Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Leaving the Land of Oz

I spent the last two days working the Casuarina Costal Reserve with Conservation Volunteers Australia. We were rehabilitating a dune forest. Fire will tear through that area at some point. That's just how the ecosystem works up here. Our job was to make sure trees survive childhood to the point that they can withstand the fires as fully grown adults. So we were getting rid of foreign grasses and weeds, watering and clearing small firebreaks around native saplings, and doing some garbage picking.

The work was under sun and heat. Out here, people talk about how cold it's gotten when it's 25° C (77° F). Our team leader was talking about shivering in her bed when it hit this temperature. My stories from Chicago (5° to -8°F lows in winter) left people's jaws so wide open I thought they'd been dislocated. We had to cover up completely-- long pants, sleeves, broad brimmed hat, the works, or risk serious dehydration and burns. Lots of water and shade breaks were the order of the day (erm, days).

A lot of the work felt like it wasn't going to have much of an impact at first. But then I got to do some watering, and we got to see some immediate changes. At first I didn't notice anything. Then I realized that I had a growing set of dragonflies following me around. Then came the little skinks and geckos that would duck themselves under the stream of water I was pouring. After that, looking closely, I realized that in one or two places I was watering, the grass was actually moving. It twitched and writhed so quickly I thought I must be mistaking tiny snakes half-buried in the ground to be plants. It was like seeing one of those stop-motion pictures of a plant growing, only this was that speed happening in real time.

After watering, I was shown where another team had done the same work earlier, just about ten yards from where we'd be working. It was a huge change-- ten, fifteen foot tall trees, colorful birds flying around everywhere, the beginning of a proper forest. We ate lunch in a spot that had been been worked out starting about ten years ago, and it was practically a different world. It was a real forest, with a clean creek running through it an fully-grown trees, with bugs, small, colorful birds, raptors, fish, lizards, and more. The forest almost completely restored from having been a tree or two standing alone in dirt and weeds. Once again, hardly out of the city limits. So I like to think what I was doing had some impact.

I'm sitting in my hotel courtyard right now, listening to some backpackers argue about whether one of the guys in the group was drunk every night of the last couple weeks or if he had in fact been sober two nights. I feel pretty smug right now.

Tonight is my last night in Australia. I think I should tie up one or two loose threads I left hanging in this blog over the last month and a half.

When I first wrote about what kind of treatment I got as an American in Australia, it was a big change from my first draft. My first go around was way more harsh. I took a second look at what I was about to post though, and decided that it was too early to pass judgment since I was going to be here another month or so. I figured if I continued to experience the same thing, I'd could cut and paste it back into this entry at the end.

I don't think I will. Yes, I have still gotten a certain amount of flack for being American, but not nearly as badly as I did my first few days in Sydney and Melbourne. It all became a lot more subtle. There was a funny moment when a bartender bought me a coke on the house because “he felt sorry for me after all the practical jokes I must have been put through here”.

I should mention that I've had people tell me about some of the antisemitism they've experienced down under. I can't attest to any of that myself, aside from one German eccentric who clearly wasn't all right upstairs, but part of that is that I don't prominently identify myself as being Jewish. My dad is Jewish, but my mom isn't which basically disqualifies me from the religion, and I barely even think about the ethnic side to it until somebody asks me directly. But the fact that people have told me and written me about it makes me wonder a bit why that's the case in Australia of all places.

I was also planning on writing a bit about how aboriginal people are viewed here. I heard a story just today about an aboriginal man getting kicked out of a restaurant because he posed a “hygene risk.” I couldn't believe it. Even outside of Australia, way back in Panama, I was hanging out with an Australian girl and a Kiwi girl who I otherwise liked, and got treated to a half-hour of some of the most racist discussion I'd ever heard- going on and on about how you could not trust aboriginal or Maori guys because they would steal stuff, be violent, wouldn't work because they're so lazy, and wouldn't be prosecuted properly after committing crimes. I hadn't heard anything like it since my great uncle, a WWII air force veteran, started dropping slurs against Japanese people one memorable Christmas morning.

This was all swirling around the most when I came back to Sydney the second time, when I was served a healthy, unexpected dose of perspective. I met a couple girls from Texas. Both of them were white. We went out walking to some good nightlife spots, and on the way, they spotted a couple black guys walking down the street. The girls turned the guys' way and started yelling “Yo dog! What up homie!” and on and on in the whitest imitation of ebonics I'd ever heard in my life. I half thought the n-word was coming next.

I turned to them and asked “What the heck are you doing?”

One of them, all smiles, turned to me and said “What? That's how you talk to black people!”

I think that's when it really hit home that maybe it's not my place as an American to judge Australians about stereotypes or racism. Seems we still have a fair few things to clean up first among ourselves. That is a large reason why I'm leaving that original draft about anti-american stereotypes on my hard drive instead of on this blog.

I will say this: if there's one thing that you hear about everywhere in Australia about Americans, it's that you don't see them in Australia. Very few of us come out here. Tons of Canadians, plenty of English, Irish, German and Dutch. Not many Americans. It's a shame-- it's a very easy place to travel, especially for first-time English-speaking backpackers. As much I railed against how it's done here last post, I have to admit, it's a good way to get your feet wet if you've never traveled on your own before. Yes, it's a long flight, but if you look it up, it's cheaper than you might expect. And if you look in the right places, you'll find something different and interesting. If you are still worried about how Americans are perceived and treated down here, I think the best way to handle it is to show up and show people what an American is actually like. It's a bit like the conservation work I was doing-often doesn't feel like you're doing much, but after some time and consistent effort, you might get to see some change.

Plus, as a bonus, you get to see Australia. Go see New Zealand while you're at it too. You can thank me later.

Check out this entry's Photos.


  1. Surprisingly, it would be cheaper for me to fly to Sydney (650) than London (690) in June. However, the flight takes longer, and involves two stops. I think that part is important too - the number of stops. Also, I feel like for some reason Americans aren't as aware of the physical and cultural beauty available in Australia - it doesn't get the PR that a lot of other places get.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly about Australia...I think it's a great place to visit, especially if you're travelling solo for the first time. And New Zealand is a wonderful side trip as well. I must admit that I was surprised with how few Americans I ran into, in either Australia or New Zealand, especially since both are English speaking countries. In my hostel in Sydney, I was the only American in the whole place!

  3. Surprising to hear that there aren't more USA citizens visiting Australia. Had the impression it was very common destination because of the laziness/fear of many to be someplace that doesn't rely on English language. On the other hand, it is about nine hours shorter from west coast of USA to get to the British perhaps we're all flying into Heathrow instead......or not going at all due to finances.