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Early sunsets
(Credit Will Watt)

I’ve been in Melbourne for about six weeks now. When we first arrived we stayed a few nights at Jamie’s temporary place of residence – a lovely old colonial cottage in Brunswick that was completely refurbished on the inside. It was a one million dollar piece of property belonging to his former boss, who was on vacation in the Philippines until March 9th – serendipitously the same date Kristie and Susie’s rental in Essendon became available. Unfortunately, Jamie’s host said he wasn’t comfortable with us sleeping on his couches until then, so we had to find somewhere else to stay for the two weeks until we could freeload off Kristie and Susie. It was quite a blow – I can of course totally understand somone not being comfortable with strangers staying in their house for two weeks, but after just a few days, we’d grown quite accustomed to a certain standard of living, similar to our Beijing days.

Tram Tracks on LaTrobe St
(Credit Chaddles)

I jokingly pointed out to Chris that it would be cheaper for us to fly back to Perth on a budget airline for a few hundred dollars and stay with our families than it would be for us to stay in Melbourrne for that time. He promptly went ahead and did that. I, on the other hand, didn’t just make a big symbolic ride across the country only to fly right back for fiscal convenience.

Black Cat cafe bicycle
(Credit Andrew Robinson)

Fortunately Kristie and Susie also needed to find short term accommodation, since they were arriving in a few days, and we ended up splitting a cheap triple room at a shitty hotel in the city centre. Even after backpacking across Asia this was probably the worst value place I have ever stayed, run by a couple of deadbeats who answered questions with surly grunts and half-replies. I wrote a bad review on Tripadvisor after we left, and a few days later realised I’d left behind my motocycle road atlas and rang up to see if they had it. After telling them my name and room number, the manager identified me as the writer of the review and reacted angrily. I hung up in surprise, and a few moments later my phone rang again. Kristie urged me to answer it, saying he probably just had my atlas, but I told her not to bother because thirty seconds of speaking to him had made it clear that he was not a reasonable man. She answered it instead, and I was right – he spent about twenty minutes raving about lies and defamation, claiming that one of the conditions of staying there was that you wouldn’t write a bad review, insulting me, threatening to take money out of my account with my credit card details etc. It boggles my mind how ill-equipped this man was to simply function in normal society and interact with other human beings, let alone run a fucking hotel. He was like Basil Fawlty mixed with Scrooge.

Melbourne laneways
(Credit mfield)

Anyway, we’re in a nice two-bedroom place in Essendon now. I was only supposed to be here for a few days, since Jamie’s house was supposed to be available on the 13th of March. Instead it was delayed… and then delayed again… and then delayed again. Now, buying a house is a very complicated process involving a real estate agent, the former owner, and something called a “conveyancer.” I have no idea what a conveyancer does, but it is this figure that has been holding Jamie up at every turn, giving him wrong dates, avoiding his calls, and even lying to him and saying that the owner was in Europe when Jamie had in fact seen him at the house just yesterday. Eventually Jamie called him a cunt and got a new one, but it’s now March 30 and we’re still waiting to see when we can move in – two possible dates of April 15 or March 22.

Jamie feels like he’s overstaying his welcome at his former boss’ house and is keen to move in ASAP, and Chris is still stewing away in Perth with no job and no vehicle – which makes transport impossible on that wretched suburban steppe. I, meanwhile, am OK with hanging out in Essendon a while longer. Since my parents divorced I spent eight years living with my mothering Mum, then seven years living with my neat and tidy Dad, then when Chris and I were in Berlin we were living with two girls, and I’m now again living with two girls who keep a well-ordered house and cook dinner most nights. I expect moving into a pure bachelor pad to be a shock to the senses. Jamie seems to survive on beer and cigarettes alone.

breeadge
(Credit mugley)

It’s also out in the suburb of Sunshine, which we might, if we were being very polite, call “socio-economically disadvantaged.” A few weeks ago I was on the phone to Jamie and he said “Hey, have you read the paper today?”

“No.”

“Good. Don’t.”

I’m going to do what my father does and invest in a nice baseball bat to keep by the bed.

The other downfall of Sunshine is that it’s about as far away from the city centre as the place I was living in Perth was. Of course, I came to Melbourne because I wasn’t ready to move to London alone. I’d rather be living in suburbia with friends than in a city centre alone.

stranded in fitzroy II
(Credit Toshihiro Oshima)

And Melbourne accomplishes suburban living slightly better than Perth does. I’m in Essendon right now, for example, which is about eight k’s out of the city centre, but still has shops and trams and nightlife and medium-density housing. In Perth, travelling eight k’s out of the city centre will very easily plant you in featureless dormitory suburbs with nothing but houses, and maybe a shopping centre or two. (Which, mind you, is probably what Sunshine is like.)

It is, of course, still quite suburban and still unmistakeably Australian. I was discussing cities with Jamie the other night, who said that Sydney is more like New York and Melbourne is more like a European city. “Yeah…” I said, “But Sydney isn’t quite as good as New York and Melbourne isn’t quite as good as a European city.”

wanker lane, in the rain
(Credit Mugley)

I don’t think Australia is ultimately for me. Melbourne is a good place to be for a few years, I think, as I begin – um, I mean finish – the transition from helpless child to responsible adult, build up a resume, save my money again etc. But there’s still travelling I want to do, and I’d still like to live in the USA or Canada for a while, and I’m fairly resolved to live in Europe eventually.

None of which is to say that Melbourne is not a fine city. Despite being younger than Perth it’s retained far more of its heritage buildings, which Perth would prefer to bulldoze to make way for monstrous McMansions, and a walk around the city centre is very pleasing to the eye. There are more cathedrals, and parks, and old theatres, and so on. Trams are awesome, although not really that useful except for short journeys. There are cool places like Sydney Road or Brunswick Road that are lined from beginning to end with shops and bars and cafes. Bats flap around at night. The weather is colder, by which I mean “not brutally hot.” It’s overcast a lot of days, like in Europe, which makes you appreciate the days of fine weather so much more.

Royal Exhibition Building - Melbourne
(Credit Dean-Melbourne)

Melbourne also has the best juxtaposition in the entire world between the best and the worst architecture humans are capable of. It takes place at the intersection of Flinders Street and St. Kilda Road, which could fairly be nominated as the very centre of Melbourne. On one side of St. Kilda Road, we have Flinders Street Station – a beautiful building in the French Renaissance style.

Flinders Street Station
(Credit Michael Grant)

On the other side of St. Kilda Road, we have Federation Square, a horrific fractal nightmare. It looks like a photograph of a gigantic geometry set taken half a second after it started to explode.

Federation Square
(Credit Edwin Lee)

It’s hilarious. I challenge anybody to find me a single square kilometre of the planet’s surface which contains a greater architectural contrast than this one right here.

Melbourne also has somewhat confusing traffic, at least for a provincial lad like me. Near Kristie’s house is Essendon’s central roundabout, the bane of my existence: an utterly horrendous six-street valve which also features a tram stop, pedestrian crossings, and traffic lights. Even after escaping this deathtrap every morning on my way to work, I have to contend with the panoply of lines and lights and signs and markings that I simply don’t understand. On our first full day here Jamie took me and Chris for a bike ride through the CBD and I had no idea what the fuck was going on. I still get honked at a lot, and generally assume it’s my fault.

Chinatown at Night
(Credit Toby Corkindale)

I have a job again, for the first time in nearly a year. After applying for several marketing and writing positions, I also applied for a bookstore job which I easily received. I already sort of feel like I’m wasting my time, still working in retail at 22, but I needed money and there are far worse jobs I could have during this transitionary period. I’ve always wanted to work in a bookstore, and it has proved to be pretty neat. Occasionally I get sent up to man the newsagency kiosk in the business lounge, where I can read TIME and the New Yorker and National Geographic cover to cover, and meet (read: serve) celebrities – so far Tom Gleeson, Andy Lee, Bert Newton and Chopper Read. I also walked past Charley Boorman, one of my personal idols, as he was exiting the terminal and I was entering. I wish I’d said something to him, but when you see a famous person it always takes at least five seconds for your brain to recover, and by then he was gone. Hopefully before long I’ll meet Sam Neill, which has become an obsession of mine since everyone else I know seems to have met him.

So on the whole this job is pretty neat, apart from the occasional 5 am starts. Which aren’t really that bad – getting up at 5.30 am is awful, but getting up at 3.30 am is so far beyond the pale that my brain can’t actually comprehend what’s going on, so it passes by fairly quickly and I have the afternoon off, even if I do feel like shit and fall asleep again when I get home. The worst part is riding down the Tullamarine Freeway before dawn when it’s 11 degrees – and it’s only autumn, and so far I haven’t even been rained on. Come winter I may have to invest in a cheap car.

Carlton Architecture
(Credit Dean-Melbourne)

Speaking of transport and motorbikes, Chris’ was stolen about a week or two ago. He posted it online because he intended to sell it, and left it with Jamie when he flew back to Perth. Jamie rang me one evening after returning home from work and asked if I’d come and taken Chris’ bike, to which I replied, “No, why would I?” and he said “Shit.” He’s going to lose a thousand dollars on excess, which sucks. Also just the general frustration of having something stolen. I like my bike well enough – I wouldn’t say I love it – but it’s still my fucking bike and if someone stole it from me I’d be well pissed, insurance regardless. I was furious enough when I thought someone had nabbed $400 from my bank account last year.

I’ve hung out with my old work friend Alex a few times, who moved here last year after returning from Russia. She and all her friends are from Perth; when I went to a party she threw last week with Kristie and Jamie, one of her housemates turned out to know Jamie. All of Jamie’s other friends are from Perth, as are Kristie’s, which of course makes sense – it’s a snowball effect, and one of the reasons I’m here myself – but when even random people I flag down on the street for directions say they were originally from Perth, it starts to feel like I’m in a city full of Western Australian refugees.

Which reminds me that I should be appreciating Melbourne more. I wrote this up and adorned it with swiped Flickr photos after leafing through some Melbourne travel books at work today, and remembering that I have in fact moved to a new city, one far more vibrant than my last. I should get out and explore it some more.

Beautiful Melbourne Skyline from St Kilda
(Credit Dean-Melbourne)

I had my Mastercard debit card details stolen yesterday, with somebody spending nearly $400 at a small electrical company in Sydney. That made me quite angry. I rang my bank on my lunch break and had them cancel my card, but they say they can’t challenge the transaction (which is still in authorisation mode) until it actually goes through. So I’m not sure what the purpose of having an authorisation mode is. It’s still sitting there in transit, and I probably won’t be able to do anything about it until after the Easter long weekend.

Everyone assures me that the bank will compensate me for any stolen money, but I don’t have a lot of faith in Bankwest, and it pisses me off regardless. I only ever use this Mastercard for buying things online or overseas, and I’ve used it twice in the last month. One was to buy plane tickets, which cleared on the 17th. The other was to buy World Nomads travel insurance, which I only did last week, and which cleared on the 31st. The fraud also occurred on the 31st, and took place in Sydney, where World Nomads is based. It’s not hard to connect the dots. Either they have a very unsafe connection or an employee with sticky fingers. They haven’t responded to my email about it, either.

Even if the bank reimburses me, it still pisses me off. We think about credit fraud as being bad in a vague, abstract kind of way, but when it actually happens to you it simultaneously makes you realise just how insecure modern finance is and just how much of a cunt an identity thief is. I was open to a career in ASIO or the Federal Police already, but now I’m definitely considering joining the fraud division of the AFP so I can spend my working days bringing down fuckheads who steal other people’s hard-earned money without even the courtesy of doing it in person. And as the years go by and I climb the career ladder, I’ll use the resources at my disposal to hunt down the guy who stole my $400 in 2010. And when I find him I’ll kill him. Real slow like.

Chris and I went into the city today on a (fruitless) shopping expedition to procure good shoes/boots for our trip, and afterwards we swung past to visit his girlfriend. She lives in St. George’s College, studying at the University of Western Australia. I’ve been to UWA a few times before, to pick my drunken sister up or to attend the Lotterywest Film Festival, and I’ve always been jealous of how much more attractive it is than my own alma mater, Curtin University. Most of Curtin’s campus is relatively modern and therefore hideous, showcasing contemporary architecture’s profane love affair with unnatural colours and sharp angles (for an example, check out the first photo in Curtin’s Wikipedia article.)

UWA, on the other hand, is nearly a hundred years old and therefore gorgeous, even with smashed windowpanes all over the place from the cataclysmic hailstorm Perth experienced last week. Chris’ girlfriend lives in a tiny room with shared bathrooms and considerable rent, but I think that would be worth it just to live in that awesome old college with heaps of other students. When I was at uni I was still living at home in the northern suburbs, driving down the freeway a few days a week to doodle in the margins of my notebook during a tutorial, and then driving home again. Sure, it was better than my current existence, where I drive ten minutes up the road every day to my unstimulating dead-end job at a supermarket, but I always felt quite disconnected from uni life.

The reason I’m thinking about all this is because, with our trip now less than one month away, I’m wondering what I want to do with my life. Going backpacking has been my only goal for about five years. Until recently I’ve dedicated very little thought to what comes next.

I do want to live abroad again. Aside from my nightmarish job, I enjoyed living on my own in Korea quite a bit, and I certainly didn’t jump through all those hoops to get Irish citizenship and then not use it. I’d love to live in Dublin or London. I get discouraged by searching for writing/copyediting/publishing positions on British and Irish jobhunting websites and instead receiving ten thousand results for SALES AND MARKETING EXECUTIVE, which seems to happen on any jobhunting site anywhere in the world.

So I’ve given thought to doing another uni course. My current degree is as useless as a priest in a brothel, and I’m only 21. The problem is I can’t think of anything I’d like to study that actually would be useful; literature and history are really the only things I have an interest in. The only other industries I’d actually want to work in are travel/tourism and government intelligence, neither of which you really go to university for. Also, both Ireland and the U.K. require foreign-born citizens to reside in the country for three years before you get a sweet government student loan that you never really have to pay back.

Maybe I overthink stuff. I have like ten years to tomfool around the world doing whatever the fuck I want. I just have a nesting instinct somewhere inside me that will eventually click in and force me to settle down… anywhere but here. If my obituary reads “Born: Perth, Western Australia” and then “Died: Perth, Western Australia,” I am going to be very upset.

Now that I’ve learned to use Windows Moviemaker EDIT, NEVER MIND, MUSIC COMPANIES ARE FUCKHEADS, THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS

TIGER AIRWAYS FLIGHT 2717
DEPART PERTH INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT (PER) 9.35 PM TUESDAY APRIL 27
ARRIVE SINGAPORE CHANGI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT (SIN) 2.50 AM WEDNESDAY APRIL 28

After many many many weeks of constantly checking http://www.skyscanner.net in the hope of finding a cheap fare to Asia, Chris and I finally bit the bullet and booked a flight last night. Obviously 3.00 AM isn’t the ideal time to be rocking up in a foreign city, but unless we wanted to shell out six or seven hundred dollars for a non-budget flight, they were all at shit times. As it stands we paid $201 each, airline taxes and bagagge checking and all, which is pretty good for Perth to Singapore.

Now, in the six weeks until we leave, we need to sort out stuff like visas and proper shoes and travel insurance and first aid kits. To discuss boring crap like that, which is only of interest to people planning similar trips, I’m going to crack out the other blog I registered ages and ages ago, and which I named after an unremarkable but titularly appropriate novel: Gentlemen of the Road. Feel free to ignore it until later in the year, when it will be full of delightful adventures about breaking out in hives from antimalarial medication or getting the shit kicked out of us by Russian border guards.

43 days to go!

Hey Mitch how was Collie this year?

Well, WE DID THE GREATEST THING THAT ANYONE HAS EVER DONE OR EVER WILL DO

As somebody who works in retail – in two jobs, no less – I should really loathe Christmas. I did last year. My current lust for money is somewhat overriding this, since I’m getting a lot of extra hours and stores in Western Australia are allowed to open on Sundays in December (with extra compensation for casual workers like me). So it’s a love-hate relationship. I am fucking sick of Christmas carols, though. Does anybody actually enjoy them? I hear them getting piped out of the store’s speakers and I feel like I’m in a Christmas movie that’s trying to establish the scene.

I’m still working at a supermarket deli, the job I had for two years in university and went crawling back to after fleeing the frying pan of Korea to the fire of near-recession Australia. I’m comfortable there: I know what I’m doing, I’m good at my job, I love my coworkers and I have a fantastic department boss and a pretty good store boss. The other job that I picked up in my desperate scramble for extra work back in October is at a newsagency at the local shopping centre, where, in the Christmas season, I’m entirely relegated to the Siberian outpost that is a stand in the main concourse hocking calendars. I dislike this job because it’s fucking tedious. I stand there for five hours twice a week with literally nothing to do except ring up the occasional transaction. It eats away at the mind. At least in the deli I always have something to do.

We had some retarded woman who worked for our seafood supplier standing outside the deli hocking her particular brand of prawns earlier this week. I was talking to one guy about placing a Christmas order when she rushed up and started gabbing to him about WEST AUSTRALIAN EXMOUTH PRAWNS. I’m standing there trying to give him an order form, with customers mounting up along the counter, and she has his full attention waffling on about how if you’re a patriotic West Australian you shouldn’t be buying those prawns from South Australia, and they’ve probably been “sitting on a tarmac for hours, but these are fresh from Exmouth.”

Okay, first of all, if you want to support the West Australian economy, you should be shopping at IGA – not at fucking Coles, headquartered in the ivory tower of Toorak, Melbourne. Second of all, EXMOUTH IS LITERALLY AS FAR AWAY FROM PERTH AS THE SOUTH AUSTRALIAN BORDER IS. This is one of the biggest fucking states in the world. You might want to reconsider your “sitting on a tarmac” spiel, because those prawns didn’t fly down from Exmouth on no fucking pegasus.

I can’t stand people who demand to buy Australian stock. The first popular explanation is that they want to support the economy, because, as a special unique snowflake, they obviously have an impact on that sort of thing. The second is that they simply distrust seafood imported from Asia because of some vague environmental xenophobia – I once had a woman decline to buy scallops from Taiwan because they could have been “swimming in the Yangtze.” Apart from the fact that the Yangtze is not in Taiwan, and that scallops live in the sea, do you really think there’s the slightest chance Coles might be selling food that would make you sick and therefore get them sued?

There’s signs around my workplace that say “DON’T TAKE CHANCES – WE NEED YOU.” That makes me laugh. Not “DON’T TAKE CHANCES – WE ARE CONCERNED ABOUT YOU AND DON’T WANT YOU TO GET HURT,” but rather, “DON’T TAKE CHANCES – WE CAN’T AFFORD TO LOSE THE MANPOWER.”

My dad’s starting to get his annual haul of Christmas gifts from clients, which basically amounts to fuckloads of whiskey that he freely shares with me. When I came back from Korea and went into instant $SAVINGS$ mode, I basically went from being a borderline alcoholic to a complete teetotaller. Now it’s flowing back into my life and it feels mighty fine. I missed that undescribable warm, blurry glow it gives you. I also miss raspberry wine. Oh God, how I miss raspberry wine. I had a dream about it a while back and, as I was dreaming, I thought to myself: “Man, I used to guzzle this nectar down. I should totally buy a bottle. Why don’t I drink it anymore?” Then I woke up and thought, “Oh yeah, because I can’t.”

I feel more inclined to write when I’ve been drinking. At the moment I’m using that to vomit out frivolous shit about my job rather than work on End Times or any number of short stories, but hey, baby steps.

A guy I knew on the Internet died recently. Zach Recht. It’s a very weird feeling. He was a published author and I recall commenting on the very first fiction posts he made at Hotel 23, that rabid nest of right-wing survivalists, back in… oh, 2005, I suppose. I haven’t spoken to him in years but it feels very odd that he’s dead, considering I used to have a regular dialogue with him. I’m not sad, because I didn’t really know him, but it was quite shocking to see news of his death when I was only logging into Hotel 23 for my monthly dose of crazy Republican ranting to angry up the blood. Very disconcerting. So, yeah, I just thought that merited a mention at the end of this flow-of-thought blog post. Brave pioneers of the Internet, we are.

December 2009 marks five years that I’ve been writing End Times, the foundering ship which I am riding all the way to the ocean floor. I began writing the first entries in December 2004, and publishing them online in real-time format on January 1, 2005. The real-time format lasted for about three months before inevitably slipping away from me, and now I’m staring at my stranded characters across an ever-widening fissure of time.

I posted a new entry a few minutes ago, and given my track record, we all know it’s the last one I’ll be posting in 2009. This was an entry for October 10. The first entry I published in 2009 was for October 1. Some days have more than one entry, so that’s a total of fifteen, which is still abysmally low.

The reason I don’t post nearly as frequently as I used to is, shock horror, because I don’t enjoy writing End Times anymore. When I started it (in high school!) I had no idea where it would lead. A few other people were writing apocalyptic journals online and I thought it looked like a bit of a lark, so I figured I’d write one myself until I got bored with it. It proved to be quite popular, with – at its peak – maybe twenty or thirty regular readers. That made me feel good, and encouraged me, and I kept going.

Somewhere along the way I began to gradually lose interest in it. I have no idea where in the five-year saga that happened. The result was that I posted less frequently and that there was (in my opinion) a noticeable decline in the quality of writing. As a result less people read it, which meant I had less incentive to write it, and with that the negative feedback loop was up and running. And now we come to the close of a year in which I posted, on average, once every 24 days – a span far too long to keep all but the most devoted reader’s attention. Even assuming I were to post more frequently, and only have an entry for every couple of days of storyline time, that would mean an optimistic finish date of late 2012.

I do have an outline for the rest of the story. I know how the rest of October plays out, I know what will happen in November and December, and I know how it’s going to finish. The only thing preventing all this from happening is my deep loathing of actually sitting down and doing it.

Here’s the kicker: I don’t really have much of a desire to write anything these days. There was a time when I felt obligated to write End Times before anything else, so that it was holding me back from other projects; there was a time when I had abandoned that notion and worked quite often on other projects; and now there is a time when I have dozens of ideas for novels and short stories floating around in my head, and this enormous barnacle-encrusted leviathan sitting unfinished on Livejournal, and yet I devote less than a couple of hours every few weeks to working on any of them at all.

That worries me. Writing is pretty much the only thing I’m good at. Why don’t I want to do it?

The best explanation I can offer is that perhaps, in my early twenties, I’m in the period most writers spend actually exploring the world. Explaining it and telling stories about it comes later – though no doubt they spend these years constantly writing anyway, even if none of it comes to fruition.

I do write, though – I write a lot of book reviews, and when I go abroad I keep travelogues. Who says I have to write fiction? Apart from the fact that I want to be a fiction writer.

That’s the thing, really. I’ve become one of those writers for whom the actual writing is an unfortunate and unpleasant step on the way to the accomplishment of having written.

I didn’t always used to feel like that. I used to love it. I used to get excited when I was writing End Times, when I was pounding through a particularly action-packed entry and the words were flowing like water. Now… nothing. The most recent entry is quite eventful. But I felt nothing writing it.

Am I over the whole idea of swashbuckling boy’s adventure stories? Do I want to write something more mature?

I don’t think I can. If I’m really lucky, I might have it in me to be another Stephen King. But I will never be another David Mitchell or Michael Chabon.

I’m starting to ramble and it’s getting late, so I’ll finish with the same topic I started: I have been writing End Times for five years now. While I may compare it to a stinking albatross hanging around my neck, I do not regret it. It has been an interesting experiment, an absolutely epic work of fiction, and regardless of its dubious quality as a piece of literature I will feel quite accomplished when I finally finish it. And I do still intend to finish it, even if nobody wants to read it and I don’t want to write it, because I am an exceptionally stubborn person. I am a person who read the entirety of Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series, who watched an entire season of 24 in a single sitting, who spent months longer than he had to working at a hellish kindergarden in South Korea. Partly because I feel that I owe it to the few remaining readers, and partly because I have come too fucking far to give up on it now, I WILL FINISH THAT DAMNED NOVEL OR DIE TRYING.

Chris and I have started planning our trip in more detail, plotting out a route across the globe like a dashing young Burke and Wills. Here’s our loose itinerary:

Fly from Perth to Kuala Lumpur. Take a leisurely sleeper train up the peninsula into Thailand, and laze around on beaches, snorkelling over tropical reefs and eating cheap Thai cuisine until we get tired of the unrelenting swarms of fellow Western backpackers. Cross the border into Cambodia and explore the crumbling, overgrown ruins of Angkor Wat. Head east into Vietnam and follow the idyllic coastline north, before cutting west into Laos where hill tribes and French colonial towns are nestled in deep jungle. Travel north into China, and explore the rugged wilderness of the west, Jade Snow Mountain and Tiger Leaping Gorge. Budget and Chinese government permitting, take the train up into the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, where Buddhist monks pray under the unblinking eyes of the PLA. Descend from the roof of the world into Beijing, and take the Trans-Mongolian Express to Ulan Bator. Spend some time wandering around the plains of Mongolia, with horse nomads and yurts and such, then continue on the Trans-Siberian into Russia. If the Russian visa system proves to be anything other than a Kafkaesque ordeal, devote a few weeks to kicking around Siberia and Lake Baikal. After the train eventually spits us out in Moscow, catch a plane to Cairo.

Giza, the pyramids, the Red Sea, the Sahara Desert and the Nile should provide plenty to see and do before continuing our journey south into Africa. If overland travel through Sudan proves possible, we’ll move through there as quickly as possible (not much to see, and one of only eight countries DFAT thinks you absolutely shouldn’t visit) into Ethiopia. If not possible we’ll just fly from Cairo to Addis Abbaba. Moving through the highlands of Ethiopia, we’ll travel south into Kenya, then again into Tanzania, which encapsulates everything African in one nation (minus the warfare and all that): Mt. Kilimanjaro, Lake Victoria, the Serengeti and Zanzibar. Once that’s been exhausted, cross the border south into Mozambique, where 15th century Portuguese forts sit in marshy river deltas. Cross the border into South Africa, which is a first-world (read: expensive) nation and offers nothing African we haven’t already seen, so make a beeline for Jo’burg or Durban so we can fly to our next stop: Buenos Aires or Santiago, depending on which is cheaper.

Upon arrival in South America, head south into the mountains and glaciers of Patagonia, before swinging north again up the Andean spine through the high altitude Atacama Desert. Pass through Bolivia if we feel like it, then enter Peru. Just as Tanzania encapsulates Africa, Peru encapsulates South America: snow-capped mountain peaks, unexplored jungle, coastal deserts, the ruined Incan city of Macchu Picchu and the mountainous shores of Lake Titicaca. When we’re ready to leave, we’ll travel downriver along the Amazon, ideally swinging in hammocks in a two-storey saloon boat piloted by a gruff old jungle expat, cutting through the heart of the world’s largest rainforest. After reaching Belem on the Atlantic coast, we’ll either island-hop through the Caribbean or (more realistically, less awesomely) fly direct to the USA. Whether by hitchiking or buying the cheapest car we possibly can, we’ll head north along the Appalachians to New York City, then cut cross-country to Los Angeles, stopping along the way in Las Vegas and the various natural parks of the nation’s west. From LA we plan to head north along the west coast, detouring into Wyoming for Yellowstone National Park, and then crossing the border into Canada. Our funds will be near exhaustion by then, if not before, so we’re limited only by our bank accounts and our imagination before returning home.

My absolute minimum budget for this trip is $15,000, and even that is shaky, influenced more by Chris’ unwavering demand that we leave as soon as possible. I’d be a lot more comfortable with $20,000. As of now, the beginning of December, I have $10,700. I have dramatically slashed my outgoing expenses and usually earn at least $500 a week. I’m on holiday for two weeks in January, but even then I should be able to earn another $7000 by the end of March, the latest possible departure date I’ve coaxed out of my compatriot.

It’s sort of hard to tell how much these things will cost. We’ll be travelling almost exclusively through third world countries where you can live on dollars a day, plan to use couchsurfing.com extensively, and have a total of three definite flights: Australia-Malaysia, Russia-Egypt, South Africa-Argentina/Chile. (I don’t include the flight from Canada back home as part of expenses, because I’ll either be broke and have to wire my Dad for some money and then pay him back when I get home, or I won’t be tired of travelling and will get a working holiday visa and try to find a job in Canada.) The vague estimates you can get from online travel calculators and guides suggest the $15,000 to $20,000 figure is fairly accurate.

Chris is several thousand dollars ahead of me, since he had a long period of gainful employment at Mornington Wilderness Camp at the same time that I was cutting my losses and escaping a South Korean hagwon in the dead of night. He also has stuff like a guitar and piano and motorcycle and 4WD he can hock before he leaves, whereas I have a Hyundai Excel worth maybe $400 and absolutely nothing else. He also earns roughly the same amount as me, so I don’t really have any chance of catching up to him unless I break his arms and put him out of work for six weeks. Ideally we’d both have some cash left over at the end of this trip, but I can’t help but look at that long list of countries (and more than a year of travelling!) and believe that either of us will have a cent to our name when we’re done.

Money’s a weird thing.

Today marks one month since my daring escape from South Korea, and my return to a humdrum suburban life in Western Australia. I’m not unhappy at all – I’m hanging out with my best friend again, I’m in a relationship for the first time in more than a year, and I’m generally enjoying a return to normalcy, peppered with news from my past about other native teachers at my school quitting in frustration. The only thing that bothers me is that I still don’t have a job.

After several weeks of failed applications I went crawling back to my old supermarket job, but they can only offer me enough shifts to stay afloat, not to actually save enough money for travelling in 2010. (Besides which, I’m sick of working at Coles.) So the jobhunt continues. I’ve lost count, but I think I’ve applied for around 30 positions so far. In the last ten days alone, I’ve applied for bookstores, wine stores, a video rental store, a pharmacy, a travel agent, two telemarketing jobs, three copywriting jobs, JB Hifi, an editorial internship, a bar on Rottnest Island, and a slew of generic marketing/sales/PR/promotional positions.

Of my entire jobhunt so far, I’ve had two interviews. One of these I got through a friend. The vast majority of applications are either ignored entirely or rejected by email. I’m becoming more and more depressed and convinced that I’m unemployable.

Of course, this is the first time I’ve ever actually had to hunt for a job. My first two I got through friends, and my third I got in a strange and illogical country where anybody with a police clearance and a university degree can earn $24,000 a year.

And of course the most important thing is that I’m not a prisoner of Wonderland anymore – that I escaped intact – that I can thank God that I am…

ALIVE!

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