Bob's travel journal

Bob's travel journal

Please send feedback on these entries to Bob , not to Tom.

Sydney: like a Prisoner episode, but better


First, an aside:

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.

It's a 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 people.

So I spent a few days trying to keep an enlightened worldview about my own intestines attempting to secede from my union.

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 mine aloone.

But now, back to the travel-o-rama, specifically, Sydney:

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.)

(Those under 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 days.)

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 States.

That's not quite as nice a feeling as it sounds.

How's this for a first impression? Taking a cab from the airport, right away I noticed something missing: the inch-thick bulletproof glass.

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.

I didn't, actually. But still. How odd. How... trusting.

How nice.

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 on.)

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.:

It's 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.

This is probably a lot harder for Americans, given our national state of self-persuaded perpetual universal bestness, than it is for folks from other countries.

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 still.)

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.

How naive.

Moreover, the idea of a collective good is still considered, yes, a collective good.

Imagine.

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 all.

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 billboards.

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 achieved.

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 not.

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.

It's also 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 moments.

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 first amendment.

Which country, pray tell, is freer?

If this place was one speck nicer, I'd half-expect my hotel room to include the disembodied voice greeting Number Six in The Prisoner.

It 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 status.

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.

There's 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 started.

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 embrace.

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 business.

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.

So 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 them, anyway...

And in a few weeks I'll be back in Los Angeles.

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.

One last thing.

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 apeshit.

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 guess:

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.

(Not that we realize that, or might admit it once pointed out. Since we have free speech and all, why, that's completely impossible.)

This blind 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 mindlessness.

Sitting here, watching the grand show... like I said. Home doesn't feel like home right now.

And the reponse to those words I'm surely about to get isn't exactly gonna help...