Apr 4, 2008

Good On Ya: The Australian Experience

Caution: Kangaroo Crossing!

Only in Australia: Warning! Do not swim in crocodile infested waters. This picture was taken near a small river on during Mai and I's morning run on our last day in Australia, March 27.

Initial Impressions
This trip to Australia was my second journey to the land "Down Under." The first time was 8 years ago, in the spring of 2000, also chaperoning an 8th grade class trip. I don't recall the country having made quite such an impression on me as it did this time.

The short version is that I love it; Babs and I both feel it would be nice to live there someday. Granted, Australia is a big country and we've only been to one part--tropical North Queensland. But what we've seen, we've loved.

I suppose it seems a no-brainer: Nice weather, great people, first world amenities in an exotic location, everyone speaks English. In many ways one would imagine that Australia would feel very similar to the United States--but it doesn't. I know this will sound really obvious and silly (especially to Australians) but while in Australia I was really struck by the reality that this really was a foreign country--a country with a different culture and customs from my own, the language not withstanding. (And really, the language is pretty different too). The result was that, at least at first, I felt a little apprehensive and uncertain (though not as downright scared as I was last time when we rented a van and I had to drive on the right side! I found the roundabouts especially challenging. More on them momentarily)). The following is an excerpt from my pen and paper journal, written on Sabbath, March 22, our second day in Cairns:

"I have the familiar sense of vulnerability that comes with traveling in another country--that sense that makes one extremely grateful for the kindess of hosts, hotel workers, drivers, and tour guides and more deeply wounded by their brusqueness or irritation. Strangely these feelings are heightened by being in an English-speaking country, perhaps because rudeness feels more personal when you don't have the excuse of the language barrier and kindness feels more genuine.

It's unfair to make broad judgements about 'the Australian people', especially after only one day here (though such judgements truthfully can never be made), but I can say that most the people I've met have been either extraordinarily friendly or unusually crotchety.

The accent is charming of course and the Australians--white ones and the dark-all seem to have a distinct appearance. Redder faces, paler skin, somewhat "British" features among white Australians and of course the distinct look of the Aborigines."

Despite that initial nervousness, overall, I felt welcome and safe while in Australia. I quickly came to feel at home.

Other People's Normal

One of my favorite things about traveling to other countries is getting a sense of how other people live; getting a feel for "other people's normal". I mean the usual tourist sights and experiences--the monuments, the museums, the must-see landmarks--they're great too. But I'm quite happy just wandering down a side street, meandering through a neighborhood, fascinated by the differences between their "normal" and mine, trying to imagine what it would be like to live in this place, in this culture, and have it be ordinary. I suppose I do understand those Japanese tourists who come to Saipan and gather around the most innocuous and mundane things to take enthusiastic pictures. I feel the same way when I visit another country and I felt that way in Australia.

So: A few things that will seem very boring and mundane to the Australian reader but that I found myself thoroughly fascinated and tickled by:

There's the obvious right-hand driving and driving on the left side of the road, but what really struck me was the roundabouts. These efficient versions of the intersection were everywhere in Australia, while on the other hand, I can't recall having seen even one 4-way stop sign (though I'm sure they were there). Let me further embarass myself by confessing that apparently I'm more ethnocentric and in the thrall of American exceptionalism than I thought, because I was genuinely surprised to find in Australia a system that was--gasp--better than what we have in America! The roundabout is just so sensible once you get the hang of it. Traffic in all directions basically keeps moving; there's a kind of elegance to the design of thing. Why don't we have this in the States, I wondered. And then, I remembered, Oh, yes, that's right. We Americans think we have the best way of doing of everything already. Most of us would probably rebel it having to change our accustomed manner of driving, even if the change might be an improvement. It's like the metric system--we like doing it our way, even though the change would actually be easier for us in the long run.

A typical roundabout. I got this picture off the web and I believe it was taken in Great Britain.

A right hand drive car.

I'm not sure if this is my imagination, but Australia just seemed a bit more health conscious than the United States. The stores were stocked with all kinds of whole-grain type products, but it was more than that. After all healthy eating is all the rage in the States right now, so shelves stocked with organic this and all-natural that isn't so unsual. No, I came to this conclusion through observation of more subtle differences. For example, on Friday evening, March 21, we took the kids to eat at a fast food joint across the street from our hotel, a place called Red Rooster. It had the usual fast food fare with an emphasis on chicken, but you could also by a piece of pumpkin. Not sugared-up pumpkin pie; a plain chunk of pumpkin still in it's skin. I was amazed that a greasy chicken outlet would carry such an item and equally amazed that people were likely to order it. (Pumpkin seems to be pretty popular in Australia too--while there I had a pumpkin and spinach lasagna, a savory [as opposed to a sweet] pumpkin pie, and a pumpkin and steak pie--pies little mini-pastries filled with meat and other ingredients are also very common in Australia).

The Red Rooster across the street from the Palm Royale Cairns.

Another example of this kind of comfort level with healthy eating was the cereal given to us every morning as part of our compliementary breakfast at our second lodging of the trip, the Bohemia Resort. Every day we got a bowl with a package of sturdy, whole grain, fiber-filled (and some might argue utterly tasteless) Weet-Bix. It's a literally a brick of solid health dropped into your bowl that you break apart with your spoon and in some cases, sweeten with a little sugar just to take the edge off all that healthiness. What struck me is that this was the default ceral--given to every patron of the hostel, and apparently the assumption was that everyone would eat it. Does anyone in the States buy Shredded Wheat (the closest thing we have to Weetbix in U.S)?

Weet Bix. Not the tastiest stuff in the world but packed with health. And made by Sanitarium, a company owned by the Seventh-day Adventist Church!

One final observation of the "normal" in Australia--the language of course. Everybody loves an Aussie accent but I love the Aussie words just as much. From my pen and paper journal, Tuesday, March 25:

"And along the way there have been lots of impressions of Australia--a lot of new words or rather familiar words with unfamiliar meanings: "sunnies" [sunglasses], "swimmers"[swimsuit], "chemist" [pharmacy], "chips" [french fries], "crisps" [potato chips], "tomato sauce" [ketchup] and "How ya' goin'" [What's up] and "Good on ya, mate!" [Well done!] and many others."

Overall, I think it wouldn't be hard for the Australian "normal" to become my normal too.

Recognize this cereal? That's right, it's Kelloggs Raisan Bran! Apparently raisans are known as "sultanas" in Australia. I brought back two boxes of these from our trip.

Where We Stayed: A Tale of Two Pools

We stayed in two different places during our time in Australia and both had good-sized free form pools in a luxe tropical setting. Beyond that, the similarities ended and I think you'll be surprised by which place I'd recommend. Consider this my offical review of the places we stayed in Australia.

The pool at the Palm Royale Cairns. It was nice but they had a pool at Bohemia too and you could actually play pool there too!

The first place we stayed was the Palm Royale Cairns, which was conveniently located just two blocks from the Cairns SDA Church. Three nights at this hotel was included with our airfare package. It appeared to be rather nice mid-level hotel. The key word is "appeared." This hotel was all about appearance. It looks nice in glamorous photos on the web with it's massive pool, exotic landscaping, and vaguely Mediterranean architectural vibe. But if you looked closely, you'd see the mold creeping up the walls. If you went into the rooms you'd find them to be just average. The maid service was spotty at best. On at least one occasion we came back and it was clear that they really hadn't cleaned the room or the bathroom--just straigthened things up and replaced a few towels. I wasn't impressed. The staff was polite and basically friendly, but did little to assist us in our trip. One person at the main desk said she would look into some tour prices for us. She never got back to us. The staff rarely went out of their way for us. There was no complimentary breakfast, but they had a buffet every morning for the exorbitant price of $21AUD per person. But the worst part was the somewhat shady manner in which they changed money for us. In addition to making it clear that they could only change "a little" for us, they were unclear about how their exchange rate worked. And money changing was pretty vital for us. It was Easter weekend and Monday and Friday were both public holidays--Australians take their holidays seriously; nothing was open. From my paper and pen journal, Sabbath, March 22:

"I'm not particularly impressed with this hotel. Everything is brutally expensive and also I'm convinced that they either purposefully or unintentionally ripped me off on the money I exchanged at the front desk. They divided the exchange rate instead of multiplying so that we got slightly less than the $100 USD I exchanged rather than multiplying it so that we got slightly more. I checked rates and tried to show the ladies at the front desk, but they insisted that it had been done correctly and that their raters were 'higher.' at the hotel than elsewhere. I understand higher rates (it would have been a worse rate anyway had they done it corrctly) but purposefully misapplying the calculation rate seems a little sketchy to me."

The Palm Royale Cairns remained the only place in Australia where I actually ended up with less Australian money than U.S. money after an exchange.

The kids liked the pool and all, but my recommendation is to seek out somewhere other than the Palm Royale Cairns. In fact you might consider saving yourself a bundle and staying at the Bohemia Resort. Don't let the name fool you--it is a youth hostel complete with dorm-style rooms and a youthful clientele. But don't let the hostel designation fool you either. Bohemia is a fantastic place to stay.

Pool at the Bohemia Resort. That's Mai in the bottom right, cooling off after our morning run.

Another shot of the pool. You can just make out the rooms hidden behind the foliage.

How the boys spent every spare moment and every spare dollar, once we moved to the Bohemia.

Amy and the girls have breakfast on our last day in Australia, Thursday, March 27.

We moved over to the Bohemia on Sunday after laser tag and spent the rest of our week there. Granted the rooms were more spartan than the Palm Royale, but to be honest, not by much. We had to share bathrooms and showers with other guests, but they weren't quite community showers either. The shower rooms usually had only one shower head in them so you could go in and lock the door and have the shower all to yourself. For between $23 and $25 a night you got a clean and comfortable room to stay in, a complimentary light breakfast every morning (two slices of toast with butter and jam, the aforementioned Weetbix, and your choice of hot coffee or tea), a fully equipped kitchen to make food of your own if you desired, a good-sized free form pool to relax in, plenty of computers with high speed internet access for only $2 for 30 minutes, and free transportation into the heart of the tourist district all day long. The little Bohemia bus would make it's rounds every hour ferrying people between the Bohemia Resort and Bohemia Central, their property in the heart of Cairns. We found it easy to plan our shopping trips around the bus's hourly schedule and never had to bother with the hassle and expense of taxis. They also had a self-barbecue restaurant where you could get a slab of your favorite meat, a salad, and roll for only $9 and grill it up on their bank of gas grills. They also show a movie every night at poolside and have a couple of pool tables (on which our boys spent countless hours and countless dollar coins). Talk about bang for your buck!

But the best part of the Bohemia Resort was the people. You'd think a dirt-cheap place would have dirt-poor service, but the staff was wonderful! They were friendly, helpful, patient, and enthusiastic. I have to mention in particular a young Chinese woman who worked the front desk in the afternoons and evenings and who had the most charming Chinese-accented Australian accent. She was always patient with my many questions (even when I forgot what my questions were when I arrived at the front desk and had to stand there trying to remember what I wanted to ask while she waited for me)and she arranged all our tours efficiently and quickly. Thanks to her I was able to plan our Kuranda skyrail tour, the horseback riding, and the ATVs. I did not catch her name--I had planned to take a picture of her and get her name on our last day in Cairns but it so happend that it was her day off. This girl along with all the other staff were fantastic. I suggest, that unless you're getting a hotel stay as part of your ticket package, you forgoe the so-called three star hotel and stay at the Bohemia Resort youth hostel. You'll get a lot more, have a lot more fun, all for a fraction of the cost.


Whimsy Peddler said...

I like seeing other people's "normal" too. Like the "hump" sign in Manila--totally took a picture of that. Ah, travel is so necessary, I can't wait to do more!

Marianas Eye said...

A few years ago, I spent a week in Canada, and while watching their news -- it was all about Ottawa and the "Premier" -- I realized, "Wow, it's like they have their own little country up here!?

Anonymous said...

Way to go man! You’ve written well. The way you’ve expressed your thoughts, it’s really good. But I think you should be more informative. And haven’t you ever heard of Cairns hostel? Their service is really good. Cairns hostel