As with the vacation itself, you have to get through the boring and sometimes painful preliminaries before you can get started with the interesting stuff. Fortunately for you, this will not last over a day, and you won’t be confined to a cramped seat bumping elbows with the unfortunates strapped in next to you.
We took Alaska from Seattle to LA. I’ve found Alaska to be the best domestic airline on the routes I fly regularly, and it’s still bad. But I’ve flown enough now that a three hour flight is a cakewalk, and it passes quickly. Then in LA, I have to find the Air New Zealand counter. This is made more difficult because LAX has several huge, entirely separate terminals, and it’s a decent hike between them, and because asking anyone in LAX where you need to go – because this is often not clear – will result in you going in entirely the wrong direction. It’s like being in a logic puzzle with the lying natives: “You must walk to one of three terminals to check in for your next flight, and only have time to ask one question. Some people will lie, while others are morons and do not know the correct answer…”
Air New Zealand is not located in the international terminal, by the way. They’re at Terminal 1. Just file that away, it might be useful sometime. At the Air New Zealand counter, a huge guy who looks eerily like former pitcher Freddy Garcia abused a ticket agent over some seating slight at length. Later, when I got into Brisbane, I looked up baseball news to see if Garcia’d disappeared from the White Sox, or otherwise headed to Auckland for some reason.
Air New Zealand is a nice enough airline. The seats are fairly roomy, but they’re still not for me. I’m tall and disproportionately torso. Most airplane headrests dig into my lower shoulderblades. Anyway, the flight is amazingly long and even though ANZ is pretty good, by the time we get to Auckland I’m in bad shape, my muscles all whacked out, I’m dehydrated, and I have the sensation that I’m still moving if I stop, so I spend my time walking around the Auckland international terminal.
Which brings me to the funny bit. In Auckland, Air New Zealand’s announcements have a touch of humor to them, like “Would passenger Jones please report to gate 3. Your flight has boarded and all other passengers are waiting on yooooouuuuuuuu.”
This would sometimes prompts passenger Jones to go tearing down the hall.
Then we flew into Brisbane for customs.
Folks, don’t dress like stoner snowboarders on international flights unless you want to be questioned and searched thoroughly. It may not be fair, or just, but it’s still not something you want to do. There were two guys who went through Australian customs with us, and the cops picked these two out almost from the time they stepped off the plane. I don’t think there was ever a point where the two guys didn’t have at least two pairs of eyes on them, and as they approached the counters for processing, they got their own suited guy standing a ways off trying to look casual. After they were let through, they got to have a second, special chat with the guy in the suit.
To Brisbane, though.
We stayed in downtown Brisbane, and it’s beautiful. There’s a river it’s built on and alongside, with parks large and small, long walking and biking paths, and downtown is filled with cafes and food courts that all seem to serve good food fairly cheap.
Brisbane is booming. Even beyond the suburbs, I counted eight of the huge super-cranes in the greater downtown area. As an informal measure of construction, that’s huge… I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many in downtown Seattle, for example.
We walked around Brisbane and went to different musuems. There’s a different perspective in Australian museums than American ones, which comes through in a couple of ways:
– displays tended to be a little gorier. A lot more real animals preserved
– that gore was often used to an end, showing animals caught up in barbed wire fences or threatened by other human activity
It was strange, too, to see museums that accepted global warming and talked about what was happening now to the Australian environment and what would happen in the future.
We immediately took to ginger beer. Ginger beer is like root beer except with ginger. It’s like ginger ale if you used twice as much ginger. When it’s good, it’s sweet and bitter, with a biting aftertaste and then it burns a little in the stomach. Brandenberg was the brand we found fairly consistently, but it was this crazy Tasmanian stuff I got all twitchy over: it seemed 50% more gingery than even the normal, super-ginger ginger beer.
It was also strange to see an ibis hanging out in the city, and wacky lizards fighting in the botanical gardens. There are gulls and pigeons, but also magpies and crazy Australian natural wildlife that hasn’t given up yet.
Brisbane was also great because it had so many food courts and cafes. Every time we were walking around, we’d stop in someplace randomly and we’d get a great sandwich, or salad, or fish and chips for a couple bucks. Which brings us to eating.
Pizza was far, far more rare than I’d expected. When I found it, it was almost always at a “pizza and kabobs” place. I have no idea why pizza was so frequently paired with kabobs. In general, the food was good but (as some people complain) generally not spicy. You can get spicy if you want, without much trouble. So while I understand why people might complain that it’s too bland, I’m not sympathetic.
We went to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. I geeked out over all the interesting birds and animals (koalas are cute, cure, but they sleep all the time and are boring). They have a “Birds of Prey” show with Australian owls and even a huge eagle, which are rehabbing for a return to the wild or, because of damage (hit by a car, shot by moron), who are going to hang out forever. The owls are amazing — it’s eerie to have an owl go by your head, entirely silent.
We went hiking in one of the rainforests near Brisbane (which, and don’t say this to be mean, was about as dense-with-life as your normal western Washington forest). This was disconcerting. I’ve spent a lot of my time hiking around forests, mostly here but also Oregon, California, and Alaska, and to hear all foreign birdsongs, standing in entirely alien trees, gave me the goosebumps. It’s one thing to know that figs sometimes grow down from the top layer, twisting as it descends around a host tree until the host chokes and rots, leaving a hollow center. It’s another to stare at one, fifty feet around, with a gaping hole you could crawl into… and then spotting the curling tendrils of other firs growing down around other trees.
And then there’s a wild cockatoo giving me the stink-eye while gnawing on something… Australia is like crack for a nature geek like me.
We also took the City Cat (big passenger catamaran) up and down the river. Every Australian city we were in of any size had really good public transit on the cheap, with multiple transit options (bus/train/subway/ferry/jet pack) along with special tourist buses that regularly circled the city, so people could get on and off to see things.
The language barrier comes up sometimes. Everyone understands us perfectly, in part because American TV shows air every night. But sometimes people say things in such a heavy accent that we’d look at each other to see if the other puzzled it out, and then say “I’m sorry?” Sometimes that didn’t help. A bartender told me how much a beer was three times and I had absolutely no idea what he was telling me until I saw the price he’d rung up (five forty).
Everyone in Brisbane was awesome. People were almost entirely so warm and friendly it was great. People were helpful, interested in talking — even when I’d screw up something (do I buy bus tickets here…) people would grin or laugh and I’d get a “no worries”. By the end of the week I felt for the first time I can remember that it’s possible that my almost nuclear anti-social streak might be due in part to me growing up and living in a city legendary for being polite but unfriendly. I’m still wondering.
There were a couple things I noticed reading the papers and watching the news in Brisbane that were confirmed through the rest of my time in Australia.
– Political discourse in Australia was far different. Even though this Latham guy put out his diaries while we were down there, filled with personal attacks on different people he’d come across in his political career, by and large politics were absent of the personal. We’re so used to the kind of scorched-earth politics, particularly in the rise of Rove, that not seeing it was strange.
You could be for or against something without being for or against the terrorists. Which brings me to another thing.
– Patriotism wasn’t a big deal. Not that many buildings had big Australian flags at the top. People didn’t wear Australian flag T-shirts, or in general any Australian logo-with-boastful-slogan at all.
Since getting back, I’ve talked to a lot of people at work, particularly those who’ve spent a lot of time overseas, and they agreed that the abrasive, flexing patriotism (“aggressive” one guy called it) was a particularly American phenomenon.
I think a lot of this has to do with the parlimentary system. There aren’t two sides in Australian politics: there’s a point on the specturm for reasoned discourse on almost any national topic.
Which doesn’t stop them from being a little irrational sometimes (their treatment of asylum-seekers is shocking for a civilized nation — but then, I live in the U.S., where our President said it was okay to torture people).
The other big thing that struck me, and I know this sounds perhaps petty, was that there were no Bud or Coors signs. We live and work under such immense brand pressure from constant advertising that not being under it is mentally unsettling. I didn’t see a Bud ad until the last day, when I watched a MLB game on TV and there was an in-game ad. Australia has advertisements, certainly, and in all the same forms we do. But because I didn’t know anything about them, they weren’t part of the background in the same way omnipresent brands in the US are for me.
Next up: Cairns, Lizard Island, Port Douglas, and points beyond.