Some American things

I’ve been in America for almost a month and it’s time to put down some of my first thoughts about the place, in the form of some of things that have been unexpectedly weird. Of course I expected all the things we know to expect, like guns and Walmarts and stupid people (and also highly intelligent people) and fast food and the like, but here are a few things that have surprised me.


With the amount of wars the USA fights to ensure its control of the world’s oil, you’d expect fuel here to be rather cheap. And it is: most fuel I’ve seen is around $3.50/gallon, a bit under $1/litre. That’s about 50% cheaper than in Australia and half the price of European petrol.

What I didn’t expect is for it to be of such low quality. Most pumps here in Virginia offer “standard” petrol at 87 octane, “premium” at 89 or 90″ and “super-premium” or “ultra-premium” at 92 or 93. That’s pretty much on par with what we were getting in India a few years ago, and nothing like what you’d see at the pump in Australia, East Asia or Europe.

While low prices make fuel economy less important than elsewhere in the world, low-octane petrol limits the advantages car owners could get from newer economy-conscious cars. The result is roads full of larger and older cars than most of the developed world.


In the 24 years and 360 days I’ve been alive I’ve dealt with one cheque (or check, in American). I got it as a prize at a high school speech night, lost it under a pile of clothes, found it a year later, took it to the bank and ended up paying a $40 fee for trying to cash an expired check. For everything else there’s Mastercard (and Visa, and EFTPOS, and online banking, and direct debit, and ATMs on every corner).

In the USA cheques are still very much a part of the everyday economy. Grace gets paid by cheque, people pay bills by cheque, and more than once I’ve had to wait patiently at the supermarket checkout while the person in front of me carefully writes out the full amount and signs on the dotted line. Included in the daily pile of junk mail that arrives at the front door are three or four different ads for “personalised checks”, replete with little rabbits, cats, pirate ships or whatever else you might want.

When I was looking at opening a bank account recently, Grace asked me, “I suppose in Australia you don’t have think about location when you choose your bank.” She was right: my money sits (virtually) in a Credit Union that I’m told has one branch and one ATM in the state, neither of which I’ve seen.

Trucks and Buses

This one’s kind of weird, but lots of buses in the US look like trucks. I see them as some kind of ode to the great American ideal of having anything you want trucked across the country for you on demand. Look, you can even truck humans!

You can see the might of American trucks on full display on any highway, or innerstate as they are known (the word is actually interstate, if you’re writing it). They act just like any other car, changing lanes at will, tailgating cars and driving in whichever lane they like. It’s so rare to see a truck in the slow lane that three-lane innerstates seem to function like two-lane highways with tremendously broad shoulders (it doesn’t help that there are entrances and exists every few miles, as the innerstates have to fill the gaps in local road networks).


America is meant to be anti-tax, anti-big-government, anti-all-those-kinds-of-things, right? Well, let’s see. Last year in famously high-taxing Australia I earnt around $25000, and paid less than $1500 in tax (if the Coalition is elected I would end up paying a whole lot more, as they’ll move the tax-free threshold from $18000 down to $6000, but that’s another story). An American who earns the same amount pays over $4000 in state and federal income taxes and social security payments, a huge amount of money for a low-income earner.

Tax also leads to a baffling experience at the supermarket, where nothing is as it seems. Just yesterday I paid $3.06 for a $2.99 box of spinach. Maybe someone should come up with the terribly sensible and almost universally practiced idea of including tax in the price!

Another thing that I find interesting is the way tax is talked about, which is always in a “what are we getting for it?” kind of way. There’s less agreement on the need for taxation, the need for public services and wealth redistrobution and all those other warm and fuzzy things the can provide than just about anywhere else I’ve been. It’s replaced by a sense that the government might just be ripping everyone off, and is probably going to steal our free speech while it’s at it.


Coming soon 😉

The one-quadrant election

So there’s an election campaign going on in Australia. While there are over fifty parties contesting, Australian elections are reduced in the eyes of the media and most of the electorate to a contest between the only two contestants likely to form government: Kevin Rudd’s Labor Party, which swings between centre-left and centre-right on the traditionally unrevealing two-dimensional political axis, and the Liberal/National Coalition, led by Tony Abbott, which swings between centre-a-bit-less-left and centre-a-bit-more-right.

There’s a whole reason that it happens that way, which for now we can leave at “what people are used to”, “what’s in the papers” and “where the money’s at”. While people would probably have a better chance of finding a party that represented their interests if they had more exposure to minor parties like the Greens, the High Speed Rail Party, the Pirate Party or the Sex Party, they also don’t want to waste their vote, which is exactly what a vote for a minor party in a two-horse race feels like. (Of course, preferential voting means it’s actually impossible to “waste your vote” in an Australian election, but many people don’t seem to know that, and less than 3% of us can be bothered to order the hundred-or-so candidates on the senate ballot paper). So despite the plethora of options on the table, we have two-party elections, two-party coverage, two-party polling, two-party debates, two-party campaigns and a two-party parliament, at least in the lower house.

All this should make life pretty easy. To vote, all you have to do is draw up (or think up) a little plane with four quadrants, like this (okay, wordpress isn’t helping me out, but I’m sure you know what it’s meant to look like):

Pros Cons

And then you start to fill it in. After about a minute of brainstorming and quick jotting, mine looks like this:

Pros Cons
Labor Good NBN plans
Pretty decent economic management
Incumbency and unfinished plans
Get to keep some kind of ETS
Narcissistic leader
Can leader work with his team?
Dehumanisation of asylum seekers
Coalition Really generous PPL scheme
Historically decent economic management
Too generous PPL scheme?
Crazy backward leader who wants to turn Australia into the 1950s
Rude, personal attacks on Gillard govt
Incompetent shadow cabinet
Seriously flawed environmental policy
Dehumanisation of asylum seekers
Christopher Pyne

Yours might look different, depending on where you read your news and what you think is important, yours might be in your head, on a piece of paper, spoken out loud and thought about, whatever. But you have a basic knowledge of what the options are, and what voting for each side would mean, good or bad. Then as the campaign goes on you go back to that list, real or virtual, and you think about what’s important, and what’s not, and you add to the list, circle some things, cross others off, whittle it down, get a good feeling about one side or the other, and on September 7 you go in and vote. It’s kind of like buying a fridge, or a house, or whatever newfandangled gadgets people buy these days.

Now here I belatedly get to my point: this election, no-one seems to be doing any of this. This is the plane of a guy I worked with earlier this year:

Pros Cons
Labor Pink Batts Great Big Tax Worst Government Ever Backstabbing Bitch Stimulus Spending What a Waste of Money Mining Tax Doesn’t Work NBN What a Waste of Money Great Big Tax Worst Government Ever 300 Billion Dollars of Debt Can’t Be Trusted Another Boat Every Day Corrupt Incompetent Fools Craig Thompson Eddie Obeid Julia Gillard has Questions to Answer Set Top Boxes What a Waste of Money Worst Government Ever Great Big Tax
Coalition Not Labor

Don’t worry, my Enter key wasn’t stuck, I am trying to be faithful to his verbal diarrhoea. And yes, lots of those things don’t make sense, but leave that aside for a second. But does it sound familiar? You might have heard it from Alan Jones, or the Liberal Party, or the Courier Mail, or the Daily Telegraph, or your cousin (not going to link that one), or any of Rupert Murdoch’s Papers, or Miranda Devine, or a meme on social media, or somewhere else. In fact Media Watch gave us a revealing breakdown on monday night, so if you rely on the Daily Telegraph for your news (like my colleague did, for example) I can guess that your plane looks something like this:

Pros Cons
Labor 3% 55%
Coalition 19% 4%

The thing I don’t get is how happy some people seem to be, beaming about going straight to the polls armed with their one-quadrant-full of information (to be fair, they should by now also know a little about the Coalition’s strengths, if they’ve been keeping up with their Telegraph), ready to kick out the “worst government ever” and replace it with “good Aussie Bloke” Tony. Ask almost any question to these people, and the answer will come from the goldmine that is the “cons of Labor” quadrant. They don’t need to know anything else, they don’t want to know anything else. Labor is bad, end of story.

I think this attitude is stupid. I think it’s irresponsible. I think that every Australian should sit down before they vote and think about the pros and cons of either side, and if they can’t think of any, think why the fuck not? If they can’t put one of Tony Abbott’s real solutions in any box, anywhere, because he hasn’t actually told us what it is yet, they should think why the fuck not?

And speaking of why the fuck not, high speed rail, anyone?

The last six months (part 2)

What goes around comes around, and so it happens that part two also begins in Istanbul, where Grace and I met again almost three months after the first time. This time we had a good chunk of time to ourselves – it was Grace’s summer break – and a desire to do something completely outside my comfort zone, and go to Europe.

We spent two weeks in Turkey, stuffed ourselves with bread and fresh fruit and veg and cheese and hazelnut butter and all the good things, and then crossed over into the Balkans where we proceeded to do much the same for the next month. Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzogovina, Croatia…not that they’re all the same, but when you’re condensing six months into a thousand words you need to simplify somewhere. It was fabulous travelling – affordable, hitchhikable, full of local markets and even more local spirits. Bosnia and Herzogovina is a strangely governed country (two completely separate and autonomous regions that fought a bitter war and now share an army and a national flag), Montenegro is stunning, Belgrade is grungy hip, Zagreb is home to some of our coolest friends and Bulgaria to one of the best value airbnbs in the world.

From Zagreb to Italy in a day, via a series of strange hitchhikes including a tradesman who dropped us in a crazy electric field under a massive set of power lines where our skin was buzzing and we were getting electric shocks from the grass, and a man in a very nice car and a fancy suit who challenged all our pre-conceived (or rather, informed-by-experience) notions about the generosity of people in fancy suits towards hitchhikers.

Trieste was nice, Venice was a nightmare, Florence (or more accurately the fantastic couple we couchsurfed with in their farmhouse just outside it) was probably the highlight of our trip and in Turin I got to meet up with an old and very good friend who I hadn’t seen in years. We tried but never quite mastered the art of eating apertivo – seen by some as finger food that you nibble on while having an after-work drink, by others as a valuable source of free dinner if you know what you’re doing.

Next to France, where we met up with my parents and brother and joined them for a two-week jaunt that crossed the Tour de France at no less than four places. In Annecy we saw  l’Etape du Tour, on Mont Ventoux we stayed opposite the Va Va Froome wagon (in fact this photo is taken from exactly where we were camped, and the cat on the road was a birthday gift from Grace to her dad!) at Alpe d’Huez we watched the switchbacks from a precarious perch halfway up a chairlift tower, while at Gap we discovered that starts make for terrible viewing.

In Paris we watched the final few laps on the Champs Elysees, went to Musee d’Orsay, drunk sparkling rosé at Parc des Buttes Chaumont and made great use of the Velib system, certainly the best of its kind that I have seen.

Our last day of travel was perhaps our finest, from Paris to London with a bagged-up road bike in tow. We started by buying a “mini-group ticket” on the TGV to Calais – three tickets for half the price of two. At Calais we changed trains to get a bit closer to the port, from the next station shared a cab to the terminal and then sat there for an hour, caught between indecisive and stuck.

By some completely bizarre method of ticket pricing that makes me wonder whether Joe Hockey works for P&O, tickets on the Calais-Dover ferry cost around €30 per vehicle, or the same amount per individual foot passenger. So we were looking at paying €60 between us until I worked up the courage to confront an old German couple, who didn’t speak much English and didn’t have too much of a clue what they were doing, and ask if they’d take us across the border in the back of their campervan. Which they duly did.

So far so good, but they dropped the two of us, our backpacks and my increasingly heavy bike by the side of a random intersection outside a town called Folkstone. I’m going to find it on Google Maps so we can see how remote it is: this is it.

We spent about an hour and a half by the side of this roundabout, and time passed fairly quickly (by roadside hitchhiking standards) once we realised that the button on the nearby traffic light made the lights change immediately, allowing us to stop cars at will, ask for lifts to London and get told to fuck off in return (these Folkstone folk were the least friendly of our entire European adventure).

Eventually we asked someone for a better idea, and they directed us to another roundabout a mile or two down the road, I balanced the bicycle on my head and off we went. Half an hour’s walk, an hour more waiting at the next intersection, a fruitless walk around a local carpark trying to find an untethered trolley for the bike, until it started to rain and, by the luckiest stroke of luck ever, a spacious VW van answered the one last helpless thumb of the hapless backpacker with the bike on his head. Many thanks to Paul, even though he did spend the hour-long ride to Mottingham Station telling us about the foreigners that are taking his son’s jobs, forcing his son to sit at home smoking pot and drinking alcohol all day long.

Mottingham Station was only an hour and a bit by tube from Putney, where my uncle and aunt and their lovely family live, and Putney was only a 5 minute bus and one final 10 minute bike-on-head walk away from home, and we were HOME HOME HOME, and that was the end of the holiday! All up the journey had taken about ten hours and cost us about €35 each – pretty much the same as the bus but arguably more fun, and in any case our only option as the buses don’t carry bicycles. Wine was especially delicious that night.

We spent a few days in London doing Londoney things before we had one final victory -$1000 each in United vouchers thanks to the EU’s generous airline compensation policies – and one final loss – my bike wheel was destroyed at the ever-so-gentle hands of the baggage handlers.

And now we’re in Richmond, Virginia, and I’ll write more about that some other time.

The last six months (part 1)

This post is going to provide a simple answer to the question, “Where have you been these last few months?” It’s probably a good place to start.

I left my job at UTS on 20 Feb, and on 22 Feb flew to Malaysia. I had a really amazing few nights staying with a couchsurfer in KL, Audrey, and hanging out with her awesome friends and awesome dogs. On 25 Feb I flew from Malaysia to Istanbul, where I met Grace.

Grace is going to be a recurring theme on this blog. I met Grace in Singapore in 2010, when we were studying together at NUS. We were good friends then, but had been in only distant and sporadic contact until late last year, when I was single, Grace was tipsy (actually, now that I think about it, I’m not sure about that), I was bored at work, one gchat conversation led to another and before long we decided to meet in Istanbul.

So we met in Istanbul. It was perfectly romantic, we kissed at the airport, ran for the ferry, caught the ferry, shivered together on the top deck, bought some cheese and olives and cherries and yoghurt and realised that we got on pretty well. When it got too cold we went to Antalya, walked around some Roman ruins and ate fish. Grace flew back to America (she is American) and I flew to India.

When I got to India I discovered that all my valuables had been stolen (more on that here). I spent some time in Delhi, some time in the mountains and then I went to Pakistan.

Pakistan was really amazing, I generally felt less threatened there than I do in India, though I did have a strange feeling that was something like a bigger, more hefty, more profound but at the same time less in-your-face fear than the fear of being robbed or swindled that one tends to carry around India. Anyway it was very interesting, I met some very amazing people who introduced me to more very amazing people, I studied Urdu with a famous Urdu teacher and saw most of the sights of Lahore. While I never felt unsafe, it did feel like a weight off my shoulders when I left.

When I got back to India I immediately found myself in a large slanging match with the autorickshaws waiting on the Indian side of the fence. Then another one when I arrived in Amritsar, when I tried to get around Amritsar, when I tried to leave Amritsar. To everyone who hassled me I told glorious stories of Pakistan, where in three and a half weeks no rickshaw driver had taken so much as a second glance.

I went back to Delhi, got sick as I always do in Delhi, spent my first Indian Holi in bed with a fever and then, not for the first time but hopefully for the last, went overland to Nepal.

A good day and a bit later I arrived in Tansen, where I wanted to reconnect with Manmohan Shrestha, a very interesting old guy who runs a nonprofit tourist information office called Getup Palpa as well as a small and informal family guesthouse. After a bit of prodding he remembered me and we sat up late at night, drinking beers on the rooftop and talking about the terribly incomprehensible world of western relationships. The next day the picture was further complicated by the arrival of a Swiss man who ran a guesthouse in Rishikesh and had over a hundred girlfriends, having worked out early in his life that “marriage puts two people together to solve problems that they wouldn’t have had on their own.”

From Tansen to Pokhara to Kathmandu (oh, how cliché), where I rented a bike and rode out to Palubari to meet the KC family, who are also my second family. I have stayed with them for a few months over the last few years, living the simple life at their house about 25km, or two hours by bus, from Kathmandu. We didn’t have too much time together but we enjoyed what we did have, and after meeting and staying with a couple of other friends in Kathmandu I flew to Dubai, and then to….

I’m going to continue this in part two!

Here we go again!

Hi everyone.

Every now and then I make a blog, and write in it for a while, and a few people read it, and then at some point I stop, and then at some point my hosting runs out and I lose it.

Well, it’s time to do that again. So here’s another blog, which I’m hoping might not die so soon, for the following reasons:

  • It’s at, which is a domain name I probably want to hang onto for a while (though I pay for it and my hosting in USD so it gets a little more expensive by the day)
  • I am living overseas, so it is not a bad way to keep in touch
  • I am not putting any pressure on myself to blog with any particular level of quality, quantity or intelligence
  • I have become a fan of people who have a personal blog that they just update whenever they feel like it, because they can, and it’s there

So let’s see what happens.

Oh, by the way, thanks to the select group of special (bored?) people who tell me every time I see them that they liked my blogs and read them and could I please make another one so they can see what I’m doing. I guess this one’s for you.