Please note that she invited me to join her on an international adventure eleven days before said adventure. I gave the idea some hard thought and decided that it was a terrible idea. Alex, however, can be very persuasive. Five days before she was set to depart, I booked myself on a flight to Brisbane, Australia, where the two of us planned to meet up and set out for Surfer’s Paradise.
Now, here’s why a person like me should never, ever attempt anything resembling spontaneity. Without getting into the wheres and whyfores of the International Date Line, let’s just say that the concept of arriving in a country two days after I left my place of origin (in this case, Denver, Colorado), was just too much for my poor little brain to process. As a result, on the evening of August 12th I found myself at LAX, buckled into a seat on a Qantas flight. Via text, I shared my excitement with Alex, who was set to depart from the same airport just a few hours after me. That was the horrifying moment when I discovered:
1) Alex’s flight to Australia didn’t leave until the next day;
2) In 14 hours, I would be arriving in a country where I didn’t know a single soul, where I had no international phone service, no contact phone numbers, no transportation, and (since I was essentially piggy-backing on Alex’s trip) no idea where the hell I was even supposed to go when I got there.
While I sat on the plane, basically crapping my pants, contemplating an exit strategy that involved deplaning and running, screaming, through the terminal, Alex flew into action from her home in L.A. A few minutes later, she texted: ‘Looks like best option is to cab to QT hotel unless I get someone who can pick you up. I don’t actually know where these people live.’ This rather unpromising communication was interrupted by the flight attendant’s announcement to turn off and stow all electronic devises in preparation for takeoff. As the plane pulled away from the gate, my final message to Alex was the text equivalent of a death rattle: ‘Hopefully all will be sorted out on the other side.’ By “the other side,” I’m not sure if I meant “Australia” or “the afterlife.” Maybe a little of both.
Fortunately, Australians are some of the friendliest people on the planet, and Alex was able to find a total stranger to pick me up from the airport and drive me to the hotel in Surfer’s Paradise. (Fun fact: Zoe, the stylist who appears at the beginning of Alice to help her with her hair and makeup, was named for the lovely woman who picked me up!) Alex arrived the next day, and with that rather large travel hiccup out of the way, the adventure began. After a few days in Surfer’s Paradise, the two of us rented a car and drove to Sydney—stopping off in picturesque little towns along the way, such as Coffs Harbour and Nambucca Heads—where we spent a few days touring the city and hiking in the Blue Mountains. My romantic comedy Alice in Wonderland is partially based on this trip “down the rabbit hole”
For those of you considering a last-minute, whirlwind trip Down Under to Wonderland, I have compiled a Lonely Planet-worthy list of helpful travel tips for your convenience:
Upon boarding your Qantas flight to Australia, you will be issued a kit containing a blanket, a sleep mask, a toothbrush, and a small tube of toothpaste, all tightly wrapped in plastic. When one inquires about the hermetically sealed blanket, one is informed that fears of bird flu and Ebola pandemics had prompted the airlines to do their part in lowering the risk by eliminating recycled blankets of yesteryear. Whatever you do, don’t jokingly respond with “Oh, you mean like how we accidentally wiped out Native Americans by giving them smallpox blankets?” Because that nice rice pudding everyone else seems to be enjoying will be withheld from your dinner tray.
#2 Yes, We Know Australia is Big.
When you inform your new Aussie friends about your plans to drive by car from Surfer’s Paradise to Sydney (a distance of approximately 529 miles), be prepared for them to cut you off with “You know that it’s a really long way, right?” Gently explain that, while we may not be our own continent and everything, we have a pretty big country over in America too. (Plus, we kind of invented the road trip.)
#3 You Are Here. Maybe.
There’s no consensus—even among Australians—about which continent Australia or the neighboring country of New Zealand belongs to, with the populace evenly split between “Australia,” and “Somewhere Else.” Ironically, the latter is closer to the truth. According to Wikipedia, New Zealand is part of Zealandia, “a submerged continental fragment that sank after breaking away from Australia 60-85 million years ago.” Not only that, but both Australia and New Zealand are part of the continent of Oceania, which is actually not a continent. (My brain is still chewing on the logic of that.) Whatever you do, do not ask Australians or New Zealanders if they are also citizens of Atlantis.
Also, if you hail from Brooklyn, Miami or Palm Springs, USA, don’t be alarmed when you pass your home town as you drive from Surfer’s Paradise to Sydney. That’s because Australians show a remarkable lack of imagination when it comes to place-names. “Miami,” for example, is the name of a Native American tribe, so I’m pretty confident that we had that one first.
#4 Planes,Trains, and Automobiles. But Mostly Automobiles.
Australians drive on the left side of the road. When, upon leaving the car rental lot, your traveling companion enthusiastically attempts to use the windshield wipers as a turn signal before abruptly bringing the car to a stop and muttering, “Okay, I just need a second to recover from THAT”—don’t laugh. For one thing, the steering wheel and all important automobile-related amenities are on the wrong side of the vehicle. For another thing, your turn at frantic, windshield-wiper-signaling, and nervous breakdowns while navigating the Roundabouts of Death is definitely coming; it’s just a matter of time.
#5 The Ass-Eating Toilet Spider is Not an Urban Legend.
They have a hotline and everything. It’s the equivalent of Colorado rattlesnakes, only rattlesnakes don’t cause you to avoid using a toilet until your kidneys threaten to shut down.
Don’t complain about your life, even in a trivial, throwaway-remark-sort-of-way, because Australians will always follow-up with an anecdote that will make your existence look positively dull and possibly not worth living by comparison. Case in point: I was grumbling to my new Australian friend that if my dog sees a rabbit when we go for a walk, he’ll chase it. She sighed and said, “Yeah, if there’s a kangaroo in the yard when my dog goes out, he’ll chase it, and then I have to run after him.” She may have said other things after this, but I was busy picking up my brain, which had blown out of my skull after trying to process how a dog chasing a kangaroo down the street could ever be considered an event so routine as to be annoying.
#7 What I Got, I Wanna Get and Put It In You.
No, the American plug will not go into the Aussie socket no matter how you twist and turn the plug.
#8 Cow-Tipping Okay
If you’ve ever wanted to feel stupider than you already do when you have to decide how much to tip your U.S. dog shampooer/valet/cab driver/barista/proctologist, stop whatever you’re doing, get thee to Australia, and offer a tip to someone. (It doesn’t really matter what their profession is). For Australians, I suppose there’s a trace of pleasure to be derived from telling a cash-brandishing American tourist (i.e. Yours Truly, who had just had the first full-service fill-up at a gas station in twenty years): “There is no tipping in this country.” I walked away from that encounter feeling like I’d just used the wrong words for “thank you,” and had instead solicited the guy for sex. Then I remembered that Australians speak English. Sort of.
#9 Come Go with Me
Once you leave the state of Queensland behind you and enter New South Wales, you’ll notice that the locals will greet you with “How’re you going?” Just smile and say, “Great, thanks.” Do not try to be a smartass and answer “by koala.” Because Australians are very possessive of their marsupials, and will proceed to regale you with stories of a deadly, carnivorous creature called a “Drop Bear” that will make you purposely avoid every tree in the country for the rest of the trip.
#10 Are You Propping the Door Open, or Are You Just Happy To See Me?
Americans are notoriously puritanical when it comes to sex and body parts, but I spent my formative years in Italy, where all sorts of nakedness and ladybits were splashed through every commercial, TV show, and newscast, so I’m not normally the type of person who lets off sexually repressed steam by pointing out phallus-shaped vegetables or toothbrush holders every time I see one. That said, are Aussies aware that their door stops look like dildos? Seriously, after three days of white dildos springing at me from behind every door, I finally had to point out the white, ribbed elephant in the room by interrupting Alex and announcing: “I’m sorry, but why is there a dildo on the wall by the closet?” C’mon, they’re ribbed, people! If you like your door stops firm and man-shaped, that’s fine I suppose. But I’m a little concerned at how frequently I found these loose or missing altogether throughout the hotel. Consider asking your hotel concierge to throw some condoms in with the complimentary tea bags/coffee packets in the rooms, yo.
#11 Slow Children Ahead
Everyone in Australia goes the speed limit. Everyone. Even worse, most stretches of the highway are restricted to 60 kilometers per hour, which is how fast Americans go when we’re, like, passing a stopped school bus disembarking small children, or driving through a herd of puppies in the road. Penalties come in the form of huge fines, loss of license, and death. Drivers found in an unrested state, openly flouting the “STOP-REVIVE-SURVIVE” campaign, are heavily sedated and taken to “speeding re-education camps,” to be released only after they agree to drive 40kph no matter what the signs read. For this reason, most Australians have given up on interstate travel by car, which has allowed a kind of state-by-state isolationist mentality to take hold. This, in turn, has led to dangerously conflicting laws, such as whether or not you can hug a koala. And given the fact that Australian road signs seem to have been designed by a pedantic, professorial windbag with a love for multisyllabic words, I’m skeptical that a tiered, conditional speed limit sign like this one is particularly useful:
90KPH (EXCEPT WHEN RAINING)
80 KPH WHEN RAINING
The real problem is that the sign has lots of room at the bottom for new tiers to be added. Keep your eyes peeled as you drive, because I predict that those tiers will be filled within a few months as follows:
70KPH WHEN RAINING KOALAS
60KPH WHEN SPRINKLING
50KPH DURING SHARK SIGHTINGS
40KPH WHEN “SPITTING”
30 KPH DURING CONSTRUCTION
20KPH ALL OTHER TIMES
#12 Good Morning, Sunshine
When your traveling companion wakes you up at 4am on your second day in Sydney with a frantic “the bathroom’s flooding—you need to get up!” know this: She’s not telling you this so you’ll make yourself useful by 1) stopping the boiling hot water arcing across the bathroom like the Trevi Fountain; 2) helping her track down the nighttime emergency contact for the hotel so they can come and turn off the leak; 3) reminding her of the universal emergency phone number in Australia (hint: 1-1-1). No, no, no, no, no. The simple fact is that misery loves company. After said emergency had passed, Misery was kind enough to order Company onto awaiting ferry, which led to an eleven-hour death march through Sydney that quickly morphed into The Trail of Tears. By way of retaliation, Company got Misery hopelessly hooked on Royal Copenhagen’s Honeycomb Butterscotch ice cream, leaving Company secretly delighted for the next three days every time Misery mentioned her gastrointestinal symptoms.
Read Chapters 1-3 of Alice in Wonderland (a Romantic Comedy).
Available on Amazon.