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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Worst Company In The World


I've been meaning to write about THE WORST COMPANY IN THE WORLD. I mentioned them in my last entry. By worst company, I don't mean morally, politically or environmentally. For that you can take your pick:


You know, the usual suspects.

I'm talking about worst company for its customers. I'm talking about the worst company to do business with. That company is called YES! OPTUS. It's an Australian telecom company.

In Brisbane, I buy a YES! OPTUS SIMS chip for my cellphone. My U.S. phone service, T-Mobile (actually a German company, and a good one), allows you to change chips once a year. It saves money while traveling.

In order to activate the new chip you have to check in on the web or call a special activation number. According to the booklet that accompanies the chip, to keep your previous number, you have to call from your cellphone.

I go outside the electronics store where I bought the chip. I dial the number. I get a recording that tells me how much faster activation would be over the web. Then it plays music for 5 minutes.

Finally, someone with a very heavy Indian accent answers the phone. [Aside: A New York comedienne said that the reason all those Indian cab drivers always talk on cellphone headsets is that they're moonlighting, doing tech support for IT companies.]

“Good day,” he says, “my name is Jim. And how can I assist you today?”

[Aside: Why is it that these guys are forced to take American/English names? Do they think it fools the customers? This guy is Jim, like I'm Abdul.]

Jim wants my name. I give it to him.

“That's Michael D-as in door, O-as in Open...” he starts.

“No, Board,” I correct, “Like a piece of wood. You know B-as in Boy, O-as in Opera, A-as in Apple, R-as in Rabbit, D-as in doll.”

“I'm being sorry, sir,” he says. “So that's T-as in Toy, O as in Orange...”

Eventually, he gets it.

And your Australian address?

“I don't have an Australian address,” I tell him. “I'm traveling and I won't be in one place for more than 3 days.”

“I'm being very sorry, I'm sure,” he says. “I cannot activate your card without an address in Australia.”

I look up at the street sign in front of where I'm sitting.

“183 Boundary Street,” I say. “In Brisbane.”

“Thank you for that information,” he says. “And the post code?”

“I don't know the post code,” I tell him. “Why do you need the post code? It's a phone. I'm not getting mail here.”

“I'm being very sorry,” he says. “I cannot activate your card without a post code.”

“I'll call back,” I tell him.

“Have a good day,” he says.

When I get back to my hosts apartment, I gather the necessary information and call back. Again I'm tortured by the announcement and hold time.

When someone finally answers, she's got an even thicker accent requiring me to ask for repetition every third or fourth word.

“Good day to you sir,” she says. “My name is Mary. How can I assist you?”

With several whats, excuse mes, and could you repeat thats? I get the information to the woman, including my postcode.

“And I'd like to keep my current number,” I tell her.

“Please be holding on sir,” she says. “That's a different department. Have a good day.”

On hold. More music. A voice.

“Good day to you, sir,” says the voice, “My name is Larry. How can I assist you?”

“I want to keep my current phone number,” I tell him.

“I'll be happy to help you,” he says. “My I have your name?”

I tell him.

“That's V-as in Victor, O-as in Orange...”

Eventually he gets it.

“And your address.”

I give it to him.

“And the post code,”

I'm ready and give it to him... with a touch of triumph.

“And the name of your current telephone company?”

“T-mobile.” I answer.

“And your account number?” he asks.

“You mean my current phone number?” I reply.

“No sir,” he says. “I need your account number.”

“My account is in New York,” I tell him. “Who knows their phone company account number?”

“I'm being very sorry sir,” he says. “We cannot switch your number without an account number. It should be on your bill.”

“My bills are in New York,” I tell him. “Who travels with their old telephone bills?”

“I'm being very sorry sir,” he says. “We need your account number to allow you to keep your old number.”

“Okay,” I tell him, “I'll call New York and get the number and call back.”

“That would be fine sir. No worries.”

“Yeah, right.” I say.

“Have a good day,” he says.

I spend real money on a call to T-Mobile in New York.

“You need your account number to keep your old phone number?” says the pleasant woman there. “I never heard of that before.”

“Don't get me started,” I tell her.

With German efficiency, I have my account number in a few minutes. I again make the dreaded phonecall to YES!

After the long recorded message tells me to go to the website, there's more music, someone answers.

“Hello,” says the Indian woman, “My name is Jane. How can I assist you?”

“I want to activate my SIMS card,” I tell her, “but I want to keep my old number so I need to speak to another department.”

“No worries, sir,” she says. “May I have your name?”

I give it to her.

“That's Michael D-as in door, O-as in Open...” she starts.

Eventually, she gets it.

“Yes sir,” she says, “I understand you are calling to activate your SIMS card.”

“That's right,” I tell her, “and I need to keep my old number.”

“I'm being sorry, sir,” she says. “Our system is down right now. Could you please be so kind as to call back in an hour. We will be happy to take care of it for you.”

“Why did you need my name to tell me the system is down?” I ask.

“It is most polite to know with whom you're speaking,” she says.

“I'll call back,” I say.

“Have a good day,” she says.

It's 3 PM. I call back at 4. The system is still down. “Please be so kind as to call back in one hour.”

I call back at 5. The system is still down. Call back in an hour.

I call back at 6. The system is still down. Call back in an hour.

I call back at 7. The system is still down. Call back in an hour.

I call back at 8. The recording is different from the one before. An Australian accented message tells me: Thank you for calling Yes! Optus. Our offices are now closed. Please call back tomorrow morning after 8:30. We'll be here, eager to assist you.

I wonder if Australian law allows me to sue for a stroke or heart attack.

At 8:35 the next morning:

Thank you for calling Yes! Optus. Due to unusually high call volume, your call may not be answered for [click] 15 minutes [click]. We suggest you use our website or you might want to call back at another time. Of course, you can hold on and your call will be answered by the next available service agent.

I hold. It's twenty minutes before someone answers.

“Hello,” says the Indian woman. “My name is Sally. How can I assist you?”

“I want to activate my SIMS chip,” I tell her. “But I want to keep my old phone number, so I think I need to speak to a different department.”

“Yes sir,” she says, “and what is your name?”

“Michael Smith,” I tell her.

“Certainly, Mr. Smith,” she says. “I'll be happy to switch you.”

Ah! A minute saved.

A man's voice this time.

“Hello,” he says, “my name is Ralph. How can I assist you?”


“My name is Mykel Board,” I tell him. “That's B-as in boring, A-as in annoyed, O-as in 'orrible, R-as in rotten, D-as in dumb.”

Eventually, he gets it.

“Yes, Mr. Board,” he says. “How can I be of assistance?”

“I want to activate my SIMS chip and keep my old phone number,” I tell him.

“Certainly,” he says. “Can I have your address?”

I give it to him... with the postcode.

“And your previous phone company?”

I tell him T-Mobile.

“And your previous phone number?”

“Phone number?” I say. “I thought you needed an account number.”

“No, sir,” he says, “I need your phone number to transfer it.”

I tell him my T-Mobile phone number.

“That's Australia, then 064..”

“No,” I correct him, “it's a U.S. number. The country code is ONE.”

“Please be holding for a few minutes,” he clicks off and the YES! OPTUS message returns, telling me how much quicker things would be on the website.

After 2 or three minutes of this he returns.

“I am being sorry,” he says. “You cannot transfer that number. You have to get a new number with YES! OPTUS. Would you like me to transfer you to that department.”

Can he hear my sobs?

“Please, do that,” I say, barely keeping control.

“No worries,” he answers.

[Do they train them in Australian English? If I called him from New York, would he say, I'd be happy to?]

I'm back to the basic activation department.

“Hello,” says the Indian woman, “My name is Nancy. How can I assist you?”

“I'd like to activate my SIMS card,” I tell her. “My name is Mykel Board.
That's B-as in Boy...”

Eventually she gets it.

My new phone number-- but only until March 25 is Australia: 043-561-097. Call me if you dare. Have a good day.

My website is at:

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Mykel in Sydney

Mykel's Australia-New Zealand Adventure

March 9, 2007

One of the delights of senility, is that each day brings with it new surprises. Many are the same surprises that yesterday brought, but since you can't remember them, the world is as new as... as... I forget.

I write this sitting under an “illy” umbrella outside of a kabob shop somewhere in downtown Sydney. I just spent a couple of hours in the Sydney Museum of Science. It's a fascinating place that, among other things, presents the history and wonders of Australian technology. Lot's of lever pulling and button pushing. Most of the exhibits don't work.

I've got about half an hour before I try to public transport my way back to Shaun's, then to be driven to see Ilka and Liz, my next-door neighbors-- in Japan-- in 1989.

Before the museum, I just did my third radio interview of this trip. The DJ/interviewer was a tall, young thin young man. Much different from the box-shaped local footers I've gotten used to. Up until my audio intercourse with the guy, I thought the girls had it all over the boys here.

Now, I'm not so sure.

The interview went well. DJ Mr. Wonderful made a CD of it for me. I'll make it a pod-cast someday.

Shaun tells me that my next stop, Melbourne, will only be for a few hours. I change planes in the airport and go off to New Zealand to see Vera and do a few shows on the northern island. Then back to Christchurch. (I want to see a synagogue in Christchurch. That should be a good picture), then back to Melbourne. Then to Cairns, Tokyo, and New York.

The most famous landmark in Sydney is the Opera House. When you picture the city, if you picture it, that's what you think of. It's famous and beautiful. Just like me.

I stop typing to take a nibble from my fish and chips plate. The food in Australia is nothing to blog about, though I did taste my first kangaroo (in Australia) yesterday. It does not taste like chicken. It tastes like beef.


I now write this a coffeeshop in the Melbourne airport. Next to me are a few traveling girls. One of them continually directs her tubercular cough in my direction. It's one of the greatest signs of affection I've had since I arrived.

There's no internet reception here, even if you pay. That means I don't know when this will finally be posted. Just so you know, the Instant Time Zone clock on my computer says it's 09:47 on March 12, 2007.

I did have a chance to wish my father happy birthday, calling through my computer via Skype. It was tough to get the day and time right, but I did it without too much trouble. There's not much I manage to do without trouble, though. Take Virgin Airlines... please!

The plane is scheduled to leave at 8:15. I hate being last-minute, especially with a plane. I always have trouble with security, customs, or something. I'm the eternal RANDOM, who's RANDOMLY selected for a special screening for explosives, shoe bombs, or large amounts of intestinal gas.

A little girl has started screaming while on line waiting for her latte. The more I travel, the more I think we should skip a generation. Just dump every kid from zero to six years old. Use 'em for landfill, or dump 'em on McDonald island to fend for themselves like in Lord of The Flies. We could have a buffer of relative quiet.

Oh yeah, Virgin. I have a printout for e-check-in. It's got a nice little bar code that you put under the reader in the machine and print out your boarding pass. Being Virgin Airlines, there are at least two dozen of these helpful machines. Six of them without Sorry out of order signs on them. After waiting on line behind one of the machines, I put my barcode under the flickering laser.

Hello Mykel Board (actually, it says Michael Board), your reservation is for 8:15. Please choose your seat. I look at the seat diagram and touch a window seat about halfway down on the right.

Thank you, please wait.

The screen changes to a large PLEASE WAIT. After a minute, comes another sign. We cannot process your request at this time. Please see a Virgin Check-in agent.

There are no Virgin agents.

There is a large line of people bringing bags to the BAGGAGE RELEASE area. There are a dozen Baggage Release agents here. There is one agent at the INTERNATIONAL CHECK-IN. There is a window that says GENERAL CHECK-IN. No one is at that window.

[Computer batteries getting low here, I've got to find a socket. Not an easy job: wondering around like a terrorist looking for convenient places to plant explosives. I must look pretty suspicious. Eventually I ask. The only sockets are on center posts far from anywhere to actually sit down. I now type this sitting on the floor, legs crossed, computer balanced on the insides of my knees]

Back to Virgin:

I hijack someone in uniform dashing past me.

“The Virgin machine rejected me,” I say. “What should I do?”

“Go there,” she says over her shoulder, pointing vaguely toward a coin telephone.

“Thanks!” I shout after her.

“No worries,” she says.

[Aside: Australians say no worries instead of you're welcome. They also say it like an American teen-age girl might say like, you know, or whatever. It's one of their more irritating habits. I mean, who the fuck do they think they are with no worries? I'm dying of dysentery. No worries. Terrorists have attacked the Sydney Opera House. No worries. Evil customs guards have ripped apart my baggage. No worries. Hey, I have worries.]

The closest logical place to the indicated coin telephone is the INTERNATIONAL CHECK-IN window. I wait on line and when I finally get to the window.

“I'm not going internationally,” I say. “But I couldn't check in by machine.”

I hand her my confirmation print-out.

“Oh I see,” she says. “Your flight's been canceled. No worries.”

She continues, “You can take an earlier flight at 7:45AM or a later flight at 9:15 AM.”
Since I have to wait 8 hours in Melbourne as it is, I decide to take the later flight.

The agent types some things into her computer. Another agent comes over to talk to her.

“I'm sorry,” she says. “The empty seats on the 9:15 flight are being reserved for the passengers who come late to the canceled 8:15 flight. So, what you say we put you on the 7:45 flight?

“No worries,” I don't say.

Let's go back to Sydney. While I'm there, I stay with Shaun, who, for the first 2 days, I call Chris. He doesn't correct me, figuring it'd be better for his reputation if I gave people the wrong name. Here's our pictures together. Let this follow him to his next trip past customs.

Shaun is an active guy. Unlike my Brisbane hosts, he's always on the go--and not just for me. He's setting up shows, taking care of delivering records, working at something. Not my image of typical Australians, who're so laid back they make Los Angelans look like Japanese by comparison.

“I'm English,” says Shaun.

Oh, I get it.

My first show is in a kind of mainstream club. Not crowded, but fun. The best part was that the club was on a street called YURONG LANE. I shit you not!

Yesterday, I did the second show at a club called THE PITZ.

It was quite an unusual line-up:

The first show, the night before, went very well. I sold a bunch of books, got a few cents from the door money, talked with a lot of people. No groupies, but I did sing a SKREWDRIVER song with a guy visiting from Wales. The crowd wasn't bad and they even reacted.

For the second show, the matinee, the crowd was much less enthusiastic.

Still, I sold out of books, sold a few t-shirts, and talked with this cool kid from Korea about Korean bands I never heard of. Shaun took good care of me, shuttling me here and there, making sure I knew where to get on and off, like a mother might take care of her child just reaching that age of independence. Thanks Chris... er... Shaun.

My other adventure in Sydney was visiting Ilka and Liz, along with their brood.

Ah, what a story that is.

As I said, Ilka and Liz were my next door neighbors in Japan in 1989.

We lived in a gaijin (foreigner) house in a seedy part of Tokyo. We became good friends. They were on my new year's card list ever since, though I only heard from them once during all that time.

When I found that I was going to Australia, I Googled... and waddaya know? There's Ilka. (How many Ilka Talos are there in Australia, right?) Now he's a hotshot in some Aussie telecom company. Good guy to have as a host.

I email him.

“I can't believe it!” comes the answer. “I've spent 18 years avoiding you! Changed my city, my address, considered gender reassignment surgery. And you found me!”

“Beauty of the internet,” I tell him.

First I visit Ilka at his company. Huge office, lot's of employees, none of whom call him sir, but all of whom look like they should. We go in Ilka's Mercedes to meet Liz. Then we go back to meet the kids.

For a bit, Ilka looks that harried businessman, but in short time it's easy to see success hasn't spoiled him.

“Mykel,” he says over a great dinner Liz made from greens, beef and some red shoots. “It's great to see you. You look just the same as when we lived in Japan. Like a dessicated coconut.”

“Ok,” I think, “time to give the kids some lessons in American culture.”

“Hey kids,” I tell them, “I want to tell you about this special American tradition. It's a secret and until now, nobody outside America knew about it.”

They crowd around me, waiting for the secret information.

“It's the Egg God,” I tell them. “It's a way American children can get anything they want. Ice cream, cake, a new bicycle... you name it.”

“Even a beer like Daddy?” asks Hugo.

“Especially a beer like Daddy,” I say.

“Here's how it works,” I continue. “Late at night, after Mommy and Daddy have gone to sleep, you take all the eggs out of the refrigerator. Then you stand in the middle of the livingroom and throw the eggs as high as you can. While you throw the eggs, you shout, Catch, Egg God! Catch! If the Egg God likes you he'll catch the eggs before they fall on the ground. Then you can get anything you want.”

“He's taking the piss,” says Ilka.

“I'm not taking the piss,” I say. “But you will be... often... when you get free beer from the Egg God.”

I negotiate with the kids. They tell me that next week is Multicultural Week in school. I suggest they tell their entire class about The Egg God and ask students to try it at home and report who the Egg God likes and who he doesn't like. I'm still waiting for the report.

Besides an entertaining dinner, Ilka reveals that, as well as an entrepreneur, he's a lifeguard. Surfing every day before work, once a week he stands by the shore, mostly naked, to “trade saliva with fallen children.” Sounds like my kid of job... except that you have to know how to swim.

Still, I'd really like to go to the beach. Jumping into the ocean and letting the wave scrape my body on the sand is one of my life's enjoyments. In New York, my pal David warned me against it.

“It's the most poisonous water in the world,” he said. “There are green octopodi that'll kill you with one suck. Then there are man-o-wars, tile fish and Blue Bottles.”

“Blue Bottles? Left over beer cans?” I asked. “Maybe you'll cut yourself?”

“They're jellyfish!” He screamed at me. “They have long tendrills. They wrap themselves around your leg. Sting you up and down... like you've stepped into a wasps nest. It's horrible.”
I ask Ilka about it.

“No worries, mate,” he says. “This is a rich white area. The poisonous fish aren't allowed around here. It's against the law. They only hang out in the poor areas. ”

Seems reasonable to me, so I agree to a trip to the beach. We park in the private lot and then walk off to find the sand and the sea.

Before those, we find a sign.

“I'm gonna die!” I tell him. I can't go swimming with those tendrils.”

“No problem, mate,” says Ilka, “they keep away from Jews.”

Ok, I'll risk it.

Ilka goes over to talk with his fellow lifeguards. They're all dressed in a kind of yellow and red uniform. Colors New Yorkers would rather be washed up on shore in than actually seen wearing in public while they're alive.

Could you imaging how dumb someone would look in a long-sleeve yellow and red uniform, with bare feet, flowing shorts, carrying a dumb yellow float? Worse than that, they have these embarrassing little swim caps that tie under the chin. I can't imagine how someone could be seen in public in such a thing.

Well, getting into the life-saving spirit does have its privileges. For example, the locals will now sell me copies of those specialty publications I would never have had access to otherwise.

All-in-all the visit with Ilka and his family was the highpoint of this trip so far. They are great people despite their wealth and athletic ability. And welcome to crunch together on my couch in New York any time.

I also got to meet a member of one of my all-time favorite Australian bands: THE HARD-ONS. Ray was playing in another band the same night I was reading, but he stopped to talk with me and even let me take a picture with him.

Ho ho, little did he know that it would be splashed all over the internet universe. Or maybe he did know.

Next report from NEW ZEALAND.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Mykel in Brisbane

Mykel's Australia-New Zealand Adventure

I'm stranded on my own, stranded far from home --The Saints (Australia's most famous punk band)

One thing that I've seen all over here in Australia is the lack of separation between people and nature. The Japanese pride themselves on being one with nature. They consider themselves part of the world, not isolated from it like Americans.

But the Japanese fetish with cleanliness and comfort keeps them from the unclean and the uncomfortable parts of nature. In Australia-- or at least in Queensland where I am now-- we have true nature, everywhere. And the locals are proud of it. Kylie tells me that the people of Queensland voted against Daylight Savings Time in the 90's because “they were afraid it would confuse the cows.”

As to nature? Every building I've been in has bugs. Ants, flies, mosquitoes. They run rampant. I write this in the Brisbane airport, brushing a fly from the computer LCD.

People don't use screens. Ants roam freely on the bathroom and kitchen floors. A gecko may run up the wall, while all kinds of arachnids make themselves homes in who-knows-what piece of clothing. No wonder people here don't wear shoes. Sandals let you see what you're stepping into. I shot a little movie of the bathroom floor at Krylie's.

Now back to my adventures:

The hell continues. I write this now in Brisbane. I'm sitting by myself in a living room. I've just killed a mosquito, spattering it's abdomen, filled with my blood, on my own forearm. There are two bedrooms with the door closed. Behind each one is one of the girls who lives in this place. I don't know the town. I don't know the public transportation. I can't leave.

Above my head, a gecko on the wall makes chirping sounds like some electronic device signaling an error. My attempt to take a picture of it gives my camera a THIS CARD CANNOT BE READ error message. NONE of the 3 cards I have with me can be read. I change the batteries reformat the cards, nothing. But that's not the end. It's only the icing on the bullet.

Last night, I did a reading at a show in a bar. I took in a hundred bucks Australian. Not so bad. But I left the pages from my reading at the show. I was to go pick 'em up today, but both girls are asleep or something and unavailable. I can't do anything without them.

Chris, the organizer for the club, said I could have stayed with him. He appeared briefly at the show last night, excused himself as being under the influence of XTC and disappeared. It was not my ecstasy. Oh yeah, instead of you're welcome, Australians say No worries. Yeah, right.

Kylie, who, for some reason I continually call Kristie, has made an effort. She took me to a radio interview today... after I woke her up to get me there.

Earlier: I go to the local community radio station. Kylie drives me. I'm scheduled for an interview at noon. No I'm not. The two girls who host the Art to Lunch show have never heard of me.

“What did you say your name was? And what do you do?”

They squeeze me in anyway. I talk a nice 15 minutes while they fiddle for questions. After the interview, I call Kylie to pick me up. I have to use the station phone. My own cellphone costs a fortune to use in Australia.

Kylie says she'll be awhile. She's waiting for a phonecall. I feel so stranded, my only options are to rely on someone else. Jezus! I'd be mad as hell if I had to traipse around town chauffeuring some balding egomaniac who can't figure out how to use the buses. I can't believe I'm getting upset because I have to wait awhile. Stop it, Mykel!

I take a walk to THE MALL. In Australia, THE MALL is not a suburban nightmare of STRAWBERRYS and MACYS. Here, it's a section of street that's blocked off for pedestrian use. A nice strolling place where you can stop to have a cup of coffee or a kebab. That I do. When I get back to the radio station. Kylie is there, waiting in the driveway like a chauffeur. Boy do I feel guilty. Here are Kylie and her roommate Carmel. At least I think that's her name. I'm not very good with names.

Background: I “met” Kylie on MySpace when I typed in Punk and Australia. I asked her if I could send her stuff to keep for me. I didn't want to bring it through customs. That was lucky! She said I'd be able to stay there and would check around to get me some shows. She did that too... with the help of XTC Chris.

Kylie met me at the airport in Brisbane. She picked me up, drove me to her place. Took me to a barbecue, then to the club I had my reading. So I owe! I owe! I'd love to pay back. Take her out for a dinner, something. She stays locked in her room.

“You must have a lot of people coming through from MySpace,” I tell her.

“Not anymore,” she says. “I deleted the account. The whole fuckin' thing. Gone.”


Flash to late last night. Started drinking at the punk BBQ. Cool lot of folks in black t-shirts, with funny haircuts and a baby. Drinking is pretty heavy here. Nice porter: COOPER, and cheap local beer XXXX (pronounced FOUR-EX, like the British condoms).

[Aside: When I first got to town, I saw these XXXX signs all over the place. I figured it was porno, strip shows, you know, the good stuff. Yow! I was thinking, my kind of town. Ah well, but at least it's beer.]

I teach the BBQ Aussies what canoe beer means.

[Aside 2: For those readers who are not familiar with the term, canoe beer comes from the joke, Q. Why is drinking Coors light like sex in a canoe?
A. Because it's fuckin' close to water.]

“Oh you mean Fosters?” said one of the punks... now working on his P.h.d.

“It's Australian for beer, mate,” I answer.

After getting strongly soused at the BBQ, it's time to go to the reading/punk show. Kylie drives me, drops me off, goes back home to drop off her car, and take public transportation back.

“I might have something to drink.”

A responsible drinker.

The show goes off well. I sell a couple of books, get some contacts. Leave all my reading material at the club. It's never found.

While in Brisbane, I do get to the Wildlife Sanctuary, a depressing place more like a jail than a sanctuary. You can feed the kangaroos, though. I mean what did I come all this way for if not that!!

See that josie (baby marsupial) in the pouch? Wrong end out? Only I could get a kangaroo with a baby stuck in the pouch ass out.

I also learned that there are no ostriches in Australia. The closest they have are Emus, which are darker and hairier than Ostriches. They're also scary looking and not very friendly.

Oh yeah, in Brisbane I also bought a SIMS card for my cellphone. I wanted to be able to make calls for less than the $2.94 a minute T-mobile charges me for international calls. Unfortunately, I bought the card from Yes! Optus... the worst company in the world.

But you'll find out more about that in a later installment.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

AUSTRALIA 3: Mykel's Australia / New Zealand adventures

Mykel's Australia-New Zealand Adventure
Episode 3

The nail that sticks up gets hammered down. --Australian proverb

I really hate this town (Cairns) and it's gonna take a fuck of a lot to convince me otherwise about Australia in general.Are the people here are stupid or malicious? I don't know. What I do know is their overwhelming lack of curiosity. I've never seen it anywhere else in the world.

It seems so normal to me: “I detect a bit of an accent. Where're you from?”

It seems so normal to sit next to someone at a bar and say, “Hmmm, you don't look like you're from around here. My name's Sam, and you?”

I am not wearing shorts. I do not have sandals. I'm wearing black levis with army boots. I have a fedora. I talk like Travis Bickel, not Crockadile Dundee. Aren't you the least bit curious? Aren't you even polite enough to talk? To cheer up a stranger?

Other tourists exchange stories with me. I meet this guy Alfred, from Saibai, one of the Strait Islands, between Australia and Papua New Guinea. 500 people on his island. He tells me his story. Amazing. Tri-lingual. His first language was Kalakawuya. He also speaks the Creole of the islands and English. He matches my image of an aborigine. If I can figure out how to do it, I'll put a link to a short movie of him introducing himself in Kalakawuya.

He's not a native to THIS ISLAND, the world's largest. The natives here, just don't give a shit.

They smile a lot. And speak with a friendly rising intonation as they give you a hard time. Every sentence is like a question. Makes you want to smack 'em.

Right now I'm back at the airport. Sitting in a breakfast place, having finished my $5 fruit salad. To my right are really loud German tourists. Retired, from the looks of it. In order to get to the food area, you have to go through the x-rays. Then you have to go back out, check in for your flight. Then go through the x-ray machines again. Jeezus. I came early to try to get a pre-paid SIMS chip for my cellphone. I figured an airport would be the best place to pick one up. I figured wrong. And am in security limbo eating fruit salad.

Ah yes, the airport. The story. The hell all of you has been waiting for. My entry into the land down under... hey I shudda figured. Hell? Down under? Oh, I get it!

Let's back up. After packing my bags 2 weeks in advance. Pocketing my camera with a new 1.5 Gig card... a gift from my sister, putting on my trenchcoat and fedora, I'm off at 1AM on Feb 22 to wait for the shuttle to my 5:30AM flight from Newark to Houston. At 2:15 AM, the van shows up.

A 4 hour planeride from New York to Houston. A planeride full of screaming babies, shuffling card players, coughers and sneezers. Then, an 8 hour planride from Houston to Honolulu. Then, a 7 hour planeride from Honolulu to Guam. Finally, a 5 hour planeride from Guam to Cairns. Each take-off is scheduled for less than 60 minutes after the previous plane was supposed to land. All the planes are late.

So that's 4 and 8 and 7 and 5. My mathematical mind puts that at exactly 24 (22 sleepless) hours in the air. Not counting the gate to gate runs. Not counting the wait for the van the day before or that, since I left at 2AM, I hadn't slept for 15 hours before the trip started. You can imagine the condition I was in when I finally arrived in Cairns and went through customs and immigration. No you can't.

I'm always nervous at customs. It's either the cause of, or (and?) the result of previous encounters. I guess I don't have an honest face. I've been stopped, questioned, stripped, enough times to make a dozen TV specials.

So I'm on the foreigners line waiting to go through customs at Cairns airport. The immigration agents are interesting. All women. The only place I've seen this in the 43 borders I've crossed. This is only one.

Sometimes they find something. In East Germany they found the Commie money I was smuggling in $20 of forbidden currency. In England, when I was 20, it was the jar of vitamins. They opened it, sniffed it, asked me about it. I was sweating bullets. How did they know, that bottle had been stolen! Naw, they didn't.

I always find something to worry about. Even if I don't have Commie money or a bottle of stolen vitamins, there's always something. Here I was worried about my ETA. That's a kind of electronic visa that you have to purchase before you get to Australia. I called and registered by phone. I MasterCarded the required $30.

“Can I have a confirmation number or something?” I ask.

“You don't need one,” said the voice from the other side of the phone. “You've paid and I've recorded that.”

“But what if it gets lost, or there's a mistake?” I ask, confident of my bad luck.

“It's impossible to get lost,” said the exasperated voice. “It's in the computer! It can't get lost.”

Ah, that gave me confidence.

Sudden note, the announcer from Virgin Blue has a British, not Australian accent....

I now write aboard a JetStar flight from Cairns to Brisbane-- on my way to the sixth airport in 2 days. I've got to get a longer life battery for the computer. It would be a great chance to write if the battery would last a whole trip. It would also be a great chance to read, but books are too heavy and there's a severe weight limit on non-US budget airlines. Back to customs

As I approach, the Australian line ends, and I'm shuffled over to the former Australian-only guard. She's slightly chubby, with her dark brown hair pulled into a bun behind her round face. I hand her my passport. She types my name into her computer.

“Yes, Mr. Board,” I have your information right here. And what is the purpose of your visit to Australia.”

“I'm actually visiting a friend in New Zealand,” I tell her (true). “I decided to make a trip of it and see the country while I'm here. I'll do a little sight-seeing, then visit my friend.” (not exactly the whole story.

“Ok,” she says, “that's all.” And she stamps the passport. I thank her and walk through the line to go to the baggage claim area. That's when the hell begins.

Is it something about the trench coat and boots in the middle of shorts and sandals? If I were a smuggler or terrorist, would I dress like a smuggler or terrorist? Come on guys! Maybe they think I'm super clever. They think I think that they'd never stop someone who looks like a criminal, because that person would never be a criminal. So they're surprising me, and stopping me.

A thin blond woman with extremely large teeth smiles at me when I enter the area with my bags.

“Do you have any checked baggage?” she asks.

She smiles wider as she asks the question and continues smiling through the following third degree. It is not the sadistic smile of Ilsa She-wolf of the SS. Rather it is the vague, empty, smiling-is-all-I-do smile of the Stepford Wives. [Break here. If you don't know those movies, see them. Then return to this blog.]

“Could you come with me to this inspection station?” she says, using a question intonation, but obviously not asking a question. “Let's chat on the way, shall we?”

Every sentence, question or not, ends in a rising intonation like annoying valley girl talk. Here, the intonation is more sinister than stupid.

“You're here on vacation? Is that right?”

I nod.

“And your job is...?”

“I teach English I say. I've got a card. Would you like one?”

“Yes, I would?” she says.

I hand her one.

“And you're here on vacation? Is that right?” she says.

I nod.

“You said you were going to visit a friend in New Zealand?”

“That's right,” I tell her.

“Can I see that ticket? The one to New Zealand?” Again, this is not a request.

I fish through my bags, pull out the confirmation of the New Zealand flight and hand it to her. She looks it over and hands it back to me.

“And while you're here, what are you going to be doing? You're here on holiday?”

That's right, I nod.

“And what exactly do you plan to do here?” she intones.

“Oh lots of stuff,” I say, “I'll go to the beach and...”

I frantically try to remember what was in the guidebook. An awful book, called INSIGHT GUIDE. It gives you a nice overview of the land, pretty pictures, some stories of local adventurers, but nothing you can use to bullshit a customs guard. Nothing about what's in the town, nothing about the local clubs, celebrities, statues. Where I can get a picture taken with a kangaroo. Nothing like that.”

“...I want to have my picture taken with a kangaroo.”

By this time we're at the special inspection station.

“I'm required by law to ask you these questions, do you understand?”

“Yes,” I reply.

She points to the customs form. “You've signed this form and this is your signature?”

“Yes,” I say.

“And you understand the nature of the form and all the questions on the form?”

“Yes,” I say.

“And everything you've said is true?”

“Yes,” I say.

She nods, still smiling.

“Please open that bag?”

I open the bag and take out the few books I brought with me. I also take out my personal diary, the OLD PUNKS NEVER DIE, THEY JUST WRITE BOOKS t-shirts, half a dozen wishful thinking condoms, and a bunch of promo postcards for my books.

Picks up my diary and thumbs through it. Then she goes for a sheaf of paper: the text of my readings. Sex with animals and extensive drug use. She asks, nothing, only raises her eyebrows and reaches for the promo postcards.

“And these are?”

“Oh, I wrote a couple books,” I tell her. “I figured while I'm traveling, I could do some promotion.”

“You're here to promote your books?”

“No, I just thought I might... I can talk about the books while I'm here, can't I? If I don't earn any money I'm not working, right?”

“This is Australia,” says the customs agent, “customs and immigration are separate. I'll get an immigration agent who can answer your question?”

She leaves, returning soon with the woman who first stamped by passport.

“You told me you were coming for tourist reasons,” said the woman. “Now I hear you're going to promote your books. According to Australian law, you are not permitted to work: paid or unpaid. You're not permitted to do anything that has the appearance of work. You may stop in a bookstore casually, but if you have a series of meetings with bookstore, don't come back and say immigration allowed it. We did not. Do you know the penalty for immigration violation?”

Death? Castration? Hanging? 30 hours of Hillary Clinton speeches? I say nothing.

“Your visa will be canceled. You will be deported. You will not be able to return to Australia for 3 years.”

“I understand,” I say.

“You may go now?” says the customs lady. “Out the hall turn right. There are the taxis”

For the rest of the trip I'll be looking over my shoulder. This does not bode well for things to come. The boding seems to be correct.



The Cairns Weekend Post is like The New York Post. I don't know if it's a Murdoch paper, but it should be. The headlines today are about how the police want 50,000 stun-guns. A post survey said 95% of their readers thought it was a good idea. (An earlier survey said that 80% of The Post readers support the return to cainning in school.) That's not odd. Most cities have their right-wing pandering tabloids. What is odd is that this one has a letter from the mayor of Cairns. The mayor tells the readers that global warming is a fake, and even if it's not, Australia is only a small country and keeping jobs is more important than protecting some emu somewhere.

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Friday, March 02, 2007

Australia 2: Mykel's Australia-New Zealand Adventure

Mykel's Australia-New Zealand Adventure

Episode 2

March 1 2007:

I grab the crying tot by her pink bib, twisting it around her neck, picking her up off her mother's lap and carrying her to the emergency exit... the one over the wings. With one hand, I pull the lever that opens the exit, bracing myself against the seat to keep from being sucked out of the plane. Using the bib like the tail of a lasso, I spin the kid over my head before letting go. A slight gurgle bubbles from the flying child as it sails past the wing gracefully plunging, arching downwards toward the blue pacific waters... I wish.

What am I doing here? On a flight from Houston to Hawaii. A packed 767, in an aisle seat in the middle section, behind the only seat tilted back. I'm in a pissy mood. Slight headache from caffeine withdrawal and lack of sleep. Not only is the woman ahead of me enough of a bitch to lean her seat back, she's the one with the baby.

My next enterprise: KID-FREE AIRLINES. Who wouldn't pay $20 more to be free from the screaming, bleating, demons? I can't imagine why people fucked in pre-condom days. The consequences would make it just not worth it. A-I-D-S? Hah! The real tragedy is K-I-D-S!

Besides the baby, there's a cough-til-you puke guy two rows up and a card shuffler who not only shuffles at a volume greater than the engines of this plane, but whacks the cards after each shuffle, possibly as a way of infusing luck into his solitaire hand.

And what am I doing here? Why am I on a flight from Houston to Hawaii when I'm going from New York to Australia? It's 11:49 somewhere in the world. That's the time my computer shows in the little digital clock in the corner. The map on the plane video screen shows us nearing in the middle of Mexico. Is it 11:49 here? or is that New York time?

Before transfering to this train, I walked the entire length of the airport. Landed on the New York Houston leg of the trip with a barely hour to spare.

Hold on, they're coming with lunch.... a cheeseburger, a bag of potato chips, a cinnamon chocolate “streusel” the size of my nose, with enough fat to bring on my stroke 10 years too early. I eat the cheeseburger... and the three leaves of lettuce they call a salad. I don't eat the potato chips or the streusel.

We're now over the central mountains of Mexico. The kid is worse. Not crying, but ear-splitting screams. Like it's being tortured. Why torture it? Just kill it! Make everyone happy.

The guy next to me is watching Stranger Than Fiction on the mini-screen built into the back of every seat. My eyes keep wandering to it, even though it doesn't seem like such a good movie. I guess it's Dustin Hoffman. I love to watch that guy act. My screen flashes that we have 7 more hours until we reach Honolulu.

Until 2 hours ago, I had no idea I'd be going to Hawaii. My ticket gave me 3 boarding passes. One from Newark to Houston. One from Houston to Guam. One from Guam to Cairns, Australia. Even this is odd. Look at a map. I don't know why they do it. But it was cheap.
So I made the arrangements 6 months in advance.

“I see you're using frequent flier miles,” said the Continental customer torture agent. “We'll see what we can do about finding you some way to get there. You know, Continental only flies to Cairns.”

“Is that in Australia?” I asked.

“Heh, heh,” comes the reply.

[I declare WAR on the woman ahead of me. She just pushed her seat back again. I should have bought knee-defenders. She keeps bumping her seat back. Every time she does, I'm going to lean on the table attached to her chair. Pavlov's dog.
Hmmm, maybe I'll try dead baby jokes too.]

“So,” says the Continental inquisitor, “I think I've got something figured out. You could fly from Newark to Houston. Then we have a flight to Guam. And from Guam there's a flight to Cairns. That looks like it.”

The plane leaves Newark at 5:30... in the morning. Then I have one hour in Houston... if the plane's on time. In Guam, I wait 6 hours. Then arrive in Australia at the convenient hour of 12:30 AM.

For me to get to Newark at 3:30 (2 hour before check-in) I need to leave NYC an hour before that.

There are no trains at that time of night, or morning. That means call SUPERSHUTTLE and ask 'em to pick me up at 1:30. (Their site says to figure 1:30-1:45 to account for traffic.) At 1AM I'm down at the door ready. At 1:50, I call the company to find out where the ride is. At 2:00 the driver calls me and says he'll be late.

Waddaya mean WILL be late, you're already late.

Somehow he gets me and his other two passengers in the van to Newark Airport by 3:00.

The airport is closed.

A few people on a few uncomfortable chairs sit waiting for someone at the ticket counter. The electronic check-in machines all have one of those Microsoft progress bars in the front. UPDATING they all say. TRY AGAIN LATER. At 3:30, the bars are gone. I try again.

Your ticket needs special attention. Please check-in with Airport personnel.

The computer battery runs out here....

After a quick partial recharge in Honolulu, I'm off again. My timing is off too, as I check the schedule. That six hour wait in Guam is 45 minutes. If the plane is on time. I don't know how I could have made such a... yeah I do.

Back on the plane. The seat next to me is empty, this time. There is a crying baby. Not quite the screamer from last time, but one who should be strangled just the same...

Flash, the screen in front of me gives a landing time of 7:14 now. It seems we've run into headwinds. The most secure transfer, I thought. Is now the most precarious. I'll prepare everything in hand when I leave. The gate has to be at the other side of the Guam airport. I wouldn't be surprised if it were the other side of the island. (ETA now 7:15). Actually, I could handle a day in Guam. If they pay for the hotel. I'd have to call my Cairn hosts and the Youth Hostel, but I could handle it. It's the way back that would be a tragedy. I'd miss my party in Tokyo.

We get to Guam with 20 minutes until the next flight leaves. No problem. I'm there with enough time to breath.

Suddenly, I think I get it. All flights are scheduled within an hour of each other. They all wait until the others arrive. I shudda relaxed. No I shuddna! Gee-zuz. Guam to Cairns is fine. An attractive Australian girl shares my row. But my first hour in Cairns is among the worst hours of anywhere in my life. More on that later.

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