Per Ardua ad Australia

Prologue: Fail to plan, plan to muddle through….

I am a great maker of plans. I would say I have a very fertile mind where schemes are concerned, particularly as regards travel and the like. Every year I come up with ever more elaborate destinations to visit, and every year singularly fail to visit most of them. This is because where planning is concerned, great and all as I am at generating ideas, I lack that edge that turns a general set of ideas into a campaign so finely wrought it could have come from the mind of Napoleon or von Moltke. In short, I fail to cover everything. The fun bits of planning, I can do. The nitty-gritty, and the discipline to see these through, less so. By way of example, look at my apartment-searching over the past year. While myself and Michael were all talk about things like what sort of food would we be able to both eat and the kind of soirees that would be thrown, the actual business of finding an apartment and sourcing references was relegated to the category of “stuff to be done at some unspecified point in the future”.

Even keeping an account of my travels over the past few months fell into this trap of inactivity. I simply wouldn’t keep abreast of documenting my various trips, and by the time I felt like doing it, I had forgotten most of the interesting things that happened, so the project would be shelved. In short, I, like most of the population of the planet, am a half-assed procrastinator. Still, it’s worked so far.

Anyway, this is preamble to the planning of my main trip for the year. The plan started out relatively vague. I would take a holiday in October, and possibly September. This had been the plan for months. Beyond a notion that I should visit my brother in Melbourne, there was nothing else. Sure, there were grandiose schemes. I would take six weeks off. I would visit Tokyo, Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, San Francisco and finish in Chicago again, in what was essentially a scaled-up version of my trip last year.

Of course, reality was having none of this. While theoretically I could have taken the six weeks leave necessary for this trip, my own slovenly sense of organisation was never going to ensure I had all my days sorted out. In addition, in a rather surprising turn of events, my apartment hunting finally bore fruit, though my input in the whole business was, to put it mildly, marginal. While independence is a nice thing, self-responsibility consumes more time and money than living at home. Financial discipline while in Ireland, the cornerstone of my whole grandiose plan, was out the window. In its place came drink-fuelled nights out in town and paying airport prices for a lunch I didn’t have time to make before work (or at least, was not willing to get out of bed to make).

So anyway, six weeks became five, which became a month, which contracted to three weeks, exactly the same amount of time I spent on my last trip. I could at least ensure I had this much time off. Next was an itinerary. Australia was a necessity, what with not having seen the brother in a year. Finishing in Chicago seemed like a good idea too, it made it easy to get home, and I could drag a few heads over from Ireland to join me. However, this left a week in the middle that I really couldn’t work out what to do with.

Of course, humans are wonderful at adapting to adverse situations. The fact that I kept putting things off left me with a huge workload for the two days before I left, but decades of procrastination has left me a master of doing things last-minute. Paperwork was hurriedly printed out while at work. My packing process, always quick, was condensed into a few minutes by the simple expedient of carefully removing each of the drawers from my wardrobe and tipping the contents into a suitcase. Ok, somewhere down the line this might leave me with a disproportionate amount of certain types of clothes, but this has never been a problem before. When one item runs short, I simply purchase more. Of course, I was vaguely aware that at some point on my trip I would have to wash clothes, but I put this thought as far out of my mind as possible. After all, a major reason for taking a holiday was to take a break from the unending race against my laundry.

Certain lessons had been learned from last year’s experiences in Dubai and Hong Kong. I wasn’t going to get caught out having to pay a thousand euro for a full fare ticket at the last minute. Sensibly, I decided to go full fare for the last leg, and book well in advance. All that was left was to get to Kuala Lumpur in time for my flight. My route of choice was via Amsterdam. I have a deep-seated hatred of Heathrow, Frankfurt’s scheduling was awkward, and in my experience European carriers are nicer to standbys than their Middle Eastern counterparts.

A good standby passenger must be an acute observer of the industry, and I would like to think of myself as being good at standby. I have a policy when travelling of flying with loss-making airlines where possible. If they are losing money, it means that they have priced themselves out of the market, and probably aren’t filling aircraft. Ergo, lots of standby seats. In Europe, the best candidate for me was KLM. So Amsterdam it was.

Regular followers of my misadventures will know that last year I attempted to do eighty different beers while travelling around the world, only to go down in graceful defeat rather than finish off with three light beers. I briefly contemplated repeating the attempt this year, but demurred. The liver I am bringing with me is not what it was last year. My alcohol tolerance has bombed, and to be honest, spending three weeks in a drunken haze doesn’t sound like as much fun as it used to. I grow old.  In the end, I resolved to head off and simply have as much fun as possible, and if it happens to be in a drunken haze, so much the better.

So anyway, having decided on a routing out of Dublin, a year to the day after I left the last time, I appeared at the Aer Lingus standby desk, hoping and praying I hadn’t forgotten anything too important.

 

 

Part I: Amsterdamned if you do, Amsterdamned if you don’t.

I have a longstanding gripe, as an airline customer service agent, that airlines are overly accommodating to passengers travelling with children. It is as if the mere act of squeezing out a sprog entitles you to privileges that those of us who are sensible enough not to contribute to global overpopulation do not get. If you travel with a child, you can appear at the airport any time and still get your choice of seat (“He’s only eight, he can’t sit on his own”, as if every other passenger on the plane was a paedophile), you can board first (“I need to get them settled”), you can bring obscene amounts of handluggage on board (“It’s for the kids”), and you can’t be held to account for whatever horrors your brat inflicts on other passengers (“He’s just a little high-spirited….”). DAA have introduced another concession to the childbearing crowd, namely, a dedicated security queue for families. Of course, I know that this is actually a concession to the rest of us. Buggies are a nightmare to get through security. As a result, families, far from getting a free pass, are instead corralled into an area where the only people inconvenienced by their little bundles of terror are other families.

There is an art to getting through airport screening, particularly in off peak in Dublin. Political pressure from the grey brigade has meant that the only people with the time and money for holidays in October are generally the elderly. As a result, a seasoned traveller knows to look for the least wrinkled queue in security. As George Clooney said of elderly passengers in Up in the Air, their bodies are littered with hidden pieces of metal and they have no appreciation for how little time they have left. It’s knowledge like this that minimises the hassle of travel.

Anyway, with these hurdles cleared, I settled down in the Slaney bar in Dublin Airport. Lack of food in the apartment led me to forgo breakfast that morning, so I dealt with that issue in the Slaney, if you can call a pint of Smithwick’s breakfast.

Inasmuch as I’ve ever had an uneventful flight, the Dublin to Amsterdam one on October 1st was it. A nice, straight flight path, no turbulence, three seats to myself, a beer and a book, what more could one ask? And MyIdtravel.com, the Google for standby travel, still had my Amsterdam-Kuala Lumpur flight as being wide open, so things were looking up nicely.

I like the Dutch. They are almost as efficient as the Germans, but far more laid back. Their favourite English word is “Sure”. Schipol Airport, while big, is very easy to navigate, and for this and a few other reasons is now my preferred place to connect on to other flights. The big reason, of course, is that KLM virtually always have seats available on their flights. Even when they are tight, there’s usually a pile of passengers misconnecting, so one usually gets a seat in the end. Sometimes, however, it gets very hairy indeed.

I can only assume that a number of passengers on the early morning flight to Kuala Lumpur misconnected and were moved to the later flight, because when I got into Schipol the picture wasn’t nearly as rosy as MyIdtravel.com had led me to believe. I walked up to the standby desk and asked what my chances were, whereupon the agent started looking up the flight on the computer and muttering to herself that the flight was oversold by eight, before informing me that it was “hard to tell”. Speaking as someone who has worked behind a standby desk, I can tell you that “hard to tell” actually means “you don’t have a hope but I’m not in the humour to hear a sob story”.

Ok, this was beginning to look like deja vu, with one major difference. Last year, I was on completely flexible tickets, so all I was losing was time if I couldn’t get out on flights. Even so, I had to shell out serious wedge on confirmed tickets booked at the last minute. This time, in order to save that problem occurring again, I had a confirmed ticket from Kuala Lumpur to Sydney. The issue was that everything was predicated on me reaching Kuala Lumpur in time for my next flight. Suddenly this was looking unlikely in the extreme. Extensive research revealed two equally unpleasant options: The first was flying to Paris, then to Hong ong, then to KL and hoping I could change my booking en route for a minimal fee. The second was flying to Paris, from there to Shanghai, and chancing my arm going standby on a Qantas flight from Shanghai to Sydney. Either way had the potential to be an expensive repeat of the year before.

Then came the miracle. I was at the gate, waiting to find out my fate, when one of the staff asked me if I was willing to sit in a crew seat. Somehow I managed to say yes without getting on my knees and pleading for it. Twelve hours in the cockpit might not have been pleasant, but it sure beat arsing around Schipol and getting a morning flight to Paris to endure the same rigmarole there.

Then a second miracle. There were about a dozen staff passengers trying to get out on that flight. Three got seats. I was the third. Granted, it was a middle seat behind the bassinets, but beggars can’t be choosers, and in standby terms, I was the equivalent of the scruffy guys on O’Connell Street asking for money for a hostel/heroin.

KLM fly Boeing 777s on the Amsterdam-Kuala Lumpur route. Not my favourite type of aircraft. At some point in the past some genius noticed that with care, the plane could seat ten passengers abreast, rather than the nine it had been designed for. Great idea from the point of view of the bottom line, but from the point of view of a fat bastard like me, the inch or two reduction in the width of my seat was a sore price to pay. Other problems emerge. Suddenly, there’s additional demand for the toilets, a facility 777s never had in abundance anyway. In addition, the catering facilities were designed for a smaller amount of passengers. Net result, two of the three flights I have ever been on that have run out of Heineken have been 777s, and given that this was only my third time on such an aircraft, that represented a 100% strike rate so far.

Twelve hours in an unnaturally narrow middle seat was not my idea of a good time, as can be imagined. Then there was the food. Like every European carrier, KLM has seen fit to prune its catering budget to near nothingness. To this could be added the general awfulness of Dutch food. Lacking a serious ethnic cuisine, the Duth have seen fit to appropriate the food of others. However, in order to give it a distinctive feel, they add grease. Lots of grease. Anytime I order pizza in Holland I find myself obliged to tilt it at a steep angle in order to pour off vast amounts of the stuff. Also, Malaysia is a Muslim country. KLM had a simple policy to ensure that nobody was forced to eat non-halal food. Everyone got a halal meal. The true implications of this would not become obvious until breakfast time, when I realised that there wasn’t going to be bacon. I know all of this is more than offset by the gratitude I bear KLM for getting me to Malaysia in the first place, but it is human nature that we forget big favours and remember small indignities. Bacon is the greatest of foods, and to have my expectations of bacon punctured on religious grounds was sore.

It occurs to me that I have now seen all three Iron Man films for the first time on aircraft. Twelve hours of flying allowed me to get in not only Iron Man III, but also Man of Steel, Skyfall and A Good Day to Die Hard, which I forced myself to endure again, largely out of masochism and a need to confirm it was as bad as I remembered. After four stellar Die Hards, the latter is an abomination equivalent to the Golden Calf or the Qatar World Cup. Anyway, at 3pm local time, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep and worryingly sober from lack of alcohol, I arrived in Kuala Lumpur.

 

Part II: One Lumpur Two

I had only ever been a distant observer of Malaysia, and my observations were far from pleasant. It is effectively a nondemocratic country that routinely discriminates against Christians and non-Malays. The standard way of sidelining political opponents is to accuse them of homosexuality. As a result, my decision to go via Kuala Lumpur was more motivated by lack of other options. My experiences last year taught me that it was cheaper to go full-fare for the last leg into Australia, so an intermediary destination was required. Unfortunately, sitting square in between Europe and Australia are a line of countries that are, to put it bluntly, Muslim. While Sharia law has many admirable traits such as rules about charity (strongly encouraged) and racism (strictly proscribed) the fact remains that Islam has issues with the kind of things I consider fun. Eighteen hours in Dubai Airport without so much as a pint of beer last year meant I was now extremely wary about where I would make my stopover. Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Qatar were out on account of being not particularly fun and generally being expensive to get to Australia from. Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore were tight both coming and going. And so I was left with Kuala Lumpur. Islamic, but not excessively so. Quite cosmopolitan, and tolerant of alcohol. And of course, cheap to fly onwards from, but more on that later.

Casual racist that I am, I have a few opinions about the Far East. Based on previous observation, I have noticed that they combine dislike and fascination in their attitudes towards foreigners, and that if there is even a hint of money about you, you get treated like royalty. So it was that I walked into my hotel in a suit and tipping generously (by Asian standards, where any tip is generous), and suddenly people were falling over themselves to help me out, as though I were a young member of the Rothschild dynasty.

Though I have been to Southeast Asia before, I always marvel at how cheap everything is. A night in a high-end hotel, a meal and a few beers, breakfast and a pint in the airport, and a meal and a dozen beers on board my flight came to less than five hundred Malaysian ringgit, or one hundred and twenty euro. Anyway, by this point I was so tired that I could barely stand up, so I hit the bed at 7pm local time, and to my surprise managed to sleep for eleven hours undisturbed.

Next day in the airport bus station I got something of a surprise. My previous assumption that looking rich encouraged the royal treatment was mistaken. While walking through the bus station, no fewer than four different bus drivers approached me, not to solicit business, but to give me directions to the relevant bus. When I dropped a few coins, two people picked them up and returned them to me. All parties refused any sort of tips. Clearly my impression of Malaysians as xenophobes was wrong in the extreme. They seem to be a genuinely friendly people. In addition, everyone there spoke perfect English, something I have never encountered in Asia, even in Hong Kong.

Malay itself seems to have borrowed an awful lot of what is called “Panglish”, or global English. Bus Station has become Bas Stasun, and a description for high quality food is “Hameed” (Homemade). If ever I was aware of the global imperative towards English it was that morning in Kuala Lumpur Airport. To my eye (which is rather good in this matter), the queue for checkin was comprised of Bangladeshis, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Australians, all of whom addressed the (Malay) checkin agent in English. Much as it may upset the French, English is now the true world language.

Of course, the primary reason I was flying through Kuala Lumpur was price, and here KL had a huge advantage over other airports. When Michael O’Leary has sex, he probably thinks about AirAsia. The airline boasts the lowest cost base in the world, and consequently offers insanely cheap fares. One suspects a number of corners may have been cut (a common practice with Southeast Asian carriers, many of whom are banned from flying to the EU on safety grounds), but they haven’t had an incident yet, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Of course, I dreaded the onboard facilities. I had cleverly selected my seat in the premium area and in such a way that there was a strong chance the seat beside me would remain vacant. However, given that they were managing to squeeze 377 seats onto an aircraft that Aer Lingus would put 322 on, I was pretty sure it was going to be a cramped trip.

To my delighted shock, the flight was nowhere near as bad as I had anticipated. I did indeed have an empty seat to work with, and the cabin crew positively forced (cheap) beer onto me. Oddly enough, I am more likely to drink heavily on a flight where I have to pay, as it reduces the guilt I feel at abusing the facility. The only downside was the food. Ok, it was cheap, but asking for a cheese pizza slice means just cheese. This problem had hit me the night before too, when a pepperoni pizza contained all sorts of unwanted extras, such as onions, peppers, and most awfully, mushrooms. I would not be an overly fussy eater, but I draw the line at mushrooms. To put it simply, they trigger my gag reflex. Unfortunately, Malaysia seems to be insane about the things. The two pizzas I had were slathered in them, and the chefs had a gift for concealment, which meant that I had to carefully peel each layer of the pizza to ensure that none of the blighters remained. Mind you, compared to KLM’s fare, it was a marked improvement, and I felt positively enthusiastic disembarking in Sydney, despite my knowledge of the ordeal that was Australian immigration.

A quarter of a million people migrate to Australia every year. This is an insane number for a country that doesn’t border a warzone, but given how rich and empty the Australia is, the number makes a kind of sense. It is the job of Australian Immigration officials to make life as miserable as possible on tourists The last time I was in Oz I spent the guts of an hour queueing and enduring nonsensical questions about my job (“I do as little as possible”), my marital status (“you must be joking”), and my onwards travel plans (“The sooner the better”). Hell, they are the only immigration service in the world that has a documentary about them. Should I be detained, at least I might become famous.

Thankfully, none of these eventualities occured. I made it through immigration and customs without becoming an impromptu TV star. In fact, the worst immigration experience to this point was getiing through Amsterdam, which as an EU citizen, should really be a cinch but government cutbacks have obviously afflicted this area too. The next hurdle was getting a cab. My hotel was a local run, which meant I was going to make an enemy of whichever taxi driver was at the front of the rank. My standard way around this is to tip generously, but when I walked up to the chosen cab, there was no driver to be found. A quick recce of the vicinity determined that my driver was in the middle of a fistfight with another driver. Despite my best efforts to find another taxi, I was saddled with this violent madman, who, after an experience that deserved a commentary by Murray Walker, promptly delivered me to the wrong hotel. Eventually, a less crazed cabbie rectified this mistake, and I settled down at the correct hotel.

 

Part III: The Melbourne Identity

My knowledge of Australia is sketchy at best, and largely gathered from media sources of inconsistent quality. I know that centuries of trying have failed to produce a single decent lager, I know that their elections are basically tests in who can make the most horrible promises about refugees, and I know that disparaging the Boot is a Bootable Offence. Beyond, that it was all going to be a learning experience.

Sydney-Melbourne is the third busiest air route in the world. A quick glance at the schedule showed I had a flight every half hour to choose from. I assumed that, like us with Dublin-Heathrow, there wouldn’t be much waiting around. I even decided to have lunch before the flights, arriving in the airport at 11am to hopefully get on a 1.30pm flight. Of course, this being me, I was to be mistaken. The afternoon degenerated into a routine of going over to the desk every fifteen minutes before each flight, and being told that I would be waiting for the next one, whereupon I would have a rushed pint before repeating the process. End result was that when I got the 5pm flight, I was perhaps a little more unsteady than I should have been. I had summoned up my stock answer if necessary (when a man tells you he’s not drunk, he’s a stroke victim, few people query overmuch), but I was waved on board, feeling quite miffed at a wasted afternoon. My grumpiness was somewhat assuaged when another standby passenger sat down beside me and informed me he had been waiting unsuccessfully since the 10am flight, and we proceeded to trade horror stories of our experiences in various airports.

The first and most important thing I was to discover about Australia is how expensive it is. My one visit to a Sydney sports bar had obviously been an outlier, as the booze was cheap even by Irish standards. At time of writing the Aussie dollar is trading at about $1.40 to the euro, so use that as a point of reference. By the time I had got to my hotel in Melbourne, I had spent a hundred dollars on taxi fares in two days. Other horror stories include seven dollars for half a pint of beer, and an astonishing twenty-four dollars for a six pack of party cans from a convenience store. Anyway suffice it to say that Melbourne actually manages to beat New York in the price stakes.

Waiting for me at the hotel was my brother. I haven’t seen Tim in over a year, and I am delighted to say he hasn’t changed much. As might be expected, the first priority was to grab a few drinks in the hotel, followed by heading into the city. Melbourne seems a serious nightlife spot, with plenty of pubs in the city centre.

There is a kind of etiquette to dealing with close friends or family members whom one hasn’t really communicated with in the past year. Simply put, beyond the basic “how are you?”, one cannot probe too deeply. Even a basic outline of the past year’s activities would put too much of a strain on both speaker and listener. As a result, it is implied that all parties are fine, meaning that any problems can now be glossed over, in keeping with the great Irish tradition. In any case, I can but assume Tim is fine, as he is the kind of individual who generally lands on his feet, or at least isn’t overly perturbed if he gets his knees dirty.

There are many ways to get on my bad side. Merely being born makes it a statistical likelihood that I won’t like you, as some of your views will be things I don’t hold with. Having the temerity to travel by air all but makes it a certainty. However, just about the surest way of all to make an enemy of me is to charge for Wifi and make it sound like you’re doing me a favour.

Some years ago, Finland decided that internet access was a fundamental human right. This I agree with. It pains me to be apart from emails, CNN, or meaningless Facebook updates for any amount of time. So it was that when I discovered my hotel charged for Wifi, I seriously considered finding a hotel that didn’t. And when I enquired about the rates, and the receptionist told me it was “only” five dollars per hour or fifteen for the day, I started ruminating on the possibility of acquiring a firearm and causing an event. Those who know anything about me at all would be aware I find it a chore to be without internet for any length of time, and though time has mellowed me in this regard (I managed a whole week in Spain earlier on this year without access to Gmail,  the Guardian, Buzzfeed, Cracked or any of the other outlets that make my life that bit less irritating), suffice it to say that to say that charging for wifi is one of those unpleasant little extras that any sane society would outlaw.

St Kilda really is a delightful place, combining a late-colonial feel with all the amenities a sophisticated decadent such as myself could wish for, internet excluded. I randomly wandered  into the Esplanade hotel as my first port of call the next day, which, it turned out, is apprently a well-known music venue. The important thing was that they do a good steak, at prices that would be competitive  in Dublin, to say nothing of Melbourne. I had difficulty raising Tim that afternoon, discovering to my amusement that the previous night’s festivities had left him somewhat hungover. Being a very occasional sufferer of hangovers, I tend not to reflect on the fact that alcohol has an after effect on some unfortunates.

Anyway, Tim’s hangover soon dissipated, particularly in the face of other priorities. Everton were playing that evening, and the only place likely to be showing the match was the Crown casino. I have spent my life avoiding such venues, largely out of fear of how expensive a night one could have in there, but hey, when in Rome and whatnot. In the end it wasn’t gambling that was the problem. At some point in the wee hours security obviously cottoned on as to how much I had drank and refused me anything further. The epilogue to the night was an argument Tim had with the cabbie on the way back towards St Kilda about Tim’s desire to touch one of the buttons in the cab…

There is a stereotypical view of Australians, particularly among Atlanticists, that they are essentially backwoodsy Europeans, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Ok, my experience of Australia is limited to the two biggest cities. Quite possibly there exists in the Outback the kind of six-toothed, sheep-shearing, incestuous type portrayed in the media, but Sydney and Melbourne must rank up there with London, New York or Vancouver for how cosmopolitan they are. The Asia-Pacific area may be the crucible of global geopolitics for the next century, but I suspect an awfully large amount of people are unaware of how integrated the region is. Apparently Australia is actively seeking Korean immigrants in particular, partly because they are willing to work long and hard for little recompense, but mostly because when they finish on a Friday they will almost certainly be back in on Monday, a trait that is not necessarily true of Europeans.

A couple of nights later found us out in the city centre, alongside Shaun “Chops” O’Halloran, who had accompanied Tim to Australia. While I was in regular email contact with Tim over the past year, Chops’ goings-on were largely unknown to me. Almost the entirety of his Facebook updates consisted of claims he was gay, loved men, loved penises, or some other permutation thereof. Apparently he had a bad habit of leaving his Facebook account signed in when he left the room, a fact that my brother and others soon took advantage of.

McDonald’s is one of those unsung Meccas to a seasoned traveller. Much as the pretentious may crow about how one must enjoy local cuisine on holiday, the fact is that local cuisine in the Asia-Pacific region can consist of anything up to dog, seaweed, or cockroaches. As Prince Philip once pointed out, if it has legs and isn’t a chair, if it flies and isn’t a plane, or if it swims and isn’t a submarine, then the Cantonese will eat it. So anyone who has ever been an expat quickly learns the value of McDonald’s. The food may be mediocre at best, but the service is quick, the food is cheap, and one knows exactly what one is getting. Of course, there is no difficulty getting Western food in Australia, it was the lateness of the hour rather than squeamishness that drove us into McDonald’s. Judging by the group of (I was informed) crackheads who were our only company in the place, begging in Melbourne is a lot more lucrative than in Dublin.

The next night was my last in Melbourne, and was not particularly eventful. Somehow, it’s exponentially easier to part with someone a second time, especially after only a brief reunion. In any case, both myself and Tim were in flitters, and I was due in Melbourne for a 9am flight to Wellington the next morning. Still, one of the advantages of modern air travel is that nowhere is truly distant anymore. It took me three and €450 days to get to Melbourne by air, travelling at a very leisurely pace. That’s nothing too strenuous. Emigration is no longer the near-permanent severance it once was, and that is a major comfort.

 

Part IV: One does not simply walk into New Zealand

My next destination was more a product of indecision than decision. I was due to leave Melbourne on October 10th. I was due to arrive in Chicago on the 16th. Thanks to the vagaries of the International Date Line, that effectively left me a week for moping around the Asia-Pacific area.  And options were plentiful. If I had the money (which I didn’t), I could have gone to Hong Kong, as has been a longstanding ambition. I knew people in Thailand, Singapore, Tokyo, San Francisco and Sydney who I could visit. And yet, up until three days before I left Melbourne, I still hadn’t the foggiest where I would be going next.

Visiting Kev in Wellington was always the easiest option. I could get there on standby and there was no mucking about with the bloody Date Line or the Equator. Also, I had been in Wellington before, and it is a grand city for having the crack. The problem was that I found myself completely unable to get in contact with Kevin. I had emailed him, Facebooked him and used both his old and current numbers to get in contact. Granted, he isn’t known for checking his emails or Facebook, but I was getting worried.

Then, finally, he rings me off a number I had not previously seen, and gives me his current contact number. It turns out the number I had for him was off by one digit. Given that most of the texts I have sent him in the past year or so have been things that were, quite frankly, too obscene for any of my other friends, there is quite possibly a New Zealander wandering around traumatised after receiving filthy texts from a stranger. Anyway, having finally made contact, arrangements were made to meet up, and thus I found myself in Melbourne Airport at 7am.

If I have one dominant personality trait in work, it is a lack of tolerance or sympathy for mistakes. As far as I am concerned, it is entirely a passenger’s fault if they failed to read the small print to assidiously, or had an overly casual attitude towards the documentation they require to visit the USA. In fact, I delude myself on being a perfectionist. It is therefore quite ironic that as a passenger I am guilty of many of the foibles that I fulminate about in others. I am forever caught bringing liquids through security, due to me forgetting to empty my bag of them when switching it from work to travel. And, at Qantas checkin in Melbourne, I made another cardinal error: I forgot to book a ticket out of New Zealand.

In this situation, my first reaction was a sort of racist indignancy. I am a Caucasian, do I look like the person who would be an illegal immigrant? Then of course comes the realisation that the Irish have been serial offenders in that regard in the past few years, and I am a shifty-looking fellow after all. Last year, when I had purchased all my tickets in advance (at a ruinous cost, counting backups), the problem had never arisen. This year, MyIdtravel.com had liberated me from having to buy all my tickets in advance, but at the same time, it had given me a casual attitude to buying tickets. Suddenly I had been impaled on a sword upon which I had thrust so many others over  the years. Thankfully, a panicked visit to MyIdtravel rectified matters with minutes to spare.

In fairness to Qantas, they do as much as possible to assist staff passengers. I have never had a bad seat with them. Where possible they will give staff an empty seat beside them to work with (On long haul flights, this is nearly as good as an upgrade). And in Melbourne they gave me a priority pass, which was an absolute godsend. There can be few greater meaningless pleasures in life than watching the plebs queueing for security as one strolls past the queue and uses an empty machine. Two hurried pints later and I was on my way to New Zealand.

Wellington is both the southernmost and most isolated capital city in the world, figuratively and literally. The only regular international flights to Wellington are from Australia, probably out of necessity. New Zealand seems to be surrounded by some sort of vortex of turbulence. I have never had a flight in, through or out of New Zealand that didn’t seem like a theme park ride.

I realise this is beginning to become an exposition on the evils of airline food, but as far as I can determine, the quality has declined dramatically in the past year. Yes, last year I was using premium carriers and this year I am using cash-strapped European and budget Asian airlines, but surely Qantas would have the decency to be consistent. Lamentably, this was not the case. Breakfast was advertised as including chorizo sausage. I found one tiny piece of it, buried among beans and sauce. Yes, meat is expensive and beans are not, but it would be nice nonetheless to have a breakfast that contained acceptable portions of its stated ingredients.

If you are in any way a poor air traveller, it is probably advisable not to fly into Wellington Airport. The airfield sits between two steep hills, creating a wind tunnel in an already windy area. Also, the runway juts out into the sea, so one is left with the feeling of being bounced around while just over the water.

Having been quite fortunate with my adventures through immigration, it was inevitable that I would run out of luck sooner or later. So it was that clearing immigration and customs in New Zealand took nearly and hour of forms, questions and bag examinations. Anyway, once this rigmarole had been passed, it was time to head into the city. Unsure as to my arrival time, and because Kevin was working late, I had decided to book into a hotel for the first night. I then proceeded to head out for a few pints, and stumbled into a table quiz, which presented a dilemma: Do I enter on my own and risk winning? I decided to pass, on the grounds that table quizzes are a dime a dozen in Wellington.

Life occasionally imitates art, with hilarious consequences. I had occasion to use the hotel bar upon a morning. The plan was a Coke to wake me up, and a beer to counteract the effects of the Coke. I realise this could have been adequately achieved by simply having a glass of water, but that wouldn’t have been fun, and besides, my internal organs need exercise just as much as the rest of me. Anyway, after ordering the beer, I asked for a Coke, whereupon the the bartender asked what kind of beer that was. I repeated, slowly “Coca-Cola”, and she went and started to pour another beer. I accept that the thickness of my accent and the general incoherence of my voice may have complicated matters, but surely this was a bit much.

Wellington is essentially what would happen if one got the trendier bits of a larger city and dispensed with the rest. Pubs generally have a broad selection of craft beers, there seem to be a plethora of independent bookshops, and as I say there are piles of pub quizzes. In the city centre at least, the population seems to be young and cosmopolitan. In other words, a perfect place to live. Except, of course, for all of the potential natural disasters that could befall the city. Wellington is extremely vulnerable to tsunamis, even a small one would knock out most of the seafront. In addition the North Island of New Zealand is highly volcanic and earthquake prone. In other words, living in Wellington is akin to playing Russian roulette with a machine gun.

Then, of course, there is the weather. I would consider myself a reasonably well travelled individual. I have been in Mexico when the temperature was in the mid-40s, I have been in Chicago when it was nearly thirty below, and I have been in Korea for a typhoon. All of these have one unifying feature: They are expected and can be prepared for accordingly. Not so Wellington. Six days out of seven the weather is somehow unpleasant, in a multitude of varieties. Either it is pouring rain, oppressively foggy, or there are the kind of gales that a more temperate society would see as a sign of divine wrath. I had one sunny day there. The next day the winds were gusting at over 100km/h. This is considered perfectly normal.

For over a decade now, myself and Kevin have engaged in a passive-aggressive game of trying to irritate each other. My tactics have generally consisted of things like getting him kicked out of class in school or stabbing him with a pen. He was in the habit of refusing to flush the toilet under any circumstances and displaying his genitalia to me at unexpected moments. However, while here, I happened upon a new irritant which rather annoyed him: Leaving lights on in his apartment. I am normally fastidious about turning lights off when not in use, but after seeing Kevin’s reaction when I accidentally forgot to do so, I decided to do quite the opposite. Just before he was due back from work, I would switch every light in his apartment on and imply that they had been on for the day, which would send him into paroxysms of rage.

The night before I left we attended a table quiz. I take such matters extremely seriously. Woe betide any member of my team who even has a phone on the table. I play to win and do not like accusations of impropriety. This is particularly the case in situations like that evening, when there were only two of us on the team, and a victory might look a little dubious. We duly won an eighty dollar bar tab valid for the next week. The problem was that I was leaving the next day and the bar was closing within an hour. A lot of hurried drinking followed, and a sizeable dent was made in the tab.

Anyway, all things come to an end, so next day, I was in Wellington Airport, getting ready for just about the longest journey I have ever undertaken, and the next leg of my trip.

 

Part V: From Windy City to Windy City

Certain people shouldn’t be let out of the house, let alone allowed into airports. It was my misfortune to be stuck behind one of these daft besoms in security at Wellington. Obviously she had no concept of airport security in general or metal detectors in particular, as she walked straight through without removing any items, which elicited the expected alarm from the machine. Sent back to try again, she took out her wallet, and set it off again. The keys came out this time, she tried again, and once more set it off. Phone. Alarm. Jacket. Alarm. Shoes. Alarm. Alarm. Alarm. Then she remembers she has a steel hip, and a quick scan confirms this, so after six or seven attempts and a queue of exasperated passengers behind her, she was finally released back upon the world.

I had an overnight stay in Sydney planned. Due to the early hour of my next flight, I decided to stay in the same hotel near Sydney Airport that I had used a fortnight earlier. There was the added bonus of a sports bar down the road. Sports bars in Australia seem to break the rule of insane prices. Drinks there seem to cost less than in Ireland. Perhaps they make up for it with the revenues from the pokies, which they generally have in abundance.

There is a certain type of alcoholic lunatic I have found to be universal. Almost every bar in the world can boast of one such specimen. They are invariably a male aged 35-55 or so. Either they were operating off a previous mental problem or a decade-long binge has left them unbalanced. They are the stuff of barkeepers’ nightmares. On the one hand, their presence can be off-putting for other patrons, but on the other hand, alcoholics are nothing if not lucrative customers. They also have a disturbing habit of intruding upon strangers in a bar, no doubt because regulars are wise to them.  I seem to have a gift for attracting these maniacs, and that night was to be no exception.

I had actually encountered the fellow a fortnight before. When he heard that I was Irish, he launched into an incoherent spiel, the only phrases of which I could understand were “IRA” and “SAS”, both of which he seemed to find hilarious. This time around I made a point of sitting as far away as possible. Unfortunately, he then decided to use the pinball machine beside me. I suddenly found myself being pestered for change and asked if I wished to play, when clearly all I wanted was some privacy. The ordeal culminated with him asking for my jacket to wipe off some beer he spilled on the pinball table.

The next day was going to be a long one. Sydney to Los Angeles is a fourteen hour flight. LA to Chicago is a further four hours. I planned to do them all in one sitting. Then I discovered that I couldn’t buy tickets for United Airlines or American Airways on MyIdtravel. Another bloody amateur mistake on my part, but one which left me pinning all my hopes on getting a seat on a full Virgin America flight from LA. Qantas, at least, were able to accommodate me on the flight to LA. Once again, though, I was forced to face the horrors of a middle seat on a longhaul flight.

I’m not actually a bad sleeper on aircraft. Ok, aircraft sleep is a poor substitue for real sleep, but it’s better than nothing. Alas, for some reason I cannot sleep on Qantas flights. Don’t ask me why. This specific insomnia afflicted neither of the people sitting beside me, with the net result that I endured half a day over the Pacific Ocean with two people snoring in my ears. The other disadvantage of middle seats in this situation is when one wishes to use the toilet. In order to avoid this unpleasant eventuality, I abstained from alcohol for the flight, and whenever the fellow in the aisle left his seat, I took advantage of the moment to visit the lavatory. In fairness to Qantas, while their food on the whole leaves much to be desired, on longhaul flights they have a whole lot of it. Two meals and snacks galore took some of the sting out of the ordeal.

Qantas operate flights to LA from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. They are all scheduled to arrive at approximately the same time, and which one gets in first is largely random. What this means is one can either be the first person at US Immigration or find a crowd of about a thousand people ahead of them, and it is blind luck into which category one falls. In my case it was the latter. An hour’s queueing ensued, followed by a grilling from the guy in Immigration, an experience I haven’t had in several years. This unpleasant business was worsened by the fact that, nearly ninety minutes after I had disembarked, the luggage wasn’t yet on the carousel.

LAX, like Los Angeles in general, is a pretty awful place. Its sole redeeming feature is that it is easy to navigate, a fact that didn’t prevent me going the wrong way twice. I would blame the fact that I had been up for nineteen hours at the time. Having rectified these errors, I presented myself at Virgin America checkin and went off to a bar to play the waiting game. As is normal for me when I’m on my own in airports, I struck up a conversation with a fellow traveller, which culminated in him attempting to purchase a AU$50 note off me to add to his collection, before deciding better of it. Then I got paged and discovered that, once again, I had got the last seat on a flight. Thank God for small mercies. On to Chicago.

 

Part VI: The Right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Pale Ale

It can be said that there are three kinds of people in this world: Those who find Chicago to be the best city in the United States, those who have never been to Chicago, and those who are plain wrong. Unlike New York, which is simply too big to get one’s head around, Chicago is both big enough to feel like a proper metropolis, and small enough not to be mindboggling. Ten million souls call the city and its environs home, which, while an insanely high figure for a Dubliner to contemplate, at least falls far short of the twenty million or so New Yorkers. The city has a kind of working-class charm, coupled with a bourgeoise sophistication that is uncommon in America.

By the time I arrived in the hotel and met up with the others, I was, to put it mildly, somewhat tired. Twenty-seven hours without sleep can do that to a man. Nonetheless, I summoned up whatever reserves of energy and headed out. Thankfully jet lag works both ways, and the other members of my party, Paul, John, Ellen and Rob, were equally exhausted, so we were all back in the hotel at a relatively sane hour. Following the trauma of sharing a bed in Chicago last year, I wasn’t in any mood to repeat the experience, and quite happily paid a premium for a twin room.

If Chicago has one defining attribute, it is its architecture. Not for nothing was it used as Gotham City in Christopher Nolan’s films. The city abounds with impressive structures, ranging from faux-Gothic skyscrapers to ultramodern buildings. It is as if planning applications can be rejected on the grounds of poor aesthetics. Somewhere like Dublin, where an office block is essentially a glass-covered cuboid, could learn a lot from this. The river tour of Chicago’s architecture is an extremely interesting, albeit somewhat pricey experience.

Rumour has it that the finest view of the city is to be had from the women’s bathroom of the Signature Lounge on the 96th floor of the John Hancock Building, one of the more iconic pieces of the Chicago skyline. Lacking the appropriate genitalia, I have never been able to verify this. This time around, we had a new tactic. Ellen was going to bring back photographic evidence of the view, though someone taking photos in a women’s bathroom might arouse suspicion, to say the least. However it turns out the rumour is unfounded. There is of course no window in the bathroom.

That evening we went to Division and Rush, one of the better areas in the inner city for the social scene, though it is perhaps rather tourist-oriented. Inasmuch as I have a local in Chicago, it would be the Lodge, a rather cramped bar with cheap drink, free peanuts, and most importantly a jukebox. I am a dangerous person to be allowed near such a contraption. My music tastes are rather eclectic. As a result, people in the bar may have been subjected to rather more 80’s hair metal than they wished for. This was nothing to what John decided to inflict on unsuspecting patrons. A live version of B’Witched was bad enough, but after he played Barbie Girl, we had to flee, lest we be tarred, feathered, and buried under the crossroads with stakes through our hearts.

The plan for the next day involved an ice hockey game. I was rather sceptical about this. Ice hockey is one of those games that simply fails to interest me. Were I a better skater, this might be different. The problem with ice skating is that, on account of the speed of the puck, one doesn’t know what is going on until after it has happened. This is perhaps the reason why fights are allowed in NHL. The game we were going to was a tier lower, the AHL.

Live sports games in the USA are oddly comparable to professional wrestling, in that they mix hardcore sport with theatrics. Ice hockey is perhaps the most extreme example, outside of the WWE itself. Every interval and timeout must be filled with something to keep the punters occupied. This may be a result of the sheer volume of stoppages in a typical American game. There can be five or six ten-minute stoppages in a game of ice hockey. Each of these must have something else to keep people’s attention. So there are pyrotechnics, there are coordinated skating events, and there are free T-shirts. This may also be a consequence of the fact that a lot of people at the game seem to have even less of an idea of what is going on than I do.

There is a kind of fake sports fan who inflicts absolute misery on others. They attend sports because someone they care about also cares about sport and they want to show willing. They pretend to be interested. And, without fail, they bring some sort of noisemaking device with them. In footballing terms, I would hazard a guess that there is an inverse correlation between the amount of noise a spectator makes and the probability that they understand the offside rule. Given the amount of non-fans at American sports games, it tends to make for very noisy affairs. At this particular game, a middle-aged woman with a face like the sole of a shoe had seen fit to furnish herself with a cowbell, which she seemed to ring at inopportune times. Even when the team scored, she was a few seconds behind the curve, reaffirming my suspicion that she wasn’t paying attention at all.

Anyway, the next day was supposed to be museum day. Hurried research indicated that the L-Trains passed quite close to the Science Museum. Unfortunately, due to a misappreciation of the size of Chicago, “quite close” turned out to be several miles away. The upshot of this was that we ended up arriving at the museum fifteen minutes before it was due to close, which I suppose is another demonstration of the shoddiness of our preparations. This was further exposed when we found a train station right beside the museum.

Somewhere along the way Rob and John had got the idea of karaoke into their heads, and were rather reluctant to let go of it. So it was that evening we found ourselves in a gay bar that had a karaoke machine. Karaoke in a gay bar seems to differ from elsewhere in the profusion of songs from musicals. Perhaps the most surreal aspect of the whole business was when John attempted a rendition of Total Eclipse of the Heart, with moderate success.

By this point my odyssey was nearing its end, and 364 days since I had last been there, I found myself in the International Terminal in O’Hare Airport. T5 in O’Hare has traditionally been one of the most boring places on earth once one passes security. The bar consisted of a kiosk with an icebox, and should one wish to eat, too bad. Thankfully, some judicious shifting of the security barriers meant that there were now a few duty free shops and restaurants on the air side of the operation, which meant that we could have one last meal. For once, I knew that there would be no issues with this flight. In contrast with the madness of the summer on the transatlantic routes, there were nearly two hundred seats available, which gave us ample space to spread out.

I tend to be recognised when boarding flights. If I am not recognised immediately, I will endeavour to ensure I am noticed as quickly as possible. Unusually, none of the cabin crew were familiar to me, possibly because of my tendency to work only late shifts. In addition, I was now sporting a beard, something I haven’t done in many years. Eventually, someone must have realised I worked for Aer Lingus, and a couple of drinks ensued. Happy days.

Epilogue: Rebel without a Pause?

Somewhere over the North Atlantic…

Normality is a very subjective concept. For most of my life, normality was food, board and laundry at home. Since I’ve moved out, normality is coming home at four in the morning and going to bed sleeping with earplugs. My travels have created a new normality, one of hotel beds and beer at lunchtime. Three weeks does wonders in shifting one’s perceptions. Soon, normality will be normal again.

I am not by nature a charitable person. Not out of selfishness or spite, just jaded cynicism. Most of one’s donations (with noble exceptions such as the Salvation Army or, oddly enough, Ronald McDonald’s Children’s Charities) ends up frittered away on legal and administrative costs, or into the pockets of management. However, Unicef were about to do very well indeed out of me.

I had been very lucky the ways things worked out on this trip, considering all the ways life could have messed with me. Eight standby journeys with very little hassle is rare enough. I had accumulated vast quantities of change on my travels, largely because coin is harder to identify the nationality of than notes, ergo I was paying for everything in notes to avoid embarassment. That all went into the Unicef envelope on the flight. Then the notes. Malaysian Ringgitt, Aussie Dollars, NZ Dollars, Canadian Dollars, HK Dollars, and US Dollars. Paying off a karma debt, if you will.

But perhaps there was more than simply divesting myself of surplus currency in thanks for my good fortune. While in New Zealand I had turned twenty-eight. For the first time in several years, I was going home from a trip without a coherent idea of when my next one would be. Maybe this wasn’t coincidence. Since I joined Aer Lingus three years ago, twenty-eight was always a kind of mental cutoff point. Did I really want to be stuck there indefinitely? Admittedly, said cutoff point had moved from being an exit point to simply being a chance to reevaluate where I stood.

For much of the past ten years I have been a rebel of sorts. I spent four years in college, and the next two in denial about graduating. College was never about exams for me. Lecturers used to complain that I spent classes doing the Irish Times Crossword. Classes and essays were the things that filled up the bits between indulging myself. Then I got a job that allowed me the flexibility to go out on the piss on a Tuesday night if it suited me, and to travel. I habitually spend nearly two months a year away from home. Work now became the thing that filled in the gaps between holidays.

And yet, dimly, I knew, and indeed know, that this hedonistic sybaritism would not last indefinitely. Sooner or later I would have to pull the proverbial finger out and start seeing employment in terms of prospects for the future rather than just a means to short term pleasures. I would, in other words, have to make peace with the establishment. While I was away, a Business Analyst’s position came up within Aer Lingus Ground Ops. Being on holiday precluded me from properly applying, but it’s not an opportunity I could afford to pass up again.

Slowly too, those around me have changed. Some of the people I went to school and college with are married. Some have mortgages. Most have cars. Many don’t seem to want to go out as much as the good old days. Somehow, everyone has changed. Life is trying to drag me along with it.

And yet, the prospects of middle class, middle aged life hold no great pleasure for me. Drinking mediocre Chilean red and pretending it’s Bordeaux, playing squash every Tuesday evening, worrying about property prices and pension plans, it just doesn’t feel right for me. Four weeks off a year is hardly worth the expense of buying a passport. When one settles down, one commits oneself for forty years. For the next four decades, fun would come in prepackaged pieces, either on the television, or at some resort in Tenerife. Maybe I’m mad, but that’s not my idea of fun. Fun is doing things and seeing people. Fun isn’t about accumulating wealth, it’s about accumulating memories. And then what? Retiring at seventy, finally having both the time and the money to again think of adventure, only to discover that some time in the previous four decades, life snuffed out the spark. Life as a kind of living death.

And that is why Unicef didn’t get all my dollars. Somehow, I reckon I might have a bit more rebelling left in me…

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By gregbowler

One comment on “Per Ardua ad Australia

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