by Fakrul Alam
My attention was attracted by it almost as soon as I stepped out of Sydney airport and pretty soon I was doing it too—the Australian salute! The gesture consists of the fingers of your hand raised half voluntarily as if to swat away something occupying facial space and upsetting one’s mental equilibrium, but in the end the movement is obviously nothing more threatening than a half-hearted attempt to brush away the pesky, ubiquitous Australian fly. Indeed, I now realize I had seen it often in cricket broadcasts: Big Tony Greig, it is obvious, was doing it in the sidelines, while commentating, as was modestly built Rickie Ponting while taking guard, or brawny Bret Lee when darting in to bowl his lightning-quick balls. And my wife and I were going to do it again and again the three weeks we spent in Down Under Land whether in and around the cities of Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, or Brisbane, where we were to spend 21 pleasure-filled “high” Australian summer (late December to early January ) days!
The Australian salute! I was to see it in beaches, on mountains, outside houses as well as shopping malls, everywhere! It is almost an instinctive gesture, but also a conscious one, telling you that no Australian will attempt to hurt even so horrid, persistent, and irritating a thing such as the common fly. As a young boy growing up not so far away from the drains of old Dhaka, I had been trained to repel it by violent means, as an undergraduate at the University of Dhaka I had pondered the profound realization of the cruelty of nature reflected in Shakespeare’s unforgettable lines (“As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods, they kill us for their sport “), but here in Australia I was to find out that the aggressive fly always has its way; Australians will not hurt it or “apply desperate physic” as some other Shakespearean somebody had said somewhere. And that is why in Australia I saw wild birds stroll listlessly or indifferently by or swans swim languidly or daintily past Man, not bothered and secure in the knowledge that He had never used a boomerang or a gun to destroy him for quite some time now.
From the air, as our plane descended on its flight path to Australia’s third largest and economically vibrant city, I could see clearly that at least aerially the most attractive thing about it was the meandering Brisbane River, around whose banks it had obviously grown, and which wound its way at a leisurely pace into Brisbane Bay.
First impressions are often not wrong. The best thing about Brisbane, it seems to me, is its river and the City Cat service from which one can view it perfectly, the service being part of TRANSLink, the efficient, sensible, user-friendly public transport system of the city. City Cat, in fact, is a ferry service, that will take you all the way from the University of Queensland campus at one end of the city, through downtown Brisbane and South Bank, the eye-catching cultural complex, to Bretts Wharf, where one can begin to see the ships in the Bay. It is cheap too (a daily ticket that also allows you to use the buses and city trains cost only five Australian dollars and let’s note in passing that approximately 50 taka will buy you the country’s dollar). One memorable evening we took the one hour ride from one end, the University of Queensland landing station, to another, where the harbor is on view. When we started the sun was beginning to set splendidly and by the time we had reached the harbor it had disappeared smoothly; as we went back, downtown skyscraper lights glowed and wowed the eyes.
One function of travel, at least for a Bangladeshi, is to remind him how drab and dismal things have been made to be at home. Every time I took the City Cat thus, I thought bitterly of our Government and City fathers, for not too long ago, BTV featured with great fanfare the opening of a city ferry service from Ashulia to Sadarghat, which was eventually to encircle Dhaka city and provide commuters comfort and an easy way of crisscrossing the city. Alas, the promised service never outlived inaugural day and the ferry disappeared as no doubt did the lacs of taka sanctioned for the scheme. Civic responsibility over the decades has made Brisbane the very livable city it appears to be; uncivil perspectives, the politician’s hypocrisy, and irresponsible governance has made Dhaka the dysfunctional city it now is, and the more is the pity!
We drove into Canberra on a hot, still, sky-blue day. The streets were absolutely empty because these were the New Year holidays, and since we were lost we desperately needed to stop and take directions from somebody to reach our destination. That, in the end, involved driving for miles, for in this purpose-built federal capital of sparsely populated Australia, on such days you will see almost as many people on the streets as you will wild kangaroos and birds!
Canberra, of course, is the capital city of Australia, built in a valley, and surrounded by modest-sized mountains. As befitting the capital of a proud and prosperous country, it has an impressively designed and relatively newly built Parliament, a must-see old Parliamentary building now converted into a museum and a portrait gallery, and the delightful Australian National Museum.
The Parliament complex is made distinctive by its exquisite granite Aboriginal mosaic and ceremonial pool, the spacious marble Great Verandah that functions as the main public entrance, the eucalyptus tree-like pillars of the foyer, the delicately crafted panels, the ceremonial Great Hall which our guide told us can be rented out by private groups (imagine Kahn’s centerpiece in Sher-E-Bangla Nagar being rented out!), the elaborately woven tapestry imitating an eucalyptus forest dominating it, and the two Chambers where Westminster-style debates take place (unlike the farce carried out year after year in the place that we have learned to ignore!). The old Parliamentary Building preserves Australia’s political history in loving detail (no distortion, occlusion, and repression here!). The library of the Old Parliament has been converted into the National Portrait Gallery, modeled after the one in London, but more eclectic in its collections. But the best thing I saw in Canberra was the National Museum, especially the part of it displaying in great and fascinating detail the rich and fascinating culture of Australia’s first people, the Aboriginals. I consider myself especially fortunate in visiting it at a time when it had on show some brilliant and unique works by contemporary Australian aboriginal artists, eloquent testaments of the colorful, rhythmic and vibrant ways in which they viewed their reality.
We first heard it as we walked on the sidewalks close to the Sydney Harbour on the second day of our trip: two big, sprawling-bellied aboriginal artists playing this unusually long instrument sounding like no other musical instrument that you have heard: insistent, solemn, loud, mesmerizing, alive ! It is as if the street musicians were proclaiming through their fascinating instrument that the first people of the country were not to be denied and must be heard.
I was able to examine and see elaborate collections of didgeridoos later not only in the Australian National Museum and the Queensland National Museum but also in a shop selling Australian gift items in downtown Brisbane. There are many such shops in the cities we visited and I found them to be just right for gift shopping: containing all sorts of likeable items, including some fairly inexpensive one, coasters done in aboriginal art motifs, boomerangs, T-shirts, etc. What would budget-conscious tourists like us do without such shops!
The last stop in the ride we took on Puffin’ Billy, the name of the nineteenth-century steam train that huffs and puffs its way in what I think is the suburb of Belgrave just outside Melbourne, emitting coal dust in the face of the excited tourists who are now its only passengers, moving through stations that have been rebuilt to look like the ones of yore, past hand-waving car-drivers, at least one of whom we kept meeting because he was bent on delighting his grandchildren who were on the train with us. With us on board in our car was the excited attendant: like everyone else running Puffin’ Billy, he was a volunteer and in it because of the thrill of preserving a Melbourne tradition.
As for the lake itself, it was small but just as its name announced: emerald green and beautiful. There were innumerable grey swans on it, and for a moment I fancied I was on Swan Lake, and the swans were floating gracefully into the distance to the invisible but tranquil tune of a Tchaikovsky!
As I traveled across Australia, it became obvious to me that it was not cricket that obsessed this sport-loving nation as one would have thought, especially if one is from a cricket-obsessed country oneself, but footie (Australian football, also called footy). It is not like soccer or the football that we love, nor like rugby or American football, though it seems like a cross between these last two games.
I kept glimpsing the game in my travels: in the field next to the house where I stayed in Brisbane, on the tube, on billboards and in newspaper sports sections, it fascinated me: it’s more free-flowing and less intimidating than American football (none of those man-mountains or tank-like gear on view!), less public-schoolish but more combative than rugby. The games nation play reveal a lot about a nation’s psyche; Australian football confirms to me that the nation’s mindset can be located between England and Wales (where rugby originated) and the USA (American football also uses a similar-looking ball and field): Australians have managed to carve out their own unique space between their pommie ancestors and their domineering cousins in North America.
There were three public spaces in American that I had dreamed about going to before I entered the country: the Sydney Opera House, the Melbourne Cricket Stadium or MCG, and the Australian Open tennis stadium. In the end I managed only to do a guided tour of the Opera House, but I also saw a cricket match in the Gabba, or the Brisbane Cricket Stadium. And although the match I saw was not part of a test match (the only form of cricket worth watching for the purist) or a one-day one (the Aussie invention which the philistines have embraced) but the gimmicky twenty-twenty version, I was thrilled that I had got the opportunity to view the match..
The match we saw was between the Aussies and South Africa. The game was not very interesting; the Australian team was without Bret Lee, Glen McGrath, and Shane Warne and yet it managed to beat the South Africans easily. The stars of the game were Damien Martyn and Andrew Symonds, who between them manage to pommel the South African attack.
The interesting aspect of the evening for me, however, was the Gabba atmosphere. I can say, in fact, that it literally rained empty beer paper glasses and left-over beer at one point. I was also part of Mexican waves and witness to the high-spirited and nonstop sledging of the South Africans from the galleries. It was good to be part of the event where everyone was excited and yet the excitement was wonderfully contained by the elaborate security arrangements made by the stadium management and the Brisbane police. .Equally impressive is the transport arrangements made by TRANSLink so that you can go the game and return from it without any hassles or waste of time.
Mrs. Henderson Presents
For me, no holiday is complete without an evening in a movie theater. In Dhaka one almost never has the time or the inclination to see a film in a cinema hall any more, and no matter how many DVDs one can get of the classics of the cinema, few things can beat the experience of watching a film in darkness, deluged by a huge screen and inundated by lush film scores.
Soon after we landed in Australia, we found out that Tuesday was the day to go to movies; tickets in theaters all across the country are sold at half price on that day. An opportunity we weren’t going to miss—and so we ended up seeing one quite enjoyable and one absolutely delightful film.
The film that we liked quite a bit was Broken Fingers, in which Bill Murray begins where he left off in Lost in Translation by giving an understated performance in a whimsical and wry take on the mores of contemporary America. But the film that delighted us was Mrs. Henderson Presents, not only for the splendid performance by Judith Densch (to hear her enunciate her lines is to me worth the price of admission alone!) but also for the humor, the audaciousness of the plot (the story is about presenting somewhat nude revues in wartime Britain), and the glow left in the heart by a story of an indomitable aristocratic woman and her quirky relationship with the director of these revues (played with characteristic intensity by Bob Hoskins). An Oscar Wildish script by Stephen Frears, the magic of movies, the best in English acting, and glimpses of the history of the London stage—all for eight Australian dollars!
However, I was disappointed in not being able to see an Australian film in an Australian movie theater. This despite the fact that the cineplexes we went to were showing 5 or 6 films simultaneously. Australia’s allure for me grew partly out of my exposure to some brilliant Australian films of the nineteen seventies and eighties—Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, Gallipoli, for instance—but apparently they are no match commercially as far as Hollywood productions are concerned!
Australia is a land of immigrants. In Sydney, we stayed in an apartment block which seemingly housed the whole world—it was as if all races, all hues, and all nations had come together under one roof in the apartment building that we were in. Next to us were Vietnamese and Chinese shops and a little further away was a Greek neighborhood. Our hosts, drawn to halal food, took us to a Lebanese restaurant in the Lebanese part of the city, where business was brisk, the conversation loud and non-stop and the food delicious. In Melbourne, returning late from the city center one day, we found ourselves in a train where most passengers seemed to be Chinese, although we came to know that the Greeks were a major presence in the city too. Of the cities we visited, Sydney appeared to have the most immigrants while Brisbane seemed to be mostly unaffected by the tide of immigration.
Australia’s cities are where educated Bangladeshis are swarming to, taking advantage of the country’s relatively relaxed immigration laws, which allow them to settle down fairly quickly to decent jobs and even retrain themselves through generous higher education schemes funded by the government. I heard quite a few success stories but had a glimpse also of the alienation new immigrants experience and the hardships they have to endure In Melbourne, for instance, a young Bangladeshi student joined our group in the afternoon and would not part from us till late in the evening since he was dying to talk in Bangla. In Brisbane, one night I heard a Bangladeshi‘s voice fill a midnight street; he was in a phone booth at that time (apparently, the best time to talk to people in Dhaka and the cheapest too!). I found out later that he was worried because he had to pass his IELTS examination to get admitted to a university or face the long and shame-filled return home.
The earliest immigrants, as everyone knows, were the Pommies (“Prisoners of mother England”). Theirs, of course, was a life of deprivation, and endless work. Some of their stories are on view in the excellent museums we visited (Dickens’s Magwitch acquainted me early in life with the successes as well as the pent-up frustrations they had) Life for not a few of the latest immigrants can be tough too; while we were in Australia television news channels kept featuring the story of a bewildered immigrant couple from an African country who had not been able to negotiate the cultural and language barriers that overwhelm new arrivals and had therefore lost a child to some undiagnosed illness!
In a day trip from Canberra, we were fortunate to view Lake Jindabbyne, a beautiful lake created from the huge Snowy Mountain scheme designed to collect and store water from Australia’s highest mountain chain and then divert the water for hydro-electric and irrigation purposes. The lake is a popular spot for families who want to let their children play on its placid surface; all kinds of water sports were on view and anglers too. Here as elsewhere in Australia, the site managers had seen to it that the spot was full of BBQ facilities and picnic centers. In and around the lake were nature trails, jogging tracks, as well as roads that allow tourists to stop and admire the spectacular scenes created when high mountains envelop a lovely lake. Which made me think: our Kaptai Lake, is much bigger and even more beautiful than Lake Jindabyne, but how limited is our access to the areas in and around the dam and how little of the Kaptai hydro-electric scheme has been utilized to give delight to the people living near it, not to speak of the citizens of the country as a whole!
Kangaroo, Koala, Kookaburra
We had seen wild kangaroos in a Canberra park and even in residential areas of the city; close to the house we lived in Canberra we had watched the white cockatoo, the dappled magpies, and some other birds I couldn’t identify, in Philip Bay we had watched a giant pelican stare at us nonchalantly, but where could we see the platypus, the wombat, the bandicoot, the wallaby, the dingo, the copperhead snake and the many other mammals, reptiles, and birds that made this continent distinctive? An obvious answer would have been the zoos of the cities we visited but we ended up seeing most of them in an animal park called Wildlife Wonderland a couple of hours away from Melbourne. The park was well designed and you could walk past most of the animals or view them in an environment where they didn’t feel disturbed.
The kangaroos are the most endearing of these animals and the ones I saw reminded me instantly of a poem by D. H. Lawrence on a mother kangaroo that he had seen in Australia: “Her sensitive, long, pure-bred face/Her full antipodal eyes, so dark,/So big and quiet and remote, having watched so many empty dawns in silent Australia”. True to form, the koalas we came across refused to open their eyes and acknowledge our existence while the wombat would not budge from its dark world (we were to see a dead one, knocked down in a highway, a few days later!). The wallabies were cute but the dingoes appear innocuous and the bandicoot nowhere as interesting as its name. My one big disappointment was not meeting a platypus, apparently so rare nowadays that they can’t be procured by animal parks like the one we visited.
In the three weeks that we spent in Australia, we saw only parts of the East Coast while Canberra was as far inland as we went, but judging by what we encountered, here was a country full of imposing landscapes and breathtaking lookouts. In and around Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane were bays, beaches, creeks, lakes, rivers and inlets that were all eye-catching; on the way to Canberra the parched hillsides and the increasingly sparse vegetation hinted at the stark nature of the landscape in the deserts of Australia that we would not be viewing, while the mountains of the Great Dividing Range bordering New South Wales and Victoria were dark green with lofty trees that canopied nearly everything in sight. Everywhere we went there were dazzling lookouts from which one can take in not only the landscape’s immense variety and delight in nature’s bounty but also of cityscapes that you could view and then wonder at the way puny human beings staked their place in nature despite its immensity. It seems to me that exposure to the landscape and lookouts of Australia is bound to make one reflect on the audacity with which people stake themselves in the natural world!
On a splendid Melbourne day, we went to a corner of Melbourne to see Maroondah Reservoir, built to supply water to the city. Man made dams are no longer fashionable because of what they do to habitats and this must have been created sometime back, but Maroondah reservoir is certainly beautiful. The builders of the reservoir must have taken elaborate steps to prettify it for it is made distinctive by a wonderful terraced garden. Nature trails stretch out here and there and the roof of the dam has been made into a delightful walkway. All in all, it is a perfect place for the people of Melbourne to picnic, hike, and relax.
No worries, Mate!
By the second day I was in Australia, I was able to notice my Sydney host was fond of saying “Somasha nai” again and again. It took me a couple of days to realize that he had internalized the phrase that Australians use over and over, “No worries mate! And what do they use the phrase for? Here is a gloss provided by “A Dictionary of Australian Slang” that I was able to access courtesy of the Internet:
Frequently used in place of “you’re welcome” in response to “thank you,” and also used
to mean “I’m glad to do it” in response to any request for help. As well…[used] in the
place of “sure” or ýes” in response to “may I have…?”
But the real explanation for the frequency with which one hears it in traveling across America is the relaxed, genial attitude of most Australians and their determination to make life as hassle free for themselves and others as possible. My travel agent in Dhaka had told me about the unperturbed nature of Australian life in Dhaka; a frequent visitor to the country, he had noted with admiration how they preferred to work from 9 to 5 and take things easy the rest of the day and use weekends and every holiday to serf, sail, hike, swim, or simply lounge, laze, and loaf around. “No worries, mate”, then, is the inevitable outcome of living in lotus land; contrast if you will, your average Aussie of the Land of Oz with his stiff-upper lipped ancestor, the Englishman, or the too temperate, even boring demeanor of his Canadian cousin, or the brashness of his distant relative, the American!
Olympic Park, Sydney
We went to Sydney’s Olympic Park twice. The first time we went there I had forgotten to take my camera, and because the Telstra Stadium looked so brilliant at nighttime we decided to go one more time to capture the memory in our photographs. The helpful official guide book to the city that one can pick up in the airport for free says that the Park has inside it parklands, wetlands, picnic areas, trails, etc.; I saw none of that, but what I saw of the Stadium and the installations that front it were enough to make me feel that it must have been one heck of an Olympic that was celebrated here in the 2000 games. At the center of the Park one can still see interactive poles that are part of the Games memories installation, the cauldron that held the Olympic flame, a water curtain that cascades here daily, the names of medal-winners in the event, and overall, a sight not to be missed by anyone interested in sports, urban planning, and architecture.
Feb. 27, 2006
Fakrul Alam is on leave from the University of Dhaka and now teaches English at East West University, Bangladesh.