Apr 09

Living Down Under

by in Postcard Valet, Travel

When we were planning our trip, it was only supposed to be a year-long thing.  July 1 to July 1.  We were both hoping that our jobs could be held for us, but in my case, that didn’t work out.  I’m glad.  We would have lost out on a world of opportunities if we’d had to rush back to the daily grind.

Just after we left the United States, we heard about one of those opportunities from a fellow traveler in Ecuador.  He (or she; wish I could remember who it was!) told Oksana about Australia’s Work and Holiday Visa program.  Basically, if you’re 30 or under, you can apply to live and work in Australia for up to a year.  I was over the age limit, but Oksana was both qualified and intrigued.  It seemed like a risky proposition at the time – spending almost 3 days worth of our travel budget on the application fee – but ultimately we decided to give it a go.  Maybe, if everything worked out just right, we’d be able to extend our trip.

Two or three days later, she received confirmation that her visa had been approved.  It stipulated that she must enter Australia by December 28th, 2011.  Perfect!  We had a full year to decide if we were going to use it.

By the time we were in Thailand, we had met many Australians while traveling and most of them had suggestions about where to stay and how to go about finding work.  During our month of downtime in Phuket, Oksana started the job hunt, mostly using Seek, Australia’s job search site.  She sent her resume to dozens of recruiters and companies and collected an impressive set of rejection letters.  We learned that companies don’t often give interviews to applicants who can only work a maximum of 6-months in one place…

Getting her resume out there wasn’t a complete waste of time, however.  She had a least one Skype conversation with a recruiter that specialized in auto-industry work.  He confirmed what we already knew: Just after Christmas (which was when we were planning to arrive) was literally the worst time of year to be looking for a job.  Nobody’s hiring during the summer holidays.

He asked her to contact him when we arrived, though.  Maybe something would turn up.

Since we didn’t have a job lined up for Oksana, we had no idea where we should fly.  Australia is huge.  Should we go to Sydney or Melbourne, because the job prospects may be better?  Cairns because we could go diving on the weekends?  Or Brisbane, because we knew some people (including the recruiter) there?  We decided on Brisbane, if only because the tickets from Singapore were slightly cheaper.  We reminded ourselves that we weren’t in Australia to sightsee, but rather to work.  We could always hop another plane if a job offer came in from Sydney or elsewhere; heck, we’d even spend a year in an outback mining town if the price was right!

Just before Christmas, I emailed a family we met in Ecuador that lives near Brisbane and asked them for recommendations on how to go about looking for a place to stay.  They had good news and bad.  The bad news was that they wouldn’t be there when we arrived; they were off enjoying their holiday in New South Wales.  The good news was that their daughter was with them and wasn’t using her apartment in Brisbane…

It was perfect for us.  We arrived the day after Christmas and moved in for three weeks.  It was a 2-bedroom, shared apartment in St. Lucia, which is a suburb outside of Brisbane known for its proximity to the University of Queensland.  We had our own bathroom and shared a living room and kitchen with a delightful Indian couple who helped us figure out where to shop for food, how the public transportation works, and other important thing you need to know whenever you move some place new.  Except for the ongoing job hunt, those first three weeks in Australia were practically stress free.

Half way through January, Oksana still hadn’t heard back from any recruiters or companies though, and one day, while we were walking back from the store, we discussed what would happen if we couldn’t find her a job.  We agreed that Australia was too expensive, so we started brainstorming where we could go.  Being the middle of winter back in Alaska, we weren’t in any hurry to rush home.  We thought maybe spending a month (or six) in a place like Guatemala might be nice.  I could study Spanish and she could study for her CPA exam.  We decided to give it until the end of February before making new plans.

Of course, she got a call the very next day.  Funny how these things work out.

We’d slept in and Oksana was still in her PJs when the phone rang at 10:30am.  A local company was looking over her resume and wanted to know if she could come in for an interview that day.  In an hour.  Oksana managed to push it back another half hour, until noon, but it was still a rush to get her showered, dressed, and out the door with instructions on how to cross the river and find her way to their office with Google Maps.

Before the interview was over, she’d been hired by a gourmet foods importing business.  She started the very next morning.  Unfortunately, she quickly realized that what they told her she’d be doing in the interview wasn’t actually what she ended up doing on the job.  Rather than entry-level accounting, more often than not she was stuck answering the phone.  Which wasn’t easy when the person on the other end was a foreign-born chef with an incomprehensible accent asking for cheeses and pastas she’d never heard of.

She lasted two weeks.  By then, the recruiter she’d connected with way back in Thailand had a line on two automotive accounting jobs.  The first was in Cairns; it sounded great, but they were looking for someone to stay 2-4 years.  The other was right here in Brisbane, filling in for another accountant on maternity leave.  Oksana jumped at the chance to interview and, once again, she was hired before it was over.

While all this was going on, I was struggling to find us a place to live.  Our friend had returned from her holiday and needed her place back, so I stopped by a few real estate agencies and looked at a few properties.  We quickly learned that all realtors require a minimum 6-month lease.  We couldn’t commit to that before Oksana passed her two-week trial period at the new job.

So we looked into “house shares” on Gumtree – Australia’s answer to Craigslist.  We found a temporary arrangement in another house and stayed there two and a half weeks.  By then, we knew Oksana was happy at work and felt comfortable signing a lease until December.  We moved into our new place in Highgate Hill on Feburary 7th.

Oksana quickly settled into a Monday-through-Friday routine, but I still had some work to do before I could find a routine of my own.  The first was to get internet hooked up at our new place, which was much easier said than done.

Long story short, the entire suburb is going through a fiber optic upgrade and all copper-based internet installations have been frozen.  Even though our neighbors have ADSL or cable, it was impossible for us to get the same thing because the company handling the infrastructure, Telstra, didn’t want to have their technicians spending time undoing that work.  The fiber plans were expensive, but they were fast.  I was happy to pay for the installation, but there was nothing to do about the wait time.  It took two weeks before we had internet in the apartment, and that was only after five or six calls and three visits to a local Telstra shop to iron things out.

But I have to say, it was totally worth it.  I have a true 100Mbps connection and it’s screaming fast.  At least 12 times faster than anything I had back home in Alaska!

The other thing on my to-do list was more worrisome.  While Oksana’s visa was good for a year, my tourist visa was only good for three months.  If I didn’t figure out something by the end of March, we’d have a real dilemma on our hands.  Should Oksana stay and work while I go back to the States?  Should we break our lease, pay the penalties, and pack up and go together?

Fortunately, we never had to make that decision.  I filed for a tourist visa extension and, in spite of my stressful anticipation, it was quickly and painlessly approved.  The only hard part was paying the nearly $300 application fee.

So now I’m settling into my routine, as well.  Everyone asks, “If Oksana’s bringing home the bacon, what the heck are you doing all year long?”  Well, my plan is to write a book about our travels – it’s something I know I’d never get done while working a 9-to-5 – but I have plenty of other goals, as well.  I want to keep creating content for our website and that includes more photos, more videos, and more writing.  By the end of the year, I could easily envision having enough content for, not just a novel, but also a coffee-table photo book and a DVD.  I even have an idea for an audio podcast I’d like to explore, but with all the other work I have in front of me, I don’t know if I should try to tackle that, too…

Our current budgetary projections indicate that we’ll probably just break even at the end of our stay in Australia.  That’s based on Oksana’s salary.  I don’t have any illusions of my travel book setting the world on fire, but any money I can make selling it would be great.  My modest goal is to earn just enough to cover the amount we went over our travel budget last year.  I’m still waiting for Oksana to give me exact numbers, but I suspect that’s on the order of $6,000-$8,000.  (I’m just guessing, but we exceeded our travel budget in late September and didn’t reach Brisbane until December 26.  Shit, maybe that number is closer to $10,000.)  I can make some money selling it as an ebook, of course, but I’ve been thinking about a Kickstarter campaign, too, in the fall.

So.  That’s where we are now; living and working in Brisbane through the end of the year (Oksana’s employers have already offered to sponsor her for full work visa, but we’ve been away from home for so long, we just can’t see ourselves taking them up on their offer.)  We never planned it, but I’m glad for the opportunity to try something new.  My only regret is that we may leave this country without seeing much more than Brisbane and its suburbs…

…But we’re already batting around travel ideas for November.  Watching a total solar eclipse, SCUBA diving on the Great Barrier Reef, and perhaps driving down the Sunshine Coast.  More on that in the next blog post (with an invitation to join us, too, if that sounds like something you might want to do!)

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