Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Travelling from Japan to Australia

Reflections on the Land of Oz

Richard Schwartz

  They asked me not to climb their rock.  I neglected to do any research before my trip to Australia, so I rather
naively figured that I could just fly into Sudney and take a bus to Uluru (which the more Euro-centric among us
still refer to as "Ayer's Rock.")  A simple look at the map would have educated me; the two are as far apart as
Florida and Chicago.  In addition, there is no direct overland route through the wasteland known as the Outback;
only a patchwork of highway and dirt.  I ended up flying to Alice Springs and chartering a bus, effectively doubling
the cost of my week long getaway.
  Once in Alice, my real education began.  For me, the real pleasure of a trip is meeting the people of that place, sharing
our differences and revelling in our similarities.  Moreover, I have long looked forward to encountering the Aborigines.
One of my objectives was to hear first hand the stories of the mythic "dreamtime," and feel the strength of Uluru
beneath my feet.
  I was immediately disappointed on the first count.  Alice Springs has a considerable aboriginal population living in
public housing, but I found them quite unapproachable; nothing like the playful cartoons in movies like Crocodile
Dundee.  They never smiled, nor never made eye contact.  Later, as I found out more about the history of colonization
in Australia, this aloofness all began to make sense.
  Australia was apparently founded on a lie known as terra nullius; that is, that the continent Captain Cook had sailed
to was "unoccupied land," and that the British Crown was under no obligation to respect the very visible people who
had by then been living there, by most estimates, for some 60,000 years.  What followed was predictable: forced
relocation and acculturation, death from introduced diseases, lives wasted in alcoholism.  The parallels to the
original inhabitants of North and South America are quite profound.
  I dearly wanted to know more, but couldn't ask.  The only aborigine I actually spoke to while I was there was
Willy, the manager of the guesthouse where I stayed in Sydney.  He was a hulking, dangerous man who could
play several musical instruments and sing harmony on "American Pie."  He appeared  old enough to have been one
of the aborigine children plucked from their families and raised by whites.  This was Australia's mid-century
experiment in social genocide.   I never saw fit to ask Willy if he had been one of the abducted unfortunates.
I wish I could have; he clearly had much history and experience to share, but just as clearly, he didn't want to share
 Aborigines are described as an intensely private people, having rituals and ceremonies they keep secret even
from each other.  Even men and women are not privy to the others' business, with a special punishment for those
who violate this curtain of secrecy.  Anyone expressing a greater-than-ordinary curiosity into the affairs of another
was rewarded with a spear through the thigh. (What a pity we gaijin can't adopt a similar strategy here in Japan.
The next time someone asks me "How old are you?"--would certainly be the last!)
  All of my observations so far have been about the aboriginal people, who represent only a fragment of the
continent's present population.  Given the current debate over the character of the Australian nation, I must say
that I was treated very well the entire time I was there.  I learned that the correct response to "Thank you" is not
"You're welcome," but "No worries."
  It is a surpassingly liberal society; posters in the underground station trumpet official causes, from not distracting
seeing-eye dogs to being more tolerant of homosexuals.  The warnings on a pack of cigarettes, far from the lukewarm
"...shown to cause cancer in laboratory rats..." are more indicative of a protective, cradle to grave social state.
"Don't even think of smoking these bloody things," a sign scolds, "they're bad for you."  In general, I decided the
Australian people are more polite than they needed to be...but I'm not sure it would have been so had I been a
different colour.  Like many liberal Americans of the sixties and seventies, I found them racist but indignant at
having it pointed out.  While walking on a Sydney beach, I saw a large net protecting the swimming area.  Protecting
it from what I asked a group of old men.  Jellyfish? Sharks? No, cracked one.  It keeps Asians out.
  I formulated this truism years ago: Anyone who says "I'm not a racist, but..." invariably follows it up with a
racist statement.  Australian anti-foreigner politician Pauline Hanson and those who claim she is not a racist
must take the test by completing the sentence: "I am not a racist, I just don't want to share my continent with
blacks and Asians."
  Since I know you're curious, yes the water did swirl down the drain in a counter-clockwise motion, four trials out
of five.  Although, I could force it to go the opposite way with my hands.  Obviously this is not definitive and calls
for more experimentation, but there were people waiting in line for the shower, and I don't think they would have
approved my research!  My final observation about the Australian people is that bad spelling is endemic, even by
US standards.  In particular, there seems to be an insistence to use an apostrophe to form the possessive "its"
(as in "a lion and it's cubs" sic), even in professionally printed signs.  I also saw many apostrophes in simple
plural nouns, giving us "Our chef's are..." (sic) and "These premise's" (sic). Dan Quayle would feel right at
home. {So would George Bush!--Editor}
  On the road leading up to Uluru stands a visitors' centre, offering teasing bits of information on the lifestyle and
legends of the aborigines, but leaving more untold than told.  We learn that the rock is for them a monument--
every crack and gully a record of spear wounds and fallen shields, commemorating epic battles between mythic
super heroes of "dreamtime."  Even here their private nature is manifested--random photographs are papered
over with the explanation that the individuals photographed are recently deceased, and the community doesn't
wish their likenesses shown.  The aborigines are conspicuous for their absence; their communities are off-limits
to visitors, and in the event that we do see any, we are respectfully asked not to photograph them.
  The bombshell came near the end of the exhibit, in a subtle and tastefully-worded sign; that they, themselves
consider Uluru a sacred place, which they don't climb; that as long as I'm here I might as well take photos and
walk around the perimeter; but that they would very much appreciate it if I decided not to climb it.
  I came halfway around the world.  I spent a lifetime preparing for this moment.  In the end, I decided not to
climb it, and I just walked around the outside instead.  They asked me not to climb their rock, and once I got
there, I knew exactly how they felt.  If it had been my rock, I wouldn't want anyone climbing on it either.
(c) Kublai Khan Unlimited
Richard Schwartz

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