Bob's travel journal
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Bob's travel journal
Sydney: like a Prisoner episode, but better
Apologies for the delay in posting this, but I was down
for a few days with a case of "Bali Belly," a common malady for tourists to
that fair island, caused by the unfortunate circumstance that the public
water and public waste streams are often one and the same.
lot like Montezuma's Revenge for Mexican tourists, although speaking as one
with both experiences, I can now vouch for the notion (once said to me by a
misty-eyed ex-girlfriend with a taste for flowery skirts) that "Bali never
really leaves your system."
This might be the truest thing she ever
said to me.
But that's not a criticism of Bali per se; much
of the third world faces similar circumstances, and a birthplace-fortunate
first-worlder inconvenienced for a few days really has little business
complaining. Hell, truth is, I've really just sampled the native cuisine
in full glory, and gotten a teensy reminder of just what hell the world
really is like for at least (and this is really the number) two billion
So I spent a few days trying to keep an enlightened
worldview about my own intestines attempting to secede from my
Thus, no posts.
Second aside: I realize the
formatting on a few of these posts is a little rough. Not Tom's fault; I'm
posting these on the run from Internet cafes, which poses some minor
obstacles I won't belabor here. Thanks for bearing with the odd random
italics and strange punctuation substitutions that have sometimes occured.
I'll clean it all up when I get home. Meanwhile, mistakes in spellinj are
But now, back to the travel-o-rama, specifically,
I didn't realize it when arranging the trip, but in a way it
always really ended here in Sydney, at least the high-adventure part.
After the exotica of South Africa, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and
Indonesia, how alien can Sydney possibly be to an American? I realized
even in Africa that the tarmac in Australia was going to feel much like
coming home, even though I'd never been there before.
(Those of you
over 40: insert your "Rocky Mountain High" jokes here.)
40: John Denver was a singer. I'd compare him to a current pop star, but,
um... all I can think of is John Mayer, but de-sexed, twangier, and
half-blind, or, um, early Jewel with a sex change. But we liked him. He
really was pretty good. Honest. Oh, never mind. You kids these
What I didn't realize was just how much Sydney would
feel like home -- in some ways, more than I've ever felt inside the United
That's not quite as nice a feeling as it
How's this for a first impression? Taking a cab from the
airport, right away I noticed something missing: the inch-thick bulletproof
There wasn't any. Nothing.
How strange. Why, I could
have whipped out a machete and gutted the driver, or possibly dropped a
grenade in his lap, or garroted him and dumped the body in a swamp if I
wanted. And that's just off the top of my American-cab-trained head.
There's still gassing, stabbing, and immolation to consider.
didn't, actually. But still. How odd. How... trusting.
Matter of fact, you're actually expected to sit up front,
right next to the driver, since, gosh, it's just more polite, and a happy
little chat is a friendly way to pass the time. And tipping is minimal --
rounding up to the nearest dollar is common -- because cabbies are actually
paid a decent wage.
I learned this from my friend (and former
Jeopardy Masters opponent) Leslie, who lives in Sydney and met me at
the airport, sharing the cab ride back. Leslie's as bright and fun as
you'd expect a Jeopardy Master to be, and about to leave Sydney
(with mixed feelings) for a better job in Helsinki, and thus eager to say
goodbye to her adopted home just as I was saying hello. So I got the
nickel tour and a chance to hug somebody, which is like oxygen after a good
while on the road.
(Leslie's was the first familiar face I'd seen in
a while, and I attribute some of my gosh-this-feels-like-home-y-ness to
that simple fact. You should, too. But only some. Read
Sydney waitstaff are also paid like actual human beings. In
restuarants, I was stunned to discover charge-card forms with no place even
to enter a tip. If you want, you can put a couple of bucks in change down
(easy when the country has dollar and two-dollar coins instead of bills),
but the service people are gonna eat OK one way or another.:
hard to explain just how strange and different -- how much more, um,
liveable -- stuff like this feels. Which is heightened, not lessened, by
the California-like climate, English language, and ubiquitous familiar
American brand names. Part of you thinks you're home -- and then, when
something is actually easier than you're used to, you have to
realize sadly that home isn't always quite this nice.
probably a lot harder for Americans, given our national state of
self-persuaded perpetual universal bestness, than it is for folks from
But damn. Here it is.
(What are you feeling
right this minute, as you read this? It's worth thinking about. I'll get
back to some thoughts on that, below.)
It's more than just clean
air, clean water, and the best public transit system I've ever seen
(including buses, a light rail and tram system, ferries, a subway, an
extensive suburban rail system, and even -- yes! -- a monorail. Which is
about as useless, actually, as the monorail on The Simpsons. But
These things seem to be just aspects of a fundamental
difference in culture from the U.S. which manifests in a hundred tiny ways.
If I'm reading things right (and keep in mind: I do not know shit; this is
just a guy from Ohio telling you what he sees): the social contract in
Australia has yet to be denounced as a communist plot quite the way that it
has in America.
Moreover, the idea of a
collective good is still considered, yes, a collective
So massive amounts of prime waterfront real
estate -- land that in the U.S. or many European countries would long ago
have been sold off to a high-rise hotel chain after some politician got his
wallet sexed -- remains public and green and gorgeous and open to
So you have a culture that measures itself not on the wealth of
its richest, but of its middle class. "Tall poppies" -- people who are "up
themselves" a bit too much -- aren't objects of admiration here, but scorn.
The cars are modest. The houses are modest. The people don't walk around
quite so often wearing corporate logos like a bunch of assimilated human
So the streets are remarkably clean -- not because
you'll get your ass paddled and wallet lightened otherwise (as in
Singapore), but because people usually actually pick up after themselves,
and sometimes even after total strangers. And large street signs ask
Sydneysiders to do even better -- not with threats or fines, and not with
empty slogans, but with (get this!) actual hard data concerning how much
waste is being produced and what better targets might be
So recreation areas actually have barbecues powered by
coin-operated propane tanks, which in the United States would be
converted by teenagers into handy high explosives in a matter of minutes,
but which sit open and unguarded here for years at a time.
I kid you
Speaking of recreation, the work-vs.-life priorities here seem
relatively sane. As an American traveling abroad, I'm constantly asked how
long I'll be staying somewhere, along with a pitying look. The two weeks
we get pales next to the four or six that are customary in most of the
developed world. (Is our way better? Maybe, if a four-percent increase in
work is worth a fifty-percent reduction in vacation time, and the extra
output isn't just lost in exhaustion...)
In any case, back in
Hollywood, it's impossible to go anywhere without seeing people working on
laptops. Work isn't just for work anymore -- it's for eating, relaxing,
and possibly sleeping time, too, if anyone figures out the appropriate
WiFi/HumanSpine interface. But here in Sydney, I promise you this is true:
I haven't seen a single person working on a laptop. Not one. Free
time, by all appearances, is actually free time. Maybe I'm missing the
backroom sweatshops where Aussie drones are fingerbashing their Toshibas in
near-sexual frenzy. But somehow I don't think so.
incredibly easy to talk to people here. Just say, "where are you from?"
Chances are, you'll hear about a part of the world you've never been. I
don't remember the exact numbers -- you can Google if you're interested --
but a hell of a lot of people here are either immigrants themselves or
their parents were. Which also means you see every variety of skin,
everywhere you look. I've read of some racial incidents, and a few locals
have uttered resentments (mostly toward the Chinese, it seems), but the
large majority of those I've spoken with seem sincerely to take great pride
in the city's multiculturalism.
And freedom of speech means
something here in a way it simply doesn't back in the States. Case in
point: John Howard, the prime minister, is by most accounts (and like many
prominent politicians, anywhere) a lying asshole. The difference: unlike
America's lying asshole, Howard has already by censured by the legislature,
and has been roundly booed several times in public appearances, including
the opening ceremony of the Rugby World Cup, where 60,000 nigh-orgasmic
rugger fans wheeled from cheering to jeering when said asshole dared to
rear his head, forcing him to stand silently for several
Can you imagine something similar in the United States,
land of the Best Free Speechiest Freedom There Is? Fuck, no. Try for
yourself. Boo Bush in public, you're hauled away by security at a minimum,
if you're lucky. At major appearances and political conventions,
protesters are shunted off to "Free Speech Zones" out of the asshole's
eyesight and earshot (and thus that of the press, which is to Bush as Jenna
Jameson is to any actor at eye-level), defeating the entire purpose of the
Which country, pray tell, is freer?
place was one speck nicer, I'd half-expect my hotel room to include the
disembodied voice greeting Number Six in The Prisoner.
actually started while passing through customs -- possibly within the very
minute I stepped off of the plane -- believe it or not. Instead of the
standard frowny-faced inkpad-banging passport-slamming
suspicious-glaremeisters I'm used to in most countries, the Aussies greeted
me with glad smiles and pleasantries. I know that sounds like nothing, but
you climb through customs on four continents and see if you're not
shocked when people call you by your first name while checking your visa
I've been wondering if maybe I'm just happy to be back in
the developed world, and thus fabulizing the ordinary. But no. It really
is different here.
A few nights ago, Leslie and I went to an outdoor
movie screening in one of Sydney's enormous beautiful public parks. I was
carrying a plastic bag with some food and books in it. So naturally, when
we got to the entry, I started fumbling between the bag and my ticket,
trying to open the bag to show the ticket-taker that I didn't have, I
dunno, a bomb or an Uzi or perhaps a Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle
hidden beneath my corn chips.
Both Leslie and the ticket-taker
looked at me, puzzled, not understanding my "see the inside of my bag?"
gesture. Oh. Um. They, uh, don't do that here. Right.
sort of this constant assumption in America -- never spoken, but
omnipresent, visible in almost every public space, if you pay attention --
that somebody, somewhere, is about to commit a crime, right this minute,
and it might even be you.
From this assumption flow a thousand
things; make your own list. But it runs directly opposite to the spirit of
the constitution, not to mention freedom itself. Maybe America was always
like that, and I just didn't notice when I was a kid while they were
teaching me a vast set of comfortable lies in school. (And unless you
learned that Columbus was genocidal, the pilgrims wore multicolored garb,
Lincoln was shot as part of a fairly large consipriacy for which several
people were hanged, etc., you were getting the lies, just like everyone
else.) Or maybe things changed. If so, I can't pinpoint when this
happened. It wasn't the aftermath of 9-11, certainly; we've all had bags
searched at public events for so long that I'm not even sure when it
But it's an amazing thing to suddenly sit in open air, free
of the assumption of guilt.
And so then Leslie were suddenly
surrounded by hundreds of other people whose bags might well have contained
Sidewinder missiles for all we knew.
And then we sat down on the
grass, ate our Predators and chips, and watched as enormous flying fox bats
circled lazily overhead.
And we watched an excellent movie --
"Japanese Story" -- in which the male hero dies pointlessly, the heroine
grieves, and nobody is redeemed in the end. In other words: a movie that
Hollywood would never consider (for nearly every American movie includes
the protagonist's redemption, usually through single-combat in the third
act), and which American audiences have been trained never to
The next morning, the TV in my hotel showed Tom Ridge
clenching his face into a smile and reassuring all of America that a) they
were about to blow up, and b) they should go about their
And -- forgive me, any reader whose sense of American
Bestness is offended; I'm just being honest with you, my only true
obligation -- the United States didn't look quite like home anymore. Not
the one I remember and have tried to believe in my whole life.
gee -- suddenly I'm in an actual nation of immigrants, one which
values equality, freedom, and the environment -- instead of a pretend one,
where civic leaders routinely utter soothing virtuous bullshit, and the
people go along because it feels a lot better than actually confronting the
serious, urgent, even deadly problems facing them.
Don't get me
wrong. I'm not saying that the air in Sydney is filled with magic flying
wallabies dropping pixie dust from their kiesters.
I haven't seen
And in a few weeks I'll be back in Los
There are friends and family I wouldn't trade for anything.
There are also things America does supremely well. (Retelling the exact
same story of redemption, for example.)
But I will miss the night
Leslie and I watched a movie in the park, and what was in my bag was my own
business, not a threat to be assessed and managed.
Finally, now that I've written this, I also realize that in
praising a place as preferable in some respects to America, I will incite
wounded anger in American readers. My inbox is about to go
I know this the way I know my name, since I've been writing
for years. I've been trying to sort out why. And this is my best
Being honest about ongoing racial troubles in South Africa or
the pollution in Bangkok gives readers the chance to feel superior, even as
they also get to feel concern.
But being honest about the incredible
beauty of Sydney Harbour, for example, doesn't let readers feel superior.
It doesn't reinforce our sense of collective national bestness, as
virtually every public utterance in America is expected to.
that we realize that, or might admit it once pointed out. Since we have
free speech and all, why, that's completely impossible.)
spot about ourselves is precisely the sort of problem America ought to be
discussing with itself right now.
But instead, I'm just gonna get
angry email from fellow Americans whose outrage should be much better
directed to improving the nation.
I don't hate America; I have loved
it all my life. And it saddens me beyond expression to see it not reach
its potential, and to feel my own ability to change its course dwarfed into
near-impotence by an onslaught of near-criminal
Sitting here, watching the grand show... like I said.
Home doesn't feel like home right now.
reponse to those words I'm surely about to get isn't exactly gonna help...