the St. Kilda park with hippies who swapped stories about dumpster diving and sitting in trees to keep them from being logged, to a hotel party in the most expensive suite of the Melbourne Westin (long story). All these involved massive amounts of drinking. It's something everyone here is proud of, and I don't just mean Australians, in fact it mostly seems to be foreigners. Most people I've met from country who happens to be on Australian soil are either drinking, or trying to figure out why they aren't drinking and fixing that problem as soon as possible. Even the most beloved local spread for toast, Vegemite, is an extremely salty yeast product that tastes an awful lot like beer (surprisingly good with eggs as long as you use it sparingly. I've already made one of my hosts really happy with a white cheddar and Vegemite omelet for breakfast.]

The drinking culture might be a city thing. I haven't spent time outside of cities yet, so I don't know for sure. But it probably is, because once you're outside of the cities, you really need to keep your wits about you. A guy in an Irish bar in Sydney told me early on “You can be safe in Australia, just don't touch stuff.” The list of dangerous animals ranges from venomous water snakes to hungry crocodiles to hidden stonefish, and those are just the ones I expected. It's the mundane deadly stuff that really gets you, like the small conch shells that contain a hidden creature that will up and sting you if you pick up the shell. But the most insane I learned about was in one entry under my guidebook's natural dangers list: “Poisonous Snails: proof that everything in Australia wants you dead.” The snails are venomous here. Snails. Not just like give you a rash, I mean make you seriously ill. Friendly country, 'aint it?

So far I've spent a few days each in Sydney and then in Melbourne, so I haven't come up against anything serious. But swimming on Coogee beach in Sydney was plenty intense. The water it beautiful, but because of the rip tides and currents, there is a very specific fraction of the beach between two red and yellow flags where swimming is (officially) permitted. And that part is intense enough. I'm six feet tall. More than once I was standing in water that didn't reach my knees and got hit by waves that nearly went over my head. Tumbling around beneath us was this bizarre kind of spiny kelp that rolled around scratching people's ankles like angry underwater tumble weeds on steroids. Then came the announcement from the lifeguard that a wave of bluebottle jellyfish was coming in, and that if anyone was stung, they could be carried over to the lifeguard for treatment. Did I mention the shark attacks that had flooded the headlines a week before? These beaches are not messing around.

So I have a healthy respect for the local wildlife, though you do have to take a few things with a grain of salt. One thing I was warned about that Australians will show they like you by “taking the piss out of you.” If they aren't, you should probably be concerned. So if someone at a bar tries to convince you to look out for the drop-bears-- vicious, carnivorous koalas that drop out of trees and rip sharp teeth into their unsuspecting victims-- and that the only way to avoid them is to rub Vegemite on your nose, it's all in good fun.

I'm sorry to say though, that there is a point after which things start to cross a line. Depending on how you're counting, this is the seventeenth country I've been through on this trip, and it's the first where I've experienced serious discrimination for being American. I'm used to jokes, debating politics and hearing people complain about the US government. I do those things at home myself all the time. But I've never had an experiences like the ones I've had here targeting, not my government, but me as a person. For example: my last night in Sydney, I was wandering around looking for a store and got turned around. I couldn't figure out where I was on a map, but I saw a hostel across the street. I walked up, saw the office would be open for two more hours and rang the buzzer. A man came down, asked if he could help. I told him that I was a bit lost and asked if he could show me where I was on my map. He ask if I was Canadian. I told him I was American. He yelled fuck off and slammed the door in my face. When I tried the buzzer again later, hoping to get someone else, he walked up to the glass, gave me the finger, made a call on a nearby phone (presumably to the office to tell them not to answer the buzzer), and left. When I told this story to the man sitting next to me on the train that night, he laughed and said “That's great!”

The door slamming thing was the most extreme incident, but it certainly wasn't the only one, and they guy who loved the story was not alone in how he felt. Even otherwise friendly people I've stayed with would simply flat out insult the US and Americans as a people. Not the government, the people. I've met Canadians here who have been so fed up with how they see Americans treated that they've pretended to be American to show solidarity and stand against the treatment they see us get. It's nuts. I've been in countries where our country has committed real atrocities, and while many people in those places would ask me some hard questions, they never disrespected me as a person because of where I come from. But here, where as far as I can recall, the US has never done anything particularly malicious, is a different story. Once you get surrounded by things like this, even the jokes you used to laugh along with at home stop being quite so funny.

At the same time, the general friendliness of Australians is legendary, and I've been getting a direct dose through CouchSurfing. It's very strong in both Sydney and in Melbourne, and since the project as a whole just recently celebrated passing the one million member mark a few weeks ago, it's getting stronger. It's such an intriguing concept, shows that something in humanity just works. I joined expecting it to just be a way to sleep in a town for free, but its turned out to be a lot more than that. It's like an underground network all over the world with nodes around every city. It's a group of people who join in a website basically saying blindly to the world that even if they don't know you yet, they trust you. And people they trust, they will show around and share with. It's not that blind of course-- everyone has references left by others on their profiles, so you know before you meet someone that other people have had a good experience with them. So I've ended up at free dinners as well as just random cool stuff, like a hike from Bondi to Coogee beach that turned into an awesome quasi free-form rock climbing event as a bunch of us ditched the trail for the seaside rocks instead (I think I could have paid about $100 for the exact same thing back in Queenstown).

And on my own, I've managed to have a good time as well. I snagged the only ticket left to see The Cat Empire, one of my favorite bands who just happen to be from Melbourne. Going to an awesome concert is one thing, but doing it in the band's hometown made all the difference. The entire crowd knew every word to every song. Actually it was just an impressive crowd to begin with-- the opening band was a Romanian Gypsy band that played a song in 9/8 time, and pretty much everybody was able to keep to the beat, clapping. The gypsies seemed impressed, at least.

As much fun as I've had here though, I feel it's time to move on. I've been to the beaches, I've seen my concert, and I've gotten pages added to my passport (even if the consulate sewed them in upside down...) I have more than a month left in this country, but I already can feel the time crunch just because it's so big and there are so many different things I can do. Besides, I've been in cities too long anyway, it's time to get out.

Check out this entry's Photos.


  1. Wow. I was in Australia in 1994 and never encountered any of that hostility.

    So, will we ever get to hear these "long stories?"

  2. In their entirety? Not on this blog, though I will say that this "long story" involved an up and coming 80's style rock band, a mock wedding, and a young, rich playboy retiree who, when asked what he used to do for a living would only say he was "paid to talk."

  3. Cat Empire! Excellent taste, mate. You know, if you rub a bit of Vegamite on your nose those nasty anti-American sentiments will just fade right away.

  4. Now you understand why I never ditch my Turkish Identity and carry my Turkish ID card with me everywhere when I travel. If you go to Serbia and you're in Europe in October or after, I'll be in Vienna then and go with you. Shield you from the people who torched the American Embassy. The Turkish ID card shield of protection.