Monday, November 28, 2011

Thanksgiving in Oz

Life in Australia is strikingly similar to life in America. Sure, people here speak with a different accent and the money looks a bit like Monopoly money, but the cultures are remarkably similar. The slight differences between the two cultures pale in comparison to the cultural differences I experienced whilst in Asia. That being said, I’m looking forward to exploring the Outback, as I’m sure that will be quite different.

I’ve already settled into a semblance of a normal life here. I found accommodation in a house, sharing a room with two blokes from Northern Ireland.  Bills and Internet are included in the rent, and the kitchen isn’t perpetually crowded like the kitchen at the hostel where I was staying before. I found a job bartending, and while I’m not making quite enough cash to save enough money to fund the next chapter of my travels, it’s paying the bills and affording me a comfortable lifestyle.

It’s definitely a novel experience experiencing summer in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s nice and sunny outside, and yet there are Christmas decorations being put up in preparation for the season. There are some advertisements that seem really strange to me, because I am used to Christmas in the winter, such as Santa Claus on a surfboard. I also found a few wintery themed decorations, which also seemed weird, given the context of my location. All in all, spending Christmas abroad without the comforts and traditions of my family promises to be an unfamiliar experience.

Speaking of being away from home for the holidays, Thanksgiving has made me a bit homesick. Sure, I knew intellectually that it was an American holiday that was not celebrated outside of the US. However, now that I’m in a culturally similar country I’m acutely aware of its absence.  Sure, I’m still thankful for my life, my health, and my adventures exploring the world, but I was unable to secure myself a turkey dinner. Through Couchsurfing, a website which puts travelers in contacts with each other, I found a Thanksgiving potluck, but unfortunately I had to work.

Speaking of work, my bartending job is in an upper class suburb of Melbourne called Albert Park. I usually walk to work in the afternoon, enjoying the 45-minute literal walk in the park, and take the tram (aka light rail) home. It’s not nearly as fun as my last job bartending, which was in a nightclub. While I still want to find employment that I both enjoy and find fulfilling, it is clear that I have not found it yet. I plan on staying here through Christmas, and making another move in the New Year.

I’ve been contemplating many possible options. I’m quite tempted to do three months of work in regional Australia, making me eligible for another year of legal work and holiday in the country. If I work on a farm, or in a mine, or anywhere in some remote, sparsely populated region of this country, the government will reward my efforts by granting me a second year, usable any time before I am 30. More details on my next working move to come as they develop, but at the moment I’ll just say that I’m considering a few tough jobs simply for the experience of it.

Finally, I think I’ll be returning to the United States this summer. Two of my close friends are getting married (in two separate weddings) and I’m very keen to be in attendance at these events. Not only do they promise to be meaningful days for people I care about, but they also promise to be a good time. I reckon I could pop home to see the family, work a seasonal job through the summer, and then head back out to the wide world which I’m trying to see some more of. I know that it would take many lifetimes to see everything, but at least I'll know that for a while I did my best to see everything I could.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

First Days in Melbourne, Australia

The Australian chapter has begun. While nothing is significantly different than I expected, there are a multitude of small things that have surprised me. First of all, the plane was staffed with Thai stewardesses and I was sitting next to an overweight-Thai girl. Now, if you’re reading this from America, that may not seem too odd to you. However, if you’ve spent some time in Thailand you know that “overweight Thai girl” is almost an oxymoron.  I didn’t really think too much of it; I figured we were on a flight from Thailand to Australia. I thought that she was most likely an Australian of Thai decent, and, after hearing her accent, my suspicions were confirmed.

One thing that really surprised me was just how expensive it is in the city of Melbourne. First of all, the currency exchange rate is ridiculous. There was the equivalent of a 20-cent spread between buying and selling Baht in exchange for Australian dollars- meaning that I lost money within moments of getting through immigration. Shortly thereafter, I bought myself a bottle of water to quench my thirst. It cost my $3.50! For those of you thinking that it can’t be that bad, that given exchange rates it might work out to be something reasonable, but NO! Given the exchange rate, it works out to $3.68 US dollars for a small bottle of water. Unbelievable. The shuttle bus into the city cost me $16, and one bed in a dorm of ten cost me $28 dollars a night.

I had looked at a few hostels online, and I wasn’t too shocked by the prices. I figured $28 for a bed, Internet, and breakfast doesn’t sound too bad.  Little did I know that Internet was $4 and hour, and that the breakfast consisted of uncooked rice and access to their kitchen.  I bought myself a cup of noodles at the grocery store, prudently thinking that, given the outrageous cost of living, I would get the cheapest foodstuff that I know. Even these were relatively expensive! I would have spent about 25 cents in the States for one pack, but here it cost me over a dollar! At the moment I write this, I’m in Starbucks, partially because I wanted a coffee and partially because I figured I’d cheat the system and sit there for over an hour, effectively getting internet for cheaper than the going rate and getting a free coffee while I’m at it.  There is not even free WiFi at Starbucks! However, that is lucky for you, reader, because now I’m sitting here writing all this down instead of using the web to search for a job.

My final vent has to do with my cell phone. One of my top priorities upon arriving in the land down under was getting an Australian phone number, subsequently adding that number to my resume, and printing off ‘heaps’ of them in preparation for my job search.  The first guy I talked to said that I needed an Australian made phone to have an Australian number, which I was 90% sure was pure bullshit.  So, I went to an Indian run convenience store a few meters down the road and the attendant there let me use her simcard to test it in my phone. It worked well enough, so I bought a prepaid simcard from her and was off with my new number. I activated it and called an Australian mate of mine that I had met in Thailand. I was on my way, or so I thought. I discovered the problem during the final step of signing up for this job finding website. It requires that you input your Australian number so that they can send you a confirmation pin number. I think, “No problem, I’ve got my phone right here.” I wait and I wait, but nothing happens. Eventually I go to the payphone down the street and call my number, and I get a message telling me that there is incoming call restrictions on this number. So, now I can’t sign up for this website and I can’t be contacted by prospective employers. Great.  I called customer service and they said that they would report the problem and that I was to call back tomorrow. Even if this isn’t cleared up tomorrow, I’m going to have to hit the streets looking for a job regardless.

All my troubles aside, I’ll finally get to something interesting: my impression of the city of Melbourne, pronounced something like ‘Melbun’ by the locals.  First of all, while the majority of people are white, it is definitely a slim majority. There are plenty of Asians and Indians around, and even a few black folks, albeit not many. I thought I would be hearing English on the streets, but I have heard a variety of languages. The most interesting was hearing two Chinese-looking Asian girls speaking some unintelligible language, interspersed with Australian accented English. It was like the “Spanglish” I’m used to hearing at home, but sounded much different with an Asian language. Speaking of Spanish speakers, my first impression here is that the immigrant working class is Asian and Indian, which is not surprising. I figure that in the US the closest developing countries are all Spanish-speaking countries. Here, India and Asia are just a short plane ride away, and it makes sense that they would come here to fill the gaps in the unskilled labor market. That is not to say I haven’t seen any affluent, well-dressed Asians too!

Aside from the ethnic makeup of the population and comments on the socio-economic structure of this part of the world, there are definitely a variety of types of people. Not races, mind you, but types of people. For example, I’ve seen businessmen, punks, gothic people, overly tattooed and pierced people, moderately tattooed and pierced people, ‘normal’ looking people, grunge people, etc. It’s most definitely a diverse city, and I’m looking forward to getting to know it a bit better.

The city itself is beautiful. There is a lot of off-the-wall, modern architecture. Everything seems new and clean, even the graffiti seems to be in organized places and should probably be referred to as ‘street art.’ There is a nice walkway by that runs all along the river, and I sat and watched a few people row on by in a boat. It reminded me of my brother and when he used to row for his university’s team.  Being thwarted in my job search plans, I spent most of my first day just walking around and absorbing the city. I’m not sure whether I’m happy or sad to be back in a Western city. For better or for worse, I’m here, and I’ll be damned if I don’t make the most of it. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Leaving Thailand

My last few days in Thailand were bittersweet. I was certainly ready to leave when I bought the tickets, but as the days ticked away I came to realize how much I would miss it. My girlfriend had left for South Africa a few weeks before, so I was spending a lot of my time alone: reading, researching Australia, meditating. I spent a few nights in Chiang Mai, but I didn’t really go out and party. When planning on staying in Thailand long term, I didn’t really care to spend too much time chatting with people that would soon be goon. Now, a short-timer myself, I still didn’t want to hard to get to know someone because I would soon be gone.

However, one of my friends was in Chiang Mai whilst I was, so we got a chance to sit down and catch up. Knowing that I was on my way to Australia, which is supposed to be quite expensive, he even picked up the tab for my farewell meal. We didn’t really have any late or raucous nights out drinking, and before I knew it I was on the night bus for the capitol. Although now that I’m actually here in Oz, I really don’t think the cost of a meal or a night out in Thailand is going to make even the slightest difference.

Bangkok was considerably less overwhelming the second time around. First of all, the bus on the way down there wasn’t full, so I had plenty of room to stretch out. I remember being sat next to a fat, smelly Israeli who spilled over his seat the last time I took that bus. Secondly, having been in Thailand for months already, there wasn’t as much to take in. I was already used to vendors calling me on the streets, people drinking at all times of day, and a crowded amalgamation of drunken people from every corner of the globe; it wasn’t that much of a shock. Sure, the big city is bigger and dirtier than Chiang Mai, the ‘big city’ in the north, but it certainly wasn’t the culture shock I experienced when I first arrived back in April. Again, I wanted to save money for my time in Australia, but seeing just how expensive it really is here, I almost wish I splurged a bit in Thailand, the land of smiles and cheap everything. I did, however, go to see a bit of a risqué show unique to Thailand, which I wouldn’t dare describe in such a public forum. For those of you who know a few things about Bangkok, you’ll know what I mean. While the show was more horrifying than anything else, I’m glad that I can now saw that I did it.

The airport was definitely a lot easier the second time around. I didn’t get ripped off my way there, like the first time. In fact, I probably only paid a tenth of what I had paid all those months ago.  It was a breeze.  Although I don’t claim to speak Thai, just knowing a few simple words like ‘excuse me’ and ‘thank you very much’ made everyone I interacted with happy to help me along my way. Before I knew it I was sitting on a plane, closing one chapter of my life and starting a new one.

I spent months in Asia, and I don’t regret a moment of it, despite the mistakes I made. I learned a lot about their culture, as well as my own. I met some really interesting, genuine people. I also met some really shallow, non-interesting folks. All in all, it’s an experience that I wouldn’t give up. I think all people from Western countries should try to step out of their own culture, and not just for a visit but to live for at least a few months. The opportunity to live in a place so foreign and different from your home is an experience like none other, and I recommend it to everybody.