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Stories from a Trip to Australia

 ONE. Steve the Australian Submarine Sailor

On a sightseeing bus in Cairns, Australia, not far from the Great Barrier Reef, we met a friendly sailor, about thirty years old, who told me a bit of his story--

“I’m from South of Perth. The old family homestead’s all broken up, all dispersed. When I was growing up it was together. I joined the Navy. I work on a submarine.”

“Did you get initiated when the submarine crossed the line?” I asked him.

He looked a little uncomfortable, and didn’t talk too loudly, but he told us this.

“When we newbies crossed that equator line dividing the hemispheres, it was announced we’d be going into Neptune’s Court. The bears—that is, the experienced, seasoned sailors—brought us new guys up to stand in Neptune’s Court. Old Neptune wore a crown of star-fish, and a robe of white sand, and he stood there staring at us, sharp trident and all. Neptune’s wife was there as well. She had hair made of old fishnets, mop strings and seaweed, and she was decked out in seashells and a sea-blue gown, or rather a sarong. Her breasts were like coral mounds. Quite a sight. We stood there in ‘Neptune’s court’ and listened while they sentenced us. The burly old bears took care of our sentences. We got glopped, gooped, slopped with slimy gunk, stuff like slippery slop and cow flop. It was kinda funny and awful messy.”

My wife, who was sitting nearby overhearing us talk, said, “You guys!”

And he said, “No. Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t against our will. We wanted to go through it. To be initiated. We weren’t forced. We volunteered. Stepped up and asked to go through it. It’s about becoming part of it all. No coercion at all.”

I asked if they had to “run the gauntlet,” as an American sailor told me he and other newbies had to do when they first crossed the equator.

“No gauntlet, like some sailors have to run through, and no fat cook’s belly to have your face rubbed up against, no whacks as you crawl between a row of legs, like a ritual of birth. Next thing we knew, it was, ‘Drink your dolphins, mate! You’re in!”

I drank the drink, rum or whatever it was, and it had a dolphin pin in it, caught the pin in my teeth to stop it from going down my gullet. But this whole initiation thing was a secret, so I’m not really supposed to tell you about it. You never heard it from me. That submarine’s my family now. My mates!”

Next thing I knew he was buying me a ginger beer. This is the way he said it:

“Here—have a Bunderberg on me, mite! They tiste grite on a hot die!”

True, they do. He was a really nice guy. So polite and well-mannered. In the tourist bus he was nothing like the boisterous rowdy folk song image of submarine men:

Submarines have no latrines--

The men wear leather britches;

They hang their tails over the rails

And yell like sons of bitches!


TWO. Berthold the Retired Executive

As we went on some of the historic tours around Cairns, including the old narrow gage railroad to Kuranda, going up the tropical forest mountains, we kept running into a dignified well-dressed white-haired gentleman with the bearing of a powerful senior executive, a VIP. He had a chiseled face with a nose like a cliff like I used to pass by in the New Hampshire mountains—called “the Old Man in the Mountain.” And matching his craggy face he had a bluntly honest style of talking. He told his story like this. “I’m a Kraut Aussie, in my 70s now. Came to Australia at 13.”

We asked him where he came from.  “My parents were in East Germany when the Russians took over, and we left, went to the British part of West Germany, and from there in 1946 or so we came here.” We asked how they happened to come here.

“My father knew someone, a friend who already had a farm in Australia, and he said he could get a place for us, and told my father he could pay him back later.”

“How much did it cost?” I asked.

“In those days you could buy a place for 600 pounds, that’s how much we went into debt. And it took my father six years to pay off that 600 pounds. It was a lot back then. The first year when we got to the farm there was no house there. It was winter. We had to live in a tent and an old caboose. Those were the two ‘rooms’ of our house! I was thirteen so I went to school. My mother cooked our meals in the caboose. My mother was so miserable in Australia—always hated it here. She would have been miserable back in Germany too, even if she went back, the way she always said she wanted to, 5, 10 or 20 years later—because everyone she knew would have had different experiences—her friends and family would have all changed, and so on. She would have been just as miserable there. She couldn’t change and she couldn’t go back. Of course after a while we had a real farmhouse, she didn’t have to cook in a caboose or sleep in a tent. But she was still miserable.”

I could see he had a grasp of the social changes that his mother couldn’t imagine. I wondered if he was a businessman or what. “What kind of work did you do?”

“Anyway, I studied chemical engineering. Then got my first big job. When I worked for that big multinational corporation I didn’t like the management style, so I went back to the university and got a degree in management.”

“Then what? How did that work out?”

“Worked for Shell Oil and became a fixture there. I’m in Who’s Who of Businessmen in Australia. My management style was much better than a lot of what you find in multinationals. I studied and worked at management my own way, and it worked. I’m retired now, watching the world go by from my perch in Melbourne. Right now, like you, I’m touring the Australian countryside. We’re visiting grandkids.”

“That must be fun for them.”

“For me too. I was on a long drive with some of my grandkids not long ago. At the end of the day I was thirsty. Stopped the car, went into a pub finally. There had been a big rugby match nearby. I asked for a beer. They were out. All out of every kind of beer! Can you imagine? Not a single beer left in the whole damn pub!”

“So what did you do?”

“What could I do? I was thirsty. I drank Bunderberg Ginger Beer. That’s all that was left in the whole damn pub! If I was manager there they’d have had enough beer!”


THREE.  Sagarika the British Indian Tourist

She was in the tour bus taking us to the train station. And then in the train going up to Kuranda too. It was an historic narrow gage railroad going up into the heights of land built during WWII. (The historic background of how difficult it was to build made me think of the railroad ties as made of the bones of some of the workers—they gave their lives.) She was very pretty, with fine features and glossy black hair.

“My name is Sagarika and my family is from the Punjab. I haven’t been there for six years. I was born and raised in England, in South Hampton. It’s a port town with a great university. I graduated and worked as a flight attendant for ten years.”

“Did you like it?” my wife asked.

“Yeah, it was great. When we would go to Goa for vacation it was so amazing. Flight attendants had it pretty good. You worked for one day and were off for nine days. Unbelievable. Massages on the beach, swimming, doing whatever you wanted. It was so blissfully luxurious! So pleasant. The Israeli soldiers relaxed there on the beaches after their years of military service. I went into a café and whew, such a big cloud of ganja smoke, or hash smoke filled the air. Never saw that kind of smoke in public before. Nine days out of ten, in timeless bliss. I didn’t know how well off I was. Then I worked in the healthcare industry for England’s national health program. An administration job. Totally bureaucratic, maddening. Frustrating. Never again. If I can help it. And I also just broke up with my significant other.  So I’m on hiatus now.”

“We’ve spent time in India, mostly in the South. Do you spend much time in the Punjab?”

“When I go to the Punjab it takes eight hours flying to Delhi, then another eight hours travelling by train to get there. I stay with my extended family. India is growing fast, in the past ten years you see so many developments. Prosperity, change, new building, modernization. It’s great. What’s next for me, I don’t know. I wanted to get away for a spell. Take a break. Australia is so friendly, and cheerful, a great place to go for vacations. I just want to be a tourist on holiday, enjoy myself.”

We ran into her up on the mountain, in the tourist shops and cafes in Kuranda. But then, when it was time to get back on the tour bus, after waiting for her, someone said she’d gone back early by taxi instead of by return trip bus. What turned her off? Or, maybe she ran into an old friend from her airline days, and they went back to her hotel room to enjoy a Bunderberg Ginger Beer together.


FOUR.  Jake the Great Reef Skipper from LA

In Cairns, Australia, we took a boat out to the Great Barrier Reef. When we got out there everyone on board was getting ready to dive and snorkel, putting on wet suits, flippers, snorkeling gear. I’d been sick not long before that, and still felt a little shaky and dizzy, so I was reluctant to go in the water.

The staff was all twenty-somethings. The girls looked like Swedish bikini models and were well-tanned. The guys were experts on ecology of the reef, able to lecture expertly on the fish, coral.

Standing on deck in the sun and wind looking at the glistening ocean, wearing a captains cap, khaki shorts, a plain white T-shirt, and a flimsy orange vest like the all deck hands and staff, was the captain who’d steered our boat out to that spot.

The skipper, Jake, was from LA. He came here to Australia twenty years ago and stayed. With this clear sky and the blue water, it was much closer to dreamtime here than in America.

Jake talked everyone he could into going in for a dip. That included an Indian family of non-swimmers, a big-eyed Italian girl with long hair, nibbling chips from a bright plastic bag, and me, still feeling dizzy from a fever and the medicines I was taking.

Jake talked me into going into the water, even though I’d decided not to. Even after I told him I was taking medication and was down on energy and had suppressed immune system he said I could just climb down the ladder and float around in the water near the boat. Do only as much as I liked. “You shouldn’t come all the way to the Great Barrier Reef and not see it with your own eyes. That would be wrong.”

I gave in and put on a wet suit and snorkel gear. I got in the water. The bikini girls and ecology guys kept trying to get me to go further out, but snorkeling, breathing through my mouth felt uncomfortable, cramped, uneasy. Somehow breathing felt scarily impeded when I tried to do it with the goggles and snorkel mouthpiece. I was anxious. I couldn’t relax. The bikini girl assigned to me kept pointing to the reef where she thought I should go, and when I saw where her finger was pointing it seemed way out there in the distance. So far it seemed impossible to make it out that far and get back. I felt self-conscious and anxious, but tried to float around, head down in the water a bit, for a few seconds at a time, catching sight of exotic fish.

I realized later that it was just a few metres away they were expecting me to go, not that vague place a half a mile away. Why did their fingers seem to point out so far away if that’s what they meant? Why did my eyes focus like that, was it fever?

Anyway, I’m glad the skipper talked me into taking a dip there. The water was great.

The coral, like blossoms of white, with vivid blue outlines halo-ing the petals, was mesmerizing. A blue so vivid in nature  was especially stunning; I’d had cataracts removed just a few months before, and this seemed like the first time in my life I’d seen such a glowing blue in nature.

The sun was powerful out there at the reef, burning pale skins fast. After snorkeling, everyone relaxed with an ice cold Bunderberg Ginger Beer.


FIVE. Rojay the Jamaican from Sydney

He looked like a sharply dressed aborigine to me at first, there in that fancy Cairns boutique which featured well-selected great works of aboriginal art and crafts.

He was the manager of that high-end store on the beautiful Esplanade in Cairns, on the northeastern coast of Australia. He was smart, educated, sophisticated. When he spoke he had a different accent than I’d expected.

“I’m Jamaican, grew up in Sydney,” he said. “My name is Rojay. Where you from?”

“From America. From Indiana.”

“Indiana!” He said, happy to hear the word. He flung his dreadlocks around entusiastically. In Cairns I didn’t see too many people wearing such neatly pressed dark slacks, expensive fine-striped dress shirt, and a colorful tie. He was dressed up, but the tie was not tied to tightly. He was relaxed and cool.

“You’re from Indiana—two of my favorite people are from there. Michael Jackson and David Letterman. They are both from your state, Indiana, right?”

“Yeah. David Letterman grew up two blocks from where we live.”

We commented on an artwork reminding us of an artwork we’d seen in South India.

He said, “My sister went to South India, to Trivandram, to study meditation.”

“They have famous Ayurvedic massage and traditional yoga teachers there too.”

“Yes, they have traditions about how to balance—your mind and body.”

I asked him if he’d seen “Man on Wire” the film about the famous balancing man, Philippe Petit. “He put up a wire between the two World Trade Center towers and walked in in 1974 when he was 24. He tightrope-walked on a bridge here in Australia, too. In Sidney.” Rojay made a note of the title.

My wife said, “This aboriginal art is so full of life. All the energies like winds full of particles of color. Spirits and dreamlike animals.” The art was vibrant, as if everything alive trails paths of stars, pulsing music, the dance of circles, colorful mosaics of life, swarmings, rufflings, swirlings, whorls. Rojay said, “Tribal people take solace, comfort, nurture in the ancestors. Is life hard and short? Well, the ancestors give a longer view, orientation and meaning, a spiritual view to face even death.” Rojay looked a bit like an aboriginal man, and in his stylish freshly ironed shirt and tie and educated speech he was very polished and professional. A perfect salesman of authentic Australian art to world travellers.

It was an upscale store on an expensive street of tall palm trees and great restaurants within sight of the ocean, where young people swam and played in the sand and many Japanese tourists passed through daily. 

Rojay gave me a marshmellow made by Aboriginal people from honey. “They have their own name for honey, ‘sugarbag,’ and it is made by stingerless bees.”

I mentioned to him that I thought Jamaican Ginger beer was great. It was strong and refreshing, not as mild as the ginger ales I’d grown up with. “I like Jamaican Ginger beer too, he said, almost as much as Bungerberg.” Rojay packed our selections neatly and swiped our credit card through the machine and we were on our way. He was the perfect man for that job on the Esplanade: intermediary of cultures.

Australia seemed full of people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Especially, there were many Japanese tourists in Australia, many beautiful Asian faces, groups of elders and groups of school kids, but I never got to know any. Japan is just a stone’s throw from Australia I guess.

The Australians were so cheerful. It was great to have a beer in a cozy pub there in Sidney. Friends chatting after work. Soccer on the tellie. Fish and chips and a mug of Keithmont Black Beer. Best beer all trip. I put a Bunderberg in my suitcase for later.