Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Addled in Adelaide

Now that I am home, the first thing everybody asks me is “Didn’t you just love Australia?” And I did love being there. It is a beautiful country and we had a great time. After travels in Asia and Europe, it was really refreshing to feel very far from home but yet be more or less able to communicate with the locals.

The second thing everyone asks me is, “Aren’t Australians just the nicest people?” It seems that everyone, even people who have never been to Australia, have somewhere met an Aussie and found this person to be instantly likeable. I know I have. In Xi’An, China, in 1992, I shared a table at a crowded restaurant with a pair of women from Melbourne, and before dinner was over, we were making plans to travel to Tibet together.

Everywhere Pipi and I went in Australia, we were treated with kindness, and noticed people going out of their way to make sure our trip went smoothly. The best example I can think of was when we took a city bus to an animal park outside of Perth. The old lady at the front of the bus could have let us discover for ourselves that the part of the park where the animals were was a good mile uphill from the bus stop, but she didn’t. She grabbed my arm as I was about to exit the bus and explained that there was an intercom near the bus stop, and that we could use it to call a free shuttle that would pick us up and take us to the part of the park she’d correctly guessed we wanted to visit. She didn’t have to do that, and I don’t think every American would have, but one thing you’ll never hear an Australian say is, “Leave that lady with the map alone; I’m sure she’ll figure it out somehow.”

As kind and generous as everyone was, though, there was something a little unsettling about Australia. It was hard to put my finger on, and even harder to articulate. As much as I enjoyed my time there, I did feel a number of times like I’d slipped into a wormhole and emerged in the 1970s or ’80s. And not the fun, neon-lit ’70s and ’80s, where we danced under disco balls and had hair we can laugh about now. This felt more like the pre-United Colors of Benetton, Cold-War ’70s and ’80s; the time when we found it entirely plausible that Chinese people were keeping ancient secrets from us, and nobody thought Sting was being overly dramatic when he sang, “I hope the Russians love their children, too,” because everyone knew those Russians were different.

The best example of this cultural time warp I can come up with is a comment made by a tour bus driver in Adelaide. Adelaide is the capital of the state of South Australia, and the train stopped there late in the day that started in Broken Hill.

Adelaide presented a dramatic contrast to Broken Hill. Adelaide has a population of over one million people, for one thing. It’s also a very attractive city, with the downtown core almost completely surrounded by huge swaths of parkland. But it doesn’t have a lot of sights per se. Almost every place of interest the driver pointed out was some kind of historic house, once owned by the second governor general of something, or the lady-in-waiting to someone I’d never heard of.

I confess that my mind started to wander a little bit, but I snapped back to attention when the driver pointed out a particular park that he said was often inhabited by homeless Aboriginal people. “The city tries to get them into housing,” he huffed, “But a few days later, they’re always back.” He paused, and then added, “It’s just in their culture.”

From the little I have learned about Aboriginal culture, I think it is true that most Aboriginal groups do have a long history of being nomadic. But they do not have a 40,000-year history of lying around drunk in the landscaping, and I thought it was a little disingenuous of him to imply that the whole sad and complicated situation can be explained by the fact that those people are just different.

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