Travel Notes: Gratitude on Australian Busses

One of the most interesting things I’ve observed on the busses here in Australia is that of gratitude. When the passengers disembark, they always say “Thank you”, or “Cheers”, to the bus driver as they leave. And the bus driver nearly always does the same, making eye contact with each one of them.

This has an amazing effect on the environment of the bus as a whole. 

For example, today there was a young schoolgirl, maybe thirteen or fourteen, who was being rough with a younger boy as she got on the bus. The bus driver scolded her as she passed him and she gave him an attitude and said something under her breath.

Throughout the entire bus ride, I could hear the girl and the younger boy arguing and mocking each other. But when the two kids got off, the bus driver smiled at them and said, “Have a good day!”, and I heard the girls tone suddenly change as she said quietly under her breath, “Thank you.”

Three Days, Two Nights, Forty-Four Strangers

For three days and two nights, forty-four strangers become a tribe, a group of people living communally under one roof, all headed in the same direction, with every intention of arriving at the same destination.

During our journey we all sleep in the same room. We use the same bathrooms and kitchens. We fall asleep side-by-side, snore, and otherwise leave ourselves entirely vulnerable to absolute strangers.

We awake in the morning with messy hair and groggy eyes, collect our clothes and toiletries, and wobble down the hall to the bathroom where we shower and brush our teeth.

All of us different colors, genders and ages, with different passions and dreams, each with his or her own unique set of strengths, and weaknesses, and problems, and idiosyncrasies.

How different is this from life itself?

All of humanity is living together on a proverbial train, moving around the sun on a predictable course, itself moving around the galaxy, and that around the local cluster, and even that moving around the universe.

Life ebbs and flows, inhales and exhales, until it exhales no more and instead transforms. All of us, headed in the same direction, to the same destination, a ‘last stop’ for our physical bodies, where the tracks end and we must get off and use our feet to continue on.

Are you familiar with your feet? Are your walking muscles strong and in good shape? Or will you, when the momentum of time stops carrying you forward, wither and die before you’re dead?

The Ghan slogs through the center of the continent, streaming the Australian Outback through the window and providing a never-ending source of distraction to my writing. I pause between acrobatic sessions of finger-dancing and look out the window to see metaphors everywhere.

If I were to allow myself, right now, to be distracted by that stream of beauty, I would not be creating these words. I need to first detach myself from what’s going on outside and focus my attention here, in the now.

This chair, my laptop, these thoughts.

These thoughts. I feel compelled to empty these thoughts from my brain, for their purpose feels too great to be contained in such a weakly guarded shell. They’re safer written down, transformed into something more tangible.

But there is danger in becoming too obsessed with the now. In writing that previous paragraph I found myself getting trapped in the past, my ego clinging on to every word. And so I turned my attention back to the streaming Outback, to that place where I had no choice but to let go.

The train will not stop for my ego, nor my curiosity, nor my inquisitive spirit. Momentum carries them forward, the same way time carries forward each of us, with or without our consent.

It doesn’t matter how interesting the landscape is or how fascinating the animal, or how quickly either disappears. Look! There’s a kangaroo hopping over the tall grass as it runs away from the drumming train. Look! There’s a emu! and another! But the train, unsympathetic and single-minded, continues chugging forward.

And so it is by observing this movement and embracing the impermanence of everything within my reach that I learn to enjoy that stream of beauty, to recognize its presence all around me.

I can now return my focus to the present.

The group of forty-four people are aware their time together is limited, so they don’t worry about looking funny when they awake. It doesn’t matter if strangers see the color of their toothbrush; they’ll probably never see these strangers again. It doesn’t matter if some people snore loudly or if others let off gas; we’re all getting off this train soon anyway.

The girl who is anxious about finding a place to charge her laptop doesn’t lose sleep over the lady who might miss her flight if the train arrives late, but the two travelers can still smile and share a friendly conversation about their favorite Australian city.

All of this is possible because it doesn’t matter where we’re going or when we’ll get there, but rather how we interact with those around us, to what and to whom we give our attention, and to where we focus the energy of our presence before this train’s final stop.

Travel Notes: The Cheapest Way to See Australia

When I decided to visit Australia a few months ago, I knew that getting to see a large portion of the country was going to be difficult. Australia is about the same size as the continental United States in land area and having lived in the US for 28 years and only scratching the surface of the country, I knew that traveling around Australia was not going to be easy.

Putting aside the sheer size of Australia, the other issue I worried about was the cost. My research told me that Australia was going to be at least, if not more, expensive than the United States and one of the primary reasons I haven’t explored more of the US is because it’s so damn expensive.

While getting to the country itself is quite an expense, once you’re here traveling around doesn’t need to cost a fortune.

For the past week, I've been on the train in Australia, hopping from one long-distance train to another as I make my way from the northern city of Darwin down through the center to Adelaide, then across to Sydney, then up to Brisbane, and finally all the way up to Cairns, a total traveled distance of 6,883km / 4,277mi.

While one certainly needs to get used to sleeping in recliner chairs, showering in small bathrooms, and sitting next to strangers (that is unless you dish out more money for the higher class sleeper rooms), this mode of travel is incredibly rewarding if your intention is to actually see the Australian landscape. 

You’ll wake up to sunrises and watch sunsets from your seat, see endless sheep and cattle, and even catch a glimpse of a few kangaroos and emus. It’s like your own Australian safari, except when the train stops at its destination you can get out and explore even more.

In the United States, train travel is quite expensive. A one-way, 2,400km/1,500mi journey will cost you at least $250 USD. (On the other hand, the same journey by air will only cost you $90 USD; air travel has been heavily subsidized by the US Government, so it’s a lot cheaper.)

Now compare that to the cost my recent one-week train journey here in Australia, which will be ending in just a few hours. The travel itself only cost me $58 for the entire week. That’s $58 for traveling 6,883km / 4,277mi!

For less than it costs to take a train from Boston to New York, I’m traveling across the Australian continent not once, but twice.

This isn’t to say the cost of living in Australia is cheap. It’s not. In fact, the past few months have taught me that living here is actually more expensive than living in the US (especially the cost of food; however hotels, air travel, and apartments are about the same price).

So how is travel by train so cheap here? Well, there’s a catch. If you don’t have a non-Australian passport, travel by train is almost as expensive as the United States. However, if you do have a non-Australian passport, you can purchase one of several different a rail passes.

The most expensive pass, the Ausrail Pass, will give you unlimited travel on all of Australia’s long-distance trains for 3 to 6 months, costing you $750 or $950 respectively.

I did the math on what the journey this week actually cost me and it came to just $58 (my $750 3-month Ausrail Pass, divided by 90 days, times 7 days = $58). 

By the end of my travels here in Australia, I estimate that I will have traveled roughly 21,000km/13,000mi by train, bringing the total cost per mile down to about $0.04/km ($0.06/mi). That’s about the same cost per mile as traveling by train in India!

So there you have it. If you’re thinking of visiting Australia for a few weeks and you want to get around the country cheaply, definitely consider picking up one of their rail passes.

Travel Notes: Left-side Driving in Australia

I could feel my brain resisting the change, like stirring molasses with a big spoon my brain pushed against the reality that I was forcing it to accept.

I drove in Australia for the first time today, a short 15-minute ride to the supermarket. But those few minutes felt like hours. When I stopped and got out of the car, my brain physically hurt, as if my brain had just run a marathon. I could feel the new synapses forming in what seemed like previously dead areas of my gray matter, like someone waking up from a coma and needing to relearn things that felt both vaguely familiar and all so wrong at the same time.

Everything that had become second nature from more than 14 years of right-side driving in the United States suddenly felt all wrong. The rearview mirror was on the wrong side, the gear shifter, the turn signal, the steering wheel -- all of it felt backwards. But not the gas and brake pedals: they were the same as in the States. Everything in the car was mirrored except those. Confusing! But there it was, all of it in front of me, awaiting my acceptance, asking me to embrace it.

And then when I started driving I knew there were others depending on my brain accepting these changes. Stay on the left side of the road!

It was tough. Left turns were right turns. Merges onto the freeway were made from left to right. The fast lane was now on the left instead of the right. Exits were always on the left. Rotaries — or roundabouts as they're more often called here — were particularly challenging to get correct. Cars went clockwise around them instead of counter-clockwise.

Everything felt wrong! It was the same weird feeling a right-handed person would feel when throwing a ball with their left hand.

But I pushed through this. I knew this was why I traveled, to feel my brain returning to its pre-adult state, to re-plasticize the hardened gray matter.

Day after day, I drove a little more each day. After one week of driving with a navigator in the passengers seat, I've now graduated to driving alone by myself. And then one day something strange happened: everything began to feel normal. It started to make sense. Left-side driving started to feel normal. And that was an incredibly freeing experience, so suddenly become mobily ambidextrous.

To remember which turns are yield turns, I've come up with an easy way to remember: whatever side of the car I'm sitting on, that's the side that is a yield turn. If I'm driving on the right side of the car, then right turns are yield turns. If I'm sitting on the left, left turns are yield turns.

But still I find myself occasionally mixing it up. When I’m told we’ll be making a right turn ahead, my brain identifies right turns with non-yield turns, which in Australia is actually a left turn. So I’ll hear right, but feel left.

But again, this is why I travel. To grow. To experience something new and unfamiliar. To push myself outside of comfort zones and over the edge into the unknown.

Travel Notes: Flying to Australia

"I am in New Zealand... of all the places in the world, I am in New Zealand."

As I sat in the New Zealand International Airport lounge waiting for the departures screen to tell me which gate my flight to Australia was leaving from (in the area where the gate number for my flight should appear, it simply says "Relax"), I look around and feel the need to keep reminding myself that I'm actually here, in New Zealand, that place on the map that, until now, was really just a place on the map.

As my trip to Australia approached, I was asked several times what I was feeling. All I could say was that it didn't feel real. 

It's hard for me to comprehend how my physical body is going to move from one spot on the planet to an entirely different spot, across huge oceans and continents, in the matter of hours. Yes, I simply "fly across", but that doesn't feel simple to me. I'm in absolute awe with how that's even possible. I understand the science, but it feels like reality hasn't caught up with the science.

I look outside the airplane window and marvel at the wings, these giant metal structures that move and expand like a bird when landing, but manufactured by human beings, with materials and chemicals formulated by human beings, parts and pieces engineered, assembled, tested, and finally flown by human beings. 

An entire buildings worth of people, with multiple floors, carrying 100 tons of fuel and, on this particular trip, transporting 10 tons of asparagus from Los Angeles to New Zealand, some 6,200 miles through the air, like a giant, mechanical, human-made bird. And here I am in the air with all this stuff and all these people, 40,000 feet above the Earth, traveling at nearly 600mph, through an atmosphere that would certainly kill me a −57F.

How is any of this possible? And why do I feel like I'm the only one absolutely dumbfounded by it all?

A few hours ago I was in California and a few hours before that I was in New Hampshire. Now I'm in New Zealand, on my way to Australia! I can only imagine what Magellan or Christopher Columbus would've given to have this freedom, and how disheartened by the future they would feel if they had the opportunity to observe how easily people today take such fantastic things for granted. 

This isn't the future. This is the future and the past combined. This is now.

Travel Update: Leaving Florida, Planning for Australia

After electronically obtaining a six-month Australian tourist visa over the weekend, I purchased my one-way ticket to Australia. I leave May 9th from Boston, MA and, after a layover in Los Angeles and then in Auckland, New Zealand, I arrive at the Gold Coast Airport just south of Brisbane, Australia (for you travel geeks the precise route is BOS-LAX-AKL-OOL).

Initially I'll be staying with a friend near Brisbane, but I intend to explore the rest of the country by train (Australia is nearly as big as the continental United States). I hope to visit Cairns and Darwin in the north, Sydney and Melbourne in the south, Alice Springs in the middle, and finally Perth in the west.

I also intend to maintain a travel budget of $500-$800 USD per month while I'm there. I've heard this will be quite difficult with Australia's relatively high cost of living, but that makes the challenge even more enticing.

I'll also need to have relatively consistent internet access to continue working. Both internet access availability and my budget will play a part in determining how much of Australia I actually see.

Tomorrow morning I will be watching the Space Shuttle Discovery, mounted to the top of a Boeing 747, do a low flyby over the ocean en route to the Smithsonian Air & Space museum in Washington, DC where it will retire. (The first shuttle launch I attended was space shuttle Discovery on STS-133 last year.)

After watching the shuttle fly out from Florida, I will begin my week-long drive up the eastern coast of the United States, driving north to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina where I will meet up with a friend for the evening.

On Wednesday I will continue driving and visit two more friends in North Carolina and Virginia, arriving in Washington, DC on Thursday where I will stay for a few days, participating in a special event for the unveiling of the Space Shuttle Discovery at the Smithsonian (the same shuttle I saw leave from Florida).

My goal is to arrive back in New Hampshire on Monday, one week from today, where my sister is due with her baby girl. I will immediately list my car for sale on CraigsList and hopefully sell it before my trip to Australia in May.

If you happen to live somewhere along my route from Florida to New Hampshire, or anywhere in Australia, please let me know; I'd love to meet up!