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The Australian Shame On You Tree

ULLADULLA, Australia- I went to a look out over a bay. Someone told me that I could see whale parts sticking out from the water from here. It was beautiful … and all that. But I didn’t see any whale parts. What I did see though was a permanently placed metal sign notifying the public that at some prior date, an extended amount of time ago, someone had vandalized a tree at that spot.

It took no imagination to conjure up what the crime looked like, as the assaulted tree was left in place right next to the sign.

It was a mid-size tree that someone sawed some of the branches off of.

If I had to guess at a motive, I would say that they more than likely wanted a better view to see whale parts sticking up out of the bay so they removed a few branches from the tree — which was kind of planted right in the way.

As I looked back and forth from the sign to the tree I was absolutely astonished. The weathering on the metal sign and the aging of the wounded tree led me to believe that this had happened a long time ago — like, five to ten years ago.

This wasn’t a notification to alert the public of a recent crime, but a permanent public shaming campaign. It was so everybody who ever visited this spot could share in the good people of Australia’s antagonism for whoever it was that would commit such a heinous act.

It seems to me — an American — that the problem could have been better solved just by planting a new fucking tree. Or by removing trees from that spot completely because it was made obvious that at least a portion of the population doesn’t want them there.

By putting up permanently affixed sign and leaving a hacked up tree in-situ they essentially created more of a public eyesore than the original act of vandalism ever could. It’s the equivalent of someone scrawling into an ancient monument or natural rock face the words, “Asshole was here,” and then the government erecting a giant blinking sign pointing to it.

Who wants to see that?

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To Kioloa: I Almost Ran Over A Kangaroo

KIOLOA, Australia- I almost ran over a kangaroo. A group of the bastards hopped out in front of me as I was driving down the South Coast of New South Wales.

I guess that’s how you know you’re in Australia.

We rented a car for eight days for like $170 and headed south from Sydney. We ended up in a $40 per night cabin in a place called Kioloa. It’s basically a trailer park flung out on a beautiful beach for people retreating from the world.

Herds of kangaroos flow through the place. They get so close that I’m told that you can walk up and pat them. There was a giant monitor lizard sunning himself out in the open when we arrived — “We know where he is because wherever he goes the birds go crazy,” the lady at reception told me. There is a tree by the pool that has an opossum living in it. There are birds that look as if they escaped from a zoo or exotic pet shop. There are people who are just hanging out, fishing, enjoying the beach — although it’s winter here and is not warm enough to really swim.

I don’t really have internet access in Kioloa. No WIFi, no mobile data. Two days with no internet. I have no idea when the last time I experienced this was. I feel like I’m floating on a raft out at sea. It feels oddly good. There are no emails to weed through, no chatting app messages to respond to, nothing to upload, nothing to check. There is nothing to do but hang out with my family and write.

My wife really likes this place. This means something, as she hardly likes anywhere. While I’ve grown used to seeing her look out on places with grimaces of scorn and disgust, here it’s something completely different: she’s all smiles and shrieks of joy. She likes the kangaroos; she likes the wide open, sparkling, primitive beaches; she likes the people, who smile and laugh when they talk with her. She walks around here confident, not insecure or on guard to defend her self-respect as she often is in Asia. She’s relaxed. Australia has not let her down.

I unexpectedly found myself having a vacation.

We have two modes of family travel:

A) Lifestyle travel, where we stay in a place for a month+ and basically live a normal life. I travel around and do my work, and my wife and the kids do their daily routine.

B) Vacation travel, where we travel for fun — like on a vacation.

My wife and kids put up with a lot of shit that results from my work travels. Either I’m gone all the time or they’re being Shanghaied into going to these remote, often unappealing nowheres. So once a year we take a real vacation.

I’m not sure how it happened. The plan was to spend a month each in an array of countries across Asia where I could do my work. It was supposed to be a bout of strict lifestyle travel. But then I did a couple of stories about AirAsia and inadvertently saw on their homepage a promotional fare from Taipei to Sydney for $170 …

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Sydney McDonald’s Rude Awakening

SYDNEY, Australia- I woke up in Sydney this morning and made my way to the McDonald’s down the street. I looked out at the translucent blue waves rolling up against Bondi Beach and thought about how nice it was going to be to sit over there sipping my morning coffee.

And then…

$5.

What?

$5

“I just want the normal, cheap McDonald’s coffee. Not your expensive McCafe shit.”

But I couldn’t get the normal, cheap McDonald’s drip coffee that has been served to coffee drinkers all over the world for generations because, here, it no longer exists. It’s either expensive McCafe shit or nothing.

I chose nothing.

Apparently, when McDonald’s noticed that nobody was going to their idiotic little McCafe booths — what moron is going to go to McDonald’s to get an overpriced cup of coffee when they could go to a real cafe for the same price? — they started depreciating their normal, cheap coffee in an attempt to force the customer into buying the more expensive alternative, essentially rolling the McCafe into the normal food ordering area.

Fuck that. I’m not going to spend US$4 for a cup of coffee — especially a McDonald’s coffee.

This makes me oddly sad; not because I didn’t get my coffee but because McDonald’s cheap drip coffee was like a global institution. The stuff really isn’t bad — actually, I like it better than Starbucks — and there is multiple generations of people who go to McDonald’s each morning just to get drink it. McDonald’s is the cafe of the working class, not the cafe of the cafe class.

I believe I’ve made this prediction before, but by 2027 McDonald’s effectively won’t exist. They don’t know who they are anymore.

Someday I will tell my young daughter:

“There used to be this place called McDonald’s that was everywhere all over the world that served these things called egg mcmuffins and had cheap $1 coffee that everybody drank every morning.”

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Staying In Bondi Beach, Sydney

SYDNEY, Australia- Australians really surf. For some reason, I thought this was some kind of stereotype. Like Chinese people eating dogs or German service employees being rude. I knew that maybe some people would be surfing, and that it was an activity that a portion of the population enjoys, but the view from my travels down the east coast so far, it seems as if surfing is something akin to riding a bike everywhere else: everybody seems to be doing it. There are surf boards in doorways, on the tops of cars, and I have like a 100% affirmation rate when asking people if they surf.

Australians really surf, Chinese people really eat dogs, and German service employees really do have a higher prevalence rate for being rude. But of course you can never notice any of this because stereotypes are not true.

My first glimpse of this surfing inclination came in the Bondi Beach area of Sydney. This probably isn’t a fair analysis, as this is one of the main surf beaches of the city. But what really struck me as something interesting, was that Australians don’t just go out, float around in the waves, stand on their boards for a second and then fall down, like everybody else in the world, but they can actually surf — like, they really stand on their boards on top of a wave and ride it. They can even do that fish tail-y move and ride down inside the wave with the water going over the top of them. Really, they can actually do it.

This seems strange to say, but I’ve been on surf beaches all over the world for years and I never seen someone actually do it before. On Bondi Beach I got that strange feeling that you get when you see something AFK that you only previously only ever saw in the movies. You don’t really believe it even though you’re looking right at it.

I don’t surf, and, honestly, I have zero interest in doing it. Seems boring to float around in the water for 15 minutes just to try to do something cool for 10 seconds at most. I’d rather just walk around … doing anything else.

Bondi Beach was a good introduction to Australia. The place was, to put it basely, nice. There’s this nice strip of shops that flank the beach. The beach itself is grade-A. The sunrises:

The only damper on my time there was the fact that our AirB&B host didn’t give us all the keys for the locks on the door and we locked ourselves out. He was out of town, and, apparently, the key to the door knob lock doesn’t exist. He didn’t bother giving us a warning. We had to call a locksmith. It cost $130. He said he would pay for it but hasn’t done so yet. What he can’t pay back is the entire half a day of travel that I wasted dealing with this bullshit.

When AirB&B works, it’s incredible; when it doesn’t, it can ruin an entire visit somewhere. It’s really the landmine of travel. Every once in a while you’re going to step on one and it’s going to blow up your entire fucking day.

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First Impressions Of Australia

SYDNEY, Australia- I noticed that people are saying thank you to the driver as they exit the bus. They’re all doing it — they’re all thanking this guy who’s providing an essential, though menial, public service. What the fuck? Nobody thanks bus drivers. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen this in 18 years of travel through 81 or so countries.

When I got off the bus the driver actually beat me to it. He looked at me, smiled, and said thank you for riding. In a world where bus drivers in places like Santiago, Chile are permitted to run over two pedestrians per year and still keep their jobs, I was startled that the guy even looked at me.

A friendly city bus driver … where the fuck am I?

***
A couple days ago was my daughter Petra’s eight birthday. We stopped at a 7/11 and I told her that she could pick out a snack. She had difficulty deciding, so I went outside for a moment. When I returned to the store she had befriended the lady working there. I told her that it was Petra’s birthday, and she went right over and poured her a birthday smoothy.

People just do things like this here.

***
I’ve only been in the country for a few days, but I’m taken aback by the fact that these Australians just seem … well, nice. They act as you imagine people should act. It’s like they received that lesson on the golden rule — about how you should treat others how you want to be treated and all that bullshit that children are taught everywhere in the world — but they actually seem to live by it.

People say please and thank you here, they are polite and eager conversationalist, I haven’t met anyone yet who seemed to busy to chat, and they’re all into saving the environment, exercise, nutrition, tree hugging, and that kind of stuff that most societies quickly tire of on a mass level … Walking through the east of Sydney was like viewing a promotional video of how the human species idealistically envisions itself being.

I’m sure there are Australian assholes out there somewhere, but they seem to be diluted in a happy sea of not-assholes.

Like the Dutch, I have no idea why Australians would travel outside their own country. Their country is a continent — literally. It has just about everything — except winter, excessive poverty … real problems. On the radio in Sydney I heard a nationally broadcasted report about how one guy shot another guy in the leg in Melbourne, over a thousand kilometers away. Meanwhile, someone getting their brains blown out in Chicago isn’t news outside the city limits. From my two-day-old perspective, the place that Australians come from seems ideal, and it seems dumb for them to leave it.

Do they travel just to reassure themselves that the rest of the world is far shittier than their home?

Yup, checked it, mate, the rest of the world still sucks more than we do. Let’s go home. 

I have an excuse for my excessive travels. I grew up in the countryside near a somewhat remote, rather poor village — a place that sucks. I wrote about my hometown one time and one time only on this blog, and a commenter slapped on the climatic one liner: “Now I see why you travel.”

But for the Australians, I have no idea (yet) why they would want to go abroad. The only glimmers of sucky-ness I can see so far is the fact that they the place seems to be overtly lawed-to-death. They seem to have an excessive amount of petty laws that govern the minute aspects of life.

From meeting Australians on the road you would think that they came from a legally laid back, freedom loving, personal liberty bolstering kind of country. They don’t. This place is packed with laws.

I had the most difficult time finding a beer here in Australia since I was in Morocco in 2007. While you see all of these bald, tattooed Australians drinking beer by the gallon throughout Southeast Asia, in their own country alcohol is relatively highly regulated. As far as booze is concerned, the place may as well be Muslim. Countless times I went into a restaurant, a cafe, or a convenient store and asked for beer only to be given some drawn out excuse about how they can’t get a license to sell it, and how I would have to go to some obscure location entire blocks or even miles away just to get a drink.

(There are bars here, but I’m not willing to drop an entire paycheck on a few cans of beer.)

Probably the most glaring example of this petty governmental nannying I’ve found yet was in Kioloa. The place is basically a sprawling trailer park for people on holiday. There is one little convenient store that everybody goes to. But if you go in there and ask for beer the owner will tell you that he can’t get a license to sell it because there is a liquor store the next town over — six kilometers away.

“We are too close to them,” he says.

No joke.

“People want to get beer here and they don’t want to drive, but we can’t sell it to them. I really wish I could, but I can’t.”

These are the kinds of laws that don’t really inhibit or shape behavior, they merely piss everybody off. They are laws that say, “We’re going to try to make you act how the government wants you to act by intentionally making it more of a hassle for you to live how you want to live. We’re not going to restrict you; we’re simply going to inconvenience you into submission.”

It’s like those urban designers who think it’s a high and moral thing to try to force people into taking public transportation by intentionally making it expensive and inconvenient to drive in cities. People still drive and Australians still drink — albeit with a slightly more pissed off disposition.

In Asia, I can go into a quicky mart, grab a can of beer for a buck, step out into the street, crack it open, and drink it as though I have my freewill intact. These Asian countries are often referred to as authoritarian states.

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I never really bothered to go to Australia before.

Continent number six just had to wait until I had a good enough reason to boot the cost of the flight to get there.

I cover emerging markets in Asia. That’s my stomping ground — not upper-middle income, over-developed, ex-British colonies.

Then I ran into Tony Fernandes in South Korea. I did a couple of stories about AirAsia and how their model is driving urbanization in Asia — during the course of which I took a look at their website. On their homepage is where I saw a list of their promotional fares — including one from Taipei to Sydney for $170.

I jumped on it.

***
“There’s nothing down there.”

-Me to myself upon my first glimpse of Australia from the plane

Two lights.

Over the entire expanse that so could see from the vantage point of the airplane flying over Australian at night, only two lights on the ground were visible.

It was like this for hours.

It’s funny to think that most of the world is made up of empty spaces just like this.

Then, suddenly, Sydney rises in the distance like an island of light in a sea of black.

***
My daughter Petra has no clue where she’s going. I’m looking over at her right now laughing. We told her that we were going to Kaohsiung in Taiwan and that we had to take some strange flight path that went through Malaysia because of mountains, or something like that. I didn’t believe that my wife and I could pull it off, but as we go into our final descent, the deception is still on.

Australia is a surprise for her birthday. Petra’s always said how much she wants to go to Australia. When we’d ask her where she wants to go next, she’d always respond with one word: Australia.

She never thought we’d actually go there.

***
It took me 18 years of travel, 80 countries, and 5 continents before I finally made it to Australia. I walk out of the airport and look around. Seems pretty nice. I wonder what took me so long.

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VLOG_025 is about shopping for a camera in Taipei. I needed a camera that could take both good still images and video, and I went for a Sony a6000. This is a mirrorless camera that is FAST. I’m a journalist; I have a need for speed when it comes to my cameras. There are no second takes — if I miss the shot, it’s gone.

But, ultimately, this shopping trip derived from the folly of trying to use an iPhone as my main still camera. It’s possible, but the value of what I can produce with it is severely limited.

I explain a little of my financial strategy in this video. Basically, I must publish in many different formats on many different platforms in order to make enough money to keep traveling. I call it monetizing the experience, and this is a strategy that I’ve been working on, adapting, and improving for the past 15 years.

Core to this strategy, is using high quality cameras. The more your cameras can do for you the more you stand to profit from them. Cameras are not toys: they are investments. They are a calculated expense that’s based on how much I believe I can make from them. With better quality still images and two standard cameras (a Canon camcorder and the Sony mirrorless) that can shoot from multiple angles concurrently, the quality of the package that I can produce has the potential to rise dramatically. This should, ideally, increase its value.

Also, pragmatically, carrying the smaller, mirrorless camera slung over my shoulder at all times gives me additional versatility and the ability to get shots that I otherwise couldn’t from the larger and more resource intensive camcorder.

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia- I sometimes meet refugees in airports. Real ones, like Hasan, who spent nearly a year trapped in the interzone of Moscow Sheremetyevo. I have to admit, these refugees are sometimes a little hard to spot in airports in the early morning hours, as they often look like everybody else.

***
I find it amusingly onerous when the designers of social spaces, technologies, urban areas … create things along the lines of how they want people to use them or behave rather than how they really do.

Airports are often some of the worst offenders. They are often designed with idealistic visions of how the relevant authorities and designers envision passengers using the space — walking rapidly through the check in, security, and right up to their gate and getting on their flight with a smile on their face — rather than what actually happens, when the stark confluence between idealism and reality crash head on.

Social engineering tends to have an amusing way of backfiring.

It’s a fact: passengers often find themselves stuck in airports overnight.

It’s a fact: people get tired at night.

It’s a fact: people are going to sleep in airports.

But rather than acknowledging these facts and setting up facilities to meet real life user demands and giving people comfortable and respectable places to sleep, airports often do the opposite: purposely create mechanisms which make it as difficult and uncomfortable as possible to sleep.

Clearly, it doesn’t work:

So rather than providing smooth, soft benches, they install seating that’s made of hard plastic that has deep inverted butt divots and metal arm rests. Rather than having a few open areas with soft flooring everything is hard tiled and open areas are blocked off, packed with some moron’s sculptures, plants, or advertisements. Rather than have massive overnight layover lounges, they just ignore the fact that people are sprawled out all over the floor.

Passengers — many of whom paid a relatively large amount of money for the privilege of flying — are thus reduced to eyesores as they contort themselves around furniture purposefully designed to be uncomfortable and stretch out over footpaths, getting in everybody else’s way. These are generally not the type of people who are prone to laying around on the floor of public spaces, but, in the sphere of air travel, all self-respect is usurped by biological necessity.

Why has this become normal?

The airport in Kuala Lumpur could be really nice. But at 2AM the hallways are full of passed out air travelers. Grown men and women are huddled up in corners and under staircases, rendering a state of the art transport hub into a temporary Skid Row. They are cumbersome to step around. They look miserable.

I took my kids to the play area in the airport, but they couldn’t use  any of the stuff set up for them there, as there were people sleeping all over it. I couldn’t blame them though — the plastic children’s play apparatuses seemed to be the most comfortable looking things to lay on.

Well, at least they haven’t started charging people to sleep on the floor in accordance with their weight … yet.

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In Taipei Papa Whale

TAIPEI- Taipei seems as if it’s becoming a place that I will start passing through regularly. It’s a grade-A air hub for regional Asia travel and the place is real comfortable. It’s the China that my wife likes.

It has to be stated:

The people of Taiwan, while mostly Chinese, behave completely differently than the PRCs. The culture feels completely different. People stand in line, in the cities they don’t scream when they talk, they don’t grab my kids and demand that they take photos with them. They treat people with … respectful distance. While I enjoy the raw social nature of the PRC, I find the difference in Taiwan fascinatingly stark. One culture, two trajectories, obvious impact. “China Light” is how a much-traveled friend recently put it.

The first time I rode through Taipei I mistook it to be a sort of butt town. For some reason, I just figured Taipei would be more advanced in several core urban categories than what it is. Compared with the big cities of the PRC, the place is at least a decade behind. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing … just a surprising thing.

We stayed at the Papa Whale hotel. It was kind of a surprise for my daughter Petra, who admired the giant, city-block-long whale that was painted down the side the last time we were in Taipei. The place is part of this emerging trend of hipster hotels that are popping up all over the world. Kind of like M Hotel in Europe. Papa Whale has the style of a 70s porno flick rolled up within an overarching nautical theme. It’s kind of sex-hotel-y, kind of disco-y, kind of seafarer-y. There are mirrors on the ceiling of the rooms, see through glass bathroom walls, and whales. 100% hip.

However, there are cheap rooms in the basement that are the same price as the local holes next door. We stayed in the basement.

Mirrors on the ceiling of the rooms.

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VLOG_024: In Search Of Wind Lions

VLOG_024 is about traveling around Kinmen Island in search of wind lions.

It’s a little family heavy, but think of this as a goodbye from my wife and kids as they exit this vlog. Unless relevant to the broader story about a place, topic of focus, or event, they will no longer be appearing here. This is for a variety of reasons.

I put this video together mostly for myself — it was a real fun day with my family.

The next videos that will appear on this vlog will be in the vein of what they were from 2007 until a few months ago … only slightly better shot and edited.

That said, if there is ever anything that you would be interested in finding out more about in the countries that I’m traveling through, just let me know and I will include it in a future vlog.

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