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Back to the big smoke

Every second Wednesday on my pay day I open up an Excel spreadsheet. I look at my various bank accounts, count how much cash there is in my wallet, check my superannuation balance and see the current market value of my share portfolio. I enter all the figures into the spreadsheet, I deduct whatever balance I have outstanding on my credit card and my marvellous little spreadsheet spits out some cute little graphs showing the progress of my net worth.

I made this spreadsheet not only because I am a tight-fisted lucre-loving money-grubber. It is because I have a goal - financial independence.

My aim is to have a net worth of a certain amount by the time I am sixty so I can retire and spend the rest of my life travelling the world, the returns on my various savings and investments funding my travel. I’m pleased to say that I am on track.

Every one of my overseas adventures serves only to increase my ardour to see as much of this world as I possibly can before I die. It is a drug and not a terribly bad addiction to have. A typical human being only lives for one thousand months. That’s not many. Each of us was dead for an eternity before we were born and each of us will be dead for an eternity after we die.

That’s a shame because this planet is amazing. It is perhaps the most interesting of all the planets known to humanity. Think of the staggering diversity of landscapes, of living creatures, of human cultures and languages, of climates, of cuisine. I yearn to experience as much of this little blue dot floating through the galaxy as I can.

So I boarded my Qatar Airways flight from Doha to Sydney with bitter-sweetness. Bitter because I was sad that this adventure was coming to an end, sweet because I count myself so incredibly fortunate to be able to have gone on said adventure.

I reflected upon the places I visited. Slovenia was a definite highlight not just of this trip but of all my trips. My fond memories of Slovenia shall be a source of joy for the rest of my life. The breathtaking other-worldly alpine scenery; the open, honest, helpful, outdoorsy people; the hearty, filling farmhouse cuisine. Top marks, Slovenia.

Yet on the plane back to Sydney I was filled with renewed gratitude to be Australian. This was unusual considering that I had previously made serious plans to move to Europe because I had felt that Australian grass wasn’t green enough.

If you travel, and only travel, to countries where the people have more civilised conditions of existence than in Australia - the green social-democratic welfare states of Northern Europe, say, or the futuristic high-tech utopias of East Asia - of course you are going to think that Australia is a bit crap. When you travel a bit more widely, an Australian would realise that in the grand scheme of things Aussies have it pretty good.

Australians are honest. Unlike in Italy a tourist can walk into the shop of a major mobile telco and be quite confident that the employees won’t try to rip them off. Restaurateurs will not sell you stale microwaved pasta and then have the nerve to whack an extortionate and unadvertised “service” charge on your bill.

Australians are largely law-abiding and our police are generally effective. Don’t get me wrong - I am no cop lover. I will not defend the human rights abuses some Australian police engage in, especially against Aboriginal folk. But the coppers have one job to do - to deter crime and keep people and property safe - and in Australia they do that job better than in some European countries like Italy. There is no way that Australian police forces would ever tolerate the teeming hordes of pickpockets, con artists, professional beggars and thieves who infest cities like Rome and Florence. Those scumbags would get their backsides kicked from here to kingdom come if they tried that stuff in an Australian city. An honourable mention also goes to Australian driving standards. They aren’t up to the standard of Northern European countries but Australian roads are far safer places to be than Italian roads.

Australians are clean. Some people say that Australian cities can be sterile. I agree. But I will take an antiseptic city over one with piles of putrescent garbage on every corner like Naples.

Australians are generally friendly and helpful. Sometimes our friendliness is just a facade, our cheerfulness often feels a bit forced, but there are few better countries to be in if you need to ask someone for directions or advice. Most customer service staff are obliging and our public servants generally treat citizens who use their services with professionalism and respect. Hungary could learn a thing or two from Australia.

The flight home from Doha was pleasant. I had good company. The guy in the seat next to me was from Bosnia, he was flying to Australia to visit family who migrated many years ago. This man was a professional boxer. He was dressed in a polyester tracksuit, the uniform of a Swedish boxing club, with a chunky silver chain dangling low down his hairy chest. He was friendly. He asked lots of questions about Australia in broken English and I asked him lots of questions about Bosnia, being mindful not to stray into the minefield of Bosnia’s ethnic animosities. He practiced his English with me and I was glad to help out.

There was only one thing - he stank like a rubbish tip. Oh goodness, I am writing this three years later and I still recall the stench perfectly. I doubt he had showered for at least a week before boarding the flight. No no no - at least an entire month. I toyed with the idea of sticking my foam ear plugs up my nostrils but I was afraid it would cause offence.

The plane passed over Colombo, Sri Lanka’s largest city, in the middle of the night. I looked down upon the city that I had visited only nine months before, my first foray into South Asia.

I got a couple of hours of that strange sleep I have on planes, that light, unsatisfying slumber where I look at my watch, close my eyes, open my eyes again and see that my watch has advanced two hours despite the absence of the feeling that I have slept. I am jealous of people who can sleep well on aircraft because I can’t.

As the plane approached Sydney from the southwest I saw it - the smoke, a thick grey blanket draped over the Blue Mountains to the north. The worst bushfires in Australia’s history had started raging in earnest while I was in Europe and they would continue to rage for months afterwards, destroying entire towns and hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of forest.

The flight attendants walked up the aisles handing out Australian landing cards that all arriving passengers must complete and hand to the Australian Border Force. The Spanish Inquisition was never quite so intrusive as the Australian landing card. The amount of detail required is astounding. No other country I have visited asks so much. Have you visited a farm recently? Are you carrying any medication? Do you have a criminal conviction? How much cash are you carrying? What address are you staying at when you arrive? Have you ever had tuberculosis? What’s your email address? What did you have for breakfast on the morning of 12 May 1998?

My smelly Bosnian friend was flummoxed. His English wasn’t very good, he couldn’t understand the form or my explanations of each question. Thankfully there was a Croatian woman in the row in front of us who helped him.

One question stumped him however - the one about what your address in Australia will be. He didn’t know. His cousin was coming to meet him at the airport and drive him to his place. He had no reason to memorise the address. All he knew is that it was somewhere in Sydney.

I tried using the on-board wi-fi to go onto Facebook to send his cousin a message. Unfortunately on-board wi-fi is not yet a very good technology. The lag was appalling and the connection kept dropping out. I offered to call his friend when we got off the plane but he didn’t have his number. I hope the officious jobsworths at the Australian Border Force gave him an easy time.

I waited forever for my baggage, par for the course at Kingsford Smith Airport, and emerged from the international terminal to catch a bus to Mascot station. As soon as I exited through the sliding doors I instantly coughed my guts up from all the bushfire smoke and desperately searched through my backpack for my asthma puffer. I would continue to cough my guts up for the next two months until the drought finally broke around Australia Day, the much wished for rains finally quenching all the fires.

I took the bus to Mascot station, a train to Central then another train home to Summer Hill - my tightarse method of travelling to the airport in reverse. I had my ceremonial beer at the local pub, a schooner of Resch’s while watching all the trains go past, and stepped across the threshold of my apartment four weeks after I went across it the other way.

Little did anyone know that a little over a month later a once-in-a-century pandemic would start, interrupting my future travel plans for nearly three years.

There would be a lot of catching up to do.

Posted by urbanreverie 08:59 Archived in Australia Tagged sydney australia qatar airways doha bushfires

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