REPORT FROM DOWN UNDER

 

A visit to Australia and New Zealand is a sprawling event. It’s hard to characterize or describe each aspect of the experience so I’ll dissect just a few, namely:

 

THE TRAVEL is daunting. For us, it involved a five-hour flight to Los Angeles, a three-hour layover and a fifteen-hour flight to Sydney. When we arrived, we found ourselves fourteen time zones ahead of North Carolina. Ten a.m. equaled midnight to our bodies. Advised to stay awake until “normal” bedtime by all the literature, we proceeded, Zombie-like, for the first day of sightseeing.

“Ah,” says an observant reader, “Why didn’t you sleep on the plane?”

“Can’t,” I reply miserably. “Never have, apparently never will. Even the sleeping pill had no effect.”

 

THE PEOPLE are friendly. If you pause on a street and look confused, chances are excellent that one or more pedestrians will offer assistance. Often, they insist on leading you to your destination if it is within a block or two. Others consult their phones for directions or flag down other strangers for consultations.

 

CAUCASIANS ARE IN THE MINORITY. In Sydney, particularly in the vicinity of the airport or university, most people are Chinese. As a person who is open-minded in terms of immigration issues this fact provokes no immediate negative reaction. However, I wonder how I would feel if my hometown, Philadelphia, somehow became 80% Chinese. Would it, in essence, still be Philadelphia?

I believe Australians struggle with this issue in private but they accept the influx as an economic necessity. I sensed some resentment when speaking with several Australians during the course of our tour, but they are too polite to complain openly. An Aussie sitting beside me on the plane captured the attitude when I said I looked forward to seeing how Australians live.

“You staying in Sydney?” he asked. “Good luck finding some.”

 

THE SCENERY, particularly in New Zealand, is amazing. Days of seeing snow-capped mountains, fiords, glaciers, swift-moving rivers and waterfalls means I may not have to travel to Alaska or Iceland in the future. Below the mountains are the greenest of green pastures, populated by domesticated deer, cows and millions and millions of sheep. The latter had just birthed and the lambs, be it one or two or three per mother, are sooooooo cute. No more lamb chops for me.

 

RUGBY is an obsession in both countries. Before this trip, I believed rugby to be a primitive form of American football played in total obscurity. Now, having scanned newspapers and surfed television, I know there are actually THREE types of rugby, each with its own networks, teams, leagues and fans. Not at all “obscure,” rugby is pervasive Down Under. How does a country of only twenty-four million (Australia) or four million (NZ) support such so much infrastructure?  The passion for sport runs deep. Aussies are pretty good at tennis, too, and facilities for recreation are everywhere.

IN MELBOURNE, our final stop, we anticipated bringing home memories of vast public gardens, stunning architecture and commerce. Though we saw some of those things, our primary impression is quite different. The evening we arrived, the local rugby squad had won a championship game and jubilation ensued. The next morning, fans were still stumbling around, hung-over, clad in the black and yellow of the Richmond Tigers, a team based in the very neighborhood in which we were staying. One store clerk, dressed dutifully, confided that she wasn’t really interested in rugby, but her admission came in a whisper, lest she offend her boss or a local customer.

 

POLITICS rarely came up in public discussions with our tour-mates. Since we were the only Americans, couples sidled up to us privately, at some point to ask, of the United States: “If I may, what happened?” “How is this possible?” We knew what they were wondering. How did a reality television buffoon become president? We tried to explain two things: 1. Part of the enjoyment of being abroad for us was to NOT discuss “he who shall not be named” on a daily basis; and, 2. Suffice it to say one cannot underestimate ignorance and hatefulness.

I LEARNED that Australian politics is much like ours though they have not YET descended to total lunacy. As in America, solid majorities of the population support protection of the environment, freedom of choice for women, equal rights for all and gun control. However, as in America, government is controlled by money. For instance, mining interests battle alternative energy projects though there may not be a country in the world more suited to solar, wind and geothermal power. Religious groups battle women’s rights and gay rights and their older cohort show up to vote.

GUN CONTROL is the exception, perhaps because there is not a wealthy, native industry as we have in America, along with twisted reverence for the Second Amendment.   In 1996 in Australia, the mass murder of thirty-five took place with semi-automatic weapons. It was the deadliest of thirteen such events in the preceding eighteen years. In its aftermath, a CONSERVATIVE government acted to buyback all but necessary hunting and farming-related firearms and to ban semi-automatic and automatic weapons. The population acquiesced without drama and Australia’s rate of gun violence is now miniscule.   There have been no mass murders since 1996, and firearm-related suicide rates have dropped by eighty percent!

 

AFFECTION for Americans adheres in New Zealand and Australia, though the Las Vegas massacre occurred during our last night in Melbourne which provoked an outpouring of news coverage about “What is wrong with America?” Still, there is a deep reservoir of patience. Largely without complaint, both nations Down Under continue to contribute troops to every one of our military adventures.

QUESTION I asked several veterans in both countries: “Why is there no resentment, at least about failed expeditions in Vietnam or the second Iraq war?” Each time, the response hearkened back to World War II. Apparently, when Japanese warships threatened invasion Australia and New Zealand appealed to Winston Churchill for help. He refused, citing the burdens his troops were already facing from Germany. America, however, sent ships immediately and routed the Japanese. We sowed seeds of affection still alive seventy years later. I hope we don’t poison the field or take it for granted. Hanging up on Australia’s prime minister last January was probably not a great first move by the con-man, but….

 

DOUBTLESS Australia and New Zealand are wonderful destinations. If only they were closer. Both countries have a pace and friendliness that seems like the America I imagine of sixty years ago. They are comfortable countries for an American, as they speak the same language, but with enough accent to make you feel you’ve “gone somewhere.” Cars on the left side of the road reinforce the difference.

 

OBVIOUSLY, if one visited America and saw only Miami and New York they could hardly claim to have “seen it.” If the flight were five hours or less I’d want to visit Down Under again and again to see all the places not included in our trip, including, but not limited to: the Outback, the Great Barrier Reef, the cities of Brisbane, Canberra, Perth and Auckland, among others. Perhaps, when the jet lag is finally forgotten, once and for all, after another month or two… I’ll consider it.

 

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