Our 9 day road-trip from Brisbane to Perth (Part 1)

Now what would possess someone to drive 4800 km from one side of a continent as vast as Australia to another? Well, for starters there is madness and for another, it’s to show young un’s the sheer size (and it is bigger than anyone’s backyard, believe me) of Australia.

We’d been warned to take fuel and water with us but our car was crammed to the hilt with all our treasured personal belongings so there was place for neither. It was either that or one of us would have ended up sitting on the roof. No prizes for guessing who, since HRH was planning to drive and it is still illegal for children to be in the front seat of the car, let alone strapped outside to a vehicle travelling at 110 km per hour. Perhaps, as HRH pointed out, we’d be travelling along a major highway for all of the time, so worse comes to worse, we’d hail down a passing road train for help.

Day 1

We plan to set off at 10 am but due to the nature of packing up an entire household full of stuff, end up leaving at 5 pm instead. Tania, who I’ve had dinner or lunch weekly for the last 5 years, helps us to reposition some of our bags in the car so that I won’t have to ride for 4800 km with my knees tucked under my chin.

She, who knows everything there is to know about road-trips, says, “You are very brave to be doing this.”

Blowing my hundredth nose-wonton (I have the flu, for crying out loud), I say, “There is a very fine line between bravery and madness. If you were to do this 9-day, 4800 km journey, I’d call it brave. With us, it’s more likely madness.”

With that I hug Tania and bid her farewell. We set off in the fading light of Brisbane for Moree 5 hours away. Due to the lack of light and my continuous production of nose wontons, I have no pictures to show you. Suffice to say, I am suffering, wondering aloud where among all our bags I put the Codral Cold, Flu and Cough tablets. Then I remember the bag that mum packed for me, with Aerius D, a similar cocktail of time-released nasal relief. Mum also packed me panadol, something for phlegm, sanitary pads and 2 boxes of tissues, just in case I should need any of these things. Thanks Mum.

Day 2

At the insistence of HRH, I take a few snap shots of our motel. It is a brick oasis in the middle of the desert; the place even has a swimming pool, which would be great in this infernal heat, but we have no time for that as we must travel another 5.5 hours to our next destination, Dubbo. HRH, slightly sleep-deprived from me coughing up a lung for most of the night, between blowing nose-wontons, tries to cheer me up by saying the trip is “only 5.5 hours long.” Oh yippee skipee.

Our Motel in Moree, New South Wales.

Our Motel in Moree, New South Wales. It cost the same as the Intercontinental Hotel in Kuala Lumpur. No, I’m serious.

Outback New South Wales, past Moree.

Outback New South Wales, past Moree.

We drive and drive and drive some more, past hay fields, along a mostly straight road. Occasionally we come across a dead joey, being picked at by crows and the odd eagle. After what seems like hours on the road, the hay fields give way to bushes.

The road from Moree to Dubbo, New South Wales.

The road from Moree to Dubbo, New South Wales.

HRH decides to stop in a town called Mendooran to refuel the car. The town is so small, it only has the one street featuring the requisite supermarket, gas station and post office. Locals around these parts are cattle farmers. The gas station attendant informs us that our next destination, after Dubbo, is “pure nothing through the desert.”

I blow my thousandth nose-wonton despite the Aerius D.

The Mendooran post office in country New South Wales.

The Mendooran post office in country New South Wales.

We arrive in Dubbo mid-afternoon but I feel like I’ve been travelling the whole day. HRH has us booked into Cattleman’s Country Motor Inn, the best accommodation there is in Dubbo. We are given a new two-bedroom apartment with tasteful modern decor.

HRH crossing the road in front of our motel in Dubbo, New South Wales.

HRH crossing the road in front of our motel in Dubbo, New South Wales.

After checking in, we go in search of food. We wind up at one of the town’s two Vietnamese eateries. The food is authentic, if substantially more expensive than what it is in Brisbane. For dinner, we opt to dine at the Cattleman’s restaurant. You can see Amanda pigging out on the first of 4 bowls of spaghetti bolognese she has throughout the trip.

Amanda at the Cattleman's restaurant in Dubbo, New South Wales.

Amanda at the Cattleman’s restaurant in Dubbo, New South Wales.

Day 2

We exit Dubbo straight after our 10am checkout. We have to, even though Dubbo Zoo is purportedly worth a visit, because we have another 9 hours on the road until our next stop for the day: Broken Hill.

The landscape after Dubbo, towards Broken Hill in New South Wales.

The black thing is the railroad. The landscape after Dubbo, towards Broken Hill.

2 hours into our journey, HRH says, “I was told that some people count the road kill to keep themselves entertained.”

So there goes 1 dead joey, 2 dead joeys…the alternative is dead rabbits. They road signs keep saying to watch out for suicidal kangaroos, emus and wombats, but I can see none of them around.

The road after Dubbo, towards Broken Hill.

The road after Dubbo, towards Broken Hill.

In case you didn’t know (and I didn’t either until HRH told me) mining giant BHP gets it’s name from the area, the oldest active mine in Australia. It stands for Broken Hill Proprietary. The town is the only one we’ve ever seen with an active mine forming part of it; most mining towns conduct their activities beyond the main streets.

Our room at the Red Earth Motel in Broken Hill, New South Wales.

Our room at the Red Earth Motel in Broken Hill, New South Wales.

A civic guide to Broken Hill, New South Wales.

Advertised eateries are KFC, Macdonalds and Hungry Jacks. We locate a cafe nearby to enjoy a simple western meal.

Broken Hill, New South Wales, at dusk.

Broken Hill, New South Wales, at dusk.

Amanda having a bowl of spaghetti bolognese in Broken Hill, New South Wales.

Sprinkling on the cheese. Amanda having a bowl of spaghetti bolognese in Broken Hill, New South Wales.

Food and accommodation is priced well above what you’d pay in any of the major capital cities in Australia. The town’s only Chinese restaurant does a rousing business. Locals are friendly; surprisingly many can afford to eat out on a weeknight. I don’t suppose there is much else to do. We see many families at the cafe we’re at.

 

My Malaysia: meeting the locals.

HRH’s sister takes us to her regular coffee shop, a place like countless other coffee shops throughout Malaysia. There are blue Terrazzo tiles on the floor, large framed mirrors facing each other on walls for good feng shui, old marble tables with 4 or so fragile-looking wooden chairs each.

The sign that greets me before I enter says, “Beware of snatch thieves.” I ask HRH to take a commemorative shot, my face oozing enough oil to fry Indian roti.

We take a seat at one of the square tables.

“What is this place?” asks Amanda, her eyes as wide as they can be for small peepers.

“A coffee shop,” answers HRH. “Your mum and I grew up visiting places like this.”

Our coffee shops in Oz sell Continental cakes and babycinos. This place, according to a board on the opposing wall, advertising specials, sells wanton mee with soup or tossed in black sauce, all sorts of roti, nasi lemak to be sure, and to my amazement Roti Babi.

Roti Babi is a Nyonya dish. My mother says it’s made by stuffing a thick slice of bread with a mixture of cooked onions, pork meat (hence the name, “Babi”), crab meat and spices, dunking that bread into egg wash and then frying it.

Since I’m on holiday I ignore her admonishments to stay away from it because it’s unhealthy, and order myself a serve from the Cantonese-speaking Malay waiter. I discover that even the other Malay waiter understands Cantonese; phrases pertaining to food anyway. HRH, now eating less post-surgery, has a wanton mee to share with Amanda, HRH’s sister 2 half boil eggs with coconut jam on toast. We order an assortment of local beverages.

Returning to HRH sister’s car, I notice a rojak stall directly behind the restaurant. Closer inspection reveals a whole back lane full of hawkers. How delightful! I must have some rojak! So even though already full, I order a portion to go along with HRH’s order of sliced jackfruit and watermelon. HRH has suddenly become very health conscious, constantly insisting on fruit.

The stall holder, a granny with surprisingly good teeth (or could they be dentures?) asks us to take a seat at one of the tables while her husband, an old man with gnarly hands to match hers, whips up my sweet, sour, hot and spicy Malaysian fruit salad.

Perched at the table, we have an uninterrupted view of the kitchen to the restaurant we frequented previously, plus their wet, squatting loo. A swarm of fat house flies hover around us as the granny brings us our fruit and Rojak.

“Eeewwww…this place is disgusting,” announces Amanda, sitting on HRH’s lap.

I tuck into my Rojak, unperturbed by the flies or Amanda comments, as long-forgotten conditioning takes over. I want to point out to Amanda the mee seller in the corner, frying up plates of noodles without lighting or running water, but am caught up in the realization of being home, even if I am in a back alley teeming with vermin and a view of a wet, squatting loo.

Upon hearing that we’re back from Oz, the granny, who will never visit such parts in her life, banters with us as though we are her most loyal of customers. She waves to us later, as we drive off to head back to the Intercontinental Hotel.

On our walk to the car, Amanda stops her father with another wrinkled-nose look of disgust and says, “Why is there so much rubbish there?”

She points to a row of derelict single storey houses strewn with rubbish-filled plastic bags and empty drink bottles. In my Malaysian mode, I had not noticed any of this, alighting from the car. Now I can see it as clearly as she can.

“People are not as civic-minded in Malaysia,” HRH explains to her. “Almost everyone has to earn a living, many have hard lives. When people have hard lives, they don’t have the chance to think about things like public cleanliness or the impact their lifestyles have on the environment. Here, the rich are very, very rich and the poor are very, very poor.”

He left out the pretend rich and the pretend poor. I’ve been accused by HRH numerous times of trying to pass off for the latter.

“What about in the middle?” asks Amanda.

I’m glad that they teach her to question in school. We were encouraged to be quiet when I was growing up in Malaysia. From what I hear, little has changed.

There is very little middle here, Amanda,” I say. “You can either be very, very rich or very, very poor. Those are your 2 options living here.”

“That’s why you must study hard,” says HRH.

“Mummy and daddy studied hard, that’s why you have the life you have. Nothing comes without sacrifice, Amanda,” I say. “Nothing.”

Reaching the hotel, we choose to sample the couches nearest to the hotel gardens. Thanks to a huge glass wall, we can see man-made waterfall, sculptured gardens and all, in air-conditioned, mosquito-free comfort. A hotel staff comes up to ask us if we’d like any drinks. Juice is priced at RM17 per glass. At the coffee shop we were at, it was only RM2.50. As before, I’m referred to as ma’am.

“See, this is how the rich live,” I tell Amanda, waving the hotel staff away. “When you are rich in this country (actually any country in Asia), people treat you like a king.”

Unless your surname is Packer or Rinehart, your riches won’t buy you the sort of life you can have in Asia down under. Sure, your life will be comfortable, but only in select 5 star hotels will you ever be called “ma’am” or “sir.” The average Aussie establishment is too egalitarian to accord you any special titles or treatment. We’re all mates, loves and darlings, in Oz.

At the prompting of HRH, I go to check on our room. Front desk staff, different from that which greeted me at 6 am, claim to not have our booking. While polite, the man delivering the news has a decidedly frosty demeanour. I go to fetch HRH who irons out the matter. When I next see the man to get out key-cards, he is all warm and welcoming.

“Oh I’m sorry. It was our mistake,” he coos. “You will find the new rooms utterly lovely. The bed sleeps 4, the bathroom has a view of the bedroom.”

Suddenly we are best friends, eh? HRH, his sister, Amanda and I take the lifts up to find a uniformed hotel staff outside our door.

“I brought you your bag,” he says in Malay.

I open my wallet to fish out a RM5 note. Passing it to him, I instruct him to bring my bag inside.
He brings it in and places it on the platform for luggage so that I have easy access to it. He thanks me and takes his leave.

Amanda marvels at the room, perhaps not expecting to see anything like it outside of Oz. The tub is huge, the toilet has a bum-washing function, all surfaces gleam so brightly I think I might go blind from the light reflecting off surfaces. Minutes later, house keeping comes by to check if I have adequate bottles of water. Unlike Oz, we can’t drink from the taps.

Housekeeping passes me 3 bottles to add to the 3 we already have, thanks me and leaves. While HRH and his sister catch up, I give Amanda and myself a shower.

“We’ll try out the bath tonight,” I promise her.

When I come out, the door bell rings. It’s a different man from housekeeping. Without me inviting him in, he comes to fold up the excess bedding and places that in the wardrobe. Then he proceeds to pick up my discarded towels. Without any explanation, he zips out of my room with them and returns with 3 new fluffy towels.

Holding the door open for him to leave, I can see him giving me a once-over (actually many times over) with his eyes, as his hands go about hanging up the new towels. After what feels like forever, he comes out and standing before me asks, “You Malay?”

“No.”

“Thai?”

“No,” I say, wishing he’d just leave me alone. I have been on a very long flight, am dog tired. What I am is tired.

“What are you?”

“Cheena.”

“Oooh…you lawa,” he says. Lawa is Malay for beautiful. Then he looks me up and down again.

I feel ill.

“Thank you. I’d like to rest now,” I say, excusing him.

“Do you have enough water?”

“Yes, thank you.”

He steps out of the room and I close the door. Minutes later, my door bell rings yet again. The same house keeper returns bearing 3 bottles of water and several small packets.

“For you,” he says with a sheepish smile, handing me small packets containing cotton pads and nail files. “This,” he says pointing to the nail file, “will make you more lawa.” Then he disappears into my bathroom.

Oh? What now? I am left holding the door open, waiting for this person who clearly doesn’t know a guest is a guest is a guest, to leave.

When he returns from an extended tour of my bathroom he holds out his hand. Unable to comprehend what this is about, since his Malay is broken at best, and I can’t speak whatever he speaks, I hold out his small packets to him.

“Shake hands,” he says, looking at his extended hand.

I reluctantly shake his hand. He looks like he is about to die of rapture.

“I have to rest now,” I insist.

He steps out of my room and I close the door. I settle between HRH and Amanda on our super-sized King bed and recount to HRH what just happened. HRH’s sister has long left. HRH is mildly amused. I am on my way to beddy bye land with thoughts of all the delicious food yet to come when our door bell rings again.

I look up at HRH. No words are necessarily. He gets up to answer the door. He returns bearing another 2 bottles of water, grumbling about “my new admirer.”

I am once more off to beddy bye land when the door bell rings yet again. HRH looks annoyed, gets up to check it and returns with yet 2 more bottles of water.

“Same guy?” I say to him with sleep-heavy eyes.

“Yes,” fumes HRH. “He better not bother you or I will speak to management downstairs.”

I fall into a deep sleep to the sounds of our wall-mounted 40 inch flat screen TV.

TBC

My Malaysia: arrival in the country.

Our Air Asia plane arrives on schedule. Because of HRH’s gall bladder surgery 4 days earlier (he was the patient instead of the surgeon), I forbid him to touch any of our hand luggage. Since we are at the front in business class, we are the first to alight from the aircraft. We follow our exemplary head air stewardess, who attended to our needs well throughout the trip, down the metal stairs, across the tarmac, into the building. There she bids us a fond farewell.

While HRH relieves himself in the loo, I keep a look out for our big black bag holding all our clothes and gifts for various family members. I, who have never lifted weights, manage to drag the thing off the conveyor belt. God bless my back. Now, to use the loo.

HRH waits with the big black bag, as I, laden with all our smaller pieces, lead Amanda into the nearest women’s room. It is surprisingly clean. And there’s toilet paper too!

Washing my hands, I take a look at my un-made-up reflection; I look like what the cat dragged in! Well, there is nothing I can do about this as all my make up is with HRH in the big black bag outside. We exit the toilet, ignore duty free (some, but not all things are cheaper than Oz) and proceed to the passport check-point. There are few others ahead of us so we seen immediately.

“Good morning. How are ya?” I say to the counter lady, employing some of my Aussie charm.

She returns my smile and chops our passports with deft hands.

We proceed on to the customs, but seeing no one there, we sail right through.

“God bless Malaysia,” I say with a cheeky smile.

“Aiyah. Like that people can brings drugs into the country,” exclaims HRH.

With me pulling our big black bag and carrying 3 pieces of hand luggage, we amble into the arrival lounge. HRH cranes his neck for his sister.

“Do you have her phone number?” I ask him.

“No,” he says, craning his head further. He starts to pace outside while I take a seat with Amanda.

“Does she know we are here?” I ask HRH.

“She should know. You wrote to her, didn’t you?”

At 4.30 am you can barely recall the day of the week, much less what you wrote to whom. HRH reluctantly takes a seat next to me and we observe the ebb and flow of passengers and those there to greet them for the next 10 minutes.

HRH’s sister saunters up to us. After exchanging greetings, she leads us to her car. Between she and I, we manage to get the big black bag into the car. HRH piles into the front passenger seat. We climb in at the back. So far so good.

At that hour, the only lights visible are from street-lamps and other motorists. As we approach KL city, close to an hour later, a thin sliver of light appears on the horizon, bathing the surrounding steel and concrete jungle in a greyish glow.

We are now blocks from the Intercontinental Hotel, Kuala Lumpur, where we will spend all of today and some of tomorrow to spare my parents from having to accomodate us so early in the morning. HRH’s sister pulls into the Intercontinental’s driveway and while they wait in the car, I go in to enquire about our room.

I tell hotel staff attending to me about HRH’s surgery, hoping to find a compassionate soul willing to allow us into our RM488 room early.

“The earliest we can let you check in is at 10 am, ma’am,” says one of the men at the front desk.

“How much to check in now?” It’s almost 6 am.

He taps into his keyboard. “Half a day’s rate,” he says.

I report this back to HRH, still seated in the car with his sister.

“We’ll wait,” he says. “It’s not worth paying 50% extra for 4 hours.”

I return to the front desk to deliver HRH’s decision.

“Come back at 9.30 am,” says the same man. “We’ll have your room ready for you by then.”

I erupt into a burst of terima kasihs (thank yous). Perhaps unaccustomed to such a display of gratitude from house guests, the man blushes and says, “Just come here at 9.30 am. I’ll make sure it’s ready. We’ll put a rush job on it.”

I go back to the car to relay this news to HRH. Then I return to enjoy one of the plush couches in anticipation of our check in. As soon as my behind comes in contact with the sofa, I am offered a bottle of mineral water by an attentive staff. HRH, his sister and Amanda emerge minutes later with our big black bag. I take our big black bag to the counter to be kept until check-in.

“We can deliver it straight to your room,” the bell-hop informs me in Malay.

I return to HRH, Amanda and his sister, seated on various arms of a circular, custom-made-of-course, couch. HRH’s sister, a professional, is soon telling us about her latest foray into the world of Multi Level Marketing (MLM).

“We are part of a very good group,” she says. “We have a very effective leader.”

“Don’t tell me about it,” says HRH. “Your sister-in-law was in this last time.”

“10 years ago,” I say, “The person who recruited me said the same thing; he left within a month to pursue other business opportunities.”

“Oh, our branch is different,” HRH’s sister says. “We aim to build a passive income, to be financially independent.”

“That’s what the people who recruited me said too. 10 years on, they still have day jobs, are still trying to build a passive income and be financially independent.”

“Maybe it’s because they didn’t have a system,” she says.

“They had a system all right. They had 2-hour presentation, tapes to give out to strangers, conferences, motivational speeches…I even became an executive, if only for a month. At the end, I put all the material outside the door and told my recruiter’s recruiter to get them or else they’d be binned.”

“All this MLM is like snake oil,” asserts HRH. “So much goes into giving the 6 layers of commission so what do consumers really get for their money? When you join these organisations, only those at the top benefit. Look at your second cousin, she’s been with various MLMs for years. Has she gotten anywhere? Is she financially independent?”

You can do this in Malaysia but not Australia,” I say. “Aussies stress the importance of work-life balance, spending time with their families, enjoying their leisure time. Only the very rich have maids.”

When I was growing up, almost every Tom, Dick and Harry had an Indonesian or Filipino maid. Today, only those with an income above RM5k (AUD1.8k at the current exchange rate of 3.2) is allowed to employ one. Indonesian maids are available from RM 800 per month (AUD250), as of 2013, whilst Filipino maids, RM1800 (AUD562.50).

“Everyone thinks that Aussies are rich but the average Aussie only earns AUD50k. A significant chunk goes to the tax department,” I add. On top of which, foreign domestics are barred from entering Oz, to protect the local labour market. After all, if one can hire a full-time maid for AUD562.50 a month, who would pay AUD20 an hour for a cleaner or AUD25 for a nanny? Even the kid who babysits Amanda while I go swimming every Friday gets AUD10 (RM32) an hour. She gets more working at Macdonalds.

Malaysians are more willing to strive for a better future,” HRH sister says. “I will make establish my business before coming over.” She plans to move to Oz.

Malaysians have no choice,” I say, aware that this is too hard a topic to broach on an empty stomach, especially at 7 am. “They have no one to care for them if they are out of a job, become disabled, or lose everything through the death of a breadwinner, or divorce.”

A week on, the Malaysian government will announce the disbursement of BRIM, a one-off payment of RM500 for households earning less than RM3000.

In Oz, the government gives around AUD1340 (RM4288) every 4 weeks to each non-working, single parents with one child under the age of 5. It reduces thereafter until the child turns 8. After that it gets cancelled altogether. Some manage to get government housing. At any rate, extra payments are available for households earning less than AUD90k per annum (it tapers off around AUD80k) to help with the cost of raising children. Low-income households also receive subsidies towards their rent, bus and rail travel, gas and electricity bills and pharmaceutical purchases.

In Malaysia, people will say, “It’s just too bad. Who asked you not to be born in the right family?” Malaysians, I am to be reminded later, equate financial hardship with laziness, poor choices, immorality…mostly with laziness. Therefore hardship, where most are concerned, is justified. “You can’t fail to get ahead if you try hard enough” is the motto around here.

“Good luck with your endeavour,” I say to HRH’s sister. “Aussies live long enough as it is. The average woman lives until 86, the average man 81. With a combined income of AUD1800 from the government in the form of a pension, none of the oldies can afford the pills you are peddling, no matter how good you say it is for them. They can barely afford to eat as it is.”

Glancing at her watch, HRH’s sister offers to take us to breakfast.

TBC