April 29, 2003
The Blue Blobs At Bondi
One minute Al and I were talking about the differences between American and Australian culture – the next, he was ripping off his sunglasses and stripping off his shirt, running as fast as his legs could carry him. I was in mid-sentence and momentarily stunned – but not offended.
Al, an all-American blond haired expatriate, is a Surf Life Saver on Bondi Beach, the most internationally famous of Sydney’s beaches. We’d been chatting about his experiences in Australia when Kate, the patrol captain, heard the call for help. The source was a rotund German tourist who’d been caught in the rip. Within seconds of his call, the guard station was abandoned as Al and another life saver ran into the water. Kate stayed on dry land but oversaw the action from the water’s edge, eyes glued to binoculars.
Despite my many weeks in Sydney, it wasn’t until Easter weekend that I made the pilgrimage to Bondi Beach, a place that conjured up images of hot Aussie men tackling the raging surf of the Pacific Ocean. The recent four-day Easter weekend was a wet one, the rain finally letting up on Monday morning. Despite the still overcast day, I decided to go to the beach.
Walking barefoot along the water I sidestepped dozens of little blue blobs – washed up jellyfish ranging in size from a silver dollar to a clenched fist. I’d remembered reading something about some of Australia’s jellyfish being poisonous, but noting the unaffected crowds playing happily in the water I assumed these were safe. Still, better safe than sorry.
I marched up to one of the life guard stands and, not one to beat around the bush, said, “Excuse me, but are these the jellyfish that can kill you?” The five life savers there tried hard to conceal their smiles and laughter. Well, all but Al – his grin was six feet long. They quickly assured me that these jellyfish, called Blue Bottles (similar to a Portuguese Man-of-War), were relatively harmless. While their sting was somewhat painful, it was not fatal – unlike that of the Box jellyfish, which makes the waters of Australia’s north and northeast coast effectively useless for swimming for several months out of every year. Doing some online research later I found out that the Box jellyfish could grow up to the size of a human head and has tentacles that are each up to three meters long. A far cry from the little blue blobs at Bondi.
Curious about the Aussie life saver story, I started chatting with Dazza, a layed back native with long brown hair who’d been a surf life saver for eighteen years. He was the first to inform me that in Australia, he was called a surf life saver, not a lifeguard as in the US. I asked him what made Bondi Beach so famous. Dazza reckoned that Bondi and its surf life savers became famous in the late 1930’s – during what is known in Australia as Black Sunday.
“First, you have to remember, back then going to the beach was a regular activity for people – there was no television or computers,” said Dazza. “Spending the day at the beach was entertainment and the beaches were always crowded.”
February 6, 1938 started out as a usual summer day, the beach crowded with nearly 35,000 people. All of a sudden, three freak waves hit the beach in quick succession, pulling over 200 panicked people out to sea. Chaos ensued.
As luck would have it, 60-80 surf life savers were on the beach at that time, many preparing to compete in a surf race for the club. According to reports from the day, the life savers were in the water within seconds, pulling out as many as three and four people at a time. After twenty minutes everyone was out of the water and the tally stood at an incredible 250 people saved – an amazing feat, especially considering the lack of modern-day life saving equipment. Only five people lost their lives that day. The hero image of the Australian life saver was born.
Back in the 1930s, surf life savers used reels and lines in addition to surfboards and surf skis, to rescue individuals that needed assistance. This is a far cry from the modern equipment, including an inflatable boat with motor, that today’s life savers have at their disposal. Though the beach at Bondi was considerably less crowded that Monday during my visit, the presence of the surf life savers was vital nonetheless. Just seconds after the German tourist cried for help, Al and the other life saver were in the water at his side, assisting him as he held onto a surfboard. Two additional life savers joined them, in the inflatable motorized boat.
What makes the commitment and bravery of Australian’s surf life savers even more amazing is that they are all volunteers – a fact that frankly shocked me. In fact, they are required to paying dues to belong to one of the hundreds of Surf Life Saving Club all along the coasts of Australia. Clubs bond together and participate in a variety of club competitions, testing their skills against others in the area. Rivalries are strong and loyalty is high. During my time with the North Bondi club the camaraderie between the life savers I spoke to was noticeable.
To be a member, one must pass the mandatory Bronze Medallion class. The class is given on a regular basis and involves learning, among other things, First Aid, how to send signals from the water, Resuscitation (CPR) and much more. Members must also be able to run 200 meters, swim 200 meters, and then run 200 meters – in only eight minutes. There are quite a few surf life savers in each club, so most only get a shift every few weeks. Since being certified and joining the North Bondi club in December, Al had only worked three or four shifts.
I asked Kate if there were a lot of women life savers on Sydney’s beaches – during my visit with the North Bondi club she had been the only female on duty. “It’s still male dominated,” she said, “though that is changing – you have to remember that women were only allowed to join 20 years ago.” Tall, with long brown hair in a braid down her back, Kate looked fit enough to bring in even the most well-fed tourist. When I asked if requirements were different for the female life savers, she shook her head and said the requirements were the same regardless of sex.
The average age of a surf life saver varies. In the North Bondi club, most of the life savers are in their late 20’s and early 30’s. But, just down the beach at the Bondi club, the average drops. Kate said some clubs are run mostly by life savers in their late teens and early 20’s. Dazza’s 18 years of service was impressive, but not unique. According to Kate, after 10 years of active duty, a life saver becomes a long service member, continuing to enjoy the benefits of membership without the required beach duties.
Before I took leave of the group, I asked them what “stupid” questions they received from visiting tourists. They were hesitant to answer, at first, though Dazza did say he was frequently asked if the kangaroos ever came on the beach. Al smiled widely and said, “Well, this one American came up and asked if the jellyfish on the beach were the kind that killed people.” Ouch – didn’t see that one coming. I laughed gamely but inside I was torn regarding another question I wanted to ask. I hesitated, unsure if my query would be added to the list of “stupid” questions.
A few years back the American sitcom “Friends” ran an episode in which Monica was stung by a jellyfish while walking on the beach with Joey and Chandler. Far from help, one of the guys recalled an article that said urine was the best way to alleviate the pain of a jellyfish sting. Since Monica was unable to alleviate the pain herself, the guys stepped up to help. Since seeing the episode I’d been a bit curious to see if urine was really an affective weapon against the pain of a jellyfish sting.
I asked Dazza, as a professional life saver, what was the best way to stop the pain caused from a sting. “Ice,” he said, “And, you gotta give it time.” I paused, waiting to see if he would offer up any other “methods.” When he didn’t, curiosity got the best of me. I relayed the “Friends” story and asked him if this was a true technique.
“Well,” he said, unable to hide his smile, “It’s not in our manual.”
April 22, 2003
Will the Real Australia Please Stand Up?
A few weeks ago I received a highly amusing forwarded email, playing up the misconceptions that tourists have about Australia. According to the email, the questions were posted on an Australian Tourism Web site. Though I cannot confirm the accuracy of this claim, nor give due credit to the author of the email, I thought it would be an amusing way to share some of the popular myths about Australian culture. The answers to the questions, by the way, are all Australian.
Australia? Is That Somewhere In Europe?
As one of the last major continents to be discovered, and one of the “younger” countries on the planet, Australians have had to contend with a general lack of knowledge about their country, their culture and their geographic location.
Q: Can you send me the Vienna Boys' Choir schedule? (USA)
A: Aus-tri-a is that quaint little country bordering Ger-man-y, which is located in Euro...oh forget it. Sure, the Vienna Boys Choir plays every Tuesday night in Kings Cross. Come naked.
Confusion with other countries and places was common. A Surf Life Saver on Bondi Beach told me that during the first modern Olympics – in Greece in 1896 – Australia’s lone athlete won one of the events. During the medal presentation ceremony, he stood proudly, unaware that the AUSTRIAN flag was being raised behind him.
Q: Can you give me some information about hippo racing in Australia? (USA)
A: A-fri-ca is the big triangle shaped continent south of Europe. Aus-tra-lia is that big island in the middle of the Pacific which does not... oh forget it. Sure, the hippo racing is every Tuesday night in Kings Cross, straight after the Vienna Boys Choir performance. Come naked.
A few years back some American newspapers ran stories exposing the fact that many US students were unable to accurately place their own country on a map of the world. The news came as a shock to many parents. However, it appears that being geographically challenged isn’t just limited to American children…
Mommy, Can I Take Home a Pet Koala Bear?
Australia boasts some pretty unique wildlife, from the well-known kangaroo and koala bear to the lesser-known duck billed platypus and wombat. But all Australian wild life is not cute and cuddly. Australia is also home to some of the most poisonous snakes found anywhere in the world. One, the Inland Taipan, is considered to be the most deadly of all snakes – one bite carries enough venom to kill 100 people.
Q: Please send a list of all doctors in Australia who can dispense rattlesnake serum. (USA)
A: Rattlesnakes live in A-meri-ca, which is where YOU come from. All Australian snakes are perfectly harmless, can be safely handled and make good pets.
Prior to our first hike in Tasmania, Disco Dave, our tour guide, asked our group to gather around him so he could talk to us about snakes. As this was my first real hike I was quite interested to learn which snakes were dangerous and which ones were harmless. “There are three types of snakes in Tasmania,” Dave said. “Brown poisonous ones, green poisonous ones and black poisonous ones. Any questions?”
Q: Will I be able to see kangaroos in the street? (USA)
A: Depends how much you've been drinking.
Despite Australia’s population growth and the subsequent depletion of many of Australia’s native animals, kangaroos are still plentiful. Unlike the cows of India, however, kangaroos are not sacred animals and do not freely roam the streets – much to most tourists disappointment. Though I did once see some kangaroos on a golf course in a small town, they are not common occurrences in any of the cities – unless you happen to be looking at a dinner menu.
How Far to The Next Watering Hole?
Q: I want to walk from Perth to Sydney - can I follow the railroad tracks? (Sweden)
A: Sure, it's only three thousand miles. Take lots of water...
Distances in Australia are huge. Most people do not realize that the island of Australia is comparable in size to the United States. Travelling from Sydney to Perth is similar in distance to travelling from New York to San Francisco. And, unlike the hospitable farmlands of the United States, crossing Australia means going through some of the most desolate, uninhabited and dry land in the entire world. Many people have died attempting to cross Australia – from original explorers on horse and camel to tourists in ill-equipped cars – all jokes aside.
Q: Does it ever get windy in Australia? I have never seen it rain on TV, so how do the plants grow? (UK)
A: We import all plants fully grown and then just sit around watching them die.
I’ve been told that about 95% of Australia’s population lives within 5-10 kilometres of the ocean. And, all seven of Australia’s major cities (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Darwin and Hobart) are located on the coast. Yet, I’ve also been told that it is the dry, barren centre of the country that truly captures the heart of Australia.
This past year was one of the worst droughts that Australia has ever seen. Water levels were incredibly low forcing water restrictions all over the country - even in some of the coastal cities (Melbourne being one of them). However, much of Australia receives plentiful rain – especially up north. The city of Darwin is much like the tropical cities of SE Asia – defined by its Wet and Dry time more than traditional seasons.
I Said, Do You Speaka My Language?
Most of Australia's native inhabitants, the Aborigines, were systematically killed off during early colonization of the country, much like the Native American tribes of the United States. Australia, like the United States, was mostly populated through immigrants. So, an Australian is just as likely to speak Greek, Italian, Mandarin, Thai or Japanese, as English.
Q: Will I be able to speek English most places I go? (USA)
A: Yes, but you'll have to learn it first.
Back when I was in Melbourne, I had the good fortune to meet up with Maureen Wheeler, the co-founder of Lonely Planet, the most successful guidebook series in the world. We were discussing how few Americans traveled, especially as compared with the people of other first world countries. And how, as a general rule, most Americans lacked in depth knowledge about foreign lands. I protested slightly, saying that while that might be true in some places, people from, say, the Bay Area were quite educated about the world and well traveled to boot. While Maureen agreed that Californians tended to be more well-traveled than much of the rest of the country, she did relate the following story to me, which made me realize how far we still had to go.
One of Maureen's first trips to the United States was in the early 80s, when she traveled to California to open the US offices of LP. At some point during her trip she found herself chatting with a local women who, upon finding out that Maureen came all the way from Australia, commented, “Wow, your English is really great – what language do they speak in Australia?”
April 15, 2003
What Goes Around Comes Around
Learning to throw a boomerang is not hard. Learning to catch a boomerang is another story. Welcome to Boomerang School.
I found “The Boomerang School” when I first came to Sydney – back in November of last year. I went right inside – after all, what is more typically Australian than a boomerang? The owner, Duncan MacClennan, let me know about the free boomerang school he ran every Sunday morning. Unfortunately, I was moving to Melbourne the next day, but the idea of learning to throw a boomerang stayed with me and I vowed to come back.
Since returning to Sydney from Tasmania I’ve made Boomerang School my new Sunday morning ritual. Though I am sure my grandmother would be more pleased with regular church attendance, there is something exotic and exciting about learning how to throw a boomerang while in Australia. The “school” is located in a park in Rushcutter’s Bay, a beautiful harbour suburb of Sydney – next to the yacht club with views of North Sydney and the Harbour Bridge. Somehow a stuffy church just can’t compete.
Sharp as a Tack…
Our teacher, Duncan MacClennan, has run the Boomerang School for 40 years – first from a kiosk in the park and then moving to his own shop in Sydney’s Kings Cross neighborhood. Considered by many to be an “expert” in the field, he was taught by an older aboriginal man many years ago. Duncan is 81 years old and partially disabled, yet watching him throw a boomerang is like watching someone take a sip out of the fountain of youth. He throws with a dexterity and power of someone half his age.
At one point during my first lesson Duncan commented that it might be time for him to think about retiring. I asked him who he was training to be his replacement – to pass on the knowledge and the tradition. “Awhh, Australians just aren’t interested in learning to throw a boomerang,” he said. I found this to be incredibly sad. Asking around it became apparent that all the other participants were young backpackers or out-of-country visitors – most finding out about the school through a guidebook entry or when purchasing a boomerang in Duncan’s shop.
Duncan is sharp as a tack and well read – he works seven days a week in his little shop which consists of a desk, a long display case and row after row of boomerangs hung on the walls. Every time I come in he is reading the newspaper, usually with a magnifying glass, and he is as up on current events as anyone I have ever known. During one visit I made the mistake of expressing my distaste with the current US foreign policy. For the next 20 minutes I was lectured like a naughty child about the importance of supporting my country and the history of beneficial US involvement around the world. Apparently Duncan was a veteran of WWII and had fought side by side with US soldiers – they were “mates” and that was all there was to say about it.
Success – well, almost…
I was quite pleased with myself last Sunday after a particularly good throw. I watched the boomerang sail smoothly through the air and arch gracefully to the left. I was so happy I did it right that at first I didn’t realize it was coming back – directly at me! I started to prepare myself to catch the boomerang (the proper way is to sandwich it between your two hands) when all of a sudden – thwack! – the sound of wood hitting skin – and bone. Unfortunately, my throw had not been as perfect as I thought and the boomerang came in low – knee level to be exact. If I ever had any doubt that a well-thrown boomerang could kill an animal, it vanished at the moment the wood struck my knee – drawing blood.
Of course I tried to be macho about the whole thing – laughing it off and calling it my first “battle scar” but the truth was it took me a few minutes of limping around and massaging my knee to confirm that the damage was not permanent. Another lesson of the boomerang – it is not a toy and should be used with caution. Before throwing Duncan always looked around the park to make sure no one was in the potential flight path – which is a large area considering we were all beginners. As the park is popular with non-boomerang throwers, there were frequent delays while we waited for people to move out of the way – a tricky situation as many were unaware of the danger and watching for us to throw again!
During one pause in the action, a white haired man in a silk bathrobe waved from the third floor of the posh apartment complex across the street. “Hello Duncan,” he said. “Hello there!” said Duncan waving back. He turned to me and said, “He’s Dutch but has lived in Australia for years.” Later he confided to me in a quieter voice – “Did I tell you he was accidentally hit by one of the students a few years ago? He had to go to hospital and it required stitches. I was really worried – he’s in his 70’s. Anyway, I went over to check on him the next day. The first thing he said to me was this: I’m not going to sue you – don’t worry.” He laughed. “We’ve been friends ever since.”
Ancient Egyptian Boomerangs
There are many different types of boomerangs – ranging from the small, well-known banana-shaped returning boomerangs to the larger hook-shaped hunting boomerangs. Boomerangs are hand-specific too – a lefty can’t accurately throw a right-handed boomerang any more than a right-hander can throw a left-handed boomerang.
When most people think of boomerangs they usually picture those created and used for thousands of years by Australia’s native inhabitants, the Aborigines. However, boomerangs have been found in many parts of the world from Eastern Europe to Northern Africa. According to Duncan, boomerangs were even found in the ancient Egyptian tomb of King Tut!
Non-returning boomerangs were first used as hunting instruments. The speed and power a boomerang picks up when thrown properly makes it a formidable weapon. According to Duncan, the small banana-shaped boomerangs were used primarily for hunting ducks – and no, when they hit something, they do not come back.
“Aboriginals didn’t set out to create a returning boomerang – that’s just ridiculous,” Duncan said. “A boomerang was a weapon – you threw it to kill dinner for your family. Creating a returning boomerang was just an accident.” Most anthropologists agree – believing a returning boomerang was simply a matter of trial and error.
Before throwing a boomerang you must first be facing the right direction – which depends completely on the direction of the wind. Start by bending down and plucking some grass. Throw it in the air to determine the direction of the wind. Then face in the same direction as the wind is blowing and turn 45 degrees to your left. Throw directly ahead of you.
To throw a boomerang you first grasp it in your hand, painted or curved side toward you (flat side away from you) and “elbow” pointing back (the elbow is the bent part of the boomerang). Tilt it 10 degrees to the right. Then, take it directly over your shoulder like you would when serving a tennis racket – do NOT throw it like a baseball. Take a step and bring your arm forward, letting go of the boomerang before you completely straighten your arm – while your elbow is still bent at a 90 degree angle. Keep your eye on it as it curves back around and when attempting to catch it clap it between your two hands. Using your knee to stop the motion is not recommended.
The best words of advice on catching a boomerang came from Duncan a few minutes after my unfortunate knee encounter. “If it starts coming at you and you aren’t confident you can catch it, move out of the way,” he said, “That’s your self-preservation instinct kicking in - listen to it!” Now he tells me.
For those of you really interested, a great resource for throwing a boomerang can be found online at www.howstuffworks.com. You’ll find more detailed information on why it come back, too. (Thanks Ed!)
April 08, 2003
The Soundtrack To My Life
Every time I travel, I chose a theme song for my trip. It helps me to set the tone for the journey and usually invokes a variety of emotions in me when I hear it – inspiration, melancholy, and wistfulness to name a few. The first time I travelled on my own I chose “Good Riddance” by Green Day. To this day that song reminds me of my first trip to South America and hearing it floods my mind with fond memories.
For this particular trip I went a step further than just choosing a song. In anticipation of travelling for such a long time, and as a result of the influence of my very musical household in San Francisco, I decided to put together a collection of CDs to take with me. I wanted music that would inspire me when I needed inspiration, would pick me up when I was lonely, and would, when needed, remind me why I was travelling in the first place.
Last night after work, feeling a little low and missing my friends, I went home and put on one of the CDs – entitled “Wanderlust.” The first song on it was “Wide Open Spaces” - my chosen theme song for this particular travelling adventure.
The Power of Music
It took me longer than most to realize the power of music. Though I was properly introduced at a young age – my first 45 was Elvis Presley – “Hound Dog” on side one and “All Shook Up” on side two – it wasn’t until I was older that the magic of music really became apparent. That said, it still amazes me how listening to songs from my past throws me back in time – reminding me of school dances and first kisses, of boyfriends and best friends, and of good times and bad times.
In junior high I went through a phase where I became obsessed with knowing all the words to popular songs. Every night I’d listen to “Jam it or Slam it,” a radio program that played a new song and then asked listeners to call in if they thought it would become a hit. Looking back, I now realize my obsession was a desperate attempt to fit in after moving to a new school. Somehow I was sure that I would be cool if only I knew all the “in” songs. Thankfully my musical taste has evolved from this time period of radio popularity but there is still a little part of me that feels out of the loop when everyone but me knows all the words to a particular song.
My musical tastes have almost always been influenced by others. I can’t listen to the Grateful Dead without thinking about my post-high school pre-college summer romance with a college-aged “dead head” that was pre-med (a combination that only now seems odd) who listened to them constantly. University opened the door to an eclectic mix of music – a college boyfriend made me a mixed tape that I lament losing to this day. It included classics by Louis Armstrong and Harry Belafonte and introduced me to musicians like Jackson Browne and Harry Chapin. It also taught me that there was amazing music to be found in all genres
While music certainly helped me celebrate the good times, it was even more necessary to make it through the bad times. John Denver will always remind me of my mom, even though I don’t know for certain if she was a big fan of his music. I just remember one night during the summer that she died staying up late and watching his “Wildlife” concert on PBS. My mom, who was sick at the time, was asleep in the same room and I remember lying on the floor, close to the television with the sound really low, watching and crying softly so I wouldn’t wake her.
A Vital Part of Life
Music heard while travelling almost always cements itself into my memory. The Gin Blossom’s “Hey Jealousy” and Counting Crow’s “Mr. Jones” will always remind me of my study abroad trip in Salamanca, Spain. Shaggy’s “Angel” brings back dancing in the nightclubs of Cuzco in Peru. Two of my friends, after different trips to Europe last year, came back with the hit song that put Kyle Minogue back on the US charts – I’m sure neither of them can listen to the song without being back in France or Germany, at least for a second.
But it was living in San Francisco that made music a vital part of my life. After my failed attempt to “become cool” through musical knowledge in junior high, I decided to let friends do all the work of introducing me to their favourites. Trena's introductions brought me Dar Williams, Lyle Lovett and Mary Chapin Carpenter. My first job in San Francisco, as a publicist for musical theatre, educated me on the world of musicals – from “Rent” to “Evita” to “Phantom of the Opera.” Roommates Kelly, Michelle and Kate educated me on everyone from John Mayer to India Arie to Nelly to Eminem. And, my education continues every day.
Last night, while listening to “Wanderlust” and a couple of other CD’s I had made for my journey, I came across a song that will forever remind me of two people who were a big part of my music education – my old roommates Kelly and Michelle. Throughout the evening my selections had me reminiscing about my life in San Francisco – my old apartment, my friends, and the city. One song – the last song on one of the CDs, brought back a particularly vivid memory. I’m sure that I will never forget the night in San Francisco – one of my last nights before I left for Australia – when a vinyl clad prostitute, a big-haired beauty queen and a blond dominatrix drove wildly through the streets of San Francisco singing a certain song at the top of their lungs. Thanks for that memory girls – I’ll never forget it.
April 01, 2003
Too Much of a Good Thing
The lunatic asylum in the ruins of the Port Arthur penal colony in southern Tasmania is located side by side with the solitary confinement prison. This layout is not random but a planned move, as it was found that too much time in solitary lead to insanity among the inmate population.
I was to discover this first hand during my “alone time” in Tasmania.
Renting a car in Tasmania had seemed like a good idea. With only six days left on the island it offered me the most flexibility to do and see what I wanted, when I wanted, and how I wanted. And, in truth, the thought of driving alone didn’t bother me – except for my previously mentioned lack of flat tire changing ability. When my “ride share” advertisement failed to draw any takers, I was not fazed and simply took off on my merry way.
A day or so later, while cruising past the green paddocks (fields) sprinkled with sheep and dotted with eucalyptus trees, I was shocked to realize that I had forgotten some of the words to “The Star Spangled Banner,” the American national anthem. This might seem like an odd realization to have in the middle of the Tasmanian country side, but in truth the fact that I was at the time actually singing the national anthem is far stranger. Let me step back a moment.
My rental car, Bruiser, was an older model vehicle with numerous “battle” scars. It became apparent the first day that the radio did not work. This was a disappointment, as I particularly like singing along with the radio when driving alone. It is like being a “shower-only” singer except with a far less likely chance of discovery as you are a constantly moving target in your own getaway car. Though the car had a tape deck, I did not have any tapes with me and decided to move ahead in silence.
Considering my mobile environment and lack of proper music, I was not too concerned to hear myself begin to sing random bits of songs to break the monotony of the trip. Though Tasmania is a small state, with relatively limited distances between towns, the roads can be windy and it takes a while to get from place to place. This paired with the Tasmanians apparent tendency to drive below the posted speed limit makes for slow going on most of the state’s roads. My experience was no different.
My a cappella repertoire was incredibly limited and would have been painful to all ears but my own. It included a bit of the newest Counting Crows song (something about “paint paradise and put up a parking light”) which had become stuck in my head before I left on my driving adventure, some select John Denver tunes (no comments please), and some random songs from my childhood. My most frequently sung piece was undoubtedly Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” which I realized was one of the only popular songs I knew from start to finish.
I also noticed that I had begun talking to myself. At first it was little things – chiding myself for taking a turn too fast or congratulating myself for avoiding yet another wombat road kill. Soon I was encouraging Bruiser to speed up and overtake slower vehicles. However, it was when I began asking and answering my own questions about directions that I began to get a little worried.
It was the national anthem, however, that really made me re-think just how much alone time was healthy for the average person. I think I was in somewhere in central Tasmania when, running out of new material, I began to sing the anthem. My shock at realizing I didn’t know all the words was quickly surpassed by my shock that I had been singing the national anthem at all.
It was about this time that I realized I needed to be with people. No matter how much I valued alone time, this was going a bit too far. So, I turned Bruiser south and drove all the way to Hobart, Tasmania’s capital city. It was the next day that I toured Port Arthur, the last penal colony in the state of Tasmania as well as the country of Australia.
My guide at Port Arthur, a white bearded gentleman whose voice sounded exactly like actor Sean Connery’s, explained that Port Arthur, though populated primarily by convicts, was not a prison but rather a working penal community. Therefore, when the convicts misbehaved, and the whip was no longer an effective punishment, it was necessary to put them somewhere where they could be controlled. The solitary confinement prison was such a place.
Convicts were placed in tiny cells, no wider than a queen-sized bed and only slightly longer with a small window high on one wall and a cot on one side. They were allowed no human contact other than that of the guards, only allowed out one hour per day for exercise and strictly forbidden to make noise of any kind – talking, whispering, singing – even clearing their throat was enough to send them to a place even worse than where they were. A place where their current situation would seem like paradise – the punishment cell.
The punishment cell was about 6 feet long and four feet wide and had no other ornament or provisions. It had walls that were a meter thick, no window and one door – that when shut, isolated the prisoner from light and sound. A prisoner could scream for hours and no one would hear him. Prisoners were not removed except for one hour every three days for exercise in the courtyard during which time it was easy to see the affect of the cell on their spirit.
My mind lingered on this picture while the guide finished his tour, leaving us directly in front of the prison. I decided to go inside and check the place out for myself. While walking through the narrow hall that separated the two rows of individualized cells I noticed a sign pointing left with the words “Punishment Cell.” Drawn forward I followed the path to a thick door and peered inside. No one was around so I took a deep breath and stepped inside, closing the door behind me. I was plunged into darkness so thick that I quickly became disoriented. It was cold, quiet and utterly disconcerting. I could imagine the tricks that a man’s mind could play on him in such a situation, especially one that was not voluntary.
I quickly opened the door and stepped outside, walking a little too fast and following the exit signs to the outside of the building. Here I stood for a moment, taking in the sunshine, listening to the birds sing and watching the people walk freely among the grounds. As I began working my way back to the visitor center I passed the lunatic asylum and paused briefly outside the entrance. From the outside it looked like a pleasant enough building, painted a pleasing pink and white – stark contrast to the dull grey walls of the prison next door. I was sure there was interesting information inside about the history of the building, its inhabitants and their reasons for admittance.
Instead I turned and walked down the hill, back to my car and back to Hobart. That night a band from Cuba was going to play a free concert in the town square and I didn't want to miss a minute of the chaos of thousands of people jostling for a good view. It was just what I needed.