Taking a Step Back: Daily Life in Cairns


CAIRNS, AUSTRALIA- So I want to chat a little bit about my daily life over the past few months, and what sort of challenges I’ve faced and lessons I’ve learned. As most of you know and have commented, I’ve worked only sporadically down here either on odd jobs or a smaller exchange for accommodation and food. How have I gotten away with this, you may ask? Well first off, I was fortunate enough to have a good job before I left for Australia, which allowed me to save up a decent amount to make this whole thing possible. I could not have done what I’m doing without that, and I’m ever grateful for the opportunity my work afforded me. Yet everyone knows that budgets are controlled in two ways: cash in, and cash out. Well, since I’ve been in Australia, cash flow has been controlled by a vice grip. It certainly makes it much easier that the environment I’m in surrounds me with other budget-conscious travelers, so all of us are in the same boat of saving every penny we have. I’ve always kept close watch on my money, but over here I keep a little diary where I log exactly what I spend in a day making it much easier to know where my money is going. It’s also a powerful motivator not to do something stupid with it. 

Anything and everything that is considered a “luxury good” is completely out of the question—play a round of golf? No thank you, I’ll save that for when I’m back working full-time. Someone trying to sell you something? A surefire way to tell that it’s something you don’t need. I like to think of it as a full-scale reallocation of my resources to maximize how long I can travel and what I can do while traveling. I left home to travel, and it’s foolish to be foolish with the money I have that’s meant to help me see the world. For example, yesterday I completed my PADI Open Water certification, which qualifies me to go scuba diving on my own (up to 18m/40ft, in reasonable conditions) anywhere in the world. This cost me $440, and was easily the most I had spent on any single thing since I’ve been to Australia. Yet I signed up for the course without hesitation, since it was actually on sale (or “on offer”, as they say down here)—they can run as high as $800-900. Scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef is something I’ve wanted to do forever, and would be crossing it off of my bucket list right now if I actually had a bucket list to speak of. It might have been an expensive course, but for me the value of the experience was incalculable, and that’s what I came here for. Experiences of incalculable value, and sometimes one has to spend a bit of money to facilitate that. 

I haven’t been out to dinner in ages and rarely eat a meal that I haven’t prepared. Breakfast has not been purchased since I was in Sydney, lunch out (as in, something you didn’t make yourself- not a sit-down meal) is an absolute treat when you’re unable to bring your own, and dinner is virtually always cooked in the kitchen. I would hardly call this sacrifice, but there is a certain degree of legwork that goes into preparing every single one of your meals and trying to keep them nutritious. Groceries run about $100/week, sometimes more, sometimes less, but always low enough that I feel these costs are controlled. Depending on where you travel, sampling the local cuisine is part of the experience and your budget for food would be adjusted accordingly, because after all, eating is part of the traveling experience. Yet Australian cuisine is…nothing, nothing at all, and expensive to boot, so I’m much more comfortable preparing food myself and spending my money on outdoorsy activities such as a camping trip or getting my scuba diving license. Stir fry is often on the menu since it is cheap, can be packed with vegetables, and can last up to five meals depending on just how you approach it. Little tired of the same thing? Refry it in a pan, through a fried egg on top with an avocado on the side, a little bit of cheese, and put some Frank’s Red Hot Sauce on it. You won’t be disappointed.

I’ve always been quite careful with my money, but willing to spend it freely on things and experiences that mean a lot to me and that ethos has only strengthened since I’ve been traveling. I don’t really need things to be happy, on the contrary the acquisition of things are objects which drain my capital and which I eventually need to carry around, possibly over long distances, so I’ve shunned things in favor of experiences at virtually every juncture. In terms of personal entertainment, I don’t require much though thanks to some key technological items I do have a large scale of entertainment at my fingertips without having to carry much. My kindle and a sporadic internet connection mean I have hundreds of books to read at any given time. My iPod means that I have tens of thousands of songs to choose from when I want to listen to some music. Aside from these two, my most cherished items I carry with me are a hard-bound leather Moleskine diary, which probably siphons some of the more introspective, juicy thoughts that some of you believe belong on this blog, and an acoustic guitar which I bought back in January. These are my go-to items when I have free time, and I could not be happier that none of them are a television. I am finding that I enjoy hobbies that allow me to create (music, writing, photography, thoughts, travel itineraries, cooking) rather than consume (television, booze, food). 

I have aspirations to start learning French- there are a ton of French people here and I find myself captivated by the language. I took Spanish for 3 years, Russian for 6 years, and German for 4 months, and was never really interested by any of those, so we’ll see where this takes me. I might forget about it in a month’s time since it’s difficult to get by on anything but English in Australia... Part of my fascination with French has been listening to a lot of their music. Between Astrid (my instrument-maker friend from Port) and my next-door neighbor here in Cairns, Etienne, I’ve built up a nice little collection of French classic, hip hop, and alternative rock. I have a relatively wide taste in music, but it’s only recently that I’ve begun to reflect that that taste is almost entirely of the American and British variety. There’s a whole world of music out there in different languages, from different cultures, that we are just not exposed to at home. Of course, there’s often a language and acquisition barrier to finding out about foreign artists, but I find that there’s something captivating about listening to music in a language you don’t understand. I’ve never been a lyrics person with songs; I rarely know or listen to them. For me, music is all about emotion and how it makes you feel, and lyrics in another language seem to double this effect on me. I might not know exactly what they are saying, but I enjoy the way they are saying it and in a sense, to me, the feeling is more striking this way. Try listening to any German hip-hop, and you’ll know what I mean; that language was meant to be rapped.

Living in a hostel, especially working at the reception and travel desk, means I’m constantly meeting new people from all over the world, every day. The vast majority of travellers here in Australia are from the UK (not much surprise there), but there are also a TON of Germans. I’m not sure if I’ve written about this before, but Germany recently abolished their mandatory two-year conscription law, which means there are a ton of young Germans flooding the labor and University market, which is unable to absorb them. The answer, overwhelmingly, has been for them to travel to Australia on a gap year to make themselves more marketable individuals upon their return home.

Most travelers are in their late teens or early twenties, though age matters less than whether someone has a) just graduated high school, b) graduated from University and has not worked, or c) worked in a professional, big boy environment, and left to travel. Collectively we are referred to as backpackers, since we are traveling indefinitely rather than on holiday. On the whole, I socialize and get along with C’s much better than the rest. Most travelers are from Europe. Lots of French, Dutch, and Scandinavians, fewer Spaniards and Italians—these demographics are pretty predictably split along current economic states of their countries. A lot of Canadians, and a growing (but still miniscule) number of Americans.

I’ve met no Africans so far, a handful of Israelis, a few South Americans, one Russian, and seen scores of Asians roaming the streets of Cairns. All of this makes for a pretty cool mixture of people staying in the same place, and while lively political debate may not be as much of the culture as your correspondent might like, there’s still loads of opportunity for cross-cultural exchange, often over a few drinks. Backpackers love having a few drinks. Australia is definitely a westernized outpost filled with Westerners looking to travel. While this has made traveling much easier, it’s also made me want to keep exploring different countries and cultures that are much different from my own upbringing…that’s why I love traveling, and that’s what I want to spend my time doing right now.

One thing that backpackers share is a love of adventure and a desire to try something new before embarking on a life path that will be relatively set in stone. Sometimes it’s worth it to take a step back and reflect that I’m pretty lucky to be in the company of the kind of people that will, when taken to the appropriate spot, all go cliff-jumping without hesitation…that’s the best way I can find to classify the attitude of the travelers in Australia. While I do love socializing and meeting new people constantly, I’ve found that my personality is an odd mix between hyper-social and reclusive hermit. I don’t need that much alone time every day, but I do need it, and when I don’t get it I become quite discontent. It can become at times trying to escape all of the commotion that comes with hostel life and just get a few hours alone. A field trip across the street to the Esplanade lagoon with a guitar in tow is often in order, or just an early night packing it in with a good book. While one of my aims while traveling is to broaden my mind and learn as much as I can about the way the world works from as many people as I can, a trip like this often requires some solitary reflection time, which I find I need more than ever. But hey, that’s life right? Figuring out what it’s all about. It’s a journey we’re all on.

I guess I glossed over it in the midst of this post, but my Open Water Scuba Dive course consisted of two days of classroom instruction and closed water practice (in the pool), and then two day trips out to the Great Barrier Reef, each with two instructional dives. The sandy bottom of the ocean floor surrounded by coral reef is quite possibly the coolest classroom setting I’ve ever been in, and on our last dive we were allowed to take an underwater camera with us. I’m in the middle of posting a bunch of the underwater pics, as well as some pictures and videos of the trip from the surface- so check ‘em out, and let me know what you think!