Thursday, September 30, 2010

Shark or Harpoon?

August 17th was set to be a big news day here in Australia.  The country was just days away from the major election that had been dominating the media for weeks and massive floods were devastating Pakistan.  On top of those two major headlines, there was a flare up around the Gaza border, a local toddler was kidnapped in a carjacking prompting the local version of an Amber Alert to be issued, and a major factory fire on the outskirts of Sydney was threatening to burn down an entire suburb.  But all of this was completely ignored the instant that a breaking news story popped up:


That’s right.  The political fate of the nation, thousands of dying Pakistanis, and the imminent fiery destruction of an entire suburb all became irrelevant thanks to a shark.  A surfer near the Margaret River area of Western Australia was attacked by a shark in the early morning hours.  Locals rescued the man and tried to keep him alive, but their efforts proved unsuccessful.  Not to make light of the situation, and not to disrespect the poor soul who lost his life to a sea beast, but it captivated me just how captivated the whole country was with this story.

You think about Australian beaches as hotbeds of shark activity – with those ominous fins poking out of the water at every beach in Australia nearly every day of the year.  But, seven months after I arrived, this was the first shark attack that I had seen make the news.  The shark attack was the headline of every major Australian newspaper and internet news site and was the top story on every TV news program for the next 48 hours.  Even my co-workers were talking about it all day – refreshing Sydney Morning Herald’s website every once in a while for an update.  It struck me as odd that this was such a big deal for people in a country where this was assumed to be commonplace.

But it was a big deal.  I looked up some statistics on this.  And by statistics, I mean Wikipedia… and a few other websites as well.  Maybe.  It seems our minds are a bit warped on just how dangerous sharks are or how frequently (or rather infrequently) shark attacks occur.  Yes, sharks can be very dangerous, but the severity of the problem is really just an exaggerated myth.  Australia’s shark-infested waters actually give rise to fewer shark attacks than in the USA each year, though Australia is ranked #2.  In Australia’s defense, have you seen the length of the coastline here?  That being said, very few people actually die from shark attacks – only a handful per year and those aren’t very often in developed countries like the USA or Australia.  You’re much more likely to get killed by lightning or run down by an Asian, elderly, teenage, drunk, or female driver.

Who said that?

Hell, you’re several thousand times more likely to simply drown than be killed by a shark.  So really, you should brush up on your swimming skills.  This turned out to be quite a rare event after all and that’s probably one of the contributing reasons why it caught the attention and the hearts of the nation.  You don’t hear about every death from a drive-by shooting in Compton because it’s commonplace.  But this was rare and, more importantly, it touched on the fears that we all have thanks to movies like Jaws and Deep Blue Sea.

Good work, LL Cool J.

Experts in this field said that seals were seen in the area that day, and the shark probably mistook the surfer for a seal.  Just a week or so later, a heavy-set Serbian tourist was swimming in the waters off Montenegro when a local mistook her for a big fat whale and harpooned her.  Don’t believe me?

It’s not just sharks that you need to beware of at the beach.  It’s Montenegrins too.  They should make a Jaws-style movie about that.

Just to be safe, I’ll stay out of the water for a while.  At least until I hit up the gym a bit more regularly.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Power Ranga: Part 3 of 3

Now, maybe my last post was all wrong.  I don’t know.  I’m sure Jason or Ross or Jonathon will try to correct me the next time I see them, but really, this is probably a much better explanation of how it works than you could get out of 99.9% of the Australian populous, with the remaining, knowledgeable .1% being politicians or the people who work for them.

So, what happened this election?  Well, it came down to this:  Homophobe vs. The Ranga.

First off - just in case you were wondering - “ranga” is a word that Aussies use to describe red-heads.  It’s sort of like “ginger” in the States.  I digress.  As I mentioned back in July, the party in power – the Labor Party – decided to have a mutiny and take down then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in favor of a new voice for the party – a voice with red hair, a slight Welsh accent, and a hairdresser boyfriend who she’s living in sin with.  Julia Gillard became the first female Prime Minister of Australia and called an election shortly thereafter.  While she was polling high to begin with, her lead slipped away as that fucking homophobe Tony Abbott of the Liberal Party made attack after attack at the little red-headed lady.  Did I mention that Tony Abbott said some stupid shit about gays back in March?  Well, he did.  And he’s a idiot for saying – or even thinking - it.  Why are people even listening to this jackass?

Anyway, election day was sure to be close as the polls leading up to the event showed a neck and neck race.  And you know what happened?

They basically tied.

Great.  What do we do now?  Well, nobody seemed to know.  It was the first hung Parliament since 1940.  Labor and the Liberal/National “Coalition” won 72 seats each - both short of the 76 seat majority needed to assume leadership.  The “balance of power” – as the media frenzy called it – rested in the hands of 4 independent candidates, 1 candidate representing The Greens, and 1 representing the National Party of Western Australia, which is apparently different than the National Party in the other states.  WTF?  After several weeks of Ms. Gillard and Mr. Abbott racing around trying to meet the demands of the independents – just pandering for their support – the remaining six candidates all finally declared their support in a big hoopla of a television conference last week.  The Greens candidate and 3 of the independents declared support for Labor and one of the independents and that dude from Western Australia foolishly declared their support for the Liberals.

So, the ranga gets to stay in power and officially becomes Australia’s first elected female Prime Minster.  Phew!  Can you imagine a stunt like this being pulled in the U.S.?  With a few people holding the fate of the nation in their hands?

Oh yeah.  That happened in Florida in 2000.

And we see how well that turned out.  Crikey!

And just for kicks, while the media was covering the election non-stop and most Aussies were starting to get annoyed, somewhere in Sydney or Melbourne, a clever employee at an advertising agency came up with this as a better way to cover the hung Parliament…

And that’s why Durex is the world’s #1 condom brand.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Power Ranga: Part 2 of 3

As I mentioned in the last post, every person I’ve asked has given me a different explanation of how the election works.  Most were completely off, but I’ve managed to put it all together by taking bits and pieces of everyone’s explanations coupled with news stories and the somewhat complicated yet informative description I found on (none other than) Wikipedia.

Maybe you Aussies reading this should pay close attention.

And take notes.

Here’s the skinny:

Just like in the U.S., there are two houses of the legislature – the House of Representatives (the lower house) and the Senate (the upper house) – except they don’t call it Congress, they call it Parliament like they do in England, and they elect their Prime Minister from the House of Representative rather than have a completely separate executive branch of government.  Therefore, if the Aussie system was implemented in the States, Nancy Pelosi would become President.

I’d dig that.

So, there are 150 constituencies (electoral districts) in Australia and each one gets a seat in the House of Representatives – just like in the U.S.  Then, the majority party forms a government and elects the leader of the party as Prime Minister.  And then the Prime Minister forms the cabinet and so on and so forth.  But here’s the cool part:  they have preferential voting – you get to rank the candidates – and that helps to give third parties and other minor parties a bit of a voice.  For example, in the States, I’d be throwing away a vote if I wanted to vote for the Australian Sex Party - a real party founded by the CEO of Australia’s national adult retail and entertainment association - because there would be no chance that the Australian Sex Party would win a district.  (Just to clarify, the party isn’t pro-sex, but they are advocates for better sex-education and gay rights and such)  But here, you can rank your candidates, so I’d do: (1) Australian Sex Party – so that I could give them support and help increase their numbers and increase awareness and help their cause - but then when they didn’t garner enough votes for a seat, my vote would switch to my second preference: (2) The Greens.  Then, when the Greens gave a good effort and came in 3rd place, my vote would swing to my next preference: (3) Australian Labor Party.  This would happen until there are only two candidates/parties left and whoever has the most preferences takes the seat.  This is usually a candidate from one of the two major parties, but you will sometimes find the Greens or an independent candidate take a seat in the lower house.

I guess this would be a good time to chat about the actual political parties.  There are two major parties:  (1) the Australian Labor Party and (2) The Liberal Party of Australia.  Labor is the Australian equivalent of the Democrats – a center-left party.  The Liberal Party – contrary to its name – is actually quite conservative and is the Australian equivalent of those blood-sucking vampire Republicans on the center-right.  They call it “Liberal” just to confuse us.  Then you have the next two major parties:  (3) The Greens and (4) The National Party.  The Greens are left – part tree-hugging hippie and part really good ideas.  The Nationals are more rural and very conservative and always form a coalition with the Liberal Party.  Then you have your fringe parties:  Family First (evangelical fucktards who can sit on it and rotate), the Australian Sex Party (who would probably be happy to sit on it and rotate), and various other small parties representing particular interests.  Some of these parties actually win seats from time to time, especially at the state level.  Currently in South Australia, the Dignity for Disability Party has one seat in the State Senate.  I think it’s refreshing that a party with a platform of rights for the disabled can garner enough votes to win a seat.  That would never happen in the U.S.  With the good, of course, comes the bad.  Here in New South Wales, the Shooters and Fishers Party has two seats in our legislature.  That particular party - which I won’t type the full name of again because it hurts me – advocates firearms, hunting, fishing, four-wheel drive vehicles, and general assholeness.

So, now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s move onto the Senate.  The Senate has 76 seats – 12 for each of the 6 states and 2 seats for both of the territories.  Senators serve six-year terms and half of the Senate seats are up for grabs at elections every 3 years.  Now, I’m about to confuse you.  Brace yourself.

The composition of the Senate is determined by the percentage of votes each party receives – not each candidate.  When you vote for the Senate, you rank your parties and each party that meets a certain threshold gets one seat (or more) in the Senate.  So, for example, if Labor received 50% of the vote in a particular state, they’d get half of that state’s senate seats.  If the Greens received 15% of the vote in a certain state, they’d get at least one – maybe two of that state’s twelve senate seats – depending on how preferences flowed.  This system helps the larger of the smaller parties get seats.  After a tremendous showing this year with 13% of the national vote, the Greens will have a total of 9 senate seats out of 76.  Not bad.

But here’s the crazy part:  the actual Senators who serve are drawn from party lists.  Essentially, these are like sign-up sheets at an elementary school where you can just jot down your name and pop up on the ballot.  Ok, maybe it’s not quite as easy as that – maybe you need a petition with 20 signatures or something – but still.  Now, Aussies can rank the parties and be done with it and let the party power players decide who gets to serve in the Senate as I have described above or they can take what’s behind door number two.  Behind that door:  they can rank the individual candidates who appear on the ballot, and thus mix their preferences between parties – for example, ranking a Greens candidate #1, but then Labor candidates #2 and #3, followed by another Green at #4, and so on and so forth.  Doesn’t sound like too much of a daunting task, now does it?  Did I mention that at last month’s election, the Senate ballot had 84 candidates on it here in New South Wales.  And did I mention that you have to rank them ALL in order for it to be counted?

Maybe I’ll stick to the party voting.

To be continued…

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Power Ranga: Part 1 of 3

For the 3 Americans who keep up on Australian politics, you can skip this post – and the two posts that will follow after it.  For the other 309,999,997 of you, you might want to read this.  It’s some crazy shit.

In his book “In A Sunburned Country” (which I just happen to have quoted on the margin to your right), author Bill Bryson attempts to explain how Australian politics and Australian elections work.  After reading the few paragraphs he devoted to Australia’s bizarre preferential voting system and all of the name-calling and foul-language that occurs in Parliament, I put the book down for a few moments and thought to myself “It can’t be that difficult.”  Now that I’m here and have gone through an election cycle (and watched a few hours of Parliament on the Australian version of C-SPAN), I must say that Mr. Bryson was spot on.  Not only is it a bit confusing for me – a political science major who has been studying up on this stuff like I have a big test on it tomorrow – but every single Australian seems to be confused as well, with the possible exception my friend Jason who works for the State Parliament here in New South Wales.

First, I’d like to point out that voting in Australia is… wait for it… COMPULSORY.  Yes, that’s right.  You MUST vote.  You get fined several hundred dollars if you don’t vote.  I’m not even shitting you.  Doesn’t matter if you are out of the country – you must find a way to vote.  Funny enough, the polling station with the longest roster of people punching ballots just happens to be… not in Australia.  It’s in London, England, where up to 200,000 Australian expats live.  For a country that requires voting, I’m shocked at how little people know about their voting system.

Election night was the same night as my friend Kathryn’s farewell dinner.  It was an intimate affair – fondue for just 6 of us.  Kathryn’s good friends Tara and Simon were there – a married heterosexual couple originally from South Australia but now living here in Sydney.  Simon – the dude – votes for the Liberal Party (bad) and Tara – the dudette – votes for the Labor party (better).  As the only Aussies in the room (the other four of us consisted of three Americans and a Dutch girl), I asked them if they would explain how the system works.

Big mistake.  Normally, when politics come up, people will fight over whose party or candidate is the better of the two.  This can lead to divorce.  Not here though.  Tara and Simon hardly mentioned their preferences and were very cordial when it was brought up.  But I swear the conversation still almost lead to bloodshed as they took turns trying to explain to me how the Aussie preferential voting system works.  Tara would explain a bit about how it works, then Simon would chime in and correct her, then Tara would speak up and correct the correction, then Simon would postulate that it works a different way, then Tara would say that may sound right but it doesn’t make sense when you look at something or other, and so on and so forth.  Even I chimed in to throw out a few things I had read on Wikipedia.  It was getting a bit tense.  Needless to say, I left more confused that I already was.  Even worse, I was worried that I may have instigated the breakup of a newlywed couple who had the potential to one day breed some very attractive gay offspring.

The next day didn’t bring any better explanations.  It was the day I had to fly to Florida, and since I was flying V Australia, the plane was littered with attractive, nice-smelling gay flight attendants who had about the same IQ as a jar of mayonnaise.  It’s nice to have the eye candy – and really it’s the only venue where attractive gay men talk to me (“Coffee?”) - but I swear my brain was hurting after listening to two of the cute flight attendants have this conversation in the aisle next to me as they poured drinks for me and my fellow passengers:

Taller cute gay flight attendant:  So, who did you vote for yesterday?
Shorter cute gay flight attendant:  I voted for Labor.
Taller cute gay flight attendant:  How come you didn’t vote for The Greens?
Shorter cute gay flight attendant:  I don’t know.  Are they better?
Taller cute gay flight attendant:  Yes – The Greens are in favor of gay marriage!
Shorter cute gay flight attendant:  Oh, I didn’t know that.  I wish I would’ve voted for them now.  Did you vote for The Greens?
Taller cute gay flight attendant:  No – I can’t vote.  I’m from New Zealand.

Seriously.  The Kiwi had a better idea of what was going on than the Aussie did.  Not to say that he had a good idea of what was going on, but I guess having a vague idea of what was going on is better than having virtually no idea of what was going on.  Sadly, I think the majority of Aussies have no more than a vague idea of what was going on.

Even two of my best friends here – Ross and Jonathon – weren’t 100% straight on how it all works.  To give them credit, they know way more than most anyone I know, but even last weekend when we were discussing it, there was still some confusion on how the preferences worked.  Do you pick your own preferences as Jonathan suggested or does the party of your first preference select the rest of the preferences as Ross thought?  I had to go home and do a bit more Wikipedia research.

To be continued…

Monday, September 6, 2010

Frightfully Awry

Sometimes a weekend goes so frightfully awry that it ends up being delightful.  This is what happened to me this past weekend.  I usually plan everything out, but as of Friday morning, the only item on my agenda was my usual weekend man-date with Todd.  The weekend’s adventure:  an 11am Sunday morning tour of Government House.

Everything changed Friday afternoon at 2:14pm when I received this exhilarating text message from Karen, my American girl from Philly:  “Dinner esta noche? I feel like Mexican”

Well, I always feel like Mexican.  After failing to secure reservations at CafĂ© Pacifico and Flying Fajita Sisters (both would have been new to me), we ended up at Baja Cantina in Glebe.  Baja Cantina hosts the burrito stand every Saturday at the Glebe Markets, and I have ranked Baja Cantina my #1 burrito in Sydney ever since the first time I went.  But I hadn’t yet been to the actual restaurant and I was a bit worried that a trip there would ruin it all.

Boy was I wrong!  It was so delicious that – for a moment – I forgot that I was in Australia and imagined that I was in the cozy confines of a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles – sans the tacky mariachi music.  It was American quality Mexican food (if that makes sense).  Ok, it wasn’t Texas quality Mexican food, but it was certainly California quality – and certainly better than anything I’ve ever had in Florida or Seattle or New York.  We had nachos to start, followed by our mains of a chimichanga (Karen), giant taco (Elsbeth), and Chicken Suiza (me).  For dessert:  churros and a chocolate tres leches!  And let us not forget the 3 margaritas: 1 frozen, 1 on the rocks, and 1 strawberry… each.  And - still to my dismay - the margaritas were American quality too.  HEAVEN!

Saturday started off far less exciting than Friday night.  Raining and dreary, the only smile I had in the morning was a trip to my cute baristas around the corner.  Then I headed up to the North Shore to hang out with Jonathan and his mother – a great diversion from the weather – though the trains weren’t running so I had to bus up there.  Grrrr.  Things took an exciting turn later that evening.  What was supposed to be an early evening at home with a bottle of Moscato turned into a spur of the moment movie after a call from a friend who had two extra tickets to the Israeli Film Festival.  Score!  Then my new American friend - Jill from Boston - was out on Oxford Street right near the theatre so we popped by to see her at a local coffeehouse.  3 minutes later, I was talked into going to Stonewall – one of the local gay clubs that I had tactfully avoided for 7+ months because I’m boring.  The next 3 hours were spent dancing, drinking, and chatting with a mass of the boys from the gay Jewish group who we happened to bump into there.  Unexpected?  Yes.  Scary?  Slightly.  Fun?  Yes.  Saturday success!

Sunday showed that great days - like great deaths – come in threes.  After a morning Starbucks, the tour of Government House proved to be educational and enjoyable.  Todd had to go to work afterward, so I decided to train out to Bondi Junction to grab my favorite falafel.  Then, inspired by a driving tour that Jonathan gave me the night before, and urged on by Todd that morning, I spontaneously took the bus up to Vaucluse to do a little exploring on foot.  Thanks to the map on my iPhone, I stumbled upon the Hermitage Foreshore Walk which winds its way around the harbor.  For the next 90 minutes or so, I enjoyed the views and the beautiful weather.  I’ve included a few pictures below.

I hate not being completely organized, but I will say that the spontaneity of the weekend was exciting and completely enjoyable.  Now, if only I could find a way to plan the unexpected…

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Penis In The Sand

In an effort to see every square inch of Sydney and the surrounding region, my mate Todd and I made a list of things that we want to do.  First, Todd had to introduce me to the fabulous world of Google Documents so that we could both edit our list, and now that I’ve caught up with 2010, our spreadsheet has an ambitious list of museums, neighborhoods, national parks, and more.  And to start the list, we decided to make it a big adventure:  off to Royal National Park!

Royal National Park is the oldest national Park in Australia, and the second oldest anywhere in the world, after Yellowstone.  We “hired” a car for the day - because they don’t really say “rent” a car here – and headed out at 8am for a day of wilderness – just 45 minutes from Sydney.  Todd was delighted.  I was frightened.  After comparing what my buddy Ross suggested with what the very nice and knowledgeable park ranger advised (their suggestions were pretty much the same), we had our itinerary.  Once Todd clarified that he had a wife and that we were not a couple, we bid farewell to the woman behind the desk and made our way to stop one:  the Audley Boat Shed.

We hired a rowboat for an hour and went up the river.  Todd rowed for most of the time.  I took a stab at it, but I think Todd got annoyed that I kept zigzagging between the two banks.  I swear it was on purpose.

Then we were off to the little town of Bundeena to grab some lunch.  “Ummm, Phill – you’re on the wrong side of the road.” Oi vey.  At least that area of the park was near deserted.  And besides, it was no worse than the illegal right turn I made in Sydney on our way out of town earlier in the morning.

A stop at Wattamolla Beach delighted us with a short trail that lead out to a lagoon.   The lagoon was separated from the ocean by a beautiful beach, but the tide was in and there was a little channel separating us from the white sand.  In typical heterosexual fashion, Todd made me cross it.  He offered me a piggy back ride, but (1) I doubt he could carry me and (2) I’m not a princess.  I took off my shoes and rolled up my pant legs, but of course my jeans got soaked anyway.

Then off to Garie Beach where the surfers were out and the fisherman had caught some monstrous looking fish and were inspecting it on the sand.  We decided to do a little hike to a place called Burning Palms, which Ross had suggested.  We planned it out at 1 hour and 20 minutes round trip, but we failed to take into account the three giant hills, walkways covered with thick vegetation, mud, the beehive that Todd was so fond of, and various other impediments that turned our 1 hour and 20 minute round trip into a 1 hour 30 minute trip – each way.  Did I mention that we got dive-bombed by a very angry bird?  Twice?

That was a highlight.

But, despite all of that, I survived the day and, surprisingly, actually enjoyed getting out of the city and into nature for a bit.  To commemorate my day, I left my mark at the beach near Burning Palms:

Fuckin’ with the seagulls just ain’t for the kiddies anymore…

If I were Kathy Griffin and nature were Jesus, I think I’d tell nature to suck it.

Since we were climbing up a hill, I may have suggested something involving Maria von Trapp.  The hills are alive…

Yes, we pretty much hiked all of this – and more.