Counting dollars

Ever travelled to a foreign country and found yourself converting the local currency to your own? And have you ever had this face when you realised how much everything costs in your own money?

What the hell?!
What the hell?!

It’s the bitter reality for most of us. Although you tell yourself you’re on holiday and it’s ok to splurge once a while, you still can’t fathom the marvel that is currency conversion. But your inner mind is right—it is only once a while, and you should splurge on yourself.

Can’t say the same about me, however. One of the scariest things about moving to Australia—a country well known for its venomous snakes and its well-established economy—is that everything is so damn expensive. And the locals often don’t realise it because, well, they earn well.

The average earning capacity for an Australian is high enough for an average Australian lifestyle.

For me, though, it seemed bollocks. I had fair warning, yes. Expat forums and online resources informed me page after page how pricey life is. But I didn’t understand the real weight of it until I saw that a simple fruit-and-nut bar costs 4 to 5 dollars. A decent meal at a so-so restaurant will cost at least $15—not including drinks. It’s not uncommon to spend $25 on a meal.

What’s funny though, is that I found a good, sturdy pair of shoes for the same price. It wasn’t Nike or Sketchers or any if those high-profile brands, but it was a functional pair of shoes.

And I see that across all products—the pricing structure is so illogical. Coles and Woolworths are two of the largest supermarket brands in Australia. Both have their own branded products for almost everything (like Trader Joe’s). Salt, pepper, detergent, prepackaged meals, chocolate, biscuits, chocolate biscuits—you name it, and chances are they’ll have it. They’re super cheap too—a 2-litre bottle of laundry liquid cost me less than $2. But unlike Trader Joe’s, these supermarkets also carry other local and imported brands which are four to six times expensive. Just for comparison, other detergents range between $7 to $10. And people still buy them.

Most people I’ve seen use a clever combination—they buy home brands for a lot of stuff, but they also spend extra on some other fancier brands. It all depends on the product. I’m still trying to discern how they reason it out, but after spending weeks comparing prices between brands and also between supermarkets, I’ve also started making some calculated purchasing choices.

The most important thing to know, if you’re visiting Australia, is that how items are priced makes no sense whatsoever. Whether you’re travelling from the US, Asia, or Europe, don’t expect logic. Come, explore, have fun and splurge. Don’t try and make sense of the Aussie way because you’ll only depress yourself by doing so. I speak from experience.

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Laundry day

Moving to a new country isn’t just about striding through supermarket aisles making fun of all the types of tomatoes you can buy. And neither is it about exploring the city as a tourist.

Moving to a new country means you have to start doing regular chores as well. And today was the first time I did laundry by myself.

Of course not. It’s not the first time I ever did laundry—I’ve done it plenty of times back in India. I used to hand wash my clothes for a long time before we got a fancy washing machine. I’ve run it loads of times since, and know my way around it well enough.

For my first few weeks in Australia, I bunked with my brother whose washing machine I got accustomed to without any trouble.

However, I hadn’t done my laundry at all since moving into a place of my own. It wasn’t any different than doing laundry at my brother’s home—except it was. Unlike my brother’s place, my new place doesn’t have a clothesline or a balcony to dry wet clothes. Instead, we have a dryer.

Ah, a dryer. A concept I’d only heard of in movies where winter was a real thing. Back in Chennai where temperatures never fall below 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit), it seemed insane to have a dryer. Plus, it’s expensive and a luxury item. I didn’t worry much about it, though—my roommate walked me through the procedure, and it seemed simple: throw the clothes in and turn the knob. Easy. Great.

So there I was a week after moving in, with a load of dirty clothes that could no longer escape the wash. But first, I needed detergent. Not unlike the tomatoes, there were hundreds of brands and types—of powders, liquids, concentrated liquids, conditioners, and bleach. After struggling for about 15 minutes, I grabbed the cheapest liquid detergent and got the hell out of the supermarket.

I’d seen my brother dump a spoon-full of detergent powder onto his clothes. My roommate, who used liquid, affirmed the procedure. However, the label on the laundry liquid I got warned against pouring it onto the clothes. Helpful, you might think. But no—it didn’t tell me how else to use it. So on the morning of my laundry day, I spent about 20 minutes online trying to figure out to use the liquid on a washing machine—and hear this—that didn’t have a detergent dispenser. I’d never imagined a washing machine without a detergent dispenser, but here we are. It turns out I have to dilute a small portion of the liquid in warm or hot water and then pour it on the clothes. Fine. But even now, I don’t understand the difference between the regular liquid that I got and the concentrated liquid I was sure to avoid.

By the time I turned on the washing machine, I felt drained of mental energy. But it was just the beginning. Worried that I’d made a mistake (I hadn’t), I was too afraid to leave it running and return to my room. So for the next hour, I stood close by alternating between working and checking in on the machine. Despite my preparedness to pull the plug if something went wrong, the machine worked fine. My clothes came out clean and intact—although I wish my socks had had a better run. Heaving a huge sigh, I wondered if there was a way to avoid using the dryer. But to my tough luck, it was a cloudy, rain-forecasted day. The sun didn’t even show its face all afternoon.

Oh, well. I shoved my clothes in the dryer and turned on the knob. There were only two settings—light blue for synthetics or delicates and dark blue for regular. I ran the dryer under the highest heat for delicates. Unsure of how long it should go, about 15 minutes in, I stopped and felt my clothes. They were still wet, so I let it go again. Then I realised that the dryer was making a big racket—nothing faulty, but it was so loud that I panicked. So I stopped after another 10 minutes. My clothes were wet. I ran the dryer yet again, and again, stopping every 10-15 minutes. What if I ran it for too long? What if it overheated and went kaput?

It was a tense afternoon. I was shuffling back and forth between the dryer and my laptop. I got no work done, however at the end of it all, I had a bunch of clean and warm clothes. And I didn’t flood the apartment—which is always a good thing.

People say moving to a new country is a major life change like work, family, and friends, but I don’t think they realise that it’s the small everyday things that pose the biggest challenge. Geez—it was easier to get on the bus to the Botanical Gardens than it was figuring out the functionality of a washing machine that didn’t have a detergent dispenser.

What if—?

Institutions and rules keep us in check, and tell us what we should and shouldn’t do. Without a religious belief watching over us we’d run amok with madness.

But what if we wake up one day having no memory of a god or religion? What if they never existed?

Well, we won’t have violence in the name of god, for sure. People will be fighting because they’re hungry.

We won’t have loud bells claiming to wake the lord, and waking up the whole street instead.

Men won’t need wear saffron dhotis for three months in the year. Imagine not living in a neighbourhood where the men are all clad in eye-numbing orange every day.

And women won’t have to cover their heads every time they go out. Hats will become a lifestyle choice. And I can wear a scarf to without being called out.

Oh, and we won’t have discrimination in the name of godmen. Sadthus and gurus will be out of business. Holiness would mean… nothing.

Footwear will become comfort, and people won’t torture themselves in the name of devotion.

Flowers will bloom and fade away, intact in plants. Slaughtered meat and alcohol won’t be part of a traditional offering—just Thanksgiving dinners. Or brunch.

Piercings will be a hippie thing—not a god thing.

What if we told the whole world that god and religion don’t exist?

Well, people just might go crazy.

Australian National Botanical Gardens in Canberra

Different is courage

Fear less though alone

it’s the odd ones that stand out

a lesson from plants


Photo: Australian National Botanical Gardens in Canberra, ACT

Ya alright, mate?

I haven’t talked about it much, but about three weeks ago, I moved to Australia. From south India. It took me two years to get a resident visa, and I was beyond thrilled when I saw the visa grant letter in my email.

I was at work at the time, and I galloped to the restroom so I could punch my fist in the air without alarming those around me. It was, after all, a life-changing moment and I had every right to celebrate—even if it meant shouting out inside a bathroom cubicle to muffle my jubilance.

After spending a month with my parents, consoling and convincing them that I’d be fine without them watching over me like hawks, I landed in Australia happy and dog tired. Having flown for almost 17 hours, excluding transit, I was too stupefied even to express my joy and excitement. I sat in the car on the ride home, staring at nothing in particular, unable to muster words, breathing just like another vegetable on the counter.

Jet lag, some people would call it. I wouldn’t, but I also don’t know what it was. Even for a few hours afterwards, I felt as if things were happening too fast for my puny mind to comprehend. I sometimes still stare into space, my mind wandering, unable to believe that I now live in the first world.

It’s natural. Culture shock affects us all in different ways, and this is how it is for me. For the first few weeks, I lived with Indian housemates who’d lived here long enough to become accustomed to the lifestyle. As for me, even my first experience in a supermarket was overwhelming. Although I’ve seen first world supermarkets on my trips to the US, I wasn’t browsing as a resident; I was just a visitor looking for snacks.

And even though there’s plenty of large chain supermarkets in India where I came from, the ones here are so much bigger and have much more variety.

There’s so much variety that it’s insane. I was walking down the aisles, browsing and musing…

There’s canned tomatoes, canned organic tomatoes, canned crushed organic tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, un-canned whole tomatoes, un-canned sun-dried tomatoes, red tomatoes, green tomatoes, and prepackaged tomatoes.

And I’m just cooking for one. I lost the will to use tomatoes.

But that wasn’t all. Take carrots, broccoli, or just peas for goodness’ sake. They’re fresh and whole; prepackaged in bundles; bundled and frozen; chopped and prepackaged; chopped and prepackaged in individual steam bags; and even boiled and ready to eat in packages.

And what a fool I’ve been all my life—I used to buy carrots, wash them in salt water, peel, and chop them before throwing in the pan.

Nowadays, it’s just as easy as buying frozen vegetables and microwaving it for lunch.

I did prepare myself for this move. I mean, I dreamt so much, planned and planned for almost two years. But I wasn’t ready for this.

I’m still lost for words at how much things have changed. This isn’t jet lag—this is a lifestyle, mate.