MAP: Down Under
To travel to Australia has been on my bucket list ever since I was a kid and didn’t know what a bucket list was. One look at a magazine photograph of Uluru (formerly Ayers Rock) and I burned with a fever to know everything about the place that possessed a monumental, Martian-colored rock formation right smack dab in the middle of miles (excuse me, kilometers) from nowhere. As a Charles Dickens devotee, I was curious about the convict country of Magwitch in "Great Expectations." And what’s not to like about the Aussies’ broad vowels and their delightful vocabulary that includes words like billabong and fair dinkum? Even the fauna have names to make you smile: wallaby, koala, kookaburra.
An entire section of my library is devoted to Australian writers. Patrick White, Tim Winton, Peter Carey, Murray Bail, Evie Wyld, David Malouf and others have taken me on many an unusual and fascinating journey. And I’ve seen just about every Australian movie ever made. But it wasn’t until I relieved my body of its fourteen-hour flight coma (suspended animation is the only way to describe it) and stood outside the airport in Sydney, smelling the scent of eucalyptus in the air, that I felt Australia down to my bones.
Finally, I was Down Under, standing beneath the southern hemisphere sky with its own special constellations, unique wildlife, and host to some of the world’s most lethal snakes, spiders, jellyfish—you name it, it’s out to kill you. But getting from the airport to the hotel brought its own unique fright. I knew, of course, that Aussies drive on the left side of the road, but every time a car came toward us, I braced myself for what felt like an inevitable collision. This wasn’t Kansas anymore, Toto. This was the real Oz.
The punctuation mark that best suits Australia is the exclamation point. Its emoticon is a smiley face, in all its varieties. And if there were a ringtone of a hunky Aussie male voice saying "G’day, mate!" I’d change my chimes ringtone in a second. The Opera House, a harbor boat excursion, exploring museums and libraries, going walkabout till my feet were sore were memorable experiences. But random encounters with Sydneysiders, in parks or restaurants, bumping into each other on the street (Literally. People, apparently, walk on the side of the street they drive, necessitating many little dances between me and pedestrians as we negotiated the sidewalk) illuminated Australia for me. And its most distinguishing feature is optimism. Every person I met was so bloody cheerful. "No worries" isn’t just an expression. It’s the Aussies’ philosophy of life. Smart, friendly as puppies, frank, with a cheeky sense of humor that makes reading an Australian newspaper an absolute kick, they are definitely among the best people I’ve met in my travels.
Australia is an ancient continent, older than time, but it has a spring in its step like a teenager. And as soon as I can convince my body to submit to fourteen hours of suspended animation again, I’m going back.