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Some Glimpses of Australia

January 19, 2016

It’s hard, as a tourist, to do anything other than consume mass-produced bite-sized chunks of a place and move on. You simply don’t have time for anything else. It’s hard to reflect on where you are when you have to book the next bus or negotiate the next map. So it was an enormous privilege to spend a chunk of time with good friends and to see aspects of Melbourne and Victoria at a leisurely pace, made even more leisurely by a well spread bout of shared vomiting. For us the time with friends was at least as important as seeing the place. But in the process we caught a few glimpses.

Glimpse 1

The harshness of Australia is relative. We survived 42 degree days. But in places like The Grampians it simply teems with wildlife. New Zealand is quiet and still in comparison. The dawn-chorus of kookaburra and cockatoo was greater than the sum of its parts and from that dawn moment we never stopped seeing strange birds, wallabees, kangaroos, emus (not to mention the large spider who woke us one morning).


grampians-960x350

 

Glimpse 2

The city of Melbourne is a glorious melting pot of multi-ethic eating possibilities, art venues, architecture and great busking. The contrast between the rural and urban worlds couldn’t be greater. The architecture felt like a grand promissory note – an altar to the power of technology and industry to conquer the wilderness. There was something hugely energetic and creative in the interpenetration of cultures. Even at 9.30pm in the evening on the beach at sunset we were surrounded by Indians, West African and Asian bathers and felt like a white minority.

Melbourne street

 

Glimpse 3

The Shrine of Remembrance is an extraordinary war memorial. It is built like an ancient Roman temple, complete with statues of the gods of war on the front facade and an ‘eternal flame’ burning. The stone altar in the darkened centre is inscribed ‘greater love has no man’ and lies beneath a ‘pyramidal’ structure ascending like a ladder to the light above. The language of ‘sacrifice’, ‘sacred’ and ‘eternal’ make it clear that this is nothing less that a religious institution. My friend was asked to remove his hat. It looks as if the city knows itself to be founded on war and on this ‘holy’ ground it worships its divine sons.

Shrine_of_Remembrance,_Melbourne,_VIC 

Glimpse 4

At Gariwerd Cultural Centre we ‘dream-walked’ our way through what may have been 40,000 years of human comings and goings. The main signs remaining were some faint red paint markings in sheltered places in the hills – it was hard to comprehend a place with that much history and so little to show. We saw a map of the 250-800 clans/nations of aboriginal peoples in Australia at the arrival of European colonization in 1788. Exact numbers are hard to substantiate. No one was that interested at the time. The local people were treated like animals and were 97% exterminated in the name of civilisation. I remember a picture of a man who lived outside of town with his dog in a shack after his mother and father had been murdered in front of him as a child. He had become a friendly curiousity. My Australian friend commented that there is a wound in the Australian psyche which shapes everything. And much of what happens now has a lot to do with that wound and its avoidance.

 

Gariwerd

 

So I left Australia wondering about the relationship between that wound and the bustling multicultural richness and creativity of the promissory note that is Melbourne. What role does the shrine play in the life of the city and how it remembers those who died (and killed) for this project? How would our city look to a curious visitor?

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