Friday, December 26, 2008

On the Townsville, Chapter Seven

Holiday Greetings!

Who's up for some news? It's Boxing Day and the cricket is on – God help us all – and while I'm trying to be a good sport and get into the holiday spirit, I can't sit through an entire day (or two or three or five) of this mind-numbing game. I've already finished my jigsaw puzzle, painted my toenails, washed the floor, done the laundry and sewn hems on two shirts. I'm out of excuses not to be sitting in front of the television, which happens to be where the internet plugs in, so it looks like it's time for an update...

***For those of you who skip the reading or who don't make it to the end, let me wish you lots of joy in this holiday season. Best of everything in 2009!***

Teachers' College

Done! Ha! Never again!


Interesting situation that I find myself in. I quit the restaurant, see, having had enough of crazy long shifts, angry staff, absentee management, total mayhem most of the time, and of course the constantly and excessively drunk customers. Done and done. And why not? I'll just pick up some office work, get some temp stuff until my papers come through and I can do some supply teaching – no problem.

Turns out, though, that in blue-collar army/mining towns like this, the only temporary work is in manual labour – other than some office work for government/army organizations, but then you need to be an Australian citizen. I thought it might actually be a good idea to get my construction site blue card and a pair of steel-toe boots, as doing some digging and hauling and lifting would make me strong and fit (and rich) – but even that fell through because you have to have your own transportation to get out to construction/farm/mine sites way out of Townsville, and my bicycle -- though excellent -- just won't cut it.

But no need to panic. First, I've found this guy who runs a construction company from home and needs office management help, such as typing up project bids and e-mails and letters to sub-contractors and anything else that needs to be done around the office.
He even lets me unleash my organization skills, including furniture re-arrangement – look out! Cash-in-hand, super casual (jean shorts, tank tops and bare feet tend to be my work uniform) and a nice family vibe, as I get to chat with his teacher wife and coo at their eight-week-old baby.

Second – and less satisfying but we all have to pay our bills, right? – is working for a promotions company, which I thought would be dressing up in ice cream costumes and handing out popsicles at the beach and that kind of thing. It's not. So far, in a series of increasingly inappropriate-for-me-and-everything-I-stand-for promo jobs, I've been:

1. The pork lady, setting up a stand in the supermarket to cook and hand out samples of "moisture-infused" pork;

2. The White Stag girl, standing in drive-thru bottle shops (oh yes, they have drive-thru alcohol stores), handing out samples of Toohey's latest low-carb beer to people in cars; and

3. The Beer Promo Chick, setting up kegs of Pure Blond Naked and serving it out to drunk soldiers at the local army base's end-of-year parties. (You can't see the high heels and cleavage hole, but it was hot!)

They were desperate for staff and super grateful that I showed up when I did, but I'm not exactly what they're looking for in a promo chick – which I should have figured out from their being called "Casting Couch" and having a web site full of pictures of girls in slutty costumes and coquettish (read: whorish) poses. As it happens, they're so disorganized that I was mostly left to my own devices for the first few weeks, just wearing more or less conservative black, depending on the venue. I chose to disregard the army base uniform of "high heels, short black shorts and baby tee," for example, opting to wear pants and a fitting top and let my sparkling personality make up for the rest.

I was a bit suspicious when I opened the bag for the first White Stag deal, surprised to discover that a ten-year-old child would be accompanying me on this beer promo and then realizing that, in fact, I was supposed to be wearing those tiny little munchkin-sized short shorts. I started to think that maybe this wasn't going to be the best job for me. Now I've seen the doll-sized one-piece Kahlua overalls and the bra-and-short-shorts standard "uniform" for anything pub-related and I think I'm going to look into a different line of work in the new year, though no one can take away the memories. Ah, Casting Couch.


Grade six was great. I was all stressed out about going back to pre-teens after having such fun with the littlies, but forget it – grade six is a fantastic age and I'm hoping against hope that one of the grade seven teachers gets sick in January so that I can have my class back for a few weeks.

I'm not such a great basketball coach, is the only thing. I mean, I'm a terrible basketball coach. But other than that, we did so many interesting things, had such good talks – about racism, relationships, community, travel, kindness, politics, xenophobia, "lie" vs. "lay" – you name it – did rich tasks and integrated activities, including everything from yoga and aerobics (for the mandatory half-hour of exercise a day) to folk singing and mock elections. Awesome.

They went a little wild for my birthday, decorating the classroom with balloons, bringing me gifts and chocolates (no complaints here), writing me cards... and then two days later it was my last day and they did it all over again, only with tears and promises and lots of hugs, even from the boys. What do you with all the overwhelming love that you feel for a group of kids? I went back to see the plays they performed for the parents and some of the shyest kids were up on stage, everyone so excited and nervous and the whole thing so dear – I could hardly stand to watch it, I was so choked up with it all. How could anybody not want to work with kids?!

As for the littlies, I kept going in when I could and got to witness some pretty excellent six-year-old moments, like funny little Leita saying to Clay, who had just let her use his ladybug eraser: "You're the greatest friend I've ever had." Or Harley, part of some in-joke that I was not in on: "Hello, Hannah. Or should I say, 'Lulu.'"

My favourite one all year, possibly ever: Georgia is a little girl who's having a pretty rough time of it all, generally quite bright but totally disengaged and can sit for an entire day and get nothing done, other than distracting everyone around her. I think she's super cute and was lucky to have a really good connection with her, as some kids just respond better to different teachers. (Greta wasn't a big fan of Georgia's, but she loved the kid that I would have paid money to remove from the class. Go figure.) Georgia just thought I was really great and always worked hard when I was there, getting completed-work stars for the first time all year.

Now: Peter, a funny-little-old-man-though-only-six, sees Georgia's sticker card, which suddenly has all these gold stars. He says: "Georgia, is that your sticker card? Are those all your stars? Wow, Georgia – you're only two stars away from a tuck shop voucher! Well done, Georgia! You must have really been working hard, to get all those stickers – that's just great! Good on ya, Georgia! You must be so pleased with yourself – well done!" With Georgia just standing there, beaming.

**And let's not forget the lesson in that: model positive behaviour and language with the children in your lives, because they really do pick it up and use it. And so earnestly!

They wrote me messages during a computer lesson and Greta e-mailed it to me. This was Georgia's:


And some of the other ones, just because it's funny to see how they write at that age (don't think they haven't been told – and told and told and told – about spaces between words!):


-Haloo mess tomes from Harley

-Deatomes tomsmarrychrtmasnadahaveahappynewyearfrombrysonn

Seriously, though – how could anyone not want to work with kids?

*You know how people say that baseball is too slow because a game can take up to three or four hours? The same cricket batter, this one guy, has been going for four hours – FOUR HOURS – and the game is not finished until every batter on both teams has had a go. Four hours! He's had a total of eight different people pitching to him so far! There is a morning tea break, a lunch break, an afternoon tea break, and then they come back tomorrow and keep going. They won't let it go longer than: five days. That's about 30 hours of game time. Even just having Mark try to and explain the rules makes me hostile, anxious, bored, aggressive and depressed. All at once. Am I just being close-minded or is this the single most absurdly ridiculous game on the planet? Who ARE these people?


So here's something that's a problem for me in Australia. I'm here because I love the tropics, right? I can accept that there are ants EVERYWHERE, in all the food, without exception. I can accept that there are giant flying cockroaches and that my fingers swell up and ache in the humidity. I can accept that there are huge and terrifying storms that cause major flooding and take out all the power for up to seven or eight hours, melting the ice cream and keeping the laundry perpetually moldy and damp – even though it isn't officially cyclone season yet. I can accept all the less-fantastic things because they're in exchange for water holes and beautiful beaches and a real return to nature, right?

So it's irritating that even nature is a bust. To wit: Mark and I drive out to Jourama, a water hole/creek that he remembers from a few years ago and wants to revisit. A beautiful day, perfect for a nature walk, a peaceful break from city sounds and smells. Can't wait.

We set off through the forest, which is probably pretty but who knows, since we're concentrating so hard on swatting away the monster flies – horse flies? deer flies? – that are taking chunks out of our skin.

We arrive at the first swimming spot, slow-motion tip-toe our way over the treacherously slippery rocks and, sweating profusely from the sun and the forest mugginess, jump into the water. It's just as cold as expected, knock-the-breath-out-of-you cold, delicious mountain-water-cold – but there are little crab things that are chomping away at our flesh and it's more stressful than it's worth.

When we try to warm up in the sun, though, we are so completely swarmed by the monster flies that we can't even take the time to dress or pack. In our dripping bathing suits and carrying clothes, shoes, cameras and sandwich bags, we slip and slide back over the rocks (which really are dangerous if you're distractedly running away from giant mutant flies) and scramble up through the forest until we escape the hub of the swarm – though by no means escaping the flies altogether.

We climb up to the look-out, gasping for breath in the humidity and the direct sun, and when we reach the end point, the big prize with the nice waterfall view, Mark turns to make a comment and I can't hear a word he's saying. He tries again, but he's too exhausted to raise his voice higher than the ear-splitting roar that is surrounding us. What is this noise? Well, it's crickets, cicadas, frogs, birds – any number of creatures, all sitting in the trees and making a hideous, overwhelming symphony of sound.

And as we stand there, panting, sweating, swatting the monster flies away from our itchy, red bodies, deaf to everything but the piercing car-alarm-like cacophany of the forest, we think: what are we doing here? This is hell. If we had to design hell, this is how we'd do it. If we wanted peace, we should have stayed in the apartment with the ceiling fan on; neighbours' squabbles and loud music have nothing on the misery of a nature walk.

We tried other water holes but the damn flies are relentless: either it's winter and it's too cold for ice swimming, or it's summer and you can't get near the water for the flies. You can't go near the beautiful beaches because there might be crocs and sharks and there are definitely stingers.

We went camping at this gorgeous waterfall on Christmas Eve and on the endless Christmas day hike down through the rain forest, we had warning after warning of the various poisonous plants to avoid (all of which are green and leafy, possibly with berries – thanks! That really narrows it down!) and how to be safe in croc country... It's hard to just enjoy the scenery around here.

I mean, it's beautiful - there are some beautiful places - but you don't really have access to most of it. Unfortunate, is all I'm saying.

(And when you do find a good one, like Crystal Creek, you take a picnic, you marvel at the beauty, you enjoy the clear, refreshingly cold water, you start to feel like things are maybe better than you thought, and then some dag-o, redneck, trashy, drunk hick, there with his group of dag-o, redneck, trashy, drunk friends, starts horking and/or stand-up peeing in the water and it's so gross that you can't even conceive of going back in and your "let's spend the day at Crystal Creek!" plan becomes "let's drive all the way to Crystal Creek, go in the water for eight minutes and then get the hell out before the yobbos' taunting turns into an attack." They go on and on about crocs here, but it's the locals you actually have to look out for.)


So there it is. The cricket game is going strong (looks to me like they're all standing around, but Mark informs me that there's a lot happening) but I might have to take a break to play with our beloved little neighbours' cat, Nugget, who is looking for someone to wrestle with. God bless Nugget.

Mark's parents gave him (and me, by extension – score!) a week in a hotel North of Cairns (= extremely tropical), so when we've had enough of nature day trips where we can't do anything, we'll have our choice of pools and general leisure activities. I can't wait. It's not like I've been very busy these past few weeks and particularly deserve a break, but it was pretty non-stop February through November, so I'm decided to be completely okay with just being pampered.

For all that I'm shut down on cold winters, I'm not a big fan of the tropical Christmas, at least not when they follow cold weather traditions. The Caribbean carnival thing was fine, because it was totally different from my sense of Christmas, but here, with their mall culture and fur coat Santa and "Let It Snow" and "Winter Wonderland" playing in the supermarket, it just makes me want to either go home or go very, very far from people. So I wish you all a very merry Christmas (or Boxing Day, since Christmas is over) and Happy New Year, and hope you're making the most of wherever you are and whomever you're with.


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

On the Townsville, Chapter Six

I'm still here. Haven't jumped ship, as some of you seemed to think, am not on a beautiful beach in Thailand or working in the mines – just trying to keep my head above water and wait until it's all over. But here's an update, for those of you who are concerned about my disappearance from your inboxes:


It's probably best that I not talk about teachers' college; no need to bring you all down with me, right? Suffice it to say that I'm counting down, desperately, and if you ever hear anyone say they're thinking of spending a year at JCU in Townsville, you just send them to me. Maybe I can convince them to go somewhere less damaging to the soul – like, oh, I don't know, Chernobyl. Or maybe Guantanamo Bay.


Last time I wrote I was just back from Sydney, and I thought I had all these stories to tell. On reflection, though, it was a great trip because of all the excellent people we met (through couch surfing), and that doesn't make for very good story-telling. ('And there was Jeremy, and he was really great... Then there was Kiko, a really great guy, oh, and Sam, our favourite host, was just so great!')

Sydney is definitely a beautiful city, but ultimately it's like Toronto, only with a much better use of its harbour. And with Lindt stores! Stores! Full of Lindt products! Including liquid-Lindt-hot-chocolate – needless to say, we stopped in a couple times a day. And good thing we did, because we needed all the warming up we could get; it was bloody freezing the whole week. Even after we went to K-Mart to buy socks, shoes, leggings and thermal underwear to add to our flannel pyjamas and sweatshirts, we still had to huddle together in our sleeping bags every night and invariably woke up with stiff, achy backs, chapped skin and cracking feet. But whatever. It was just a relief to be back in a place with different languages, colours, smells, sounds, foods... Even going to the pub was fun, because there were interesting people to talk to. I guess it's just tiring being in a small, white, drunk town for months on end.

Whitney and I, high on the Sydney trip and figuring the solution was to explore [warm] Queensland through couch surfing, drove up to Cairns and Port Douglas for a tropical tourist adventure. P.D. is quaint and quite charming, and there were some beautiful coastal driving views, but it turns out that the Beer, Boobs and Army Guys thing is Queensland-wide. It's best to just accept it, get over it and enjoy the sunshine.

The best part of the trip was definitely the soundtrack – once we'd made our way through the dodgy world music cds I'd picked up at the library, that is, and Whitney thought to plug in her i-pod. Are you all familiar with Mika? If not, then get on it! He makes for a good road trip, I'll tell you what, and 'Big Girls, You Are Beautiful' quickly became our theme song – and became increasingly appropriate as we chai latt-ayed our way through North Queensland. 'Get yourself to the butterfly lounge, find yourself a big lady': pure gold.


For my most recent prac, three weeks of full-load teaching, I was blessed with the most beautiful grade one class in the history of grade one classes – and I think I actually want to be a teacher again. Huzzah!

It was at a Catholic school, which – of course – I made a big fuss about, but in the end I discovered that they pay for Catholic school here, it isn't tax payers' money, so I don't really have a legitimate objection. I did have to lead morning prayers, throughout-the-day prayers, end-of-the-day prayers and a daily religion lesson, but I used it to talk about nature, the universe, human values and all the things that religion should be about. Plus, they light candles, which is always a good time.

I also got to sing, play phys-ed games, talk about sea turtles and saving the planet... grade one is the best! The best, I tell you. And they're so earnest, jumping fully on-board with whatever you're talking about. After a lesson on good lunches and bad lunches, as far as plastic wrap and bags versus tupperware and lunch boxes, I had all the parents coming in to thank me for turning their kids into little enviro-nazis. 'You can't wrap my sandwich in plastic, Mom – Miss Thomas said that it isn't biodegradable and it's piling up in the earth!'

There were such tears on my last day (mine and theirs!) that Greta, the teacher, asked me to come hang out from time to time. I've been going in for reading groups and general help, and even scored a field trip to the aquarium, which is the coolest place in Townsville (like being at the reef but without the sea-sickness or the hundreds of dollars.) I go back to grade six for all of October and it's going to be hard, but knowing that I get to go back to hang out with the littlies in November will make it easier to bear, I think.


Man, hospitality is the worst! I'm a supervisor at the restaurant now – not because I want to be, but because there's no one else to do it – and that means that on top of having to try to please whoever's sitting in my section, I then have to shmooze and grovel and smooth over whatever goes wrong in everybody else's section as well. My coping strategy is to remember that people who feel so small in their own life that they feel it is acceptable to verbally abuse the complete strangers who are serving their food are too pathetic to deserve anything but my pity; they certainly aren't worth getting upset over. And, as you may have already picked up on, Townsville isn't the classiest place out there, and Island Man Sam is a diner/steak house, so we get some pretty rough-n'-rowdy guests – I can't expect people to be their most elegant when they're drunk (everyone here is always drunk – everyone, always) and riled up because their team lost the footie match.

People have commented on my complete serenity in the face of abusive customers, which makes me suspect that the months I spent dealing with snooty Club Med parents taught me some valuable skills, as far as smiling kindly, saying 'I can see you're upset,' never saying 'I'm sorry' and just thinking of something else (grocery lists/unit plans are great) while they get it out of their system. You want to vent? Go ahead, vent. Feel better. Now get the hell out of my restaurant.


Ha HA! In the face of a town of drunk rednecks, a job in hospitality, a uni program that is sucking my will to live and the mountains of useless-but-impossibly-time-consuming work that our so-called teachers assign us, romance saves the day. I don't like to talk about personal things in these updates, but it's become a fairly central feature of my Townsville life, so it makes sense to at least catch you up on the basic situation. Which is this: I'm dating my housemate! Boo-ya!

Kind of a strange set-up, as you can imagine, and it has certainly sped up the dating progression (we used the same bathroom to get ready for our first date), but it's been great having someone to vent to and then have fun with. He's taken me to see a lot of the beautiful natural stuff around Townsville that you need a car to get to – that's right, he has a car! He's a real grown-up, with a job and everything! Unprecedented! – as well as dinners out, romantic get-aways, drive-in movies (don't see Dark Knight! Horrible movie!), family outings (he's from Adelaide but most of his family has moved up here over the last few years), all sorts of good stuff. He's even signed us up for dancing lessons because he feels bad that I love to dance so much and he's so desperately lacking in body rhythm. (Oh, that famous White-Guy Syndrome. Sigh.)

**Or just White-People Syndrome in general. Take our salsa class last Monday, for example: isn't salsa supposed to be sexy, easy, fun, natural, here's the basic step now off you go? Not in ballroom, it isn't: put your head like this. Pinky out. Arm straight. A bit higher and to the left. Back straight, but leaning away from each other. Don't move your hips, just your legs. Where's the joy in it? Where's the rhythm? What's the point?

But I digress. I'm having a lot of fun with Mark and am grateful for the silver lining he provides against the dark, gloomy, pain-in-the-ass Townsville cloud I was getting used to. Oh, and he cooks – no more yoghurt-and-muesli dinners for me!

And... We’re Done

Not a lot of good stories – sorry about this year's lame up-dates – but there you have it. Just two months to go and then I'll never have to set foot in JCU again, unless it's to drop of hate-mail packages to some of this year's star players.

Wish me luck with my grade six prac – I'm sure I'll be out of touch again for a while, trying to figure out how to teach an extended unit on Australian government, but I do have internet access, so please keep me up-to-date on all your adventures up-over.

Still sober,


Monday, June 16, 2008

On the Townsville, Chapter Five

Okay, so it’s been a while. It hasn’t been the best year ever (read: a total bust and a waste of my precious youth…) so I haven’t exactly felt inspired to write and tell you all about it. However. Things are on the up and up, I think, and I’m starting to feel a bit better about the whole situation – I’ve stopped with the daily mantras of “Suck it up, Princess” and “Well, it can’t get any worse,” which I think is a good sign – so maybe this is the perfect time to bring you all up-to-date on the rip-roaring good time that is Townsville 2008 (before it gets bad again and I decide not to write after all…)


Teachers’ College is still total crap, but I loved my first placement and am looking forward to getting back in the classroom for the next phase – some time in August, not sure of the details. I’m supposed to be sent out into the bush somewhere, so hopefully they’ll let me know where I’m going sooner than later so that I can set up some kind of living arrangements… Or whatever. I have a sleeping bag, I can figure it out.

Wallaboo is a beautiful school with really lovely kids and no real dress code, which is the definition of a good job as far as I’m concerned. I didn’t have to go out and buy dorky “professional” clothes, but could just wear whatever skirts, jeans and tops I felt like, and the students were endlessly pleased with having what they described as a hippie teacher. (They could barely contain their excitement the day I brought in my guitar for a musical send-off – apparently hippies are back in? Or at least, faux-hippies?)

As well as thinking that I was fabulously bohemian, the kids were convinced that I was having an affair with Mr. D, the funny seventh-grade teacher who is the only permanent male staff member and thus the only possible candidate for such a scandal. What were the events that prompted these rumours, you ask? Two things: first, I was assigned to Green House for the full-school track-and-field day, as I happened to be wearing green, and so Green-Captain-Mr.-D and I spent the morning leading cheers and rounding up groups of sweaty, confused, dehydrated Greenies. Then, that same afternoon, we stood together at the awards assembly, as our classes sit next to each other and this was the only place we could stand, and we talked for about thirty-five seconds about how things had gone for our sad, defeated Green House, before hushing up for the assembly and monitoring the kids.

Doesn’t seem like much, but apparently this is more than enough material for upper primary students to work with; by the end of the day Mr. D and I were in love, possibly secretly married, definitely dating, and the kids were giggling madly into their hands if we were spied anywhere remotely in the same vicinity. (My classroom directly faces his and the staff room – and only washroom – is in-between the two; we were, by definition, in the same vicinity pretty much all the time.) They asked me if I played love songs for him on the guitar, they told him that sunflowers are my favourite so that he won’t go wrong on our next date, they wrote Mr. D loves Miss Thomas on the blackboard in my room, they advised me on which clothes make me look prettiest (one boy: “if I were you, I’d wear a lot of green because it makes your eyes look like cats’ eyes”)… it was a very exciting week, to say the least. I’m back at Wallaboo for all of October, so it will be interesting to see if the time away has diminished or aggravated their commitment to this Very Exciting Situation. I will keep you posted.

Theft and Bicycle Assembly

Now, if my bike was stolen from the beach, in broad daylight, while I was having a little swim-and-read, how likely is it that I had locked it up properly? I SUSPECT that I was distracted by something, possibly by my discovery that the left brake had come apart, and didn’t actually lock the bike to anything. Locking the handlebars to the basket isn’t necessarily the best security strategy I could have come up with, is all I’m saying here.

Whatever the reason for the grand theft cyclo, I went back to K-Mart to buy a new bike – and helmet, lock, basket, lights and pump, bloody hell – and none of the assembled ones looked very appealing, so I chose the one I wanted and decided to just assemble it at home. I thought I’d take everything out of the box, just to see where we were at, and I saved time by pulling off all the taped-on packaging as I went. Then I looked at the booklet of hieroglyphics that claim to be assembly instructions, I turned the various bike parts around a few times, hoping for a clue, and ultimately I stuffed all the now-unprotected parts back in the box, drove back to K-Mart and paid the sixteen dollars to have the thing assembled, which took a week and did not, apparently, include putting air in the tires. In case you were wondering.

Adieu, my fair sky-blue Turbo bicycle, and god speed. Hopefully the punk kid who stole it discovered that the brakes were shot by crashing into a tree, or something karma-appropriate like that. More to the point, hopefully the kind of punk kid who steals someone’s bike won’t want to steal my new pink one; I’m considering getting handlebar tassles and those little clicky things for the spokes to further deter possible punkage – though then I might not want to ride it myself, which I reckon would defeat the whole purpose. Besides, I have a fancy new lock, with a KEY. I just need to remember to use it.


Waitressing is generally a good time, as there are all manner of shenanigans going on in the kitchen. Also, sometimes I get free mud cake. Yum.

The drawback: waitresses get asked on dates, usually from within the safety of a group of dining colleagues/friends. This might actually be a bullying strategy, because I find that I don’t want to embarrass them so I say yes, and then I end up on these totally lame dates, listening to some yobbo jock tell me about the car he uses for drag racing and how much money he makes and all the clever ways he has of not spending it.

Remember how I was going to meet Ben, my funny, clever and interesting marine biologist? Well. I have met more marine biologists than I can shake a coral reef at, and let me tell you something: they’re a bunch of frat boys who care about the planet about as much as I care about drag racing.

I suspect I’ll keep getting suckered into these awful dates – at least I get a free dinner out of it, right? Thursday is taking me for Indian food – but I can more than abandon the charade that I’m going to meet any kind of successful romantic match here in Redneck Central, where there are no men, but only little boys in men’s bodies. Nothing like a whole year of me-time; some healthy introspection can only be a good thing.

(Who am I kidding? I’m chomping at the bit here! Where are the real men? Send me a man, dammit!)


I do love a good epiphany, and one Wednesday night, halfway through the game when the whistle was blown for maybe the eighty-sixth time, I realized that I fully and completely hate netball. Worst game ever. Any time you build up some kind of rhythm, you’re booking it up the court and feeling really good about whatever cool move you just pulled, they whistle you out for something – obstructing, stepping, holding, blocking, itching, scratching, whatever. The worst is when I have to defend, because my feet have to be three feet from the person with the ball. This is pretty irritating for anyone, but at least the seven-foot tall women on my team can reach across the three feet and still kind of – kind of, at best – block the ball. Me? I got nuttin. I basically just wave my hands around people’s shoulders while they stop, get comfortable, take aim and score, and I usually still get whistled out for obstruction because I can only stay leaning forward on my tippy-toes for so long before gravity takes over and I step forward, breaking the three-foot rule and getting them a free shot.

No more netball: I thought you might like to know.

My New Home

I have been blessed with the friendship of my pal Jess, a fun girl at the best of times and a life-saver at the worst, such as when I need her help (and her utility vehicle) to move my stuff yet again. By now we’re almost professional: we can take my bed apart in under four minutes and load the ute in under twenty, and nothing even gets touched by bike chain grease.

Living with my bosses, Jim and Millie, was a lot of fun, and I still miss that beautiful, swanky apartment and its bean-shaped pool. They moved into a two-bedroom apartment, though, and I would have had to live on the couch, besides which living with the bosses meant that I was even more the go-to girl than usual and was working crazy shifts, as it was hard to say no when I was part of the family. (Being the only staff member who does not suffer from three or four hangovers a week, I’m their official Reliable Employee and end up picking up a lot of slack at the best of times, not to mention when we share a bathroom…)

I stayed a couple of stressful months with a girl I knew from uni and her housemate before I found the place where I’m living now: it’s two seconds from the nudist beach, my favourite place in Townsville (I didn’t come all the way here to have tan lines!) which makes it five minutes from work and forty minutes – down from fifty-two! – to uni. Roommates are Steve, who works at the museum and seems fussy but is actually hilariously funny, and Mark, a business guy who gave me his extra laptop to use and has been a fun garage sale and cooking buddy. (He even made lamb palatable – no small feat, I assure you.)

I got milk crates from work – strapped four of them on to my body with my bike lock and rode very slowly home – and a side table from St. Vinnie’s, and the landlords and I got along so well that they brought me their extra wardrobe. My room looks AWESOME, just for the record. This is a picture of the view from my window.

I worried about being a busy-body, coming into an apartment and OCD-ing my way around the place, but when I suggested a possible re-arrangement of the living room furniture, they jumped right on it and were quite pleased with the results. So… I decided to get comfortable. I borrowed some bar stools from work – another fun bike ride home, only this time a police officer pulled me over because he thought I was stealing public property; I had to show him the text messages with the okay from Jim, which I bizarrely and providentially hadn’t erased – and got some baskets and things to help keep things tidy in the bathroom and kitchen. Pretty turquoise baskets, a woven floor mat for the kitchen…? Great, said Steve and Mark, we love it! Sunflower pictures hanging in the kitchen and bathroom? Have I gone too far? Beautiful, said Steve and Mark; why don’t you hang some in the living room, to complete the theme?

Steve and Mark: best roommates ever!

Mark and I donned our skulking-around-garage-sale jackets and caps and set out on a Saturday morning patio furniture mission; we also found a mirror for my room, a book shelf for his and a bunch of giant plants that have turned the balcony into a jungle and will make our poker games into a tropical adventure. (I lost the last one and have to make dinner, so I’m going to make crepes; eating Nutella makes everything okay, even losing at poker…)

It’s been a bumpy road, but I think it was all meant to get me to this apartment, these roommates, this location and this jungle patio; if I’d been less miserable in the other places and had stuck it out, I wouldn’t have met Mark and Steve, the heroes of Townsville 2008. See? Everything for a reason, my friends. Everything for a reason.

Funny Australianisms

We all know “no worries” – but had you heard “you’re alright”? As in, I bump into someone and say sorry, and they’ll say “y’ar-right” instead of “that’s okay” or similar. Kind of weird, isn’t it?

I like this one:
“Can I get another schooner of Heineken?”
“Too easy, mate.”

The only people saying the word “sheila” are foreigners who try to sound Australian. What the Australians say, it turns out, is “hey, doll, can you pass me that side plate?”
And even though they say it to everyone, I feel kind of lovely every time. I’m an easy sell, it turns out.

The plural “youz”? Totally acceptable here.

As for dangerous slang, the Canadians have all been warned about wearing any Roots paraphernalia, as our great Canadian clothing line is the equivalent of the f-word, as in “whose leg do you have to root to get a drink around here?” Anything to do with reggae music or taking the bus suddenly becomes very tricky indeed.

And here’s a funny one: my friend Whitney and I spent a couple of days in the Blue Mountains. Our couch surfing host, Sam, picked us up at the train station and asked if we were hungry, but we had spent the train ride snacking on almonds and pitted dates. I said “we’re good, we’ve just spent the last hour sucking on dates” and he almost choked on his gum; when he stopped laughing, he explained that “date” is a slang word for – ahem – bum hole, so our train ride sounded a lot more daring than it actually was. Tee-hee!

Concluding Paragraph

I just spent a really great week in Sydney but that will be for another day; now that I have a lap-top, I can write whenever I want to (if I can tear myself away from Minesweeper…) and just pop it on the internet when I get the chance. You’re going to have updates up the wazoo, you lucky ducks!

See youz,


Friday, March 28, 2008

On the Townsville, Chapter Four

I just read over the first chapters of On the Townsville and couldn't believe how long they are and how much unnecessary detail is included in each story. So my project for chapter IV is to become a better self-editor. Here we go:

Island Man Sam

A few young Americans were recently hired and have created a frat party vibe in the restaurant. Chris and Shane in particular are a hit with the ladies, as we get lots of parties of young women -- bachelorette dinners or just girls' night out -- and they're so drunk and so excited by these cute, young, flirty men with yankee accents that they're barely able to contain themselves. They get their pictures taken with them, they write their phone numbers in lipstick on the table -- there was even an attempt to stuff a tip down Chris's pants. It's mayhem.

The tables were turned on Sunday, however, when there was an all-afternoon-and-evening reggae thing with a really good live band. I hadn't understood the hugeness of the event and suddenly found myself running drinks and getting cat-called like a cocktail waitress in a night club. The frat boys didn't have any problems because all the drunk women had their eyes on the waiter-trumping musicians -- or on themselves, as they were so clearly enjoying being 'crazy' and 'original' and dancing their rhythmless hippie dances in flowy pants and beaded head scarves. As the only female staff person, however, I got a whole lot of attention from the slobbering, moronic, drunk-off-their-tits men who seem to populate the Townsville social scene. Embarrassingly, one of them told me I was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen and I was all giggly and blushing until Shane pointed out that the guy was literally drooling into his schooner of Victoria Bitter and could barely sit upright on his barstool; looks like I'm starved for compliments these days. I'll take what I can get!

The sad news is that Doug, one of the managers, is leaving. He's worked for ages in hospitality and has owned a restaurant for six years, so he's ready to move on. (This is obviously very hard on Jim, the other manager, who has been Doug's business partner, roommate and best friend for six years; it's pretty much like a divorce.) Doug is originally from Trinidad and is a gorgeous little leprechaun of a man; everyone is sad to see him go.

But since Doug is leaving Townsville, and since I'm looking for a place to live...

Wait for it....

Katy and Jim!!!

I packed on Wednesday, rode out to uni on Thursday morning, rode back home to finish packing, rode BACK to uni for my afternoon class, and then my friend Sarah came with her car and helped me move into Jim's swanky bachelor pad -- before I rushed out to work. An exhausting day, but after a little housecleaning and putting my stuff away, I just sat and enjoyed the peace and quiet. Maybe this afternoon I'll do the same thing, only in the pool! Huzzah!

It's not as great as I originally thought because he's bought a condo and will be leaving April 10th, but that gives me two weeks to find something more permanent, and during those two weeks I will be in a clean, nice-smelling, quiet apartment in a ritzy part of town with an ocean view and the mountain behind me. Most importantly, during those two weeks I will get some sleep. No more all-night parties with drunk British back-packers snorting horse tranquilizers off the living room table. No more drunken, raging, 3 a.m. lovers' spats. No more smelly little dog yapping me awake every time a car passes on the distant street. No more wet, moldy towels on the bathroom floor; no more ants all over the counter because nobody can be bothered to rinse the barbecue sauce off their plates; no more strangers going into my room and taking my pillows to use as couch cushions; no more pee on the floor or on the toilet rim (the wooden toilet seat snapped in half two weeks ago and has not been replaced). No computer? No land line? I don't care. I just need some sleep.

I will definitely miss my nightly routine of sitting on the front step and looking at the stars with Joogsie's head on my lap and my home-made juice popsicle dripping on it. I will miss my comfortable, forty-minute bike ride, as it now takes over an hour and includes two steep uphill climbs (though with the fun downhill swoop that follows) and I'm feeling the burn.
I would have missed Rico's home cooking, but it never ended up happening; when I tried, after a disastrous attempt to cook chicken for myself, to strike up a partnership wherein I buy the food and he, the professional chef, cooks it, he thought I was asking him to make a big dinner for us all some time. The more I tried to explain, the more he thought I was pressuring him to step up to the task and he tried to set a date so that I'd leave him alone. I guess it was never meant to be.
(I've collected some easy recipes from the chefs at work, so maybe this will be the year where I finally learn to cook properly for myself...) (Probably not, but maybe.)

So there it is: I'm staying for two weeks and wishing it were longer, and the apartment hunt is on.


I'm not coaching as much as before, as it's hard to get there in time after school. I'm also not umpiring, as so far they've managed to find people and [knock on wood] they won't need me. What I am doing is playing every Wednesday night, among amazon-sized women who just reach over my head and drop the ball in the net. What I am not doing is improving; I played a lot worse this week than last week -- but I'm hoping it's just a juice-belly thing and not a trend.

I sure get a lot of exercise, though, hopping around trying to steal the ball off of people who are two heads taller than I am; luckily it's a friendly league, so it's lots of fun and I get to try different positions every quarter. Interestingly, I'm a much better attacker than defender; maybe because I can deek around and find my own system, instead of having to block someone whose bra clasp is at my eye level. Sometimes I even get the ball in the net! Really!

Magnetic Island

It's no secret that my favourite demographic is middle-aged men, probably because I am pretty much middle-aged myself and I like their rhythm. Should I pretend to be hipper than I am? Why deny the glaringly obvious?

A friendly dining foursome very quickly became my favourite table and I sat down with them when my shift was over and had a drink. (Raspberry cordial; my fave!) We'll call them the Spy Guys because they work for some top-secret organization and can only tell me certain details. Planes are involved -- they are pilots and engineers -- and they're here for four months. That's all I know. Maybe something with the government? or the military? They are being lodged in gorgeous apartments on the boardwalk, so it's someone with money. (They have promised me that they are not involved in bombing North Korea or similar; I have to take their word for it.) (And I obviously can't publish any pictures of them, so you'll just have to look at what I've got and imagine it with four Aussie blokes with really white feet.)

They came back to eat again the next night and invited me to spend a day with them on Maggie Island, which I hadn't yet had a chance to visit. (When I had free time it was raining; when the rain stopped, I had a job.) Off we went on the ferry and I am disappointed to report that I got boat-sick. On a ferry. Just the last two minutes pulling in, which is apparently a notoriously bad section, but still; it was pretty lame.

Once we got to shore, we rented some funny little barbie jeeps and go-Karted around the island. We all know about boys and their toys, but with a group of men whose lives are spent designing, fixing, testing and flying planes, you can imagine how much fun they had racing up and down the mountainous coast. ('Racing' might not be the right word, as the cars couldn't go much faster than 50 km/h... everything's relative.)

Other than my being a boat sissy, it turns out I am also a wallaby sissy. The island is famous for its wild wallabies who live in the rocks and come out to eat out of people's hands. Up I went with my palmful of seeds, and out came the wallabies -- including this rough-and-tumble one who had clearly been around the block a few times. I suddenly had visions of giant rodents gnawing at my hand and I couldn't take it. I threw my seeds on the rock and was out of there in a flash, then sheepishly took a picture of someone else feeding them so that I'd at least have the memory.

Grade Six

And finally, I did my first teaching practicum and it was a lot of fun. I have three more weeks with this grade six class (after a two-week university segment -- blech) and then will come back in October and spend a month with the grade sixes on the other side of the pod. Both the teachers are fantastic and I think I'll learn a lot.

Now here's the complaint. (You didn't think I was just going to be unabashedly positive, did you?)

Wallaboo State School, not Catholic or private. Funded by the good tax-payers of North Queensland and teaching a state-wide, if not nation-wide, curriculum in order to make good citizens who will contribute to society. And yet, what is this block on my weekly schedule -- does that say 'religion?' Is that possible? Carol, my prac teacher, assures me that it is non-denominational. And come to think of it, that's pretty neat, to be teaching a comparative religion course in grade six. It's a 'values' class, and I think that having a block of time to discuss values and morals and social things like that is really important. Good on you, Wallaboo, I can't wait to see what this Thursday class will be like.

The day arrives, and with it comes Gavin, a huge, blond, highly entertaining Baptist preacher from North Carolina who has been living here with his missionary wife for seven years. It was a forty-minute session, and I can't remember most of it because I was so fully in shock that I didn't understand what was happening for at least the first half. (Is this performance art of some kind? When is he going to break character and talk about how dangerous it is to have loony Southern preachers set loose on elementary school classes?)

As the shock wore off, however, I heard that:
-we sin all the time, we're probably sinning right now, but we're covered because Jesus died for our sins -- remember when he was spreading his arms out on the cross? That was him saying 'I love you THIIIIIIIS much!', just like Mommy and Daddy say to you, boys and girls;
-God wants blood in return for sin and sometimes cutting a lamb's throat just isn't enough;
-there's nothing we will ever be able to do to live up to what Jesus did for us.

Then, after choral-calling back ('Who loves you?' 'Jesus!' 'And why did He die?' 'For our sins!') the students coloured a picture of Adam carrying JC's cross for him while Gavin invited me to Thanksgiving with his family. (You're not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy...)

Sandy, the next-door teacher, added to my disbelief when she sat down with the two classes for their daily novel-reading. In response to a comment that I didn't hear, she asked if anyone knew how old Jesus was when he died. When the kids started guessing, she said she hadn't asked for them to guess, but had asked if anyone KNEW. Because there is documentation, there is an official age, it is a fact to be acquired. I thought she must be talking about the flesh and blood Jesus and whatever historical documents and back-tracing she had heard about, but she continued, 'he was thirty-three. It is documented; it is written in the Bible. It's a fact.'

See, now what am I supposed to say? How is it possible that she is officially announcing to a double group of eleven-year-olds that the Bible is a factual document, while at the same time warning them about using Wikipedia for their countries project because you can't always trust its sources?
This is PUBLIC SCHOOL, for Christ's sake! It's a FACT that he was thirty-three because it's written in the BIBLE???!!! Is it a FACT that some people lived to be six hundred years old and that Noah built an enormous ark and filled it with animals? You can have whatever beliefs you want at home and at Sunday school and you can be scared of God and filled with sin-guilt and have crucifixion nightmares; that's your cross to bear. (Tee-hee.) But public, tax-funded school? I can't stay in this country.

So much for self-editing. Wish me luck in the bachelor pad -- maybe I'll be such a good roomie that he'll want to take me along to the new condo... Who wouldn't?


Tuesday, March 4, 2008

On the Townsville, Chapter Three

Chapter 3: Gainful Employment and a German to Boot

The Strand

Hey everyone! I've been to the beach! There was a day where it didn't rain -- crazy, I know -- so my London, Ontario friend (and Railway Estate neighbour) Nicole and I walked to The Strand -- then kept walking because we had to get to the stinger nets -- and Nicole-of-Irish-heritage was roasted before we even got across the bridge. I also got too much sun, but I seem to have more of a base tan than I thought, possibly because I have so desperately willed it to be so. (Though my butt hasn't gotten any smaller, so this might not be a sound theory.) And I only got the shoulder burn because the water was so gorgeous and the day so perfect that I couldn't bring myself to get out of the ocean and cover up, for fear that I would never see the sun again. (So far, my fear is completely justified.) So it was worth it.

The problem with getting a burn on your shoulders, of course, once the rosiness fades out, is the inevitable dead-skin peeling that follows. Frankly, Nicole's was worse than mine and possibly the grossest thing I've ever seen -- don't tell her I said that -- but mine was definitely noticeable and highly unattractive on Friday when I volunteered at a netball tournament. The kids, who have had the fear of cancer drilled into their little heads, were openly disapproving of my irresponsible sun behaviour. They would never allow any part of their body to stay out in the sun for longer than it takes to get from the car to the front door; by Australian standards, I am a terrible role model. (One six-year-old said to me, "melanoma is not a trifling matter." They're good with the sun smarts; maybe need to work on not making people feel like jerks.)


Netball, you ask? Well. One Friday I suddenly had an overwhelming (and largely unprecedented) craving for a hamburger. Jenny took me down the street to a little grocery store/diner and while we waited for our burgers to cook, we saw hundreds of kids and their parents in a field full of basketball courts. I thought this would be a great chance for me to get a first volunteering project going (we need fifty hours for teachers' college), working with kids and getting some exercise. And they obviously needed all the help they could get; the poor bastards couldn't even afford backboards for their nets.

I found the president of the association and discovered that there's a sport called netball, which is like basketball but you can't move with the ball. Kind of like basketball-meets-ultimate-frisbee. And no backboard, which means that pretty much nobody ever scores. Every player has a specific title and has to wear the jersey with the corresponding letters: Goal Attack, Goal Defense, Centre -- and others, but I can't remember them, and they don't matter because the kids all clump together and run after the ball, regardless -- and each position can only be in certain zones.
You can pivot, but only on one foot. Once you catch the ball, you can take a follow-through step, but a second step will disqualify you. It's very fussy and detailed and I can't really keep track of who's supposed to be where, so obviously they've asked me to be an umpire. I suggested that it might be a good idea for me to get to know the rules a little first, maybe watch a game or two, do some scoring at the next tournament...

So. I'm co-coaching a team of 11-year-old girls and I ran the concession stand on Friday, which was a lot of fun. (Once the kids had finished lecturing me about using minimum SPF-60, checking the expiry date and buying some long-sleeved cotton shirts, they were fun to hang out with -- which kids usually are.) They're going to give me a rule book this week and they're really wanting me to umpire at the next tournament. It's kind of ridiculous, but then it's nice to feel needed. What would they have done if I hadn't turned up? Do they realize how unlikely it was for me to have a hamburger craving? Do they have any idea how LUCKY they are to have me?

The House

Several changes here on Second Street. The first is that we went bed-hunting because we had a new roommate moving in, and Jenny found an almost-new bed for only $50. Then when we went at the end of the day to pick it up with her dad's truck, the people said we could take the other one as well, since no one had bought it. So instead of a crappy little wire-frame bed with boards digging into my side all night, I now have a posturepedic, top-of-the-line bed that would be the most comfortable bed in the world if only it didn't have wheels that roll across the floor every time I shift positions. (I never know where I'm going to wake up; usually it's on a jaunty diagonal with my head wedged under the doorknob. But no matter -- nothing wrong with shaking things up a bit.)

The idea was actually for me to get a futon and then I'd give the new guy my bed, but the futon was sold by the time we got there and I decided to jump on the good mattress, even if it is a single. Doubles are more comfortable, sure, but let's tell it like it is: the only extra bed space I'll need this year will be if I decide to make a collage and I need room to spread out my magazine clippings. I've checked out the scene, I've done my analysis, and it doesn't look like I'm going to have to put up with anyone's snoring, unless you count Joogsie the cattle dog. If you catch my drift.

The new roommate, meanwhile, has moved in. His name is Rico, which makes sense, as he is -- wait for it -- German. Hm. Tricky. He claims that his mom just like the name, which is Italian -- which is not true (about the Italian, I mean, not his mom; I don't know that I'm in a position to judge how she feels about one thing or another), but then it's possible that he meant to say Spanish. He speaks very little English -- maybe 32 words? rough estimate? -- and it isn't always easy to get information across. (Needless to say, explaining "Rico... Suave..." was a long, tortuous and ultimately unsuccessful undertaking.)

Super nice, though, that Rico. I like his commitment to life. And really friendly, which is sometimes a pain in the ass because you aren't always in the mood to sign-language your way through conversations (and I use the term loosely) about where you were last night, but of course I have no business being impatient, considering how supportive and encouraging everyone was when I was working my way through broken Spanish. Let's hear it for karma.

My favourite thing is when he talks to someone on the phone and I get to hear him function in German. Remember in Waiting for Guffman when Corky says something about Germans with that "muck muck muck muck" thing -- and you think, "that's not what German sounds like, you nutter!"? Well, whether it's a Dresden thing or just a special Rico thing, that's what he sounds like. You hear all the "shtein" and "schwarz" and "aufden" type sounds that you expect to hear, but then there's a whole lot of "muck muck muck muck muck." It's pretty exciting.

Also, he's a chef and has promised us a home-cooked German meal one of these days -- he claims to have really enjoyed the lentils-and-dumplings I prepared but I think it just made him want meat.

My least favourite thing, however, is his earthy European approach to personal hygiene. He rides his bike to work, spends eight or nine hours in a hot kitchen and then rides home, all in the context of muggy, stormy, 35-degrees-celsius Townsville. Maybe you should take a moment to imagine how much sweat might be produced under these circumstances. Okay? Now do you think it might be a good idea to have a shower? Thirty seconds, forty seconds, no big deal. But let's get some soap involved here, ya? Nein. Not so much for Rico. His course of action is to take off his shirt, scratch a lot (though this is by no means restricted to sweaty moments) and plop down on the couch, while his sweat seeps into the cushions. Needless to say, that couch and I have become estranged. Who needs contaminated cushions when I can just as easily sit on a hard-backed chair, right?

The sweat, the pee on the bathroom floor, the jar of cigarette butts on the deck -- these things would be annoying enough in a happy home. But these last few weeks Flomby has become a live-in boyfriend, even showing up when Jenny's not here because he wants to watch cable tv, and Jenny's party-hardy British friend Maggie has been desperately trying to get everybody to go clubbing with her, so there are people here all the time. Loud, smelly, crass people. All the time. It was getting so that I was taking long, complicated detours on my bike ride home because I was so reluctant to walk in the door and find people sprawled all over the furniture with the smell of beer and greasy food in the air and the tv blasting "Girls of the Playboy Mansion" or "Britney: The Life Behind the Scenes" or "America's Hardest Prisons," as my regression into the student life I wasn't willing to live in the first place continues.

School is so shitty (yes, for those of you who have asked, it is still awful and clearly will be for the rest of the year; I have resigned myself to this fate, as I have made my bed and must now lie, squirming and clawing my eyes out, in it) that I really need home to be some kind of sanctuary, and these days it is anything but that.

However. While I feel a bit as though I've been duped, paying a higher rent so that I wouldn't have to live residence-style in a house full of dirty, messy idiots and somehow ending up doing just that, and while I will keep my eye out for any available single rentals (they don't really exist in Townsville but I'm hoping the karma thing works both ways), I think things will be better when I get involved in more volunteer activities with interesting people, as a big part of my crisis was just being in such a shallow, knowledge-free environment. I felt myself getting stupider by osmosis, between the vacuous readings and discussions at school and this household's appalling absence of basic facts -- including, but certainly not limited to: where is Haiti? Doesn't Canada have the same president as the States? Who is Al Qaeda? What is communism? What exactly is colonization? (I AM NOT EXAGGERATING - these are actual questions. I am an amazing, all-knowing genius in this house.) Hopefully, a bit of intellectual stimulation will come my way. Clearly not at university, but maybe elsewhere.

My New Job

And the other thing that made the last few days better was that I was working. This is good for the bank account and for the morale, and since it's in a restaurant, it keeps me on my feet. I saw a posting on the career website at school and thought I'd drop by to hand in my resume, since my work permit had finally come through. The manager didn't even look at my resume, but complimented me on my green eyes and asked me to come in for a trial the next day. My trial became "you're hired. Here's your section, and we need you to run drinks from the bar, too, and can you stay tonight and work a double shift?" In like Flynn, my friends. In. Like. Flynn.

The restaurant - which I will call Island Man Sam - is an open, breezy restaurant/bar on the beach - with a great view of Magnetic Island - really busy most of the time, and the clientele is laid-back and friendly because they've just wandered in from strolling hand-in-hand along the beach or playing Aussie football in the park. The staff is great and surprisingly affectionate towards my Canadian self (though that might get old) and the manager is not as sleazy as he sounds, but rather funny-sleazy. He's from Chicago, he's good-looking and he likes the beach and the ladies. Funny. Sleazy. I like it.

I am pleased to report that the Townsville policy of "no shirt, no shoes, no problem" -- which includes the grocery store, where people just wander in, barefoot and wearing only a pair of shorts -- does not apply at Island Man Sam. There's also really good live music and the food is yummy. The shirts we wear are an unfortunate and unflattering grey-beige polyester, but you can interpret your denim bottom however you choose, so it's okay. And I'll do exciting hair things to make up for it: a fun project. (Let's play Barbie!)

And when the rain stops (they swear it will be any day now), I can go to the beach before work. Everybody wins. (Well, I win.)

So there you have it: the ups and downs of Townsville. I think, on the whole, that we're moving in an upwards direction; interesting things are appearing on the horizon, just under the rain clouds.


Saturday, February 16, 2008

On the Townsville, Chapter Two

Hi everyone. Life here in Oceania continues -- and will be broken down into sub-sections for easy audience navigation. Read whatever interests you. But maybe at least read the beginning and end of each section, so that if I ever mention something in conversation you will have at least a passing idea of whatever I think you know off by heart, and my feelings will be less hurt. But that's just a tip.


I'm writing this from the home computer, as Jenny got a screen last week, just in time for me to get started on the six assignments I had to do over five days -- funnily enough, and it really was funny, the computer blew out just as I was about to finish the third one and I lost my work and all access to whatever had been saved. Ha! Hilarious! (Luckily, or perhaps geniusely, I had already e-mailed myself the first two in order to print them at the school library, so I only had to redo the third one [and of course the other three] in the computer lab.)

Now we have the computer back. They're saying it had nothing to do with the storm, which makes me feel better about being irresponsible and doing computer work when it's raining. To be fair, though, it poured rain for three days in a row -- the only other time I've seen wind like that was during tail-end-of-hurricane storms in the islands, the difference being that this time I have the added bonus of a coconut tree banging on my roof all night and scaring the bejeesus out of me -- and I had to get these assignments done and needed access to the computer because half the readings were online. It's all very tricky, this modern university cyber-life.


Jenny got me her grandmother's bike for what she said would be a fifteen-to-twenty-minute ride to school. She and her boyfriend Flomby (based on a complicated last name) geared up on the Sunday before my first day and we all went together so they could show me the shortcuts. It took us fifty-seven minutes to get to the university entrance, at which point we were so sweaty and miserable that we didn't even go into the actual campus.

We took a different shortcut on the way home, Flomby's idea, and added fifteen minutes to the ride, giving me plenty of time to resign myself to a year of waiting at bus stops and paying $4.72 each way. (I see your poorly-subsidized Toronto transit and I raise you: no schedules, no bus shelters -- despite frequent and long-lasting tropical storms -- and unregulated fare increases!)

But I left super early my first day and it only took 45 minutes -- it's cooler in the morning and there's no one on the path to slow me down -- which I have worked down to 37 minutes on a good day. (Though now that the river is severely flooded and there's no path, I have to find ever-changing alternate routes and my timing is off.) I bring clothes, shampoo and a towel and have my shower on campus, which is fun because then I cruise serenely into the education building and everyone is amazed at how fresh and clean I am after such a long bike ride.

I've broken the trip into segments, which means that I feel a sense of accomplishment about nine times each way, and I obviously have songs for each segment -- I will include some of them in the post-script for those of you who want to sing along (Mom, I'm counting on you!) -- which makes for a fun ride. (With the daily route changes, I am constantly having to come up with new songs to adjust to the new scenery and street names; it keeps me on my toes.) So I'm getting heaps of exercise, saving heaps of bus dollars and having heaps of quality Kathryn Time to boot. (Aussies say a whole lot of "heaps" and "actually" -- I dig it.)

Among all this positive forward-movement, though, disaster is bound to strike. There have been two terrible bike rides since I began this whole adventure.

1. I stayed late at the computer lab to get some work done, not leaving until about 6:30, which is officially dusk. (They don't have long summer nights in the tropics, which is too bad; who doesn't love a long summer night?) The best route I could figure out was along the streets that run parallel to the river, most of which were not yet flooded. As I rode, I noticed how many mosquitoes were out and briefly allowed myself to think that there's nothing worse than mosquitoes. Then, suddenly, the sky went dark and I wondered how it was possible for night to fall so quickly. I looked up and saw what looked like a black blanket flying through the sky -- a blanket with wings and furry bellies and pointy teeth; a huge, fast, screeching blanket of doom.

Ah yes, I thought, terrific. The bats are out.

Some of them are little, like the ones at home (I've only ever seen them in Katie's backyard in Mississauga but I'm sure they exist elsewhere) whose place in the sky I have learned to accept. But most of them -- and when you're dealing with thousands of bats, most is a lot -- are enormous. I had previously likened them to flying chihuahuas, which was bad enough, but the big ones are more like flying raccoons. Huge. They look like those winged monkeys in The Wizard of Oz (and I look like mean Mrs. What's-her-face on my old lady bike with a basket -- the irony is not lost on me.) And since they were out for dinner, and their dinner was swarming around me (if there's one thing mosquitoes love, it's me), they kept swooping down and pinging my helmet with their hideous, terrifying wings. I was sure that a mosquito would land on my face and one of these flying monkey-chihuahua-raccoon monsters would dive in to collect. And then all the money I spent on coming here would be for nothing, as I would spend the rest of the year in therapy, curled up in the fetal position, whimpering.

I made it home, slightly hysterical, and gradually talked myself down. I was fully calm by the time my mom called, and remained so until I saw a big, hairy snout push in through the doggy-door. I almost had a heart attack, but when I realized it couldn't fit through the little space, I laughed at my foolishness and went back to the conversation, becoming increasingly convinced that it was just Joogsie, the cattle dog, who has that same coarse hair and always wants to come inside. After we hung up, I turned off the light and started to cross the living room to get to my room, when I heard rustling from the garbage corner and saw that the back door was open. I prepared my stern, "bad dog" face and turned on the light, only to see -- wait for it, wait for it -- a boar. A wild pig, munching away at an apple core. In the kitchen, ten feet from where I was standing.

Who knew I could move so fast? I leapt up on the counter, maybe screaming or maybe not -- my heart was pounding so loudly in my ears that pretty much anything might have happened and I wouldn't have heard it -- and when the pig started doing this weird jig with his back hooves, along the same lines as the funny little skunk warning dance before you get sprayed -- I reached around for a pot and banged it with a spoon until he left. (When he was gone and I was standing, stunned, fighting off my convulsive shudders, Jenny, the famously heavy sleeper, came out for a pee break and said "what are you doing in the kitchen?")

Do you want to guess how well I slept that night?

2. On Thursday, when I was about thirty minutes from uni, I rode over something and got a flat tire. I spent the rest of that ride -- and then the ride home -- pulling over every six minutes to pump up my back tire and then pedalling like hell as it deflated. So Friday I took the bus to school so that I could buy a bike on my way home. (I'd heard they were super cheap at K-Mart.) We had our last lecture of the week and then a "mid-term exam" (after one week of class... they're cramming a full semester into six days, which has been hectic but it's good to get it out of the way), so we were finished by 1:30 -- perfect time for K-Mart. Except that it was one of those storms again, so I hung around at school and waited for a break in the rain before going to a bus stop.

There is no bus schedule, as I mentioned, but also no system -- or at least none that I have figured out yet. No matter which side of the road you stand on, they tell you "oh, you need to be on the other side." The 1A turned me down on both sides of the road, something about looping around -- so who's going to K-Mart? Can anyone let me on a bus and get me out of the rain? I gave up and just got on the bus that takes me home, the 2, except that he was somehow re-routed and went completely in the opposite direction -- obviously -- so when we passed by nowhere-on-the-2-route-except-for-today K-Mart and the rain had let up, I decided to go ahead with the bike shopping, since I was already so far from home.

It was fairly fast and painless, as cheap as promised, and they let me take the floor model so I could just ride it home and know that the brakes worked, rather than assembling it myself. I had forgotten my helmet, which is strictly against the law, but I thought I'd take a chance this one time. I was also wearing a pretty dress and flip-flops, and had two bags with me, neither of them backpacks. (Too late, I remembered with dismay that the new bike wouldn't have a granny basket.) But whatever. Onward and upward, just get home and the next ride will be better.

I had about two minutes of riding, enough time to wonder what the hell the springy seat was all about, before I heard a giant "ka-KRACK" and about a gazillion tonnes of water dropped from the sky. I was immediately and completely drenched, head to toe, with rain whipping into my eyes, flip-flops too wet to grip and cutting into my toes and dress clingy and completely see-through. For all intents and purposes, I was riding around in my underwear. I haven't been honked at like that since Guadeloupe! And little old ladies giving me dirty looks, the hussy flaunting her lacy bra for all of Townsville to see. Did they think this was planned? Did I really look satisfied with how things had turned out? Yes, you're right: I sat around and waited for the rain, then hopped on my bike for a forty-minute ride along the highway in impossible clothes for riding, with heavy, textbook-laden shoulder bags bouncing around me and no helmet to keep the rain out of my eyes. It was all an elaborate plan. You figured me right out, you sneaky devils.

I pulled over a few times to see if I could wait it out, but ultimately, you can't get more soaked than soaked; might as well get it over with. But yay! I have a new bike! It's called Turbo-something (couldn't read it properly through the sheets of rain) and I think I might be able to make the bouncy thing work for me. I gather it's a shocks system, and considering my sore butt, it's probably a good idea.


I have gone on for too long! I realize that this is not normal. I have a problem. But everyone's been asking about school, so for those who want to know (and who like reading excessively long e-mails), it's pretty much as expected: teacherspeak and buzz words -- we are not students, but "pre-service teachers;" we do not make rules, but rather, "we grow children; we fertilize children" -- lots of touchy-feely and too many damn Canadians in the class, most of them sorority girls who are here because they couldn't get into teachers' college in Ontario. Not the cream of the crop, but then you don't really need the cream of the crop when your lectures are titled "What Makes a Good Teacher?" and "Why Do We Teach?" Apparently, all you need is people who feel totally comfortable saying "I think we should conversate," "our group was the first to presentate" and "between you and I," and who end most sentences with "and stuff like that."

Unfortunately, my Mexican friend dropped the course because her written English didn't meet the mark, but there are lots of friendly and nice people in my class, especially the Aussies. Our teacher for this course was really good, too: funny, smart, interesting and thoughtful. She never pretended the fluff was more than fluff, but she pulled some good ideas out of it and just made it all much more palatable than I expected. I'm not sure if she's teaching us again but I hope not, because I want to hang out with her and I don't want it to be a conflict of interest!

Next, we have a week of "Professional Development" workshops and field trips, then the official semester starts (which means other students -- not just our program -- will be on campus and all the uni activities will start) and I think there will be some useful stuff, preparing us for actual teaching. Lesson plans and subject-teaching, for example. And then, of course, we're in the schools, which is what it's all about. Kids are just so much better to hang out with than grown-ups, you know?

So I'm determined to make the most of this year and not expect my courses to be particularly stimulating. There are wallabies all over campus (small kangaroos -- amazing) and when it isn't raining, it's quite beautiful -- mountains in the background and gorgeous greenery everywhere -- so I'll have to remember that that's why I'm here and teachers' college is kind of crap by definition.

And I have a personal project, based on an epiphany I had during a time management/stress workshop. The presenter was telling us that there are those people who are super organized and need to know where they're going, and those who drift happily and will see where they're going when they get there. And I realized: I am a neat-freak and a compulsive list-maker -- I'll even add a to-do item after I've done it, just for the satisfaction of writing it down and checking it off. Presumably, if we follow the model, I am the type of person who needs to know where I'm going. But then, I have no idea where I'm going! I can't stop drifting, I'm never satisfied in one place, I don't know where I want to live or what I want to do. I compulsively need a plan, but I am unable to stick to one. No wonder I get panic attacks! Eureka!
I don't know how to fix the problem, but I feel that putting my finger on it was a key first step. Onward and upward.

Later, mates.


p.s. Here are the musical highlights of my ride to school:

By the golf course, to the tune of "Three Blind Mice"

Rich white men, rich white men.
See how they golf, see how they golf.
They don't bring their wives and I guess that's okay;
There isn't a more boring game you could play;
They all look the same and they're here every day, these
Rich white men.

In the forest, to my own tune:

The one-minute forest smells so nice:
Fresh and clean like springtime spice;
The one-minute forest's so green and lush --
I wish that I could feel my tush.

(It's fairly far into the ride...)

By the river, to the tune of "Down to the River to Pray"

As I ride down by the river to school --
Wearing ugly helmet, not so cool --
I see my future calves of steel; good Lord, show me the way.
Oh muscles, don't stop now -- don't stop now, no, you can't stop now.
Come on muscles, don't stop now,
Down by the river to school.

On McQueen St, to the tune of "Dancing Queen"

I'm on McQueen; I'm frankly no longer seventeen.
On McQueen -- no worse than other streets I've seen, oh yeah.
It's a sham, but here I am,
Learning the QCT Standards, [Queensland College of Teachers]
Oh, keep your head on the scene,
You're on Street McQueen.

And when I finally get on the university road, to the tune of "Day-O":

Home stretch, home stretch:
Almost there and I can't feel my ass.
Home -- me say home, me say home, me say home, me say home, me say home stretch:
Almost there and I can't feel my ass.

Get up early and I grab my bike. (almost there and I can't feel my ass.)
In my country we drive on the right! (almost there...)
So many cars have almost run me over. (almost there...)
I'm still alive thanks to my lucky clover. (almost there...)

A hideous bunch of juicy bruises, (almost there...)
While beside me, fast car cruises. (almost there...)

Home stretch, me say home stretch (almost there...)
Home -- me say say home, me say home, me say home...

When I'm on Queens Street I sing whatever Queen song comes to mind, usually "I Want to Ride My Bicycle," which is just so appropriate to what's going on in my life. Or "Fat-Bottomed Girls," also appropriate but in a less satisfying way. "We Are the Champions" has been overused and "Somebody to Love" just bums me out.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

On the Townsville, Chapter One

Hey everyone,

I have arrived in Australia, safe and sound, and will answer all your e-mails in one swoop. (Limited internet time until my housemate's computer screen is up and running and I don't have to sit in cyber cafes that charge too much, which is currently the case.)

And so here begins the Australian series of Kathryn updates. If you are on this mailing list, it is because you have expressed interest in hearing my travel details; this may have been a mistake on your part and you must at no time feel obligated towards me or my rambling letters. If it's clogging your inbox, you just let me know. (Unless you're in my immediate family, in which case you can just suck it up; that's what family is for.)

For the record, from what I've seen so far, there probably won't be a lot to write about. I might have to resort to making things up to jazz up my life here, which is looking pretty farmy and low-key. Let's bring you up-to-date:

I have become obsessed with living in the tropics since Guadeloupe and decided to do my teachers' college in Australia, where it's warm and sunny all the time, rather than Toronto, where it is not. I chose Townsville because it is tropical and because James Cook University had the best information package of all the universities. And was the cheapest.

My trip over here was pretty crappy. My already-delayed Toronto-L.A. flight (ice on the wings) had to perform an emergency landing in Las Vegas when the man next to me, with whom I had spent the first half of the flight chatting, suffered something between a seizure and a stroke. Everyone was really grumbly and angry, since obviously it's very inconvenient to miss their next flight and why couldn't he have just waited and almost died once we'd landed, the inconsiderate bastard. (For my part, I was shaky and traumatized and nauseous for the next few hours and was ashamed to think how much my medically-competent brother would have handled the situation.)

Obviously, I missed my next flight, and since people who have no idea what they're talking about love to pretend that they are highly informed, I was sent from terminal to terminal and told that I had to be there at 4:00 a.m. when the Qantas counter opened for business. Needless to say, it opened at 2:00 p.m., so my night on a hard bench, freezing cold with the air-conditioning blasting on my face, turned out to be just for kicks.

But who cares, because I made it here, and the hours of sleeping in my seat and shivering through the night screwed up my internal clock and eliminated my jet lag. I am now right on schedule and am my usual sleepy -- but fun! -- self.

The house is beautiful: it's a Queenslander, which means that it's up on stilts and really open and full of windows. My housemate, whom I will call "Jenny," is really lovely, very open and easy-going and welcoming. The dogs I was so excited about are kind of stinky and loud, but apparently they kept a snake at bay a few nights ago, so I appreciate them in a very big way. The town seems pretty slow and boring so far, but I'm hoping that things will pick up when I start school and meet people who aren't exactly like the parents in Muriel's Wedding. (More people will probably show up if the rain ever stops -- the good news is that there's no drought in Townsville.) I have successfully activated my bank account and shopped for lots of good fruit and peanut butter -- I'd forgotten what it's like to not have Franck/Mom/Club Med cooking for me and I'm in kind of a panic. I would like to start making some big money so that I can just eat out. All the time. No exceptions.

As for my life at the beach, it turns out that: not so much. You see, most of this area is full of large and deadly - or small and deadlier - stingers (jellyfish, I gather), so you have to go to this one netted-off spot. This fits in nicely with the salt-water crocodiles that Barb and Pierre-Yves told me about the eve of my departure and the endless series of deadly snakes. (Incidentally, you'd be amazed how many things look like snakes when you're paranoid and walking alone; I keep breaking into a run and then realizing that it's just a piece of hose or tire or someone's flip-flop. If anything here kills me, it will undoubtedly be my own sissiness.)

Remember how my feet never smelled bad in Guadeloupe or DR, despite my living in sandals and walking everywhere? Turns out that's not the case this time around. As I just discovered, right here in the cyber cafe.

What else is there, let's see... well, I passed three dead bats on the side of the road on my way into town today. Bats whose bodies are about the size of giant water rats, which are also a famous feature of Townsville. I think you can imagine how pleased I am to discover that my one and only true phobia is here in double, including one that can FLY through the AIR and SUCK MY FACE OFF. I say, bring on the deadly snakes, and keep their bellies full of rodents. (Do I sound flippant? I am not flippant. I am terrified.) What I've decided is to just trust that everything will be okay and that night sounds -- such as whatever scrapes endlessly on the roof and whatever hisses outside the bathroom window -- should simply be ignored. If anything comes up, I'll deal with it then; I can't keep imagining the water rats and breaking out in panic rashes. Especially since I'm bloated and blotchy from the humidity to begin with and don't need extra uglies to add to my hideous "adjustment period." I must also trust that the rivers I walk by to get pretty much anywhere, and that are plastered with "Danger! -- Achtung! -- Crocodiles" signs, are only dangerous to swimmers. Jenny assured me that "those toothy buggas" never scamper up the bank for a snack, despite what I have seen on every nature show featuring crocodiles. (Townsville theme song: Never smile at a crododile, never tip your hat and stop to talk awhile...) She also claims that red-back spiders can only kill children and that they would never be somewhere that you use regularly, such as your bed. Definitely shake out your shoes and don't explore old cupboards with your hands, but other than that, no worries.

So what will this year be like? Hard to say. Possibly a terrifying nature adventure, most likely just low-key. I had planned to fall in love with a beautiful, dark-skinned marine biologist named Ben and begin a life of traveling from fantastic island to fantastic island, tracking the dolphins and recording manatee behaviour. I think, now, maybe, it won't happen that way. I guess I'll have to just roll with the punches and make friends with lots of big white guys named Bill.

I decided against risquee series titles (too many obvious Kathryn Goes Down variations) and couldn't think of anything cute with the Wizard of Oz, so On the Townsville it is.

It is quite pretty, the streets lined with palm trees, and when we went out for Thai my first night I found the main out-on-the-town strip really nice. So even if it's not quite what I expected, it's warm (bloody hot!) and nice and clean. I just need to get my hands on a bicycle to get around more easily, and then things will be much more interesting. And if not, Jenny has a giant tv with lots of channels, so I can just watch M*A*S*H* and rent movies and get a library membership and make it a year for introspection. Do a lot of crunches and work on my Spanish. You know, a Me year.

My project will be to spot a croc and send you a picture. Game on!

Hope things are good Up Over,