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April 27, 2004

Anzac Day

The atmosphere was rawcus. It was a little after 6 o'clock yet it seemed a long time after midnight. It felt like we had just gate crashed someone else's party. I followed the shouts and screams throughout the busy pub and found myself looking at peoples backs. I could see nothing. People were standing on chairs, tables, plant pots, stairs, in fact anything. I was intrigued. There must have been well over a hundred people gathered in a circle cheering and shouting at something. I managed to squeeze onto a ledge and what I saw really took me by surprise.

There were two guys in the middle tossing. Apparently they had been doing this since 2pm and would continue to do this late into the night. The faces surrounding the 12ft circle were transfixed with passion, a sense of nervous excitement and showing the signs of eight previous schooners. Then silence. The heads in unison dropped down and focused on a small area in the middle of circle. The focus switched to the two balding beer inflated chested men who picked up two silver coins. Both pointed to their heads. The crowd erupted with cheers and groans. This I was to find out was the game of Two Up.

This pub game was fascinating. It is only allowed on Anzac day and it seemed that every pub in Australia took advantage of this gambling amnesty. The beauty was in the simplicity. Get a pub and sell lots of beer. Get loads of drunk people to stand in a circle. Preferably provide chairs and tables so that most people can be elevated. Employ two local looking rather plump men to toss two coins at regular intervals (They must be good at pointing at their head and arse). Get the audience to wave a selection of bank notes in the air whilst pointing at their head or arse. This is best done with a crazy expression on your face or making a lot of noise to get attention. Get at least two drunk people who don't know each other to agree on a bet and exchange money. Then wait. Essentially the two coins must be both 'heads' or 'tails' to produce a result.

Statistically there is a 50/50 chance of winning but I did'nt want to tell the punters that. I felt guilty that I could walk in a straight line that night, that I could stand on a table without falling off and that I did not bet more than five dollars at a time. I could have spent hours watching people fall off chairs, try to juggle 6 plastic cups of beer, lose two hundred dollars but it was time to go. I left the pub thinking that a game like this would never work in England. Instead of raucous cheering there would be polite applause. Instead of getting seven random strangers huddled together on a bent table you would get one person sitting crossed legged on a chair saying “Sorry, can you see alright?”. Instead of saying “Wanna a bet ten mate” they would be saying “would you be so kind to exchange five pounds”. Indeed this was gambling in the Aussie way. Unreserved, sociable, enjoyable and without a care in the world. Everyone was doing it, the young, the old, families. Even the young mum next to me was sending her little boy out in the crowd as a runner to arrange bets with random punters.

What a great way to spent the whole day in the pub. The 25th of April is Anzac day. It was a day the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps landed in Gallipoli in 1914 to help the Brits fight the turks. It was real basic fighting which resulted in huge losses. As a result there are parades in Sydney where young and old military folk don their uniforms and head for the streets. Admittedly I had never heard of Anzac day but I was realising just how big it was here. If you wore military uniform you had free access to public transport and everyone else had Australian flags and t-shirts.

I had the slowest bus journey ever coming from Bondi that day. As is common practice to let old people take your seat, the whole bus seat quota ended up being filled by these fellows. Like a stack of dominos from the front every person under fifty alighted as we collected more and more old folk along the 380 bus route. More often than not they would stumble as the bus pulled forward causing the surrounding public to fling to their aid. Most talked about the fact that this was their only time of the year that they had a beer. “Great pub that one George, three dollars for a beer. Go back there every year” was the normal conversation. Despite the the prolonged bus journey I got to hear first hand stories of the war which was enthralling and though provoking.

April 22, 2004

Being ill in Syndey

No it's not like that. 'Mum don't say silly things' I had said after she had versed 'Night night, don't let the bed bugs bite'. Why are old people always right? Twenty years later I had been attacked in military style precision. Nine out of the ten objectives had been accomplished. The soles of my feet, my face, the back oh my head (which Itend to rest on a lot), my arms, my legs, my armpits, my bottom, my hands, my chest. Thankfully objective ten had failed. My nose remained intact (There would be nothing worse than a zit like creation sitting on my nose, the expression talk to the face comes to mind). So I know looked like Adrian Mole after a day out at Mcdonalds. Nice.

I tried toothpaste (it works on cold sores doesn't it?), shaving gel and the other contents of my toiletry bag. Wait there is one more thing left. The sort of thing that you mum squeezes in your bag at the last minute as you are heading out of the door. TCP. The seal was of course unbroken but this was a desperate measure in a desperate situation. I pierced the top. The smell was as retching as it had always been. Just why the brains at Pfizer had decided to make this stuff smell of old people was beyond me. But I am wise. I will mask the smell with two squirts of Issey Miyake. Genius. Actually the result was as successful as a backpacker who empties half a canister of Lynx into their rotting trainers. Believe me, the lynx don't work, it just makes it worse and I know I'll smell your feet again.

After scrubbing the TCP off my face I started to feel a little aggrieved. Sure bed bugs along with smelly armpits, annoying people, poor mattresses, creaky bunk beds, early wake up times, weirdo's, intercourse couples, snoring people, smelly feet (cured with Lynx), people who come into your room every night at 4am shouting their heads off about that nights conquests (by the way cockney wide boys, I ain't bitter, it's all in the past now) are all part of the charms of traveling. Maybe I should feel honoured that the buggers had chosen me. It's always nice to be wanted.

No hang on. I looked like crator face (a term so affectionately remembered from school). I had to walk down the street on the right had side whilst my head was pointing the other just so didn't think I had a McDonalds problem. As my extensive research would tell me Bed Bugs return after seven days when they have finished living on your blood supply. In the day time they hide. They only attack at night. I was leaving this place after four days so I will never come blood to eye with attackers. Back to the TCP and a few days in doors me thinks. Ah traveling. Don't you just love it.

Trying to get a Medicare card was proving a little taxing. Medicare is a private health insurance company who have a reciprocal agreement with the UK. This means quite simply you can go to the doctor or hospital for free. After waiting in the queue at the Medicare offices with some of the strangest and ill ooking people I had seen it was my turn. The 'I'm only doing this job for the money' miserable lady at cubicle four took my British passport. “Where is your visa stamp?'”she enquired. I felt like saying I had been a stow away on a large cargo ship but I refrained. “I entered on my New Zealand passport” I said. “Ok but you must prove you are British and have lived in the UK for most of your life”. This was going to be an interesting conversation. “How can I prove that” I enquired. “Well, I don't know” she responded. Ok, apart from sounding quite like an Englishman, having a British passport, UK driving licence, a blockbuster video card and airline tickets saying I came from London she still was'nt convinced. It was one of these workers that was devoid of common sense, excellent at following written instructions but not all there.

After having a word with 'someone from head office' she relented and my card was secured. I made my way to the Sydney medical centre. Wow I could turn up and just get an appointment in the next fifteen minutes. Very refreshing. My medicare card had saved me from paying a sixty dollars consultation fee according to the receptionist. Sure enough within fifteen minutes I was being called in by the foreign doctor. “What are your symptoms?” he probed. “Stiff neck, stiff back, fluctuating between being cold and hot and over thirty sores on my body” I recalled. “Ah yeah mate, just a virus or something” whilst looking down my throat. !Have had loads of people with that!. Now I didn't know whether to be impressed with his speed of definition or worried that he had just been on Doctors of horrors. A virus to me could mean a lot of things. Put a few words next to in like SARS , HIV and the coronavirus to name but a few. I almost thought he said 'trust me I'm a doctor' but he didn't. I could see why you just had to wait fifteen minutes now.

April 17, 2004

Leaving Sydney

I had finally gained enough strength to move out of the 'Great Aussie Backpackers' in Kings Cross. Actually I am giving myself a little too much credit, my mind was made up for me. I returned the previous evening to find the Swedish invasion had grown in number. There were now five of my Scandinavian friends in the ants nest of room number one. Jan was lying chest downwards on the floor. He was being straddled by yet another good looking blonde thing receiving a full body massage, baby oil and all. My thoughts of two young Swedish ladies quickly evaporated and I gave a quick “hello” whilst facing the floor.

In this situation you think you would just stare but in reality you look away and curse under your breath 'you lucky bastard'. So that was the final straw - if they were not handing out free Swedish style massages then I was outta there. So where next? Kings Cross was not an option so the city it was. After going in and enquiring about prices at various places I decided to treat myself to Wakeup. Exactly ten dollars more than the Swede ant infested Great Aussies but a world of difference. This was more like a hotel, new in design and rather funky. It was here you get the 18-20 year old daddies paying lot. You see most older people will resent paying that bit extra but when it's on Gold Card who cares.

The clientele proved my theory. They were all young, posh and mostly English. This place certainly catered for those not used to being away from home. The floors were colour coded - Floor one, blue and called Europe. Floor two, red and Africa. You had a card which opened all the doors - it was ever so flash. I noticed most people put their door keys around their neck as if to stay “I'm staying at wakeup, the nicest hostel in Sydney”. It was like being back at school. The signs on the telephone read 'cheap calls when you are homesick'. The kitchen sink had a poster saying 'Your mum is not here to do the washing up now so clean up after yourself'. This place was nice. It was clean. It was easy. Unfortunately it lacked any character as it was full of bus loads of Aus Experience school leavers. Everything was a little more expensive as well. I was starting to think back to Kings Cross..... are the ants going to cope without me?...... are the Swedes going to run out of baby oil?........are Sven and Ulrika ever going to stop kissing?

April 13, 2004

A Flat viewing

'Taxi! Take me back to Kings Cross Please'.

My bag was at her flat. I awoke that morning with my routine 3 point check. Wallet. Phone. Camera. It was the same routine I tried to operate when climbing into the bed after having a few half shandies in the drinking establishments of Kings Cross. It was a fairly straightforward exercise - normally just checking the bulges in my three jeans pocket. My complicated checking procedure had alerted me that morning that important item number three was unaccounted for, my phone. I was residing on the top bunk and as standard procedure slept with my phone as confirmation of the ungodly hour when the sun rose. Normally I would end up with severe spinal discomfort as the phone finds it's way under my torso and acts as a most uncomfortable sleeping mat. This time however the common pains and red mark were absent. The conclusion - I had dropped my blue Nokia onto the broken legged German below.

Apart from the worry that I had hit this stricken lady on the head and knocked her into a deep sleep there was a more worrying factor. The time bomb was set to go off full pelt at nine thirty. I knew from bitter experience that my model unlike others was incredibly effective at waking the whole hostel when triggered. To my dismay I had left it in the room whilst showering in Lamrock on Bondi. Despite the showers being down the corridor I heard the annoying beeping - being cloth less I had been unable to run back quick enough to save the fate of the three jet lagged sleepers in my room.

I was unsure just how much time I had to save a small disaster. I asked ‘haven't said a word for two weeks and been sleep all the time Japanese man’ “Do you know what the time is”. Despite having a rather expensive looking gadget watch on his arm he replied “Sorry, me no understand”. At least I had heard him talk but he was proving to be as much use as a T.V guide in Australia. Maybe I could just look around her to discover the bomb before she awoke? But then again if I was to wake with a half naked man looking over my body I think I would be a bit restless. So I decided to do the normal dorm thing. Just make as much noise humanly possible to wake the other poor bastards happily sleeping around you.

I did a good job, I turned the taps on full pelt, pushed the top bunk up and down and bumped into any thing I could to create that extra noise. Then I thought why didn't I just rustle five plastic bags aimlessly for thirty minutes like all off the other people had done for the past three months - it worked on me. Bingo. With just nine minutes remaining till blastoff she got up and went to the toilet. The alarm clock went off and guided by the screeching siren I located it between two pairs of socks on the bottom bunk. I have never played Keanu Reeves in Speed but I guessed that was what it was like.

Right jobs and accommodation. Maybe I can be useful today. Well the job hunting included 5 minutes looking on the internet and sending out some token emails to random agencies (the other 135 were spent looking at Skysports and hotmail). The flat hunting included buying a copy of the Sydney Morning Herald in which I surprisingly read the sport and headlines and scanned the flats for all of two seconds. The big issue is the Beckhams and the problems with Aboriginal tension cursing this country. Whilst at a visit to the Australian museum I found out that the Aborigines were not allowed to drink in pubs or go to Swimming baths until 1968 (when a student movement kicked up a fuss). Racism still occurs in all parts of the world but I didn't expect it that much over here.

Ok job and flat hunting temporarily finished for today. Time to invest yet more of my dollar into the McDonalds corporation. Despite the fact that I had completed the promotional Pictionary board three times over due to my numerous Big Mac Meal purchases, I had found out that I was losing weight. I was very scientific. My last belt hole was used. Jesus. For the first time since my drinking abused University days I was actually smaller than at 34" waist and could squeeze into a 32 and a half. Time for celebration. Big Mac meal with apple pie and Strawberry Sundae. I deserved it.

After chewing on the greasy Big Mac I walked along
George Streetonly to hear a pin drop. Well actually it was my ball that had fallen from my uneven barbell. This was the eighth time it had come out but this was a little more worrying in that I had two hours to purchase a new one before the hole would heal. Precisely two hours later it I realised just how quickly wounds could heal. I popped into the tattoo parlour on Bondi (The one I had seen on Australia Uncovered on Sky One four months previously) and purchased a new yellow ball. The hole had closed. There was no hole no more. The kind piercing man checked and confirmed it was nearly gone. Not another session with Jaws surely? After a clamping it in place he managed to force the blunt screw through my tongue after fifteen minutes of poking. The blood came but at least I would not need my mouth punctured brutally again.

Seven o'clock. After a quick and enjoyable pizza (made more so by the Romanian looking waitress) I headed down to Bondi to check out a flat. The door was answered by this tanned Irish sounding girl. 'Take a look around'. After exchanging the common pleasantries and flat questions she added 'take a seat, fancy a glass of wine?'. The brand new box of wine was finished in four hours. Her friends had not worked and she was desperate to go out in Bondi as apparently Wednesday is the night to go out. Ok. She's drunk. Ok she is drinking wine from a bottle in front of the bouncers. “Is that water?” he asked. I said no, she said yes. I don't think we could collaborate in a murder trial somehow. “You have to be a hundred meters from this club to drink” he added. “Ok how many I am I at the moment?” she slurred. “Two”. Amazing he let us in.

I looked as apologetically English as possible, it seemed to do the trick. Ok she's really drunk. Take a queue with thirty people waiting patiently to go upstairs to the main club. No, not our friend the Irish girl. Don't sneak around pretending to be coming back from the toilet. No just barge your way through the parting stunned observers. I did'nt follow. She was really really drunk. “Mate, are you with her? You better take her home”. I found out that apart from crashing into innocent bystanders she was walking up to blokes and drinking their drinks. After managing to convince her to leave and pushing her in a straight line towards the direction of home she turned around and headed for the Bondi Beach Hotel. This place was open till four. It was twelve. Quite how she got in past the bemused bouncers is a miracle. After two hours of mental burden that was enough. Seven o'clock was meant to be home time, I was only meant to be looking at a flat for paddy's sake.
A ferry trip to Manly

I broke up my day by taking the ferry across to Manly. After purchasing a more expensive 'Green' weekly travel ticket I thought I would use it for the included boat ride. This runs every half an hour and is a pleasant way to commute into the city. I managed to get on the ferry first and found myself a nice quiet spot on the outer upper deck. Perfect. Ten minutes of peace, ten minutes of just observing the wonders of Sydney Harbour. “You must be Australian, do you know where this is?” a voice appeared from an overweight lady of around sixty years. She was a Yank. No just why she thought I was an Aussie was beyond me, I had no surfboard and I wasn't dark haired. It was just a wild assumption I guess. If I wasn't Asian I must be a local.

She was this sort who would drone on and her husband would completely ignore her. 'Sorry, I'm not from around here' I replied. Peace and quiet. “So where ya from” she added. Oh dear. She wanted to engage in conversation with me. “England” I replied in my poshest English accent. “Oh, Ingland, do ya come from London?” she enquired. I spent the next twenty minutes of the ferry ride listening to how coffee was cheaper in the States (do you know they actually give you FREE refills as well!!), how their hotel did not live up to their standards and how they could not cope with the cuisine. The best one for me was when she said at the top of her voice “Yeah, this place is full of Asians so we are moving on”. Ok you are just saying what I am thinking but don't say it when we are surrounded by Japanese people on the top deck. “What is I.T?” she asked. “Computing” I replied. “What is computing?” she looked rather quizzical. I made the universal typing finger movements and she understood. This was hard work. I was intending to stay on the ferry and go back.

They stayed on the ferry. So I got off. I looked around the pretty place of Manly and returned on the next ferry.

April 10, 2004

The Blue Mountains

“Do you know how much it would cost to wire 20 million dollars from the UK to Australia?. Let me take your card - I need to put some money somewhere, it's no good for me anymore. Yeah, when I told my friends I had four years to live they deserted me. It's strange that when you have a 40 million dollar fortune they all seem to be interested again”.
Now this man looked like he had money. It was a mixture of instinct and the fact that his taste in clothing was incredibly poor. His slick back slightly greying hair was articulate. He wrote scripts for major films and was clearly keen to help others out before his life was to come to a premature end.
“I can't see any Blue mist, I want my money back'. Now this wasn't meant to be funny but Isa (The German can't speak but getting better English speaker) laughed. Then it clicked. My mind cast back to 1991 - a coach trip in the Austrian Mountains. The cockney coach driver had taught me my first word of German over the intercom. “Don't say Mist over here - it means shit it German”. Yes in front of a group of German tourists I had said – “I can't see any Blue Shit” - this confirmed their strange looks. There was blue sky, a blue lamppost, a guy with a blue t-shirt on. For the life of me I couldn't see any blue mist let alone Blue Mountains. This was a severe case of false advertising - this could be seriously punished in the UK.
These mountains were distinctly brown. I could not help but think 'Wow its a mountain, I didn't see many of them in NZ'. And the famous 'three sisters'. Well this was three erosion worn pieces of rock that had been cut away from the main structure. Very unmoving. So like any good Japanese tourist I got my camera out and clicked away - even deeming a 30 second movie recording to be worthwhile.
The Blue Mountains town of Katoomba is without putting it mildly a drunk infested ghost town. I swore that everyone over 50 was either pissed, deformed or just madly talking to themselves. Katoomba is filled with pub stroke bottle shop establishments inhabited by staring inbred locals. The bonus was the hostel - what you would consider to be an original backpackers. Nice communal lounge, attractive garden area and just homely. As Katoomba is dead and full of the people described like the above everyone just stays in and just chats. This combined with the large amount of pot and drinks provides an interesting social arena. Mike was a guy to be avoided. His eyes were glazed and focus seemed difficult. When he sat he would talk at great length. “Yeah, these rent boys invited me over the road and we have been drinking since 10am, it's great being the only straight guy in the neighbourhood'. It was this sort of crap that was repeated every ten minutes along with the 'Cambodia is not fun anymore, you don't get kids throwing hand grenades for a laugh but you still get the hash pizzas”.
One by one the group would disperse - toilet stops for 2 hours the most common get away. James was from Bournemouth and in my room. Now when you feel sorry for yourself always listen to others. This guy had arrived in West Africa for the start of his travels. In the middle of the night a gang raided their group tents and stole everything - leaving the clothes and sleeping back wrapped around their bodies. For the next 5 days they tried to make it Johannesburg for their departing flight without passports, money or any identification. They made it with a combination of begging and pleading at border controls, jumping queues at passport office and forcing the Qantas staff to manually write out an new ticket with every detail. Four days of hell. They made their flight by 15 minutes. Losing a bit of clothing or damaging your camera seemed a bit pathetic in comparison.
It was time to go back to the hussle and bussle of Sydney. We lugged the bags on the train. Train behaviour is interesting and constantly keeps me amused. We have four zones of comfort. For members of the public we naturally keep a distance of between 3-6 metres. In social occasions that gap closes to between 1.2 and 3.6 metres. For friends this closes to between 50cm and 1.2m. Now our intimate zone of between 15 and 46 cms is only shared by the closest of friends or lovers. So what happens on busy trains or buses? Well you get members of the public invading our personal zones which we are not used to which in turn causes some strange behaviour. You can tell the obvious signs a) people looking at the floor or ceiling b) people reading a book without attention (using it as a prop) c) people playing aimlessly with their mobile phone. Basically anything to avoid eye contact with members of the public in their personal zone. They say that commuters look depressed all the time because they are unhappy - in fact this is more to do with the adverse reactions caused my personal zone evasion.
There was a choice. Two spare seats. Sit next to a lady wearing headphones or the guy in front with the greying slick back hair. I think I'll sit next to the women this time and just listen to any interesting conversations nearby.

April 02, 2004

Not all days are good

To say that all days are good would be a lie. Now yesterday was one of those rare days that I just wanted to end as soon as possible. Now it starts off when my camera gets damaged and doesn't work - the offending grain of sand is in big trouble if I can find him. Ok. Get some money out of the bank. Ok maybe I won't get some money out of the bank. Maybe I will just lose or get stolen my only real bank card. Ok lets phone the bank, ok how about the bank doesn't put on its website an international calling number. Cahoot - please realise that not everyone wants to email you, you can sometimes want to speak to a human. Ok no more dramas.

Wait, where is the key for my locker with passports and more importantly the booze cruise tickets that more importantly leaves in 30 minutes. I'm a 30 minute taxi ride from the city. Run down the beach, look for a Marks and Spencer bag tramp style in the bins, no luck. where is my phone? I can't even phone Matt to say I'm not going to be there. Back to the room. I turned the 6ft locker on it's side and using my toothbrush managed to drag out the wallet with passports and tickets. I think the absence of work is making my brain go all gooey.

I will lock my locker and within 2 minutes I will lose the keys. Ok so now I write down in my little notebook where everything is. Its the same train as thought as at 90 year old man but it works for me. The key to the locker, the key to the room, instructions on where my notebook is that tells me where my other notebook is that tells me where everything is. I think its just living in a hostel that screws my head up. So it was getting a little bit better.

Now that was until you realise getting from Bondi to the City takes a painfully long time in traffic. Now to top it all off – “I'm going to a book signing at 7pm so I rush as well” said the taxi driver. 'Oh really, what book' I replied. “Supporting international Terrorism, I have my own terrorist group trying to remove Bush and Blair, Hitler was a saint compared to them, do you have any problems with Terrorists?”.... Ok this guy was an Arab and for all I know was driving a car load of explosives into Central Sydney, I would have looked the perfect foil.

Well I had made the booze cruise. Forty Five dollars for a boat trip, a scattering of beef in a bap with salad and unlimited pints of VB. I knew this may be a bit quiet when they were trying to flog tickets on Bondi Beach the day before. I was right. it was below half capacity. So I sat down outside, turned to my right and there were 8 people from the Kiwi Bus I had been on down to Queenstown. I'm not surprised anymore. The boat ended at 10pm and a coach brought the pissed up Swing low chariot singing people to a bar downtown. Strange experience but a good excuse to see Sydney at night time and chat to a few Aussies that I could find outside.

Finding a car in Sydney is interesting. I accompanied a German girl called Kati down to the Kings Cross Car Market. I was there to see the prices of cars as I was thinking of getting one but also to help out Kati (although I knew nothing about van engines). Bizarre. One floor of a multi storey car park was dedicated to old vans and cars. At each car was two deck chairs with people sitting, reading, smoking or mostly just staring. The look of desperation was a picture. I guess when you are sitting in a dark, fume filled smelly car park and its blue sky outside you are going to be slightly delusional. On the walls were scribbles “Been here 6 days, need to go, going crazy, just let me leave”. All the messages were the same - people come here for 9 hours a day trying to dispose of there vehicle either because they are skint or need to go homes.

I spent nearly two hours talking to the owners -all were interesting people who did their best to convince you that their rusty piece of shit “had treated them well and gave them no problems for months”. It is a little bit different over here. If your car was registered in Western Australia you do not need to get your vehicle tested ever. For this reason the vast majority vehicles come from those parts. When you sell a vehicle you can get a certificate of roadworthiness that advises the potential buyer of any problems. The majority of sellers had these and they were quite open about the defects.

'1 - Fail - Leaking ball joints' - 'Oh that's fine - it just gets a bit messy on the road.

'5 - Steering column bent' ' Ah yes, you just need to turn the steering wheel slightly to the right to correct it'.

By far the most common was

'4 - Ignition key comes out whilst driving'. Yes apparently without warning the ignition key will just fall out at any position in the ignition. The stories of lost keys whilst driving was most interesting.

So in conclusion - you can get a rusty old Mitsubishi camper for 3000 dollars including the entire contents of camping gear, books and old socks. Maybe a coach would be better. The thought of sitting in a dark multi storey car park with desperate people on lovely day for 5 days in a row was rather sobering.


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