Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Fear and Loathing in New South Wales

(Also a non sequitur, written in the World Tower in downtown Sydney.)

Raving fans and gentlemen, my name is Chris Lauer and I am in Australia.

After spending nine hours too many in Los Angeles, I met up with a host of Study Australia students. Fortunately for all parties involved, we’ve been through the freshman routine before and found fun, new ways to meet people. None of the uncomfortable immediacies of freshman year, oh no. Every one of these folks is all right: this party abroad looks promising. After three hours of solid get-to-know-you time with a cadre of mostly Queensland-bound college students, we boarded our flight to Sydney. Because of my insistence on a nap-friendly window seat, I found myself segregated from the other exchange students with a Red Cross worker from Victoria and a Christian missionary from No’th Ca’lina. The missionary and I grilled our poor Australian associate about such mundane fare as the cost of food, the state of the economy, the cuddliness of koalas, and the direction toilet water flows. In so many words, we annoyed her.

Far more important than the nuggets of raw information we grind out of our reluctant tour guide are the flight attendant staff. Their awesome Aussie accents aside, they seem hell-bent on winning us over with food. Qantas is the airline of kings. Never on an airplane have I eaten so well for free. It seems every three hours of the 14-hour flight they wheel through the cabin with something new and delicious to convince us to emigrate permanently. Moroccan chicken with couscous, fresh fruit, tasty cookies, pretzels, soft drinks, tea, water, breakfast services, more tea… it’s a never ending barrage of edibles that warms travelers up to Australiana. So help me, I’m going to Australia!

When we finally touch down in Sydney, I’m ready to get off. I thought it would never end. It was hard sitting on that thing for so long. As you readers at home and in Australia are no doubt wondering, “That’s what she said” jokes are all the rage down here among American college students. I haven’t decided whether they encourage or discourage the extensive use of pronouns, but when in Rome you do as the conquering barbarians do. I’m as guilty of cracking out “That’s what she said” quips as the next guy (or girl, as it turns out), and I feel almost no remorse. Our cadre of university—not college, mind you—students met up with the Study Australia coordinators and dumped our belongings curbside. In the heart of their summer, Sydney is experiencing winter weather: 68 degrees and cloudy. The locals are jacketed and cold, the loud Americans are celebrating shorts weather.

Outside the airport, my roommates and I meet one another for the first time and discover that we’re really cool guys. Though we have some different priorities—and liver damage isn’t one of mine—A-plus on the roommate front. The entire group, the whole abroad program, is a really fun set of kids. Mostly connected in some way to Indiana, Maryland, and parts of the Midwest, we are alike in our Australian interests to varying degrees.

As usual in new social settings, my refusal to drink piques everyone’s interest. This always fascinates me, because I wonder why everyone starts drinking in the first place. We learn from our vices and the vices of others. For instance, alcohol in Australia gets the pants taxed off of it. The cheapest case of beer goes for about $38 AUD, or around $25 USD. Boxed wine—goon, as the Aussies call it—costs much, much less. Food is more expensive on the whole, but some items are very cheap. Locally grown produce costs very little, and meat can be got for the cost of dirt. Chicken, pork, lamb, beef, kangaroo: it can all be found for very little at the store. Funny thing is, kangaroo is very cheap. Since there are about six kangaroos for every Australian, the government here has decided that it’s best to cull some of the overgrown ‘roo populations and sell them cheap to the public writ large. As a result, it’s one of the cheapest red meats out there. It’s packed with protein and other good things, and unfortunately for would-be chefs, it has very little fat in it. Cook kangaroo to anything past bloody raw, and it turns into boot leather. Moreover, kangaroos are very cute. The first night in Sydney, I wolfed down a plate of kangaroo. The next day, I met a kangaroo. It grabbed an ice cream cone full of grains from me and ate it. I felt like a criminal and doubt I’ll ever eat kangaroo again.

Our accommodations in Sydney are obscenely nice. In the heart of downtown Sydney on the 63rd floor of the World Tower, which our guide estimates to be a $1.3 million AUD property, my roommates and I get the chance to live like millionaires. But without responsibilities. We have sweeping views of Darling harbor, the skylines, and the western suburbs of Sydney, and large alcoves perfectly suited to brooding evil geniuses and partying college students. At some point or another during the orientation, every single student in Study Australia came to our room for a good time. We are the lords of hosts, and our room entertained more people in four days than I’d heretofore entertained in my entire life. The 41 students on the trip learned to count on us for enjoyment. What a life we lead! And what’s more fascinating is that only two glasses were broken the entire time. On any given night, at least 25 group members would pay us a visit. Take heed: there is always a reason to prop open your door with a shoe.

Not a night passed when we stayed in. Hindsight suggests that our decision to mob the clubs EVERY SINGLE NIGHT was not a particularly wise one, but hindsight can’t make history, it only writes it. Carting 25 Americans around is hard enough, especially in a posh, exciting international city. Getting everyone between our apartment and any given club is like herding cats or nailing Jell-O to a tree. (Funny aside: jelly is the word for Jell-O down under). We’re loud, we swarm bars and clubs, and we dance like oversexed degenerates. Refreshingly but confusingly, freak dancing is looked down on in Australia. Nobody but partying Americans do it. It’s an unfortunate downside to our socialization: in a casual setting, we lack mechanisms for interacting with strangers without rubbing our crotches on them.

Australians love their dance music. Every club, every bar booms with steady bass beats and sturdy time-tested American electronica. Cultural hegemony ensures that we never feel too far from home, aside from the obvious disorientation of living beneath the equator. What catches the clubber is the striking lack of rap and hip-hop. Apple bottom jeans aside, there’s been almost no rap since we reached Australia.

Apple bottom jeans reminds me, Australian women are, from a very shallow level, the most beautiful set of women I have ever laid eyes on. They are preposterously, pyroclastically gorgeous. Yes, gentlemen, there has been much ass inside them jeans, but never too much. Culture here embraces the outdoors—it’s too pleasant to do otherwise. They jog, they swim, they bike; they are the fit descendants of criminals who knew what they wanted and knew how to get it. As a result, the off-British cockney twinge of the Australian accent belies the most attractive people I’ve seen on this green planet. Point in case is the bartender at The Gaff bar down Oxford street in Sydney. Directly opposite Medusa on the spectrum of physical beauty, this woman turns men into statues when their eyes meet her sparkling blues (statues of stone or wood, that is). Irreverent though I always am, I couldn’t bring myself to ask this Helen’s name. We call her The Bartender, but Helen seems like a decent given name. I can easily picture a trans-Pacific war break out over this charming Aussie lass. Colin Oppegard once said that Russia was a country of unappreciated super models: Australia is a country of fully appreciated super models. I fall in love at least four times a day, and every four hours or so my heart breaks and heals over again. It takes a country like Australia to kick start one’s heartbreak metabolism: my heart is a veritable blast furnace.

On day three, we drove out to the Blue Mountains to give abseiling a shot. By now it’s become abundantly obvious that this is atypical Australian weather: the mountains are cold and rainy, and as a group we are ill-equipped for weather of either sort. Abseiling is a form of rappelling that requires participants to trust their lives to a piece of string the size of their index finger while they descend ten stories into a valley. Awesome sport! Awesome, but terrifying. Our only way back to our makeshift camp is by a series of muddy trails and a rickety, 50-foot string of ladders lashed together by yet more pieces of string. My dad fell ten feet off a ladder three weeks ago: psychologically, I’m not ready to make this ascent. As a result, I pussed out. I make three of the short—75 to 100 feet—descents, but can’t bring myself to go face-first off a 200 foot overhang like three of my roommates (the other one went, but went butt first like a human being). Because Alaskans do not shiver, I spent the last half of the Blue Mountains adventure quivering with rage under a tarp with the other wimps.

Still, I love this country. They drive on the other side of the road, their bigfoot is the fabled drop bear, and every woman is gorgeous. Not that it really does anything but magnify my every impulse toward inadequacy, but living among the beautiful is very welcome.

When you sleep on average four hours a night, it’s difficult to get a sober picture of a city. We created an environment hostile to the very prospect of sleep, and our overall health doubtlessly suffered as a result. From the early morning to well past midnight, Sydney belonged to the students of Study Australia, most of whom teetered between hangovers and drunkenness the entire time. Debauchery is spelled S-Y-D-N-E-Y. As the only completely sober person in the bunch, it’s my duty to chronicle our time in this Pacific jewel of a city.

There was surprisingly little vomit.

I had four valentines.

Internet cafes are expensive.

The technological infrastructure of Australia can’t compare to that in the US. Despite recent initiatives to improve the Web infrastructure, Australians still don’t get enough service to meet their demands. As a result, there are to my knowledge no free Internet caf├ęs. In Seattle, a coffee shop that doesn’t offer free Web access is an empty coffee shop. Here, it’s business as usual. Thankfully, our apartment in Brisbane is supposed to have Internet access. As in all things, we shall see.

There’s too much to Sydney to commit in this already extremely long blog post, but rest assured that you will all be filled in when I find the energy to tell the tales of New South Wales. Raving fans and gentlemen, my name is Chris Lauer, and soon I’ll be in Brisbane!

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