Dawn breaks slowly in Australia. At around 6am it appears in a succession of silences broken by bird song, screeches and warbles alerting all the living things to the impending day. The ocean, only a kilometer away, provides a constant gentle roaring – an auditory background, like big deep breaths by the Great Mother Herself. In the mist of the morning I can imagine myself as something cradled deep within her, and I feel safe and fine. There is a wildness everywhere you go – even in the cities, and everywhere I look I am reminded that nature has its own way; like the cockatoos that have adapted to the city and float like giant yellow and white clouds between buildings early in the morning. Or like yesterday when I saw a sea gull on the beach who had only one leg. I was surprised at the intensity of my sadness for this bird – maybe it had to do with the connection we feel here? Somehow I related to him – like any of us could relate to a determined one legged bird.
But Australia is a wild place – and fairness is really not part of the deal.
In such contrast, it is the most beautiful and the most wicked of all places on the earth. In terms of Ying and Yang, everything about Australia demonstrates these diametrical opposites. The first thing I have become aware of here is that even the locals don’t take mother nature for granted. They take things seriously – like if you tell them you have discovered a giant spider that has survived swimming in your pool all day – they come over, and want to see. There are serious spiders here and snakes and weather. I was even warned against the birds and that I should not “commune” with the magpie because they were territorial and would peck out my eyes. But this does not stop me from having frequent conversations with the local magpies that I am coming to know in my back yard. They are intense in their energy and unimaginably beautiful with their stark black and white feathers. \some of them are as big as a small dog, and when I play music in the back yard I feel like a rock star because they come from all over, and curious about my recording device spend time making funny noises and poking at it, while providing perfect background chorus. But these birds are not aggressive – I have also seen that the very smallest of the birds can push a magpie off their food. They are big wimps in the face of their feathered cousins. And yet sports stores sell helmets with long funny looking spikes for bikers who travel too close to Magpie nests in the fall and winter (June through august) because the males are known to attack anyone within 50 feet of their nest, and they can
“peck right into your skull they will…”
Everyone who arrives in Australia wants to know what to do if they are confronted with a giant man eating spider or poisonous snake. So, the second most important saying you’ll want to pay attention to in Australia is:
“Just don’t poke it”.
Sounds good to me mate.
Things are straight forward here – it either IS or it IS’T. There is an absence of conversational beating around the bush that we employ in the more American culture. Here – things are what they are. Say what you mean and mean what you say. And if you ask someone a favour the response is inevitably –
“No worries Mate”,
And that’s true too. In Australia, you are invited to put your worries away and live each second in its incredible wicked beauty.
The center of Australia is basically a big dry pot of sand, that gets bigger and bigger each year because you can’t plant in it, and roots are what keep soil on top with minerals and hydration able to sustain plant life. Without plants – the top soil blows away with the wind and keeps eating away at the land around it until everything is a desert.
You see this happening in Africa, especially if you compare maps from twenty years ago to today, the change in the desert is incredibly frightening. Australia however, has been putting actively enforcing eco-protection measures and land protection for a long time. It seems everywhere you go there is another national park with magnificent beauty all alive and open to anyone who cares to spend time in it. You can easily within the same day be at the beach, in the desert and in the rainforest. You can drive up to the mountains and go skiing, and you can be in a city in time for dinner.
Because of rapid and irresponsible industrial development in Asia and the natural current of winds, Australia’s ozone layer has been effectively destroyed. You don’t really understand how important the ozone layer is, until you don’t have one.
The first time I came here I mistakenly did not heed the advice to wear sunscreen because I thought my well worn skin could take anything after Africa. And frankly being jet lagged and time confused didn’t help my cause. I went out my first morning at 11 am to the beach for two hours and returned with second degree burns on my shoulders. I have never seen a sun so BRIGHT – most children wear sunglasses as young as three years old to protect their eyes. It is a very different looking sky from what we have back home.
I feel very fortunate to be able to have seen Australia in the summer time – at the height of the sun – and also to be living in the autumn and winter. I wasn;t sure what to expect and our first few days spent here were the worst weather I (or even many of the locals) have ever seen. Every day 50km winds dangerously whipping palm trees this way and that, rain dousing the roads in misty sheets at unforeseeable times. Contrastingly, people traipsing about in shorts and tee-shirts or cycling through the maelstrom because they seem to be in denial that it is only seven degrees out. Sometimes the dogs better dressed than their humans. But that is Australia.
The real land of ying and yang – each day opposite to the one before and SO quickly changing you can’t keep up. There is a favourite saying in these parts –
“Don’t like the weather in Melbourne? Just wait a minute…”
And it is true – the weather never stays the same for very long. In a way it seems the winter differs psychologically here, not only because it is warmer, but because you know you don’t have to settle into the “horrible weather” daze of -40 degree winters that keep you trapped inside your house staring at the same four walls for 6 months. In Australia, when the bad weather comes, maybe the streets quiet down from tourists who prefer to summers of +30, but they come alive with locals venturing out into the safety of streets not crowded with confused drivers from Asia and America trying to figure out how to drive on the wrong side of the road, and on the wrong side of a rental car.
I have to admit that I often experience some anxiety, especially on the overhanging cliffs of the Great Ocean drive when I see an obvious tourist blasting down the roads in Australia. I was saddened but not surprised to read that car accidents are now the number one cause of death in China, resulting in over 2500 deaths a month! That makes Quebec highways look tranquil. But whether we are American, Canadian, European or Asian – a tourist is a tourist – and we are all obviously lost.
That’s my pet peeve – I don’t like looking lost and I certainly never want to look like a tourist! Its a strange mentality I have acquired over so many years of travelling through different countries and experiences. Being a tourist leaves you in the out – you don’t find out where the best restaurant is (where locals eat) and places to hang out. They will tell you the standard “tourist spots”, which rarely if ever have anything to do with authentic culture in the place where you are at. So the goal is to “fit in and belong” to a place right away.
No matter where we go, for example, my first desire is always to see the grocery store. If you know what people eat, then you learn allot about them right away. I have bought food in some amazing places – French Town in Honduras where we had to be guarded by a guy with a big machine gun so we wouldnty get robbed of our food and money as we exited the store. In Guinea where the food container only came once a month or six weeks across the ocean and you had to stand in long line ups to get even the smallest comfort like shampoo and soap from home. Arguably though I have to say – grocery shopping in Australia brought me to a whole new level of experience. For example, there is a remarkable and immediately noticeable absence of American products. Like there are none. Not even Tylenol – here it’s called Panadol and it has nothing to do with Tylenol. Everything looks different, packaging seems to be more simple and even the commercials on TV are more basic. Not as “high tech” and manipulative as the ones developed for teh European and North American markets. And because Australia and New Zealand are a traditional cattle and sheep farming culture, there is allot of cheap beef and lamb on the shelves. It seems like New Zealand lamb, which is very popular also in north America is everywhere. Eggs are clearly indicated whether or not the chickens are cage raised or free range. I like that. Its more expensive for the free range eggs, but I like eating happy food. The bread is expensive and big – except for the amazing Turkish bread we found, seeded with sesame and poppy seeds like a soft delicious Ciabatta.
As a Canadian I find discovering the food and becoming accustomed to life in Australia, very easy. We do allot of the same things, we enjoy similar cultural mannerisms. When asked by a local man what the difference was between an me and a person from the United States I was able to answer him quickly and easily:
“Well, if you bump into me, I will apologize”, we had a good laugh because somehow that made perfect sense. We share a similar gentleness as well with our Australian cousins that I am coming to appreciate not only in the people I meet here, but in the ones I have left back home.
There is still so much to learn.