Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The 3 Most Dangerous Things in Australia

“I will come to Australia if you can promise me that I won’t see any huntsman spiders,” said Craig, his voice edging on earnest.

“I don’t know if we can promise that, but they’re harmless,” insisted Jules.

Craig’s wife, Monique, laughed. “Really, Craig? You’re that afraid of spiders?”

“Monique, have you seen a huntsman?" asked Craig, shaking his head. "They’re the size of dinnerplates!”

And thus, without much fanfare, began the Come Visit Us in Australia Diplomacy Tour of 2015.

Last week was Jules’ last visit to Canada before I make the big move Down Under. (Ugh. Did I just type that? Granted, moving to Australia pretty much entitles me to make gross overuse of phrases like “Down Under” and “Oz.” In fact, I’m surprised it didn’t come as part of an instructional guide with my Working Holiday Visa—one that would also encourage Canadians to stubbornly insist on calling their friends “mates” even years after returning home.) In three months time, I’m going to be moving to Sydney, where I'll continue working as a freelance journalist. (In journalism, this is what is referred to as “burying the lede.” I'm moving across the world for love. No big deal.)

We were spending the week visiting with friends in Montréal, Ottawa and Toronto to share our news and invite them to come and visit us. But what was intended as an open invitation to a warm wintertime destination somehow turned into therapy sessions for the entomophobic.

I'll confess that I, too, am slightly terrified to move to the southern hemisphere. But my fears are rooted in much more realistic forms than box jellyfish, sharks or funnelweb spiders.

Over six previous trips, I’ve determined that there are really only three things in Australia that are going to kill you—if you let them:

Photo: Arnaud Michelin

1. Traffic.

Yes, I’m sure you know that traffic comes from the opposite direction in Australia. And while it’s easy to adjust to looking right instead of left before crossing the street, there’s another, bigger problem for me.

As a pedestrian, I’m used to always having the right-of-way. It's the standard in most Canadian cities, especially in downtown Toronto. Is there a four-way stop? It doesn’t matter what car got there first—pedestrians cross as soon as they reach the intersection. Is somebody jaywalking? You slow down to avoid hitting them. Did you just drive up to a yield sign and there’s a lady pushing a stroller? You stop your car for the baby, obviously.

That same logic does not apply in Sydney. Pedestrians have to wait for cars, almost always. A car at a yield sign will not stop for a young mother and her child. Nope, that driver has someplace to be, baby be damned. Did an old man with a cane just arrive at a four-way stop? He may die waiting to cross. And that jaywalker? Splat!

While pedestrian fatalities between the two places is comparable (the Greater Toronto Area had 40 fatalities in 2013, while New South Wales—which has a slightly larger population—had 42), it’s the attitude that I’m going to have a difficult time adjusting to. In Toronto, our Chief City Planner Jen Keesmaat has written that a properly functioning city is one where “pedestrians are expected and they are treated as a priority.” Meanwhile, in New South Wales, there’s a campaign called “Never Let a Mate Walk Home Drunk,” because one in seven deaths on the road is a pedestrian.

Let's just let that sink in for a minute. Never let a mate walk home drunk. It terrifies me that I'm moving to a country where this is a legitimate public health campaign. (Oh, and then there's cycling. Wish me luck.)

Oh, you know. Just having a casual beer in front of the Three Sisters in Katoomba.

2. Alcohol.

On that note, I am slightly terrified of drinking culture in Sydney. Last month, the New Yorker published an article that examined binge drinking culture amongst young professionals. It came as little surprise to me to realize that nearly all of the sources cited were Australian.

Again, while statistically Australians and Canadians drink roughly the same amount of alcohol per week (in both countries, 54 per cent of male adults aged 15 and up drink on a weekly basis; alcohol-related deaths are also nearly identical), there seems to be a different cultural approach to drinking.

While I’m far from a teetotaller, I’m not a heavy drinker and I rarely binge drink. Although I haven’t yet been able to pinpoint the exact difference, there’s something about the Australian attitude towards drinking that makes me uncomfortable.

My best example is Anzac Day. While Remembrance Day is a sombre occasion, in Australia it’s an excuse to drink.

Don’t believe me? Google “Anzac Day drinking games.” You’ll get results for two-up (a pub game traditionally played on the day), editorials wondering if the day is “too boozy,” and advertisements for the “Anzac Day Beer Olympics.”

Now Google “Remembrance Day drinking games.” There’s nothing (except redirects to Memorial Day)—which is exactly my point.

This super stylish windbreaker was the only thing that stood between me an a sunburn in Tasmania.

3. The sun.

Guys, the hole in the ozone layer is real.

Every year in Australia, 11,000 people are diagnosed with melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, compared with 5,000 people in Canada. While only 970 Canadians died from the disease in 2012, it claimed the lives of 2,000 Australians that year.

The number of people that died that same year in Australia from spiders, sharks, snakes and box jellyfish combined? Three.

So come and visit us. I can’t promise that you won’t see a huntsman spider (they’re harmless, really). But I can promise you that I won’t let you get a sunburn or walk home alone drunk, mate.

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