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Travel Tales from Downunder - People and Life-styles

They say that Australian share common values with Canadians and Americans. This is true only to a certain extent because in the land of plenty that is Canada and the US, you can be over generous with food and beverages. Things are much more expensive in Australia, thus Aussies are meaner and leaner. For example, we pay AUD18.95 for a packet of 20 cigarettes. In the US, I noticed that the general price was less than a third at USD5.95. No wonder that people of all ages and across gender smoke when cigarettes are so cheap! Maybe it was a dirty plot to keep prices down to lure people into smoking. Who knows?

Clothing was about the same ratio in terms of price, may even be more than half. In Australia, we must have paid more than double than you guys in North America. Richmond is already inexpensive to shop but Tommy was telling me that sometimes he goes on shopping trips across the border to Portland in Oregon where they don't pay any sales tax. We noticed the prices in Las Vegas where they sold top quality clothes and cosmetics for much less than people pay in Australia. In fact, I saw some shopping outlets on the Canadian border near Seattle advertising to their customers that their goods are just as inexpensive as in the US. So why shop in the US?

On food, not only is a big Mac bigger in the US, it is less than one third of the price with free refills of soda. Coffee is less than half price that we pay in Sydney. Chinese food is unbelievably inexpensive in Richmond Canada, and nearly double the size of the servings than the Australian portion. In a popular Chinese restaurant in Richmond the choice of menu was incredible: 38 different dishes each with the price tag of CAD9.80. People who had been in Toronto told me that Chinese food was even cheaper in Toronto. I wonder if that was true? In Australia, not only are there less than half of the choices offered, the restaurateurs don't particularly want to fill you up so the sizes are incredibly small. Never mind about getting a container to pack up what you can't eat which I observe was the common practice. No such luck in Australia.

In Australia. obesity will send you broke although obesity is around the corner too in Australia. If size matters, your obesity size is also two-third bigger than ours! Maybe I shouldn't just lump Canadians and Americans together. I'm sure that my Wah Yan alumni in Canada would not want to be too closely associated with Americans in terms of obesity. I shouldn't mention names but in my October trip last year I met one alumni of class '64 from New York and boy he was big! So far I didn't see any Canadian alumnus who could match his size.

In Canada, you pay nearly as much for gas as we pay in Sydney although regional Australia pay much more in gas than in Canada. Btw, I found the term 'gas' confusing and thought 'petrol' is more expressive for the product because in Australia we use auto gas in hybrid cars as well so it is not clear what product that you are buying if you say 'gas'. No wonder people drive across the border to Washington to queue up for 'gas'. It will probably worth their while to do so.

I can understand now how the Americans use up more than half the fuel in the world. Take a small city like San Jose. There are just too many cars on the road. Their expressways are 4-lanes one way with traffic in 3 of the lanes clogging the highway as early as 7:15 AM. Tony Chan took us to the Greyhound station early in the morning using the Diamond Lane which is like a transit lane for buses and multi-passengers vehicles of more than 3 persons. Only 2 persons are needed to drive legally on the Diamond Lane. While we were on the Diamond Lane the other 3 lanes were chocker-block with cars, so it means 95% or more vehicles have one driver and they are clogging the roads. The same traffic jam was repeated in peak hour when people drove home from work in the evening.

It is obvious that lower middle-class or working-class people had to commute as well and they must do so in buses where the urban trains cannot reach but I had no opportunity to witness that in the US. In Vancouver I saw buses but they were not as frequent as they were in Sydney. Of course, in Richmond and Vancouver they have Skytrains to take people around but Skytrains are not big enough or frequent enough to move people, so I suspect that poorer people have to use cars as well. Incidentally, I did see many older model cars on the road.

Going back to the American scene in Fresno, I can comment on Greyhound buses on medium or long trips. Unlike the airport which generally services the middle-class with breakfast bars and a huge variety of restaurants which was an eye-opener for an Aussie. The social scene of white middle America changed to Hispanic and Blacks. The service to Fresno started on time just as the Southwest planes. We were given adequate stops for the 3 and a half hours' drive. The white driver was quite polite and efficient throughout the journey where he picked up passengers who were mostly Mexican. I couldn't remember everything of what he said through the loud-speaker but he did remind the passengers not to use languages that their mother were not proud of them. I guess he wanted to discourage his passengers not to swear when they talked inside his bus. There were not many blacks in the bus but I guess he used the same lines in all his journeys.

One disturbing aspect of American life is what they say about the working poor. Was there evidence of its existence? I'm afraid that there was. I found that in Ketchikan in Alaska. Admittedly it is a remote outpost dependent on tourism so I didn't expect it to be flashy. Downtown Kechikan is a collection of clothing outlets and souvenir shops built around the cruise ships terminal backing into the mountain. The airport is located on the north side of the mountain quite a distance away. We walked through the infamous Creek Street where the old brothels of gold-digging years were housed, the salmon hatchery and the indigenous Indian art museum only to discover that we could cover the whole journey with the US$1 downtown bus. As there were still time to spare we decided to take the local bus around the township which only cost US$2 per person.

Our hour-long journey viewing the township was soon distracted by the woman driver whom I estimated to be at least 67. In a small township one would except that she knew everyone who got on and off her bus and she did. But this old lady would talk to herself and occasionally yelled at pedestrians who were either too close to the kerb or jay-walking across the bus' path. We sat quite close to her and started talking to her. Would you believe that one of the first thing that she said was she didn't mind us tourists visiting but didn't want us to stay. Anyway, she went on to say that she had been on this job for 10 years. So it wasn't as if she started this job when she was young. Judging by her age she would be close to 60 when she first started this job.

She told us that she started her shift at 4:30 AM and when I looked at my watch it was close to 1:00 PM. My calculation told me that she had already worked eight and a half hours. At the terminus close to the airport she handed over her shift to another driver. So I asked her if she had finished work for the day. She smiled and said not yet because she had to train this new driver as part of her shift duty. Guys, you would never have guessed how old this new driver was. He would be at least 70 if not older. For him to be trained for a new job was quite unbelievable. Yes, she taught him how to use the 2-way speaker to communicate with other drivers; told him what to do when people purchased a multiple-use ticket and which hole to punch on the ticket; watched carefully if people put in the exact amount for the fare in the transparent slot and cautioned him to count the coins adding to the full amount of $2. Quite incredible to behold. However, it did prove a point that the old man didn't have any experience operating the bus. I guess everyone had to learn on the job. Come to think of it, I'm getting to be his age in a couple of years so I should really be discriminating my own age group. In any case, we were glad that he took us back to the cruise ship terminal!

In Downunder, workers will not work the full 8 hour shift. It is more like 7  1/2 hour shift. They will not do extra duties other than prescribed in their job descriptions which for a driver will definitely not cleaning the bus. I asked the old lady driver why people needed the bus so early in the morning at 4:30 AM. She said she arrived work at 4:30 AM, spent an hour cleaning the inside of the bus and do things before she drove her bus out at 5:30 AM to pick up passengers. She also volunteered the extra info that whoever finished the night shift had to wash the outside of the bus and clean the windows and that was why she preferred the morning shift!

From the fares that the company collects, I doubt if they pay good wages for the drivers despite the fact that they are multi-skilled to the extent that they took the jobs of cleaners. This is capitalism at its worst. By undercutting the cleaners job, they are in fact exploiting the drivers. And why were these senior citizens still working at age 70? Was it because they didn't have a pension so they had to keep working? I looked around Kechikan and I saw at least 10 young men in their late 20s holding stop-signs to stop traffic so that foreign tourists could cross the streets. It struck me as very sad as I thought these young men should be trained for better jobs. A job description like that in Downunder is called 'lollipot' person. Only old people without any skills do that and they generally do that voluntarily or for a token amount of money! It is demeaning for young men to do that kind of job in full view of foreign tourists. I know that Kechikan is a remote outpost of the US but it tells part of the story that the US still have around 9% of its population unemployed. Quite unacceptable for the leader of the Western world. In Downunder, our unemployment rate is 5.3%.   -- By Philip Lee

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