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Published: August 13th 2009
Accommodation with Fresh Air
I stayed in the den, behind the caravan...
Angela cheerfully collected me from the bus station after I mistakenly told her to be there an hour-and-a-half earlier. I did not ask the fifty-three year-old much; she was already doing enough to help me. I was prepared to walk down the road for a while for dinner, a concern at such a late hour since restaurants in Australia close so early. Instead she prepared me a hot meal of chicken, rice, and potatoes, which I hungrily gobbled up. “You’ll be sleeping in the den, out in the back. Follow me.” It was a dark, dreary, and chilly night in Launceston. She led me out in the direction of a faded campervan, in her backyard so long it had taken roots into the soil. But for one thin set of white Christmas lights on a naked tree in the patio, there was no light. “Would you like to take a torch with you?”
You mean a flashlight. I wasn’t about to parse the differences between American and British vocabulary. “No, I’m fine. Lead the way” I responded with my belongings hoisted over my shoulder. Later on I took the flashlight, though I have yet to use it. Angela opened a weathered
To feed the ducks in the morning...
wooden door. The front of it was specked with white paint chips from a coat put on many years ago. Inside the cubed ten-by-twelve chamber was my bed fitted with neat and clean sheets and pillow cases. I put my pack down on a tired chair. The walls were decorated with skateboarding posters. A dormant television stood at the side of the mattress.
“There,” said Angela, “you’ll be fine. This is how you turn the light on and off.” She went on with the other features of the chicken coop, I mean guest accommodation. The door could not shut completely. Yellow extension cords led to an electrical supply somewhere else in the yard. I immediately thought of creepy crawlies, but realized that in early August none would be out and about. Some gaps between the ceiling and the walls provided natural ventilation. There was no heat source and the nighttime temperatures were dipping into the high thirties. Just then the wind picked up and whistled through the panels of the tin roof, on which sheets of lashing rain rhythmically danced. What was I doing here? Did I do something to offend this woman? Then it got colder.
“Everything OK?” she
Devils appear kind of ordinary at first...
checked with me.
“Wonderful. I love it.” Maybe I could sleep in the car? There was a motel two blocks up the highway. I changed my shoes and placed the worn pair atop some scattered leaves on the stained carpet. Above her patio ducks quacked in the pitch black. “Do you like ducks?”
Sure I do. But Angela loves them. “Yep, roasted with a bordelaise sauce and a glass of Cabernet. Yum!” She scowled at me. These are her pets. Oops. Better be quiet before she assigns me to sleep under a stack of cinder blocks.
We went back to her living room where she had a fire going, the only place in the house with a heat source. On the coffee table in front of me she placed a pile of magazines, maps, and brochures covering every region of the state. Then she disappeared behind a drape-partitioned breezeway into the kitchen. Five minutes later she presented me with a sack full of wheat germ sewn together at each end. “I’ll put this in the oven and you can use it to keep warm tonight.” Looking out her front window I could see the rain pounding the asphalt of the
Yawn or Growl?
Their jaws lock on their food source...
It took two sessions of four minutes each to heat it up in her antiquated microwave. She gave it to me and I dropped it on my lap while seated on the sofa. The sack had the musty smell of a vegetable harvest in October. The odor and feel of it brought me back to my days in Antwerp when I did the same with bean bags to protect my hips and lower back from the chilly bed sheets. Before retiring, I received my marching orders for the next day. “In the morning, I’ll take you into town so you can get your hired car. I have to be at work and will be home around six. Here’s the key to the front door.” She handed me a bright blue shank of metal, which I securely zipped into the back pocket of my khakis.
“No problem. You can come and go as you please.” Only later did I learn that Angela and her twenty-five-year-old daughter Elisabeth secretly agreed I was trustworthy enough to have free reign in and out of the house. It must be an image I project after twenty years experience of being a
Better her than me...
Our conversation could only go on for so long until it was time to retire. In the den I quickly stripped down and changed into sleeping clothes to fend off the cold. The wheat sack was a lifesaver. I tossed around the bed positioning it wherever any chill made contact with my skin. I settled in and was comfortable. Gale force winds ripped at the tree branches. A draft penetrated one of the windows as the drapes swayed in the dark. The rain pounded the roof. I shut my eyes in hopes it would hold into morning. This is what Dorothy must have gone through before she woke up in Oz. Where would I wake up? I grasped the wheat sack and forced myself to sleep.
By morning, the storm had come and gone. I made my way back to the house having taken note of the ducks and blossoming daffodils. Dozens of jugs were lined up under an awning. A conservationist before it was in vogue, Angela collects rainwater for future use. As generous as she is frugal, her home is a well-kept utilitarian dwelling equipped with a HD television and WiFi. Fixtures are old, evocative of
Roos and Wombats
Wombat roadkills reaches the proportions of squirrels in New England...
a country setting. Her car is over twenty years old. The employment counselor and chaplain wants for very little. “Good Morning!” she called out.
“I’ll bet you’ll want a shower. There are English muffins in the kitchen and I’ll get some coffee going.” I grabbed my toiletries bag and entered the bathroom. The orange bars of an overhead electric heater pulsated warmth at the shower stall. Through the door, I heard, “give the left knob a quarter turn and the right one the smallest of turns.” It worked perfectly. I felt better and in tune with her, her daughter, and my arrangements. Things would be fine. Following a muffin and the morning news, she drove me into Launceston, Tasmania’s second city of only 100,000, to pick up my car.
I bent over the pen very carefully, having been warned several times not to insert anything I did not want ripped off and then torn to shreds. To the untrained eye, they are heavyset and compact mink with an oversized face of a mouse. The little critters are playful. They jump over each other and approach me along the pen walls because they have learned to expect food.
A Flipped Switch
From cuddly to frenzied monster...
A light thin and white stripe marks their chest and the region just above the tail. Under normal circumstances they make almost no noise and are playful. So what’s the big deal about these so-called monsters? They are fuzzy and cuddly. Perhaps I could arrange to take one home. I got a whiff of one of the chunky beasts when downwind of me. I cowered and sought shelter for my nose. Perhaps not. Still nothing could be further away from the rabid spinning Looney Tunes character I grew up watching in my pajamas.
Reclusive and in endangered numbers, feeding time for the Tasmanian devils at Launceston Lakes and Wildlife Park does not qualify as normal circumstances. Visitors gather around in anticipation. The youthful, blonde zookeeper in a soiled winter jacket welcomes us. I ignore her pre-recorded vocal message. She has done this so many times before, but puts on a smile and starts in with the lines she has recited time and time again. Then come a flurry of statistics about the island’s wildlife. Her words are gibberish by and large because my eyes are focused on the bloody of chunk of wallaby about to be hurled inside the pen. Four devils pile up against the wall, all of them surprisingly calm and collected. None yell, squirm, or harm each other. They are just a bit restless, but that’s all.
“What many of you may not know”, she goes on, “is that the devils are not predators. They are almost exclusively scavengers, the natural vacuums of the bush.” Whatever, just chuck the carrion over and get the show going. “An average devil lives to age five or six, longer in captivity.” Blah, blah, blah. Heave ho, woman. Get on with it. “Now, gather and have a look.” With that, she tosses some wallaby tartar into the pen.
The four devils devolve from real-life stuffed animals with the price tag still attached in the ear to a state of being more indicative of their names. It is like a Jekyll-and-Hyde switch is flipped within them. They pounce on the raw meat while emitting fierce growls and menacing groans. Blondie adds, “The jaws of each devil’s bite are eight times as powerful as a pit bull.” I hear bones crack and flesh torn from tendons. The beasts work together to dismember their meal by tugging at it from different ends. What seems like fighting and animalistic hostility is actually teamwork. The sight is simply awesome. To observe a handful of relatively small animals violently and ruthlessly dispose of their meal is intimidating. The collection of carnivore marsupials dashes off behind some shrubs, each still with its incisors deeply embedded in the raw crimson meat. Stories have been told that hikers hopelessly lost for days in Tasmania’s Southwest perish due to hunger and exposure. Some remains are never found…except for shreds of a canvas backpack and the rubber soles of boots. The rest, bones and all, vanish without a trace only to lead authorities to believe that the devils got to the body before anyone else.
The zookeeper walked over to me and allowed me to pet a juvenile. “They don’t become aggressive until their second year” she insisted. Uh-huh. I ran my fingers through its fur on the lower part of its back, far from its needle-sharp teeth. I quickly withdrew my digits, confirming all five were still attached to my hand. She cuddled it. I had seen how quickly they shed their docility and was not curious to learn if this one in particular decided to mature faster than his other playmates.
It’s hard to put a finger on it, but there’s something about Tasmania that appeals to me more than the mainland. I think much of it has to do with how much I want to like it here and how different I want it to be compared to New South Wales and South Australia. Tasmania is a state apart, a rogue bone chip of an island off the lower right corner of the Southern continent. Its population is often the target of jokes. They have two heads, and then there is the predictable rash of stereotypes about incest and inbreeding we would associate with Appalachia. No one speaks poorly of the state, as so many invade the island for summer vacation. My initial impression is of tranquility. Only 500,000 live on the island, which creates a sense of a tightly knit community. Angela told me on the way back to her home after picking me up, “If in the world there are six degrees of separation, count on only two in Tasmania.” I like it here. I like it here because it truly is different, the anti-Australia. The accent is not as harsh. I can tell when people are talking about a brewed beverage and not grizzlies. A day is a twenty-four hour period, not what you do when your life is about to end. Tasmanians like the strait that separates them from Melbourne. It defines them, makes them more unique. The land is so sensitive that quarantine teams await all passengers at ferry terminals and airports. On account of its size, the state has a legitimate shot to protect its highly unusual flora and fauna from invaders. Currently authorities have put a great deal of energy in ensuring the eradication of the red fox. If it takes hold in Tasmania, the impact would be devastating to livestock and the balance of wildlife. It knows no natural enemies and while originally from England, the most imminent threat is from the mainland where the foxes have taken hold. Australians know all too well the disastrous wrath foreign species, however innocently introduced, can produce. Flora from Europe are weeds here and choke native plant life. Toads introduced from North America in the sugar cane fields have run wild and devoured smaller animals, throwing everything out of balance. At Launceston Airport, a uniformed golden retriever sniffed through my luggage before I was allowed to take it off the baggage claim conveyor belt and hop on the shuttle. They do not fool around here.
“I need to go to Smithton on Friday. Would you like to accompany me?” Angela asked.
“Sure, absolutely.” I had no idea where or what Smithton was and cared very little. Angela goes out of her way to show me everything around Launceston and explain in detail anything relevant. It would be her last visit to the hospital in the northwestern corner of the island to counsel staff there. “When do you need me ready?”
“We leave at quarter to seven.” I gulped. “I’ll come around to get you up at six fifteen.”
“Wonderful!” I lied.
Unlike most people, Angela likes her work. She is a professional listener and assists the employees of firms that hire her through office-related issues that impact performance. She deals with anything ranging from stress to domestic violence and substance abuse. She builds and fosters relationships; the one with Smithton Hospital was on its last day.
It still wasn’t light when she banged on the door. “Hi Richard!” she called out and did an about face.”
“Thank you!” I came back from my bed, already awake. I never slept well at all. The thrashing rain pounded the den all night. Water trickled off the sheet roof and collected in puddles. I may as well have gone through an entire evening with someone peeing right next to me. Angela prepared me a pot of coffee while I was in the shower and poured the contents into a travel mug. She popped two English muffins into the toaster and got out the butter and honey. By the time I was dried off and dressed, my Australian Mum had breakfast ready. Soon enough, I forgot about some of the more intriguing characteristics of the den. I liked it here. I marveled at the uneasy feel of unconditional trust and hospitality. I liked her stocky and self-assured daughter Elisabeth.
A few minutes behind schedule, Angela chooses the B71 to Devonport instead of the expressway. She wants me to see more and a few extra minutes would be of little consequence. Some hamlets are trimmed with manicured Hawthorn bushes imported by the English when they wante to reproduce a little of Yorkshire in the Southern hemisphere. Stern stone Anglican churches secure street corners; the sun strikes their burgundy trimmed arched windows. The front doors of hotels open up to the street; there is no sidewalk for pedestrians. Angela is taking me through the set of a Brontë novel. Whichever road we took, whichever turn we made, rainbows followed us. “This is my land. This is where my parents grew up. I used to come here as a child” Angela tells me. I look beyond her shoulders through the driver’s window and fixed my eyes on the quilted patchwork of deep green pastures. Holsteins graze in front of farmhouses. Newly arrived lambs take their first steps on wobbly knees. Nothing is truly fallow. The soil never freezes. In spite of one harvest per year, winter in Tasmania is still full of life.
Well before reaching the coast I commented to Angela about the roadside carnage. In New England it mostly consists of squirrels, skunks, opossum, and the occasional deer inflicting the most vehicular damage. Tasmania’s primary victim is the lovable wombat. Their soiled and trampled remains scar the roadways. Their inanimate teddy-bear carcasses look asleep, almost ready to roll over and trudge into the forest. I count one, then two every five kilometers or so. Then the numbers of the wombat slaughter rise. The mangled bodies of the affectionate marsupials are everywhere: against signposts, in ditches, and hunkered up against poles supporting power lines. They are simply too slow and clumsy to react and avoid fatal contact with cars and freight trucks.
Angela hopped out of the car at Smithton hospital and handed me the keys. “The car’s yours, but could you be back at half twelve?” Not only does this woman bring me into her own home, I get to drive her car as well.
“Twelve thirty. I’ll be here.”
“I think you should go off to St-”
“Stanley” I finished her sentence. It’s twenty kilometers back west. “Yeah, I saw it on the way through. It sticks out on the map as a worthy place for exploration.” It also sticks out into the sea. Angela’s 1985 Toyota hatchback is heavy. It feels cumbersome to drive and has no power steering. The hood rattles when the engine revs. A button needs to be pushed to remove her set of keys from the ignition, a detail she didn’t consider important enough to tell me.
A twinge of guilt came over me when I rolled into Stanley. The town wasn’t asleep. It was unconscious, knocked out cold having overdosed on anesthesia. Pinned at the base of a rocky but circular promontory, Stanley is in hibernation. Shops are shut. Even the Visitors Centre with its iconic small yellow “i” is dark. Trinkets hang in the windows of empty souvenir shops, destined to remain that way for several more weeks until the owners and life return. Some storefront windows have signs that read “ON WINTER HOLIDAY”. According to a café owner near the post office, most in the tourist trade run off to tropical Darwin. Their summers consist of brutally long hours catering to tourists in order to get through these dark, blustery, and drizzly winter days when the seaside community lays dormant. The Stranded Whale was the best option I could find for a late breakfast. The café had a fire going inside to fend off the chill. The heat escaping from the logs escaped through the walls easily; these places must have no insulation. I sat down next to a local reading today’s newspaper. In a thick flannel top and work boots, he handed it to me but kept the crossword puzzle. I scanned the counter for a menu. Nothing. There was no chalkboard on the wall. A chef was busy in the kitchen and a couple around the corner had already dug into a fried egg sandwich.
“Coffee, dear?” called out the woman behind the counter.
“Look, just tell us what you want and we’ll make it for you.”
“Scrambled eggs, bacon, mushrooms” and I continued to recite the contents of an English breakfast. The meal was fine; with the coffee it set me back nearly twenty dollars. The only inn wanted seventy plus a night for a single room. Given the supply-versus-demand imbalance and monastic nightlife (the same could be said during the day), it was best Stanley remain a simple daytrip. I would not be coming back this way before heading to the south of Tasmania.
Even in its winter slumber, Stanley still stands out. It is tidy, as the welcome signs claim. Waves crash on the compact sandy beaches on both sides of the tiny isthmus on which the town’s populace resides. A chairlift leads to the top of the Nut, the rounded promontory that juts out to the sea. The craggy outcropping, visible for tens of miles away, is Australia’s Gibraltar but without any other landmass to connect it just off the coast. I make my way up a hill to get a better look at Stanley; in doing so I pull over to marvel at the all-too-familiar yellow diamond signpost. I had become accustomed to the warning for kangaroo and wallaby crossing, even koalas. In Stanley, slow down for penguins, and of course watch out for wombats.
“Liz will be taking you out tonight, I reckon” Angela informed me. This was certainly good news. In fact having Liz around is a great way to measure other people’s character. If anyone doesn’t like Liz, likely it is he or she with the problem, not Liz. I have liked her from the very beginning. Her appeal is universally magnetic. However gossipy about who is seeing who among Launceston’s hip twenty-nothings, she makes the daily soap opera drama of her workmates in the hospitality industry gripping. There have been times I’ve wanted updates on the next chapter in the drama between a newly hired bartender and the guy who came in last night. I have no reason to care. These are not my friends or even my generation anymore. My days on Tasmania are numbered. Yet when hanging around Liz I want to care and learn more. People gravitate to Liz. Comfortable with her thick figure, she is stern but exhibits a deep and caring side. She instinctively serves up affection and empathy without ever being asked.
Liz is a grease monkey. Her elderly Toyota sedan is constantly on the verge of total operational collapse and she’d have it no other way. While tapping away on an email for the family, she ran up the stairs and found me by the fireplace. “Richard!”
“Just fixed it” she announced proudly.
“What this time?”
“The window. You see, it wasn’t working and then I-” and on she elaborated for the better part of a minute. I didn’t understand much. I think she caught on that I am not mechanically inclined.
“Is it all ready to go?”
“Yep!” And then a smile beaming with pride. “Do you want to come to the supermarket with me?” She ‘needed’ cigarettes and hair color. I needed nothing. Maybe Angela did.
“Well, is there anything we’d need to get for Mom? Bread? Milk? Wine?”
“Nah, she’s fine.”
I didn’t really want to go, but it was Liz. So I joined her. The other topic she perpetually brings up is her love affair with her job. She works at Lloyds, a classic Australian hotel in the center of Launceston. She tends bar as often as her manager can throw shifts at her. “You know”, she filled me in, “Lloyd’s is the best place in town. All the other bars envy us.” After she executed a U-turn with the last cigarette between fingers in her left hand, she sharply downshifted like a pro. “I love the place!” She radiated at the thought of her work. “I never want to leave.” Liz tends bar at Lloyd’s. She advertises her employer on her wrist. When in town, she sharply dissuades anyone from frequenting another bar and successfully pitches her own. “By the time I’m done with them, I’ve totally changed their plans. Other bars around beg us to throw parties.”
“Why in the world would your competition do that?”
“Then they pick up what we can’t hold after we reached seven hundred inside” she bragged. “We get the bands and security is a must.”
“How many people do you need at the door?”
“The door? No, it’s not just at the door. We have security all over the place and in the beer garden.”
“It’s all necessary? Behavior can get that bad?”
“Certainly! They have ear pieces and can communicate with each other.” That Saturday night, a patron yanked me aside to let five security personnel toss out a young lady in a cocktail dress along with another guy. They worked in tandem to lift them off the ground by interlocking arms underneath the thighs of the inebriated couple. Ignoring the profanity, out they went behind a solid steel door; she kicked and screamed to no avail. The green gate locked behind them. They would not be coming back. Very few took notice, too busy having a good time swaying back and forth to the live band. Ten years ago I, too, used to wax poetic about my local watering hole, a de facto living room in Belgium. One day the inevitable yet crushing falling out came and I moved on. I wanted to enlighten Liz that one day Lloyd’s would no longer be much to her, just a sweet lingering memory. There was no point; right now she is too much in love. The mention of heartbreak can wait for later.
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