You get some ridiculous traffic jams in Argentina. There you’ll be on a highway in the middle of nowhere, cruising along at normal speed, and suddenly all the traffic is being funnelled into one lane, and the whole thing grinds to an unexplained halt.
Roadworks? Car crash? You can only speculate on what’s up ahead as the traffic crawls along.
Eventually, maybe half an hour later, you get to the site of the disturbance: a long row of cars parked in the middle of the dual expressway, blocking one lane in each direction. It’s a protest. Some unsatisfied workers are fighting the power by blocking off traffic for the day.
My mate Nick, an Australian who’s living the dream in Mendoza, just shrugs when we get to one of these protests outside his new home city.
“That’s the thing here mate, you can do whatever you want to do,” he says. “No rules. Sometimes it’s awesome. Other times” – he motions out the window – “you get stuff like this.”
Australia is a nanny state. You only realise how much of a nanny state it is, however, when you go overseas and find that not everyone lives with the same amount of rules as we do.
That’s when you see the irony of our various wars in the name of “freedom”. Can you really call yourself free in a country that will fine you for walking across the road incorrectly? Or that has a proud democratic process that it forces you to take part in?
In Argentina, they’ve got freedom. That freedom isn’t always wielded in the smartest fashion (inconveniencing commuters as a way to get your political point across doesn’t sound like the best idea to me), but at least the choice is there.
Australia has laws against everything. You can’t make many dumb decisions, because you don’t have many decisions to make. You can’t play R-rated video games, because they’ve been banned. You can’t ride your pushie without a helmet, because you’ll be fined. You can’t buy your mates a round of shots at the pub, because it’s after midnight.
Meanwhile, in other countries things are far more relaxed. In fact, some of the best experiences I’ve had while travelling would be deemed illegal in Australia.
The simple pleasure of jumping on a bike in Amsterdam and cycling through the cobbled streets helmet-less, the wind whipping through your hair (or, in my case, across your scalp) – that’s awesome, and, over here, illegal.
(Same goes with smoking a joint in a coffee shop afterwards, but things are rapidly changing on that front.)
Been to San Sebastian in Spain? Bars there all serve pintxos, the Basque version of tapas, and it’s spectacular. Every inch of bar space in every dodgy bar is taken up with plates chock full of tasty morsels laid out for drinkers to snack on at their leisure. Hold onto the toothpicks that skewer each serving, then tot them up at the end of the night to pay your bill.
Couldn’t happen in Australia, though. There’s sure to be some sort of food service law preventing owners from laying their fare out on an open bar all day. Someone will be poisoned! Of course, that doesn’t happen in Spain. But still, can’t be too careful and all.
South-East Asia is lawlessness personified. Take one look at traffic in Saigon, or Bangkok, and you’ll get an idea of how seriously little things like rules are taken. These are countries where you can stick your an entire family on a 100cc scooter if you so desire.
In Laos, in a little town called Vang Vieng, backpackers pay to spend the day floating down a river on an inner tube, stopping every now and again to swing off ropes into the water, or drink beers sold by locals in makeshift wooden bars.
Is it dangerous? Hell yes. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that mixing alcohol with high platforms and moving bodies of water isn’t the sanest proposition. But in Laos, if people are dumb enough to do it, then they’re allowed to. Personal responsibility and all that.
It’d never happen in Australia. You get your fingerprints scanned going into some bars these days – do you really think we’d be allowed to sink coldies on rickety wooden platforms by the river?
And yet we Australians go along our merry way here, not taking to the streets to protest these injustices, not blocking off traffic to make ourselves heard, happy for the most part to live in our nanny state with all of its rules.
Why? Because, to quote my mate Nick again: “In Australia, everything works.” The advantage of being in a country with so many rules, and so many people who obey those rules, is that it’s relatively safe, and things generally run the way they are supposed to.
There are no pointless traffic jams for random protests, no car accidents involving whole families on scooters, no drunk backpackers seriously injuring themselves in rivers, and no one poisoning themselves on dodgy tapas.
That’s our trade-off. Still, it’s nice to be able to travel and see what it’s like on the other side.