There’s something about traveling to the far reaches of the world – surrounding yourself with the unknown, pushing your body to the extreme with lack of sleep, time zone changes, recycled airplane air, buses, trains, new people, new words, and unfamiliar food – that makes you truly appreciate home. I used to consider myself a fairly serious traveler. I spent a year as a flight attendant and took advantage of my flight benefits as often as possible. I could fit whatever I needed into a tiny carry-on and would spontaneously end up deep in the Andes of Chile or on a sailboat off the coast of Thailand on a whim. These days, even though I technically live abroad, I’m nothing more than a homebody. My little island has become my comfort zone, and my consolidated packing skills have gradually expanded to regularly exceed the maximum size and weight restrictions.
Like any rock dweller, I look forward to several trips per year off my island to visit civilization. This year, instead of traveling to the USA for the holidays, we completely stepped out of our comfort zone and headed for about the furthest point on the planet that we could get to from our little island: Australia. It’s true, I even went to one of those “if I dig a hole through the earth, where would I end up” websites, and the opposite point on the planet from Nassau is just off the coast of Western Australia.
There are days that I gripe about island living and find myself consumed in negativity. The power goes out regularly, accomplishing even the simplest of tasks can seem like scaling a mountain, and not everything is readily available at my fingertips. But traveling to the other side of the world has truly made me appreciate my life in the islands.
When I moved from the United States to a tiny, remote island in the Bahamas, I instantly fell in love with the freedom. There was one dirt road and no one to tell me I was going too fast, or that I parked in the wrong place. It was a breath of fresh air from the constant rules and regulations breathing down my neck in the uptight (or so I thought) U. S. of A.
Now, after spending 6 years living in the Bahamas, I have fully transitioned my mental state to embrace lawlessness and piracy. So I was in for quite a change in traveling to Australia where 92% of the population has the same shade of skin as myself, speaks English, and lives in the same sort of European standard that other Western World countries are living. But was it familiar? Quite the contrary. It was familiar enough, but had an edge to it, not unlike your favorite sci-fi thriller where you just can’t pinpoint what it is that’s out of the ordinary. The best way I can describe it is: Pleasantville. The way the Australians describe it in characteristic good humor? Nanny State.
Australia is almost TOO perfect, if that’s possible. There’s no poverty to speak of and everyone seems happy, safe, and comfortable, with nothing of note to worry about except how their favorite reality TV show characters are going to survive another week in the outback. The news highlights aren’t of stabbings, robberies, and murders, but of someone accidentally backing into their garage door or a close encounter with wildlife. However, the rules in Australia seem to be some of the most uptight and stringent in the world, and everyone seems OK with it. I imagine it’s a tradeoff for all that safety and security. The government seems hell bent on making sure that you don’t hurt yourself, practice reckless driving, consume anything that might kill you (without paying exorbitantly for it), or basically doing anything that might end up costing them (and fellow taxpayers) unnecessary out of pocket money. So you might say, it’s slightly different than living on a Caribbean island.
My husband had been warming me up to the idea of traveling to Australia for years, which included feeding me tidbits of these strange rules and polices, so I arrived with a slightly different perspective than your average tourist. My dual citizen husband spent his formative years in Australia, and has continued to maintain relationships with lifelong mates as well as his extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins. After his school days, he returned to the Bahamas (the place of his birth), but every few years he would make the trek to Oz and rekindle his relationships with family and friends. This time it had been about 8 years since his previous visit, so there was a lot of catching up to do.
Over the course of 6 weeks, we made our rounds, traversing the country from Brisbane, to Perth, to Melbourne, and a 2 week road trip up the coast, ending back in Brisbane, all the while mixing and mingling in holiday merriment with my husband’s amazingly warm and welcoming collection of friends and family. Along the way, I experienced THE RULES.
For example, did you know that it is illegal to drive a car in flip flops (aka “thongs” in Oz)? You also cannot hang your arm out of the window while driving. There’s no talking on your cell phone while driving (OK, that’s pretty standard), however, I heard a story of a friend of a friend getting a ticket for talking on their phone in their parked car. Even though they had fully stopped and pulled into a parking lot, since their keys were still in the ignition, it warranted a ticket. Similarly with drinking – if you feel like taking a drunken snooze in the back of your car, make sure you throw your keys into the bush. If your keys are found anywhere inside the car while you are also inside the car and over the legal limit, you will surely be handcuffed and spend the night in the drunk tank. Meanwhile, I had a friend in the Bahamas who ran into the concrete wall outside the police station while driving home intoxicated once. The late-night officer on duty told him he had to pay for the damages, called him a taxi, and sent him home.
.05% is the legal alcohol limit to operate a vehicle… which is about 1.2 to 1.5 drinks (standard ones, not our fully-leaded island cocktails). Pray tell, how does one limit their consumption to 1.2 drinks in one session? I honestly don’t know how the pubs make any money in Australia. Whatever your blood alcohol level reads, you get your license revoked for that amount of time: .08 = 8 months. This means no driving with your giant to-go tumblers filled with your favorite cocktail like we do on the rock. Talk about a BBQ buzz kill.
I also discovered that you cannot own more than two dogs in suburban areas. You have to register them, and they will only let you register 2 dogs per household. I got some serious looks and raised eyebrows when I tried to explain that I know several people that have 6 dogs, and I myself have 3 (gasp!).
There were a few Aussie quirks that made me appreciate living in the Bahamas all the more, which I will bullet point for you now:
1. Prices of Vices
If you’re a smoker, a pack of cigarettes will run you about $30 AUD. If you choose vodka, like my calorie conscious husband and I tend to lean towards, it’s an expensive habit. If you ask for a vodka and soda at a bar, you’ll get a tiny low ball glass with 1oz of vodka and it will cost you $16AUD (about $12USD). It makes our 8oz Bahamian pours for $8USD seem like a bargain!
2. Lack of ozone
The ozone layer over Australia has thinned, which leads to increased UV exposure and means wearing SPF 50 each time you leave the house if you don’t want to get burnt. Upon returning from Australia, I received numerous reports as to how tan I was. I am already on a first name basis with my dermatologist in the Bahamas, I don’t think any extra UV exposure is necessary.
I’ve heard flies were bad in Australia, but I had no idea. I get flustered in the Bahamas when I’m cooking a lovely pork roast and the flies are crawling in under the gap in the door or through tiny holes in the screen. But the Bahamas does not hold a bar to the flies of Australia. I always laughed about those silly Australian bush hats with corks hanging around the brim. Now I know, those are for true, and they are practical. My trick was to wear my winter scarf like a burka to keep the flies out of my face on hikes.
I thought learning “Bahamian” was difficult. It took me quite a while to tune into the cadence of the sing-songy island lingo, but now I’m pretty fluent in the language. In Australia, there is an unending use of unfamiliar words that are difficult to contextualize. Words like arvo, chocka, dunny, grouse, piece of piss, ripper, bathers, sunnies, mozzies, bonzer, bottle-o, pokies… the list goes on and on. And my favorite, they even have a slang word for Christmas – Chrissy.
5. The wildlife can kill you
I maintained a constant paranoia about sharks every time I stuck my toes in the water. There is an actual shark sighting app and helicopters patrol the beaches. You sure as hell don’t want to be far from shore when they sound the shark siren. We do have sharks in the Bahamas, but people actually get EATEN, like regularly, in Australia. There are several types of jellyfish that will cause you major life-threatening wounds, those cute kangaroos can karate chop your head off if you catch them in a bad mood, and you must watch out for poisonous spiders hiding in vacant shoes, snakes on hikes, and of course crocs.
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Despite the culture shock, all in all, our trip to Australia was amazing. The people were friendly and welcoming, the food was delicious, and the biodiversity was incredible. I will be returning one day.
Our flight home was a fairly painless 32 hours, but the jetlag hangs with you for week. A nice cure for that is to get out on the water, so the afternoon after our return we went for a paddleboard at our favorite surf break. As we paddled out, a small skiff approached. It was a few local guys we know from a nearby community, just getting back from spearing lobster. “Welcome home Mark and Mariah! Come and git you some crawfish!” We looked at each other and felt a wash of happiness swell up inside, feeling a complete sense of being home. These are the type of moments that you just don’t experience in the continental world. After our surf session, we picked up two huge Caribbean lobster from the boys at the dock and told them all about our adventure to that faraway land.
If you’ve ever read the book The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo, the character Santiago is called to go on an epic journey, but in the end comes back home discovering the “treasure” that was always there, right in front of him. There’s nothing like an epic journey around the world to make you appreciate what’s right in front of you. For now, I’ll stick with my chaotic, lawless life in the islands, and leave the safety of white picket fences to everyone else.