Archive for September, 2003


Sunday, September 28th, 2003

I’ve been conducting a little informal survey for the past few weeks, and the results have surprised me. I’ve now asked more than a dozen Australian in their early 20s how many States are in the USA. With one exception (who guessed 51), I’ve been told there are 52, obvious as there are 52 stars on the flag — sometimes I’ll also hear “like there are 52 weeks in a year.”

Most will also think that the last two were added recently, but as to which two the answers diverge a little bit. Alaska and Hawaii are the most common choices, but I’ve had the odd Guam and Puerto Rico thrown in.

Some of those surveyed get a little bit defensive and ask how many Americans know the number of states in Australia*, and I quickly try to soothe them: it’s not the fact that they don’t know that fascinates me, it’s the consistency (or, if you like, precision) of their wrong answers.

To further my investigation, I think now I have to get in a school and read what the textbooks have to say about the States.

Also, for the record, ask any Brit in the same age group and the answer will come back instantly: “fifty” — invariably accompanied with a look that says duh.

* The number of states in Australia is a trickier question than it first appears. The clear choices are New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, Southern Australia, and Tasmania. Things get sticky when you try to classify Australian Capital Territory, the D.C.-like region landlocked in NSW, and the Northern Territory, which by dint of its “territory” classification does not seem to be a state.


Saturday, September 27th, 2003

My little Motorola mobile has been, in the local parlance, “nicked.” I had it when I got back at 3am, but by the following afternoon, it was nowhere to be found. Naturally, I retraced my steps, checked cushions, asked staff, and rang it (no answer.)

Now an Aussie mobile, like most European models, is on the GSM system. This means that unlike US systems which tend to be programmed by the carriers, each phone has two components: a user-installed SIM card, which contains account information and stored phone numbers, and the handset itself.

So there is some flexibility for the thief: after stealing a handset, (s)he might first try to make some calls. If the victim has pre-paid (as I did), then the loss is limited to what’s in the account. But after that, the thief can still insert a different SIM card and continue to use the phone.

Or perhaps not. Within the last few weeks, a new weapon has become available to combat the thieves. The carriers are now cooperating to bar stolen handsets (idenitified by an IMEI, or serial number) from any network in Australia. What’s more, they give the data to police to determine what SIM card has been inserted and what number dialed.

I don’t expect to get the phone back, which is very annoying given it was my only record of some phone numbers and unanswered voicemail — but at least I can have the satisfaction of knowing nobody else will use it either.

More contact information when I know it.

Back in the, Back in the A-U-S

Friday, September 26th, 2003

What did I say about checking in earlier? Forget that. Travelling with my new friend Lisa is a good thing. She rung up Qantas the night before we were to depart, and they said they’d reserve exit row seats and put a note on the account.

Naturally, when we finally made it to the front of the line, there was no record of the promised saved seats. No problem for Lisa. She explained to me that airlines have a “duty of care” in their charters to take care of the vertically gifted such as myself. So as soon as we were aboard, she grabbed an attendant and said I could not be made to sit in a regular row.

I didn’t say a word, but a few minutes later she and I were seated in the bulkhead, with enough room for me to comfortably cross my legs. Since we were in the row just beyond business class, it also meant that we were damn near first off the plane.

I was actually the first person to pass through Customs, which the Australians have always been serious about. In the month and a half since I arrived from LAX, they’ve redoubled their efforts. At quarantine, all bags are now X-rayed — something they didn’t do when I first came to Oz. This fact is announced with huge signs that say “DECLARE OR BEWARE.” (It’s quite a full-on X-ray machine, as well. The examiner showed me the very high-resolution screen, pointing out my belongings.)

After gliding through Nothing to Declare, I managed to catch a train to Sydney, where I chilled out in the city, reading some birthday cards and getting re-acclimated to the city. I was barely back for an hour before I got a text inviting me to go out, and that I did, enjoying a round of belated birthday v&o’s courtesy of Rey, Phil, Keith and Simon — this after some Chinese and a hideous approximation of a Bloody Mary with another birthday boy, Michael, and his cousin Matt, whom I met at the latest hostel.

On the way back from the pub, I reset my voicemail to say I was back in Sydney. (This is an important fact when we get to what happened next.)

Farewell Fiji

Thursday, September 25th, 2003

The flight’s not until tomorrow, but now I’m returning to the mainland. So naturally, battery be damned, I took a last picture as the cat pulled into harbor:

Sunset with a pole in the foreground.

Aboard the Seaspray

Wednesday, September 24th, 2003

I’ve been on more boats (ships?) during this week than any other week in my life. So why not end it with a cruise? It meant another launch, another catamaran, and then finally another launch to the Seaspray “of television fame“, our home for a day:

The 'Seaspray'

That photo was taken from the shore on Modriki island, part of the Mamanuca group. Its claim to fame? That’s where Tom Hanks shot Cast Away. Here’s a so-so photo of the island itself (by this time I had turned off the LCD screen, so the photos are a bit blah):

Modriki island

It’s not too big, and the interior is dominated by trees. I wanted to get to the top of that peak, but it’s all rock face. Oh, and it’s not nearly as isolated as it seems in the movie. I’m sure Tom could have made it to nearby Monu or Yanuya. Not that that would have helped; they’re uninhabited as well. Perhaps he could have set one of them on fire…

Modriki was merely one part of a very nice cruise, which included open bar of beer, wine, champagne, and soft drinks, plus morning and afternoon tea and a barbecue lunch. The barbecue included sausage, chicken, and fish caught off the side of the boat.

The food was cooked while everyone on the ship went out for a village tour. Everyone but me, that is. I had had enough kava, so I took my shirt off and took a swim, floating lazily in the impossibly blue water. Then I pulled myself aboard, where I was offered a beer by the crew, who got much more relaxed when the captain was on land. (Not that he was a big terror. He made a point of emphasizing that it was not called “Cast Away Island” but rather “Modriki,” which we could remember because it sounds like “More Drinky.”)

All told, it was a very nice, relaxed way to close out my trip in Fiji.

Off to the South Sea

Wednesday, September 24th, 2003

They say there is “Fijian time,” which runs +/- 30 minutes to regular time. It also seems there is some Fijian customer service, which is on a lag of a few days.

I’d originally booked 3 nights on islands and then 2 nights on a boat, but I decided to mix it up and add another island and a day cruise. So I used the radio telephone (a total trip!) to call from the Yasawas to the office of the tour company. Then I was told to get on the cat and explain the details to the woman there, which involved a ship-to-shore call. The next day, aboard another boat, someone called the captain’s cell phone trying to reach me. Then finally, on the way home, new friends from the islands somehow persuaded the captain of their ferry to radio mine. (That was also fun: “Passenger John Perkins, please come to the wheel room.” So I went up and was ushered into a room marked “Crew Only,” where the captain conveyed the message.)

Anyway, the moral is you can get what you need done, but be prepared to be persistent. Oh, and just when you think you’re the least reachable, you’ll be proven wrong.


Tuesday, September 23rd, 2003

Has it really been a year since the quarter-century mark? Sheesh!

I rose for breakfast with the firm intention to spend the day doing nothing, and that’s precisely what I did: after the meal, I relaxed into the hammock with the book I’d been saving. (For the rest of the week, it was Kerouac. For my birthday, something much lighter.)

When the morning launch came, I went to see the newcomers and met a bunch of Brits, including Nick, Allison, Steve, and Julia. We sat around a table and chatted. Nick asked why I was in Fiji, and I told him it was my birthday present to myself. He immediately brought me a birthday beer, and we relaxed.

Later in the day, I realized that something was up when Moeses, one of the staff, called me “birthday boy.” Just before that, Pam and George (who left on the launch) sang “Happy Birthday” to me, saying “Isn’t it great to have surrogate parents?”

It soon became clear that everyone on the island knew, and it came to a head at dinner, when following a nice meal the Fijians came together just behind my seat. With musical accompanient, everyone sang “Happy Birthday” to me, then the Fijians sang a version in Fijian followed by some sort of “Happy Long Life to You” ditty, with the Europeans rejoining for three cheers for John at the end. By the time it was over, I was really red, and it wasn’t sunburn.

To top it off, some people hung around after dinner and played cards with me, as the band played in the background.

It was a great way to spend my birthday, lacking only the presence of my friends and family.

And maybe some Tico.

(Now what will I do next year?)

Early to Bed, Early to Rise

Monday, September 22nd, 2003

I actually made it to breakfast, and I’m glad I did: it was a slice of papaya, served on a palm frond, with a piece of lime for color. At least I thought it was for color, but then when I was advised to squeeze the lime on the melon, I certainly enjoyed the tang it brought to the party.

Not much else of note, as I just lazed around, working on the tan. At dinner, George favored me with tips on where to go in Thailand, one of his favorite countries (he’ll be making his eleventh trip there in January.) I took some notes and used the opportunity to ask him about some of his other journeys, which included Nepal, Tibet (through the back door — the Chinese government had been refusing entry with a line saying “accomodation was not up to Western standards”), Bhutan and other exotic locales.

I mentioned the place that’s currently at the top of my list, and wouldn’t you know it, he’d been there… in 1993! (I was consoled by the fact he said it was fantastic — one of the top two trips he’s ever taken.)

Another Day, Another Island

Sunday, September 21st, 2003

Got up feeling a bit burnt, so I stayed in shade for most of the morning. Fortunately, there were several huts in which one could enjoy the view without the burn:

View from the hut

After some relaxing, I boarded the 10.30 launch to take the cat north to my next island. There, the reception was a little more elaborate: Fijians playing guitars and singing, with a freshly opened coconut (complete with straw and flower) offered to each new visitor. Plus, we made it just in time for lunch. Bonus!

Following lunch, I had a nice chat with Pam and George, siblings from Melbourne and Perth, respectively. Both were very interesting and I spent probably an hour or so with them before wading out into the ocean for a little swim.

Contrary to the popular view, Fiji is not really a swimmer’s paradise. Many of the beaches have coral quite close in, and this plays havoc on bare feet. In addition, the water can be quite shallow for quite a bit out. On the other hand, this makes for some great snorkeling, as I learned after I picked my way out to a good depth and found a friendly Fijian accountant who offered me her mask and snorkel to take a look.

That was an interesting experience, made all the more so by my chat with the woman, whose name I have sadly forgotten. Our conversation ranged from Fijian politics (the most recent coup being just a few years ago) through to psychology (Fiji has no clinical psychology), patriarchy (there are woman chiefs, but few female politicians) and various other subjects. I loved her accent, and her English was flawless, even when it came to slang (“I have all brothers,” she said. “That makes me a tomboy, not a dyke.”)

After the swim, it was time for a shower to watch that salt right out of my hair. The regular showers had very low ceilings, so I chose an option a bit nearer the beach, where I could look up and see more than the showerhead:

Showerhead with palm tree beyond it

Village Trip

Saturday, September 20th, 2003

After we got settled in, Berry (the activities director) informed us that a tour of a traditional village would be available. Most of the newcomers, myself included, decided to take part and we set off for a nearby village.

The tour began with a look in the school, followed by a glimpse at some of the play areas. Then we got down to business: running the gauntlet of some 12 ladies with products on offer.

Woman with items for sale

Though the six Brits I came with shopped up a storm, I passed. I didn’t want to lug anything with me in my already too-full bag. More importantly, I wasn’t impressed with the merchandise. Everyone seemed to be selling the same stuff, and it was clearly machine made. What was special about that? I found myself thinking of it very cynically, imagining that none of these women actually kept inventory, that they were all just on commission. I felt bad when Berry said that all the purchases went towards the building of a community center, which was certainly far from complete a sorry state indeed:

Community center

Then I wondered if the women resented us. I’m sure they had better things to do than set out towels and sit around for some white people twice a week. But on the other hand, that’s the hospitality industry, and in a country with a per capita GDP of US$5,500, the largest share of which is made up by tourism, perhaps they should be glad that the gorgeous surroundings are a draw. Nobody holidays in Bangladesh.

Anyway, next up was a kava ceremony.

Girl holding kava bowl in front of Fijian men in traditional dress

“Kava” comes from a plant which is pulverized, placed in a bag, and then made into this sort of stew. (Note the puddle-like look of the drink in the photo inset.) It’s not so nice looking, particular when it’s being made by an old-ass man who seems to pour as much of the water on his hand as the bag.

I was chosen as “spokesman” for our “tribe” with the other male in our group as chief. Then we participated in a quasi-traditional ceremony with the presentation of bowls all around, some “bula”s and some clapping. We had many rounds of kava, which has a mild anesthetic effect on your lips and tongue. I actually found it pretty gross, but you’ve gotta do it once.

Then most of the villagers danced for us, ending with a conga line in which everybody took part. That was actually the coolest part, but naturally I didn’t get any pictures because I wasn’t sure what protocol dictated.

Then it was time to head back to our island, just in time for me to grab some shots of the sunset en route:

Sunset over water 1

Sunset over water 2

Off to the Yasawas

Saturday, September 20th, 2003

I had to be out for a coach to take me to the marina at 8.15. I made it by 8, which gave me time to puzzle over the roadside public phone with no mechanism for taking cash or cards (it seems TelecomFiji operates only through pre-paide cards) and to have a local try to schmooze FJ$5 out of me “for two beers.” (This at 8 in the morning, remember.)

Soon enough the bus came and we were rolling to the marina, where I grabbed my vouchers (in the name of “TERKINS J MR”) and boarded the catamaran ferry to the islands. The ferry was a bit delayed, so I had time to grab a little snack:

Wells Golden Gaytime ice cream treat

Yes, that is named “Golden Gaytime,” which I’ve since learned is also available in Australia. Too amusing not to buy, and while I’m still not sure what’s in it, it was actually yummy.

That, as well as conversation with Ninca, the Dutch drug abuse counselor who said she loved taking drugs herself, amused me until I had to transfer to a launch for my first island, at a place that was billed as “Eco” — which means roughing it. Who cares when the water is so clear you can see the coral from the beach:

View from the island beach

And after all, at least my bed had a mosquito net:

Bed, lucky 13

No, I didn’t wake up in the night and get caught in it.

Fiji at Night

Friday, September 19th, 2003

My very first impression when I got out of the airport was colored by what I saw. It was very dark, pretty hot, and the first taxi was an old car. I thought “Wow, I wonder if this is what’s Cuba is like.”

Later, on the ride to the hotel I really thought I could have been anywhere, frankly. The first establishment I saw was a Mobil, and its MobilMart looked about the same as others I’d seen in small towns (despite its large international airport, Nadi has just 30,000 residents.) Of course the place was selling gas in liters and we were driving on the “wrong” side of the road, but still…

At the hotel I got a little more of a sense of the country. I sat by the pool and listened to Fijian radio, which charmingly featured extremely long dedications and an extremely ecclectic mix of songs (Richard Marx lives on!) Though I declined when the friendly bartender/waitress offered to turn on FijiOne, I hear it features Walker, Texas Ranger and Fastlane among its own assortment of programs.

Still, when the server asked what I thought of Fiji, I said I couldn’t answer because I hadn’t seen it yet! That would have to wait until morning.

Take Me Away

Friday, September 19th, 2003

I have to start checking in earlier. I was about two hours early for my flight, and the queue was huge. At first I didn’t think this would be a problem, as the friendly AirPacific agent laughed and joked with me about my height, but then she told me exit rows were not available. So I got an aisle. In row 68.

It was just like my trip from LAX>SYD, actually, as I found myself in the penultimate row — with children behind me. (Well, it was a little different from the Qantas plane: AirPac lacked those lovely bags that encouraged you to drop your rolls of film inside and post for development — unless you were nauseuous, of course, in which the fairly subtle USE THIS BAG FOR AIR SICKNESS line presumably took precedence.)

Despite the seating, the flight was fine. I watched a bad movie and took advantage of the gratis alocohol. At landing, I didn’t bother to rush to deplane. I knew a huge Customs queue was still to come. I was correct, and when the 45-minute wait was finished, I grabbed my bag and walked over to the ATM. There I was stumped. Not only did I have no clue what the exchange rate* was, I couldn’t even discern which account was which. If “current account” was checking, then was “access” savings? Somehow I pushed the right combination and got some Fiji dollars, which I grabbed and breezed through…

…into the waiting arms of about 40 very polite, but very aggressive Fijian women. I deflected all of the “Excuse me, sir? Can I help you?”/”Sir, what’s your hotel?” queries and pushed through to the taxi stand. Then I realized I had truly no clue what I was going to do once I got there.

Before coming, I’d wrestled with two options. There was the laze-around option, which entailed doing nothing and getting a tan. Then there was the “Feejee Experience,” a recently-introduced trek around the mainland that was supposed to be good but full-on. I couldn’t decide, so I’d booked neither. Basically I had a plane ticket and a plan to figure it out when I got there.

So that’s what I did. I ducked back through the women and into a travel agency with a proper store front, where I was able to book some accomodations at various islands. When that was done (and my driver was waiting) I was presented with a shell necklace, in what I assume is the Hawaiian style. I doubt, however, that this is just a show of hospitality. I think it’s also a sign that says “hands off, (competing travel agent) girls. He’s mine.”

* Exchange rates are always tricky. At Sydney airport, Thomas Cook was sold out of Fijian currency, not that I bought any. The spread they were offering was AU$1.4226 buy, AU$1.1338 sell. Quite a spread. (XE says AU$1 = FJ$1.24.)

Then there’s the matter of American dollars. The June 2003 edition Lonely Planet put the exchange rate at US$1 = FJ$2.05. Four months on, I got FJ$1.84 for each US$1 from the ATM. The weak dollar sucks. (Unless you’re Matt, of course.)

Gone Fijian

Friday, September 19th, 2003

Hey, I know I’ve been lax with the updates for the last few weeks. That’s more a case of my impatience with pay-per-minute Internet access than a lack of things to say. But I hope to get through the backlog by the end of September (sneak preview: let’s just say I may not be using pay Internet access by then…)

But for now, I’m off to Fiji this morning, where I’ll be until next Friday 26 Sep as part of the Week of John festivities.

See you when I’m 26.

Strange Stop Signs

Wednesday, September 17th, 2003

Traffic signal with stop sign beneath it

Travel anywhere in the Sydney metro (this was taken at Coogee beach) and you’re likely to see these little stop signs below the signals. The three stacked black circles are meant to convey “if the signal is out, stop here.” Many of the signs also have another text sign beneath them explaining the concept.

The approach puzzles me. Isn’t it common sense to do just that? Is another sign needed? Makes me wonder what inspired all these signs to go up. An accident? A lawsuit? (If so, you’d think we’d have ’em in America.) Or are they just really, really unreliable signals?

Seems like something better suited to a rule you learn in driver education.