I’m exhausted, and the academic year hasn’t even started yet.
It’s about to, though. It’s Orientation Day at UOW-Shoalhaven. There is currently a queue of students waiting outside my door to have their photos taken and their student cards printed. It’s an exciting time for commencing students. And a time of great uncertainty in the Higher Ed sector, as we enter the second year of COVID-impact. We’re all trying not to dwell on that.
So: positives. Last week I traveled to the campuses in Bega and Batemans Bay. It was my first trip in a year. All international and most domestic travel was cancelled for most of last year. and I struggled with being “benched.” It felt very “normal” to be down there again. I was able to talk with our staff face-to-face, which is a dynamic we all need sometimes. But in the evenings, I was all peopled out, and ordered room service and watched the tennis. I’m out of practice at this being social thing.
For my night in Bega I even managed to crack open The Book and do some work on it. This was a case of multitasking, however, since I didn’t want to miss the tennis. Ash Barty crashed out of the women’s quarter finals while we were welcoming the students today, so I might be watching a lot less tennis over the next three or four days than I had thought.
The book is progressing nicely. More than half the chapters have been vetted and formatted and when printed out, it kind of looks like a book. I’m currently wrestling with things like Bibliographies and Notes on Contributors and all the other little bits and pieces it’s easy to forget but which take less dedicated blocks of time than trying to pen, say, an Introduction. Which may or may not be taking ten times longer than I anticipated. But I digress.
It’s a standing joke in my household that Summer is the best time of the year – not because of the weather, but because it’s when Mum is happiest. There are a couple of factors at work here: Christmas and tennis. Oh, and time off with the family, I guess.
My husband finds my delight at watching tennis to be particularly endearing, because he is mad for all sports and I am not. I’m usually the one in the background commentating on the stupidity of the commentators’ comments. Imagine the voice of Blackboard from Mr Squiggle coming out of someone who looks a bit like Mrs Doubtfire these days, and that’s pretty much the mise en scene for most of his sport-watching. Poor thing.
But I actually pay attention to the tennis.
This year, of course, the tennis was delayed and then there was a great deal of unpleasantness, especially in social media, about the international players. I was completely baffled by this, because the main arguments being put forward didn’t hold up to any kind of scrutiny whatsoever. Things I read included “they’re taking the places of Aussies who can’t come home” (they weren’t–they weren’t part of any quota, but were an additional negotiated number of chartered flights and in additional hotels, paid for by Tennis Australia. If anything, as Victorian Premier Dan Andrews pointed out at one stage, having the additional hotels set up and staff trained might allow a loosening of the quota by increasing overall capacity); “I hope they aren’t coming to Sydney” (that was pretty easy to Google, and literally all of the warm-up tournaments except the Adelaide exhibition were moved to Melbourne–and announced–months ago); “they should be tested before they come” (they were –and again on arrival–that’s how our system picked up the new positives. Because it was quite literally working as it should).
But my favourite was a gentleman on social media who decided to get into a stoush with me. His position was, that to make things “fair,” everyone should be quarantined and banned from training.
I pointed out that his suggested solution wouldn’t actually be fair, on a number of counts. First of all, points are accumulated across an entire year, not just a tournament, so people like Ash Barty who chose not to travel earlier in the year but who now have a home advantage and absolutely no need to quarantine, would be unfairly disadvantaged by being forced to quarantine for no apparent reason (on top of already missing two other majors). I can’t imagine how this person would react if he were told he had to self-isolate in hotel quarantine because someone in his company who worked at a different office did, and the company wanted to be “fair.”
On that note, can you imagine telling the likes of Serena Williams or Novak Djokovic that they needed to self-isolate in Adelaide because people on a flight to Melbourne did? I would pay good money to be a fly on the wall for those conversations.
Speaking of Djokovic, he copped a beating in the media for his “entitlement” and “list of demands” to Tennis Australia’s Craig Tiley.
Dude is the Union rep. Taking a list of players’ concerns to their employer. Like many unions reps do, but generally without making the front page.
But to finish the story of the internet troll, I also politely pointed out that elite sportspeople require training and match fitness to avoid injury, so trying to put everyone in a position where they can’t train to be at their best actually isn’t all that “fair” because it puts the overall tournament at risk. Put simply, you need two players per singles match. If you have, say, twice as many athletes pulling out as you usually do, you quickly run the risk of not having two players in each match and therefore eventually being unable to complete all rounds of the tournament. Especially since the number of international players who are here and able to compete is both finite and smaller than usual. There aren’t twenty “journeyman” players hanging around and hoping for a Wild Card or a Lucky Losers’ place. They aren’t even in the country.
He told me that was exactly why he said they should all be banned from training. To increase the number of injuries and the number of forfeited matches is, in his mind, the best, fairest and indeed only course of action.
He then very helpfully told me what I had said, using caps lock, which was odd, because I in fact knew exactly what I had carefully explained. And even if I’d been unsure, I could have just scrolled up, and there it was in black and white! And then he told me I was making an argument that was “academic,” which I gather he thought was an insult. As an actual academic who has coached hundreds if not thousands of students in academic writing, I kind of assume that means my argument was cogent and well-structured.
At that point I stopped replying, but he continued to argue against no one in particular.
Anyway, the Great Tennis Quarantine of 2021 is now over and as of last Friday night, tennis is being played again and most trolls have presumably gone back to offering armchair commentary on other things. Friday night was great. Unfortunately the entire Australian summer of tennis being effectively a whole month late means that this pesky enterprise of holding down a job–and a job that also involves lots of business dinners at this time of year–is interfering with my ability to park myself in front of the telly day and night.
Next week the Open starts and it coincides with my first campus travel in a year. My travels down the coast–which involve every working parent’s dream of staying alone in a motel room–often mean that I get lots of writing done in the evenings. It will be interesting to see the ultimate balance between writing and tennis-watching this time.
Given that I’m back to putting in long Saturdays on writing projects, however, I’m going to try to be OK with whatever that balance works out to be.
Happy New Year! I know we were all hoping for a magical reboot come midnight New Year’s Eve, but thus far I have to say that with new COVID surges (and strains) and recent political events in the United States, 2021 feels kinda 2020 2.0. I don’t think I’ve been this disappointed since that time Vegemite tried to change Vegemite.
Now, I know I’m not American so I don’t get a horse in this race, but I have an American daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren, so I’ve been there are lot and I care a lot. Also, Washington is the one of my favourite places in the world. I supposed Tokyo was the first city I really fell in love with, when I was there on exchange, but Washington was the first one where I didn’t have connections or reasons for being there but just went because I thought it might be interesting, and then fell head over heels in love with it and rang my husband to announce that I wanted to live there. I even signed up to a website that sends alerts about Washington-based academic jobs. I dragged my daughter and her very bored then-partner all around the Georgetown campus, just so we could walk around it and see it. I marvelled over the architecture of the Capitol and the White House, got lost in the Newseum, grinned like an idiot when we stumbled across the J Edgar Hoover building, and teared up at the Lincoln Memorial. I loved it so much when my son and I visited in September 2016, that I insisted on going back with my daughter in November 2017.
So I was devastated by the news footage coming out of that city last week.
I don’t want to dwell on this, for the sake of the remnants of my sanity, but I had hoped that 2021 would see a return to normality and the possibility of once again travelling “up over.” It’s looking quite unlikely at the moment.
In the meantime, we appear to have a front row seat to a couple of events that are likely to make it into our grandchildren’s history books.
Today was the worst Coronavirus day on record in Victoria. Again. The NSW Premier announced tougher border restrictions (anyone coming in from Vic now has to go into supervised hotel quarantine at their own expense), and the QLD Premier announced tougher border restrictions heading North, as well. Apparently the whole of NSW is now a “hot spot.” Which is kind of darkly humorous, because while places like Bunnings and Maccas are masking up, the State government is still taking a “meh … if you feel like it … you can” approach to face coverings.
Now, I had no intentions of taking a wee trip at all, but with one best mate in Vancouver, two in Vic, and one in Tassie, as well as elderly and frequently hospitalised in-laws in Queensland, the thought of not being able to pull some cash from the Emergency Fund and get myself to a place of usefulness should I need to, is not at all pleasant.
Apart from not physically being able to travel, I’m also “not travelling well” at the moment. This morning we had a very long meeting of all the folks who have been awarded Global Challenges funding relating the the rolling crises on the South Coast, and began to figure out how the researchers and regional campuses will work together on these projects. Now, this is generally a very good thing, and it’s very exciting to hear people who really care trying to make a positive difference to our people and communities. But lots of talk about being careful not to re-traumatise community members impacted by the bushfires can be a little re-traumatising in and of itself, if you were in fact one of the community members impacted.
This coalesced with a couple of other thing with which I sometimes struggle- and here’s where the content warning really kicks in, so if you need to protect yourself, please do a better job than I unwittingly have the last few days.
So a while back I got a revise and resubmit on a pop culture/disability paper where I got “Reviewer 2ed”–and one of their criticisms was that I argued that multi-(mental illness) diagnosis households are rare onscreen. And so they cited Please Like Me as also having one. So I dutifully over-compensated and watched the series in its entirety. And it does, for quite a small fraction of time, have two housemates who met as in-patients in a private facility. Rose is played by Debra Lawrance (known to many Australians as the second Pippa from Home and Away) and Netflix breakout star Hannah Gadsby plays her roomie, also named Hannah. And (Spoiler Alert – in case you’re like me and haven’t yet seen it, and are, like me, silly enough to watch it without first Googling it) despite the character of Rose having multiple suicide attempts as a major part of her narrative, I was blindsided when her son found her body in one of the very final episodes.
I watched it yesterday.
Suicide onscreen upsets me enormously and my family are all very aware of how much it unsettles me, and why. They are also aware that I am more sensitive at two distinct times of the year: around Australia Day, and right around now. And sometimes we forget why I’m grumpy and unsettled and then look at the calendar and realise. You see, today would have been my better-than-best friend’s 48th birthday, and he died at his own hand in late January when we were both 23.
The “better than best” is an old in-joke of ours. It started when I went to Japan on student exchange, back in 1990. You see, I’m so old that back when I went on student exchange, we had to communicate by mail. And people who’d been through the experience before us would always warn that you’d have a very special letter-writing friend, and it wouldn’t be your “best” friend. And so it was that my “best” friend wrote like twice the whole year I was away, but this very quiet guy who used to hang with our group sometimes and whom I sat next to in roll call, surprised and delighted me by writing hilarious and detailed letters at least once a fortnight. I still have them. His name was Jamie, and he’s the reason our daughter is named Jamie.
I still miss him terribly, and I worry about sharing the story. I try to be careful to only tell my bit, and not encroach on the grief of his family (who have been absolutely wonderful to both our Jamie and her brother alike). But today, as always, he is very much loved and remembered. And I’m going to try show myself some kindness and compassion over the next day or two — the way he did.
One of the first signs that things were bad on the COVID-front, for me, was the news that Disneyland was closing. And it has now been closed for months.
I’ve written before about how I love Disneyland, despite an awareness of how Disney changes/whitewashes history, as well as significant discomfort with unreconstructed gender roles in the Princess films (although there does seem to be some progress in more recent iterations). My current visit count is Tokyo Disneyland (twice), Paris Disneyland, Disneyland Resort/California Adventure (five times, I think?) and Disney World. During various trips to the US and Canada, I’ve learned that I can cope with jetlag relatively well if I land on the West Coast, but if I head straight over to the East Coast, my body just can’t cope. At all. So my last couple of trips, we’ve flown to LA and stayed in Anaheim a few days to recover before heading off to see our family on the other side of the country.
A quick explainer about how I have family in the US: about a million years ago when I was a teenager, I went on student exchange to Japan through an organisation called AFS (hence the first Tokyo Disney trip – number one on my Disney Bingo card). Then when my kids were little (as in infants/toddlers), I got re-involved in the organisation as a way to meet people in my new home of Nowra. And on three separate occasions, I was asked to support some incoming students. The first of these was my daughter Ellyn. I didn’t see Ellyn again until we went to the US on a dance trip. She flew across the country to see us, and must have decided we were OK, because she came out to visit and stayed with us not long afterwards.
The last couple of trips where I enacted the Anaheim plan were with my son to see Ellyn marry David, and later, with my daughter to meet their daughter, Emma. I had hoped to get over there this year to meet her newest addition, wee Carter, but that has been delayed indefinitely.
One of the coolest of the many cool things about Ellyn is that she comes as part of a package deal with her large and loving family. We’ve hung out with her parents, siblings, in-laws and niblings in various locales across the States. Her sister-in-law, Erynn, and I used to joke that the universe might implode if we were ever in the same place, because we share so many interests (I am happy to report that it did not). She’s interested in popular culture and special education, so has actually read a lot of my stuff. Voluntarily.
So when Erynn put out the call via social media for some help to keep the Disney magic alive, of course I offered to assist.
The network of global parks has meant that for a great many years, the most famous earworm of them all, Small World, has played somewhere every hour of every day. So with the parks closed, we decided a network of people playing it in their homes would just have to do, for now. I picked a time that was early evening here, to save our Stateside folks from being up at a most inhumane hour.
Every night during the evening news, my phone plays the song.
Suffice to say, my family are very much looking forward to the parks’ scheduled reopenings over the next week or two.
Strictly speaking, I’m not in isolation, and I’m certainly not in quarantine. I am, however, practising social distancing. Extreme social distancing, in fact. Since March 20, I’ve left the house just three times: to go to the chemist and top up the petrol tank; to mail some employment contracts to the HR department; and then last Saturday I went to the University campus when I knew no one would be there, so that I could print a long document I needed to edit.
You’ll hear more about that long document in due course, probably over at our Shapeshifters blog.
I’ll probably make a similar sneak trip sometime in the next couple of days, because I have another long document to read and critique: my PhD student’s complete draft. These are good tasks for long days spent sitting at your dining room table, and provide a welcome alternative to seemingly endless Zoom and Webex meetings.
My other big academic task is watching The Originals and later, Legacies, for another book project that’s a bit further behind in the queue. I’ve been trying to watch and take notes on episodes as my almost-last-task of the day, when my brain is sluggish but I’m not quite ready to start packing up/getting ready for the next day.
The problem with this approach, of course, is that it would take me until July to even get up to Legacies. So I’ll be spending some of my weekends trying to turbo-charge these efforts.
As I write this, the Prime Minister is giving a speech about COVID-19 and its impact. Already this morning, the state premier has given a presser. It’s only a little after 10am. No wonder we are all exhausted. This feels like the daily updates during the bushfire crisis–which was, after all, only a couple of months ago. Students who lost everything in January are now transitioning to an online study environment, virtually overnight.
There are other, less obvious ways in which university life is being impacted. Students are not able to lie on the lawn and plan the kinds of social activities that we all think of being pretty representative of that season of life. And then there are the really big milestones in the academic lives of some students. Graduations postponed, indefinitely, for one. And the international experiences are missing, almost in their entirety. Most of our expected international students are not here. And our own, who had planned to be studying overseas, are not.
My daughter was supposed to go on exchange this semester. Her high school bestie and she were both heading to Liverpool. I was well advanced in my plotting of potential leave dates so that we could go and visit her over Easter, and indulge in our greatest Beatles-fan fantasies.
She couldn’t get credit for some of her subjects, so it would have extended her degree. And despite my protests that six months or even a year was very little in the course of a lifetime, especially when compared with traipsing around Europe with a dear friend, she withdrew.
I am a huge advocate of student exchange, having been both an exchange student to Japan in senior high school, and having done a short stay as part of my own university studies. One of my isolation tasks has been cleaning up and renovating the spare bedroom, which unearthed my long-forgotten travel diary and even photos from the latter trip. I’ve also been a support mum to incoming students, leading to our South Americanadventures last year, and multiple trips to the USA, usually in April, which is causing some bittersweet Facebook memories right about now. Jamie is herself no stranger to the benefits, having already completed a high school program to Italy and a short program in Argentina as part of her university studies last year.
It has only been in the last three weeks or so that I have thanked all that is good and shiny that she made what I had first deemed to be a bad call. My anxiety would have been in overdrive.
Her lovely friend Sky still went. Sky was recalled by our University a little over fourteen days ago. She had planned to spend her 21st birthday in Paris. Instead, she spent it quarantined; isolated even from her family, confined to her bedroom in Wollongong, with her family picnicking in the hall, and her friends video-calling her.
As we near the end of the year, people often cheerfully ask me if things are winding down. In truth, I am not sure I’ve ever been more wound up!
Last week we had Graduation celebrations for our students in the Southern Highlands, Batemans Bay and Bega. And because the week wasn’t busy enough, Shoalhaven hosted a two-day event for Indigenous students. And, just to add to the degree of difficulty, the massive Currowan fire between the Shoalhaven and Batemans Bay closed pretty much every road into the area, and put celebrations in jeopardy.
The week started off in Moss Vale, which was pretty smokey, as you can see in the pictures.
The guest speaker who gave the Occasional Address was none other than my friend and long-time collaborator, Dr Roslyn Weaver. Ros’ parents still live in Moss Vale and we all have a lovely catch-up when she makes her annual pilgrimage home each December. She’s currently using her research and writing skills while working in Vancouver. A UOW alumn and former tutor at the campus, she was a great choice to congratulate the students and inspire them that the skills and confidence acquired during their studies are very transferable. There is one graduate, however, we don’t want to go anywhere any time soon! Erin Acton is our Admin Assistant at UOW-Southern Highlands, who graduated with her BA.
I then spent two days with Indigenous students from the Shoalhaven. They undertook art and dance classes on campus, and then we all went on a Bush Tucker walk at Booderee the next day. I learned so much on that one hour walk!
For at least a week beforehand, there were many urgent communiques about whether or not the celebrations in Batemans Bay might not be able to proceed. We created Plans B & C, which we thankfully didn’t need. In true enterprising regional style, however, I later discovered that the eight graduands who live north of the Princes Highway closure had developed their own Plan B, costing out a charter boat!
Since then, I have pretty much been in recovery mode, frantically trying to finish off a whole bunch of work stuff before I start my annual leave this afternoon. We have had HSC results and ATARs released; we are waiting on information about some very cool incentives to study at regional campuses–watch this space if you are thinking about studying at UOW-Shoalhaven, UOW-Southern Highlands, UOW-Bega or UOW-Batemans Bay from next year–there are some new scholarships in the pipeline. We had two finalists in the University’s Pod Decorating competition, an Info night at Shoalhaven Campus, and there are more info sessions and drop-in days to come.
Away from work, things are also busy. In addition to the usual festive activities and ever-increasing to-do lists that abound at this time of year, our eldest is turning 21 on December 21. We are in the middle of a record-breaking heatwave and half the country is on fire, so we’ve been hastily shifting her vision of a cute outdoor grazing platter and glasses of Pimms to something which still has those elements but hopefully without our guests contracting heatstroke and salmonella. (This may also feature lots of Zooper Doopers).
So from our regional team and my regional family, our very best wishes to you and yours for the holiday season. Stay safe, stay hydrated, and most of all:
About a month ago, I wrote about Merriwagga, a little town ten miles beyond the Black Stump, where I have strong family connections with one of the founding families, the Littles. Late last week I headed out there for the funeral of my beloved Great Aunt, Tid. (That’s right: we called her Tid Little. And until last week, I never even noticed that humorous tautology).
To get to Merriwagga, you basically drive through the sort of regional areas which are achingly familar to me: dairying and sheep-grazing land, with rocky outcrops and massive golden arches every hundred kilometres or so. The dead wombats and kangaroos by the road all sport fluoro paint crosses to indicate that their pouches have been checked and any infants rescued. Somewhere past Yass, you turn right and things shift from regional to rural, and finally, remote. There are few places to eat, few places for comfort stops, and the deflating roos by the road no longer appear to be marked. Life is tougher, and the dirt is redder. Blossoms and fruit grow where they naturally shouldn’t, and water is a constant discussion because it’s usually dry.
In my academic life I often write about the Gothic: the hauntingly beautiful; the perverse joy we get from terror; the uncanny. The uncanny, or unheimlich, is that which is strangely familiar. I have never lived in Merriwagga, yet on some level it feels like going home.
I was meeting some relatives for the first time in my life, and many others for the first time in my adult life, yet was not a stranger to them. I was seeing the beauty in the rust and the red dirt, and in the mid-drought rain that fell at the graveside, splashing mud on my funeral-appropriate black patent heels, which seemed suddenly incredibly incongruous.
Adding to the uncanniness, the caravan park where we stayed is the old school site, and a mini-local museum. So the shared lounge room is the schoolroom where my Nan and uncles learned the three Rs. There was a commemorative photo of the school’s opening day, featuring three Littles, including my Nanna, Kath.
Nanna/Kath Little (the tall one in light clothes), with Uncle Roy at her feet.
Uncle Kevin, in the centre
Merriwagga likes to pay tribute to its pioneering women. There is a memorial in the town square, and when we were there, there were flowers on it, which I believe were for Aunty Tid.The flags in town were flying at half-mast. The whole town was at the funeral and in order for us to check in to the caravan park, the owner first had to leave the wake. A gentleman offered to call him for us, and during that conversation, the manager said: “they’re relos.” That gentleman assumed that the park manager and I were related. I had to tell him no, I thought he and I were; that I was related to the Littles, and explained that I was Kath’s granddaughter. He was my Dad’s cousin, and he told me that if I’m Kath’s, I’m a Little. Patriarchal naming conventions don’t mean much in a place where women just got on and did stuff.
The pioneering women photos in the school room heavily featured my great-grandmother, known to all as Granny Little.
Granny with a snake, and her belived rifle that took it out
My Dad’s cousin, Kevin, remarked, “when you tell people stories about Granny, they don’t believe you.” I told him that I knew — a few weeks back I was telling a story at work about how my parents have a cabinet that my Dad repaired because it had a hole in it from where Granny shot at a snake, and people looked at me like it was a tall tale. Then I go to a museum and find a picture of her with a snake in one hand, and a rifle that, as Kevin observed, was nearly as big as her, in the other. Kevin then told a tale about Granny wanting to fire at the crows who were pestering her chickens, and lined up a shot through her newly-louvred windows. Of course, the gun kicked up and took out about seven louvres!
(As an aside: perhaps chicken-fancying is genetic? I have 11 at the moment.)
Perhaps the most Gothic story of all is the one pertaining to the Black Stump itself. The story, is not, as most assume, about a tree stump. It is about Barbara Blain, the first person buried in the local cemetery. The story goes that her husband went out to shoot rabbit for tea, and when he came back there had been a tragic accident involving her long skirts and the campfire. Evidently what remained resembled a blackened tree stump. It’s a somewhat disturbing piece of local history, and suitably haunting for that hardy environment.
I first went out to Omeo Park when I was eight, to see Granny Little. Then at about eleven, we visited Uncle Roy and Aunty Tid. Then around nineteen years ago, I took my then-infant daughter out there, to visit with a friend who lived in Lockhart, and catch up with Aunty Tid & Uncle Roy. So I felt really sad that the last of my close connections with the town were gone. But I made some new ones. And on our return trip, as we headed back towards greener roadside vistas and the advertising for fast food became more frequent, I began plotting how to convince my now-adult children that we need to take a road trip, in the hope that they find the same sense of belonging out there that I feel.
This week I’m recounting the second leg of our trip, to Paraguay.
Once we were convinced the flight from Punta Arenas to Santiago was actually going to happen, we were good to go. Breakfast at Johnny Rocket’s in Santiago airport filled both our bellies and the time nicely. The flight to Asuncion was uneventful, which was good, because trying to clear customs quickly descended into a comedy of errors.
We had known that we would need to buy a visa at the airport, but we assumed it would be pretty well signposted. I’m not sure why we thought this, because finding the place to pay our reciprocity fee in Santiago airport had been a little like a quest. Yet we did pay it, without issue, using international debit cards, and continued on our merry way.
In Asuncion, we followed the signs for visitors and then were told, in halting English, we had no visas. It would be some time before he would point out the booth we needed to go to get one, which was across the arrivals hall, and next to a statue of Pope John Paul II, which puzzled me, because the man was Polish. Still, I get a kick of pointing him out to my kids, telling them that just like 10 is my Doctor, he is my Pope. But I digress.
The very bored gentleman in the booth was sipping his mate, minding his own business and generally not having to process very many visas at all, which is lucky, because we ended up needing his advice and he was the most helpful person in the place by a country mile. We went to pay him and he told us he couldn’t take cards. Only crisp American dollar bills, and not ones beginning with certain letters and numbers. OK, sounds totally legit. $130, US. He did direct us to an ATM in the arrival hall, and so we backtracked again.
Turns out the ATM in the international arrivals hall of an international airport, which is the only place international visitors without a visa can access international currency to buy an international visa … doesn’t accept international cards.
So back to out mate we returned, and he pointed out the currency exchange place – just past customs. We pointed out that we couldn’t get though without a visa and he laughed it off, telling us to just ask permission. And so we lined up again, only to be totally surprised when they did indeed wave us through without checking anything.
Next, we had to try to communicate with the people in currency exchange. They insisted that we needed $160 US, because that’s what visitors from the US are charged. They were telling us this while holding our Australian passports. Then, we had to pay exorbitant airport conversion fees. Twice, because they converted from AUD to local currency and then to USD. Then my debit card was declined – with all these machinations, my balance ended up being short – by less than a dollar, we later learned, but a miss is as good as a mile. Asuncion is the only airport in the world I’ve been to in years that has no wifi whatsoever, so transferring money wasn’t an option. In the end I paid half, Jamie paid half and then I paid her back the instant we got signal. But this all took so much time that when we finally finished, we were accosted by airport security because there were two unclaimed bags left that they were about to take away and blow up or whatever it is that they do with suspicious parcels these days. Yes, they were ours. Everyone else had been processed, collected their luggage and left the airport but we were still there.
So back we went to our mate, dragging our suitcases and our tired selves past all the “do not enter/restricted areas” signs. He confirmed the price was $130US and happily took Jamie’s $160, right before we saw all the signs saying no change would be given. Luckily he took pity on us and understood Jamie’s Spanish and so the two visas went through as one “payment” and we were ripped off less than we thought we might be. In other news, I’m still carrying a few American dollars around because, you know, we weren’t in America and therefore had no use for that hard-won change.
I thought we were finally home and hosed as we put our bags through the X-ray and I caught sight of Dany’s mum, Gladys, who was looking every bit as stressed as us by this point – she must have thought we’d missed the plane. And then I was called back by security, who had seen something untoward in the suitcase that had already been through Sydney, Buenos Aires, Santiago (twice), and Punta Arenas (twice) airports with no issue. So I had to search for my keys, unlock the luggage, and watch her squeeze tentatively at my bag of dirty clothes, and my shoe, before finally snatching a packet of Tim Tams and holding it aloft in the self-satisfied manner of Hercules Poirot cracking a case. “Es frutilla!” she accused.
In no language and on no planet is a Tim Tam anything like a strawberry. I said “No” pretty vehemently and the woman stared at me. Me: They’re chocolate cookies. And so she shrugged and put them away. Final hurdle apparently jumped.
By this stage it had taken us so long to get out that Dany’s poor parents had to come back around and pay extra for parking, and we didn’t have time to eat before we hopped on the bus to go to Dany’s place in Ciudad del Este. But I was so darned pleased to see them, and incredibly thankful for the sandwiches they bought us before loading us on the bus.
Now, Jamie and I were blissfully unaware that Dany no longer lived in Asuncion. What can I say: boys communicate differently. He did, however, organise bus tickets and his parents to meet us, so the practical stuff was all in place; it was just a bit of a shock when we learned we had a five hour bus trip ahead of us. Dany came and actually took us off the bus, which was lucky, because Jamie was sure it wasn’t our stop, and I’d been concerned that every stop was. And so we had our reunion at a bus stop at midnight. We got back to his house in the wee hours and met his little princess, Sofia, who wanted to see the visitors, but was too tired to actually interact with us.
The next morning we were up early –about an hour too early, as it turns out, because our iPhones had us on neighbouring Brazilian time–and after breakfast we headed out to see the Iguazu Falls. I was pretty happy about this, because earlier in the year I’d caught an episode of Travel Guides where they went to the Falls, and I was keen to go, but Jamie said no because her exchange group was taking her to the Argentinian side as part of the program. So I made a point of telling her that Dany was a better child, because he organised it all when she just said No! And so we headed over the Brazilian border and into the national park. It was freezing cold on the open topped buses heading into the park, but it was all worth it for the views.
We trekked down to the Devil’s Throat and the over-water walkway and the sheer volume of water was just amazing. Also amazing to us was Dany’s commitment to carrying his flask of Terere –the cold water version of mate. My summary of this drink is: it’s not as bad as I remembered it. I can see how it might be refreshing, but it’s definitely an acquired taste. Mind you, Dany has similar thoughts about Vegemite!
We went home to have lunch, and the kids, Sofia (6) and Iker (2) were back from school. We had a bit of a games night, playing once more with the Kangaroo Valley kangaroo puzzles. These proved too easy for Sofi, so we had races and stacking competitions. This was followed with team Jenga: Team Ballet (Jamie & Sofi) versus Team Australia (me & Dany). We rounded out the night with some Uno for good measure.
The following day Dany and Jamie and I headed out to Itaipu Dam & the hydro electric power station, which was when we made the news for the second time. Itaipu is a pretty amazing concept, with two nation states jointly owning the facility, and sending electricity to both. The day we were there, however, it was in the news because the original agreement is coming to a close and they are trying to sort out what the feed-in tariff will be for Brazil, moving forward. Protestors had barricaded the area but they let us through and we continued on our adventure. One of the protestors filmed it, though, and uploaded it to the Internet, so Dany was getting some pretty hilarious messages from his friends for the rest of the afternoon.
We had a private screening of a short movie and then a technical tour with our guide, Alex, which was pretty amazing.
9A is Paraguayan; 10 is producing energy for Brasil!
Dinner that night was at a really nice pizza place, where we spent way too much time trying to translate “arugula” to know what was going on our pizza. I had never heard the word, even though all our apps were telling us it’s English. Turns out arugula is to rocket what cilantro is to coriander, and aubergine to eggplant, and cantelope is to rockmelon. And here I thought I’d be learning some Spanish …
Next morning we loaded up the car for the five hour drive up to Asuncion. A multi-generational, multi-lingual, multi-generic singalong ensued. Evidently Dany often makes this drive, and on Tuesday morning he drove everyone home, then went to work! Although I do sometimes do drive 4+ hours to work (in Bega), I don’t try to do it before a full day’s work!
I got excited by a sign to Universidad Santo Francisco de Assis (South America has captured a couple of corners of my heart, but I still love Italy’s Assisi beyond words). We saw traditional timber products for sale by the side of the road, and bought chippi out the car and mandarins out the car window. We saw an extraordinary number of chooks, dogs and even cows just wandering along the sides of the roads. And at one point we were diverted (for cash) around a road blockage. While we were going off-road, Dany was cheerfully remarking that at least if we got robbed, so would all the other cars! But we arrived without incident to a large family gathering, some delightfully heavy-handed whiskeys, and copious amounts of BBQed meat. My daughter rather helpfully informed me that my English sped up to its usual pace (as opposed to my more moderate ESL-friendly version when traveling) with a couple of whiskeys under my belt, and Dany compared me unfavourably with his cousin’s host-mother, who phones annually to offer birthday felicitations in Spanish.
Saturday was a big day. Dany took us around Asuncion, where we saw such sights as the Presidential Palace and the birthplace of Paraguay. Lad knows his History, and was able to relay it in English, too. Major props; I could not do that in Japanese. Not sure I ever could have, come to think of it. We also went to a lookout and looked out over the city. A lot of the area was flooded and it seemed very disrespectful to photograph that, so I didn’t.
Paraguay’s consitution was signed here. Cute little museum, now.
Lookout above Asuncion
We wandered through some souvenir shops and I was very excited to buy a souvenir teaspoon to add to my three-generation collection, and a very delicate filigree charm to add to the collection on my bracelet. (Jamie was much less excited to realise the teaspoon collection would one day become hers).
That night we headed into town with Karen for another car singalong, some shopping, and a quick cuppa. Then we all headed downstairs to Sofia’s 6th birthday, which was quite the affair.
Jamie, Karen and Dany’s cousin Susi soon decided not to leave all the fun to the kids:
Karen decided that Iker shouldn’t miss out.
And there was dinner, cake, amazing party bags and pinata that actually burst (note to my younger self: those things are so well known for not breaking, that the people who invented them just use balloons now).
After all the excitement, we headed home for Sofi to open presents. There, Dany & Vivi also surprised us with some lovely traditional souvenirs – things we had admired, but not purchased, that afternoon. And finally, Sofi and Susi gave us a fine rendition of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies,” with some help from Karen. Sofi told me she was “muy felicidad” (very happy) with her present, and even conceded that she might visit us in Australia, even though we don’t have dinosaurs.
We were really reluctant to head to bed that night. A few hours’ sleep, and Dany took us to the airport, where he squeezed my shoulder very tight right before I headed in to security. He’s promised that he and Vivi will come and see us soon … probably one January, when we can both obsess over the Australian Open together.
A while back I mentioned that I was heading overseas on a pretty special holiday. It has occurred to me that I should update before I forget every detail!
So one Friday I hopped on a train that was delayed, to catch a plane that was also delayed, which would have been fine, except that the Airline was frantically trying to get me onto an earlier flight in order to meet my connection but the delayed train meant that I didn’t make the check-in cut-off. So that was a very relaxing start. So the airline ended up just delaying the second flight, too, so that we could all get on it, which was great. By the time I landed in Buenos Aires I’d been travelling a bit over thirty hours and was very tired, hungry and with low blood sugar (turns out the diabetic meal was inedible – filing that one away for future reference, and have offered my feedback to the airline). I struggled to follow my daughter’s instructions to find the hidden ATM in the airport, and took out the amount of money she told me I would need for a taxi. I then headed out into the a very crowded space when a very nicely dressed gentleman asked me if I was looking for a taxi. Stop me if you can see where this one is going …
I replied that I was, and then he led me through McDonalds, saying the other way was closed. By this stage the slow-turning cogs in my brain had woken up the the fact that he didn’t have a lanyard or other airport ID. Then I saw the line for the actual taxis, but he was speeding past, dragging my bag and heading for the carpark. So I caught up and asked, “So you’re not a taxi? You’re more of an Uber?” He told me he was a car service licensed by the airport. We got to his car, a standard but clean sedan and I asked if the cost would be the same as a taxi. He said it was per kilometre. He didn’t say how much per kilometre. I did say that I only took out enough money for a taxi. He didn’t take that out.
Throughout the trip, he’s chatting and laughing and very amiable. Then we pulled up in a pretty deserted street in the middle of Buenos Aires and he’s telling me to walk back to my hotel (which I couldn’t see), and he taps into a calculator and shows me the amount: four times what my daughter had told me I needed. I showed him what I had and he kept saying no, no, it’s this amount. I kept repeating, “but this is all I have.” And then the nice act dropped and he started screaming at me in Spanish. I was locked into the car, and my luggage was locked in the boot. Stupidly, I had no plan B.
I kept asking him what he wanted me to do. I later learned that there are no ATMs on the street because they just attract robberies. He wasn’t suggesting any other options. I told him I didn’t know why he was yelling at me in Spanish when he knew I didn’t understand. He called me stupid and crazy, and then a “fucking American.” I told him I wasn’t a “fucking American” so he changed it to “fucking Australian.” He started telling me he wasn’t a stupid tourist, and I remember thinking that was probably a good thing, in his line of work. I told him to call the police, then.
Well, he certainly didn’t want to do that. So he announced he’d take me to the hotel. And I felt enormous relief, because I figured that the fact that I was a paying guest there might mean they would be looking for a solution. And I was right.
He stormed in and shouted at the young lad behind the desk all about me. I just looked at him and said, “I don’t know what to do.” He kept saying OK, and trying to reassure me, as best he could. I asked, “does anyone speak English” and the not-taxi driver yelled at me, “we don’t need English. I already told him about you.” Cool, so now I know he’s a bit of a narc as well – because clearly his failed attempt to rip me off is the only conversation I might need to have when checking in.
At some point, a dude built like a bouncer and a woman in about her thirties, carrying a sleeping child, appeared. Bouncer-man just talked to the not-taxi dude while the young guy behind the counter, Sanuel, tried to keep me calm. I could understand “only solution” and the calm, no-nonsense tone of the bouncer-like-guy (who was, I think, the manager and living onsite) and then Sanuel asked me if I had a credit card. And being thirty plus hours in, sleep-deprived, literal by nature and having been reading a lot of Scott Pape and Dave Ramsey lately, I said no. Eventually they took my debit card and I made a payment to the hotel, while the bouncer/manager peeled off notes and gave them to the not-taxi driver – around half what he had demanded. As soon as everyone left, so did my sense of terror, and I promptly burst into tears. Sanuel mimed for me to breathe, and then I headed upstairs to try to calm down and get something resembling sleep.
And that’s the story of how I thought I was going to be abducted, or worse, on my first night away.
Things looked better
after some carbs
and in the cold light of day.
The following morning, Sanuel was still on shift and made sure to check in with me and direct me to breakfast. Major props to the Hotel Master Suites Devoto for how well they handled the whole situation. I would definitely stay there again; I’d just be smarter about how I got there.
The following morning Jamie joined me and we crammed ourselves and our luggage into the tiniest Uber in history, and began our AFS-related adventures, thankfully with far fewer concerns. We headed out to Ministro Pistarini Airport, and over a big lunch and strong drink at the Hard Rock Cafe, she caught me up on her adventures over the preceding three weeks. Jamie being Jamie, she made friends with the waitress (who attended the same Uni as the one where Jamie did her program) and are now Instagram buddies. (The middle-aged equivalent is that the nice manager’s nice wife in the story above has messaged me via Facebook to thank me for the nice review I wrote about how they handled that whole disaster movie).
So off we headed to Chile; first to Santiago, and then off to Punta Arenas. Now, we did not do our usual level of research for this trip. We just tried to get ourselves to where the kids were, and we weren’t worried about tourist attractions because we only had about three days in each place.
Turns out Punta Arenas is nearly in Antarctica. You can go on a cruise to Antarctica from where we were.
Grace and her husband Yeovany and their little girl, Trini, were there to greet us at the airport. There was much hugging and a little crying, and then we went back to their home. Punta Arenas is a pretty, small city, with plenty of ocean views and more ice on the ground than I’ve ever had to deal with. This led to me landing flat on my back at one point–ironically, right outside a hospital, but I luckily didn’t need to go in!
Grace was a very attentive hostess and Yeovany took time off work to be home when we were visiting. Trini and I became good mates very quickly. We like to read and do puzzle together. I only know my colours in Spanish because of this book and our adventures searching for the chameleon hiding on each page.
Trini was a bit crook so we decided to save bigger adventures for another visit, and instead stayed relatively close to home. We kissed the foot of the statue of Tierra Del Fuego, so we know we’ll be back another time.
We wandered the city streets, starting down by the harbour (you can see the ice on the ground in many of these pictures) and bought churros and checked out the amazing views.
One of the suprising cultural adjustments for me was the number of stray dogs we saw on our travels. I just cannot remember ever having seen this in Australia, particularly not in cities. These three pooches sunning themselves so innocently were almost in every shot we took, and also running at cars. This is them relaxing after that busy morning.
The place was just beautiful, though.
After this, we headed out of the CBD and up to a lookout, where I had great fun watching Jamie trying to figure out which direction Australia was from where we were standing.
That night we stayed up very late, talking, laughing and drinking wine and later, pisco.
And then we realised it was snowing. It was snowing when we finally went to bed around 2am, and it was snowing when we got up at 5am to get ready and head to the airport. Now, the road to Grace’s place is in a state of disrepair that is pretty infamous. As in, we were in the car when Grace was interviewed by a news crew over how bad it was. If you look closely, you can see Jamie and Yeovany in the front seat of one of the cars in this news footage. Between the road and the snow, the drive to the airport was a pretty hairy one, and when we got there we were told that within an hour we’d know whether or not the runway would open. Luckily, it did.
And so we headed off to Paraguay on the next leg of our adventure, which I’ll add here next WordPress Wednesday.