Steve Drewry, Watson Mulkey, Will Slater, and John “Boz” Boswell are in Cairns, Australia living, working, studying and traveling. This is a letter from Steve.
Australia, first report. Jan 14th – Jan 20th
I arrived at the Cairns airport, tired and excited, where Watson and Will were waiting, and so too was the sun, a mere 600 yards from your face in this part of the world. We grabbed a taxi from which I thoroughly enjoyed the view of left-handed traffic from a seat that, in the states, would be wont for steering wheel and pedals.
Immediately the differences started piling up. Foxtail palms and strange cars whizzed by, as did the rest of the tropical scenery that I hardly had the time to absorb from the seat of a taxi. The landscape was inundated with lush greenery that I’d seen before in pictures, but every tree and shrub was completely new. The street signs were somewhat familiar as well, but still different. For example, our YIELD sign is the same shape and color as it is in Australia, but in the spot where the word “yield” should be, it reads “Give Way”. Everything was like that: the same, but different. It’s as though I had gotten on a plane and traveled to the opposite side of the…Oh. right.
We stopped a short distance from the apartments at a small cluster of shops that might be likened to an American strip mall provided that you halve it, and then halve it again. Although it did have a KFC. We, however, stopped for lunch at “Seaside’s Takeaway”, a fried fish joint with a menu that sported items like “Red Emperor”, “Barramundi”, and “Coral Trout”. I exchanged a blue-ish, 10-dollar Australian bill for a Red Emperor and was handed in return only a handful of coins for the difference. I gave a puzzled look to the woman behind the counter, who answered it with an expression of her own that said “Are you new in town?” In fact, she had given me the correct change, but I was evidently unprepared for the Australians’ prevalent use of coins for anything under five dollars. For those miniscule expenses, they have their one- and two-dollar coins on top of the smaller denominations that I was expecting. Live and learn.
Anyway, we ate our fried fish outside where I soon wished far more urgently that I had changed out of my jeans while I was still in Sydney. The 200-yard walk to the apartment was a very sweaty one. I switched into some shorts , shoved my cotton pants into the darkest, most inaccessible region of my bags, and we embarked for the swimming pool in the courtyard. The “apartments”, I must say, look far more like hotel rooms than a place where people permanently reside. They have a very island-y, feel to them. Something like what you might find at a Sandals resort in the Bahamas. Even the pool looks like it was uprooted from a picture in a vacation brochure, with its tiki-heads and jovial plaster toads spurting water at the pool’s edge. The place is mostly filled with university students and…well, I haven’t quite figured out the demographics of the place, but the University is a five minute walk down the street. Boz (John Boswell ), another pre-existing acquaintance from the states, lent me an inflatable mattress and a pillow which I deposited later onto the floor of Watson’s and Will’s living room. Boz was leaving the next day for a week-long foray in New Zealand with his parents and we thought it better that I stay under the supervision of Cairns-savvy Watson and Will rather than squatting in his empty apartment for a week.
So there I was: in a pool, in Australia, full of fried fish, and under a stream of water spurting from a plaster toad. Now what? To the city, of course!
We took the bus into town. Taking the bus at night, I might add, in a town you are entirely unfamiliar with is a recipe for complete disorientation. I couldn’t see past the glare on the windows of the bus, so I may as well have been thrown into a washing machine for 12 minutes and spat out in front of a restaurant in some very hot and humid place. That restaurant happened to be called Blue Sky, complete with microbrewery and hotwings. The wings had an interesting hierarchy of hotness available: There were the usual levels of spiciness, ranging from “Look Out!” to “Mild”, with “BBQ” residing somewhere beside them all on its own. But just under the hottest was “Australia Hot” and below that was “USA/Canada Hot”. I ordered the USA/Canada hot. Now, if this bar speaks for the entire Australian pallet, then I have to say that they are sincerely off the mark. Allow me to crudely translate for American taste buds: Australia Hot=medium; USA/Canada Hot = mild; and BBQ=BBQ. I have no idea what the Mild wings on their menu would have been like. Probably something I could have used for the dry skin on my elbows.
Another day, after a little job scouting and shopping for a cell phone, Watson and I walked up to Trinity beach, about two miles north of the apartment. Initially our destination was for Wallaby spotting-grounds, but as that was completed en-route, we proceeded to the beach. Wallabies are everywhere and have very, VERY good hearing. If you manage to sneak to within 50 yards of one, it’s probably dead. The beach was a sight. Lined with a mix of cottages, one large hotel, and rental properties that I would describe as “modest-Malibu”, it looked wonderful. No skateboarders. No roller-bladers. No bicyclists. No swimmers. No surfers….wait a minute, where is everyone? This beach is dead. And nearby was a sign that explained it all, listing specifically all those things people are not to do. I guess the rules are pretty well-followed around here. And for good reason, for next to that sign was another, enumerating the dangers that no doubt begat the first sign: sharks, box-jellyfish, Irukandji jellyfish, crocodiles, rip-currents. At the bottom of the sign was written “No Swimming Nov-May”. These natural dangers are in addition to the ones that Boz informed me of the other day. Trees, ants, toads, spiders…the “paralysis tick”…ugh. Jumanji was a safer environment. Don’t. Touch. Anything.
So Watson and I clambered up some rocks to get a better view of the ocean, paying close attention not to touch any of the vegetation, no matter how innocuous it looked. It was a little cloudy, but still a gorgeous view. Jungle-covered, mountainous coastline accented with a few perfectly sized islands on which stood one or two houses. We scowled at them from afar and then headed for the bus stop.
We had an hour to kill before the next bus came, so we stopped by a burger joint and got a couple cool drinks. Watson ordered a “small chips” which, I’ve found out, is a bit of a misnomer. If you order a “small chips”, you will be handed a human infant-sized package of very stout french-fries. It was a handful, but for three dollars AUS, who can complain?
On the bus, the whole affair is rather unrushed and pleasant. The bus driver expresses no urgency as you tell him your destination. Swap a five-dollar bill for bus fare and he happily and deliberately counts your change to hand back. Off you go. It’s perfectly understandable when you find out that minimum wage is just about 20 dollars an hour.
Getting off the bus, which was air-conditioned and very clean, two teenagers were stepping on, hailed politely by the bus driver, “And where are you two blokes off to?” We couldn’t help but laugh, not at him, but at how ridiculously quaint and cute the vernacular is here. Breakfast is brekky, Christmas is Chrissy, and mailmen are posties. It’s all very pleasant.