Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Sea Turtles and School Teachers: Bundaberg, part 2

I spent my unexpected extra day in Bundaberg wandering the town and waiting for the train, which was not without its charms. I had breakfast at a cute little cafe (my favorite kind) called Fresh On Earls recommended to me by some people on the street, then in my shortsless panic bought two pairs, one overpriced and one very cheap, because I couldn't decide between them. I Skyped with my parents; I looked in a craft shop. In the afternoon I went to a teeny zoo near the down-at-the-heels hostel. There were wallabies there, which are essentially mini kangaroos, many varieties of exotic birds, plus baby emus (cute!) and an ostrich named Olly. Olly was very, very large.


As I looked at the bird display, an affable older Aussie who was also wandering about introduced himself and told me he knew one of the parrots from before it was taken away from its owners by the authorities. He claimed that if you asked the bird to walk with you it would follow you along the confines of its cage, speaking to the parrot in a very silly high voice--but, sure enough, it responded. Later he was shat on by a pigeon as we watched the wallabies. I was amused then, but little did I know that I, too, was destined to be shat on by a pigeon, albeit a month later and several hundred miles away.

After he cleaned himself up, Gus invited me to his house to see his birds. I didn't have anything better to do, so I agreed. When we reached his house, in the outskirts of Bundaberg, he introduced me one at a time to all of the birds in his garden (in cages)--there were 10 of them at least--and let me hold them. All of their wings were clipped , and when they, half-lame, tried to fly away he laughed at them, which struck me as oddly barbaric.

It got weirder when we went inside. The house was basically carpeted with bird art. Murals, sketches, paintings (he was careful to point out the originals), and limited-edition prints, of probably 50 different bird species. He also showed me his collection of trophies from his shooting club, about which I said vague, appreciative things. As we admired the trophies, he told me that his wife is second-generation Dutch and doesn't tolerate the Queensland heat well. She spends much of her time during the summer in her air conditioned bedroom, watching movies. As she was that day, which was about 35 C and quite humid.

I asked why they didn't move if she became so ill in the heat and needed to be on so many medications. "Well, I grew up here, I have my shooting club and my work," he said, adding that his wife is thinking about going to live with relatives in Melbourne 4 months out of the year. Or, he added in an oddly detached tone, "perhaps we'll part company forever, after 16 years of marriage." He insisted that we barge into the bedroom to say hello, and I wondered why he brought me back to his house. Maybe they had had a bad argument that morning. Maybe he was thinking of leaving her.

Gus with one of his birds

He dropped me back at the backpackers and I checked my luggage, fighting anxiety about whether I should have opted for a sleeper car. Feeling decidedly scattered, worried about plans for Airlie Beach and Cairns, I boarded the train, and things immediately improved. I celebrated my single seat, a window and aisle in one, and was happy to find that the chair itself was quite roomy and comfortable.

I spent the dwindling evening exploring the saloon and diner cars. I had just sat down with an overpriced beer (to make up for the lack of horizontal sleeping surface) and opened my computer to do some writing when I heard gasps of "Cool!" and looked up to see two dark-skinned boys grinning at me.

"Is that little thing really a computer?" one wanted to know. Then he heard my accent and demanded to know where I was from.

"Well, America," I admitted. His eyes lit up, reflecting off his dark face. He punced his friend lightly."Hey, let's talk to the American!"

Their names were Masi and PJ; Masi was a Fiji Islander and PJ a Torres Straight Islander, which means he comes from the area between Australia's northernmost point (Cape York) and Papua New Guinea. They had met on the train earlier in the day coming up from Brisbane and were really, really excited to meet me-- again, I was surprised to encounter such fascination with America and American culture. They asked me if I brought anything from America with me, went through my outfit-- singlet? earrings? bag? shoes?-- Yes, I said, everything was from America.

They wanted to see American money, and I gave PJ a nickel, dime, and quarter to keep. "What's it like to have an American dollar?" he asked. I said that it's about like having an Australian dollar, but I think he meant a bill instead of a coin-- Australian money includes $1 and $2 coins and starts bills at $5. "We like your Obama," he told me solemnly, with little transition. "We want to be like him."

We filled the next half hour with me sipping my beer and them telling me scary stories, some from "Ghost Hunters," which they saw on TV, some of crime on the streets of Townsville (which is near Cairns) and elsewhere. PJ told me his cousin was raped and talked graphically of other crimes. He also claimed that in the Torres Strait Islands when people who are from outside come, his family and relatives paint themselves, dance around, give the visitors necklaces, and then when the visitors aren't looking a witch woman beats them over the head and then slices them up to eat. Well... maybe, I guess. I'm sure these stories are embellished the way 11 year old boys embellish the world over. It's a nice story and it probably has some basis in truth in a distant past. Or who knows? Maybe there are cannibals in Torres Strait.

The train had stopped for some unknown reason, and rain was running down the black windows. PJ offered to escort me back to my seat in car H.

When I had gotten comfortable and opened my computer again, I put in my earphones and toggled iTunes to random. "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" filled my ears and I almost laughed. Tell me where in the world, tell me where can she be...

Traveling up the coast of Australia at 75 kph to a new place with crystal clear waters, maybe?

As I typed Masi and PJ passed me, back to their train car. They tapped me on the shoulder and grinned as they passed.

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