Sydney, Australia, January, 2010
Wearing sunglasses and spouting sweat droplets, a bright yellow sun icon panted as it hovered over Adelaide, South Australia on the weather map. Accompanying the sun, a red numeral forty-three pulsated near one of the sweat drops. It was forty-three degrees Celsius to be precise.
“That sounds a bit high, doesn’t it, honey?” I asked my husband, Kurt, as we watched the weather report for Australia in our efficiently air-conditioned Manly Beach hotel room and spotted the high slated for Adelaide, the next day, January 13, the day we would arrive in the city that would be our home for the next year. The temperatures in Sydney for the past few days had been in the mid to high 20s Celsius.
“Yeah. That does seem pretty high,” Kurt turned down the volume on the TV and looked at me with a furrowed brow. “What is the conversion on that? What did that guy on the Manly ferry tell us? You double the number and add thirty?”
“That can’t be right,” I said, thinking back to an Australian man whom we had met on our way from Manly Beach to the Sydney Harbour. In addition to helpfully telling us how to convert from Celsius to Fahrenheit, he told me he worked at a “flare” shop in Melbourne. It took me a minute, after marveling that an entire shop could be devoted to flares and perhaps it was a somewhat hazardous enterprise, to realize that the guy was really saying “flower shop.”
“That makes 43 degrees turn into,” I closed my eyes and did the math. “116 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s Libya we’re talking about or Death Valley,” I said while trying to shove newly purchased Aussie flag emblazoned souvenirs into our already overflowing suitcases.
Frankly, I was more concerned about how many pounds, or rather, kilos the suitcases weighed than the conversion to what seemed to be an impossible temperature. “It’s been so perfect here in Sydney. Does it even get that hot in Australia — except maybe in the Outback?”
“There.” I finally got the bulging suitcase zipped.
One week earlier, Kurt, our kids, four-year-old Eddie and two-year-old Kasey, and I had arrived in Sydney, the first stop on our new adventure. Having applied to the Australia New Zealand Educator Exchange program (ANZEE), I had been matched with an Australian Language Arts teacher in Adelaide, Australia. So for the next year, while Dash Taylor and his family adopted Colorado, USA, as their new home, my family and I would live, work, go to school and explore the land of Oz.
And we fully embraced Australia. During the first two days, alone, we had dodged jellyfish washing up on the beach; eaten “roo” burgers; avoided regurgitating our Vegemite sandwiches; discovered Tim Tams, the best cookies in the world; ogled at the Opera House; stood up on a surf board in moving water and been called “mate”. It was fantastic. However, we had yet to conquer the metric system and the Celsius temperature scale.
Forty-three degrees sounded hot, but really, we had hot summers in Colorado when temperatures climbed into the high 90s Fahrenheit. How hot could it really be? Again, this wasn’t Tripoli.
The Next Day:
The sliding glass doors of Adelaide’s airport opened to the outside. And with Dash’s mom, dad and aunt, who had come to pick us up, we walked right into a force field of heat that halted Kurt and me. It was the same kind of face-blasting heat that results from lifting the lid of a boiling pot of water toward yourself rather than away. Basically, it was Tripoli.
“I’m afraid you have arrived during a heat wave,” maintained Grace, Dash’s petite, sliver-haired aunt, who turned to face us while she shaded her eyes and held on to the handle of one of our massive suitcases.
Along with the heat, it hit me that Grace was wearing a sweatshirt and jeans. As soon as we had disembarked from the airplane upon arriving in Adelaide, I tied my jacket around my waist and rolled up my khakis in preparation for warm weather.
It was so far beyond warm. Heat soaked into our flip flops as we walked on the radiating asphalt to the two vehicles Dash’s family had brought to drive us to our exchange home. Kurt hoisted Kasey up in his arms, and I held on to Eddie’s hand, hoping he wouldn’t notice the burning sensation emanating from the ground. Fortunately, the cars in the parking lot captured his attention instead.
After Grace and Dash’s mum helped me load the kids and carry-ons into one of the vehicles, I plopped onto the scalding backseat surface. Sandwiched in between Eddie and Kasey, each looking dazed in a carseat, I imagined a hot dog’s life.
On the way to the Adelaide suburb, Cheltenham, we crossed the Torrens River or what should have been the river. Instead dry, cracked and fragile looking dirt lined the riverbed floor. The car air conditioning system seemed choked by the heat, too, and barely pushed out the Freon.
Shirley and Grace interspersed questions about our journey with information about Adelaide.
“In about one month’s time, we will begin festival season in Adelaide,” Grace stated.
“Yes, as you may have seen on the license plates, South Australia is the festival state,” Shirley added.
“I can’t wait,” I said although what I really meant was I couldn’t wait to get into a properly air conditioned space. Then, unfortunately, I remembered. I recalled what Heather, Dash’s wife, had told me when I had driven the Taylor clan from Denver International Airport to our house. It’s a two and a half hour drive, and with Dash stuffed in the back seat of the minivan with the kids, Guthrow, Sunny and Matilda, that, actually, left plenty of time for Heather’s confessional.
In the middle of a string of revelations about what was wrong with their house and surroundings (e.g. mice, ants, heat waves, power outages, a body-building, drug- dealing neighbor with a fierce bullmastiff named Diesel) she mentioned that they often didn’t use their air conditioner because it was so old that they were concerned it might catch on fire some day. Certainly, they did not leave it on overnight.
Okay. Maybe their Australian abode is one of those houses that is well suited for a hot spot and stays somewhat cool. I consoled myself with that idea as Eddie began whimpering about the heat.
“Mamma, I’m hot.”
“I hear you, bud.”
“Are we down under?” Eddie asked, repeating an Australian label he had heard me say many times.”
“Yes, we are. We’re finally here.”
“I want to go back up top,” Eddie murmured as he leaned his damp head into my arm.
“How long do heat waves typically last?” I asked Grace and Shirley.
“Well, they can be anywhere from a few days to a few weeks,” Shirley said in the same chipper tone she had used to tell us that South Australia is the festival state.
The house was not one well suited for the heat. Or to clarify, it was well suited for heat with regard to retaining it. Les, Shirley and Grace helped us unload the suitcases and showed us around our new surroundings.
I spotted the air conditioner at the end of the hallway. It was a behemoth — a rusty metal unit that was secured by a chain above the front door. Frankly, forget spontaneous combustion, it seemed more likely to topple from its station and crush whomever had the misfortune of entering the house at the wrong time.
“So, Heather told me that they sometimes worry about the air conditioner burning down the house,” I mentioned to Les, Dash’s dad, who had just entered the hallway.
“Cactus. That’s what that bloody thing is.“ Sometimes Les could be hard to understand, so I wasn’t sure about the cactus reference, but “bloody” seemed pretty clear.
“Yes, I’m afraid that the air con is somewhat of a relic,” said Grace.
“We can turn on the ceiling fans and try to get the house cooled down.” Shirley went around to the bedrooms to turn on tiny looking fans that hung from the high ceilings.
After kindly showing us where the alcohol and some frozen pre-prepared meals were located in the kitchen, Les, Shirley and Grace left and said they’d be by the next day to see if we needed anything.
Sydney now seemed surreal and like a dream. The oppressive heat was reality. I now believed the flare salesman on the ferry and his two-step conversion method of doubling the number and adding 30.
Kurt went straight toward the beer, and I checked out the kitchen cupboard. Dash’s parents had thoughtfully bought a large jar of peanut butter or “peanut paste” as Grace had referred to it. Although neither peanut butter nor peanut paste sandwiches sounded that great — especially since my own skin felt pasty — but peanut butter was a definite reminder of home — something familiar and comforting.
Thankfully, Eddie and Kasey had found new toys to keep them busy in one of the kid bedrooms. The saturation of the stale air in the house hadn’t fazed them yet.
Kurt poured a beer and sat down at the kitchen table. He looked at me with an expression that clearly said: “This is what you wanted. Here it is. You wanted an adventure.”
“So I’ll get some things unpacked, and we can get to know the house,” I said in a way too cheery voice as I went for a semi-cold beer, too. “You know, we could probably run the AC for a little while just to level the temperature out a bit.”
“Go for it.” Kurt said, letting me take full responsibility for the misery.
I went down the hallway and approached the unit and decided to go for it. I had two choices in how I turned on the behemoth. I could use a three foot stick that had a notch to move the temperature control, but I briefly envisioned myself getting the stick caught and prompting the unit to plummet from its perch. I opted to stand on a chair.
Up close, the console looked like something the Jawas would have had stashed in their massive junky droid parts collection vehicle in Star Wars. I cranked the temperature dial to medium since that seemed to be a reasonable option — it would be better than “low” but not yet at the level that would immediately ignite it into flames. With a noise that sounded close to an aging lawnmower firing up, the unit sputtered into action. I leaned away and got down from the chair in case the console decided to launch. I felt the faintest bit of cool air. The behemoth delivered!
Kurt had moved to the living room and watched the news as I urged him to check out the small victory. “Kurt come out here and feel this,” I felt encouraged for the first time since we landed in Adelaide.
“Hang on. I’m watching the weather. Guess what. It’s supposed to be cooler tomorrow,” he shouted.
“Really?” I said hopefully.
“Yes, only 40 degrees tomorrow.”
I hung my head. I still didn’t know Celsius, but I knew that was clearly still frigging hot.
“How long do you think we have before the AC converts into a fireball?” Kurt asked without getting up off the couch.
“I don’t know! But his house is already feels like a fireball, so let’s just enjoy some cooler air,” I erupted. After about 15 minutes, the hallway felt almost pleasant. I invited the kids to play in the hall since they both looked soggy and dazed from the heat in the bedroom where they played.
“I think I’ll take the bike and check out our surroundings,” Kurt told me. I thought that was a good idea since we needed to venture out at some point. Neither one of us was ready to drive on the left side of the road. Plus, maybe Kurt’s would come back in a better mood.
I unpacked and soon forgot about the air conditioner. Returning from his tour after about an hour, Kurt looked like he had been bushwhacking in the Congo. His shirt dangled from his back pocket and his ever-reddening skin glistened as sweat streaked down his sides. His hair was crazy and his eyes were bloodshot.
“How was it?” I asked not really wanting to know.
Kurt shook his head. “We live in an industrial wasteland. You should see the stores — out-of-business stores surrounding us.”
“Well. Maybe they are closed because it’s Sunday? What about the beach?”
“Oh, it’s a treasure. It smells like rotting fish and garbage was lying everywhere. I even saw a dirty diaper just festering in the sand.”
Ignoring the alarming fact that the beach sounded like a cesspool, I asked about the ocean. “How were the waves? Can we surf?”
“What waves? It was completely flat.”
Damn. One of my main selling points to Kurt for doing this exchange and missing a ski season in Colorado was the opportunity to learn to surf. He plopped down on the couch in the living room, shook his head and looked at his feet, which were filthy on the bottoms.
I went to get him another beer.
“Why don’t you sit in the hallway. It’s actually the coolest spot in the house,” I tried to sound positive as I handed Kurt a bottle of beer that appeared to be perspiring as much as we were.
“You left the air conditioning on this whole time?” he asked before taking a large swig of beer.
“Ahhh, yes. It’s not been a problem, really. And I checked on it a few times,” I lied since I hadn’t thought of it while I was unpacking and getting the kids settled for naps.
Taking the martyr route, Kurt did not move into the hall and stayed where he was.
I left to check on the kids who slept on a fouton in their underwear under a ceiling fan. Both their cheeks looked unnaturally rosy and strands of Kasey’s fine hair laid plastered and damp along her forehead.
A vague lurching sound came from the hallway. It became progressively louder for a minute and then abrupt silence followed. The fact we didn’t have lights clued us in to the sudden power outage.
I went to flip on random light switches in the house, and of course, nothing worked.
Going to a desk with a phone near the kitchen, I searched for a directory or whatever would be the equivalent of the yellow pages to find anything listed under “power company.”
Instinctually, I picked up the phone while I flipped through the pages. Nothing on the other end. The phone functioned on electricity.
Without any power, it did not take long before the house reached a brick oven temperature and took on a let’s-have-a-hand-tossed-pizza feel.
I went to the living room and sat down on the varnished hardwood floor that felt strangely cool. When I looked up at Kurt, he had a resigned expression on his face.
“I guess it’s time to go meet our body-building, drug-dealing neighbor and his bullmastiff, Diesel,” I maintained as I moved to get up and the backs of my sweaty legs peeled off the floor.
To be continued…..