After enjoying a rare veal dinner on the the plane because it was Christmas, I finally landed Down Under. This is Australia, the country that is the reason why I’m on this round-the-world adventure. Some five years ago around this time, I rented a motorcycle and traveled for six weeks in South America. When I started, I thought six weeks was a lot, until I started bumping into a bunch of Aussies (and Kiwis) who had decided to quit their jobs and see the world. I came back from that trip and told myself that I’m never gonna be able to do it. But it was like a bug at the back of my mind. Can I really do it? Should I do it? And here I am, eight months into my trip, finally visiting Aussieland.
The first thing you notice here is tank tops. For men and women, shorts and tank tops is like a uniform. Maybe because it’s summer time, but even jeans and a decent pair of sneakers are probably considered formal here. Melbourne is my first stop and the federation square in the heart of the city is easily one of the most charming places for people-watching. There are a couple of fancy restaurants in the square where you can find people sipping beers all day long. Even in these swanky restaurants, everyone from kids to 60-year-olds are in cargo shorts and t-shirts, at best.
What I am about to learn after traveling up and down the East coast is that lack of formality runs through the Aussie DNA. Tank tops and shorts were just the start. Don’t be surprised if you find people walking around barefoot…by choice. Everyone here is your “mate.” Everything here has a short form. McDonald’s is Maccers. Sunglasses are sunnies. Even MCG, short for Melbourne Cricket Ground, is shortened to “G.” Every conversation here ends with a “cheers,” as if everyone is walking around with a beer can in their hands. Given the legendary Aussie tolerance for alcohol, it might as well be true. Baseball is America’s favorite pastime. Drinking is the Aussie pastime. A lot of corporate offices here apparently have a fridge full of beers and in some offices, weekend drinking starts at noon on Friday. If you have to work late hours, it’s ok to open a cold one for some motivation. Germans are known for their love of beer, but these guys take it to another level. But that’s just one aspect of Aussie life. Everyone here is either a surfer, hiker, marathon runner, hunter, biker, or something along those lines. You can probably go to jail for being a couch potato here. All in all, even America would seem to be formal compared to Australia. If California were to secede from the United States and become its own country, it would be Australia. Or maybe Australia-lite.
People here are extremely friendly. They don’t seem to be overly curious about your heritage or culture or history, and sometimes might even come off as being a bit insensitive to all of that. But they seems to be pretty helpful. If you are at an intersection with a map in your hand and a puzzled look on your face, people will stop by and ask if everything is ok. If you walk into a bar, within half an hour, they will buy you a drink, pat on your back, and tell you their life stories. In my one month here, barring one airport incident in which a young white kid unnecessarily taunted a middle-aged South Asian about observing lines and got a mouthful in return, I found Aussies to be open, welcoming, and irreverent. They won’t hold back when poking fun at anyone, including themselves.
But that’s just the people. This vast land is blessed with a lot of natural beauty, too. I didn’t get a chance to experience the rugged desert land of the outback, but this country seems to have something for everyone. In Melbourne, you can go to Philip island and watch the little penguins come home at dusk from a full day of foraging in the ocean. This is a must-see for any nature lover. These guys are so tiny that birds of prey can swoop in and pick them up. So they go to the sea before sunrise and come back home after sunset. When they come back, nobody has the courage to take the lead and cross the beach to go home. The first time they come out of the water, they come out as a group of 30 or 40 and barely go a couple of meters before rushing back to the water. Next time, they go four instead of two meters before running back to the water. They do this at least five or ten times, inching forward at every attempt, before finally crossing the beach and going back home. It is as adorable as it is mind-boggling. You would think that evolution would take over at some point. Or, the elder ones would learn over the years to wait a little longer until it’s fully dark. But, to the joy of hundreds of tourists lining up every night here, they indulge in this “penguin parade” every night. What a beautiful way to waste your time and energy!
That’s just the start. The beautiful waters at Byron Bay, Whitehaven beach off of the town of Airlie beach, where the sand is even softer than Clearwater beach in Florida, and, of course, the Great Barrier Reef in Cairns. All of this is extremely expensive by backpacker standards. Forget about sight-seeing and activities, even food is so expensive here that I was telling a friend of mine jokingly that these days, Subway is running through my veins. At 7.50 Aussie dollars, there is nothing cheaper and as filling as a foot-long Subway sandwich. But that’s besides the point. After eight months of junk food, a month-long Subway diet can’t hurt, anyway. When you start thinking about it, there is no price tag on seeing the tiny, real-life nemos rushing in and out of the coral reefs. Then there is a 1-to-2 meter long fish called Wally who is so friendly that you can play with his beard. Ok, I’m exaggerating. Fish don’t have beards. But fish of this species love it when you scrub their chins. There are tiny little underwater flowers that can sense sounds. If you snap your fingers anywhere near them, they close immediately. And then, if you are lucky, you get to swim with some 2-3 meter sharks. I really need to get an underwater camera. Finding Nemo probably does justice to the vibrant colors of the underwater world, but words can’t do any justice to the beauty of this world. Just do me a favor and learn scuba diving! You have to see it all for yourself.
Besides natural beauty, in my eight months of traveling, this is really the first country where I had to go searching for culture. There are some Victorian buildings in Melbourne and Sydney, but that’s about it. In Melbourne, when I went out looking for culture, apart from the aboriginal art museum, there wasn’t much else. The other two museums were a film museum – an art form Australia hasn’t contributed much to – and a t-shirt museum! Across the street from these museums, there is an alley full of all kinds of interesting graffiti. Some of it is pretty impressive, but graffiti generally comes from a counter-cultural impulse. Traveling along the East coast of Australia, it was hard to say what culture they were trying to counter. In Darwin, you finally get to see that thing called culture. Not the culture graffiti artists are trying to counter, but at least some culture. And it’s mostly aboriginal.
It’s not just one culture. It’s a collection of tribal cultures. Like in the US, after the European settlers reached Australian shores, they managed to eliminate most of the tribes in the south and the east. Their population went down from 3-4 million to around 300,000, mostly scattered around the sprawling desert of Australia. Hiking in the sweltering summer heat of the Kakadu national park, you don’t really get to see aboriginals going about their daily lives, but you get some glimpses of their beliefs and their customs. Some are straight-up superstitions, like a tall, distant mountain in the park that is considered evil because of a series of mishaps associated with the surroundings. But most of them are rooted in practical, empirical knowledge and are pretty intriguing. In the tropical jungles around Darwin, extensive knowledge of the local flora and fauna and its use for daily consumption and medicinal purposes is nothing short of impressive. Among the desert tribes, the venomous snakes are feared and revered; perhaps rightly so. Petroglyphs dotting the landscape depict hunting, some stories of moral teachings, and some other aspects of cave life. To avoid incest, they came up with an elaborate system of “skin names,” which dictated who could marry whom. Not necessarily foolproof, but interesting in its own way. And on and on and on.
But these two worlds, the aboriginal one and the one with European influence, are worlds apart. Even after two-three hundred years of coexistence on the same island, they have struggled to find a common vocabulary. In a bizarre attempt at social engineering, a few decades ago, to “modernize” aboriginals, their kids were taken away from the parents and raised in white, European-descent families. Instead of assimilation, this experiment managed to breed more resentment and misgivings among the communities, prompting a recent official apology to the aboriginals by the current Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. Traveling around this country, one can sense a state of uneasy equilibrium in which these communities live. They don’t seem to be at war with each other, but they don’t seem to care much about each other, either. Most of the aboriginals seem to have itinerant lifestyle. And, unencumbered with any cultural or civilizational history, the rest have wholehearted adopted a fairly irreverent version of the western lifestyle. Of late, they have tried to wish away aboriginal issues by throwing huge sums of money at it. If anything, this seems to have exacerbated the issue even further by making them more and more dependent on the government. Sound familiar?
A few days before leaving Australia, I learned that the aboriginals might have some Indian connection. Some recent studies seem to suggest that their roots can be traced back to the southern part of India. If proven right, this would be pretty interesting, but the culture wars of modern-day India are, in some ways, polar opposites of the ones here in Australia. Australia seems
to be struggling with the merging of the old and the new. And India seem to be struggling with moving from the old to the new. Throughout her 4-5000 year civilizational history, India seems to have done exceedingly well in cultural assimilation. It’s even astonishing to see how a million different traditions coexist peacefully in today’s India. But for some reason, Indians are going through a social churning like never before. Some of it is related to the maddening pace of globalization. More than that, it is related to selective amnesia about India’s own rich history.
Take the “khap panchayats” in the Indian state of Haryana. Just like the aboriginals, and perhaps even before the aboriginals, Indian society developed a concept similar to skin names called “gotra.” People from the same gotra weren’t allowed to marry each other because they were likely to be siblings. And the khap panchayats, or village councils, were in charge of enforcing these anti-incest rules. That might have been sensible a thousand years ago, but does it make sense today? After so many generations, the possibility of people from the same gotra being siblings has gone down significantly, but the village councils are unwilling to give up their power; ordering honor killings if a guy marries a girl from the same gotra.
It’s the same story when it comes to female infanticide in India. The male dominated nature of the society and the tradition of sons rather than daughters taking care of parents in their old age have unnecessarily overemphasized the importance of a boy child. Even after banning the practice of in utero sex determination, female infanticide is rampant in the underground world. It’s not too difficult to connect the dots between a skewed sex ratio of of 850-900 girls for every 1000 boys and a sharp rise in the number of rape cases. The recent gang rape of Nirbhaya in Delhi followed by her unfortunate death led to a social awakening and touched off large scale protests against the government’s apathy toward violence against women. But this has been going on for a while. My sister lived in Delhi briefly a couple of years ago. As a housewife living in a middle class neighborhood of Delhi, she used to be virtually under self-imposed house arrest from 9 to 5. Reason? Almost daily reports of violence against women.
It’s unfortunate that it took such a brutal act of violence against Nirbhaya for the society to find its pulse. And the government seems to have moved quickly to amend the laws to strengthen the punishment for sexual violence against women. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though. The conversation has to have a larger context. The prudish behavior and statements of the so called “moral police” in India do tremendous disservice to the rich and vibrant Indian culture, which has done an excellent job of exploring human sexuality. Some of the most famous Hindu Gods are polygamous. The five pandavs, the good men in Mahabharata embodying desirable traits in men, have a polyandrous wife. And when these good guys bet and lose their polyandrous wife in gambling, and one of the bad guys attempts to disrobe her in public, it is Krishna, one of the best-known flirts in Hindu mythology, who comes to her rescue. India has given the world Kamasutra and the Khajuraho temple, for God’s sake! Before the self-styled members of the moral police start dictating the rules of engagement for men and women in the Indian society, they should probably consider destroying the temple of Khajuraho and burning copies of Kamasutra and other Hindu scriptures in public. If the generally tolerant society of India allows them to destroy such rich Indian heritage, I will accept their legitimacy as moral police.
It is understandable that if a cultural revolution like the one in the USA in the ’60s and the one in China in the ’70s is not gonna happen in India, the pace of social change is going to be slow. But how long are we going to wait to expand the conversation to have this broader dialogue? As the Australians look at their past and struggle to make peace with it, let us hope that the Indian society looks at its own history introspectively and, instead of picking and choosing what is convenient, embraces it wholeheartedly. As they say in Sanskrit, tamaso maa jyotir gamaya. Let us move from darkness to light!
Federation square, Melbourne.
Aboriginal art museum, Melbourne.
Some more art. Snakes are important!
A bit more abstract, but still snakey.
T-shirt museum. Really?
Time for some good graffiti.
Pretty cool, eh?
Some cartoon characters. I’m sure they’re badass.
Even the dumpsters are not spared.
Even graffiti artists need some Hindu good luck!
Getting ready for the parade. Penguin parade beach. Philip island.
Can you see the penguins? Moonrise in the background.
A Victorian farm on Philip island.
Wild Koala, up, close and personal.
A baby penguin in his home.
The remarkable thing about this photo is that this cost me 5 Aussie dollars. It’s not like I’m buying it in Waldorf freakin’ Astoria. Australia hurts….your wallet!
Sydney fireworks on the 31st!
Airlie beach. Ready to sail to Whitehaven beach?
Yep, one of the most beautiful beaches in the world! Whitehaven beach!
Same beach, again.
Crabs digging their homes.
Swimming with sting rays. More like walking.
Looking out to the shores.
Getting a bit cloudy, but still beautiful.
That’s how tilted our sailboat was. Is that normal?
A quick day-trip from Cairns to Kuranda. They said this is one of the most sharply curved railway bridges in the world.
Waterfall along the way.
Nice pastures on the way back to Cairns.
Dangerously creepy creatures! Crocodile cruise near Darwin.
Cue in jaws music.
Jump up, jump up, and get down.
In the crocodile world, two is a crowd.
Petroglyphs in Kakadu national park. Look like a kangaroo?
Some hunting, maybe?
This one is pretty cool. Don’t know what it means.
Cooling off in the waterfall.
Some nice flowers.
Lush green landscapes.
Termite cathedral. Designed and built by termites. Yeah, it takes decades.
The hard-working termites.
Another nice waterfall.
One more…at Litchfield park.
A: Harbor bridge, Sydney.
B: Opera House, Sydney.
A U B: Sometimes, you have to be an engineer.