Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Wheatbelt

Dorothy gets swept up by a tornado, lands in the Land of Oz, looks around, and says “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Phill lands at the Perth Airport, sets off on a road trip across a different Land of Oz, looks around, and says “Oscar, it looks like we’re in fucking Kansas.”

And it did.

I present to you:  Australia’s Wheatbelt.


And lots of it.  Just like Kansas.  Western Australia’s Wheatbelt covers approximately 60,000 square miles to the north and inland from Perth.  Western Australia is the largest wheat producing state in Australia, and the relatively small Wheatbelt accounts for two-thirds of that production.  Aside from wheat, the region also has some livestock and a bit of mining as you edge inland toward the Goldfields.  After that, it becomes semi-arid and then desert.

The Wheatbelt has some major cities, such as the bustling metropolis of Corrigin:

And yes, that was sarcasm above.  With around 1,200 residents, Corrigin is one of the larger cities in the Wheatbelt.  It’s a hub for these parts.  It’s hard for me to imagine anyone living here, but the towns actually got smaller and smaller the further we drove from Perth.  Crazy.

Corrigin is famous for setting the world record for the longest queue of dogs in utes.  For the Americans reading this, I’ll rephrase it this way:  Corrigin is famous for setting the world record for the longest parade of SUVs with dogs in them.  And I’m not even shitting you.

I suppose for a town of 1,200 people, a seven kilometer parade of 699 sport utility vehicles with a dog in each isn’t too bad.  But what’s even more incredible to me is that another town over in Victoria broke the record a few years later (on purpose), so Corrigin reorganized and decided that they had to break the record again, this time with dogs in 1,527 utes.

So, this town has broken the most dogs in utes record twice.  Excitement! (?)

Also, to go along with that longest queue of dogs in utes, Corrigin is also known for its famous dog cemetery:

Started in 1974 by a man who wanted a place to bury his best friend, the Corrigin Dog Cemetery now has around 80 dogs buried in it.

Sadness:  we even found Scooby.

The other big attraction in the Wheatbelt is the Wave Rock.

Part of the larger Hyden Rock, the Wave Rock formed when this portion of the rock was underground and some geological process did something that rotted the rock away in this smooth curvy surface and if you seriously want a geology lesson then you’re going to have to Wikipedia that shit because I don’t quite get it and even if I did it would be far too long to explain here.  But the important part is that Oscar went surfing.

We climbed up top and noticed that other parts of the rock had smaller wave rocks on them – it’s common in this area – and Oscar was certain that parts of this rock looked like Mars.  I can see that.

The views off the top were fantastic – just miles and miles of wheat and not much else.

There was one way that I knew we weren’t in Kansas.  That’s because there was a pub here.  Only in this version of Oz do you get pubs in the middle of nowhere.  I present to you, the very strange looking Ettamogah Pub:

What started as a fictional pub in a cartoon in a magazine, there are now four real ones across Australia, and this one sits in bustling Cunderdin – population 700-ish.

And then, then we saw the fantastic…. Oh wait.  No we didn’t.  There wasn’t all that much else in the Wheatbelt, but the region was something drastically different than anything in Australia that I had seen so far, so I’d definitely recommend a quick drive through if you ever have the chance.  At the end of the day, it was sort of like Kansas a bit, but with fewer people (can you imagine?), and fewer churches, and probably more evolution in schools.  Oh, and dogs in utes.  I doubt Kansas has ever set a world record for the longest parade of dogs in sport utility vehicles.  Just another reason that Kansas is lame.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Rules of the Road Trip

I've taken many a road trip in Australia.  In fact, I've driven in, across, and around five of the six Australian states.  I've covered some ground.  But the most recent road trip I took was a bit different than the rest.  This most recent one was, by far, the road trip to the most remote spot I've been in Australia.  Even more remote than Kings Canyon or Uluru.  That’s not to say I won’t go more remote one day – because I will – and in Australia, it’s kind of hard not to go remote, and I'm quickly running out of road trips on the roads most travelled.  So, before I get into all of what the cities of Esperance and Kalgoorlie had to offer on this trip, I thought it best to cover some of the basics.  I am pleased to present to you ten basic rules of an Aussie outback road trip.

1.  Find a friend.

Never travel alone, because the last thing you want is to be stuck in the middle of the bush with no mobile phone reception in scorching hot temperatures and have nobody to bitch about it to.  For this road trip, I met up with Oscar, my old housemate from Sydney who now lives in Perth.

2.  Pick a car.

Always choose your vehicle wisely.  I would suggest renting a car to ensure you get one in good condition.  If you’re going off road, get a 4WD SUV of some sort, or at least a Subaru.  For this trip… we did not pick a car wisely, much to my dismay.  At Oscar’s insistence, we took his car: a 1995 Ford Probe.  I named her Polly Probe.  She survived the journey, but she was very shaky at the end.  Literally.

If you must take a car like this, make sure the owner has some sort of roadside assistance scheme before you leave.

3.  Get petrol when you see it.

Americans:  gasoline is called petrol here in Australia, and you get it from a servo (an abbreviation for service station.)  In parts of Australia, servos may be few and far between… hundreds of kilometers sometimes.  So, when you pass a little town and the sign as you leave says 200km until the next petrol station, you may want to back that ass up and fill up your tank.  In other words, make a U-turn, get some petrol, and never let your petrol gauge get below half empty unless you are certain you know where the next servo is.

4.  Bring water.

Lots of water.  More than you think you need.  First, bring some distilled water in case your car overheats, because you can pour distilled water into some part of the engine to help cool it down.  And if that’s wrong, then too bad because I really don’t know how cars work.  Second, bring some normal drinking water.  And maybe some Gatorade or something.  And an Esky (cooler) full of ice.  And some snacks.  If your car overheats and you’re stuck out in the scorching sun in 100+ degrees Fahrenheit (or 40 plus degrees Celsius) then you definitely want to stay hydrated so that your muscles stay moist and tender as you slowly cook.  And maybe watch out for hungry dingoes.

5.  Bring chocolate and peanut butter.

But only if you’re travelling with me in a really old car and I get super bitchy about how if the car breaks down I will be furious with you.  Oscar bought some chocolate and peanut butter to appease me in the event that Polly Probe failed us in the middle of nowhere.

6.  Switch to Telstra.

Australia has three main mobile phone service providers:  Telstra, Optus, and Vodafone.  If you’re not in a city, then Vodafone won’t work.  So if you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, you have a 100% chance of being fucked with Vodafone.  Optus isn't nearly that bad, and if you get stuck in the middle of nowhere and have them as your provider, you have about a 75% chance of being fucked.  And then there’s Telstra.  Telstra has the most coverage around Australia, though not everywhere.  So, if you get stuck and have Telstra, you’re at about a 50/50 chance of being fucked.  So, better your odds and get Telstra.  And try not to break down in an area that’s too remote because you really don’t want that sort of fucking.   I had Vodafone, but I broke my contract early and switched to Telstra about two weeks before the trip.  Not only did I feel safer, but I was also able to check-in on Facebook and upload photos along the way.  Oscar was on Vodafone.  Oscar couldn't upload shit.

Exhibit A:  On the left, a typical Vodafone tower.  On the right, a typical Telstra tower.  Can you tell the difference?

7.  Drive during daylight only.

Australia has the most road kill per capita of anywhere on the planet.  Ok, so maybe I made that up.  I doubt statistics have been compiled on that, but if they ever were, Australia would seriously be in contention for top honours.  Driving in the day, you hardly see any wildlife, but that’s because most marsupials are nocturnal.  Kangaroos and all the rest are active from dusk til dawn, hopping about across fields, bushland, and – of course – roads.  So, make sure you get up early to start your drive so you can get to your destination before sundown.  The last thing you need is to hit a five foot tall kangaroo or some giant angry ugly emu while driving at night.  Also, there are tons of stray cattle and an accidental population of wild camels which were introduced ages ago.  Who knew?  Not only will you feel horrible and probably shit your pants if you hit an animal while going 120 km/hour, your car might be seriously jacked up and maybe even immobile.

8.  Install a roo bar.

If you don’t listen to me and you decide that you must drive at night, then please install a roo bar.  Also known as a bullbar, the roo bar is a bar (or series of bars really) that you install on the front of your car to protect it from animals.  It’s sort of like a bulldozer for animals.  So you can just plow kangaroos down left and right all night long while you speed across the bush and you won’t have any damage to your car.  Unless of course the kangaroo jumps into the side of your car.  Then the roo bar won’t work.  And you’ll probably have shit your pants.

9.  Watch out for oversize loads.

On our journey across the bush, we encountered a few oversize vehicles – or wide loads as we’d call them in the US.  If a road is paved in some remote part of Australia, it’s probably fairly narrow, and there’s probably no paved shoulder to drive on.  So, when an oversize load comes up – and some may be carrying a building on their bed and be as wide as both lanes – move the fuck over onto the shoulder and stop your car.  When it passes, continue on.  These things are seriously wide, and unless you want to veer into a ditch or hit a sign, you’re best bet is just stopping rather than trying to drive on the shoulder of the road.

10.  Watch out for road trains.

Finally, beware of road trains.  They aren't wide loads, but they are long loads.  No, a road train isn't a train on the road, but it’s a really long truck.  It’s basically what an American would call a semi or Mack truck, but instead of pulling a trailer behind it, it can pull up to four long trailers.  It’s always a bitch passing a semi on the highway in the US, but can you imagine passing one with four trailers?  It’s scary.  Also, when they are coming at you on a narrow road, and you pass them, the wind generated by the truck can just push your car off the road.  So, yeah.  Hold onto the wheel.  Tightly.

How long can these road trains be?  Well, in Australia, the max length on most roads is 53.5 meters.  That’s 175 feet for the Americans in the audience who are like “what is that in feet?”  In easy to understand terms, that’s over half of the length of a football field, nearly double the length of a basketball court, or longer than some Boeing 767 models.  So yeah.  It’s long.  Very long.  And when it’s moving super fast at you, it’s a bit scary… or a lot scary.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Election Day As Seen From Australia

It comes around every four years in the United States:  Election Day!  Ok, so it actually comes around a lot more often than that, but the big one comes around every four years.  It’s always on a Tuesday and everyone races home from work to sit in front of the TV with champagne to celebrate their candidate winning or lots of chocolate and Cheetos and ice cream to comfort themselves when their candidate doesn’t win.  Then, four hours later, it’s nearly bedtime and Florida can’t figure out how the hell to count ballots correctly so no winner has been decided so you stay awake until the wee hours of the morning watching CNN or MSNBC or FOX News if you’re an asshole until some other state comes along and tips it in one direction. Or, alternatively, you pass out at some point before it’s been decided and as soon as your alarm goes off on Wednesday morning the very first thing you do – you know, before you pee or before you decide whether or not to take care of your morning wood – is reach for your laptop and pull up the news page and check to see if Florida has figured out how the fuck to count goddamn ballots yet.  And then, depending on the result, you make that call about your morning wood.

Oh, tradition.

But tradition has been broken here in Australia.  Thanks to 16 hour time difference between Sydney and the east coast of the U.S., the first polls began to close late Wednesday morning Australia time.  And that only meant one thing: a super productive day at the office.  Ros (the other American on my team) and I pulled up and the New York Times website and I also pulled up a local newspaper each from Maryland and Maine to get the latest updates on the marriage equality ballot measures there.  And then we waited for the results to come in.

We answered an e-mail.  Then we refreshed our browsers.  We printed something.  Then we refreshed our browsers.  We made a cup of tea.  And again we refreshed our browsers.  Every few minutes.  Just to see if anything new happened – if any new states had been called for Obama or any updates on the ballot measures came through.  We couldn’t have champagne because getting drunk at work is frowned upon by management, and we couldn’t have Cheetos because (1) they don’t sell them here and (2) even if they did, it would make our keyboards super dirty, so we were forced to wait without any comfort food or drink.  Finally, by late afternoon, Florida was still counting their goddamn ballots as usual but Ohio and Pennsylvania and Virginia came through and Obama was declared victorious.  Woohoo!

And then, after Ros and I exchanged a high give, I closed up and the New York Times website but continued to refresh my browsers on the local Maryland and Maine newspaper websites until they came through, which wasn’t too much longer.  And I pulled up the Seattle Times website to check on the marriage and marijuana ballot measures there and refreshed that one every few minutes too.  Until the end of the day.  And then later at home.  Until I realized that they weren’t going to call marriage in Washington until either way late or tomorrow and decided that the lead was big enough for me to be comfortable so I wandered off to bed.

It was a bit strange watching the election from so far away, but despite the distance, it was a big topic of conversation here in Australia in the weeks leading up to it.  All of my American expat friends patiently awaited their ballots – from Washington and Florida and New York and New Jersey and wherever else – and then everybody kept asking if we had gotten our ballots yet, and if so, have we filled them out and mailed them back with ample time for it to reach American soil and be counted on Election Day?  Oooo – and “what was on your ballot?” was another big question because it’s so different for every state.  I vote in Washington state, and I’m going to make a bold statement that our ballot this year was probably the most exciting one because we got to vote on both marriage and marijuana.  Woohoo!

And the next fun part was explaining to all of the Aussies about all of the different things on our ballot and completely blowing their minds.  They were all up in the business of Obama vs Romney, but they didn’t previously comprehend the extent of what everyone got to vote on, and how it differed from state to state, county to county, and city to city.  And then I’d go off on a big tangent about Tammy Baldwin and her awesome lesbian Senateness or marijuana and the federal vs state showdown that might ensue (which to them was stupid, and really it is), and marriage and how yes it’s now passed in three more states but still not recognized by the federal government (which to them was stupid as well, and really it is), and then after their minds were sufficiently blown they take a breath and excitedly ask me “Did you see all those idiots on Twitter who said that they were going to move to Australia because Romney lost?” Idiots because they are all right-wing Republicans yet they are threatening to move to a country with an atheist Prime Minster who is living in sin, universal health care, strict gun control, and no constitutionally protected right to freedom of speech.  And then I explained that those people are from what we call “red states” and they haven’t gone through the best education system.

All in all, Election Day was a pretty sweet victory for America.  Why you ask?  If you’ve seen my Facebook, then you can probably stop reading here and skip down to the last two lines because I’m pretty much going to copy/paste what I wrote yesterday.

Warning:  Strong language ahead.

OBAMA.  ELIZABETH WARREN.  TAMMY BALDWIN IN THE MOTHERFUCKING U.S. SENATE.  Holy. fucking. cow.  We now have marriage EQUALITY in MAINE and MARYLAND and my amazing adopted home state of WASHINGTON.  We’ve got marijuana becoming legal in both Washington and Colorado, and we have a RECORD SIX GLBT MEMBERS OF THE U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES.  Those two assholes that made comments about “legitimate rape” and rape babies being a gift from god both got raped at the polls – as did Hawaiian wench Linda Lingle, who once-upon-a-time-as-governor invited gay rights activists to a civil unions bill signing ceremony and then vetoed it right in front of them.  Thanks to Democrat Mazie Hirono, Linda Lingle has just been VETOED.  ACCESS DENIED, BITCH.  Karma.  Maria Cantwell is back for another term as U.S. Senator from Washington and our Democratic candidate for governor edged out the Republican to continue Washington’s 30+ years streak of Democrats in the governor’s mansion.  The Minnesota marriage ban has been soundly defeated and an Iowa judge who supported marriage equality in 2009 has survived a crucial retention vote.  8 – READ THAT:  EIGHT – hideous constitutional amendments drafted by right-wing Republicans in Florida have ALL been incredibly shot down in a stunning display of voters bitch-slapping those crazy right-wing dildoes in Tallahassee.  On a related note – a mate from high school has just been elected as one of the first GLBT members of the Florida Legislature.  AND – the seventeeth layer of icing on the cake:  Democrats in Colorado regained control of their State House of Representatives, paving the way for their first openly gay Speaker of the House AND a civil unions bill that is sure to pass this time around.

And did I mention TWO-TERM PRESIDENT OBAMA – AND ELIZABETH WARREN AND TAMMY BALDWIN IN THE MOTHERFUCKING U.S. SENATE?  A-M-A-Z-E-B-A-L-L-S.  What a great day for America, the gays, and the world.  WOOHOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

And after hearing me give an abridged version of this excited rant at work today, one of my co-workers turned to me and said, “Yeah, but who is Diane Sawyer and just how drunk was she?”

I suppose that’s important to know too.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

In The News

Bill Bryson, in his book In A Sunburned Country (which I’ve quoted here before), begins his very first chapter talking about how ignorant Americans are of Australian affairs.  Why?  Because Australia is mostly empty, a long way away, has a small population, and doesn’t produce anything that Americans can’t really live without (boomerangs?)  “Above all, Australia doesn’t misbehave.  It is stable and peaceful and good.  It doesn’t have coups, recklessly overfish, arm disagreeable despots, grow coca in provocative quantities, or throw its weight around in a brash and unseemly manner.”  So, yeah, not very newsworthy I suppose.  Bryson goes on to analyze the New York Times to see how many times Australia was featured in a given year.  In 1997, the Times ran 20 articles that were about Australian affairs.  For Israel, that number was 500.  There were 300 on each of the Koreas, 150 on both Albania and Cambodia, and more articles on balloons, Scientology, dogs, and ice cream than there were on Oz.  He picked a good year.  Going one year back or one year ahead, those 20 articles drop to just 9 and 6, respectively.  I would venture to guess that 95% of Americans probably don’t know what the capital of Australia is and nearly all of them think Aussies ride their kangaroos to work.

And then there’s the flip side.  Down under, 95% of the population would most certainly know what the capital of the United States is.  I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to assume that the percentage of Aussies who know the capital of the U.S. is probably higher than the percentage of Americans who know their own national capital in some of the more red leaning U.S. states – you know, the ones which have stellar education systems thanks to their Republican-controlled legislatures.  I’m looking at you, Mississippi and Kansas.  And yes, I’m finding that a majority of Aussies think that most Americans carry guns around with them and have shoot outs randomly in the streets and at Chili’s and at Macy’s and that’s about as ridiculous as the whole riding-a-kangaroo-to-work perception, but I’ve made good ground in my mission to advise every single Australian that gun-toting crazies predominantly only exist in Texas and Oklahoma.

But the real reason for tonight’s blog entry:  the news.  While Americans get little to no news about Australia, the exact opposite situation occurs here.  And never before has it been so apparent to me than it has been these past two weeks.  Since the end of October, the U.S. has dominated Australian media like I have never seen before.  And it all started with a bitch named Sandy.

Superstorm Sandy, or Newsstorm Sandy as I like to call it here in Australia, was bigger on Australian news outlets than I could have ever imagined.  Coverage was non-stop for days – in newspapers, on the internet, and every single TV channel.  Australian television instantaneously turned into The Weather Channel.  Much of the news focused on Australian interests:  how the Australian embassy was shutting down in Washington DC, how that infamous dangling crane in Manhattan is part of a project financed by an Australian company, and interviews with countless Australians who live in New York – with reporter after reporter venturing into random expat apartments to film their bathtubs full of water.  Seriously.  I sort of had to giggle, but the Aussies turned it around with the rest of their coverage – in depth and shocking at times as they showed the devastation across the Northeast.  Many friends, co-workers, and clients asked if I knew anyone affected and seemed genuine in their concern.

I know that the big Australian floods in Queensland made news in the States – I had several friends and family members asking me about it when it happened – but I can’t imagine that the Queensland floods were more than a quick mention on the local evening news or a scrolling story on the ticker at the bottom of your screen while watching CNN.  But here in Oz, Newsstorm Sandy was more than a quick mention, and it was more than just a story on the ticker.  It was the dominant news story in Australia for days.  I’ve seen it before with pop culture and travel and such, but watching Newsstorm Sandy really gave me a clearer vision of the disparity between Aussies’ and Americans’ levels of engagement with the outside world.  Incredible.

It started with Sandy, but it continued with Obama.  Tuesday and Wednesday in Australia were dominated with news of the American presidential election.  Now, Americans, please take a minute to complete my quick survey:

1. Can you name the Prime Minister of Australia?
2. Can you name any Prime Minister of Australia, ever?
3. Can you tell me when the last election was in Australia?
4. Do you know anything about the Australian political system?
5. Have you ever seen news about an Australian election on TV?

Even for the more educated and worldly Americans, I reckon the majority of you will answer “no” to each and every question above.  But give Australians the reverse quiz about the U.S. and the majority will probably be able to answer “yes” to most or all of those questions.

Yesterday’s news mentioned the impending election constantly, but today was just a shock:  a full day of coverage on many of the major networks here in Australia.  There were Australian reporters live in the U.S., and plenty of American news programs were being streamed live here on Australian networks too.  Of course, just like with Sandy, they had to Aussie it up a bit with a full report from the big election party at the American consulate here in Sydney.  While at home tonight watching my normal TV programs, the news keep cutting in with little snippets like “President Obama wins a second term as President of the United States.  Details at 11.”  Can you imagine this happening during American Idol?  “Julia Gillard is elected Australia’s first female Prime Minster.  Details at 11.” And every American watching would be like “What the fuck is a Prime Minister?  Is she a Protestant?”

The strangest part:  so many people at work were interested in knowing all about it.  It was on all day in our kitchen at the office, and people kept stopping in to check on the latest.  I fielded several questions from co-workers, most of them jokingly asking me who I voted for – jokingly because they obviously knew the candidates and they obviously had a pretty darn good idea of which one I would be throwing my support behind.  They knew all about Romney and some of them even knew about those two Republican Senate candidates who made obscene statements about rape.  That’s not helping with stereotypes, by the way.   Had this been the reverse situation – an Aussie expat working in America – that Aussie wouldn’t have fielded one question about the Aussie election, mainly because Americans wouldn’t have had a clue that there was an election, and even if they did, they wouldn’t know who is running, and even in the very unlikely event that they saw the candidates’ names on the news the night before, they would have no idea what party they belonged to or what their positions on the issues were (or even what the issues were themselves).

It’s amazing how much Australia is paying attention to the United States, and how little that is exchanged in the reverse.

To truly exemplify this, I present to you Exhibit A:  tonight’s big finale of Big Brother Australia, Season 9.  After nearly 3 months sequestered in the Big Brother House with no contact at all with the outside world, the final two contestants were shown a compilation of video clips about all of the major news events that had occurred since they entered the house in early August.  The very first one in the reel:  Superstorm Sandy.  And the contestants’ faces just looked horrified.  After some trashy celebrity stories about who married who and who is getting divorced in Hollywood and Lance Armstrong being a cheat and fraud, the news reel included a snippet about President Obama being re-elected.  Both Sandy and Obama were mentioned before there was any mention whatsoever of the AFL and NRL Grand Finals – the two biggest sporting events in Australia – like the Super Bowl and World Series of Australia but for different sports obviously.  Those events are HUGE in Australia, but Sandy and Obama both trumped them.  In fact, there were more news clips on American affairs in the news reel than there were about Australian affairs in the news reel.  I’m assuming there is a similar news reel type of thing in the American version of Big Brother, and I am confident that no story on Australia or anything Australian has ever been featured at all in that news reel.  Please correct me if I’m wrong.

Americans:  the next time you turn on your news channel, just wait for it.  Wait for any mention of Australia whatsoever.  And then message me and let me know how long it actually took you to hear something. I fully expect to hear from you on January 1st when the annual video of the New Year’s fireworks shooting off the Sydney Harbour Bridge is broadcast around the world.  Until then, know that when I turn on the TV here, it will only take me a matter of minutes – or even seconds – before I hear something about the United States.

Big brother is watching you, America.

And apparently, big brother has roughly 23 million Australian accents.