On reacting to gun violence: Australia’s 1996 transformation

While we’re all reacting to the recent Charleston church shootings, I’d like to share with you a story. I learned it my first week in Australia, and it’s astonishing in both its sadness and subsequent strength, with an ending that goes against what we as Americans think is possible.

In 1996, there was a major gun tragedy in Australia. A gunman named Martin Bryant killed 35 people and wounded 23 in Port Arthur, Tasmania. Beginning in the morning, he killed two people his family had a business conflict with, then went to a popular tourist spot and began a rampage where he murdered dozens of random bystanders. Bryant’s speed and indiscriminate carnage is shocking. He used two semi-automatic rifles and it took only 15-30 seconds for him to kill his first 12 people and wound 10. Ninety seconds later, he had killed 8 more. Over the course of the day, he would murder another 15 innocents until a fiery standoff with police brought him into custody. It was one of the most horrific and deadliest killings worldwide perpetrated by a single shooter.

The Australian government and public were universally appalled by the massacre, viscerally rejecting it as fundamentally unacceptable. In the aftermath, Prime Minister John Howard began a gun-reform campaign and warned not to “go down the American” path when it came to guns. Public support was with him. Immediately Australia transformed its gun control laws.

At the time of the Port Arthur massacre, gun laws varied greatly state-by-state and Tasmania in particular had lax regulations: easy access to guns without a permit, registration not required for most guns, and fully automatic firearms available (they were already banned on the mainland). So there was need for an overarching approach. Under the Australian Constitution the federal government does not have power to enact gun laws, so Prime Minister Howard brought the states together to each adopt a National Firearms Agreement, which banned semi-automatic guns and created tight regulations on gun permitting and ownership. Along with these reforms, the government did a massive buyback where it purchased and destroyed guns in circulation that were now illegal. And, just six months after the massacre, a whole country handed in their most dangerous guns.

Of course not everyone was in favor of the new regulations and buyback program, but there was enough general public agreement and strong federal leadership to make it happen. Nowadays if you want to shoot guns in Australia you still can, you just have to go through a process, and about 5% of Australians do. There are shooting clubs, people hunt, and use guns on farms. But they’re all registered, had to show the purpose of the gun, and are permitted a gun that is appropriate for the need. Since 1996 reforms, there hasn’t been a violence backlash and gun crimes are rare.

As an American, it bewildered and impressed me that a society could deal with the issue of gun control so swiftly and resolutely. (How would that be politically possible?!) The Australian perspective now takes strong gun control as common sense and uncontroversial, and I applaud our leaders who seek to learn from other countries’ solutions. I know Australia is not America and I don’t claim to have a 10-point plan to solve America’s gun issues, but shouldn’t our society and government take some sort of action to better protect its citizens from themselves? Because what is more baffling: that Australia did something serious and widespread about gun control or that America isn’t?

Domestic Nepal flight to Pokhara: FAIL!

After five days in Nepal in three different cities we still hadn’t seen the mountains due to fog and haze. With shaky weather forecasts ahead, we decided express transport was in order to ensure sun and mountain-viewing in Pokhara, a hotspot for outdoor activities near the Annapurna range in western-central Nepal. We made this snap decision over breakfast, so after finishing our banana lassis and veggie momos we raced to the travel agent and bought plane tickets for that day 2pm. Henry in particular looked at the tiny puddle jumper flight as a potential mountain sight-seeing opportunity. This is going to be fun!

Our taxi dropped us off and identified a ramshackle building ahead as the domestic terminal. As we approached, we wondered what airport security might be like and when Henry made a joke about monkeys getting through I giggled. Then he pointed just to my right, “no, seriously, there’s a monkey right there.” Sure enough, there were monkeys all around us, climbing the trees and sketchy power lines, even in the airport arrival lounge.


“I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to be here…” *

We viewed the terminal building skeptically. It was a literal construction zone. Is this really the right place? Without the help of signage, we picked our way through the rubble and found the departure area.


Departures! *

Security was lax and check in a mess: “the weather is bad, flights from earlier were cancelled and are backed up, we *think* your flight is delayed so just wait for a while.” A woman next to me said relative chaos was the normal state of things and happens every time she flies through this airport. Pigeons roosted and fought above our heads. In the jam-packed boarding lounge, we watched as a comical spreadsheet projection displayed flight statuses: “bad weather, all flights delayed, Pokhara airport closed, next update @15:00”. They began updating when we could expect the next update. We overheard that planes can’t land at the Pokhara airport after dark because there are no lights… great. A group of older British gentlemen began scrambling a helicopter. Henry got us snacks and beer.


Yikes… hanging tight and watching the cricket highlights. *

By 4pm our flight and all others to Pokhara were officially canceled due to storms. We collected our bags and refunds, actually in good spirits as it was an interesting experience rife with opportunity for snarky remarks. But lesson learned: flying domestically in Nepal sounds quick (30 minute flight!) but is not always a safer bet than ground travel, especially when you don’t make any forward progress. Then again, let’s give this another try to fly again tomorrow, this time escaping the bad weather of Nepal completely and heading internationally to Delhi!

* All photos courtesy of Henry Whitehead.

Bring on the next adventure: Nepal and India

It feels silly to say I’m taking a holiday from my working holiday, but I am. I originally planned to take a break from my year in Australia in May to return to Seattle for the wedding of two dear friends… and with flights from Asia to the US far cheaper than direct flights from Perth, I was already eyeing an en route holiday.

Enter Henry, who on our very first date described to me his intent for an epic India and beyond solo trip. I visited India in 2007 and have been keen to return in more depth ever since. Cheap flights to Asia from Perth and the possibility of traveling with Henry quickly tempted me… As we spent more time together and his six-week south Asia plan took shape, it wasn’t long before I signed on as his travel companion (I warned him: don’t invite me if you don’t mean it!). Our timing and common interests couldn’t be more perfect as we begin what will surely be an incredible experience.

How to get started on your Work and Holiday visa in Australia

In Australia, the job market is strong and the wages are high, making it an attractive place to work temporarily while experiencing a new culture. The “Work and Holiday” or “Working Holiday” visa (depending on what country you’re from) is an easy and common way for young people to earn money and travel.

There are lots of working holiday travelers in Australia, but not many of them are American. It isn’t a strong part of American culture to travel long-term as working age adults; we travel perhaps as part of a university foreign exchange program, but infrequently take a gap year let alone extended time off from work once you start a career. Before two years ago, I didn’t even know it was possible to live and work in another country virtually unrestricted for a year! But programs like Australia’s Work and Holiday visa are excellent options for young people to explore living in a new culture while making money but without the hurdle of employer-sponsored longterm visas. I encourage you–especially if you’re American–to consider giving it a try and to spread the word within the states.

The thought of attempting to find work in another country can be daunting. I heard stories from other travelers about the high cost of living (Australia is the 6th most expensive country in the world, after all) and was nervous about how it would be to a job. Fortunately, now four months in, I have found employment fairly easy to get and am greatly enjoying living and working in Perth, Western Australia. Now I feel I shouldn’t have been so nervous!

So how should *you* get started?

Step 1: Get your temporary work visa
A Work and Holiday visa allows young people ages 18-30 to temporarily work any job in Australia as long as no job with a single employer is longer than 6 months. Americans are eligible for a Work and Holiday visa (subclass 462); Europeans, Canadians, and other countries can receive a Working Holiday visa (subclass 417) that is essentially the same but allows for a second year if you complete rural work. It costs about $400USD for the visa and is very easy to apply, using the links above. After putting in my application online, I received my visa by email within 36 hours. Once you get your visa, you have one year to enter Australia and then one year after you arrive to live and work in the country.

Step 2: Book a plane ticket and go to Australia
So you’re headed to Australia. But it’s a big place… where specifically? I found choosing where to go one of the most difficult decisions. Melbourne is very popular, as is Sydney, and offer the most vibrant cultural scene in Australia and (I assume) a healthy traveller population. I however chose Perth because I had Australian friends living there, so had a solid start to a support network and a place to stay. This choice was key to my experience, and my friends were invaluable with giving emotional support, sorting out logistics, introducing me to new people, explaining cultural differences, and just being all around super-incredibly-awesome. With their help, I integrated into living more like an Australian, rather than a tourist.

Hello from Perth!

Once you decide where, now time to pull out your wallet and buy a one-way ticket. Flights to Australia can be expensive, but you can reduce that with a little research. Currently, I’m really digging momondo and adioso for finding international flights as they include a great variety of airlines and seems very comprehensive search engines. It can often be cheaper to fly long-haul from the US to Asia and then take a cheap flight to Australia. On my most recent flight in 2015, I found a $480USD flight from Seattle to Bali, and then grabbed a $100USD flight from Bali to Perth. Easily enough savings to warrant a mini-holiday en route! :-P

The following steps are to be done in country. It may feel scary to just make a leap without having a job waiting for you or for all the pieces in place, but you can do it! I recommend travelers actually having that $5,000 in your bank account that the Australian government requires for Working Holiday visa folks… there are initial costs and it takes a little time to get settled (I got my first job approximately 4 weeks in). Having some cushion money to live off of makes the process far less stressful. You will make it back.

Step 3: Get your tax file number (TFN)
This is your Australian tax ID number and while you can work without one, if you don’t have one you will pay monstrously more tax. Get one. It takes 2 minutes to apply for online. I did this one day one, and it came in the mail in about one week. You can start working without a TFN and then submit it to your employer within 30 days to receive the tax benefits.

Step 4: Open an Australian bank account
Easy to do, just walk into banks and ask around. Most Australian banks offer a free basic account. I have a NAB Classic Bank Account that has no fees plus all the usual bells and whistles of a debit account. Alongside, I have free savings account that earns 3.5% interest (unheard of is the US but standard in Australia) and I can move money between the two accounts instantly. Included in my welcome packet were letters to give employers on how to pay me through my new account. I dug the optimism.

Step 4B: Get an Australian phone number
This perhaps isn’t necessary, but sure does help if people are trying to contact you and offer a job! Mobile plans are cheap and easy if your phone accepts SIM cards. Most carriers offer $30/month prepaid plans with varying benefits. Telstra is known as having the best overall coverage but is the most expensive. I have a monthly prepaid plan with Optus, one of the other major carriers, and for $30/mo get 1G data, unlimited domestic texting, 350 minutes domestic talk, and a $5 extras credit that I can use for 250 minutes of call time to America. Score.

Step 5: Start looking for work!
I highly recommend initially using a temp agency. Even though the visa is *supposed* to be for any job, realistically Work and Holiday/Working Holiday candidates are hired as lower level labour: wait staff, receptionists, fruit pickers, au pairs, manual labour, et cetera. Many job postings on Seek (the local job board of choice, but I haven’t found it particularly useful) specify the position is for Australians only, even for temp work.

For my entrance to the job market, I determined office work was probably my best bet because a) I’m currently living in a city, b) it’s probably my highest earning potential, and c) I wanted day shifts that matched most of my friends’ schedules.

I was referred by a friend to a recruiting agent who could link me into temporary office work. Recruiting agencies are popular in Australia and I found they made my job search heaps less painful. I submitted a resume, went in for an interview, and took tests to measure my typing speed/accuracy and proficiency with MS Office. I was given pointers on how to tailor my resume to Australian employers, made edits, and out it went to potential employers. One week after my initial interview I accepted a full time temporary receptionist job, paying $25AUD/hr. Not my dream job, but a decent start to my shiny new Australian bank account! After my establishing some professional street cred, I’ve had luck easily securing new temp jobs through the same agency. Using a temp agency was a great choice for me, and I’d highly recommend other travelers check them out.

I’ve also picked up a few independent one-off jobs: being a Christmas fairy at a local mall (obtained through friend of a friend of a friend who heard I was looking for work) and working weekend staff at a music festival (I emailed the festival past their deadline but asked for paid work anyway and got an offer right away). I’ve also volunteered for cultural events that get me in to see shows for free. Businesses really do seem to need workers here, so it’s work simply contacting a place you like and seeing if they’re hiring.

Once you have the building blocks sorted, it’s fairly stress-free to continue picking up jobs and sustaining your year (or two) in Australia. So come on in, the water’s fine… take the plunge!

I know it’s a small country, but…

Everyone is this country seems to be on a first name basis. It’s very friendly, but also confusing and unspecific. When I started my temp receptionist gig, I was surprised how everyone who I spoke with on the phone immediately assert their name as if I should know who they are, then ask to be directed to a staff member, usually also only using first names. Um, we have four Sarahs that work here… Yes, Perth is a small town where everyone seems to know everybody and even I can’t walk down a street without running into someone. (And I know, like, five people.) But are there really so few people in Australia that “Nathan” is a sufficient unique identifier?

A bicycle safety lesson for North American travelers

I was riding my bicycle to work like I do every day, and as I went down a hill just around the corner from my house I hit the sidewalk wrong and went head over handlebars. My bike went to the left, my head struck concrete just above my right temple (thank god for my helmet!), and my right leg, arm, and shoulder dragged across the pavement.

I lay on the sidewalk, shaking in shock, staring at my hands, feeling alone and injured in a foreign country. I was sure my helmet was partially split open from the impact my head made on the sidewalk. I looked up at the road. Why aren’t any cars stopping for me? It felt like longer, but surely only took a few seconds for people to rush to my side. A neighbour brought me water and offered to stow my bike, another cyclist phoned his family doctor who was nearby, a man on his way to the beach offered me a ride in the coolest camper van I’ve ever seen with a black and white checked floor and an 8-track playing the Beach Boys.

In a daze, I got a phone quote from the private family doctor: $80AUD for a visit. Seemed expensive, but turns out the emergency room was $225AUD. It sucks to be an American abroad with no reciprocal medical benefits and a high travel insurance deductible. (For citizens of countries with nationalized health care, that emergency room visit would have been free and travel insurance is $30 instead of $300…) I got in to see the private family doctor immediately, they made sure I didn’t have a head or spine injury or broken bones, then dressed my wounds. I fumbled with my borrowed water bottle, unable to manage keeping it upright as I sat. The British nurse told me I had gone “head over tits”. An Aussie told me a better way to put it: I “came a cropper on my bike”.

After I was released, I spent the day ingesting painkillers and resting on my left side. A wonderful girlfriend came to my aid immediately to watch over me (you’re not supposed to be alone soon after sustaining an impact to the head). The day after, my arm and shoulder still hurt and everyone at work is grimacing at my impressive-looking battle scars, but I’m really thankful all my scrapes are superficial. It’s a serious reminder to wear your helmet (turns out it didn’t even crack, definitely did its job) and it frightens me to think of the damage I could have done without it. Still, scabby arms and legs was not the look I was hoping to sport on New Year’s Eve…

I originally wasn’t going to blog about this (because come on, if Erin falls on the streets of Fremantle and there isn’t anyone around does anyone really care?), until I found out that the likely reason I fell was a cultural difference:

A Canadian co-worker told me the breaks on bicycles here are opposite from North America–the rear break is controlled from the left handlebar and the front break is on the right. He said he sees it all the time, North American visitors go down a hill, instinctively hit their right break, it stops the front tire and sends them over their handlebars. I was definitely riding downhill, breaking as I dodged trash cans put out for collection; it’s very likely sharply hitting the front break by mistake is exactly what I did. There’s another Australian lesson for me, and something for others to watch out for.

A timely headline… Watch out Tony Abbott, it can happen to you too!

‘Twas the weekend before Christmas… and Bad Santa is coming to town

Merry Christmas!

I got an email on Friday: How would you like to make some easy money? We need a stand-in to play a Christmas fairy with Santa this weekend at the local mall. Hells yeah! This was my dream job last Christmas, but my application for Space Elf to help Santa atop the Space Needle was rejected. Here in Australia however, the job of Christmas Poinsettia Fairy falls in my lap.

I’ve been feeling homesick again; the summer weather simply doesn’t feel Christmasy to me. I have been digging Elvis’ ballad “Blue Christmas” and crying at Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”. I am filled with holiday spirit, but need an outlet, and Christmas pageantry is just the ticket. All decked out in my shiny costume, poinsettia-petal wings, butterfly-tinsel-wreath, red lipstick, and glitter, I checked into the mall’s office to meet my Santa.

“What agency are you with? Are you from xyz productions?” he pestered me, trying to determine my acting pedigree. Because, as he quickly informed me, he was quite an actor himself. Have I spoken with his agent? Because he could put me in touch. Oh, he’s played Santa for years now, and does voice over acting too. Would I like to hear some impressions? Doesn’t matter if I do or not, as he immediately launches into a terrible stereotypic borderline-offensive Indian convenience store owner impression. He follows it up with an awful approximation of Elvis.

Santa likes to chat and somehow it segues into Vietnam. He’s a vet, was a truck driver during the war, never shot anyone but did go into the fields to cart away bodies. The things those soldiers did, man… they’d go into villages and rape native girls. But no one likes a rapist, and sometimes the men would shoot the offenders–from their own side–and blame it on Charlie.

Whoa boy…

We step into the sparsely populated shopping centre. An older woman at the gift wrap station yells that Santa is missing his hat. Whoops. I smile widely, wave to kids, and wish everyone a Merry Christmas. I love how smiling at another person has power to generate a little extra happiness in the world. Most kids get very still when they see us, star-struck by the big man. One precocious kid in a hot pink romper isn’t shy at all; she asks why I walk instead of fly, then accuses me of not being a real fairy!

A few kids visit and we make their day, but they are few and far between. Santa ends up talking about drugs with a group of teenagers: “This one [points at me] gets me in all kinds of trouble–alcohol, weed, shooting heroin…” What?! In the US, Santas are pretty good about staying in character, what the hell is this!? The teens love it. I pull him away for a photo op. He does another bad Elvis impression and calls me ‘baby’.

Up on the dais, air-con blows onto Santa’s throne. He grumbles about how this place has gone down hill. I continue to flutter about, recruiting children. Santa sees an Asian teenage girl walking by herself and shouts in a phony Asian accent (excuse me, “impression”, so that makes it ok) something terribly racist. He repeats himself in case she didn’t hear. I can’t believe it.

Air-con Santa.

Bored, he steps down, saying let’s go for a walk. He quickly detours into a shop that sells antique housewares. We greet the shopkeeper, then I head back outside. But Santa is transacting business, and it isn’t going well. He storms out with a trolley filled with a grotesque vintage doll, two large stuffed dogs, a rug, and a clock-radio. He’s pissed: “She says she wants to buy these things from me, then changes her mind? How dare she. Now, will you watch the stuff while I get my car keys?” Seriously, dude?

Now key-enabled, Santa pushes the trolley out to the nearby car park, whinging the whole way. En route, he is spotted by a little girl. And she is the absolute cutest little girl. Perhaps three years old, sitting in her mom’s shopping trolley, big blue eyes and curly blond hair in pig tails. She looks at him wide-eyed and excited: Santa! Aw crap, I think. Putting on my best fairy smile, I go over and make Christmas chitchat until Santa is done stuffing shit into his car.

After a few more kids, Santa looks at his watch. We’ve been working for over ninety minutes, which means–according to him–it’s time for a break. Because we’ve been working *really* hard. He shuffles back to the office and then for ten minutes he tries to impress me and a security guard with a mediocre story about meeting the actor who played Kojack.

We re-enter the mall, Santa ringing his attention-grabbing bell loudly, interrupting the new nearby musical act. They graciously thanked him for chiming in (*facepalm*) and continue with lacklustre off-key carols. I sing along, surprising people by knowing the words to all the Christmas standards. (Yes, I’m that person who is happy to hear piped in Christmas music all day every day during the holidays!) The music does make things more festive, but I also can’t get it out of my mind that we all belong in a dingy, third-rate old-school casino lounge…

The tagline on the sign, just under the picture with piano-key neckties, reads “Let us entertain you”.

But Santa just isn’t into it. He needs to be reminded to zip up the front of his costume. Still sore about not selling his goods, he grumbles about “greedy superficial people” and under his breath wishes the shopkeeper a terrible Christmas. With twenty minutes left in the our shift, Santa left again to check on his car, paranoid that his wares might be stolen, and then knocked off early. Thus concludes my three-hour shift as a Christmas Fairy. Wow…

How did day two go, you may ask? We got far fewer kids and more criers, perhaps in part to Santa’s attitude. He complained about wanting a whiskey, brought a CD player to play his own tunes, took a supersized break, swore repeatedly while adults posed with him for a photo, and then FELL ASLEEP IN HIS CHAIR. I was focused on prepping a little girl who was meeting Santa for the first time when her mom laughed, “Santa’s asleep!”. I had to punch him in the leg to wake him up.

I asked my Aussie friends, is this normal? Are Santas in Australia more casual and rough around the edges? Nope, everyone was shocked… and encouraged me to write it all down right away. :-P Despite his bad behaviour, I did my part and enjoyed it. It felt good to be sparkly and embody cheer, not only spreading the holiday spirit but helping me feel more of it myself. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!