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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