14 April 2010

Circles

It is April 2010.  I departed the U.S.A. in April 2009. When I think of my reasons and life a year ago, a short story from Go Your Own Way: Women Travel The World Solo mirrored my intentions: "Feeling empty & dissatisfied, I decided to make some changes.  Eventually, I would discover that those changes needed to take place inside, but, at that time, it seemed easiest to just discard everything on the outside."

From Sydney I flew to Los Angeles, then Chicago & finally to my destination of Akron-Canton.  Oddly, I left Sydney at 11pm on a Wednesday and awoke at 5pm on the same day in California.  Not counting the time difference, I think I flew for about 36 hours on minimal sleep.  I couldn't tell down under from upside down.  However, I distinctly remember as the little jet was about to land in Ohio.  As the plane sunk below the clouds (yes, another rainy/overcast day in Canton) for a minute I could not believe I left temperate, pristine Australia for this!  Then I had my revelation...

Verbatim, this what I jotted down on half a piece of scrap paper:

"All because of you, I believe in angels
Not the kind with wings, not the kind with halos
The kind that bring you home when home becomes a strange place
All you have to do is shout it out"

-- Rise Against, "The Good Left Undone"

I forfeited a lot:
a secure job in a failing American economy; health benefits (which, if you know me, are crucial); a loving house; the puppy I helped raise; the chance to stay with my boyfriend of 3 years.


I paid a lot:
numerous domestic flights; a work visa; hotel rooms; shipping boxes literally across the world; buying all new toiletries & household items.


...but...


I gained a lot:
a true meaning of the word "home"; an experience in another world & various cultures; a clearer perspective on my family, friends and blessings.


I go home/back to the United States willingly, with no regrets.  I return home content and excited to see those whom I've missed & have missed me so much.  A part of me -- the explorer in me -- will stay in Australia always calling me back."


My parting wish for you: an important, summative prayer that sang to me from the movie The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. 
"For what it's worth,  it's never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There's no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you're proud of. If you find that you're not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again."

Lots of love,
Michelle

Differences

In the previous entry ("The Thinker") I started to touch upon some major environmental issues.  Here, I wanted to briefly highlight how Australia tackles some of its issues.  Oz still has the 8th largest carbon footprint in the world, but I saw major differences in comparison to The United States.

First, I think Americans can learn a lot from Aussies.  Second, I think the world can learn more from Zimbabwe -- the only country in the world with a negative carbon imprint (I learned this at the Australian Museum).
  • In 1998, there were only 203 murders in the entire continent of Australia.  I can only imagine the U.S.A.'s number.
  • All of Sydney's busses run on geothermal energy, a source Americans hardly consider.  Could it be because of our dependence on oil?
  • Australians have an entire channel dedicated to travel within the country -- a massive, constant advertisement to its citizens.  The shows promote diverse areas every week.  There is another channel that rotates a breath-taking video gallery of footage that spans little towns to metropolises.  I don't know that I've seen anything like that on prime time American tellie.  Americans do not advertise our land or culture to ourselves. 
  • Target -- one of the most widespread department stores in Oz -- changed its policy.  It no longer provided shopping bags to anyone buying 3 items or less.  Do we really need a bag for small or few items?
  • Here, I go to the grocery & see staff/shoppers alike using one plastic bag for their toothpaste; another for their two gallons of milk.  How much of a hassle would it be to not put those in a bag?  How much of a hassle would it be to consolidate?  How much of a hassle would it be to bring in reusable, cloth bags?  In my experience, the Australians are very mindful.  The majority of people I saw at Wooly's brought their own reusable sacks.  The majority of people I see here use way too much plastic.
  • If you shop anywhere that's not organic or a Trader Joe's you will be shocked at the difference between America's and Australia's soda and breakfast aisle.  Yes, there are plenty of carbonated drinks in Australia.  However, you only see the basic Coca-Cola products & some off-brands.  There was no Mountain Dew or Starbucks Frappacinos.  There were no "Cube"s of Pepsi.  In the breakfast aisle there were probably 4 sugary cereals to choose from.  In the U.S. there are probably 4 healthy cereals to choose from.
  • Australians take care of their people (comparatively).  They observe "holiday" -- an extended period of time off to relax and/or travel, similar to European countries.  Also, as described in previous entries, caravan parks, hostels, road-side campsites, and random stopping areas on the highways accommodate travelers. 
Last, I urge anyone who reads this to consider their personal impact on the future.  I believe J.K. Rowling embodied humanity's future & power the best:   "If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify, not only with the powerful but, with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands & millions of people whose reality you have helped transform for the better.  We do not need magic to change the world.  We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better."

The thinker

"What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality."
-- Plutarch

My last day in Australia had arrived.  I realized that I acquired a few basic things while living overseas that were crucial to my independent life in Oz.  In the process of preparing to leave I shed: a comfortable pillow to sleep on (makes all the difference); a mobile to call for information; a library card to borrow maps of Australian hostels/caravan parks; an Aussie bank account since American credit cards/money would not suffice as deposits; a towel to dry myself off.

Four hours before my airport shuttle departed for SYD I made my last two choices -- what to eat & where to go. First, I decided to spoil myself & ate only chocolate covered strawberries for lunch in the middle of Hyde Park.  It was a sunny, clear day & all of Sydney ate their lunch outside (there hadn't been too much of this weather in the last month).  A rugby team practiced.  The bums were awake.  Competitors played life-size chess.

Next, I revisited St. Mary's since the last time I went with Mom the doors were shut for mass.  This time it was mid-week and calming inside.  With all the sunlight the stained glass windows glowed magnificently.  I sat in reflection.  I thanked the Lord for my infinite blessings, especially the opportunity to live in Australia, and other usual things.  Most pressing, I asked Him for strength and acceptance to endure returning home & starting anew financially, physically, morally and emotionally.

Last, I went to the Australian Museum.  It was worth every penny.  The only tellie a.k.a. television I can really tolerate is Australia's Deal Or No Deal & U.S.A.'s Discovery Channel, but the museum was like every good show and channel compacted into one thrilling place!  Let me say, if you don't know anything in the next paragraphs I suggest you Google it -- you won't be disappointed!

FIRST FLOOR
INDIGENOUS AUSTRALIA:  Tons of real Oceania artifacts like Vanuatuan slit drums and Aboriginal coolamons.  There were also spears, didges, pipes, carved eremonial walking sticks, elaborate headdresses & a Possum cloak.  There was so much I forget a lot, but my favorite part was all the photos of adorable, smiling Aboriginal children.  Another great showcase taught about the Aboriginal flag's makeup: yellow = sun, black = their people, red = the Earth.  Just having been to Uluru/Kata Tjuta National Park it was much easier to relate.
PHOTO COMPETITION:  All blue-ribbon worthy in my opinion!  I swear every photo was more intriguing than the last:  an odd-looking spider; blood suspended; an explosion that created the color spectrum; the negative emu image from Yulara's sky show (see "The Stars Are Projectors"), however, only one time a year it rises directly above famous emu rock art -- and the one time coincides with the only time emus give birth.  Hey!  I saw that image in person two days ago! I was two exhibits into the museum & already having a ball!

SKELETONS:  Exactly like its title, but bones of very unusual or rare animals, the exhibit included flightless birds like cassowaries & kiwis.  It was amazing to study the shell of a giraffe or massive boa constrictor.  Also, there were skeletons of both monotremes.  I learned that only males have heel spurs and their legs are positioned like reptiles'.  There were even hands-on tools for kids -- which you know I explored!  I examined a whale's baleen plate and cuttle fish's only bone.

SECOND FLOOR:
CRYSTAL GALLERY: A little redundant when coupled with the next exhibit (see below).

GEOLOGY OF AUSTRALIA:  Native & foreign rocks/minerals in all types of cuts and colors. There was the beautiful Tiger Iron, vivid Azurite, and Malachite with its jade color.  I could not believe some of the objects were not damaged as they were removed from the Earth, which naturally made these funky shapes!
THIRD FLOOR
DINOSAURS:  As a four year old in preschool, I remember being the only girl -- or child for that matter -- to know more than 10 dinosaur species.  I was ecstatic when I learned half of the top floor of the Australian Museum was dedicated to these extinct animals.  There were extremely large casts of dinosaurs & a humongous impression of a reptilian footprint in Queensland.  Plus, there was a dino named after Australia's premiere airline: the Qantassaurus.

I pushed onward.  The museum one-upped the dinosaurs by showcasing other extinct, archaic animals such as Diprotodon -- the world's largest marsupial.  Google these!  Also displayed was a current wombat's skull size compared to an ancient wombat's skull size.  The difference was shocking!  You mean my third favorite animal, native only to Australia, was not always soft and lovable?  Nope.  In fact, based on the prehistoric skull -- with its sharp teeth -- scientists assume prehistoric wombats used to eat meat =(  Equally freaky, there was a withering skull of a deadly Terror Bird.
SURVIVING AUSTRALIA:  All about the country's native and isolated animal life.  The exhibit highlighted deadly spiders, more of the monotremes, and various biomes around Oz.  Even though I was 25, there was a fun interactive water table that changed whenever a finger touched its flat surface.  I learned about dangerous sea creatures & finally saw a sample of deadly Irukandji.  How would you ever see these tiny, inxorable creatures coming for you?  Sadly, there was little about the Box Jellyfish.  Also, I learned about the top 25 most venemous snakes, of which 20 lived in Australia!
BIRDS & INSECTS:  With an assortment of stuffed birds I was able to identify many of the birds I had seen while walking Forest, at the beach, or at Steve Irwin's Australia Zoo.  With the insects, there were absolutely lovely collections of butterflies.

CLIMATE CHANGE:  Truthfully, the most influential exhibit within the museum walls.  It was devastating and foreboding.

Let me touch on something I have not emphasized in my blog until now.  Eungella National Park, Harbour Beach, Australia Zoo, Sydney Aquarium, Sydney IMAX and Uluru/Kata Tjuta National Park, in addition to every Lonely Planet book, referenced the impermanent nature and wildlife of Australia.  I could not walk through an oceanrium in Sydney without reading about the illegal marine animal trade -- the third largest illegal trade in the world.  I could not watch the evening news without the mention of the disintegration of the picturesque Kimberley region.  I could not read about an animal at Australia Zoo without also reading how their habitat was being destroyed by deforestation, urban spread, and human influence.  I could not find all the creatures in the Pacific at Harbour Beach without seeing at least 7 tankers from China parked in the middle of the ocean awaiting crude oil.  I could not watch Aussie tellie without seeing a commercial urging citizens to help save The Reef.

There were two decade-by-decade chronologies of our world:  one marked Earth & humankind's progress if we stayed on our current path.  The other marked how we could be coexisting for the next 60 years.  Agent Smith's epiphany kept replaying in my mind (from The Matrix), "I'd like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species, and I realized that humans are not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment, but you humans do not. Instead you multiply, and multiply, until every resource is consumed. The only way for you to survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern: a virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer on this planet, you are a plague..."

Each decade's outlook became more and more bleak.  Soon, there will be no more Great Barrier Reef -- the only living organism able to be seen from outer space.  Soon, acid rain and smog will deteriorate much of Italy's famed sculptures, churches, and fountains.  Due to global warming, when the sea level rises just 8 meters from further floe/ice melts, Greenland will be completely under water.  The landmarks, countries and wildlife I have seen in my lifetime and want to show my children will be obliterated too soon.  The most depressing thought?  We have the power to change this!


Yes, the museum was beyond thrilling -- so wonderous that I was almost left behind by my airport shuttle because I was 15 minutes late.  It was mind-boggling to read and semi-experience past life and culture.  Yet I fear everything I have seen in Australia will be in the Australian Museum before my kids are grown.

10 April 2010

Connections [part II]


Still on an emotional high, I embarked on my second errand.  I arrived at Thrifty & started unloading all my gear.  The clerk asked if I was headed to the airport.  "Yes ma'am" I answered.  She offered to waive the Airport Drop Fee and let me just return the car there.  She saved me a $35 taxi ride from Alice Springs' CBD to the airport.  10 minutes after I gave away free produce, now I was receiving a free ride.

On the plane I sat next to an Asian mother & daughter.  The mom, in broken English, inquired about my visit & why I was headed to Sydney.  I obliged & asked her the usual questions too.  Though we had a bit of a language barrier & she often had to ask her daughter to step in, she was sweet.  Towards the end of the flight the mom gave me two origami cranes that were the size of a quarter -- one from her, one from her daughter.  Japanese cranes are holy/mystical creatues that symbolize peace and hope.  They fit the overall rewarding mood of the day.
My last night in Sydney.  My last night officially living in Australia.  I decided to treat myself to sushi again, since I knew it would be fresh & that I would not eat it in Ohio.  I would also be eating airport & pre-packaged food for the next 36 hours of flying. 

I used to think it was below me & odd of people to go to a movie or out to eat alone.  However, when you travel alone & embrace your solitude the outcomes are transformative.  There becomes a myriad of possibilities from the city, earth, and humankind.  You see, I was not solo.  The sushi chef chatted with me & even gave me some unknown sushi to try.  A gay couple sat next to me at the bar and commented on my boldness & other delicious Sydney restuarants. In the middle of a city of 4.5 million people, I was convinced I was not alone or lonely.  So why not share my happiness?  Like psychologist Leo Buscaglia said "Since love is not a thing, it is not lost when given.  You can offer your love completely to hundreds of people and still retain the same love you had originally.  It is like knowledge.  The wise man can teach all he knows and when he's through, he'll still know all that he has taught."  As I walked back to the hotel, I rummaged for all my loose coins (in Oz, $1 and $2 are coins too).  There was a bum with a small, practically empty cup sitting on the sidewalk in front of him.  Instead of impersonally placing the money in the plastic cup, I stopped and held out my hand to the homeless man.  I apologized because it wasn't much.  He looked profoundly happy & made a run-on sentence out of the same repeated phrase "thank you thank you thank you".

09 April 2010

Connections [part I]

"What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal."
-- Albert Pike
I awoke before dawn to two degrees Celsius.  My teeth chattered as I used the outhouse and freezing water.  Along the Stuart Highway, en route to Alice Springs, I saw two large buzzard-like birds feasting on a kanagaroo on the side of the road.  Except... they were much larger than buzzards.  They were larger than my dog back in the U.S.A.!   Also, I thought I saw a dingo but it was a mostly black four-legged animal and I wasn't sure if dingos were that dark, but who knows in Australia?!

Back in not-so-modern civilization, I had two orders of business before I revisited Sydney:  return my unused groceries to Wooly's a.k.a. Woolworth's and return the hire car.  I went to the grocery store at the main hub in Alice Springs and the clerk refunded me for everything but 6 potatoes and 2 ears of corn.  "Why?" I asked.  "Because we don't have a scale at this cash register" was the response I received.  The impatient, pre-Australia me wondered "Why can't you just refund this at any other register then?"  However, the content, peri-Australia me understood & let it go.

I turned around and saw a skinny, somewhat forlorn aboroginal man sitting on a mall bench.  Reflexively I approached and sat next to him.  I explained that I could not take food on the airplane but that the vegetables were only a few days old.  I asked if he would eat them.  He did not look my way and felt distant.  I was jolted back to reality.  Did he not know English?  Was he deaf?  Worse, was it against his tribe's religion to talk to a foreigner? Had I insulted his position and pride by being a woman offering food to him? Suddenly I felt extremely sheepish. I quickly reiterated my point, handed the bag to him, smiled unsteadily, and left. 

I stopped at the food court to eat a crepe & replayed my foolishness in my head.  I acted ignorantly and impulsively, though at the time it seemed sincere to give away the produce.  10 minutes later I randomly looked up from my breakfast and saw the same guy leaving the plaza.  He saw me, gave me a wide, heartfelt smile and waved goodbye.  I grinned & waved too.

Uluru was a personal, defining moment for many reasons.  This moment was equally defining but for another reason: it transcended time/gender/race/social status/origin/everything.  The aboriginal man's reaction made my entire Australian trip worth it in a connective way that no monolith ever could.  I lived the power of attitude and diving into the unknown without harboring preconceived notions.  I learned that sincere gestures are usually met without hesitiation or prejudice.  For me, the aboriginal man affirmed smiles and hand waves are the universal language.

The Stars Are Projectors

"From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before
To mingle with the Universe and feel
What I can ne'er express, yet cannot all conceal."

-- Lord Byron

The evening was clear with a crisp breeze.  About 25 people piled into an old school bus which dropped us off in the desert just far enough away from the lights of Yulara's hotels.  Yulara was a half hour behind AEST (A for Australian) so our sky guide started pointing out constellations at 8:30pm. 

First, and probably the most stunning to me, the guide highlighted with his powerful laser the only two stars visible from the Big Dipper constellation.  It blew my mind that I was looking at the same stars that I had often stared at while home in Canton;  the same stars that my friends & family back home could see.  They weren't in any particular formation though & I wondered if I was looking at the Big Dipper upside-down (sort of how people wonder if the water flushes the opposite way in the Southern Hemisphere)?  The guide then highlighted various zodiac signs.  By covering the moon I could find Libra (my sign) which actually resembled scales unlike the confusing Sagittarius constellation.

Then the group was shown Australia's famed Southern Cross -- the equivalent to the northern hemisphere's North Star -- which directed ancient travelers.  Stargazers beware, there was a false Southern Cross too!  So how do you know the true Crux?  I was informed one must find the pointer stars:  Alpha Centauri & Beta Centauri, both of which are very bright & easy to spot  (Alpha Centauri being the third brightest star in both hemispheres).  What I thought was Venus, hanging low in the sky, was actually Jupiter!  Our sky guide introduced the powerful telescopes & positioned one on Jupiter and one on the "Jewel Box" left of Alpha Centauri.  We were supposed to rotate between the two telescopes, but I was so captivated I stealthly took two looks at each image.  Through the telescopes I saw three smaller white dots which were Jupiter's main moons.  The area of the Jewel Box had red, white and blue stars.  The guide proceeded to zoom in on Alpha Centauri which -- upon closer inspection through the lens -- was actually a double star (two bright stars close together appearing as one).  Unbeknownst to me a lot of stars in our galaxy appear that way.   The telescopes were refocused onto Vega and the moon.  The moon being closer than all the previous stars, I felt like I could see every imperfection & groove on its surface.  Ha!  The moon up close & personal, no longer a generic, bright circle in the night sky.  Most impressive was a cluster of stars that were so far away they looked like grains of rice scattered all over the lens.  Each small strand was made up of even more clusters of stars!


One more too-amazing-to-be-coincedence tidbit...

Although the group had been studying the sky all night, the guide directed our attention to the black, starless patch of universe just right & above The [true] Southern Cross.  When he mentioned it, we immediately noticed the area was not like others in the sky.  It's like staring at a picture where all you can see is the foreground image until someone identifies the negative image & then you see both clearly.  Anyway, the negative space -- literally ;) -- formed an emu!  How ironic and patriotic!
Time was up.  Most of the group shuffled toward the same school bus, but I had to stay and linger a minute more.  Soon I would be inside a vechicle headed for Yulara.  I would get out & walk back to my hire car in the campsite.  I would drive 1.5 hours to Curtin Springs & still be in the car when I slept.  I had officially reached the end of my wonderous excursion.  No more activities.  No more time to explore.  The group ambled closer to the bus and asked the guide some questions.  As for me, I stared at the sky & tried to remember all I learned in the last few hours.  Just left of the Southern Cross I thought I saw a plane.  Actually, a shooting star blazed across the motionless sky, halving it before my eyes. I ended up seeing two more shooting stars but they were not as lengthy.   Rivaled only by facing the ocean, looking at the night sky is incredibly overwhelming, humbing and lonely.  Time to hit the road.

When I hired the car in Alice Spring & I signed a waiver claiming I would "not drive the car after dusk until dawn".  I laughed it off.  In fact, I had yet to see a single wallaby or kangaroo in the red centre. About 15 minutes on the deserted highway and I saw a posse of kangaroos hanging out on the side of the road.  30 minutes into the drive I violently swerved to avoid hitting a dozen kangaroos relaxing on my side of the road -- one even continued to lay on the pavement as I sped by.  Some kilometers further a mommy & joey were on a midnight journey.  I said "awww" aloud in the car and secretly prayed he would not cross my path.  Neither of them did.  I wondered if God was paying me back for laughing at the waiver?  I had underestimated nature & now He was going to prove His point.  Not more than 5 minutes later I laid on the horn to alert 5 more kangaroos -- one of which hopped alongside my car for about two kilometers, then darted into the brush.  This was getting ridiculous and dangerous!  I had dodged close to 50 kangaroos by now and, just as I considered pulling off the highway to avoid an accident, I saw the lone petrol a.k.a. gas station that was Curtin Springs.  The Lord had one last trial for me before I could rest: I had to miss three cows blocking the entrance.  I was so relieved to be at my resting point in one piece. In all honesty, the Lonely Planet: Australia I had been using as my tour guide must have chosen Curtin Springs to don the cover because the look was identical!
Tired and on edge from the 85 kilometer obstacle course, I was told it would be $5 AUD to stay & for the showers.  Curious, I inquired: what if I did not want to shower?  Camping and restroom facilities -- as usual in Australia -- were free.



(**None of these images are mine this time.  Borrowed from Google, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet and other sources**)