How to be a Foreigner


Mike Cartlidge

Chapter 1

The middle of the ocean? How did we get here?

It was ANZAC Day, the day when citizens of Australia and New Zealand remember their forbears who fell in the great wars of the twentieth century. As usual, the dawn remembrance service packed an emotional wallop and the few Kiwis amongst us had damp eyes when our national anthem was played. An old soldier shuffled to the rail of our ship and threw a wreath into the water. We bit our lips and turned away in time to see fins breaking the surface of the ocean. A young dolphin took a triple leap into the air as if it was playing to the crowd.

You tend to get new perspectives on familiar events when you’re travelling the world by ship.

Although we weren’t just travelling on this ship. It was, to all intents and purposes, our home.

* * *

Not long ago, we’d had a proper home. On land. With two cars in the garage. Friendly neighbours. Recliner armchairs. But our kids had grown up and not only had they left home, they’d left the country, on what generations of young New Zealanders had always called their OE, or Overseas Experience. Our daughter was temping in London. Our son was teaching English in Korea. The family home didn’t have much of a family in it anymore.

One night, we had an epiphany. This wasn’t one of those religious on-the-road-to-Damascus epiphanies but rather one of the crystal-clear revelations you get after you’ve drunk two bottles of red wine and followed it with some funny-tasting apricot liqueur that someone left behind after a party. I’d recently read an online newspaper article about something called the “experience economy.” I took another drink and told J about it. The essence of the experience economy was that consumers were increasingly deciding that memories lasted longer than material possessions. Not if they drank too much funny-tasting apricot liqueur that someone left behind after a party, she pointed out. Still, I said, the people in the article were buying experiences, from trips to the Andes to “adventure tourism,” rather than new BMWs and plasma-screen TVs. The only consumer goods being sold in increasing numbers to these people had Harley Davidson badges.

J advised me that my chances of getting her on a Harley Davidson were roughly equivalent to George W. Bush’s chances of winning a special Nobel Prize for having an enormous brain but she did express interest in the rest of the theory. We realised that the idea of the experience economy gelled with other thoughts we’d been having. We were never big on keeping up with the Jones. We didn’t care about having new cars just so we could park them impressively on the drive. We were happy with our old cathode ray tube TV.

When we thought about it, we realised we’d spent years in rebellion against the Consumer Trap. The Consumer Trap is about flogging yourself to death so you can earn and/or borrow lots of money and then spend it on big houses, new cars, and plasma-screen TV sets. This is supposed to make you happy. It’s the American Dream, transported, in our case, down under. It’s cemented in our psyches by billion dollar advertising and marketing industries that start working on our consciousnesses from the moment we’re born and here’s the only one thing wrong with it. It’s complete bollocks.

In reality, research has shown that most possessions don’t increase your happiness levels and the debt you smother yourself with to get them just makes you miserable. This isn’t a totally original thought, of course. It also occurred to Socrates and Plato and various other Greek philosophers. OK, they didn’t even have BMWs and plasma-screen TVs to tempt them, but still.

We didn’t really care about getting any more stuff. We didn’t even care about most of the stuff we already owned. We decided we should chuck it all and go somewhere. We were, we told ourselves, spiritual descendants of the brave pioneers who’d navigated great oceans and carved nations from the wildernesses they’d found. We were kith and kin of hardy folk who faced the unknown with jutting jaws and dauntless determination. And, more to the point, we’d drunk two bottles of red wine and mixed it with some funny-tasting apricot liqueur that someone left behind after a party, so nothing was impossible.

“Where did that horrible fruity stuff come from?” J asked me.

I stared blearily at the bottle. “Somewhere on the other side of the world.”

“Let’s go there,” she said.

“OK,” I said.

So, after this in-depth study of the project’s feasibility and desirability, it was decided. We’d move to the other side of the world for a bit. We called friends and relatives and told them. They told us it was very late and that we were being very silly.

We told them we’d show ’em.

Which was how we inadvertently made sure we couldn’t change our minds come the morning.

* * *

Come the morning, we swallowed a quantity of paracetemol tablets and had a shot at rationalising the previous night’s decisions. We were, we told ourselves, at one of those crossroads that life occasionally presents, if you’re lucky enough to survive the dangers of twenty-first century living and attacks on your central nervous system from outlandish alcoholic beverages. We still felt like we did when we were twenty years old but when we looked into the bathroom mirror there seemed to be a problem with reception.

Many people love to be in familiar surroundings. They want the comfort of a daily routine, getting up in the morning to a house they can walk around blindfold. The morning coffee. Breakfast with the newspaper opened to the sports pages and propped against the percolator. Shopkeepers who have a chat when you drop your loaf of bread and bottle of skimmed milk on the counter.

We didn’t think we wanted that sense of place anymore. It wasn’t just because we had hangovers. We wanted to experience the shock of the new. We wanted to wake up in the morning not knowing quite where we were or what we were doing next.

We’d flown out of New Zealand—to Britain and other countries—before. At a height of 30,000 feet, we’d passed over some interesting-looking places. Which was good. We just hadn’t stopped at enough of them. This time, we thought we’d stop and have a look around. And, as much as possible, we’d avoid seeing them from the usual point of view of tourists. Where possible, we’d avoid the road most travelled. Instead of being tourists, skimming the surface of “strange lands” like water-skiers on the ocean, we’d pick a few places and dive in. We’d make some other countries home for a while, irrespective of whether we spoke the language or understood the local customs. We’d learn how to be foreigners.

* * *

We told ourselves we had to travel light. In this regard, things were much easy for our ancestors, who’d set off on a long journey wearing a few furs, carrying a club and, if they were really travelling in style, packing a couple of mammoth sandwiches for a quick munch en route. For twenty-first century homo sapiens, travelling light is a much tougher proposition.

First off, we bought a new laptop to take with us. We needed word processing capabilities and a way of accessing the Internet so we could book travel and accommodation online. The new machine weighed 2.5 kilograms, which wouldn’t have been too bad if it had been the only piece of technology we were carrying. But there was also the electric toothbrush. And the charger for the electric toothbrush. And more chargers for the digital camera and the cell phone. And then there was my MP3 player. And the charger for my MP3 player. And we needed cords to connect the camera and the MP3 player to the computer. And the cord for the laptop included one of those transformer things that are the general shape and consistency of packs of frozen butter. My suitcase was half full before I’d even rolled up a pair of socks.

It’s a safe bet that Ug the Caveman never had this problem when he went on his holidays.

* * *

Another reason for taking a laptop was that we’d decided to record our progress around the world on a blog. Blog entries would keep friends and relatives informed about where we were and give us an excuse for not buying postcards. They’d also, with any luck, form the basis for travel articles, which I could sell to friendly and/or gullible newspaper editors. I’d written the odd travel article before and, while the income they provided wouldn’t keep us in the style of apricot liqueur to which we’d become accustomed, any extra cash was going to come in useful.

I also had a vague plan that the blog entries would eventually become the basis for a book. I’d previously written a few novels which had sold in exactly the same way that hot cakes didn’t. It could hardly have been coincidence that two of my book publishers had subsequently gone bust. I was curious to see if I could visit the same levels of destruction on the world of travel publishing.

As I said earlier, we also needed Internet access so we could book travel and accommodation. This was because, as much as possible, we wanted to decide where we were going as we went along. Some arrangements, though, had to be made well in advance. We wanted to travel to Europe by sea, for example, and you can’t just roll up at a dockside like it’s your local bus terminal and expect to march straight onto a ship. Additionally, we wanted to spend some time in London during the summer. If you’re from New Zealand, London doesn’t really count as one of those strange lands that we intended to call home, but our daughter was there and we hadn’t seen her for a while. On top of which, London was a good jumping-off point to Europe. Accommodation in London during the summer isn’t easy to find, so we’d have to find somewhere to stay well in advance.

These were exceptions, though. Where possible, we wanted to decide on our next location just before we went there. This meant that we’d have to arrange it all, accommodation, travel, finances, the lot, through the Internet.

* * *

We had to fly to Australia. We preferred to avoid air travel where we could, partly because modern air travel is about as much fun as having haemorrhoids removed with an electric carving knife and partly because we wanted to avoid leaving a carbon footprint bigger than Greenland. If you live in New Zealand, though, and you have to be somewhere by a certain date, you generally have to fly or be a really strong swimmer.

We did have to be somewhere by a certain date. The “somewhere” was Perth, Australia, from where we’d booked a ride to Britain on a ship called the MV Funchal. The Funchal would be sailing on a “repositioning voyage,” leaving the sunny waters of the deep south and heading to Europe in time for the start of the northern cruising season. You’ll have seen ads and posters for modern cruise liners, many of them as tall as an apartment building, 100,000-plus tonnes of restaurants, swimming pools, theatres, and all-round extravagant living. The Funchal wasn’t anything like that. For a start, it was less than 10,000 tonnes, tiny by modern standards. It was also old. It had once been the Portuguese presidential yacht, around the time J and I were more concerned with playing with dolls (well, one of us was) and/or getting our nappies changed. It wasn’t sleek and shiny, like the newer ships. Comments on some of the Internet message boards we checked out made it sound a bit of a rust bucket. But it was a cheap rust bucket and it had, after all, survived fifty years of flogging around the world’s oceans. We decided it would do.

The Funchal was voyaging from Perth to Harwich, in England. On the way she would stop in various interesting places in Asia as well as the Maldives, Egypt, Athens, and Lisbon. That’s if she didn’t break down, as she did in Egypt on one such trip, or strike rocks like the considerably bigger liners that, even in this age of satellite navigation, occasionally still go to the bottom.

So, we’d sail round the world and make final landfall in the port of Harwich, which, when we looked at the kids’ old school atlas, turned out to be some miles to the north of London. We planned to stay in the UK until late summer. We’d spend some time just travelling around the country. We’d see relatives and old friends, tell them how much we’d missed them and then cadge food, accommodation, and intoxicating beverages off them. When we ran out of exploitable acquaintances, we’d stay in B&Bs and cheap hotels. Then we’d live for a few months in a tiny flat that we’d found, through the Internet, in southeast London.

After that, we’d move to France: we’d always wanted to see the Loire Valley and the Dordogne and we thought it was only fair to give the locals a chance to appreciate our near-fluent Francais. (Pardon, Madame, could vous tell us ou est les public toilets, s’il vous plait?). Then we thought we’d meander southwards as the weather got cooler, passing through the bottom bit of France and ending up in Spain or one of those other countries where they take siestas and wave their hands around a lot. Finally, when winter arrived, we’d try to come up with a way of heading homewards.

Well, it was a plan of sorts.

* * *

Actually, we were going to have to do a bit more planning. We were going to be away for a long time and neither the proceeds of the house sale or my occasional sales of newspaper articles would keep us going forever. As far as possible, we needed to get by on roughly the same money that we’d have been spending at home. We prepared a budget and did some more Internet research on places to stay. We didn’t want to live in hovels and we couldn’t afford to lounge about in five-star hotels. The best options we could find were apartments and, in rural Europe, country cottages. The best value amongst these were holiday homes that belonged to private citizens. They were much cheaper than hotels and offered you the chance to save still more money by cooking in rather than eating out. This was an important distinction: in Europe, supermarket food prices weren’t that much higher than in New Zealand but restaurant meals cost two to three times as much.

We found a number of web sites specialising in short-term rentals. Besides booking our apartment in London, we reserved a gite, a French country cottage, for the first few weeks of our time in the Loire Valley. After that, the peak holiday period would be over and accommodation should be easier to find and much cheaper. We hoped. If we were right, we’d be able to find wireless Internet connections and book places as we go.

* * *

It’s the same on any big trip. You spend ages talking about what you’re going to do. You do some planning. Then you get the big shock of having to actually do something instead of just talking about it.

We moved out of the suburban home and into a temporary apartment in the city. OK, it was only a shift of about five miles (and it was in the wrong direction) but it was a start. The really important thing was that we had a plan and we’d executed phase one of it. Successfully. Given that my project management skills are on a par with those of Laurel and Hardy on a day when they have to move a grand piano down a flight of steps and they’ve accidentally made themselves cups of tea using gin instead of water, this came as a pleasant surprise.

The move wasn’t without its stressful moments. During the preceding weeks, we’d sold all of our possessions except those that had sentimental value and those we knew we’d one day use again. We moved these remaining items into a lock-up storage facility in an industrial suburb. We’d carefully estimated how much storage we’d need but, during the move, things did start to look a little Laurel-and-Hardyish. The storage facility was really a large garage. At about the time we’d got it about three-fourths full, we still had half our belongings scattered about the tarmac outside. We allowed ourselves a few moments of blind panic and then started organising what was left so that, if necessary, we could take a few chests of drawers and bookcases to the local tip. In the end, though, we got everything in with a luxurious 0.0000027 cubic millimetres to spare.

Evening came and we found ourselves camped in our temporary apartment in the middle of the city. We made ourselves cups of tea and sat looking at the two suitcases that held all our remaining possessions. We weren’t worried, we assured ourselves. We thought of the Bedouin nomads who wandered the sands from oasis to oasis with only the nighttime stars and the fragrant desert breezes to guide them. We were just like them. Apart, of course, from a general shortage of camels and sand dunes in downtown Wellington.

It was a time for reflection. The last few weeks had been a memorable experience, quite apart from the moving stuff. Actually, there’d been lots of moving stuff of another kind. We’d had catch-ups with all our friends and been invited to so many brunches, lunches, and dinners that it came as a shock when, on our last day, we had to prepare a meal for ourselves. The previous weeks, then, had been good training for all the cadging we’d be doing in Britain but they also gave us an insight into why we intended to return home some time. The philosopher Epicurus, who was a sort of patron saint of mateship, once said “of all the things which wisdom provides to make us entirely happy, much the greatest is the possession of friendship.”

So as we set our minds on Perth and the wide blue sea we raised a plastic glass with painted flowers on its side and saluted all the friends who had welcomed us into their lives and sped us on our way with cheery cries of “sod off you scrounging buggers.”

Chapter 2

No cockroaches or giant spiders? That’s nice. (Perth, Australia)

New Zealanders are used to thinking of travel to Australia in terms of a few hours but the trip from Wellington to Perth seemed to take forever. We rose at 3 a.m. in order to board the 6 a.m. Wellington-Melbourne flight and then had a few dull hours in Melbourne airport before catching the on-going flight to Western Australia. Both flights were about three and a half hours. The second one was, curiously, much better. You’d think, compared to in-country travel, international flights would offer a better service. Not in Australasia. The internal Qantas flight to Perth was on a 767 with plenty of legroom. The international flight from Wellington was on a converted Sopwith Camel with seats specially designed for quadruple amputees.

We booked our apartment in Perth on the Internet. It was on the basic side but roomy and it was nicely devoid of the enormous cockroaches and giant spiders that can be such entertaining distractions in Australian buildings. And it was a mere 10-minute walk to the CBD. We were comfortable enough.

Perth was different from anywhere in New Zealand but it wasn’t that high on the strange land scale. We felt like foreigners but only just. We were, of course, only here because Perth, or more accurately, the port of Fremantle, was where we were going to catch our ship to Europe. Perth isn’t really on the way to anywhere. It’s also not exactly close to anywhere, either. Adelaide, depending on what road you take, is nearly 3,000 kilometres away. Timor and Indonesia, as Perth residents like to remind you, are closer.

Treating Perth as a stopover, though, is a bit of an affront to this unique city. Despite having a population of 1.3 million people, it has the feel of a town. This is, in part at least, because well-treed suburbs spread out from the city for mile after mile. The inner city is spacious, its pace leisurely. Stand on Hay Street, which runs the length of the city, and your first thought is “where’s the traffic?” Traffic volumes are nearer those of a small rural town than a major city. Your second thought, as you walk towards the CBD, is that Perth is a place where parkland might have won the eternal urban battle against encroaching buildings. The city straddles the wide River Swan but the waterfront is all lawns and gum trees. The shops and hotels and office buildings line up a hundred metres inland like the ranks of a frustrated army.

Perth turned out to have an excellent free bus service. We found it was an interesting way to observe people. Passengers tended to be tourists, using the bus as an easy way to get their bearings, or non-car-driving locals. The latter were mostly over 65 or under 25. The older people were friendly, eager to help us find places of interest and tell us of the problems Perth had with its aboriginal people, who feature in all the worst societal statistics including those for crime—especially drink-related offences—health and child abuse. You got the impression that the non-aborigines would like to help but they’d no idea where to start.

Two late-teenage boys sat behind us during one leg of the bus transit of the city. The boys were of middle eastern origin, probably from somewhere like Lebanon. There had been recent tensions—and outbreaks of violence—between young white Australians and kids like these. The teenagers on the bus weren’t exactly into peace and reconciliation. They talked at full volume for the benefit of other passengers, telling each other about fights they’d got into, guffawing over graphic accounts of bricks swung at victim’s heads, of opponents left bleeding in the roads thanks to their pugilistic expertise. When they reached their stop, they got off and swaggered down the road. Heads back with shouted bravado. Fists punching the air.

An old soldier turned to watch them, nodding, smiling, talking half to himself and half to us. “The ones who talk the most do the least.”

* * *

The bus was an occasional treat. Mostly, we walked. Perth is very walkable and mostly flat. Its west end is especially beautiful, even though this is the one part that’s not on the level. We trudged up the area’s only hill to Kings Park, all tree-lined avenues, sweeping lawns, cafes, and war memorials. Its lookouts gave onto the wide expanse of the river, the CBD to one side, freeways and suburbs on the other. Tourists roamed, locals spread picnic blankets on the grass, and huge black crows ran protection rackets on smaller birds imprudent enough to intrude on their air space. About this time, J, who’s New Zealand born and bred and fanatically loyal to her homeland, was saying “you know, I could live in this place.”

* * *

Perth’s well-preserved brick and stone buildings could have been transplanted from London or Paris. Buildings like the Town Hall would have represented a pretty good return on investment for the city fathers. The tourist guides tell you they were built by convicts imported from the penal colonies in the east as (and this isn’t quite how the guides put it) a handy slave labour force. Like the older European cities, much of Perth is low-rise, with only a handful of tower blocks in the CBD.

Residents will tell you that the weather is always beautiful. Summer temperatures, however, can get into the forties. When we were there, the forecast was for more modest highs of thirty-something but it never seemed that hot, thanks to a cool breeze that wafted inland from the coast. The city is some nineteen kilometres from the sea, its position selected by colonial settler Charles Fremantle. Fremantle also founded the port that bears his name but decided that the region’s administrative centre should be located inland and named for the Scottish city, which at the time was represented by an MP friend of Fremantle’s. (The friend was called Murray, but he’d already got an Australian river named after himself.)

Locals call Fremantle Freo—Australians have a mania for shortening names—and claim it’s a pretty hip place since it staged the America’s Cup yacht races in the nineteen-nineties. We took the train there and walked around. The town was a strangely schizophrenic place. The local authority was keen to preserve its status as a working port and, consequently, it had the rows of nondescript warehouses and stacks of containers that you find in ports anywhere in the world. Just a couple of streets away was the “cappuccino strip,” full of trendy pubs and restaurants. A street or two further on and you were back to “nondescript” in the form of lines of plain suburban houses.

Freo’s main tourist attraction, apart from its long sandy beaches, was its colonial prison, now closed for business and used only to thrill holidaymakers. The tourist leaflets offer you a nighttime tour “if you are brave enough.” We were tempted but finally decided we didn’t have the raw courage necessary to do battle with people who exhibited such a reckless disdain for cliché.

* * *

J could start a conversation in one of those convents where they’ve taken a vow of silence. Strangers on the street have no chance. The most obvious question we asked residents was whether they felt isolated, living so far away from any other city. The general reaction was a sort of mental shrug. “You get used to it,” they’d say. You also got the impression that they regarded distances differently from the rest of us. “You should visit the Wave Rock,” they’d tell us—the Wave Rock is an ancient escarpment shaped by Jurassic weather into a long graceful curve—“it’s just up the road.” Just up the road, you discovered, meant a four-hour drive.

The locals loved their city but some were worried by its rapid population growth and projections that it would run out of water in a few years’ time. In common with much of Australia, climate change seems to have reduced rainfall levels considerably over the last decade and drought was a constant threat.

* * *

Our five days in Perth went quickly. We kept things simple, mindful of the fact that we’d have the next five weeks living in the midst (we hoped) of well-catered, pampered luxury. We ate out a couple of times, most notably in a Thai restaurant in Freo that served such big portions that we took a “doggy bag” of leftovers that kept us going for days. Generally, though, we took advantage of our apartment’s small kitchen to cook in, most of our meals being simple and featuring lots of fresh bread and fruit. This approach had health benefits as well as saving money. The latter consideration was of prime importance given our budget. J had now decided she was going to maintain a daily record of expenditure. She had, to paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan, a “little book.” This meant we were suddenly focused on where every cent went and my lavish expenditure on local ales was being met by a certain amount of steely-eyed disapproval.

* * *

On our last day in Perth, we killed time in the city until it was time to catch a taxi back out to Fremantle. Close to the port, we found ourselves straining to see Funchal, our home for the next month or more. We finally caught a glimpse of the ship as the taxi swung over Freo’s bridge and headed into the docklands. J abandoned her role as the world’s greatest conversationalist and went very, very quiet. The Funchal was there, all right, moored by a terminal and dwarfed by the surrounding freighters and buildings. We’d known the ship was small but, from a distance, it looked like something that belonged next to a rubber duck in your bath. New Zealand’s inter-island ferries seemed big in comparison. Were we really going to cross the Indian Ocean in that? They had big waves and whales and things in oceans, didn’t they?

“It’ll look bigger when we get close,” I told J.

No reply. She hadn’t been this quiet since we left home. We drove through the dockside areas, past Shed F to Shed E. The ship did look bigger from here. “It’s definitely bigger than a ferry,” I said. No reply. “Well, it’s as big. Surely.”

She was still quiet and it was only when I climbed out of the cab and started getting our cases out of the boot, leaving her to pay the driver, that she came back to life. “Thirty-three dollars, fifty cents?” She handed over the money and recorded the figure in her little book. It seemed to cheer her up and her mood improved again when she watched me struggle under the weight of her suitcase as I lugged it up the steps of the passenger terminal.

We joined a queue of people waiting to check in their luggage. The Perth episode was at an end. A new experience was about to begin. J had travelled by sea before but the most I’d ever done had been on one of those inter-island ferries that, surely, were smaller than the Funchal. Was I going to spend the whole five weeks being seasick? Were we going to hit one of the icebergs that (again with the benefit of climate change) occasionally floats northwards from the Antarctic? Whatever. This was going to be one of those non-normal, out-of-the-everyday experiences and we were never going to forget it.