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Saturday, June 30, 2018

All in the family: Hawaii, part 1

When we were at the pro surfing competition on the Gold Coast, certain surfers were identified as being from Hawaii, as distinct from the U.S.A. I thought this was odd, since—birther liars notwithstanding—Hawaii has been a state since 1959. But having now been there, I can see why the birthplace of surfing has its own identity. Hawaii is proud that its greatest Olympic athlete, Duke Kahanamoku, actually introduced the sport of surfing to Australia.
Portrait of Duke at Hula's Bar and Lei Stand, Waikiki Beach, where we celebrated Pride
We arrived in Hawaii on an endless Friday. I say “endless” because we left Sydney on Friday afternoon, but then crossed the International Date Line, landing in Honolulu on the same Friday morning. Traveling east over all these months, we “lost” the day so gradually that we hadn’t noticed. We sure noticed when we got it back though! 

In a recent post, I addressed the concerns of some travelers to the U.S. (including citizens) who are hesitant even to cross the Canadian border, lest they be interrogated on the way back. It is ironic that on this entry to the States, I was actually greeted with “Welcome home.” It’s touching even though I haven’t lived here for eighteen years. I fully expected more questioning on this trip simply because T. is a non-citizen and we were coming in on a one-way ticket. In these circumstances, it is normal to be asked about one’s travel plans, proof of when one will leave, not to mention how have we been managing to travel in all these countries for over a year? 

But no questions of the kind were asked. Instead, the immigration officer said “Welcome to you as well.” They went through their fingerprinting rigamarole and then he asked if I had a Canadian passport too. It turned out that when we checked in for our flight from Australia, I had presented my U.S. passport (the correct thing to do) but the airline official had asked if I had another one, because she was looking for my Australian visa. The only people who needed to see that were immigration when I left the country, but I showed her my Canadian passport anyway, and evidently she’d swiped it into the Advance Passenger Information—which is how the Americans could see it. In any case, showing my U.S. passport was the correct thing to do in the U.S.

Then he asked about our customs declaration (we had recently been on a farm). “You’ll have to talk to agriculture about that,” he said, and waved us through. We couldn’t find agriculture and were on our way out with our bags when another officer, full of Aloha, saw our cards and said “Do me a favor and speak to agriculture about that.”

“Where are they?”

“Speak to someone without a gun,” he clarified.

Well, who doesn’t have a gun in America? Agriculture officers, I guess. They didn’t ask about the farm at all, just what food we were bringing. I’d heard that Honolulu was a more laid-back port of entry than, say, Los Angeles, but this was as relaxed a time as I’ve ever had—and I was born here.

The Honolulu airport is maintained by the city government and so it has a kind of throwback feel. Lots of open air, not many concessions, a ’70s concrete kind of vibe. This relaxed tone was a taste of what was to come in Hawaii. It’s one of the United States, but it’s not like other states.

At our Airbnb I switched on the TV for a change. All in the Family. It was an episode that, incredibly, I knew of, in which Michael and Gloria get married. If you remember this show you know that it was groundbreaking at the time. Indeed, I wish that Archie Bunker’s bigotry sounded more out of date than it does. In any case, this is one of those shows, like I Love Lucy, that illustrates how the U.S.A. could do good TV. Not to sound like the Lonely Planet guide, but laughing at ourselves is surely Americans’ saving grace.

We were in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and it still felt kind of like Asia. Let’s be honest—parts of Australia felt a lot like Asia too. The stores were full of Hawaiian drinks (guava, etc.) We had supper at a food court our hosts recommended: very local, no chains, mostly Asian foods. Then we crashed.

Not literally, though there was that rare moment when, according to T., I say calmly from the passenger seat: “You’re on the wrong side of the road.” Renting a car had turned out to be such the opposite of our usual airport experience that we were just glad to get out of there—in a convertible, though not at the price it should have been. It was a little wasted on the island of Oahu, though. We never saw a speed limit over 55 miles per hour, and most of the time we were driving more slowly than that.

Neither of us had ever been to Hawaii before, so we decided to stick to Oahu and explore as much as we could. I don’t know about the rest of the islands, but it felt very military to us. We were staying with an army family, around the corner from an army hospital, and there were bases everywhere. And offers for those in military uniform. At Pearl Harbor we learned that Hawaii was under martial law during the Second World War. It’s obviously different now, but I still got that impression that a lot of the Pacific forces came to be based there and just stayed.

Pearl Harbor was a place we had to go, as first-time visitors to Hawaii. The U.S. entered World War II late, at the end of 1941, and the reason was the Japanese bombing attack on the fleet and aircraft at Pearl Harbor. Overnight, the country went from isolationism (let’s stay out of Europe’s wars) to an unprecedented war effort on both the Pacific and European fronts. The museums at Pearl Harbor, which are free, do a good job of showing why all this happened: Japan’s imperial ambitions in Asia, how they threatened colonies such as Britain’s and France’s (Indochina, anyone?), and what they thought such an audacious attack on the U.S. Navy could achieve.

The museums also show that the war did not start off going well for the U.S., any more than for its allies in Europe. What the generation who grew up in the Great Depression, and the Blitz in Britain, accomplished was truly remarkable, and something I feel more thankful for as there are fewer of them left. Tom Brokaw or whoever coined the phrase “the greatest generation” was not wrong. 

Of course, this is personal for me. The members of my family who fought in World War II were in the Pacific theatre. Both my grandfathers were on Oahu during the war, possibly even during the same period. One of them came there some time after being seriously injured; with all the fighting going on, he wasn’t able to get treatment where he was. My great-uncle Clyde was also in the navy, and in fact was already serving when Pearl Harbor was attacked. He was there on December 7, 1941, and badly wounded in the bombing of the U.S.S. Arizona.

It’s free to visit the Arizona memorial. Demand, though, is such that you have to book tickets in advance, or get there early. I got up early the morning before and snagged us a spot. We also were unfortunately unable to dock at the memorial because it is in need of repair, and currently deemed unsafe. But, the navy boat took us around the memorial and we got commentary from a man who was eleven years old at the time, and saw the whole thing happen. He was clearly too young to fight in the Second World War, but he went on to do so in Korea.

Every branch of my family sent men to serve in World War II. When you think that most of the men—more than a thousand—who died on the Arizona were around nineteen years old, it is very sobering. I am not a military buff per se but as in Vietnam, I wanted to understand this story of the war. So we bought tickets and clambered aboard the U.S.S. Bowfin, “the Pearl Harbor avenger,” a submarine that was launched December 7, 1942.

We also toured the U.S.S. Missouri, the last battleship. Many battleships were destroyed in the Pearl Harbor attack, and the subsequent war was fought with aircraft carriers, but the Missouri outlasted the battleship age. She was hit by a kamikaze attack during World War II, and if you tour the ship, you will learn that the captain required the kamikaze pilot to be buried at sea, with his flag, rather than tossed overboard like garbage. “A dead enemy is no longer your enemy,” he told his men, but a brave warrior who fought for his country. Since then, Japanese as well as Americans have honored this act of humanity in the midst of such a vicious war. There is even an exhibition aboard the Missouri about the Japanese pilots and what they—young men themselves—hoped to accomplish with their suicide missions.

That gave me pause. Japan knew by that point that it could not win the war with the U.S., so its only hope lay in making the war too costly; and it did this by showing the Japanese people’s willingness to sacrifice themselves in endless numbers. An invasion of the Japanese home islands would be an unthinkable bloodbath. We all know how the U.S. resolved that issue.

In his masterwork on America in Vietnam, A Bright Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan comments on how much hatred of the “dirty Jap” informed American behavior, not only during World War II but subsequently in the wars in East Asia. The Nazis, after all, had been in power for years, but it took Japan attacking Pearl Harbor to make Americans want to fight. Understandable, but there are less savory reasons too. Germany, not Japan, was an actual threat to the existence of the United States and of free countries. This is literally true. The reason the U.S. developed the atomic bombs that were ultimately dropped on Japan was because of Nazi Germany. Immigrants from Germany told the U.S. government that it had to make nuclear weapons, because Germany was making them. It is thanks to those immigrants that the U.S. got there first. What Japan did to the Allies in the Pacific war was hideous, but can you imagine the world if Adolf Hitler had gotten the atomic bomb?

The U.S.S. Missouri went on to see service in two more wars. She was in Korea, a war that is not talked about as much but which quietly ended the other day—more than sixty years after the ceasefire. Then in the 1980s buildup of American forces, the battleship was revived again. The Missouri fired the first Tomahawk missiles of the Persian Gulf war.

That was the war of my student days. I remember people holding vigils against it. Not the least upset was a young woman in my dorm who had family in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. War looks different when the bombs are falling on you, which I suppose is the lesson of Pearl Harbor. Not for one moment do I think the Persian Gulf conflict was as neat as the videogame version on the War Channel made it appear. But aboard the Missouri, looking at the Pepsi machine and the computer room of 1991 vintage, I thought of the Americans my age who were actually there. And I thought of the Korean war, and of my great-uncle Johnnie, who served there and brought my mom back a little kimono.

Perhaps the finest hour of the Missouri was the day the Japanese surrendered on her deck. She was in Tokyo Bay and Japan’s representatives apparently expected to be killed when they boarded the ship; perhaps that’s what they’d have done to a surrendering enemy. In any case, Douglas MacArthur and some Allied representatives signed some paperwork and it was all over. Imagine the relief of an actual end, a treaty between countries. World War II was the last war the U.S. declared, and V-J Day was the last real victory.

Among them the Arizona, Bowfin, and Missouri represent the beginning, middle, and end of America’s war in the Pacific. Today the Missouri’s big guns are at a 45-degree angle, as they would be to fire a salute. They are in fact saluting the Arizona memorial, beneath which many brothers in arms still lie entombed in their ship.

Of all the brave warriors in the U.S. forces, it was said (by cartoonist Bill Mauldin, among others) that the Nisei were second to none. Nisei were people born in the U.S. (or Canada) whose parents were immigrants from Japan. Some of those parents were interned in camps in the United States, but that didn’t stop their sons from being drafted, or from fighting courageously. The same could be said of the many black troops who were treated far from equally at home, and who were segregated in the armed forces themselves. It’s a great stain on an otherwise honorable time. Somehow America’s largest single ethnic group, German-Americans, did not end up in internment camps.

At Pearl Harbor we met the daughter-in-law of a native Hawaiian, “Uncle Herb,” who was a veteran of that day. Uncle Herb recently passed away, but before that he spent decades volunteering at the memorial and talking to people about his experience. Now his daughter-in-law is carrying on his memory. It reminded me of the stunning tour we had at Auschwitz, where our Polish guide revealed that she was the daughter-in-law of a survivor.

It also reminded me of the uncles in my family. After the war and his injuries at Pearl Harbor, Uncle Clyde was stationed in occupied Japan. There he married Aunt KoKo, one of the most delightful Americans I ever met. That is part of the story too.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Continent (islands) 4 to continent (islands) #5

We had one more stop in Sydney before leaving our fourth continent. This was a treat because none other than VK Powell, my fellow author and our friend from North Carolina, was in town. VK and T. also share a former profession, so we always have lots to talk about. It makes a change from just me talking all the time!

We also enjoyed meeting VK’s best Aussie mate, Lyn. The weather in Sydney was wintry, i.e. rough seas and rain, so when some dry weather broke through Lyn decided we must be getting cabin fever. She drove T. and me around La Perouse, on the edge of Botany Bay, and a beach called Maroubra.

Lyn was also kind enough to arrange for all of us to go to Vivid Sydney at the Taronga Zoo. Vivid is a festival of illuminations all over downtown buildings, and we were lucky not to get soaked, as the rain was pelting down ferociously while we were waiting for the ferry. T. put her rain pants on and from then on, the rain magically stopped.
Sydney Harbour Bridge in the rain!
At Taronga Zoo, Vivid takes the form of illuminated sculptures of animals. The actual zoo animals were off duty, but we enjoyed a cable car ride and a great many vivid creatures, including many native to Australia.

Tasmanian devils
The evening ended on a high note, with fish and chips by the platypus!
Yet some of the enjoyment of staying in one place for a while was the pleasure of cooking our own food. Of course, we do that camping as well, but T. was unable to roast a Sunday dinner in a camper van! Then there was my salmon, and something called “curry soup” that we’d never heard of before, but was so lovely when our friends made it that we’re now loaded up with packets. One more thing to declare at U.S. customs!

VK spoiled us, but we also had family to catch up with in Sydney. Liza was away traveling but we did get in another Thai dinner with Jim. He had lots of good suggestions for our next destinations—Hawaii and his home state, California! We also went out to Richmond one day to meet up with T’s cousin, Emma.
She showed us around the farm where she works, training horses for polo and pretty much everything else that needs doing. Then we had a pub lunch. Emma may have lived in Australia for a number of years, but to me, it felt like going back to Derby for a family party.

That was a fine day, but as I mentioned, there was lots of rain in Sydney. It didn’t matter because there were also lots of movies on TV. I certainly hadn’t seen that many films in the past year—even the airlines we’ve flown lately don’t include entertainment. Among the highlights was Trumbo, a timely depiction of the Hollywood blacklist and what it did to writer Dalton Trumbo. It was good to be reminded that freedom of speech really starts to matter when it’s speech you don’t agree with.

Our “mates” also took us out on the town, including to Tea with the Dames during the Sydney Film Festival. This movie is just the Dames (Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, and Eileen Atkins) sitting around having tea and talking about their overlapping acting careers. As witty as these four women are, and given that each has been made a dame of the British Empire for services to drama, this was a highlight too.

As was lunch in Spice Alley, the Sydney version of an Asian food court. There was even a tuk-tuk out front!

When I couldn’t bear to sit indoors any longer, I walked all the way down Elizabeth Street to the central business district (CBD). I love walking an unfamiliar street and discovering a slice of that particular city’s life. I passed a Maori Anglican Church and the office of a women’s peace and justice association, missions and museums, an old hotel pub and a place that sold Singapore chili crab. And I didn’t spend a cent.

Not that it’s possible to spend a cent in Australia—they round everything up to the nearest five now.

Although we’ve both been to Sydney a number of times, there are places neither of us had ever visited. We took advantage of another sunny day to take the ferry to Manly. It wasn’t quite swimming weather (though there were brave souls out there in wetsuits), but the beach was lovely to walk on, and of course there’s always coffee—and ice cream! A touch of rain on the horizon was enough to provide us with a stunning rainbow on our ride back across the harbor.

The final day trip we took was to the Blue Mountains. Everyone should do this, as it is effortless—you just catch a train from Sydney in the normal way, using your local transit card, but it’s a real long-distance train and takes you to Katoomba in about two hours. From there, you can get the hop-on, hop-off bus that goes from Katoomba to Leura and many stops in between. The bus and driver were first rate, but we didn’t really get our money’s worth from the bus, as we just walked from hike to hike. The stops turned out to be a lot closer to each other than we’d realized. Still, it was a nice day for hiking—not too warm. And we were glad to have a ride back to Leura train station at the end of the day.
Katoomba Cascades

Three Sisters
Places like Katoomba and Echo Point are built up and have all kinds of facilities, yet a short walk brings you to lookouts over vast forested areas like the Jamison Valley.

There are Aboriginal carvings in the Blue Mountains that are thought to be thousands of years old. We didn't see those, but the features that perhaps inspired some of that ancient art impressed us equally.
Looking down on the tops of the trees
So what will I take from Australia? In some ways, it is a very familiar culture to a North American, which is why the differences can be instructive. We had a look in a gun shop the other day and that reminded me that there is a middle ground between the free-for-all gun culture of the U.S.A., and no guns at all. Recently, there was a terrible shooting within a family in Western Australia; the last mass shooting in Australia was in 1996. As I mentioned in my Tasmania post, Australians saw that their country had a problem, and dealt with it.

We’re off to the U.S. next. We will miss our friends and many family members who so generously hosted us in Oceania, and made it possible for us to stay so long. Australia is the home of my favorite guidebooks, the Lonely Planet series, and in preparation for the U.S.A. I’ve been amusing myself with their take on my native land. In addition to guns, here are some aspects of U.S. culture Lonely Planet feels international visitors should know about:

*Tipping is not optional.
*Never walk away from a police officer (see guns).
*There’s never been a better time to be gay in America. But don’t be “out” in rural or conservative areas.
*Remain calm when answering intimidating border officials (they have guns too).
*Smoking, another dangerous thing that causes death, is barely tolerated anywhere in America, even outdoors.
*But Americans are friendly, so make an effort to meet them.

That’s about how I remember it, too. Bring on the birthplace of President Obama (and no, it wasn’t Kenya! Unless you mean Barack Obama, Sr.)

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Coming to America: bold hints for painless border crossing

Once in an online discussion someone told me that British citizenship was a privilege, not a right. I thought that was an interesting perspective. It is certainly true that some countries are more privileged than others. I, for example, was born in the U.S., which is not a reflection of my merit in any way. But it is a privileged citizenship to have.
Nonetheless as Wikitravel attests: “The United States is not the easiest country to try to enter, even for US citizens.” Many countries do not ask their returning citizens any questions at all; but I (and, anecdotally, other Americans) have been asked all sorts. For this reason, I know that many citizens, never mind non-citizens, find it stressful to enter the U.S., to the point that they avoid it. (See The Economist on the world’s worst airports.)

The Discreet Traveler wants everyone to travel as freely as they want and can afford to. So I’m offering my anecdotal experience, in the hopes that others can relax and be prepared for their travels to the U.S.

Here are three things that make traveling to the U.S. different from other countries:
  1. Immigration and customs functions are combined. The same officer may ask about your immigration status (in my case, look at my U.S. passport) but also what you are carrying with you, how much it cost, etc. Related to this is the fact that every traveler to the U.S., including citizens, must fill out the blue “customs form.” 
  2. There is no secure zone in U.S. airports for transferring from an international flight, as there is in most international airports. This means that everyone who lands in America must clear U.S. customs and immigration, even if they are only transferring from, say, Europe to South America.
  3. The U.S. has no exit immigration controls at airports, and at land borders they may or may not take a departing non-citizen’s record properly. This means that the onus is on the airline, and ultimately the traveler—you—to document when you left the U.S.
  • Hints for non-citizens: When you depart the U.S. by air, save your boarding pass. The next time you travel to the U.S., if there is any question that you left on time, you can offer this as evidence (along with any dated stamp in your passport).
  • If you depart the U.S. by land, make sure the official removes the stub of the I-94 (white or green) form from your passport. If they don’t, you could be refused entry the next time if it’s still in your passport. This happens so commonly that U.S. Customs and Border Protection has a specific web page instructing you what to do to solve the problem. Follow these steps at before your next trip to the U.S.
Now, you wouldn’t need this blog post if traveling to the U.S. were totally straightforward. In the past, I have found that criticism of things American can be taken as hatred of the U.S. (yes, this word has been used). That is nonsense. I think America is a great country, which is why I want people to travel there and for their experience to be a happy one. Many of the aspects I personally disagree with are probably due to the fact that most Americans don’t travel, so the issues of returning citizens or those of us living abroad are unknown to them.

For example, the U.S. claims broad powers at the border, and even 100 miles inland from the border. That explains those checkpoints you find, say, in Arizona, nowhere near Mexico. My personal belief is that these are completely at odds with the American value of free people moving around without having to show their papers to cops; but my beliefs about borders are not relevant here. Certain things are politically achievable, but whether I stand up for those things at the border depends on whether making my point, or actually traveling, is more important. Take the blue form:

When the first same-sex marriages became legal in Canada, a gay couple identified themselves at U.S. customs and immigration as a family. At the time, the blue form required family members to have the same last name. The U.S. refused to recognize the men as a couple; they’d made their point and left. Years later, the terms of the blue form were quietly changed and now a same-sex couple can, and indeed we are expected to, present ourselves together at U.S. customs and immigration. (Flight crew will still insist on the old criteria; we just ignore them and fill out one form.)

I admire the activism of those first couples, without which we would not have come this far. In the past, the only country’s borders where my non-U.S. partner and I would be separated was the U.S. I would go through the citizens’ line with no idea how long she would take to get in. If there had been a problem I wouldn’t have been there, nor could I have known about it, because you can’t turn your mobile phone on at customs and immigration. It was nerve-wracking, but it wouldn't have occurred to me to mention our relationship to the U.S., because its homophobic laws had made me leave in the first place.

All of this is to say that I understand, and have experienced, the anxiety of someone who is different and especially queer families at the border. Which is why I take the Boy Scout approach: Work to change rules that you disagree with, and obey them in the meantime. But I respect individuals who can afford to take risks, such as U.S. citizens who will not answer questions about why they are coming to the U.S., or where they are going to stay, or what they do abroad. 

Hints for U.S. citizens: 
• If you are a citizen you have the right to enter the U.S. Officials have to let you in; it just depends how prepared you are to be inconvenienced and delayed.

• Once your citizenship is established—that is, unless they think your passport is fake or you are not the person identified in it—then any further questions should only have to do with customs, not immigration. Just because a citizen doesn’t think it’s any of the U.S.’s business doesn’t mean it might not have to do with customs. For instance: Which countries have you traveled to? This could be related to whether you are more likely to be smuggling drugs, cigars, or endangered species. Of course, you are probably not smuggling anything and if you are actually accused of a crime, you have the right to a lawyer, whether you are at the border or not.

Hints for all travelers: 
If you think something about your name, appearance, etc. may raise a flag with the officials, try to breathe through that. Nervousness or hostility in themselves can raise a flag. It took me a lot of years to realize that just being tired from a long flight was okay, and all I had to do was answer questions in the way most likely to get me through most quickly. Honestly, without volunteering information not asked for.

• Perhaps because of the “I’m asking for a friend” cliche, officers all over the world seem suspicious of anyone having a “friend.” You may really be visiting a friend but be prepared to explain who he is and why you are staying with him. I’ve been asked a lot more questions, no matter which country, when a friend was involved, including questions I could legitimately not have known the answer to (“Her boyfriend was there? What does he do?”) If in fact this friendship is a romantic relationship, either be upfront about this, or have a solid reason to spend time in the country legally, that has nothing to do with him or her.

I did this years ago when I went to the U.K. for months at a time. Studying in England, for example, was a legitimate enterprise that I had no trouble explaining to a U.K. official, especially as he was questioning me in the middle of my course, which I was returning to after Christmas break. At the time, I could hardly keep a straight face when he asked me why someone would study at Oxford (there are universities in America). Now, I realize that he was probing for another reason, and I’m glad I wasn’t living with my partner at the time, because if he’d asked I could have answered truthfully. I don’t know what would have happened had the official asked me point blank if I was in a relationship with a British person. At the time, U.K. immigration law didn’t recognize same-sex relationships any more than the U.S. 

Where I am a citizen I shouldn’t even be asked these questions, but I want to get through. I can enter the U.S. whenever I want to, for no reason, and stay forever, and it doesn’t matter where. But there is no point in saying this at a land crossing while holding up an entire busload of passengers. It is not officials’ business that I’m going to my grandfather’s funeral, but it is their job to suspect everyone. It’s better to think like they do and understand why they are asking the questions. Being questioned (or, in the non-citizen’s case, fingerprinted) “like a criminal” is and always will be offensive to me, but I also recognize that it is a far more common outrage against some people who, for instance, have a different skin color from mine—and not just at borders. 

Which brings me to 
Hints for non-U.S. citizens, who (with some exceptions like Canadians) are fingerprinted at the border, and suspected of illegal immigration. It is up to the traveler to convince the official that this is not your intention. What evidence you will need and whether you will be asked to show it depend on the official you get and her impression of you on that day. So give yourself time and be prepared. Your calmness and awareness of the rules will help.

  • If, as we frequently do, you are flying in on a one-way ticket, show up at the airport early. That way, if the airline asks you to prove onward travel from the country you're flying to, you have time. Worst case scenario, you can go online and book a refundable (within 24 hours) ticket out of the country. It might seem wrong to book an onward ticket that you will cancel as soon as you get there, but it’s not the ticket that officials are interested in. It is evidence that you have the intention and the means to leave the country. Nothing proves the means to buy a ticket like buying a ticket.
  • Have evidence of your plans in the country, or at least some ideas (if you don't have a firm itinerary).
  • Have evidence of your finances (again, to prove you have the means to leave) and of ties to your home country: your home, family, business, if you’re going back to a job. And importantly, either print these, or save them as documents or screen shots on your computer or phone. That way, you won't be scrambling for WiFi at the airport, as we have had to do.
Successfully crossing a border is not an exact science. It is an art, and improves with practice. 

So do go to America. Because Americans are friendly! On a recent program about Prince Harry and his bride, Meghan Markle, the narrator said, “She just walks up to people and says, ‘Hi, I’m Meghan.’”

Of course she does, I said. She’s American.

Flags at Phnom Penh riverfront, Cambodia

Friday, June 8, 2018

People we haven't met yet: South to Perth

When I was very small, the story goes, we saw a man with his thumb out on the side of the road. I asked what he was doing and my mom said he wanted a ride. I asked why we didn’t give him one.

She said, “Well, we don’t know him, honey” and I said that I did.

I don’t know if thumbing a ride is still a thing in North America, but it’s common enough in Australia. Nevertheless I was surprised, as we began our road trip back to Perth from Exmouth when we saw someone on the side of the road and T. asked, “Shall we give him a ride?”

It wasn't a question. She was already backing up. And as soon as we got there I could see that our hitchhiker was, in fact, a young woman.
You could see the resemblance more clearly if she weren't wearing a cap--or if I were.
She reminded us of me, if I were fifteen years younger and French. I wonder if I reminded her of her. Delphine had been living at home in Brittany until a few years ago, when she decided being an ambulance driver wasn’t exciting enough. So she started walking, and sometimes hitchhiking, around Australia 22 months ago. 

I thought we were traveling light, but D. knocked “minimal” into a cocked hat. She was carrying a tent, sleeping bag, and cooking stove, all in a backpack that weighed less than mine. I asked if she ever felt unsafe but she said no, never. She added that although it is considered safer for a girl and guy to hitchhike together, compared with a girl hitching alone, she thought having a guy along would make it “too easy.”

She rode with us all that first day back to Carnarvon, and I was glad, because it had been by far the dullest part of our road trip north. Nothing to stop for at all. There are a few picnic areas and we shared our sandwiches with D. at one—a rickety table and desperate toilet. Also trash cans. Western Australians cannot use a shortage of trash cans as an excuse for not throwing trash in them.
This was underneath our picnic table!
Finally, we got back to Carnarvon. We needed some groceries so said au revoir to our passenger in the parking lot. It felt a bit abrupt—I was sure she had more stories—but we were going back to the Coral Coast Caravan Park, with its lavish ablutions, and she was pitching her “swag” someplace free. I don’t know if there’s an etiquette for picking up hitchhikers but I felt vaguely concerned about her, even though she’d been fine for nearly two years before we met.

As we were pulling out of Carnarvon the next morning, we were still talking about D., wondering if she’d stay in Carnarvon an extra night or move on to Shark Bay. Not entirely surprisingly, T. spotted her again on the side of the highway. She had walked back out of the town centre and was as pleased to see us as we were to see her: “I know you!” Which only goes to show that, as T. says, a stranger is just somebody we haven't met yet. And I needn’t have worried about D.; while we were having beans on toast for supper at our campsite, she'd treated herself to fish and chips! 

We knew she wanted to go to Shark Bay so she rode with us as far as the bleak Overlander Roadhouse, the turnoff where we’d stopped on the way north. There we shared another lunch and said bon voyage. That’s where she consented to have her picture taken with this curly-haired, glasses-wearing stranger who was not a stranger after all.

The Discreet Traveler cannot recommend hitchhiking anywhere in the world. I wouldn’t do it, nor would I advise the girls in my life (or boys, for that matter) to do it. But part of becoming an adult is recognizing that there are things I personally would never do, which doesn’t necessarily make them bad choices for everyone. In fact, I admired D. In all the months she’d been hitching, she said Australians had picked her up tons of times, but only twice did fellow travelers stop. Us and a German woman. T. thought that was disgraceful. I said it had been impressed upon me that picking up hitchhikers was dangerous and D. replied, not unreasonably, that she was the one taking the risk.

I am sharing her story because there is something so pure and Zen-like about the way she is traveling. No Facebook, no Instagram, not even a journal. She has a phone and takes a few pictures, but a camera was just extra weight. She’s just experiencing, and yet she’s doing it the right way. She talked in detail about her visa options, here and in the next countries she’ll be visiting. She took the time and got proper work permits. She’s pretty much traveling by foot and thumb everywhere (although she did “cheat” with one flight). I thought I was brave at 27, emigrating to a new country; but I wasn’t in a tent or on my own. 

D. is an extreme embodiment of what we’re always learning: The world is not full of monsters. The news is. I don’t mean by this, as some do, to malign the media or suggest the news is “fake.” Rather, it’s the man-bites-dog truth of journalism: The news, by definition, reports what is exceptional. If goodness and kindness were exceptional, they would be news. When D. fell off a motorbike somewhere in Vietnam (don’t ask when), people just came out of the woodwork to help; she didn’t know where they came from but they were there before she could get off the ground.

So look out for Delphine on the road. Though she's perfectly able to look after herself.

We were glad to have company that day too, because it was the longest drive of our trip. After our lunch stop T. and I took turns driving all the way back to Geraldton. The Sunset Beach Caravan Park didn’t afford the sunset we had seen on our way up, but at least we were finally by the ocean again.

I couldn’t get over how people in these campgrounds just start friendly conversations, in a kind of communal living. If our neighbors hadn’t come over at Shark Bay, we might have stayed in Coral Bay instead of at the Ningaloo Lighthouse. If our neighbors hadn’t come over in Carnarvon we might not have seen Coral Bay at all. I was checking out of the campground at Geraldton when I heard one camper ask his partner, in German, if she wanted a copy of the such-and-such Times. “I don’t want any Times,” she said in English. “I am on vacation.”

Compared with Highway 1 further north, “Indian Ocean Drive” now seemed quite scenic. We’d missed Lesueur National Park on our trip north because there are no signs for it anywhere from the main highway. You have to detour as far as Cockleshell Gully Road, which is unpaved, and only then are there signs for the national park. T. drove some miles before she reached the (paved) scenic drive. A little bird swooped and bounced before us much of the way, “like a bird in a Disney movie,” taking advantage of our slow speed on the dirt road.
We decided to hike up to the flat top of Mt. Lesueur.
As with some Dutch place names (Vlamingh), French names in this part of WA reflect the origins of some early sailor-explorers. In springtime this park is supposed to be exceptional for its wildflowers.

It wasn’t springtime, but the view over to the ocean was pretty good. And we saw a wedge-tailed eagle drifting overhead, although I didn’t have the lens to capture it.

Our last night of camping was at our old haunt in Cervantes, with one last Indian Ocean sunset. Even T. remarked on the moon, suddenly full through the trees.

We’d gotten more than our money’s worth out of the national parks pass, but there was still one more we’d missed just north of Perth: Yanchep. On our last morning before returning the camper van, we stopped there to check out its Koala Boardwalk.
The first koalas came to Yanchep from Perth Zoo in 1938. They are native to eastern Australia and I was sure I’d seen one up a tree somewhere in Queensland, but as we were driving by, I couldn’t prove it to myself or anyone else. While the Yanchep koalas can’t be classed as wild, a sanctuary is better than the zoo, or one of those tourist photo ops. And we were glad to see this threatened species in a safe natural environment.

And so to Perth, where we had a couple of days downtown to check out the city. Although Perth doesn’t seem very big, or to have a great many tall buildings, it felt very urban after two weeks on a camping trip. A historical marker revealed that we were staying in the neighbourhood of Edith Dircksey Cowan, the first woman to serve in Australia’s parliament.

We were just down the street from Kings Park, so decided to check out this green hill that is the heart of Perth. Indeed, it’s more than that. The combination of botanic garden and natural bushland on Mount Eliza is, to the local Noongar people, the home of the creator of the Swan River, and a hunting ground for thousands of years. It was from a lookout here that the Noongar first glimpsed the Europeans who were coming to join them. Much, much too late, Australia is finally recognizing the contributions made by its original people, the traditional custodians of the land.

There are a lot of memorials in and around Kings Park. One of the most recent is this one, to the memory of Western Australians killed in Bali in 2002. The Indonesian island of Bali is a popular tourist destination for Australians (it’s cheaper to fly there from Perth than to Sydney or Melbourne), and of the hundreds killed and injured in that terrorist attack, the majority were foreign visitors.

It was sunny that day, so we also took time to check out Elizabeth Quay and walk around town a bit. The modern skyline contrasted with lovely old buildings including His Majesty’s Theatre, the only Edwardian theatre still standing in Australia.

The best part of our travels—or the part we miss most when we’re away—is the people. Before leaving Perth on a rainy last day, we had a chance to meet someone else whom, it turned out, we already knew. Neither T. nor I had ever met Teresa, who is the sister of T’s aunt by marriage and emigrated to Australia nearly five decades ago. But by the end of the afternoon (and a bottle of wine), we both knew and loved her. I kept trying to thank Teresa for lunch but she only said, “Just thank God.”

As T. says: "We're all on the same journey."