Saturday, May 05, 2007


I shall shake the dust of your town from my heels!

I have enjoyed my time in Cairns. The tropical weather, the Lagoon, the laid-back lifestyle and of course the amazing trips I've taken have all played a part in keeping me here. However, it has the atmosphere of a town rather than a city where things actually happen. apart from property development, tourism, and the growing of sugarcane, which continue apace. I get the impression that this is a dream holiday destination for two weeks. It's been almost that long for me. I've tried work, tried leisure, sampled the lifestyle to the max - and although this is a paradise, I know I'll think of it more fondly when I'm gone than I do now. Perhaps it's the way 80% of the population work in hospitality and tourism, or maybe the many ways artfully designed to separate the unwary from their money, or the fact that I'm bored with sunbathing by the Lagoon and have read all my books, even the new ones from the Lifeline op shop (a charity shop, for my UK readers.)

That was a good place to stop by - I picked up Wicked, purporting to be the biography of the Wicked Witch of the West, and ended up having a wonderful discussion with the lady behind the counter about modern reworkings of fairy tales. We agreed on Emma Donoghue, and I suggested Beauty by Sheri S. Tepper. As I was walking home, it occurred to me that I should have mentioned Angela Carter - although I'm sure she'd have heard of her already. Wise Children is one of my all-time favourite books.

So I've bought a ticket to fly to Darwin on Tuesday. I have a list of things to do before I leave, and was fortunately able to tick off another Barrier Reef trip. Should you, gentle reader, come to Cairns and wish to see the Reef, I'd really recommend going to Reef Teach the night before. A two hour introduction to this unique environment, with lots of tea, coffee and chocolate biscuits, was a really good thing to do for only $13! The marine biologist was really friendly and had some amazing facts to share. It was also really helpful from the point of view of identifying some of the fish and coral I saw: the unicorn surgeonfish, for example. Doesn't that sound impressive?

I took the Ocean Free out to Green Island, and was mercifully not seasick! Spent the 2 hour journey out chatting with a really interesting paediatric nurse from Bolton (home of the wonderful Bolton Octagon theatre) who's hoping to emigrate out here. As the boat bobbed along I was the first person to spot turtles in the sea! Snorkelling was pretty simple: Green Island is a coral cay and the water's shallow enough that you're quite protected from big waves as you drift along. I've discovered that it's much easier when using flippers to swim with both feet together like a dolphin, butterfly-stroke-style, than attempting to kick my legs separately from the hips.

On the island, which has a pretty expensive tourist resort ($2.50 for a Mars bar!) I went to their unusual attraction Melanesian Menagerie, a strangely macho enterprise founded by a crocodile hunter with many eagerly captioned photos of dead crocodiles on the walls. I felt uncomfortable and strangely repulsed - much as I do when after scanning Frankie magazine in newsagents, something like this catches my eye. The Menagerie includes delicate scrimshaw carvings on whales' teeth, which apparently JFK used to collect; various fish from the reef in small tanks so you could photograph them; dusty wooden Polynesian masks displayed with little explanation; and the malevolent-looking Cassius, the world's largest crocodile in captivity. All the animal enclosures looked rather small. Although I admired the huge slow-moving turtles, it was certainly a bizarre mix of things and not necessarily one I'd recommend.

Since discovering that my youthful asthma means I can never scuba dive, I've discovered a new appreciation for snorkelling and just how much you can see from the surface and free diving. Our guide took us on a "snorkelling tour" - she dragged a life ring around behind her that we could grip onto if we got tired, and steered us around the coral bommies to find Nemo and his fellow clownfish (I have to see that movie!) she dived down to grab a sea cucumber for us - a slightly sticky, plastic-feeling, orange spiny thing, and to tickle giant clams so we could watch their vents huff in annoyance and their huge shells slowly close up.

Then we put up the sails to sail back, which was v dramatic: it's been a long time since I was last in a sailing boat and I'd forgotten just how much they lean over. At what seemed like a 60 degree angle, the helpers chopped up giant platters of fruit and cheese and cake and offered champagne around. I declined it all, and thankfully was not sick! I also got some gorgeous photos, which I'll post soon.

My tips for Cairns are: don't bother with hostels who claim to give you a free meal every night. You receive a voucher for a backpacker pub like PJ O'Brien's or Rhinobar, entitling you to a choice of 4 meals the size of a saucer. To get a decent portion, you still have to spend money! The best meal deals are the vouchers on the back of the local free paper, which give you discounts at some of the many Sushi Train places, and 2 for 1 meals at Montezuma's (a really great Mexican restaurant.) The best gelati is on Shields St. And don't forget to check out the mosaic-covered street furniture, and the art galleries!

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Thursday, May 03, 2007


Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God

It's a quote from Kurt Vonnegut, one which definitely speaks to me!

This has been a weird week in Cairns. I was offered 2 jobs in one day - which never happens to me - and then forced to choose between them. One, an assistant receptionist position at a girls-only hostel, was unpaid but would have given me free accommodation, although the hours would have made it difficult to take a second paying job. The other was housekeeping at the hostel I was staying in, for $13 an hour (by way of comparison, office temp work in Australian cities nets about $20 and hour). No accommodation discount, but at least it was cash. So I accepted that and felt a little guilty about burning my bridges with the other place - although when they'd been talking me through reception duties, a horrible argument occurred which made me feel pretty uncomfortable.

Part of our training when I worked in medical libraries in London hospitals dealt with conflict resolution with difficult customers, and very useful it proved to be! Basically, if someone comes in with a raised voice complaining about something, you do not shout back. When you lose your cool, you lose. It's much better to speak very softly and calmly, attempt to understand their point of view, and try to resolve the issues so that neither side huffs off resentfully and loses face. Well ... that didn't happen. It was astonishing how quickly the bad atmosphere escalated.

The backpacker complained that she couldn't call the airport shuttle, and had lost her money in the payphone, requesting that the receptionist call the shuttle for her (a service that most hostels will do for free.) The managers, however, clearly took against her tone of voice, decided she must have been either lying or incapable of using the payphone, and maintained that they didn't have to call for her as it would cost them 50 cents for the phonecall. She claimed that they gave bad service. They responded that they didn't want her type in the hostel, and she could leave if she didn't like it.

This debate woke up a girl who'd been sleeping, saw the backpacker run out in tears at their deliberate unhelpfulness, and lived on as they rehashed the argument repeatedly, saying "You see what we have to put up with?" I felt pretty awkward - had it been me, with my aversion to vicious arguments, at reception, I'd have made the call for her just to keep the peace, maybe asking her for 50 cents to cover the cost. The thing is, she has now gone off and told her friends "You don't want to stay here!" - and maybe even told the Lonely Planet, the lifeblood of all tourist ventures in Australia!

So, I took the cleaning job. After 1 day of training, I was basically I was working alone cleaning the hostel for 4 straight days, delegating jobs such as hoovering to another girl who helped out for 2 hours a day. A couple of times, the supervisor pointed out things I'd missed: a plastic bag hung on the back of a door, or hairballs in the shower drains. So I put on rubber gloves and knelt down to disentangle them from the plugholes, all the while thinking "Yuck yuck yuck, I can't believe that I'm doing this for $10 an hour after tax - with no discount on the $25 a night dorm room!" For all that, though, the shared bathrooms scrubbed daily were still cleaner than the Worst Hotel in New Zealand (TM) where I worked for over 2 months before I got wise. The housekeeping mantra there was, "It doesn't have to be clean, it just has to look clean. With no Hairs."

After my first day off, the manager fired me, informing me that I paid insufficient attention to detail, and that the job was not for everyone, and not to feel bad about it. Of course, I felt truly horrible! But I talked it over with my dorm roommates, and they thought it unfair that someone had spotted mistakes but hadn't told me, so I could fix them, instead complaining about me behind my back to the manager. Interestingly, in the morning when our dorm was cleaned, I said "Morning!" to the supervisor, who just grunted and couldn't even meet my eyes. Seeing him later showing my Replacement around, I thought I heard an Aussie accent. So my conspiracy theory is that I was kicked out to make way for a local, probably a friend of his. Locals are better because they don't just up sticks and move to a new town when they're put upon. As for me ... I'm flying to Darwin!

My day off was awesome, though. I went to the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Centre to see singing, dancing and fire-making as well as about 20 turtles who gathered under a bridge a small girl was spitting off (why would they be attracted by human spit? They rose from the depths of the lake to cluster around it!) and over to the pretty town of Kuranda via SkyRail, a unique cable car that swings you over 7km of rainforest canopy. Looking down over Barron Falls was truly spectacular, but the sweetest thing was a bright turquoise morpho butterfly that fluttered around the treetops just beneath me. Kuranda itself was quite touristy, although I liked their ironwork street furniture with little animals and birds. Coming back to Cairns on the little tourist train through the mountains was grindingly slow and fairly noisy - there was a commentary but we couldn't really hear it due to the squealing wheels. Apparently it hasn't run for several months due to a landslip, so although I felt excited to be on a train again, I'd only recommend it to real railway fans!

I'm staying in a much friendlier (and cheaper) working hostel, Shenannigans, going to Reef Teach tonight, and sailing out on a Great Barrier Reef snorkelling trip around Green Island tomorrow. I will be fortified with the strongest sea-sickness tablets available and a large bottle of ginger ale, in addition to one of those motion sickness preventing wristbands, if I can borrow one from somebody at the hostel (yes, I'm covering all the bases with folk remedies as well as medical ones!)

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