Bob Djurdjevic Columns, April 1997
Sleepless in Perth
PERTH, Western Australia, Apr. 4 - A young lady wearing an elegant black business suit waited for the elevator at a downtown Perth hotel. Holding a briefcase, she looked as if she has just stepped out of her office.
"Working late?" I asked, looking at my watch and noting it was 10:30 p.m.
"No, not really," she replied.
"Well, you look as if you've just stepped out of your office."
She smiled. "You're obviously not from around here, " she added, alluding to my American accent.
"No. And you? Are you from Perth?"
"You're from Perth and your staying at a Perth hotel?" I asked. "Are attending a convention or something?"
The lady smiled again, this time somewhat nervously. "I am visiting a friend." She paused and then added, "have you read today's paper?"
"You mean the 'West Australian?'"
"No, I have not. But I did see a big headline; something about a serial killer on the prowl."
"He has just killed for the third time."
"And I suppose all victims were women?"
She nodded affirmatively, looking apprehensive.
"Sounds like the U.S.," I said. "And here I was told that Western Australia was a peaceful and friendly place."
"Well, generally it is. I am sure the police will catch him soon."
At that moment, the elevator arrived. We got in.
"In the meantime, I am scared to go home alone," the lady continued. "So I am visiting a friend here who has agreed to baby sit me."
I smiled as I looked at this 28-and-something woman who felt she needed a baby-sitter. Calling such a person a baby-sitter rather than a bodyguard probably sounded less intimidating, most of all to her. "Yes, I hope they catch the killer fast," I said sympathetically, as I wished the young lady good night.
"Western civilization and the big city crime scenes - two peas in a pod. They are the same the world over," I thought as I walked toward my room. "Even in Moscow, now that we've polluted that eastern culture with our western ideas." I recalled a story by an American business executive whose company had even placed security guards in the two adjoining rooms of his (luxury) Moscow hotel. The man was so worried when he heard that, he could hardly sleep all night.
That's when my mind automatically started to wonder to the serene Australian countryside where I had just spent the last two days. What a contrast to the urban jungle of big cities. Beautiful sunsets; pastoral fields, panoramic ocean scenery... My only company in the evening were several dozen kangaroos. They were more curious about who this intruder was than were afraid of me.
"Oh well, back to the jungle tomorrow," I thought, contemplating my return flight to the U.S.
It was a small consolation, I suppose, when I recalled that not all countryside is serene, either. There are real jungles after all, even in Australia. I was reminded of that at a restaurant this evening with a couple of friends, who suggested I may try crocodile meat for the main course.
"Crocodile meat?" I said, evidently showing contempt if not horror.
"It's actually quite good," my friend replied with a smile. "People say it tastes like chicken."
"Probably because the damn thing eats the chickens," I thought, but did not say anything. "People say?" I said out loud. "In other words, you haven't tasted it, either?"
My friend just chucked sheepishly.
"I think I'll leave the croc meat for 'Crocodile Dundee'," I said and ordered (real) chicken. As the waitress brought it later on, I must admit though checking for some small bones to make sure it was real chicken.
And even if it were a piece of croc, I reasoned, at least I wouldn't have eaten the Australian national symbol, as I had a chance to a few years ago in Canberra. "We are the only country in the world which eats its national symbol," another Australian friend explained to me when I showed surprise at seeing kangaroo meat on the menu in the Australian capital.
"Yuck!" I replied thinking of how cute kangaroos are. "Poor Joey's."
I began to wonder if, whoever picked an eagle for our national symbol, did it perhaps as a conservation gesture? For, who would want to eat an eagle, after all?
On the other hand, "KFE" or "Eagle McNuggets," anyone? Good night. It will be a long flight home tomorrow.
It's a Small World
PERTH, Western Australia, Apr. 5 - On the last leg of my 33-hour trip (Perth-Singapore-Hong Kong-San Francisco-Phoenix), I was chatting with a stewardess (oops... a "flight attendant;" we must be "PC," mustn't we? [smiley face]), just trying to stay awake. We were talking about PanAm, a defunct airline for which she used to work, which is now rising from the dead under a new ownership. A man waiting to use the washroom overheard us and dropped in a few words on the subject, too.
"You're an Aussie, aren't you?" I asked, recognizing the "Down Under" accent.
"What else?" he replied.
"Where are you from in Australia?"
"You're kidding!?" I said, showing obvious astonishment.
"No, I'm not. Why would I? What's wrong with Perth?"
"Nothing's wrong with Perth. It's just that I am right now flying home from there."
"Oh, yeah? Right from Perth?," it was now his turn to sound incredulous.
I nodded affirmatively.
"It's a small world, isn't it?," I said, turning to the flight attendant who had already heard where I was coming from. She and I both laughed, as did my new Aussie friend. It turns out, he works as a sales rep in Perth for a company which is based in Wisconsin.
"This is it," he said, proudly pointing to a name on the T-shirt he was wearing.
We chatted for a bit about Dunsborough (my new Perth friend had NOT heard of it before!!) and the many kangaroos I saw there.
"They can be quite a nuisance," he said. "They can make a mess of your car."
Having heard the same line umpteen times from my various Aussie friends and acquaintances, and (uncharacteristically) having always held back my tongue, I finally decided to speak up about it. After all, I was merely trying to stay awake
Turning again to the stewardess, I asked her: "Ever heard of 'roo guards'?"
"Roo guards?" she repeated, shaking her head.
"Yes, 'roo guards."
"No I have not. What's that?"
Meanwhile, out of the corner of my eye, I caught my new Australian friend snickering.
"'Roo guards' are the metal contraptions which the Australians attach to the front bumpers of their cars to protect the automobiles from the kangaroos, if they were to hit one," I explained.
The stewardess looked stunned. "Really?" is all she could muster.
"Yes," I said and posed to let the cruelty sink in. "And all I ever hear Australians complain about is a mess which a kangaroo can make of their cars," I continued.
I've noticed that my Aussie friend had stopped snickering. "And what about the mess which a car makes to the poor animal?" I asked, turning now to my new Aussie friend, and staring him straight in the face.
"Yeah, what about it?" the stewardess joined in, in mocked or real anger.
My T-shirted Aussie friend just grinned sheepishly. Bet he was thinking: "These Yanks they just don't get it, do they?"
Not wanting to make him more uncomfortable than he already was, I switched the conversation to Australian beer. Next to Australian-rules football, that's the best way of making friends Down Under.
"Do you have some Foster's for our Down Under friend?" I asked the stewardess, even though I knew what the answer was going to be.
"Yeah. It's Australian for beer, mate," I said, repeating the Foster's commercial line.
"Actually, nobody in Australia drinks Foster's anymore," our Aussie friend opined.
"Oh, no?" I goaded him a bit. "I saw Foster's beer even in Belgrade, Serbia. So what do "real" Australians drink?" (I stressed the word "real'").
As it turned out, our friend was a big fan of "VB."
"VB?", I pretended I didn't know that it stood for Victoria Bitter (Victoria is a state in Australia, by the way, not its queen [of beer - smiley face]). "That sounds dangerous," I joked, alluding to "VD."
"Would you like an American beer?" the stewardess asked our friend.
He shuffled his feet uncomfortably as we were standing in the first class section, and he was traveling coach (where you have to pay for your drinks).
"Take it," I encouraged him. "She won't charge you anything, will she?" I said, smiling at the stewardess.
"Of course, not," she got the hint. "It's on the house."
"Okay, then," our new friend relented. "But I'd rather have a scotch."
"No problem," the stewardess replied. She poured him a scotch.
* * *
As I went back to my seat, the gentleman next to me said: "So I hear you're just coming back from Perth?"
"I go to Perth quite often myself."
"You do? For what reason? Business or pleasure?"
"I work for a Perth company which sells (some industrial products whose name I'd forgotten) in the U.S."
"What a small world!" I exclaimed (again).
"And I am going back there next month," he added.
Unlike the Aussie who liked VB but ordered a scotch, this American from Phoenix had heard of Dunsborough. "It's a beautiful place," he said of the little town some three hours (by car) south of Perth.
"It's Arizona with an ocean," I seconded.
And just think, all these conversations about Perth and Dunsborough were taking place at about midnight on a Saturday night, in a mostly empty 737 jet (i.e. a small airplane), on a sleepy San Francisco-Phoenix shuttle. The odds of having a blizzard in Perth would be better. "God sure has His ways of amazing me all the time," I thought.
(Speaking of the blizzard, on my Singapore-Perth flight, the captain announced that, over the past weekend, Perth did experience a "blizzard," as he put it. Guess that must be a Chinese translation of the English word "thunderstorm," or something... [smiley face]).
When my 30-something next door neighbor on the sleepy Saturday night San Francisco flight boarded the plane, I noticed him walking with the crutches. He evidently felt the need to explain why.
"I broke my left leg and nine ribs in the Philippines on New Year's Eve," he said.
"You broke your leg and nine ribs?" I repeated. "Was it a car accident?"
"No. It was a 'riksha' accident."
"A 'riksha' accident?" I repeated, once again sounding incredulous. "What happened did you hire a Rolls-Royce-powered 'riksha'?"
He smiled. Meekly. "No. It's just that the driver lost control. And we hit a tree."
"You hit a tree?"
"No. The 'riksha' hit a tree."
"And you broke a leg and nine ribs when a 'riksha' hit a tree?"
"And what happened to the driver? Was he killed?"
"No. He was not hurt."
I raised by eyebrows.
"We also had some girls on board," my friend added after some hesitation, as if trying to justify the extra gravity with which the 'riksha' had crashed into a tree.
"Were they big?" I wondered, but refrained from saying anything. "Were they hurt?" I did ask.
"So it was a freak accident," I concluded. "The 'riksha' driver and several girls walk away from it, and you break your left leg along with nine ribs?"
"That's it. All I remember is waking up in the hospital with my left thigh bone sticking out like this," he said, making a grotesque gesture.
"Yuck!" I thought, but didn't say anything.
"Ladies and gentlemen We are on our final approach to the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Would you please ensure that your seat belts are fastened, and your chairs are in the upright position ."
The routing airline announcement was a welcome relief from the picture of the gruesome Philippines 'riksha' accident which was forming in my mind. I was only hoping our jet didn't hit a cow when landing. "What a mess it would make of the airplane," I could just hear my Aussie friend saying.
I was glad to be home. Finally. And still awake enough to crawl into my bed
P.S. Here is a correction I received the day later from a TiM reader in Western Australia about the above story:
NO SUCH THING AS A ROO GUARD.
They are called Roo Bars, south of the 26th parallel and in the far north and the never-never they are called Bull Bars, all trucks have Bull-Bars. In the north we use to have a big problem with Water Buffalo, but thanks to helicopters and high powered weapons we shot them all.
So in closing, its not a Roo Guard, its a Roo Bar, if you ask to get a Roo Guard fitted anywhere you will be laughed at.
Sorry to sound so blunt, I loved the air-lines story.
A Bob Djurdjevic Column, November 1997
Doctors on Strike
SYDNEY, Australia, Nov 23 - They came to Australia in pursuit of happiness and better lives for themselves and their families. And to help cure sick Australians. They ended up on the dole (the Australian welfare system). And now, they are sick themselves; sick of living on government subsidies. And sick of being deprived of a chance to work for a living.
"Why did they bring us here?" a woman of Middle-Eastern appearance, but speaking with an Australian accent, said to this writer outside the Government House in Sydney today, where some three dozen immigrant-doctors and interns were on the seventh day of a hunger strike against the Australian government. "Every year, the government brings in some 2,500 doctors who end up as unemployed."
So what do these hunger-striking doctors demand? The right to work.
"Let us practice medicine in the 'bush'," (an Australian slang for hinterland - i.e., working in the "sticks" or in the "boonies," as we might say), they say. These immigrant doctors say the Australians in remote parts of this vast country could use a better health care than they are getting. And the immigrants are eager to go out there and deliver it.
"So who's stopping you?" this writer inquired.
"Yes, the government."
"Because it's against the rules."
"Against the rules? Why? Does the Australian government prevent Australian-born and trained doctors from working in the bush?"
"No. But none of them want to go there."
In other words, those who can - won't; and those who want - can't! At least that's what this group of hunger-striking doctors implied.
Later on, a native Australian provided another perspective on the situation. "There is just a glut of doctors in Australia," he said. "And the government is protecting the Australian doctors against the foreign competition."
"Fine and dandy, as far as it goes," this writer replied. "But didn't the Australian government bring in all these foreign doctors?"
"And it keeps doing it!", our native Australian correspondent said angrily.
So there you have it. There may be worse things than Bill Clinton and our (U.S.) brand of socialism. A group of highly educated people are having to go on a hunger strike to make their point - the point being that they want to work rather than live off welfare.
As if that paradox were not bad enough, the Australian government keeps bringing in more of them every year, thus adding fuel to the fire.
O, tempora, o mores... It sure sounds like a Hillary Clinton understudy may be running the Australian health care system.
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