Flags of All Nations (that I've visited in the past 12 months)
Walking West

Thursday, November 23, 2000

Stayed up until 3.40 a.m. last night reading that book. Reached page 689 out of 910. Now I'm doomed to successive late nights until I've finished it. Curse you, Stephenson, and your addictive but unbelievably long and time-consuming fictions.

I should write something about Thailand here, shouldn't I. I will soon, but until then, here's a brief post-Thailand anecdote. (And some not-so-brief reflections on same.)

When Jane and I got back to Kingsford-Smith Airport (that's Sydney to you non-Oz types) we both found ourselves drafted into the role of Phone Samaritan for hapless foreigners. I helped a French guy who was struggling with the convoluted instructions on a prepaid phone-card (the sort where you dial an access number and enter a PIN) trying to reach France. I admired his bravery in tackling the best obfuscatory efforts of a foreign-language technical writer, and felt honour-bound to help—if only to confirm that Australians do speak English, not Acronym.

Our first hurdle was that the freecall number to access the service had been crossed out with a thick permanent marker, leaving only the 1900 pay number. Which meant that we needed coins or a chip-style phone-card in order to use this PIN-style phone-card.

It then took several tries and most of my change to figure out by a process of elimination whether or not we had to enter the international access code (we didn't) and that he should be dropping the first zero from the French local area-code after the country-code. Then we got a recorded message saying that all lines were busy and to try again later. These card-companies must have a pretty limited number of lines out of the country... which kind of defeats the purpose, really.

I was left wondering if anyone could, in fact, have devised a less-useful and more-annoying introduction to a new country than this phone-card. African countries have border guards demanding bribes; Australian telcos seem to have managed to automate the process.

Meanwhile, Jane was helping a Canadian girl who was complaining that the pay-phone wasn't accepting her coins. 'What kind does it take?' the girl asked.

'The usual,' said Jane, '10s, 20s, 50s...'

'Does it take Canadian coins?'

'Uh... no...'

'How about Hong Kong ones?'

For a moment, Jane wondered if airports elsewhere were now accepting coins of every denomination, and whether Australia was lagging sadly behind in the latest airport-phone technology.

Then she realised what she was dealing with. We both got a good laugh out of it afterwards.

In this girl's defence, though, American phones could conceivably accept Canadian dimes, nickels and quarters, which are the same size as US ones. (I've never tried it myself, but it's plausible.) A Canadian on her first trip outside North America could therefore be forgiven (a little) for thinking that this was a universal feature of pay-phones. Assuming that she'd never tried to shove a Loonie or a Twonie into a phone in St Louis.

And, in fact, this girl was on the right track. Australian phones, and parking meters, and overworked check-out staff at supermarkets, do accept international coins, as long as the international country in question is New Zealand and the coin is the twenty-cent piece. Every now and then when you inspect your change in Australia you'll see a kiwi staring up at you, saying, 'Ha ha, I'm worth one-quarter less than that one with the platypus; you've been short-changed five cents.' It's the cuckoo of Antipodean currency.

Curiously, this doesn't happen with fives or tens, even though those are also the same size as their Australian counterparts. And you don't often see a Fijian 5, 10 or 20 cent piece, even though they're the same size as ours too, and lots of Aussies go to Fiji on holiday (or did, before last May).

(These coins are all the same size as the 6d, 1/- and 2/- pieces they replaced, which in turn were the same size as the old British sixpence, shilling and florin. It's a Commonwealth-countries thing. Well, a South-Pacific-Commonwealth-countries thing.)

Y'know, if I were suspicious... I'd suspect that a New Zealand crime syndicate is smuggling twenty-cent pieces into Australia in order to defraud our nation's valiant local councils of their parking-meter dues. They come in with their suitcases stuffed with 20 kg of change, and get all their parking at 25% off! The fiends! Those bloody Kiwis are staying an extra five minutes in our parking spaces at the expense of the Aussie tax-payer!

But our canny Government has obviously twigged to this sordid plan and has been secretly selling off the Australian dollar, pushing it down in value to reach parity with the Kiwi, so that our coins will be equal in value and the whole scheme will be undone. Ha-ha! Take that, Trevor!

Unfortunately, in a bold counter-attack, the NZ government has kept one step ahead of our own, and their dollar is now worth even less relative to the A$ than it was before.

Meanwhile, Australian and New Zealand travellers are finding that their twenty-cent pieces are worth precisely nothing in any other developed nation in the world, and that a 10-minute parking-space in North America costs the same as a limo back home.

Maybe our phones should be converted to take Canadian and American coins. As a revenue-raising measure.

Back to the Canadian girl: It's always a jolt to the system to encounter such naivete in a Western traveller abroad. When you've seen a few different countries yourself you start to assume that every tourist is familiar with the similarities and differences in the little things, like coins and pay-phones. After extensive travel, countries no longer seem like discrete and isolated States, but blurred-edged entities with overlapping histories and shared concerns.

Which is not to say that naivete in a traveller is a bad thing. Amusing to the locals, definitely, but bad, no: it's one of the reasons to travel. To become naive again. To place yourself in a situation where you don't know how to function, where you can't run on instinct—where you have to learn something from scratch, by yourself. Just like when you were a kid—before you went to school, when you had to learn the big, important things: how to walk; how to talk. Travel lets you recapture that feeling of climbing the steepest learning curve you've ever known, and then riding a roller-coaster carriage over it for the duration of your trip, before coasting to a stop on the flight home.

And the beauty of it is, everywhere is a different ride. The backpackers hitching through their tenth Asian country might feel superior to the first-time travellers flying interstate, but they're really just looking for the same roller-coaster rush: they just need a bigger ride, the Space Mountain instead of the local fairground, to get it. Those interstate travellers, if they're looking around them with open minds, will see patterns of similarity and difference everywhere, too.

So, yes, it's funny to see a Canadian jamming a quarter into a Telstra phone, but: I hope she remembers doing it, and savours the memory. Because that's what it's all about.


Wednesday, November 22, 2000

Just to add to the woes I mentioned yesterday, a cable was sliced near Singapore with severe consequences for users of Australian ISPs that buy capacity from Telstra. So the net runs even more slowly than it otherwise would have. (On the plus side, FreePPP has helped me finally get decent speeds out of this modem.)

Meanwhile, I'm nearly two-thirds through Neal Stephenson's opus, one of the themes of which is an attempt to set up a data haven in Southeast Asia, and the laying of underwater fibre-optic cables.

It needs a disclaimer: No Fibre-Optic Cables Were Harmed While Making This Book.


Tuesday, November 21, 2000

This is getting ridiculous.

I just wrote a post about how I hadn't been posting here much because I've been seething with frustration at the bloody dial-up link I'm using, where the dial-in server seems to think that my Apple Internal 56K v.90 modem is 33.6K, and the mismatch is causing everything to run erratically and slow. Then I noted that my net access is following a devolutionary path: a year ago I had T1 access, then in my next job I had 64K (and left just before the microwave link went in), then I got about 40K over a modem in SF, and now it's 33.6K—what next? 9600 baud?

Then I said, Anyway, life goes on, and I've been listening to U2's new album, which is okay I guess but seems to pick up where Rattle and Hum left off, making it hardly the great leap forward that was Achtung Baby. Then I said I might have to switch back to the thumping Thai pop of Big Dance (RS Promotions, 2543 B.E. (Buddhist Era)).

Then I hit 'post and publish', and Blogger ate my post. ('Where's your homework, Rory?' 'The blog ate it.')

So much for stream of consciousness.


Sunday, November 19, 2000

So, here I am in suburban Melbourne, and some of you may be thinking, 'What the...? Hello? Canberra, Madagascar, London, San Jose, San Francisco, Thailand, Melbourne... what is going on here?' Me, I'm just wondering how I can live up to a friend's comment that it'll be one hell of a Christmas letter this year. At this rate I'll have to publish it in paperback. I'm worried it'll end up Cryptonomicon-length.

(Speaking of which, I read this, this and this first, but I'm finally working my way through that mammoth tome: page 379 and counting. Thanks to Owen for the nudge.)

So here's the plan. We've come down to Melbourne so that we don't get sucked back into the Canberra vortex by default. I'll start looking for work in London, where I don't face H1-B visa hassles (my UK ancestry comes to the rescue, hurrah). At some point in the new year, Jane and I decide whether we move to London or stay here in Melbourne, either of which would be fine by us. All of this is in accordance with our Original Plan devised in May.

At the same time, I'm now planning to:

  1. turn my 'big idea' into a business plan and see if it has legs;
  2. finish some sample chapters for a travel book on Madagascar and run them past some publishers;
  3. simultaneously write some magazine articles on same;
  4. possibly develop a one-hour stand-up routine out of all of that as well;
  5. do some freelance cartooning, IT temping, web stuff, etc.;
  6. build a few new things for this site, particularly once I get my scanner back;
  7. post here now and then;
  8. Other Tasks As Required.

Does that seem like enough?

I was going to post something on Thailand here today, but I may wait until I can scan some photos to go with it.


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