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.

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