Tuesday 8 April 2008

Adventures in Oz

I was 1500 miles west of here all last week, in the hot dry "Red Centre" of this huge country -- what is called "The Outback" -- traveling to and from Alice Springs (where I had originally applied for hospital chaplaincy in Australia) and taking in a three-day back-packers trip to Uluru (Ayers Rock), Kata-Tjuka, and Kings Canyon -- three well-known beautiful and sacred places (from an Aboriginal perspective) in that region known as the Northern Territories. All of this, of course, involved considerable physical exertion and finances -- but money well spent -- to see and experience these wonders.

I made some new friends, most of whom were other professionals from around the world "on holidays" as they say here. I saw the spiraling Andromeda Galaxy with my naked eye (the next closest one to our own), the Southern Cross, and the Milky Way like I had never seen it before, while sleeping in swags at night out in the desert under the stars.

I was very glad on several occasions for having taken along my "Indiana Jones" Outback-style hat which helped me deal with the sun and the wind.

To top that off, I was finally able to personally meet David and Susan Woods when I stayed overnight with them at their home and spiritual retreat center "Campfire in the Heart", just outside Alice Springs, on Monday and Thursday nights on either end of that back-packing trip. Great people! Don't miss them and what they have to offer if you ever visit Alice Springs.

It all made for a GREAT adventure and I have a trove of incredible memories -- and photos -- a few of which will be forthcoming on this blog soon, I hope. (Carole Anne stayed at Noosa that week on the eastern shores of Queensland with her sister Linda.)

Carole Anne and I are now together again, but a thousand miles north of the Sunshine Coast where her sister lives, in the Cairns/Port Douglas area of Australia. This morning we are getting ready to visit the Daintree Rain Forest and tomorrow we will snorkle the Great Barrier Reef. Both of them are World Heritage Sites, and it's the only place in the world where two of these are right beside each other. This is in north-eastern Queensland, and my we are having a very good experience here--exceeding all expectations, actually. We start our time in New Zealand (for 13 days) on Thursday evening this week when we fly there from Cairns (pronounced "cans") to Brisbane then on to Aukland.

Nothing has been cleared yet for sure regarding immigration and finalizing my work visa, but I hope within a few weeks to have more knowledge about whether the feds in Australia will permit me to come in on a 457 special business visa that The Canberra Hospital has recently applied/appealed for on my behalf. The ball came around full circle back to them - to have TCH become my official employer, after the Canberra Churches Council as well as the person at the hospital (Exec for Nursing Administration -- who will in any case be my direct supervisor) all started putting pressure on an official at a higher government ministry level on my behalf, who earlier said "no way" the hospital can't possibly be the official employer of an American chaplain. So that is all now being reconsidered and the hospital itself would become my official "sponsor" after all!

I was in Canberra for two days, about ten days ago, taking care of a number of practical matters and getting oriented to the local situation for the first time. The pastor of the Canberra Baptist Church, Jim Barr, and his wife Jane were great hosts for Carole Anne and I during that brief time together. Jim is chairperson of the committee which worked together to fill the chaplain position at TCH and just happens to also be a member of the Anabaptist Network of Australia and New Zealand. We greatly enjoyed the time getting to know each other better, as we experienced a whirlwind of meetings involving key people, places and possibilities. Jim has been an optimistic and enthusiastic ally as we sort out the challenges and issues involved.

The last thing I did before leaving Canberra was go into that actual Federal immigration office that is handling this case and talked face to face with an official there regarding the possibility of coming back in on the visitors visa I have now at the end of May, even as I still wait for the official work visa and clearance to "jell." They said that's OK as long as I don't work. But I would need a "case number" first, and that still has not been assigned. I won't make final plans until I have that number - which gives the green light to go ahead an work on a list of about 15 things that have to be accomplished which take about two to three months to get done and fulfill the requirements for FINAL approval of that visa. That's what everyone is praying for right now - that "green light." It could take another month for that.

I have been and am becoming even more aware of some of the financial implications for this move: Housing is going to be a problem. There is nothing (I mean nothing) available in that city for sale for less than $250,000 -- and rent is twice to three times as high, on average, what it is in the States - if you can even find a place to rent there. Housing pressures there are intense. We are banking on our "connections" there to help us find a decent small place to stay. Maybe we'll have to become professional house-sitters! Transportation and food costs are about double what they cost in the States, as well. Taxes are very high. The only thing that is really cheaper is health care (and considerably so!)

What's worse is that in the month I've been here I've witnessed the incredible instability and deterioration of the US dollar. If things continue on this slide at this rate, it means our savings and housing money in the States will have eroded anywhere from 10 to 15% between the time we left on this trip the end of February and when we sell our house the end of April and we begin to transfer these savings and other funds to Australia where we need to use them the end of May (or maybe sooner!) As of last week many Australian banks now exchanging the Aussy and US dollar 1-1, after they take their cut out of it in exchange. On the positive side, the Australian economy is very much stronger than the one in the US right now and I can hardly wait to get some of our money converted into Australian investments. Most banks here is Oz are giving about 8.5% interest rate right now for Certificates of Deposit.

One more thing - I found a fellow hospital administrator (an assistant medical director about my age) at the Canberra Hospital who rides a unicycle -- he has a "Big Wheel" (Coker) like I do, and had just finished a 400 km group cross-country back-packer unicycle ride with some international buddies down the east coast of Vietnam! He loaned his custom-made "flight bag" to me so I could bring mine over more easily on the plane the end of May - or "whenever" it is...

Thanks for your prayers and let's all keep hoping for the best,
Clair Hochstetler

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