Thoughts on Australia

Posted by Arlo on Dec 11, 2007 under Postcard Valet, Thoughts On..., Travel

The Sydney Opera House

We’ve been back from Down Under for about a week and a half now, but I’ve been consistently busy catching up with work and friends.  I plan to write a lot about our experiences in the Southern hemisphere once I sort through the 2500 photos and six-and-a-half hours of video we took.  I’ve got a month off from work beginning next week, and I suspect I’ll devote some my time to that (as well as belatedly writing down any thoughts on the unnoted items in my 2007 timeline above.)  In the meantime, I’ve jotted down a few observations on our experiences in Australia:

New Words
Australia has a great collection of new words for familiar things.  Dangerous jellyfish are ‘stingers;’ the Portuguese Man-o-War is a ‘Blue Bottle.’  Saltwater crocodiles are ‘Salties,’ which I think is a dangerously precocious name (like calling a grisly bear ‘Teddy.’)  I could probably sit down and think of a dozen more I picked up, but the only ones that come to mind right now are the decidedly British ‘rubbish bins,’ ‘fish and chips,’ and ‘lifts.’

How Ya Goin’, Mate?
“G’day, mate.  How ya goin’?”

He’s a mate, she’s a mate, everyone can be a mate!  I knew that Aussies said ‘mate’ a lot.  What I didn’t realize was that mate is gender agnostic. Which makes sense, really.  My mate is a girl.

I got used to mate, but “How ya goin’?” always sounded like someone couldn’t decide between “How ya doin’?” and “How’s it goin’?”

The Weather
I already mentioned that ‘Partly Cloudy’ is ‘Mostly Fine’ down under.   I think that’s a wonderful example of cup-is-half-full optimism.

I also like that when the weatherman or weatherwoman (weathermate?) mentions how high the mercury might climb.  That’s ‘tops.’

“It’s currently 25 degrees in Sydney, with a tops today of 29.”

Today's Weather in Sydney

Good On You
When an Aussie wants to acknowledge that you’ve done a good job, he or she might say, “Goodonya!”  For example, a professional crocodile keeper, discussing the unlikelihood of being able to use the recommended escape plan from a saltwater crocodile that already has a part of you clamped down:

“I reckon there’s a few things you can try. The first of those is you grab a stick and you shove that down the throat of the crocodile. The theory behind why that will work for you is crocodiles have this flap of skin that covers their throat. If you’ve seen a crocodile up on the bank with its mouth open, you notice you can’t see down its throat? That’s that flap of skin. Now the purpose of that is that when they’re under the water, that’s always closed. Just stops all the water rushing into his system that might potentially drown him. So if you grab a stick then – if you don’t have a stick: your arm, your leg, your mate, whatever you can got a hold of there – and you get it down past that valve… when the crocodile takes you into the water, the valve is open, water rushes in, he panics, thinks he’s gonna drown, he lets you go.

And if you’ve got the presence of mind to grab a stick… wedge it between the crocodile’s teeth… down his throat… all while he’s got a hold of you, in the water, doing the death roll…


Good on ya, mate!

Bart vs. the Crocodile Keeper

If you’re an American, forget about driving in Australia.  I consider myself an adventurous guy; I wouldn’t shy away from bungee jumping, skydiving, or swimming with sharks, but I draw the line at driving in Sydney.  It’s not just the plethora of one-way streets, turnabouts, and high-speed traffic.  They actually drive on the wrong side of the road down there!

Even if I could get used to some counter-intuitive road rules — left turn on red after stop? — I doubt I could handle driving from the passenger seat of a car.  Turn signal on the right side of the wheel?  Crazy talk.

After traveling much of Latin America, I can sit beside a frantic Mexican taxi driver without batting an eye, so when I experienced a strange sense of unease whenever we were being driven around by a comparatively sedate Aussie, I was perplexed.  Upon reflection, I think it was because at every intersection, our driver would turn towards what my subconscious intuitively felt was oncoming traffic.

Alaska really plays in Australia.  Whenever we mentioned where we were from, we got much more than the familiar “Ooo!  It’s cold up there, isn’t it?”  We fielded educated questions about the northern lights, bears and whales, summer sunlight and winter darkness.

One girl, stumbling over the words to express her amazement, finally just reached out and touched my arm and said, “Wow.”

No Worries
If you thank an Aussie for something, they’ll very rarely say “You’re welcome.”  Instead, it’s “No worries.”  Actually, it’s more like “nahworees.”

I couldn’t tell you if the word ‘while’ has been completely removed from Australian English or not, because the word is so familiar that I doubt I’d notice it in normal conversation.  But every time someone said ‘whilst’ (which was often) my ears perked up.

The Coriolis Effect
Whilst many people mistakenly believe that the Coriolis Effect (the different effects the Earth’s rotation has on clouds, wind, and large bodies of water in the Northern and Southern hemispheres) makes all the toilets in Australia flush backwards, in point of fact, it has a much stranger effect.

In America, when pedestrians cross paths on a sidewalk, they tend to gravitate to the right.  In Australia, the Coriolis Effect pulls everyone to the left.  Apparently, Oksana and I were able to resist this force and thus often found ourselves on the wrong side of the sidewalk, fighting against a tide of Australian pedestrians, like salmon swimming upstream.

Toilets and Outlets
Every toilet has two flushes in Australia, big flush and little flush. That was pretty cool, and smart for water saving, too.
Also, every electricity outlet had its own power switch mounted right next to it. I think that could be rather useful, especially considering how I ran around unplugging all the electronics in our home before leaving for this vacation.

Power Outlets and Switches

The Devaluing of the American Dollar
This is the first time I’ve really noticed the impact of the falling U.S. dollar.  Holy cow is this ever a problem for Americans that travel abroad.

At first, we didn’t realize the full effect.  We figured that since 1 U.S. dollar bought us $1.10 Australian dollars, we were, in effect, getting a 10% discount on everything.  Not so.

Prices in Australia just felt more expensive.  A$250 each for a 3-hour sunset bridge climb.  A$150 each for a 2-hour tour of the Sydney Opera House.  A$67 each for a 1/2 day visit to a crocodile farm.  A$60 for a good (but not fancy) dinner.  Up to A$4 for a Diet Coke from a vending machine!

If a Diet Coke is $4, that’s still US$3.60 with the 10% discount, so Australia must be crazy-expensive, right?  Well, not necessarily. What if the average Aussie income is something like A$60,000 a year?

Here’s my “I’ve only taken one Economics class in college and it wasn’t even Macro” theory:  Australia’s prices were essentially set years ago, when our dollar was much stronger.  As the U.S. dollar has declined, Australia’s dollar has remained the same, at least in relation to their own products.  More importantly, the average Australian’s income has remained the same.  So whilst the value of a Diet Coke has remained the same for them over the last few years, to us the cost of a nice, cool soda -pop has been inching upwards — even though the price tag itself has remained the same.

Does that make any sense? Ah, who cares.

The flip side is great for Australians.  When they come to the U.S., they only get 90 cents for their dollar, in effect losing 10% of their money… but a Diet Coke is only half the price they’re used to!  Ballpark it as net value gain of 40%.

Sydney Bridge Climb

Duty Free
Duty Free shops are huge in Australia, or at least in their airports.  Not only do Qantas flight attendants walk up and down the aisle with catalogs full of duty free items you can drop cash on, but the Sydney airport gives way too much prominence to their duty free stores.  Get this:  In the international terminal, when you exit your plane you go through Immigration and Customs.  No worries, that’s normal, right?  Well, before you can get to the airport proper, you are forced through a duty free shop.  Seriously, there’s no way around it.  The single hallway funnels you into a store and the only way out is to pass aisles and aisles of perfume, alcohol, and electronics.  If you can avoid the impulse buys, you can exit the duty free store — all your baggage in tow — by the checkout counters.

On your way home, as you leave Australia?  You literally can’t get to your gate without passing through another store.  And yes, to answer your question, they got us for about a kilo of licorice and a box of cookies.  But at least we didn’t pay a duty!

Second Person Plural
American English doesn’t really use the second-person-plural form.  We say ‘you’ for the singular, and, well, maybe ‘you,’ or ‘you all’ (‘y’all’ if you’re from the South) for the plural.  I heard  at least two people in Australia refer to Oksana and I together as ‘yous.’  Hey, that’s easy.  Make it plural by sticking an ‘S’ on the end!

In Australia’s defense, at least one of the people who consistently used ‘yous’ told me he was originally from New Zealand.  Could be a Kiwi thing.

Small portions
Everyone knows that America has a problem with obesity.  I think I know why.  Our portions are huge compared to Australia’s!  As one of the lucky Americans with a high metabolism, I felt decidedly unlucky at mealtime in Australia.  I’m hungry, dammit, give me more food!

One time, whist the rain and fog over Katoomba kept us in our hotel room, Oksana and I decided to order a pizza from Dominos.

“One large pizza please.”

“We only have one size.”

“Oh.  Okay.  Well, we’ll have one of those then.  Oh, do you have Chicken Kickers?”

“Yes, we do.”

“Okay, add an order of those, too.  Thanks.”

When our food arrived, it would have been comical if we weren’t hungry.  We paid $35 for a pizza that was smaller than the smallest U.S. Dominos pie, plus five tiny Chicken Kickers that were actually smaller than McDonald’s McNuggets.

Speaking of McDonald’s, I once asked for their largest Diet Coke.  In the U.S., that would surely have been a bladder-busting 32 or 48oz drink.  In Australia, the biggest size I could get was equivalent to our own medium-sized cup.  (Plus, it was $2.75, easily more than twice the price of a U.S. McDonald’s medium drink.)

If you can, compare the size of the pizza to the can of Coke Zero

The McOz
I’ve eaten at a McDonald’s in every country I’ve traveled to except one: Cuba.  That noble list includes the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela, Costa Rica, the U.S. Virgin Islands (kinda cheating, I know), the U.K., the Netherlands, Russia, and now Australia.  Almost every one has a specialty item that isn’t available in other countries.  For instance, in Mexico it was the McNifica.  Amsterdam had an enormous burger — kilo-for-kilo, heavier than Alaska’s own McKinley Mac, I’d bet — but I forget what it was called.  I remember it as the McBrick.

In addition to some other things I’d never seen before (like tick rolls), the Australian McDonald’s had the McOz.  I didn’t look too closely at the menu, I just wanted to try one.  One bite was enough. I peeled back the bun for a peek. Inside was a big, circular slab of beet.  Bleh.  Good thing Oksana likes beets on her tick rolls.

The Internet
For a first world country, Australia has a frustrating lack of easy internet access for the wayward traveler.  That’s not to say you can’t find a place to check your e-mail; there are internet cafes all over the place.  It just means it’ll cost you a pretty penny.

Deals ranged widely, depending on where you were, but it wasn’t uncommon to find places charging you $1 every 10 minutes.  I think the best deal we found was $2.50 for an hour, but those computers were so locked down (not atypical in the public-access internet spots), that we couldn’t use our flash drives, nor even open any application other than a crippled web browser.

Even hotels delighted in gouging your wallet for internet access.  The Rydges Tradewinds in Cairnes, which we payed about $140 per night, wanted another $20 per day for an Ethernet connection in the room.  They had terminals in the lobby, but those were close to $10 per hour.  Covering all the bases, they had wireless access in the lobby, too, for travelers like us with laptops.  That was $8 per hour.  Thanks, but no thanks.

We couldn’t even find any open wifi hotspots.  Oh, there are plenty of hotspots out there, but it seemed like the vast majority were locked down behind WEP passwords.  One pleasantly open exception:  The Sydney International Airport terminal.

Our internet access, when we could afford to pay for it, was never particularly slow, so I suspect that most places have decent broadband connections.  I suspect the reason for the high prices and aggressive security is based on the cost an owner has to pay.  Most ISPs in the U.S. bill by the month and either put a bandwidth cap in place, or just turn you lose with unlimited downloads.  On the other hand, a typical plan in Russia, for instance, is for the ISPs to bill for the bandwidth you actually use.  A customer that downloads 1 gigabyte a month will pay 1000 times as much as the customer that only downloads 1 megabyte a month.  If Australia’s ISPs are more like Russia’s that’d explain the high prices.

We were in Australia for their national elections.  “World Class Broadband Access” was a campaign item for one of the parties.  Perhaps the country as a whole will be moving into the 21st century soon.

Or perhaps the internet is fine down there and it’s just our devalued American dollar that’s the problem.