Top to bottom, left to right: echidna 5¢, kangaroos $1 (about the size of a US quarter), an Aborigine with the Southern Cross $2, platypus 20¢, Australian coat of arms 50¢, lyrebird 10¢
Friday, 19 July
When I woke up Friday morning Belinda was already seated at the kitchen table, and Mrs. Crowley was stirring a pan full of scrambled eggs that filled the warm kitchen with a heavenly aroma. Mrs. Crowley loaded up a plate for me, then offered a jar of Vegemite for my crumpet. I had never eaten a crumpet or the legendary Vegemite – a thick brown yeasty paste that Australians reportedly spread on just about everything. I hesitated. She and Belinda laughed a little at the expression on my face. I figured, what the hell, and smeared a thin layer on a buttered crumpet. Silently, they awaited my verdict. I could be honest – it really wasn’t bad. It gave my crumpet a strong flavor of beer.
That day we were headed southwest to the city of Canberra in the Australian Capital Territory or the ACT, which was a few hours away from Sydney. We pronounced Canberra as “Can-brrrrrr-ah” since it was about 40 degrees every day. It’s funnier when you’re severely jet-lagged.
One of the best features of our white van was its bench seats, which were a little longer than our torsos. There was one for each person, the aisle and sliding door were to the left of them, partially filled with our luggage that overflowed from the small boot (trunk) area. The seats became our nap couches, with our feet propped up on the bags. Someone – I suspected Kacy – slipped my camera out of my bag and snapped photos of us cadets sleeping. I didn’t know until I had my photos developed weeks later.
My notes say we stopped in a town called Bowral for lunch, but I didn’t record what filled up the rest of the day. I recall that near sunset we met our host families in a parking lot. The cadets and their family members were gathered in a group, holding a conversation when we arrived.
I always sat in the back of the van, so I had a good view of our observers as the door slid open. As Kacy, Rob, and Brian stepped out, I saw wide-eyed expressions of shock and exchanged murmurs, especially amongst the cadets. I didn’t know how to interpret what I saw, so I temporarily brushed it off as I was introduced to my Canberra host family, the Sawades: Chris, Aldona, and Daina. Daina Sawade was a sixteen-year-old AirTC Cadet, and her father, RAAF Wing Commander Chris “Noddy” Sawade was a pilot who worked in the Australian version of the Pentagon. The Sawades also had a few other children, too young to be cadets. We drove to their home, which was notable because it was the only place I stayed that had central heat. Wonderful central heat. I suspect it was because they lived in military/government owned housing – perhaps it was a uniform requirement.
We sat and chatted for a little while in their living room, with the nightly news on the TV in the background. I couldn’t help but notice that Daina said very little. Maybe she was shy, but it made me wonder even more about the group’s reaction when we arrived. I learned the Australians were following the 1996 Atlanta Olympics closely, and they had an unhealthy obsession with the show The Nanny, starring Fran Drescher. As we talked, the younger Sawades circulated in and out, quickly bored by the conversation. It hit me in a flash – the bag of candy. I think the little Sawades became my biggest fans that night. With permission, I handed out several of the lollipops and the kids meandered away with their treasure. Several minutes later one youngster marched up to me and boldly proclaimed in a sugar induced mania, “I only have one thing to say about these lollies: THEY’RE BRILLIANT!” Every surface of his mouth was stained bright blue.
I stayed four nights with the Sawades, but I really don’t remember much about my time in their home. I retained two things, other than the delightful central heat: I think I stayed in a guest room, and they had a proper water closet (WC). The water closet is a tiny room that contains a toilet – with or without a sink – separate from the shower/bathtub. In other words, the bathroom was literally the bath room, and the toilet was off in its own space.
We walked through The Rocks, around the Circular Quay lined with souvenir shops, then to the Sydney Opera House and the Royal Botanical Gardens. We had converted most of our American cash to Australian at the airport, but I recall either Rob or Brian needed to visit a currency exchange booth, which were plentiful in the area. We frequently paused for photos and souvenirs. Around noon we retraced our steps, and made our way to Darling Harbour for a tea cruise on the Vagabond. Tea, as it turned out, just meant lunch. Thankfully, it was buffet style. Hunger only slightly outweighed my desire to curl up and sleep on a bench. For a few hours we toured both Darling and Sydney Harbours, taking in the natural and man-made beauty, including the soaring Harbour Bridge. After the cruise, we went to the National Maritime Museum at Darling Harbour, which had a beautiful museum and a nice variety of ships on display. They had masted ships, a robust “light ship” which functioned as a harbor beacon, and a modern Australian destroyer, the HMAS Vampire. We were stunned to see that they had a former Soviet Union “Foxtrot” submarine on temporary display, but open for tours. I won’t mince words – it was absurdly crude compared to US technology.
We popped into a chemist (a pharmacy) mid-morning which developed photos in an hour. We all submitted a roll of film to make sure our cameras were functioning properly. My photos from that day show four very bleary-eyed people.
Thursday, 18 July
When my travel alarm clock went off, the sun still wasn’t quite up, and Tazzie was gone. Belinda and Mrs. Crowley were already awake, and cheerfully directed me to their bathroom. As I prepared to shower and change, the note about “no central heating” came to life. In the middle of the bathroom stood a portable radiator and I huddled near it every possible moment. I wondered how long it would take me to acclimate from Alabama summer to Australian winter.
Carol and Mark picked up Belinda and I first, and as the sun broke the horizon, we made our way through rush hour traffic for Kacy, Rob, and Brian. When we were all together, we turned towards downtown Sydney. Carol and Mark cursed a little and apologized for the traffic. We Americans glanced around, and shrugged a little at each other. For a city of about four million, it seemed pretty light to us. But that was one charming aspect of the Australians: they had maintained an idealism that seemed straight out of the fifties. To them, a single murder was still appalling. As a group, they didn’t seem quite as callous and cynical as Americans.
Carol parked the van in The Rocks, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Australia. Founded in 1788, it was the arrival point for “transported” convicts from the UK. Two hundred years later, it was a popular tourist spot full of high-end shops, restaurants, and well-known landmarks such as the Sydney Opera House. I first noticed the birds. They had the usual denizens of a city on the water – pigeons and seagulls – but they also had the prehistoric-looking white ibis and the brazen Australian magpie.
The city was modern and strikingly clean. It looked like a typical large American city, from its steely gray architecture to colorful shops and signs. However, the buskers in the shadows of their buildings were unforgettably different. We were walking and talking excitedly on the sidewalk when we came upon an Aboriginal man in a loincloth covered with white handprints, seated on a red kangaroo pelt, playing the didgeridoo. In his left hand he had the didgeridoo, and in the right, he held a short well-worn stick, that he rhythmically clicked against its twin on the ground. I could not help myself; I stared and came to a halt. We all did. Fortunately, he was accustomed to gaping tourists. He paused his play for a moment, and told us that we could sit next to him and play the clapsticks, but the women could not touch the didgeridoo. It was forbidden in their culture – a taboo. Then he continued playing. We didn’t want to be rude by treating him like a mere attraction or sideshow, but it seemed even more offensive to just walk away. We exchanged uncertain glances, and asked Carol and Mark if it was okay. They smiled and nodded approval. A little self-conscious, we took turns sitting next to him, playing the clapsticks, and taking photos. We each left tips – it was the very least we could do to recompense for our awkwardness. We thanked him, and continued on our way.
At some point during our trek around Sydney, I stopped at a vendor’s cart to buy a drink. I surveyed the unfamiliar can and bottle labels, until my eyes fell on a green can of Sprite. I asked the vendor for a Sprite, please. He leaned forward with a wry smile on his face, his hands pressed on the stainless-steel top of his cart. Not too unkindly, he drawled, “Why do you all come over here and drink the same thing? It’s always Sprite.” I politely replied that sodas cost $2, I was thirsty, and it was the only thing I recognized. He grinned broadly and handed over the ice-cold can.
I spent that night with the Crowleys and my new friend Tazzie. They apologized for her intrusion the previous night. I assured them I loved all animals, and warned them that she might “accidentally” end up in my suitcase when I left for home. When I went to bed, I left the door slightly ajar. In the darkness I heard the sound of nails clicking on the floor which announced little Tazzie's arrival. No central heat needed.
Between small naps I watched the passing landscape. Its rolling hills reminded me of central Kentucky. Then I spotted the kangaroos. My first impulsive thought was “deer”. My eyes popped open on second glance. Long tail. Hopping on back feet. It was absolutely silent until I lost my head and exclaimed something like “Are those wild kangaroos?!” Laughter filled the van. What had I missed while sleeping? No more naps for me that day.
It was an unhurried trip; we stopped to eat, take pits stops, and refuel the van. After consulting our hosts, I grabbed a different type of treat every time we stopped. I loved Australian chocolate and candy, especially a candy bar called Violet Crumble. The chocolate was so rich and creamy, it put Hershey’s to shame, and my tastebuds have never recovered.
Speaking of candy, I asked Carol and Mark about the Australian obsession for blue raspberry flavor. They had no idea what I was talking about. I had received bad information – or maybe it was only a regional thing from previous cadet exchanges. In any case, I had a lot of inexplicably homogenous candy to offload. Free lollies, your favorite flavor – as long as it’s blue raspberry.
Since I bought inexpensive things with cash throughout the day, I began to accumulate change. Even the Australian coins were cool! Their currency was based on dollars and cents. They had silver-colored coins in 5¢, 10¢, 20¢, and 50¢ denominations, in addition to gold-colored $1 and $2 coins. The $1 coin is about the size of a US quarter. The coins featured Queen Elizabeth II on one side, and a beautiful image native to Australia on the other. They had phased out 1¢ and 2¢ coins, and $1 and $2 bills. We learned that the $2 coins were almost universally disliked. They were small, heavy, and easily fell out of pockets while seated. I noticed that most men carried coin pouches in a pocket, while women typically carried purses or clutches.