G'Day Mate: Reflections from Down Under
Updated: Dec 17, 2019
I wrote a work essay about our trip to Australia here. Now it is time for a more personal piece.
I had the good fortune to travel to Australia 8 years ago to speak at a conference. I stayed 12 days in total, travelling solo in Melbourne and Sydney. I was lucky to spend a few days with Dr. Cath Crock and her family – a family which at the time consisted of a fine collection of teenagers in late adolescence and early adulthood and an old kangaroo residing in their backyard.
When I left I vowed I’m coming back and bringing my two boys - my husband and youngest son. Three years ago, we booked a two week trip to Australia – flights, hotels, everything. And then I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Cue the violins and the cancellation fees.
Blah blah cancer treatment, blah blah struggles with mental health in recovery, blah blah an unfinished book.
Three years later, the book was done. Finally I was feeling okay in my head and my body. It was time for a do-over for Australia. This time it wasn’t just a holiday – it was for a work/holiday as my book was launched at a number of events at the Gathering of Kindness.
This essay is about our lessons from the Australians and a glimpse into our holiday.
First, some thoughts on Australia in general. Paying people a decent living wage which eliminates tipping is a good thing to do, mostly for the people being paid a decent living wage. There’s rarely any tipping in Australia and that just makes for simple transactions. Plus, the tax is all in. So you know what you are getting when you spend your money.
Then, people drive reasonably in Australia. People in the Lower Mainland in British Columbia drive like they are Tasmanian Devils who have been granted their drivers licenses. In Australia, I could cross a crosswalk without worrying about being run down by someone doing a reverse u-turn on a red light in the middle of the intersection. And even though Mike bravely drove on the other side of the road, the lack of maniacal driving made for an easy transition to left-side driving. My Australian friends tell us that the police enforce the speed limit, so nobody speeds. Plus, there are very strict and enforced drinking and driving rules so the rates of impaired driving have fallen sharply. This seems like good use of government intervention to me.
The idioms used by Australians are English and what separate them from Canadians, despite the Commonwealth connections. There’s a lot of ‘cuppa tea’. And ‘rug up’ ‘how are you going’ ‘g’day mate’ ‘I reckon.’ We found this endearing and was a bit ashamed of our flat nasal un-endearing Canadian accent and lack of turns of phrase (beyond the occasional ‘eh’ and ‘hey’).
Health wise, Australia is a combination of public and private funding. If you have insurance, you can access private hospitals, which I hear are rather fancy. Otherwise, I’ve concluded that the mess in health care is global – patients are treated as if they are parts in the car factory just like in Canada. Clinicians are crunched for time and this causes them morale troubles. The wrong things are being counted. Leadership has long forgotten about kindness and compassion in health care. I was sad to discover the problems are the same as ours in Canada. The lack of humanity (and humility) in health care is a world-wide epidemic.
OK, I meandered off into the work part of our trip. How about the pleasure part of our travels? We went to the Great Barrier Reef for four days, travelled the Great Ocean Road for a day, spent two days at a beach home in South Victoria, and had an unexpected but wonderful 4 days in Tasmania – three days in Launceston in northern Tasmania and one day in Hobart.
We took six flights and moved eight different times. This would be the time to mention that our teenage son Aaron is a super-awesome traveller. I wouldn’t have believed you if you told me 16 years ago when he was diagnosed with Down syndrome that we would be able to continue to travel together as a family. I thought all that was over. That was such a bullshit thing for me to think, mostly due to my own ableist notions of what it was like to live with someone who had Down syndrome. I was dead wrong.
I think Aaron’s amiable nature during travel has to do with the fact that we’ve just dragged him around wherever we went his whole life – even if it was hard. There was a time he refused to walk more than a block and would simply sit down on the sidewalk and not move, in a kind of passive-resistance protestor way. This was fine when he was little and we could pick him up and be on our way, but more awkward as he reached man-size. We were also unable to frequent shopping malls, due to the overload of sensory issues. Now Aaron is Mr. Consumer and a good shopper like his mom.
We never pushed him or forced him, but we’d simply give up and then we’d try again another day. (Aaron once had the best Occupational Therapist named Bronwyn who taught us: Never be greedy. So we'd just shrug and try again later).
Now he’s the best traveller too. We all know each other well, enjoy each other’s company and accommodate for each other. It isn’t just the Down syndrome we accommodate for. For instance, Mike hates shopping, so we’d separate when I wanted to shop and I don’t like packing suitcases, so Mike was the spatially-gifted king of making everything fit into our luggage. Aaron loves all sports and he likes to work out in the gym and go swimming so he and his dad would wander off in search of cardio activities (I’m afraid of water and more of a slow ambler exerciser). We were a tight trio of a team.
If there are families with younger children reading this, please know that things do change with our kids – with love, patience and faith, they will make their way (stealing lyrics from Natalie Merchant there).
I’ve already used up 900 words, so I’d better get to it. Here are some highlights from my journal:
Day 1 + 2: Melbourne Central Business District – on travels, the first day is jet lag day, so we take the opportunity to hop on a cheesy on and off double-deck bus tour. The great thing about these tours is that you get a ‘lay of the land’ as you goofily careen around town.
Days 3, 4, 5, 6 – Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne, Government House, KPMG, Central Gippsland Health Services in Sale Victoria
Highlights of these frantic workdays was getting up ungodly early and lugging all our baggage with books and banners on and off the tram and train. These Australians work hard and take public transport no matter what. Mike and Aaron getting kicked out of the lobby of the children’s hospital by a bunch of women in business suits (we had to dismantle the merchandise table because we didn’t have the proper authorization). Kicked out of a children’s hospital! That’s a first.
Before we were thrown out we did meet some staff and physicians who were very interested in chatting about kindness in health care and that’s always a good thing. We also hung out with Rosie Keely and her daughter Ella, who were there volunteering from Perth. Rosie is a kindred spirit. Later, Cath and her daughter Mish and grandbaby took us to the Moonlit Wildlife Refuge, where Aaron got to pet a koala and I fed the kangaroos. When in Rome folks!
The day at Government House with the Governor of Victoria to celebrate Kindness Day was a real highlight. Government House is grand and the Governor was so gracious and even accepted a copy of my book as a gift. A harpist played, my friend Cath made a speech and we ate little sandwiches + mini scones with clotted cream and drank tea. It was an uncharacteristically sophisticated setting for us. We wore our best clothes.
The next day I was interviewed by Dumbo Feather Editor Nathan Scolaro at the Gathering of Kindness KPMG event, which was held in the fancy KPMG offices in central Melbourne. It was my first speaking engagement, but I opened with a reading of a chapter from my book and that settled me down. I had to perch on a stool, hold a handheld microphone and read from my book but somehow I did it. Mike and Aaron also sold a lot of books and I had the honour of inscribing them with personal messages with my special pen.
We then drove to Sale, two hours out of Melbourne and were treated to Thai food at Sharee’s Johnson’s lovely home. We stayed in the El Matador motel (no bulls were sighted) and I had two speaking engagements the next day at the local hospital. This is where I had the amazing experience of speaking in the hospital cafeteria. (I have been asked to write about this for a nursing journal – stay tuned). My favourite part was when I read ‘everyone who works in the hospital is a health professional’ and gave a shout out to the food services staff in the cafeteria and we all paused to hoot and applaud them. That was special.
Unfortunately I got sicker and sicker as the day went on with a really rotten cold that lingered the rest of the trip and spent the afternoon sleeping in a car in the hospital parking lot after my speaking events.
Days 7, 8, 9, 10 Hamilton Island – Whitsundays
The Great Barrier Reef was on Mike’s bucket list and it did not disappoint. We flew three hours north to the heat of Northern Australia (see, everything is upside down there – cold in the south, hot in the north) to a resort island. We picked it because it was easy and we knew after a week of work, we’d be tired. Hamilton Island is like Disneyland for Australians. Everybody drives around in a golf cart and the island is contained with its own pools and restaurants. Aaron was quite taken with the swim up bar (as was I, if I’m truthful). We stayed in a little condo and drove up to the top of the island in our golf cart every night to watch the stunning sunset. Hamilton Island is cockatoo central. These large white birds own that island, soaring around and squawking and stealing food. The brightly coloured lorikeets give them a run for their money. The bird watching off our modest balcony was something else.
We went on an all day cruise to the Great Barrier Reef for snorkelling. Aaron and I ventured in a bit, but there’s a lot of coordination involved with snorkelling so we mostly hung onto the rope and looked down in the water at the fish. My competitive-swimmer-who-almost-made-it-to-the-Olympics- husband ventured out much further and had a grand ole time with taking footage of the fish with his GoPro. There were blue and green fish and purple fish and angel fish and clown fish. So many colourful fish.
On our last day we went on a half day cruise to Whitehaven beach. This was my favourite. The beach is all white soft sand and aqua water. We spent a copious amount of time playing frisbee in the water and giggling. I walked along the beach and the sand felt like cornstarch. It was so soft. Amazing.
Day 11 - Great Ocean Road
We sadly got back on a plane back to Melbourne. We could have easily spent a few more days in the Whitsunday Island paradise.
It was Mike’s turn to graduate from golf cart driving to left-handed driving on real roads in a real car. (He had tried this in Ireland a few years back and it was a bit of a disaster). He announced he wanted to drive the Great Ocean Road. I’m like, ummmm ok are you sure and he was so off we went. The Great Ocean Road is quite windy. I took a gravol to cope.
It is gorgeous though and a real bucket list drive too – akin to driving to Hana on Maui, or the Sea to Sky Highway closer to home. The views of the ocean and mountains were stunning. The weather was so strange - +32 at Apollo Bay (the boys ran giddily into the water while I went shopping for beach towels) and then +12 and so windy at the 12 Apostles where we froze our butts off! (Well, sadly I still have my butt – it didn’t all freeze off). We almost hit a cute little koala bear (they walk like BEARS because they are BEARS) on the road (my lord imagine if we did. Banished from Australia forever) and I ate an overpriced seafood ramen ($35!) for lunch.
Day 12, 13 - Cape Paterson
We headed back to Melbourne, past Melbourne (in rush hour naturally) and over to the east to Cape Paterson. This took a brutal 6 hours. We were heading to our friend Cath’s beach house but were frantic to get there before dark because it was in the middle of country, where it is pitch black at night and we had rather complicated instructions to access the property – we had to get through farmer’s gates etc. We got there JUST as the sun set and were treated to the spectacle of a mob of kangaroos hopping over a knoll at the backdrop of spectacular sunset. It was something else.
We had only two days at the beach house because we were unexpectedly going to Tasmania. This was a good thing but it cut our time in lovely Cape Paterson short. We spent the day puttering around the beautiful area, eating ham sandwiches for lunch on the beach, almost running out of gas and then we headed to Phillip’s Island to see the famous little penguins. Aaron and Mike went go-karting beforehand where the go-karts went 65 km an hour! 65 km an hour! Aaron drove his own go-kart and spun out only once and made me think the dude could maybe drive a car in the future. I was very impressed with his bravery. Afterwards he announced, breathless: My heart is beating so fast in my chest! All that race car adrenaline. Phillips Island is a weird mix of motorsports and penguins.
Oh the little penguins were adorable – coming up on the beach in groups and then waddling about looking for their burrows and their babies. We couldn’t take photos so I have the memory of their little furry selves filed away in my brain. Aaron was quite taken with them too and took a long time to pick out a penguin stuffy at the gift shop.
Day 14, 15 - Launceston, Tasmania
My Twitter (and now real life) friend Sam Beattie found out we were in Australia and asked we wanted to come to Tasmania. We promised ourselves we would not turn down any opportunity so we said SURE and off we went to the island off the island. Launceston is a small city in the north – all rolling hills and red roofs. We met Sam and her husband Darren and their two friends for a winery lunch. It was the best food we had in Australia – I had smoked trout and grilled peach salad and I ate it so so slowly to make it last. We also had bubbly rose which was delightful. The winery grounds were gorgeous and Sam and Darren were so warm and welcoming. They are also hilarious. It was a lovely time. After, we ended up at the local gorge, where Aaron and I bravely took the little sky lift that went over the little lake and the squawking peacocks below.
Day 16 – work, Launceston General Hospital
Another special day at the hospital, as we brought the Gathering of Kindness to Tasmania. I realize I have a soft spot for smaller hospitals, likely because I once did a nursing rotation and then got a summer job as a nursing attendant in a small country hospital. First I did a pop-up book reading in the cafeteria and then based on that, was approached to talk at Grand Rounds the next day. Grand Rounds! That’s always an honour. I was so pleased by that invitation. Later that evening, Sam and I co-facilitated a two hour conversation about kindness in health with a group of about twelve patients and staff members.
Day 17 - Hobart, Tasmania
We headed south to Hobart. I was still sick as a dog but Mike wanted to take the scenic route so we went along the east coast, which was beautiful but a long trip. It was sadly overcast but I did have the most delectable scallop curry at a lobster place by the sea. So there’s that. (You may have figured out that food is important to me). We stayed at a little farm– in an old converted barn that included a full hot breakfast the next morning where we chatted with the hosts and a couple from Gold Coast and watched their dog ride around on a skateboard (really).
Then off to MONA, which I had never heard of before googling Tasmania, but it is the Museum of Old and New Art and you have to see it to believe it. Here’s a taste. It was all windy corridors and surprises in every room. The coolest museum I’ve ever been to. We especially liked The Grotto, a room full of cushions with blinking lights. We’d like to make our den into a Grotto now. We got a wee bit claustrophobic at MONA because it is all underground and left after two hours.
Some puttering around the wharf in Hobart and then we almost missed our flight looking for a gas station and then we were safely on the plane back to Melbourne for my final speaking event. When we arrived back at Cath’s house, we took the family out for Chinese food. I have fond memories of walking back afterwards and stopping for ice cream with the Crock-Phillip family – including adorable baby Deakin who was travelling up on his grandpa’s shoulders. The whole family was so kind and generous to us our entire trip.
Day 18 – work, St. Vincent’s
I had an authors’ panel that day in St. Vincent’s and I thoroughly enjoyed my time on stage with fellow writers Lucy Mayes, Susan Biggar and Sonia Henry. I loved being in the company of such fierce talented women.
Day 19 + 20 - St. Kilda, Melbourne
To prepare for our re-entry back to real life (like astronauts) we booked a hotel for our final two days at St. Kilda, which is a Melbourne beach neighbourhood down by the water. It is also the party neighbourhood – a bit wild, kind of like Commercial Drive, which you know if you live in Vancouver. We visited the very tony Brighton Beach and had another awesome meal at the Brighton School House (I had fritters and arugula goat cheese salad) and went, as tourists do, down to the Brighton Beach Boxes. Later that night we ordered Aaron room service and snuck out for a few adult hours to The Espy, which is a bar in a converted grand old hotel and it was WILD. There were 12 rooms, each with a different feel. We settled into the basement bar, where a live band was playing punk music and we were transported back to the late 1980’s. We danced and it was fun and then we were reminded that it was actually 2019 and we were in our 50’s as Mike’s back started hurting so we wandered back to the hotel. It was a good end to the trip.
Climbed onto another plane and 14 hours later we were back in Vancouver. Thank goodness for sleeping pills that’s all I will say about that long flight. Five days later and I think we are finally recovered from jet lag. We are no longer waking up at 3 am and then wide awake at midnight with sand in our eyes.
Thank you Australia. It was a blast, mates.
Ps: This trip was funded by my publisher. My book is self-published. So the publisher is ME. I AM MY OWN PUBLISHER. Never mind this book tour, I need to sell books to at least pay back my investment (the cost of my editors, designers illustrators and publishing consultant). I would be so grateful if you could help me spread the Bird’s Eye View word!! If you’ve read the book, a review on Amazon really helps! Bird's Eye View is an awesome holiday gift for the doctors, nurses and other health professionals in your life. Patients and caregivers like it too!
Pps: If you are heading to Oz, I'm happy to share our accommodation and restaurant recommendations! Just email me: email@example.com