Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Mike’s excellent adventure down under

My trip under down under is coming to an end. Now I’m just down under, on what Tasmanians call the mainland.

My sweetie has come to fetch me home… but before we get on the plane tomorrow, I want to find out what he thinks about this place on the other side of the world…We're in the Brasserie in Katoomba, drinking James Squires Amber Ale, then across the street in Cafe Zuppa, eating delicious vegetarian food for the third night in a row... I mean, why mess with a good thing?

LB. Tell me three things you knew or thought about Australia before you came.
MM. 1. That Ayer’s Rock  - or, as it’s called now, Uluru - was the place that everyone was supposed to go to. But you told me early on that it was too far for this trip since it’s miles and miles and miles from nowhere. Well, except Alice Springs, and even then it’s 300 kilometres to Uluru. Plus it costs a whack of dough to get there.

2. That I wanted to see the Opera House and Sydney Harbour and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and I also wanted to find out where one of my favourite TV shows was filmed, and that’s not Skippy the Bush Kangaroo or The Flying Doctors – but… wait for it… Water Rats! I kept looking for someone the right age to ask… Turns out I had to check it out on Wikipedia. Some episodes were filmed on Goat Island, which we passed on the ferry to Manly Beach. 
3. That I expected two kinds of characters: Crocodile Dundee or a California-surfer dude.

4. Until I met you, I never even realized that Tasmania was part of Australia.

LB. How did those preconceptions work for you, Mike?
MM. Those stereotypes came back to boomerang me in the ass. I didn’t meet Crocodile Dundee or a surfer. I met artists and historians and ordinary people. These people are not unlike… home.

LB. What do you mean?
MM. Melbourne was like Montreal. Sydney was like Toronto and Vancouver. Hobart was like Halifax.

LB. So do you feel like you got your money’s worth?
MM. Absolutely. Since almost the first moment I stepped off the plane, I stopped thinking about how much it cost to get here. It’s not a terrible thing to learn that Australia is like a lot of places on the planet. The similarities aren’t so disappointing. There were still enough unique experiences that put the commonalities in perspective. But as soon as we left Melbourne or Sydney, and came to places like Airlie Beach or Katoomba, we found something distinctive.

One of the things that’s been great about the trip has been learning about its history, in comparison to that of our own colonization, or of the Spanish in Mexico, Central and South America. What came as a surprise was the relatively short history of colonization and development, compared with other British colonies. Jacques Cartier sailed up the St. Lawrence in 1534… as opposed to 1770 or so when Cook visited Adventure Bay in Tasmania. European contact at home came over 200 years before it did here.

The uniqueness is in the people’s histories – they’ve come up with the same types of societies… As early as the 1950s, Sydney was a backwater. The site of the Sydney Opera House was the tram garage. If you use urban centres as a measure, our societies have evolved very similarly, except they were on fast forward compared to ours.

I found it surprising that the convict story plays such a huge part in people’s memories here. I didn’t expect that.

And then there’s the Aboriginal story – their treatment echoes any colonizer’s attitude or mindset toward first peoples. We did it in Canada; they did it here. We’re still dealing with it in Canada; they’re still dealing with it here.

LB. What underwhelmed you?
MM The wildlife. I didn’t see ONE kangaroo, or ONE wallaby. I think I saw a possum. I saw some cockatoos and a white-breasted sae eagle in the Whitsunday Islands, and one gigantic Huntsman spider in the closet at Airlie Beach… no snakes… I never even came close to seeing a crocodile!
LB. Tell me three things that stood out for you on this trip.
MM. Only three? Okay. How easy it was to drive on the left-hand side of the road. Except every time I went to use the signal light I’d hit the windshield washer.

My heretofore ignorance of the country: how little I actually knew about Australia. I could have read up on it before I left, but it took coming here to really know it. Plus Bill Bryson’s excellent book, In a Sunburned Country… and a novel called The Roving Party by a young Tasmanian, Rohan Wilson – which I bought at a reading in Hobart after he won the Vogel Award… and the non-fiction Van Diemen’s Land, James Boyce’s award-winning history of the island – which went hand in hand with the fiction.

There were some moments like when I was stuck in noisy traffic or in a crowded bar in Sydney, when I think: I came halfway round the world for this? I could have stayed home and experienced the same thing. But then something would happen.

Like having lunch on the rooftop of the oldest bar in Sydney, with the Opera House and Bridge a silent backdrop…
Yesterday spent in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, overlooking Jamison Valley from the first cable car ride in my life…
The field trip before the conference, when we visited Hook Island and the cave of the Ngaro People, followed by snorkeling off Whitsunday Island then a picnic on Whitehaven Beach…
Singing, with the most spectacular sunset backdrop imaginable, at Airlie Beach…
Sitting around Peter MacFie’s kitchen table in Richmond, eating potato and leek soup and trading songs, before having our own personally guided tour of Port Arthur with Peter – who had been the historian who developed the site’s interpretation…
Sunset on top of Mt. Wellington, overlooking Hobart Town…
A most memorable day spent on Bruny Island…
LB. So, on your last night in Australia, is there anything else you’d like to add?
MM. Yeah. It snowed.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Leaving by boat

It’s a given that coming to an island by plane is different than sailing to one. Crossing the water, seeing the island slowly fill your field of vision – dots on the land growing into houses, docks, cars, trees, people. You drive or step off the boat, feeling like you’ve had a brief respite from your life – and if you’ve managed to cross on a warm day and found a spot where you can bask in the sun on the top deck, it can be like a mini-cruise – or a great place to sleep off a hangover. The moment your tires or your shoes leave the metal ramp and hit the island, you feel grounded again, and ready for that last push to your final destination.
In contrast, of course, coming by plane is fast. Flying to Tasmania from Sydney was an hour-and-a-bit – one minute you’re in one city, breathing mainland air, talking to mainland people; and eighty minutes later you’re on Tasmania, breathing blue island air, talking to people who look just like the neighbours back home on your island. There’s nothing leisurely about this kind of crossing: it’s hurry up and wait as you rush to make your obligatory one- to two-hour pre-flight check-in, then negotiate long line-ups, grumpy airline employees, stern airport security, and bad expensive coffee, only to be told that the flight is delayed. No wonder you want to wash down an atavan with a beer or three, and say wake me up when we’re there.

Leaving by plane you do the whole thing in reverse. But I didn’t want to this time. I’m the kind of person who likes to get in the water a toe at a time; leaving by plane would be like diving headfirst into the hole cut out in the ice. I’d be wrenched from the ground, hurled into the air, and then I’d be gone. Hardly the proper way to say good-bye to a place I’ve grown to love. Leaving by boat was really the only thing I COULD do. As we bussed up the Midland Highway for the last time, I felt like I was saying good-bye the proper way, one kilometer at a time. It was a thoughtful good-bye, in keeping with the last couple of weeks leading up to my leaving. But as with those good-byes, which I assured people were NOT good-byes, but rather so longs, see you laters, it was measured, like a lingering farewell kiss.
As we passed through Oatlands and Ross, Campbell Town and Launceston, I was remembering all the trips up and down that road – probably a dozen in all. There was my first trip with Jane and Ralph and Emily to the Poetry Festival, stopping at St. Peter’s rest area and taking photos of each other by the graffiti’d water tanks. Then with Kate Booth to the “Sounding the Earth” conference, Kate explaining to me the forestry “peace deal” that was all over the news that day, and laughing at the kitschy cut-out western figurines edging the dusty desert horizon. Then with Pete (and other times with Sebastian and Blakey and Robbo and/or Mom along for the ride) for cricket in Branxholm, Forth, and Ross, and Low Head – and on the way back trying to remember lyrics to songs to keep us awake that last hour into Hobart. Being thrilled when I realized I felt a flutter of recognition as the contours of the city lights against Mt. Wellington’s imposing black blackdrop were laid out in front of me. Then with Mom on our trip to the northwest, then by myself to the Island Youth Theatre Exchange performance in Launceston, then with Pete and Matt Newton to Marrawah… Remembering certain bends in the road and names like Paradise and Meander Valley and Mole Creek; looking for the tumble-down remains of Halfway House; and being disappointed the bus didn’t stop in Campbell Town for one last visit to Burger Me (home of the best veggie burger, orange poppyseed cake, and flat whites on the island). Letting the horizon line of the Great Western Tiers imprint itself on my memory bank… Seeing the chocolate brown soil, and knowing that it’s not much further past Devonport that it will turn to red, reminding me of the Island soil back home…
We arrived at the ferry in East Devonport at 3 p.m., but found we couldn’t board til 6. So on the advice of my friend Pamela we lugged our suitcases over to the Gingerbread House CafĂ© and Hostel about three blocks from the ferry terminal. A renovated parsonage that was built in the late 1800s, the charming gingerbread house was a welcome place to spend our last few hours in Tasmania. The proprietor, Melissa Houghton, invited us to make ourselves at home – to use it as they intended: waiting for the ferry. A cup of strong coffee, gingerbread fresh from the oven topped with ginger ice cream, a chess game (my first in 30 years), and a couple glasses of wine later, we were ready to head back to the terminal and board the Spirit of Tasmania to Melbourne.
By the time we pulled away from the dock, we’d scouted out our cabin, had a beer in the lounge, and were enjoying a pre-dinner glass of wine in the dining room. I pictured the leaving as a gentle separation, like disentangling yourself from the arms of a lover, knowing the return will be sweet. Knowing that when I come back, I’ll do the things I missed this time, like visit the beautiful Freycinet Peninsula and hike into Wineglass Bay; camp on Maria Island; go to the Circus Festival at Golconda and the Cygnet Folk Festival in Cygnet; stay at a shack at Eddystone Point on the Bay of Fires; spend a weekend on Cradle Mountain; take daytrips to Marion Bay and Recherche Bay; fly on a bush plane into Melaleuca; cruise down the Gordon River to Macquarie Harbour and Sarah Island; go on tour with the Thylacinian's 11 to Flinders Island… 
People have suggested I might need to change the name of this blog, since I’m no longer in Tasmania. I think of another meaning of “bound,” and shake my head.
It’s feeling a bit dreamlike, this departing… feeling Tasmania brush my cheek as I slowly turn and head for home.