Saturday, February 26, 2011

Tourists bloody tourists

Tori and I are such hopeless tourists. Once we stayed for a week in a beautiful tiny French village called Barbentane. The only tourist attraction at all in the village was a chateau that had formerly belonged to the Marquis de Barbentane. It looked like an impressive and indulgently designed structure that even Louis XIV would have been proud of. We were in the village for a week and never managed to make it to the chateau, which was less than 50m up the street from where we were staying. We had all intention to do so, but just never really got around to it. When I went to Beijing, I didn't make it to the Great Wall. We once drove through Switzerland in a day without even stopping to get out. I worked in London only a 10 minute walk from St. Paul's Cathedral and never made it inside. Well that one because they want to charge about 15 quid admission! One thing I'll never do in my time on this planet is pay to go into a church. Aren't they meant to be temples for people to worship in and feel closer to God or some such similar concept?

I digress slightly, but suffice to say that when we actually do get it together to be tourists, it's always a major achievement for us. So today was a triumph in terms of our personal tourism. Firstly we were actually out of the van and on the road before 10am, which is unusual in itself. We then spent the day driving around the beautiful coastal region of the Eyre Peninsula within 40km or so of Streaky Bay and saw the 100,000 year old granite structures called inselbergs at Murphy's Haystacks, checked out the largest colony of Australian sea lions at Point Labatt, dodged lizards and snakes (well... a snake) on the dirt roads of the Westall Way Loop and lazed on the beautiful and more or less deserted beach of Sceale Bay. We spent a good few hours at the beach lying in the sand and swimming in the beautiful crystal clear waters of the Great Australian Bight. Splashing around and playing with the kids, just up the coast from where that guy was taken by two great whites last week. Right near a large colony of seals, one of their favorite feeding grounds. Did I mention that the water was the perfect bathing temperature and crystal clear with very mild waves surging through that could be body surfed in some minor fashion. Very refreshing on a hot day of around 35 degrees. All in all the perfect beach, except for the occasional nagging thought about death by shark attack. "People have been taken in only 3 feet of water", is one of the stats you have to really love. I have no idea if it's true, but it might be. It can certainly play in your head when you are the only ones in the water just up the coast from the largest breeding ground of white pointer sharks in the world. I felt that we were mostly in water that was only about two and a half feet deep though, so figured that it would be at least half a foot too shallow for a shark. So for 90% of the time I just luxuriated in the water without a care in the world. That other 10% though is a real bugger.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Should I stay or should I go

Australia is bloody big! I know that is stating the obvious, but it really hits home when driving across it. Where to stop, which places to drive on by and how long to stay at any one given place. These are the constant questions on any given day. A year seems so short in the context of the tiny amount of Australia we will really end up visiting. We spent three enjoyable days at Coffin Bay National Park and we could easily have stayed longer. Everyone had a good time there. Surrounded by abundant wildlife and we had just found a good fishing spot, along with some skills to go with it. But today we packed everything up and drove north 300 odd kilometres up the Eyre Peninsula to Streaky Bay. Over the course of the drive there were a number of roads leading off the highway to little towns or beaches. But apart from a bit of a pit stop at the Elliston pub, we just cruised past all of these. Who knows what any of these places were like. The plan was to spend two nights in Streaky Bay and then head across the Nullarbor, so we needed to get up to Streaky Bay today. Even though our trip has no real fixed itinerary, at times there seems to be a hurry to get somewhere else from wherever we are currently located. Perhaps it is just related to the magnitude of distance we are trying to to cover in a fixed period of time. We do want to be in Broome for the birth of the baby and there is also another overseas work trip or two coming up in the near future, so I guess these play a part. I don't know. Perhaps it's just me. If I sit still for too long in the one spot, perfectly comfortable, I feel a need after a while to have to move on. I'm not sure why that is.

When Tori and I were in Turkey some years ago, we ended up on a quest to go to Konya which had been the home town of Mevlana. He was a muslim sufi poet and cleric of the thirteenth century who founded the order of the whirling dervishes. In a time when christians and muslims were hacking each other to death during the crusades, he was a man who preached religious and social tolerance, saying that whoever you were, rich or poor, whatever your race or religion, the doors to his temple were always open. On our trip through Turkey, we kept on coming across more and more information about this amazing man in the unlikeliest of places and forms. I felt drawn to find out more about him and in Konya was a Mevlana museum which among other things contained his tomb. When we arrived in Konya we went looking for the campground that the Lonely Planet stated should have been right next to the stadium. After several fruitless laps of the town, we decided to stop and ask somebody for directions. Out of a group of students, one guy came forward and told us that the campground was no longer there. He promptly invited us to come and stay at his place for as long as we liked. It took a while to actually work this out because he couldn't really speak any english. As he came back to the van with me, he was explaining something about come and meet his english teacher. Tori just looked at me with another "who's he brought back to the van this time" kind of look and we drove off to Zafer's apartment. When we got there and met his wife, besplendant in Muslim headdress, it became apparent that he had been saying that he wanted us to meet his wife who was studying to be an english teacher. We spent a glorious night with them around at their Kurdish friend's house, drinking tea and eating great food and conversing somehow fluently through Omur who was the only one in the room who could actually speak both languages. We returned back to their place around 4am and crashed out on a comfortable makeshift bed in their loungeroom. They were all so friendly and welcoming and made the very genuine offer for us to stay. But for some reason, the next day we were in a hurry to get to who knows where. It wasn't due to any discomfort of staying with Zafer and Omur. It was just some irrepressible feeling that time was against us and we had to keep moving. Yet I have no idea where we went to the next day. It was clearly a lot less memorable. What was the hurry? Why didn't we just stay at least another night?

There's been countless other times during travels when I've moved on from somewhere only to think back and question why I was in such a hurry to leave. The pull of obligation or the often false lure of better places ahead. The plan before arriving here at Streaky Bay was to stay two nights and race off on Saturday morning. But it looks too nice. I think we might have to stay an extra day.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Gone fishing

Today started out as a real office day. My office was overlooking the vegetation of Coffin Bay, and I had some emus wander through around morning tea time, but other than that it was business as usual. All of the technology has been working well. So far the little white Telstra wireless internet wifi device has been sensational. We have had reception everywhere and I haven't had to go to the trouble of cranking up the satellite internet system yet. And today it seemed like the phone was ringing all day. My Optus mobile, which barely gets decent reception in metropolitan Melbourne, let alone out here, is diverted to my VOIP office phone. My office phone is automatically routed to my prepaid Telstra phone which actually gets decent reception. And in cases where the Telstra phone misses a call or is not in range, my calls are routed through to voice mail and I am automatically emailed the message in MP3 format. It's been working seamlessly and has enabled me to carry on running my business as required. Meanwhile the kids have started school. It's been about a week now that they've been doing morning classes. And just like at "real" school, there are good days and bad. Fun classes and classes that bore them to tears. Yesterday they both cracked a sad so Tori sent them out to run around and throw the frisbee for a while. When they came back they were energised and surprisingly refocussed. A boring maths class delivered by me put paid to that. There were moments where I could see their eyes spinning back in their heads in a "do we really have to do this" kind of way. Today they were spared any maths, as I had too much to get on with myself. But finally, as the heat of the day subsided to a more tolerable level and I finally got out the last email and required quote of the day, it was time to venture back into the world of fishing. With one complete disaster under our belts and the knowledge that it couldn't get any worse, we drove into town to get some more bait and to enquire of suitable fishing spots.
The bespectacled middle aged woman running the Coffin Bay store didn't seem like the likeliest of fisherfolk, but we knew that she'd know loads more than us so we pried for information. Admitting I don't know something and asking for assistance is not one of my strong points, but it does usually pay dividends. She suggested the squid as bait and said that the jetty and the channel just around from the boat ramp were fine spots for us to bring in a huge haul of fish. Down at the boat ramp we happened across a couple who were fishing and decided to keep on going and milk them for whatever advice we could get. They were happy to offer advice on all things from what size hooks we should be using to how much bait was best to get the fish we were after. They hadn't caught anything themselves, but at least they looked like they knew what they were doing. He seemed a salty sea dog from way back. And while not really fitting the mould of a fishwife, she seemed authoritative in her suggestions. Good enough for me. I asked for advice on knots for tying all the bits and bobs down the end of the line together and got a lesson in the seven wrap knot. Astoundingly easy yet seemingly very strong. I found it slightly disconcerting when he asked me to lick the tiny nylon knot held in his fishy squid inked hands, but he assured me that without a bit of saliva the knot just wouldn't slip into place and tighten as it should. And so began our foray into joining the world of fishing. No sooner did Jazzy have a line in the water than she had a bite. As it turned out, an unfortunate crab got stuck around the metal sinker while fossicking for a meal and got hauled up to the jetty as our first piece of fishing success. Too small to take home and eat, he did get paraded around by a proud Jazzy before he was spared any further humiliation and was returned to the water. No soomer had this occurred than Finn had a bite. This time it was actually a fish on the end of his rod. He was very excited by the catch, but on closer examination we could see that the fish had the hook stuck in a gill and had started to bleed. Tori freaked out and when the hook was dislodged, he too was promptly returned to the sea. No photo for Finn of his first catch, which was actually a decent fish. The only other catch of the day was by me. This one looked like he was coming home for dinner and spent half an hour or so in a bucket of sea water waiting to be joined by a few friends, but unfortunately none were forthcoming. So in the end, he too was returned and we left empty handed, but having had a much more encouraging and enjoyable day.

With no fish caught for dinner, we retired to a local restaurant for an over priced but very good meal of fish caught locally by somebody else. And I had a dozen oysters prepared in a multitide of ways. After all, it is for the oysters that I really wanted to come to Coffin Bay.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Coffin Bay

We arrived at Coffin Bay yesterday and were immediately greeted by a kangaroo and her joey. A very nice start. Finn had decided that Coffin Bay National Park looked pretty much like the Coorong, which he wasn't saying as a compliment. I think he meant that, like where we stayed in the Coorong, there was no playground, pool or jumping cushion. Just nature. On that score he was right, but to the rest of us, Coffin Bay immediately looked far more appealing. The only real downside appeared to be that just a few days ago, somebody was eaten by a shark here. Well, two sharks so it seems. Great White Pointers. Tori has been nervous going in to the water ever since Jaws, which incidentally had the more gruesome real shark footage shot around here. It was scant comfort for her to learn that there have been four shark attack fatalities in the last 10 years in South Australia, especially when those fatalities occurred in Glenelg and West Beach (where we just were) and around Port Lincoln/Coffin Bay, where we are now. It's a pretty safe bet that she won't be getting into the water around here. As it turns out, Yangie Bay where we are staying isn't really a swimming beach. It's much more of a place to fish. And so, we decided that it was time for us to have a crack. Santa brought fishing rods for Christmas, a first for all of us, so it was bound to be interesting. My only previous attempts at fishing have been either on a drunken whim, usually following an all night drinking session, or with an experienced fisherman who actually knows what he's doing. This time it was up to me to be the expert, or to be more accurate, the blind leading the blind. And so with our virginal rods and newly acquired fishing knives and accessories, we headed off down the sandy 4WD track to our chosen fishing spot. A beautifully picturesque side of Yangie Bay where the fish were clearly abundant as we could see them periodically leaping out of the water. Large silver fish that looked like they would be only too happy to come along and land themselves on the end of our lines. On arriving at our chosen spot, it became apparent that I'd forgotten to bring the tackle box containing the hooks, sinkers and so forth and had to go back and get it. Clearly not a great start. And it all went downhill from there. Who would have thought that it could be so difficult to actually get a hook, a little swivelly think and a tiny metal ball attached to the end of a piece of nylon. Just so fiddly. After what seemed ages, we got one rod into action and cast off into the water. All seemed good, but on reeling it in, it just became a tangled mess. Tori spent the next half hour untangling it. The next rod was a similar story. How could something that seemed like it should be so simple prove so difficult? As the afternoon wore on, we started to have some slight improvement and actually were getting a line into the water. Unfortunately, around this time the seagulls cottoned on to the fact that there was a free feed on offer and moved on in. The closest I came to catching anything was reeling in a seagull mid air as he was flying off with my bait. Hook and all.
A tangled mess was all that resulted and that pretty much called a halt to the afternoon's fishing expedition. Thank god we're not stuck on a desert island. We'd starve for sure on this form. Nevertheless, it was universally agreed that as disastrous as our fishing day was, at least we weren't playing golf. Everybody agreed that we should have another go tomorrow and perhaps we'd have a bit more luck. In the meantime, we retired back to the campsite for the loser fisherman's customary dinner of canned beans. At least we were consoled by a family of emus who wandered through the campsite. On the whole, fish or no fish, it had been a very nice day.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The long drive to the flooded track

Finally intertia was overcome and we left Adelaide. We packed up our site alongside the hungover teens in dark sunnies who had returned to the scene of the previous night's drama to recover their tent and car and clean up the mound of empty beer cans. Our new jockey wheel seemed robust and barely raising a sweat in lifting our van on to the hitch and we hit the road around 11am. The destination in mind was Port Augusta at the top of the Eyre Peninsula, some 320km north. Everybody settled in for the long drive. The kids alternating between reading books and playing on their DSs. Tori having the occasional snooze. Me just driving and listening to the random selection of songs from my iPhone. A game of I Spy managed to provide half an hours amusement somewhere around Port Pirrie and all in all the drive was nice and relaxing. On reaching Port Augusta, we pulled in to the servo to fuel up and also to replace an empty gas cylinder. Seemingly a simple task but one that proved more of an effort than originally anticipated. When we bought the van from Curly, he was nice enough to organise a bike rack for the van and to weld it on to the draw bar. While this has been a sensational addition, as I found out yesterday, the bike rack is in a position that makes it impossible to remove the gas cylinders without first removing a spare wheel. It simply won't fit through where it otherwise would have. Having not removed a wheel from the van up until now, I was relieved that the lugs seem a standard size and that the wheel brace from the car was able to do the job in removing them. Good to discover this now rather than when we're on the side of the road having to change a flat at least. But a bit of a drag to change over the gas bottle.

With us all being in the zone, we decided to continue on driving. Port Augusta is the cross road for either heading north up through Coober Pedy and up to Alice Springs and the top end, or for heading west towards Ceduna and the long road stretching across the Nullarbor Plain.  We drove west and a few kms out of Port Augusta took the road south down the Eyre Peninsula through Whyalla and toward our new destination of Cowell.
Whyalla is a funny town. I went there around 20 years ago to visit BHP who were a Tandem customer, flying in from Adelaide in a little 12 seater propeller plane. The town and all its amenities had effectively been set up by BHP to support the local steelworks. People paid their rates and electricity bills to BHP rather than any local council. Some time in the 60s or 70s, the South Australian government realised that there was a large imbalance in the town, with the inhabitants being predominantly men who worked at the steelworks or in the shipyards. To try and address this, they created a scheme where single mothers were offered very favourable loans to purchase houses in the town to try and bring in some women for the men to meet and marry. The plan obviously worked as Whyalla is now a flourishing town, South Australia's third largest. My time in Whyalla back then was spent at the steelworks where BHP used their Tandem computer to run the scheduling for the blast furnace. After a day of work and a tour of the blast furnace, the evening was inevitably spent in the pub buying drinks for the hard drinking system manager Bill Liddle, who "just one more"d me from around 6pm until closing time. Bill was probably the biggest and best bullshit artist I ever met. His stories were so fantastical that you knew that they weren't true. But they always started in the realm of believability and you could never tell where they crossed over to fantasy. I met up again with Bill in Singapore on business trips over more recent years. He worked for HP and would turn up for meetings with conservative Singaporean banks sporting a khaki safari suit and a long pony tail. After work I'd have beers with him at Harry's Bar on Boat Quay where he'd tell me about the famous Australian sports stars (such as Dennis Lillee and Greg Chappell) who would always stop by to have a beer with him when they were in town. He still drank the same as ever until his body finally gave out a couple of years ago and he died of a heart attack. He was definitely a larger than life kind of a character and one I'll always associate with Whyalla. This time we just drove straight through Whyalla on our way further south to Cowell.

When we finally got to Cowell, we stopped for dinner at the pub. We'd driven over 500km in the day and everybody was pretty tired. I was happy to stop for the night at the town van site, which was just a big field where you could park for a nominal fee. Tori had visions of camping the night by the beach and so with some scant directions from the friendly Canadian barmaid at the pub, we headed down the red corrugated dirt road for 20km looking for the alleged free camping area by the beach. On finding a sign pointing left saying "Beach Track", Tori decided that this must be it. Tired, indecisive and wanting to comply I took the turn off only to be confronted a little way down by a flooded track. It was pitch black outside, so I couldn't see to reverse out of the track. And so we decided to stop and spend the night there. The wind was howling off the sea and when the moon came out from behind the clouds, it shed an eerie light on the wide open landscape. Jazzy decided it was a good time to wind Finn up and got him so frightened that he ended up in tears, in need of serious comforting from Tori to calm him down and assure him that everything was alright. I have to admit that a few visions from horror films came into my own mind but experience has told me that normally in this situation you don't end up being hacked to death by an axewielding madman. Tori and I have spent the night in some very different places over the years as a result of being lost or simply stopping at the end of a long drive. We parked our campervan in the carpark at Aleppo Airport in Syria with the aim of sleeping there, only to be disturbed by the local youth who were diverted from their carpark soccer game to start peering in the windows of the curious van and check out the inhabitants. Needless to say we moved on. We spent another night off the road at the top of Mt. Nebo in Jordan where apparently Moses had his first view of the land of Israel. Much to Tori's chagrin, I brought back a couple of local goat herders to the van for a cup of tea. On leaving, one of them asked Tori if he could have her Cosmo magazine. It seemed to be about to change from a high fashion magazine to a goat herder's wank mag. On other occasions we have spent nights in places such as the top of  a canyon in Turkey, in a supermarket carpark in France, angle parked in the middle of the city of Munich where we were woken by an irate woman in a wheel chair around 2am because we were blocking the footpath, a suburban street in Southend, on the side of the road in Brussells and in the car park of the Vegemite Bar at Gallipoli. Today we have woken up surrounded by scrubby bushes and the roar of the waves just 50m  past the water of the flooded track. Nothing ever seems as daunting in the light of day.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Drama at the caravan park

The right kind of booze bus
Today we had a group of teenage guys move in next door. Dance beats were pumping and the beer was flowing and it wasn't yet midday. It was always going to get ugly.

I woke up with a hangover of my own. A bit too much fine Whistler shiraz last night while watching the footy resulted in me passing out on the bed in my clothes and feeling a bit ropy this morning. We had planned to leave Adelaide today, but the continuous morning rain provided the perfect excuse for delaying the departure for another day. Packing everything up and driving 400km just seemed way too difficult for today. So instead we went into town to check out the Adelaide fringe festival. And what a good decision it was. The rain had gone and the sun was out, so we made our way through the Rundle Mall and down to the Garden of Unearthly Delights. The gardens are the epicentre of the festival, containing a number of the venues, a free stage where we watched a few stand-up comedians and an amazing guitarist, market and food stalls and a fair ground with rides. It seems a great festival the Adelaide fringe. I'm glad that we had at least a little taster. When we left around 9pm, a large queue of people were lining up to come in. Outside the festival site, the streets of Adelaide were packed. The city is alive and kicking.

When we got back to the caravan park, things here were alive and kicking too. The guys next door had obviously been drinking continuously for the past nine hours and were now completely out of control. Loud drunken arguing  punctuated continuously with loud swearing seemed at any second like it was going to break out into a fight. There was a bit of wrestling, a few punches thrown and abuse delivered to others around the campsite who dared to suggest that they pipe down a bit. It felt dangerously out of control. Tori and the kids were spying through a crack in the curtains watching the drama unfold. When the park security guard turned up, they told him to fuck off. The police were always going to be on their way after that, but it seemed quite a while before they eventually arrived. In the meantime more punches had been thrown and it started to escalate. Eventually the police arrived and were confronted by an interesting dilemma. They wanted to throw them out of the caravan park, but where would they then go? It seems that the boys were all from out of town and they were too drunk to drive. In the end, the police evicted them anyway, marching them on foot towards the front gate. It seems almost certain that the problem has just been relocated and that anybody caught up in their wake could easily get into a random altercation. It also seems highly likely that with nowhere to sleep, the boys will be meeting up with some other police somewhere on their journey tonight and perhaps spend the night in a warm cell. I'm not sure when they'll be coming back to pack up their tent and collect their car. Hopefully not tonight.

As for us, the plan is to leave here in the morning. Time to start making some ground on the journey west.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Home is where the van is

Sunset over Glenelg beach
I can't believe how quickly I've adjusted to being back in the van. Only a few days ago I was driving to LA airport listening to Henry Rollins tribute to Abraham Lincoln on KCRW (oh yes!)before jumping on a plane for 17 hours. Now, apart from a very mild dose of jetlag, it feels as if I was never away. Usually it takes me about 5 days to get over jetlag. I've tried all sorts of remedies down the years in an attempt to reduce the time, but nothing seems to make any difference one way or the other. This time for some reason, it seems not too bad at all and I've used nothing. Perhaps it's due to the fact that life here now is totally flexible. There's no real fixed starting time or finishing time for anything. It's been pretty much a go with the flow kind of existence. I think this augurs well for a few months down the line when we inject a baby into our lives. Dealing with a baby through the night is the closest you can come to international travel without actually leaving home. You get the jetlag without the benefit of being somewhere different, accompanied by a considerable number of failed attempts to make yourself understood by a person who's not really interested in what you have to say. Unfortunately it usually takes a lot longer than 5 days to get over the jetlag. And you tend not to be able to just sit around and watch movies on demand the whole time.

Yesterday we went along for Tori's 20 week scan to see how the baby is doing in there. There were no complications with either Jazzy or Finn so we're pretty hopeful that this one will be the same. And all came back well from the scan. All the measurements appear good with his little heart beating away and seemingly the right number of fingers and toes. Jaz and Finn were both born in England thanks to the NHS, so this is our first experience with maternity in Australia. So far it's all been good. It seems that support for pregnant women and the process of childbirth is given high priority in both countries. Everyone who is involved seems happy to be doing their job and usually they have a welcoming disposition. Certainly the people you deal with seem much more compassionate and friendly than those you tend to meet in accident and emergency of any hospital anywhere at any time. Hopefully I'll have the same story to tell in another 20 weeks. The scan confirmed the due date to be around 29th June,

And so it's also been back to work in my mobile office. I don't think anyone can really get their head around the fact that I'm actually working here and not just on permanent holiday. A bloke sitting under an awning outside a van, working on a laptop for hours on end must seem a bit out of place among the holiday revellers. But that's the way it is. I started early today with a long phone call to an overseas colleague but then had a great lunch break for a few hours, spent splashing around in the pool with the kids and Tori, wrestling and playing keepings off with a waterproof soccer ball on a gloriously hot and sunny Adelaide day. Tori had to have a few breaks by the side of the pool. She gets tired pretty quickly these days and is only really able to operate at half pace. After a quick bounce on the giant inflatable cushions, it was back to work for a few hours, interrupted by dinner in the middle. A sort of staggered work day around a much more fun activity in the middle. I think this is sort of my typical day now, if such a thing exist. I guess it will all change again when we move on from here which will likely be on the weekend. I'll then get to have my first real trial of the new jockey wheel. Fingers crossed.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

America

My father was born in New York, so I guess I've always had some kind of affinity with America. My grandfather and my grandmother had both arrived in the US at Ellis Island in the early part of the last century, coming here from Lithuania and Latvia to seek their fortune. Things didn't work out so well in the end, thanks to the depression and then my grandfather dying when my father was only 10. Dad emigrated out to Australia with my grandma in 1947 when he was a boy of 14.
The first time I came to America was more than twenty years ago now, on an eleven week training course for Tandem Computers. 11 weeks! All expenses paid. With a car. On the two occasions when all the north Americans on the course went back to their home offices to do some work, it was considered too far and too expensive for me to go home. That meant I had two separate one week-long all expenses holidays in New York city and San Francisco respectively. They still remain my two favorite cities in the US. Since that first visit I've done a road trip across the country from San Francisco to Miami, discovering along the way that Bugs Bunny was right and I actually should have turned left at Alburquerque. I've staggered in uproarious laughter around Mardi Gras in New Orleans taking in the amazing parade of bizarrely costumed people and then played a gig on didgeridoo with Muslima the voodoo priestess, her python and a gang of drummers on Mardi Gras eve. Got remarried to Tori in Vegas in a wedding ceremony conducted by Elvis. Saw Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant go toe to toe at the Lakers' stadium in LA. Seen shows in New York. Gigs in Austin. Cycled across the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco. Skied at Tahoe. Hung out in Yosemite and Joshua Tree National Park. I've stayed in all sorts of accomodation from luxurious hotels at the top end, to hotels so dodgy that they were more often rented out by the hour than for the night and you couldn't step in to the bathroom for fear of coming out dirtier than when you went in. I must have been here to the US more than 20 times now.
This trip to southern California started well. I met up with Sean, Dan and Ian from the UK and spent some time wandering around Venice Beach. I discovered that marijuana is effectively legal now here in California. All around Venice were signs advertising doctor appointments to get a medical marijuana card. I was told that if I paid $150, I could see the doctor, explain my ailments and chances were (about 99.99999% chance I put it at) that the doctor would be sympathetic to my plight of suffering from insomnia/back ache/depression (select one or more) and that I would be given a card that was valid for 12 months. I could then go into the hash bar down the road, or one  of the many other such local establishments, where I could buy my "medicine" to consume there or take home. Having explained that I was only in town for a week, the pretty young stoned girl on the desk told me that for a week, the fee would be a LOT less and that the doctor would be just as accomodating in helping me out. There was a time in  my life when I would have jumped at the opportunity, but my back wasn't too bad, I was sleeping half ok and my disposition was upbeat. Damn! If only I had one of those symptoms perhaps the doctor could have helped me.

 I went to a super bowl party at Steve's house and had a nice time not really watching the game. Just chatting to people I hadn't seen for a while and meeting some new folk, while simultaneously gorging on barbecued food and downing a few beers. It's always amazed me when I come here, how dominated this country is by the corporations. Not just in terms of their financial power (which is the case pretty much everywhere), but the way they are truly held up as the kings of the land. The commercials that are broadcast during the tv coverage of the super bowl get more attention than the game itself. The day after, the tv stations and newspapers all feature the top advertisements, which are seemingly more important than the teams who played. I heard more conversations about the ads than about the game. In fact, I don't know why they don't just get rid of the game altogether and just let the corporations put on one big competition to see who can produce the most hilarious effort to convince us to give them our cash.

After the fun of the weekend, the rest of the week involved underwhelming days at work with the evenings spent, more satisfyingly, in the hotel bar.

With my first trip to the US being thanks to Tandem, I often think back to those early days of working there in the 80's. It was so much fun. It was a place that genuinely cared for the well being and equity of it's people. Every Friday in all Tandem offices around the world, the company was obliged (by the CEO and founder Jimmy Treybig), to put on beer and food for the staff on company time. The company took all Australian employees away for the weekend to the Snowy Mountains one year and to the beaches of Wollongong the next. All the Asia-Pacific support staff were flown to Singapore for a few days of regional bonding. People were treated with care and with respect. Over the years I watched it turn from a place that had a motto of "we develop people not systems" to one where friends and colleagues faced the brutal corporate axe, swung dispassionately by a man who had been brought in by the hierarchy to increase the bottom line. Profit and growth were the only consideration. Colleagues were turned on each other by the mechanations of the corporate machine, forced to cower for their own survival. It was like the soul of a once glorious place had been ripped out. There were graphs and spreadsheets to show everyone how well things were going. Morale dropped among employees. Eventually Tandem disappeared, swallowed up by the bigger corporation of Compaq. Which in turn was swallowed by the even larger HP. All that was left of Tandem was a memory of what had been. That seems to be the cycle of real corporate life. I don't recall seeing this in any side-splitting super bowl ad.

Friday, February 04, 2011

More jockey wheel drama at Aldinga Beach

After a long drive from the Barossa, via a stop in Mt. Barker for some running electrical repairs, we arrived late afternoon at Aldinga Beach Holiday Park. There to greet us was some mail, a water filtration system and the new replacement jockey wheel. Haleleujah! This was a supersized one. Extra length so we would no longer have troubles hitching to the height of the cruiser. Extra heavy duty, able to handle a load of 850kg at the front of the van. Our jockey wheel problems would now be over once and for all. Surely!

I'd prebooked a spot in this caravan parks months ago as I knew that I would have to fly off to the US for work and would be leaving Tori and the kids alone somewhere for 8 or 9 days. I wanted to make sure that they were somewhere safe and comfortable. I thought that somewhere a bit out of town by a beautiful beach would probably fit the bill nicely. Paul, the owner, seemed nice enough. He showed us to our site, which was a decent size, but had a considerable slope. It was also blessed with a huge patch of dirt just where our awning would be. It seemed far from ideal. Nevertheless, we hooked up our glorious new jockey wheel and unhitched the van. If I just raised up the front a few feet, the caravan should be level enough to be comfortable. At least that was the theory. So I wound up the hydraulic system a few turns, when a load cracking sound of ripping metal sent me diving for cover. The weld from the top of the jack had given way and the hydraulic mechanism just pushed its way through. The jack was in use for less than 5 minutes and it was now broken beyond all repair. I couldn't believe it. The bloke in the site across the way just sort of stared in an uninviting kind of way. He seemed to be a permanent resident of the park and in no mood to engage some holiday makers in a huge van having difficulties. Not too friendly. The van was now slumped forward on the broken jockey wheel, showing that the slope of our site was more than it initially appeared. I was immediately concerned of the possibility of the van rolling away and in somewhat of a panic removed the kids from inside the van. How well does that little handbreak actually work?

I went back to reception to request some kind of assistance and Jenny, the co-owner and Paul's wife, said that she'd send Paul around in a tractor to help us out. I wasn't even sure what kind of help we needed, but was happy for any assistance and suggestion that I could get. After perusing the situation for a while, Paul decided that he could lift the van with his tractor and put the front up on blocks. This seemed like a good idea, so we went for it. The van went up on blocks ok, but the balancing looked a little precarious to say the least. I suggested to Paul that if he held the van up with his tractor, I'd put on the old jockey wheel, then we could hitch back up to the car and I'd try to orient on to the site in a way that made us more level. By this time, I was physically and mentally drained. Perhaps the wine tasting from the afternoon before and the consumption of some of the wares purchased from these fine establishments were starting to take their toll. Whatever, I was completely stuffed. And starting to think in that jittery way one does when overtired. We tried realigning the van, but no matter what, the slope of the block was too steep for a two week stay. The kids would probably roll out of bed. Everyone was already hating this caravan park. I felt uncomfortable leaving everyone here when I went swanning off to California. So despite fatigue and the fact that we'd all had enough of moving around and setting up for one day, I decided to go back to the office to tell them we weren't happy with this location within the park. The office was closed, but on ringing the bell, a slightly less friendly Jenny came from round the back of the office, dressed in her fine evening wear, to hear what we had to say. She offered us a couple of other sites within the park and so I chickened out from telling her we were leaving and went with Jaz to have a look at the alternatives that we'd been offered. More and more, this place had the feeling of trailer park rather than holiday park as we noticed a few more permanent residents. I was leaving my family to be trailer trash! I went back to the office accompanied by Jaz and a little more resolve. This time Paul came out, also not as friendly. After a bit of an exchange he said, "so you want to pass on then, do you". To which I sheepishly replied that I did. So out he went to get Jenny to organise a refund for us. When she came out this time, she was outright hostile. I couldn't have been more apologetic, but she would have none of it.
"I haven't been out for weeks. I finally get the chance and now I'm going to be late. All because of this. And after Paul spent his time helping you out with the tractor. And for what? A complete waste of time. A refund"!!!
I offered more unacknowledged apologies, took the refund and slunk out the door. The office door slammed shut loudly and the sound of Jenny stomping through the house and her continued tirade was still audible as we made our way back to the car. Quickly and without looking up, we drove out the gates never to look back at Aldinga Beach Holiday Park. We didn't even know where we were going, but knew it had to be better than there.
An hour and a bit later, we were camped in Adelaide Shores Caravan Park. A walk across the road from West Beach, a big playground and jumping cushion for the kids, close to Glenelg and all that it has to offer and most importantly of all, a beautiful grassy flat site on which to put the van. We set up again on our old mangled jockey wheel. And sighed with relief.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Work-Life Balance

Monday was my official start back at work after a three week break and it was tough going. Just like it always is. I've tried to be objective about it and work out if the problem was that I was off in a new and glorious location or if it was just the same as ever. That is, difficult to be back at work after three weeks of summer holiday. Especially when you log in and find more than 950 emails waiting. My thinking has definitely come down on the latter. I mean, who enjoys going back to work after three glorious weeks of holidays? I struggled and did a couple of hours work on each of Monday and Tuesday, mostly reading email, but today I had a real days work. Woke up early, got the laptop fired up in the shade of the rising sun and started hoeing into the work that has been backing up. Dealing with people in Australia, America, England, India, Japan and New Zealand from out the front of the van with a nice view across the grass to some vinyards of the Barossa. And I was productive. Haleleujah! It looks like this way of life may be a goer after all. Much as I would love to jack it all in and just go swanning around Australia with nothing to do other than bum around, unfortunately that's not a viable alternative for me. Just like everyone else in the real world, I'm going to have to work to be able to feed my family. The good thing though is that it seems I'll be able to do that from pretty much anywhere as we travel around Australia.
 So after a great morning's work, and given our glorious location in the Barossa, the afternoon was spent dealing with the life part of the work-life equation. Glorious wine tasting. There is no better wine region in the world than the Barossa Valley. Aaah, so good. I had some past experience to fall back on and we had some good tips (thanks Geoff, Dave and some locals) and ended up racing around to Turkey Flat, Bethany, Rockford and Whistler. I would have loved for there to have been more, but 5 o'clock came around all too soon, and I guess that's where the work part of the work-life balance comes in. Had to do the work first before the life part could kick in. But it was a glorious day. And if it continues on in this fashion, then all will be good in the world. But work is done for the day now, so it's time to kick back and have another glass of a fine Whistler red and wait for the pizzas to be delivered to our van. Life is very good today.