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Whitworth Today: Spring 2005

Insightful and whimsical reflections on the Australia trip by Trisa Usrey, spouse and longtime traveling companion of Kyle Usrey, dean of the School of Global Commerce & Management.


Letter #1

31-1/2 hours. 31-1/2 hours from my front door to de-planing at the Sydney, Australia, airport. Why would even a semi-conscious person DO that to him/herself? Oh, yeah, that's right. Education.

And speaking of which (education), don't even dream that the educator among us -- who shall remain nameless, but whose initials are Kyle B. Usrey, Esq. -- allowed us to rest upon arrival. No-o-o-o-o-o. Three hours after arrival we walked what seemed miles in about 80 degrees for a site visit to the American Consulate, now known as "the death march." I'll give it this, however: this was the best consulate visit I've ever had. I told these two young men who spoke to us that if their day jobs don't work out, they might consider Saturday Night Live. 'Course, we were about 60 stories up overlooking the Sydney Harbor and Opera House. Why wouldn't they be in fine humor? Or fine 'humour' as the case may be. Coincidentally the Consulate General, who came in to greet us (a first in our experience, the Consulate General stopping by) was raised in Moses Lake, Wash., a couple/three hours west of Spokane.

Our bus driver from the airport, Derek, in a running commentary -- none of which was actually solicited -- assured the students that there were enough sheilas for the blokes and enough blokes for the sheilas. Thank you, Derek. He then went on to assure us that drinking was legal at age 18 in Australia but not to have any illusions that any one of us could out-drink an Aussie. Thank you, Derek, shut up.

We're in a Best Western here in Sydney. Sort of. People own some of the units. Students rent some of the units. And then there are hotel units, like ours. We are conveniently located next to the Broadway Mall, a host of amazing restaurants -- Spanish, Lebanese, Nepalese, Italian, Greek -- and, certainly not least: the Golden Cat Rascals Incorporated Bordello. I'm not kidding. Remember that I told you a few years ago that Adelaide, the city where Kyle and I lived for a school term in 1998, legalized and/or decriminalized prostitution in 2000? It's been legal in most of Australia for a long time.

We've taken city buses just about everywhere. We've not paid the same for two adults and 13 students on any two consecutive trips. One bus we rode, Kyle got on first and told the driver that he would pay for "my wife and me, and 13 students." The bus driver looked at him, stunned, and said, "I'm sorry, mate." He then charged us for a family of 15 -- which meant two adult fares, two child fares, and all additional children ride free. Believe me, all the subsequent drivers made up for that windfall. One said we had to have a concession (government-issued proof) that those 13 students were actually students and since we didn't, he charged us for 15 adults. That's life in the HOV lane, I guess.

Okay, well, I've got to pack for a 24-hour bus ride to Adelaide. We leave at 3 p.m. today, Monday, and arrive in Adelaide at 3 p.m. tomorrow, Tuesday. The students are all staying with host families in Adelaide, mercilessly plucked from our church there. (In fact, they are preparing the warmest welcome imaginable.) Kyle promises me that buses in Australia are very different than buses in the U.S.: comfortable, movies, in-bus bathroom. I'm not reassured. But you'll be the first to know for sure.


Letter #2

24 hours. Twenty-four hours, with my derriere stuffed into a Greyhound bus seat, unable to straighten my legs, recline the seat, or get up and walk. This was a bigger challenge than an airplane, truly. And, unlike you, I suppose, I don't often sleep in moving conveyances. So there I was with Kyle in the seat beside me using me for a human pillow, and the guy across the aisle stretched out with his feet very nearly under my chin (which really crowded my under-chin, since in most vehicles my own feet are under my chin).

Here's the part Kyle didn't tell me: Four stops. Four stops in 24 hours. What kind of a masochistic, thoughtless, Y-chromosome-bearing, women-hating, bus-loving, non-showering, outback-worshipping, bladderless, redneck, eucalyptus-sucking, pigheaded homo sapien thought up THAT little itinerary?

Most of the trip was at night. Somewhere in the middle of a nowhere, the likes of which you cannot imagine because there is NO nowhere like the Outback, we picked up a group of Aborigines and a swami, fully draped in white, including headdress and flowing beard (the swami, not the Aborigines, silly). There were just a handful of us awake for that stop, so the rest were plenty surprised when they woke up the next morning and found themselves being meditated over...or something.

We finally arrived in Adelaide and just guess what the temperature was? Oh, 42 degrees centigrade. Allow me to take you out of your misery: In English, 108 degrees. My ankles looked like the trunks of a couple of ghost gum trees from not having used them for 24 hours. But we had seven darling host families from our church here standing ready to greet us and take their student(s), so I plastered a big, fat, glad face on and stormed forth.

One older single woman, Marna, had requested a male student as she had recently had a student from the University of Michigan and just loved him. Kyle and I waited until the last of the four stops on the bus to break the news to Garrett, whom we carefully selected for this woman after observation of all of these students. This meant he was living with an older single lady and no other students nearby (there were two others living in homes with no other of our students, but in those instances, the families had children their ages in the home or it was a couple -- much different than a single young man living with a single older lady). We told Garrett to make us proud and I swear, he apparently bewitched the woman. She was gushing from the first time we saw her after his placement. You just had to hear her say in her precise and formal English, "He's a darling -- a credit to his parents and a credit to his country." I almost cried with relief.

Kyle, the camel-driver, started us out pretty easy with a walking tour and lecture by the marketing director of one of the downtown malls. heh-heh. We thought, "This is going to be a breeze." But things quickly slid downhill as we approached the day for the chicken-processing plant tour. Yeah. That was nice. Several of us swore off chicken to observe an appropriate mourning period after that. Before we started that tour, one of the gentlemen leading the tour said, "Now, if anyone is squeamish and would rather not see the slaughtering side, come with me." Like a magnet and six bits of steel, the women raced to his side (save the daughter of one of the host families, Candace, who accompanied us as a driver, and had no intention of missing anything as gruesome as a chicken slaughtering). But I'm not sure it spared us much as, somewhere in the course of this bloody, meaty, smelly tour, we all ended up walking under a line of chickens moving above us on an assembly line and having a shower of chicken blood sprinkle down on us. One of the co-eds leaned over and said to me, "I may never forgive your husband for this." Me, either, kid.

Adelaide has one of the few privately owned ports in the world. We had a great tour with these folks. I had just that very day of that site visit read in The New York Times that Al-Qaeda has handily outfitted a respectable number of "phantom ships" and has been querying crews here and there about how to navigate particularly heavy shipping lanes but not (surprise) how to dock those ships. Does this sound familiar? So we talked a good deal about security issues and it was all interesting. When you hear that from a non-business person, believe it.

Besides the port, the CEO of Cheap as Chips, the governor's house, the marketing scheme for one of the downtown malls (no kidding, the stores on the downtown mall were open for 32 hours straight up to midnight on Christmas Eve and then reopened for another 32 straight hours beginning December 29, having been closed entirely for the interim), the chicken processing plant, and several other business-site visits, we visited a wine region, of which Adelaide has several.

As you may know, wine is becoming a major industry in Southern Australia, the states of New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia particularly, and we wouldn't have missed a burgeoning business like that. The host family, the Rentons, with whom Kyle and I and three male students stayed (yes, the Rentons were mightily abused -- no one else had that many staying with them) invited a close family friend who is a wine guy (I'm sure there's a name for wine experts but it's not jumping to the fore at present) to come and give all of us in that host home a private tasting. He told how to taste wine and what to look for. It was great fun. He's earning some kind of a master's certification that only 300 people in the world have at present. This is his final exam: he has to taste 180 wines at one sitting. He has to correctly identify 110 of them. Now, I'm not talking answers like, "This here rotgut is from grapes, no foolin'." He has to identify the type of wine, the country from which it originated, the state IN that country, the region in that state, the winery in that region, whether it grew on a hillside or low-lying plane, clarity, bouquet, finish, mother's maiden name. This is a big, bad exam.

Kyle and I spoke for the majority of the church service on Sunday at Flinders Street Baptist Church in Adelaide. Two students, Brandan McGonigal and Jamie Peterson, read scripture readings for that service. There is no way to describe the warmth with which these host families and this church as a whole welcomed us.

Oh! After the church service in which Kyle and I spoke in Adelaide, he and I were browsing down the walking mall in Adelaide, came to a lovely theater, saw that De-Lovely about the life of Cole Porter was showing, and popped right in to see it. It was wonderful, moving, sets and costumes spectacular. Those are serendipitous moments in a big travel/study undertaking that I try to remember. I saw Kyle brush away a tear at the end (he's a softie and I'm crazy about him). It's a heartbreaker.

We took a ferry down to Kangaroo Island, just off the south coast from Adelaide, our last two days in Adelaide. This is an area where you can see the highest concentration of Australian animals in the wild. These students -- the co-eds in particular -- are crazy for anything furry. That would include Mark, our tour guide and driver who, I vow, is the hairiest man I've ever laid eyes on. I just prayed that he wouldn't take his shirt off because I knew exactly what was under it. But I digress. Anyway, these kids are in a koala coma. Mark soon realized that it wasn't going to take much to please them: just get them into a herd of koalas and they're good to go.

Guess what? The Marquis d' Sade has us scheduled for a 21 hour train ride right smack dab through the center of Australia, final destination: Alice Springs. I'm sure you'll be hearing more. Pray this finds you well. I'm running out of time to do a thorough spell check. Please forgive.


Letter #3

21 hours. TWENTY-ONE HOURS! Wait a minute. Haven't I been here before? Yeah, that's right, the plane and then the bus. I'm living "Groundhog Day" and didn't even know it.

Okay. So the train wasn't so bad. It was air-conditioned without being hypothermic, and one could walk around, which I did...most of the night. It even had a shower, which I used, having nothing else to do in the middle of the night. Showering in a train was, um, different. You learn to move with it, kind of like gaining one's sea legs, I suppose. And then we arrived in Alice Springs. Wanna guess? 106 degrees F. It makes your skin prickle. You can get those temps in places like Phoenix -- but North America has an ozone layer. Australia's is, shall we say, THIN. That sun hits the skin and it must be like Chinese acupuncture (however, I wouldn't know that personally).

There was a woman there to direct us to our bus. Her words were: "Follow that man over there [gesturing]. His name is Dave. He looks scary, but he's harmless enough." From Dave, things went precipitously downhill, because Dave took us to Toddy's (hereinafter known as Toady's to all concerned) Backpacker Lodge, a place that shall remain burned in my memory banks for all time. (Keep in mind that these kids were so bewitched by their host families in Adelaide that several begged us to leave them there and pick them up on the way home -- hang the tuition and credits!) I'm embarrassed that we brought students here. We give this kind of stuff to our travel agent in Spokane instructing them to find us accommodation in Alice Springs, Northern Territories, Australia. She,/he of course, looks for something in Austria because she/he doesn't know the difference (remember my passport getting FedExed to Taiwan instead of Thailand? Anyone seen the T-shirt that says: "Austria -- We DON'T have kangaroos"?). Then she/he brokers it to someone here in Australia who, Kyle tells me, looks for accommodations with similarly-aged guests. Well, that would work if we were actually all backpacking. But we're not and our group looks pretty squeaky clean compared to the rest of the "guests." Marijuana has been decriminalized here and so we have a nice cloud hanging over us in the evenings.

Toady's hasn't seen a broom or a vacuum since the day it was constructed. Even though the laundry room is used every day, it is decorated stem to stern with spider webs and is utterly filthy. Kyle and I have found that just walking in our room on the indoor/outdoor carpeting leaves our feet black. And I don't want to think of the wildlife in the mattresses and pillows. So, all this has caused us to spend considerable time looking for decent accommodations for the next visit. Which there are, happily, but they're not listed in any guide or brochure. We just drove around town, stopped in, and asked for group rates. I weep to think of what we might have had for a mere $5 more.

Toady's had a pool. No money in the world could've persuaded me to dip even one toe in it. Toady's also had free morning coffee. Guests were expected to wash their own cups and when I saw in what and how that was to be done, I skillfully and discretely disposed of the one cup I poured myself onto a small bush, which immediately withered and died like that fig tree in the Bible.

I feel about Toady's sort of what our hairy driver, Mark, told us on Kangaroo Island: Australia has the most extraordinary animals on the face of the earth, but no matter how soft and friendly they look, if you get close to any of them, they will either sting, bite, or poison you. That's sort of how I felt about Toady's and its employees.

And Alice, though it's built up some since we were here in '92, is still a sad, sad place. Many of the Aboriginals still live in the dry riverbed that runs right through town and many are still perpetually inebriated. I recall reading years ago that, like Native Americans, they may not have a gene that allows them to assimilate alcohol well or quickly or at all. It appears to us that after all these years, this people group is never going to be [successfully] city-dwelling. They were oh, so nomadic, more than any group I know. They didn't even stay anywhere seasonally, much less permanently. Then, of course, Europeans came along and tried to citify them and it's been pretty disastrous ever since.

That aside, we had a very interesting visit to the Royal Doctors Flying Service, which flies to places the likes of which we cannot imagine to serve people on cattle stations, etc. We also visited the School of the Air. This was started years ago to educate children in those same extremely isolated areas. They started out using one of those pedal machines that allowed them to talk on the telephone. Since then it's become a conference-call situation. Imagine your classmates and closest friends being 500 km away. In fact, due to some health problems, our little friend, Candace, in Adelaide (she who braved chicken slaughtering) attended School of the Air. Unfortunately for her, but hilariously for us, she had an Indian teacher whom her sister learned to mimic flawlessly and the nightly recitations kept us rolling.

The students spent a lot of time interviewing Aboriginal art gallery owners (frequently the owners were Anglo and the artists were Aboriginal, making it difficult to actually get to the artists who rarely speak English). Kyle assigned them to interview three gallery owners and one actual Aboriginal artist. The Aboriginal artists just set up shop somewhere in town and stay there until the police chase them off since they can't sell without a license or permission or something. The students then gave an oral presentation of that work during the three-hour wait between our check-out time from Toady's and when our transportation to the airport came (mental note: try to coordinate checkout times with travel schedules hereafter). This meant we all sat under that awful green plastic patio roofing and swatted flies in suffocating heat for that period of time. One of the men students kept batting at flies with an empty Gatorade bottle; I thought he was going to knock himself senseless there for a while.

One night we offered to take students star-gazing. Can you imagine what that is in the middle of the Outback? It's a mystical experience (however, not being mandatory, none of the students took us up on this offer, except Ji Yang from China, who is game for absolutely anything). The quiet is deafening and the stars, oh, the stars. It was the first I've ever been able to immediately identify the Southern Cross. That was a few minutes that I will want to recapture when I return to the dead of winter in Spokane.

I feel a civic duty to tell you a little-known fact about Alice Springs: it hosts an American Air Base, I kid you not. Pine Gap Air Force Base. You can tell exactly where the houses of the Alice Springsians leave off and the houses of the American air base people take up. None of them live on base, our bus driver told us. And NONE of them breathe one word of what they're doing here. And no one asks them. Apparently there was a big stink right after 9/11 about this air base making Alice a target. I don't know which is more ludicrous, that we HAVE an air base in the middle of the Red Center or that the good citizens of Alice Springs actually think the town could be a target for anything. Well, you heard it here first. You can't imagine the size of the gun barrel-gray U.S. aircraft carrier we saw at the airport as we were leaving.

Wanna guess on what conveyance we exited Alice? A PLANE! Yes, a plane, just like real people, civilized people, people with common sense. And so we have arrived in Cairns on the East Coast of Australia. We went from 108 degrees and bone dry to 98 degrees with 99 percent humidity. I actually heard one of the co-eds say she preferred the weather in Alice Springs. Give me strength.


Letter #4

So, about Ji Yang. He was an MIM student who returned to China with his wife and TWO children from Whitworth College with just six credits to go on his degree. So the plan was that he meet us in Sydney, only some kind of visa snafu prevented that from happening. So he met us just as we were leaving Adelaide for Alice. Now, as you might imagine, that put him wa-a-a-a-y behind the rest of the students for this class. But who do you think will come out ahead? He's a Chinese hurricane, an Asian Whirling Dervish. He's up at 6 or 6:30 a.m. reading. By 8 a.m. he's out in town interviewing artisans and gallery owners. He has worked circles around these American students and it cracks Kyle and me up. Today, while all the others were playing, he spent hours in the Cairns library working on his final paper for this class. He will turn in his paper before we leave, I have no doubt.

As to his two children, you know what that means: He did it WRONG. Can't have two children in the PRC. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. He just hasn't registered his daughter yet. But he'll probably have to do it for her to start kindergarten and then he'll probably have to pay U.S. $4,000 as a penalty for having TWO children. He's quite philosophical about it. We like him. A lot.

So here in Cairns we're housed in Gilligan's Backpacker Hotel and Resort. Stop laughing. I know it's an oxymoron -- but after Toady's, it's the Hilton. The problem with a place like Toady's is that you unwittingly begin to lower ALL your own personal standards. For instance, I caught myself drying my cereal bowl with my bath towel...after I'd used it. But there wasn't a scrap of paper in that room and the sheets and towels weren't changed for our entire stay there. So, Gilligans: it's clean. It's huge. It's got a nice pool. We get clean towels every day and the rooms are vacuumed. This is living, and the kids were thrilled.

The day after our arrival in Cairnes was the Great Barrier Reef snorkeling and scuba diving day. Serendipitously, it was also Australia Day, the day the first fleet sailed into Botany Bay, Sydney, in 1787, give or take a year. It's a national holiday and there were busking contests and building of the world's largest lambington (a coconut-covered chocolate cake), and all other sort of tomfoolery.

Our dear friends in Adelaide have gotten Kyle and me hooked on Pavlova. This is a great thing: a baked meringue filled with fruit and whipped cream. We had it twice in Adelaide and that sealed our fate. Now, we are constantly on the lookout for Pavlova. We are Pavlova hunters. Pavlova is our life. On the day before Australia Day I found a recipe for it in The Age, the Melbourne paper. As a result, I am now on a frantic, last-minute search for Castor Sugar, flaked salt and Luknow fennel seed, none of which I have ever seen in the U.S.

Except for emergency-room-worthy sunburns, our day on the Great Barrier Reef was excellent. We didn't go to the outer reef this time. As a result, there was no worry of sharks AND we saw giant sea turtles, lots of them. It was a wonderful day.

So, today we leave Australia and I could bawl. I really, really loved this journey, for all of its challenges. In fact, I told Kyle that I think I'm emotionally ready to emigrate. But we won't, of course -- because then we would live some place where voting is mandatory ($50 fine if you don't) and that just doesn't seem right. It's a glorious 80 degrees today in Sydney as we await our plane, just too beautiful. Still, home is home and we're ready. Our dog has probably entirely forgotten who we are. Look forward to hearing from you.

Love, Trisa



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