Month: June 2008

Brisbane, QLD, Australia: Either I’m Really Good Or Really Lucky

Ohh I gotta get outta here …

Is what I thought as I lay on Zorba’s living room floor for the third week I was in Brisbane. The trip to New Zealand was fun and way too short. The Australian Immigration department was scary good at processing the visa application, and the day after I submitted the application I had been approved. After spending the weekend in New Zealand, capping off what ended up being a 4 1/2 day holiday, I flew back to Brisbane. I started working almost immediately after I got back, going to work on that Tuesday. Although I enjoyed living with Zorba and we had some great times, I needed my own space and especially a bed.

I prepared for a long search online and in newspapers for a flat. The word around Zorba’s apartment was that West End was a good suburb to set up camp. It was an eclectic, hippie-ish neighbourhood full of the best bars and restaurants in the city. I was certainly not going to live in Ipswich, the city about 40 km west of Brisbane where the Kobold office is located. Ipswich is known as the bogan (redneck) capital of Queensland and, as some would argue, Australia. Seventy to eighty percent of the 15 – 18 year old girls that wander around the city mall outside my building are pregnant, and 90% of the teenage guys have mullets. All of them spend the daylight hours sitting on the grass and benches of the street mall smoking and polluting the gene pool. I like to think of Ipswich as Darwin’s Blind Spot.

But I digress. I centered my search in West End, but also included places like the CBD, Toowong (where Brad lives), and East Brisbane. One place was perfect. I found it in the newspaper and when I called I found out the man advertising the room was also a software engineer. The apartment was in a high rise in the heart of the CBD, right on the river. Although I never got to see it – the guy was looking for someone to stay a little longer than just 5-6 months – I’m sure it was beautiful.

By the next weekend I had lined up a visit at one apartment in West End advertised by two girls that was within my budget and, most importantly, for which I actually received a response. There was another ad I responded to, an apartment in East Brisbane owned by a man who seemed alarmingly keen for me to come and visit.

On a Sunday evening a week after I re-returned from New Zealand, I jumped on a bus and headed to West End. I finally found the building, a new-looking large white complex right on the riverside. It was in a more industrial section of the suburb, but it didn’t seem at all unsafe or non-residential. The building was well-maintained, had good security and even a pool. I was already impressed.

Naomi and Beth buzzed me up to the flat and I spent the next 20 minutes chatting with them about myself and what I was expecting out of the apartment. They were both psychology students at the University of Queensland, Naomi in undergrad and Beth going for her doctorate. Beth was an avid home cook and baker and had loads of great kitchen gadgets. They asked me more than once to let them know if I was interested in the flat. I tried to make it as clear to them as I could, “Right now I’m living on the floor of my friend’s apartment, so I’m definitely interested and want to move in ASAP.”

I got back on the bus and was really anxious about getting that apartment. The view from the large back patio was beautiful, with CityCat ferries and private river enthusiasts drifting past. The patio faced west, so as the sun set the deep orange hues poured in through the wall-sized sliding door and windows. Even before the bus dropped me off in the city, no less than 15 minutes after I left the flat, I got a text from Beth. “Hey BJ, we decided that you’re our favorite prospective roommate, so if you still want the flat it’s yours.”

Jackpot.

I moved in a couple days later, after submitting some paperwork to the building manager. Even though I was still sleeping on the floor (I hadn’t bought a bed yet), it was in my own room, in a beautiful apartment. Again, I lay awake staring up at the ceiling, thinking about how funny it was that things seem to work out. I had been in the city for such a short time and yet I was a week into my new work Visa, a week into my well-paying job, and I was already living in a riverside apartment with a view. In just a few short weeks I had built up a little life in a new city. And on top of all that I had even put a deposit down on a motorcycle.

Hm? Oh that’s right, I haven’t told you the motorcycle story yet :)

Flashback: Wanaka, New Zealand: You Think She Digs Indian Guys?

As I was saying, the first time we attempted the Rob Roy Glacier walk the weather was so horrible it actually barred us from continuing any further on the road. We were all keen on making the most of the day, so on the way back, Ash suggested a drive through the Matukituki Valley (everytime Ash would say that name, he would really emphasize it … “maaa – TUKI TUKI!!!’).

Ash clearly had an agenda in mind: he really did want to show us the valley in all its splendour, but he really needed an excuse to get back onto Shania Twain’s farm property. The winding road led us to the edge of her land, and we parked the car in a cleared area off the road.

It was lightly raining, but the valley looked just as impressive.

(This is where I’d insert a picture of the valley, but its still on the memory card inside my camera, and I just got a new laptop that doesn’t have an SD card reader. So I have to connect my camera to the machine directly … and I didn’t bring the cable with me when I left home)

We were right next to a corner of the Twain property, and Ash knew the way in. We walked through a chained fence (which of course, was already open and we just thought it was OK to hike through there …) and ended up on among some trees seprated from the farm manager’s house by narrow raging river. We walked around the area, I imaging Shania herself would come trotting out and offer us some cookies and a song. After quietly wandering around the area for a bit we got back in the car and drove away, back towards Wanaka.

On the way back we passed the turn off for Diamond Lake. There was a short walk around the lake and up to a viewpoint and since the weather had cleared a little bit, we decided to check it out.

The walk wasn’t too challenging, except for a small segment up stairs. The lookout point was magnificent, giving you a broad view of Lake Wanaka from above Glendhu Bay.

After a couple pictures, we headed back home.

Brisbane, QLD, Australia: The Visa Situation

Americans aren’t well liked in the intenational community. This is most evident in Visa regulations, and even Australia, presumably a good friend of the States, did not give out Working Holiday Visas to American citizens. Now a Working Holiday Visa is a temporary work Visa usually accompanied by regulations on the type of work you can acquire, the length of employment at any one job, the length of the Visa and sometimes even the age of the applicant. In New Zealand, I applied to a working holiday program meant to attract farm workers, which prevented me from working for any one employer for longer than 4 months (this restriction is rarely enforced). The visa was good for a year and, unless the IRD showed up and put the kaibash on your employment, you could work wherever you wanted for whomever you wanted. Had Australia offered a similar program to US citizens, my life would be radically different right now.

And guess what, in October of 2007, around the time of The Birthday That Rocked The World (definitely more on that later) and the Barluga Halloween Party, the Australian government opened up a Working Holiday program for US Citizens, allowing them to stay for a year and work at any one position for up to 6 months ( … again, probably not enforced).

When I went to Brisbane in search of work, I assumed that whatever company was desperate enough to hire me would sponsor my stay in the country. When I was researching exactly what that meant, I discovered the new Working Holiday scheme. The benefits were screamingly obvious: a sponsored visa required about 2 months to process and applications both the employee and employer would have to send in; the WH visa is processed in 48 hours and is lodged online. The catch? When applying for a sponsored visa, you can remain in the country until your application is accepted. On the other hand, the WH visa has to be submitted from outside the country. And they mean it too, the application submission website checks your IP to see if you’re logging in from inside the country and will block you from completing the form.

I explained the two options to Chris and the Kobold HR manager Laurie. Chris clearly wanted me to start as soon as possible and since I wasn’t sure how long I’d be with the company, it didn’t make much sense to go with the sponsored visa at the time, which meant that I’d have to leave the country so I could submit the application. Kobold was nice enough to buy me a ticket to the closest place I could think of: Wellington. Five days after accepting the job, I was leaving the country so I could actually start performing it.

I had already prepped Jess and told her that there was a chance I’d be coming back. She was excited to have another friend in the city, if only for a weekend, and agreed to pick me up from the airport after work on that Wednesday.

Flashback: Rob Roy Glacier, Wanaka, New Zealand: Boy Goes To Glacier. Beauty Ensues.

One of the most popular walks around Wanaka, second to the Mt Iron walk which I did soon after I got into town, is the day trek to the Rob Roy Glacier. Phil had done it a couple times and raved about the views. So on one of my days off from the bar I jumped in the car and set off.

We had attempted this one before. Ash, Phil, Jacques and I tried to do this walk several months ago, but were stopped by rain and rising water levels that blocked the road. Instead, we turned the car around and decided to check out Shania Twain’s property. More on that later.

This time the weather was gorgeous. I had no idea where to go after the point we had to turn around the last time, but in that area there was only one road, so I assumed it would be hard to miss. The drive around the lake and in the valley were picturesque. It was all farmland, and my only other companions were cows, and the occasional car.

One such traveler (car, not cow), flagged me down as I passed. An old man got out of the car and asked for directions. Turns out he was from New York, and was wondering how to get to the road that leads to Franz Josef/Fox Glacier. He was on the exact opposte side of the lake, as far as he could get away from his destination without a 4WD vehicle.

Now I feel I must sidebar for a moment and explain something: cows stare at me. I don’t know what it is, but anytime I pass by, cows will stop what they’re doing, and just watch me pass. Ash tested this theory out by pausing several times in front of a group of cows and watch them slowly turn their heads towards my window. He would relent only after several pleas from me; I mean, it really freaks me out. Needless to say, several cows and their equally curious offspring gaped at me from paddocks.

Despite the best bovine efforts, I made it to the Raspberry Creek car park. By the way, I love that name, it just sounds like something out of the Wizard of Oz.

The walk was pretty easy and began with some great views.

There were some challenging parts, including several sections that warned hikers of falling rocks and other dangers, but in general it was pretty straightforward. The track was also quite popular and I often passed other walkers, some with small children with them. This overhang was especially intimidating:

As I got closer to the glacier viewpoint, I started spying between the trees bits of white clinging onto cliff faces and the peaks of mountains. I tucked my head down during the last few kilometers and powered to the finish. But only a few minutes before I reached the end, I looked up, and the view literally stopped me dead in my tracks. As usual, none of these pictures do it justice. What I saw was one of the most beautiful sites I had seen in New Zealand. The contrast between the eerie blue/white of the ice against the grey mountain rock, in the background of bright green flora, was simply inspiring.

I reached a viewing point with some information panels and some scattered rocks. There were a lot of other hikers there, some reading the information, many just laying on the rocks and taking in the view. I sat down and ate a snack while gazing up at the ice. It seems ice breaking off the glacier was quite common in the summer and I was keen to see it happen.

A kea (annoying Kiwi parrot-like bird) tried to swipe my banana peel, but I managed to fight it off.

After a few songs on the iPod I made my way back down to the carpark. Shortly after leaving the viewing area, I ran into another traveler who wanted me to take a picture of him with the glacier in the background … on his camera phone. For God’s sake, if you’re gonna travel to New Zealand, let alone a glacier, invest in a regular camera.

Now this is gonna sound horrible, but the guy not only followed me down after that, he struck up a conversation too. Damnit! I was actually looking forward to a quiet walk down with my music and the beautiful surroundings, and now I was stuck making small talk to someone I’ll probably never see again. After the conversation died, which it inevitably always does, he would stop from time to time snap a couple pictures. I was a pretty fast walker and soon lost him … not intentionally, don’t look at me like that, I simply zoned out and when I returned he wasn’t anywhere to be seen.

The drive back was just as good and I finally crossed the Rob Roy Glacier walk off the list. Summer in Wanaka had quickly become my favorite season of the year.

Brisbane, QLD, Australia: The Hunt For Another Life

I got to work immediately. First things first, I needed a phone. Zorba and I biked into town and visited a few shops around the Queens St Mall in the CBD. In one Dick Smith Electronics store, I spotted an O2 smart phone that had been marked down to less than half price. Drooling at the prospect of owning a cool new gadget to play with, I made the decision and bought it. By the end of the day, I was already annoyed with the thing, and had plans to return it. I did my homework online, decided on a simple Nokia candy-bar style phone. It happened to be the most popular phone in Brisbane, because I had to go to 3 different stores before I found one that had any in stock. They had only one left, the red-coloured model. I smiled and slapped down my credit card.

Zorba had set up a meeting with the Managing Partner of the Systems Division of his company, The Kobold Group. According to Zorba, Kobold Systems had a couple projects on the plate and was in desperate need of some software engineers. I had only one more thing to buy before the interview: black shoes.

Four days after I left my life in New Zealand I borrowed Zorba’s car and set off for the Brisbane suburb of Ipswich to take the first step in setting up a new one. The company had done psychological profiles of all their Managing Partners in an effort to show them and their bosses the most efficient way to work and communicate. Zorba had given me the Systems MP’s profile a day earlier and I had spent much of the time since then memorizing it. To an interviewee, it was gold. The two-page report told you everything you needed to know about the best way to talk to Chris, what he looks for in employees and how to get on his good side. The conclusion I drew was that this was gonna be a challenging interview, Chris was tough and demanding, and he didn’t like BS. I mean, come on, I was sooo good at BS!

Zorba didn’t own an iron, so the morning of the interview I had the local dry cleaner do a rush press job on my pants and shirt. I changed in a parking garage near the Kobold office and strapped a tie around my neck that I borrowed from James, Zorba’s ex-wife’s cousin.

The interview started with Chris asking me about what I had been up to. I talked about traveling to New Zealand, working in the bar and wanting to get back into the engineering game. Chris explained the projects they were currently working on and what type of work was involvd. After he brought in his lead Software Architect, they asked me about my responsibilities at NASA and what I could do for them. It was a quick and easy interview, I was pleasantly surprised. I sat down with Daniel, the software architect on their biggest project, and he took me through the design and use of the application.

And wouldn’t ya know it, turns out Daniel is a huge space buff. He asked me several questions about working for ISS. I walked out feeling good about the interview and confident that they would bring me onto their team. Chris told me he’d think it over and let me know the next day.

The next morning Chris offered me a job for as long as it takes to complete the project. This meant that I would have to stay in Brisbane until at least mid-year. In my desperation to make money and reconnect with my engineering roots I bid farewell to my Europe plans and agreed to stay in Brisbane until the delivery of the application. The best part was that the employmet was classified as ‘casual’, so there was no contract and I could leave at any time. Now I know that I wanted to be in Europe in the summer and do some more traveling, but I never doubted that those plans might change on a whim. After hearing the salary number Chris gave to me, it was a pretty damn appealing whim.

Zorba was beeming with pride when we celebrated that night. He has a dream of starting a business supplying Australian companies with talented engineers from the US, and I was his trial run. And so far, it was a complete success.

Now since this post has been filled with boring accounts of interviews and phone shopping, I’ll end with a funny story about a shopping trip Zorba and I took to the local Coles supermarket.

Zorba and I went out to drop off some DVDs, pick up some supplies at the liquor store and the supermarket, then go out and get something to eat. When we got to the checkout lane of the supermarket, this loud alarm started going off. At first i thought someone was trying to walk out without purchasing something, but then the alarm kept going … and no one was doing anything! All the customers were still browsing the aisles and the employees were just going about like nothing was happening.

Then I’m thinking ‘does anyone else hear that??’ Finally Zorba turns to me and says “I can’t believe they’re doing a fire drill right now.” But still no one was doing anything. I was dying with laughter, cause there was even this old lady who was just staring out into space while this incredibly loud fire alarm was going off. As the alarm kept sounding off, our cashier says to no one, “I think it’s broken…”, and I kept looking around and asking everyone, “should we be … you know, fleeing the building?!” Everyone was still just strolling around like it was any other day, and new people were even coming in to do shopping. The cashier shrugged her shoulders and just said, “I don’t know, I guess they’ll tell us.” The cashier next to her kept shaking nervously and saying, “I think we should evacuate. I mean, it’s an alarm, I think we should be leaving!” I thought to myself, “Damnit woman! Calm down!!” Zorba was no help at all because he just looked around and concluded, “I don’t see any smoke, we’re probably OK.”

I kept thinking about those disaster shows on TV where they show the security tape from a building that burned down, with the narrator in the background going, “And even though the building was collapsing around them, the customers kept shopping!” Then they cut to the tall Indian guy swiping his credit card.

The alarm then turned into this whooping, air raid-type siren, mixed in with some recorded message saying, “EVACUATE THE BUILDING!!.” It was really intimidating. And still, the cashiers kept scanning things through!! I was literally doubled over laughing, saying, “OK, now even the robot alarm guy is telling us to evacuate.” And every now and then people would look around, shrug, and pick a box of crackers off the shelves. “EVACUATE THE BUILDING!!” The cashier next to ours was about to start freaking out, but my cashier was still quite calm, which was rather eerie.

Fortunately we were the last customers that were served before some old woman finally came around yelling at everyone to leave. She even kinda yelled at my cashier to stop working. I grabbed the bags, signed the receipt as quickly as possible and Zorba and I high-tailed it out of there. There were people all around the shopping area standing outside and looking around for whatever fire set the alarm off. Most of them were really bitter and gave us the evil eyes when they found out we had made it through the checkout with our groceries before leaving. Zorba didn’t make it any better by yelling, “So long, suckers!!”, as we went down the stairs to the car park. A bit later, when we passed by again we saw a fire engine parked outside, but still no fire …

Brisbane, Australia: That’s Right Baby, I’m Back!

In hindsight, I could’ve planned things better. But then again, since when did I start planning things?

A week before I left Wellington for Brisbane, I emailed Zorba, my former NASA colleague and friend in Oz, telling him when I’d be in Brisbane and if he could get me from the airport. I probably should’ve called or emailed him again before that weekend, but nevertheless, I emailed him the morning I left and told him when and on what flight I’d be arriving that night, and if he could collect me from the airport.

After the mess in Perth last February, I had become pretty adept at coming up with Plan B’s. So when I got into Brisbane airport and didn’t see Zorba waiting for me in the arrival lounge with some kind of welcoming party and multiple-piece band, I realized that 1) I didn’t have his number or address, and 2) I didn’t have a phone. I thought about it for a moment and went with Plan A: The Sim Card. See, I had kept my Australian sim card all this time, I figured Zorba’s phone number might still be on it. But alas, when I convinced the girl at the Vodafone counter to let me borrow a display model and plug my sim card in it, I discovered that the numbers had been saved to the phone, which was in New Zealand. Plan A: Failed.

Plan B was based on the assumption that somewhere, some-when, I had recorded Zorba’s number. I kept a bunch of phone numbers on my laptop, but only ones for my US friends. So I got some change from the kid at the snack stand and then logged on at an internet kiosk. I searched through GMail and Hotmail for more than half of the 15 minutes of time that I bought. It wasn’t there. I wandered around the terminal, unsure of what to do. I walked outside and took a look down the passenger pick-up area, still no sign of Zorba. Plan B: Failed.

Plan C and D started formulating: I didn’t have my friend Brad’s number either, but I knew where he lived. I could take the train into the city and show up at his door. Rude, I know, but in the end I knew Brad wouldn’t mind. Or, I could just find a hostel in town and hang out there until Zorba answers the email.

It was at this time the bulb went off. I remembered the exact conversation Zorba and I had when he gave me his number. It was a few days before New Year’s and right after I had gotten into Sydney 15 months ago. I was asking him what his plans were for NYE, but he said he was already out of town. His wife, however, was gonna be going to a party in the city. He gave me her phone number, and his own. Plan B was back on.

I raced back to the internet kiosk with a few minutes to spare and frantically searched Gmail. Finally I found the email and there it was, Zorba’s phone number. And it went straight to voice mail.

I left a voice mail that went something along the lines of this: “Hey Zorba … just got into the country and I’m at the airport. So yeah … if you could pick me up that would be great, but if not I’m just gonna catch a train into the city and I’ll just hang out at a cafe or something and we can get together later. Since I don’t have a phone and no way for you to call me, I’ll just call back in 30 minutes. After that I’ll just head into town.”

Thirty minutes later I called back and got a hold of him. As it turns out, he had gone out of town for the weekend, and was just on his way back into town when he got my message. After picking me up, we headed to a nearby bar for a drink before heading into his suburb of Kangaroo Point. We met a friend of his, Sonya, at the Pineapple Hotel (remember, in this part of the world, hotel = bar) for a few more drinks, then we picked up takeaway Thai food and headed to Zorba’s house.

The last time I saw Zorba he had just divorced his wife (oh … that’s right, I didn’t cover that one. Alot can happen between New Year’s and St Patty’s Day …) and had sold his house. When I visited him, while spending a week with my brother in Sydney, he was packing up the house and moving back to his parent’s house in Victoria for a while. The house was a mess of kid’s toys, adult’s spent booze bottles, computer equipment and clothes. When I visited Zorba’s Brisbane house, it was the same mess.

We ate our takeaway off our knees in Zorba’s living room. I was sitting in his daughter’s tiny play chair, next to some kind of tiny table. Zorba’s ex-wife’s cousin was staying with him, so the extra bedroom was taken. He got out his camping air pad and cleared a spot on his living room floor for me.

I lay awake that night and thought about whether this had been a mistake. After all, Zorba hadn’t found any work for me, and he could only set up an interview with one of the partners at his company to see if they could use me on the project. As usual, Zorba was brimming with confidence about finding me a job, but in his words, “And if those guys can’t use you, don’t worry, we’ll find something … it just might take a little while.” Take a little while?? I was counting on being able to find work quickly so I could make some cash and keep moving. I wanted to be in Europe for the summer, and couldn’t spare ‘a little while.’

But at the same time, I chuckled at how haphazardly I had thrown this trip to Brisbane together, and despite a few stumbles, it was working out pretty well. I got into the country without any way of getting in touch with Zorba, without even knowing that he was actually out of town, and yet within an hour I was sitting in a bar with him reminiscing about old days at NASA.

So maybe I was overthinking the whole job situation. Things sometimes have a way of working out if you really want them to. Of course it’s not gonna be perfect, and you’ll have to make some compromises and adjustments, but in the end you’ll get there, a little drunk and full of Pad Thai.

For the first time since that morning in Wellington, I shut my brain off and let my thoughts wander into sleep. Ultimately, I found solace in one trumping fact: I mean come on, I used to work for friggin’ NASA.