For the first time since 1999, 15 years ago, I returned down under to Australia. Way back in ’99 I spent 6 months in the city of Newcastle studying at the university there. Since leaving before the calendar flipped over to 2000, I headed back to the Kangaroo Kingdom.
Before being able to actually get to Australia, I enjoyed one last “F you, TOURIST MAN!” from the third world. My flight out of Bali was at the main airport on the island, which was roughly 7 miles from my hotel. No problem, I figured. Surely it shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes to go that 7 mile stretch. Oh how wrong I was. First, I had to play the negotiating game with the taxi drivers, who were some of the more annoying negotiators to deal with. We agreed on a price of $100k rupiah (about $9) and headed to the taxi. Before even getting in, he tried to squeeze another $50k out of me. Ugh. I agreed to give him another $10k. Then he told me there was a lot of traffic and it might take an hour to get to the airport. Thankfully I had given myself enough time, but it was still not great news.
The car started driving and there was instant gridlock as soon as we got on the road. It turned out that tonight was a national holiday (yay!) so there were way more cars on the road. The snail pace let up for a few minutes, but then completely stopped a few miles from the airport. I didn’t have internet, but the GPS in my phone was working so I was checking our location roughly every .0001 seconds. The cabbie kept complaining “UGH THIS DRIVE FOR ONLY ONE HUNDRED I AM AN IDIOT,” or something to that effect, to mostly to make me feel sympathy for him. When we were stopped in some crazy slow traffic, he said it might take 2 more hours. 2 HOURS!!? We are less than 3 miles from the airport! Looking back, I am not sure if this was to scare me and/ or squeeze more money out of me.
Thankfully once we passed a stop light (a rarity in these parts) the traffic dissipated completely and we were able to drive relatively traffic free the final few miles to the airport. It took almost exactly an hour to go 7 miles, pretty much what the taxi man had said prior to us leaving. I offered him $120k, and he claimed to have no change, so my total was $135k instead. This had to be a total lie (a taxi driver doesn’t have ANY change?), but I didn’t want to spend time fighting this guy over another $2 so I relented and went to check in. Making sure I got on my flight to Australia was a much larger priority than arguing with the money squeezing taxi over a few bucks. I figured it was my final Tourist Tax in the third world. Getting tourist taxed and squeezed for money will not be something that is missed when I am comfortably in the first world again.
After successfully checking in, getting through customs, and making it through security I got to my gate. All the late night flights must have been heading to Australia because I was completely surrounded by Aussies. It was the first time in months I was in an airport with mostly white people instead of almost all Asians. Before actually getting to board my flight, I learned that the security at the Bali airport (at least for this flight) was turned up to a million, as there was a second security check AT the gate. I wasn’t even able to bring the water and beer I had JUST purchased seconds ago from one of the airport kiosks. I was annoyed, but I was definitely not going to let a perfectly good beer and water go to waste, so both were consumed in their entirety.
Finally, after jumping through the airport hoops and dealing with some Indonesian “efficiency” (translated: extremely inefficient), I found my seat and was officially on a plane to Australia. My neighbor for the flight showed up, and was a large, loud Aussie in his late 60s. He was as Australian as anyone could be: loud, funny, extremely thick accent, constantly talking. Unfortunately he was a large man, which meant his arms were constantly spilling over the arm rest into my seat and his legs needed a wide berth, again encroaching into my already cramped personal space. His sense of humor and good attitude made up for his overconsumption of airplane real estate. After joking with his friends and stewardesses for awhile, he leaned over to me and loudly proclaimed “John’s the name!”
Before the plane took off, we did a slow taxi down the runway. John said in his thick Aussie accent “I think we’re gonna drive to Sydney.” This got a nice laugh out of me. His best joke came when we were airborne, sometime in the middle of the flight, when we ran into some turbulence. Without hesitation (perhaps because he has used this joke a few thousand times before), John said “I think we hit a coupl’a potholes.” I still laugh thinking about him saying that in his most thick of accents.
Once I landed, cleared customs and grabbed my bag I got picked up by my local Aussie friend, a girl I dated way back in ’99. We have remained friends ever since my time in Australia, so I was happy to spend a few weeks with her as well as have a local tour guide and host. Instantly it was really weird to be back in this country where I lived for six months, albeit a decade and a half ago (which was very weird by itself). It definitely didn’t FEEL like 15 years had passed. It seems like I was just wandering around down under a few months or years ago. When I landed, Australia was in the middle of winter, so neither my wardrobe or tropical warmed blood were ready for the cold. Winter down under is really mild, but still significantly colder than my previous three months in Thailand and Indonesia. I had to upgrade my clothing with a $7 thermal from Target and a borrowed jacket to ensure I didn’t freeze to death.
I’m not sure if it was the switch from tropical-and-hot to dry-and-cold or if I caught something on my flight from Bali, but I got sick for the first time on this trip. It was a pretty standard “sore throat to cough to runny nose to headache to congestion” run of the mill cold. Thankfully it was the first time I had gotten sick at all, save for a mild bout of food poisoning way back in Lake Toba several months ago. I really did get lucky with my lack of sickness/ food poisoning during my entire trip. One cold at the end, while not fun, was a small price to pay for nearly four months living in foreign lands and eating countless meals of street food.
After spending several month in Southeast Asia, certain things from Australia were much more noticeable than if I had come straight from the United States. Everyone had a smartphone, and they were constantly staring at their devices (this was also extremely common in Singapore). There aren’t many people in Indonesia that owned any sort of smart phone/ tablet, so there was little to no staring at the communication device in their hand. Australia is almost all white people, which was obvious as soon as I got on the flight from Bali. The countries of Southeast Asia were not very diverse in terms of human population, but most everyone was Asian as opposed to white. A nation of mostly white people also meant a lot of fat white people. Australia has a ways to go before they can equal the obesity level of the United States, but average waistlines in the Kangaroo Kingdom were still significantly larger than the much smaller people living in Thailand and Indonesia.
Australians also have what is probably my favorite accent in the world, so it wins in that category. News broadcasts, children talking, conversations on a bus, and sports announcers were all 1,000% funnier and more enjoyable because of their sweet Aussie accents.
The last few weeks down under was great, highlighted with a variety of different activities in the southeast of the country. I attended a National Rugby League game, the Manly Sea Eagles vs the Brisbane Broncos. This is the highest level of Rugby League in the country, and the Friday night game was well attended. The Brookvale Oval, where the Sea Eagles play, is not that big, holding roughly 17,000 human spectators. What I noticed the most from being at the game was that the crowd was really mellow, rarely yelling or cheering. There were claps when the home team scored, but it was nothing like I am used to at sporting events in the States.
One of my favorite excursions was when my gracious host/ tour guide Kim took me to the Blue Mountain National Park. The area was stunning, featuring rock cliffs and and a seemingly endless green valley going off into the distance. Our hike was cut right into those rock cliffs, which was incredible. It was beautiful and nothing like any other hike I had done before. I was constantly impressed with both the amazing view as well as the work that must have gone into making this hiking trail hundreds of feet above the valley floor.
Kim also took me to her family’s house in Forster (pronounced Fosta), located about four hours north of Sydney. The house had amazing ocean views, which was a nice way to spend an afternoon with a cold beer. Speaking of beer, Kim had taken me to a Dan Murphy’s (large chain liquor store), and the selection of beer nearly exploded my brain. In Indonesia, the selection of beer is often “large Bintang or small Bintang,” which would be the equivalent of “large Bud Light or small Bud Light.” Not exactly a robust selection. At Dan Murphy’s, they had hundreds of different beers. IPAs, Pale Ales, Belgian Ales. It was hard to narrow down my selection. The main problem I had with Aussie beers is that they were goddamn expensive. A decent six-pack was at least $24, so not exactly budget friendly.
The rest of the stay in Forster was nice and relaxing, since the area was far enough away from Sydney to be free from any sort of crowds. After leaving Forster, we headed to Newcastle, which was the city I where I lived, going to the university there. Kim drove me though the campus, which brought back a flood of memories. We drove through downtown, which has both changed dramatically and remained nearly the same. Large apartment complexes have sprung up, but other streets were nearly identical to when I left 15 years ago.
Then we went and visited two of my old university friends who were living in Newcastle. It was incredible to spend some time with guys I had drank beers and laughed with a decade-and-a-half ago. Even though we hadn’t seen each other or spoken that whole time, it was like we had just seen each other last week, which is often what it feels like when there is a reunion with good friends. The group of us went to a local restaurant overlooking the ocean for some food, beers and lots of laughs. It was amazing to be able to spend time with Australian friends I had made back when I was a 20 year old youngster. Before leaving Newcastle, we all looked through photos from my semester at the university which of course brought on a monster pile of memories as well as huge laughs.
My flight back home is tomorrow, meaning this incredible journey has officially come to an end. I am ready for it to be over, ready to return to the States and have a more predictable schedule for awhile. The two weeks in Australia was wonderful and a great final stop of the Ring of Fire World Tour. I hope I return down under before I am 50 in 2029. Holy shit that makes me feel old.