Monday, August 8, 2016

Rio and Beyond: Australia

Australia was the first foreign country I visited, back in high school when I was too young to really appreciate it, at least in the way an adult can appreciate things. We went for an international fastpitch tournament and got to play on the field built for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. 

We were chaperoned much of the time and had planned itineraries down to the minute. They made us spend way too much time at the shops at Darling Harbour, as if spending time in a mall was a worthy endeavor on a trip to the other side of the Earth. (It was probably a chance for the adults to drink.) Some of the team were 18 and were old enough to drink so were able to hang out at night while those of us underage had to entertain ourselves in underage ways. I think I managed to have a Foster's somewhere, but it was only one.

I know we stayed at King's Cross, but I have no real memories of the hotel, just amorphous ideas from the poor photos I took with my 110 film camera. Those of you who are too young to know a 110 film camera are lucky. I took so many photos but hardly any of them were of any aesthetic value, even discounting the poor quality of film. I managed to take a whole roll of the Sydney Opera House while on a harbour cruise, which is an interesting but rather ugly building. I'd never seen an opera before; I couldn't have named a single one back then, although I had recently discovered theater and an appreciation for the arts. I later learned how to take decent photos but back then my eye was untrained and I may have been overwhelmed by the newness of everything.

There had been an Australia craze in the US around this time or shortly before it, thanks to the movie Crocodile Dundee. I'm not sure Americans thought much of anything about Australia before then except for some aging World War II vets who had fought with the Aussies in the Pacific theater. Australia to most Americans was just a spot on the bottom of the map full of funny looking animals with funny sounding names. Then came Mick Dundee. The Men at Work "Down Under" song came out around the same time, and INXS was getting huge. Even Midnight Oil had a hit song with "Beds are Burning." Then the Outback Steakhouse chain opened, and Australia was officially mainstream. Weird to think about now.

I don't remember too much from the trip, aside from some vague memories and what's in the photos. We pet koalas at a zoo and went to some caverns in the Blue Mountains. I think there may have been a strange rock formation called the three-something or other. Sisters, maybe. Three Sisters. I do remember the bus ride through the mountains and the kangaroo crossing signs. We also went to a farm and threw boomerangs and watched them shear sheep, something I'd already seen in Ohio. I still have the boomerang I bought at the farm. I never could make it work.

One thing that stands out in my mind was the number of Chinese people in the part of Sydney we stayed in. Growing up in Southwest Ohio, there weren't many Asians, so encountering so many Chinese was something exotic. I was not exposed to many non-white people in childhood. This is how it is in so many parts of the country. Looking back on it, I can see how white racism persists - the only minorities a lot of suburban and rural whites encounter are serving them food or something like that. It's why they are so ignorant about racial issues. I'll never grasp why they are so fearful, however. Since I became cognizant of the world, I've always loved to meet people from various backgrounds. I think a big part of the problem is a lack of intellectual curiosity in this country, an unwillingness to learn. This, too, I will never understand. 

Anyway, I fell in love with all things Australia on that trip, but something much more important happened. I learned I could travel. I could go to those yellow and orange and green spots on the map. These weren't names of cities and countries to memorize on a test and forget after that. Real people lived in those spots, real people just like me. From there, I went on to study abroad in Europe, live and work in other countries, and take my vacations abroad while most Americans are going to Disneyland. It's a small world, after all, but you wouldn't know it if you haven't gone out into it.

Capital: Canberra
Major cities: Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Alice Springs
Population: 23.13 million
Athletes in the Olympics: 419
Medals in history: 468 summer (139 gold, 152 silver, 177 bronze), 12 winter (5 gold, 3 silver, 4 bronze)
Languages spoken: English
Heroes: Sir Howard Florey (invented penicillin), John Curtin (prime minister during WWII), Eddie Mabo (fought to change the law giving land rights to aborigines),
Bad guys: Mel Gibson (racist actor), Rupert Murdoch (racist rich guy), Pauline Hanson (racist politician), Australian Liberty Alliance (racist political party), Jim Saleam (racist politician), Kirralie Smith (racist politician)
Persecuted groups: Aborigines, Muslims
Current conflicts: War on Terror coalition

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