Thursday, December 31, 2009

Perth, Australia

Culture Shock, Perth Australia

Australians don't go to university or for that matter to kindergarten. Indeed, many do go to “uni” having one assumes, graduated from “kindi” ie. kindergarten. Then there is “teli” short for television, "breki" for breakfast, and Ozis cook not so holy slabs meat on the "barbi" while keeping beer cool in the “eski”. No less a personage than the country's Prime Minister, on national teli, expressed his approval of the end of a short postal strike, and like politicians everywhere, took credit for Australians receiving their “Chrisi” mail on time. I have yet to figure out the booming common greeting “hellaw mate” from all the rugby player wannabes; while, the young attractive female shopkeepers always call me “sir”?

Leaving linguistic particularities aside, I still can't get used to drinking water from the tap, nearly chocking every time I make the mistake of not reaching for bottled water when I wash my teeth or look to quench a thirst, as the thermometer is groping towards 40 degrees.

Then there is the issue of driving. Perthians actually stop as the light turns amber, requiring me to break in order not to rear end the offending driver in front.. At night, the combinations of bewildering over head lights on the road and brake-lights, turn signals and lit street signs, and the myriad of colourful dials on the dashboard,  all make for a psychedelic experience, a major serious  distraction making the actual act of driving difficult, and bring back a longing for the various degrees of dark  silhouettes without signalling or rear lights, that move at nights in India.

We recently had the unnerving experience of taking a taxi for a local trip and my blood pressure jumped to dangerous highs as the driver in an authoritative voice, with a thick Australian accent, commanded us to fasten seatbelts before he would move an inch forward. It also did not help that he braked vigorously at each anticipated, largely non-existent blemish on the road surface and strained to see traffic in adjacent lanes and actually signalled when changing lanes, all the while looking at his three dimensional GPS, listening to disco music on the radio, leading me to wonder how he could actually drive the car, and not simply lean on the horn, inch the nose of the car in the front of the other and just simply keep going?

Its also telling of my difficult adjustment is that during the last 10 days, I have yet to take a photograph. Not that there are no opportunities for a keen observer: the sky is a brilliant blue; the carefully cut and reticulated grass is truly bright green and the houses, a soft palate of pleasant pastels, all well manicured and the CBD even has a number of well-designed silvery glass towers that would feel at home in most American cities. But somehow everything seems so picture perfect and who wants to go home with gigabytes of digital images worthy of postcards?

Absent are the juxtapositions, that element of the unexpected, such as the surprise of seeing women in shimmering saris of reds and yellows, covered from nose to toes, set against the bleached background of the desert. Not that the women, especially the ones I have seen in supermarkets, exposed from cheek to cheek, wearing what I think of as slinky daytime nighties, with no visible straps and remarkably no other forms of support and yet somehow manage to cover some of the bare essentials, are not alluring. Indeed, they lend some support to the notion that more can be more. Still, something is missing and its perhaps my own lack of nerve to smile, point the camera wait for a sign of approval and then, and only then with consent, take their photograph. Perhaps I should carry a sign explaining that I am a post doctoral cultural anthropologist from India, analysing western women's dresses or perhaps a student of bio-structural engineering, specialising in the study of support mechanisms for summer frocks?

Then there is the issue of sticker shock as the price of bananas jumped from about 50 cents a kilo by a factor of eight. Also, they are sold in carefully wrapped plastic bags, each of uniform size and weighing exactly 750 gms and not in bunches and weighed on mechanical scales, with two pans, with an extra piece being thrown on to make sure that the  kilo weight is properly tipped. Not to mention the big smile of thanks and that look of interest, as I strap the bunch of bananas on the top of my panniers.

Eating out can also traumatise an unsuspecting diner. For example, the freshly made thali, the all you can eat complete meal on the road in India that cost about a buck is now $20 and the fine dining print carefully explains that the price includes three choices and a few breads, but that each extra chipati, which on the road came in unlimited quantities are priced at two for five dollars, enough to make one choke on his curry. Then there is the perfectly ordinary cup of coffee for four dollars, versus the ten cents chai. Notwithstanding the prices, there are not too many people starving in Australia, unlike the expression many a parent used on their children urging them to eat while citing the conditions in India.

In India, poverty was often evident and the discrepancies within India and between Australian lives is often apparent, and at times hard to ignore and deal with emotionally. Not that our societies are devoid of marginalised groups. Australia has the aboriginals, the short form of the word being politically highly incorrect, and there is the plight of the Native North American Indian, or the Canadian First Nations People, or whatever the politically correct nomenclature is for indigenous people, we cannot hide the fact that our societies have their downtrodden.

Then there were the tents. In the desert, we stayed in a fairly modest, locally operated campground in tents with all the amenities of a hotel. They stood in contrast to images of tent settlements made mostly of tattered blue tarps and bits of plastic, cardboard, sheet metal, or whatever was available, to provide some shelter with kids running around semi-naked, and where the “amenities” are an outdoor fire and buckets of water to drink and bath in, are evident on the fringes of most towns and villages, are a vivid contrast that’s hard to shake. In Australia the only visible tents are on the beaches to hide from the sun and to keep the eskis and beer properly chilled.

In contrast to the crowd of curious who would take any opportunity to feel our hard pumped bicycle tires in India, rings our bells, attempt to wear our helmets, etc. the Perth locals seem totally oblivious to us as they pass with mild looks of disdain. Our heavy duty touring bikes do not compare to their ultra-light, carbon fibre, state of the art Dura Ace component racers, hence we are no match for their speed and agility, as they fly past us on the well paved, wide bicycle paths that are everywhere in the city.

Then there is the issue of the Chrisi season, and seeing people wearing Santi outfits while the malls fill the chilled air with sounds of  Jingle Bells, riding a one horse open sleigh, while outdoors the thermometer is near 40 degrees.

But who is complaining: I am getting used to not shovelling snow, not putting layers upon layers of clothes to go outdoors, not popping vitamin D tablets but receiving the truly natural source; the beer and wines are first class; the beaches of spotless white sand go on for miles, and I am even getting used to the uniformly boring weather forecasts, always described as “fine”, meaning another in a series of cloudless, sunny days and only the temperature varying of few degrees.

Please pass the sun cream.



Ps. This being the last day of the year and indeed the decade, ten years since we thought that the world as we know it may come to an end if you recall all the scary stuff about Y2K?

Today I read an obituary of Anne Mustoe, whom I had never heard of before, who at an unfit age of  54, gave up her job as an English school mistress and decided to travel the world, alone on a bicycle. Hers is an inspirational message about our self-imposed limitations. I look forward to reading her books and following in her bicycle tracks next year. 

I wish all a happy and healthy New Year.


Andrew said...

Andrew, I love your honesty and insights. Thanks for sharing. All is well here in Toronto. Sun shines for a few brief hours. Pool is still warm at the gym. Trying to appreciate each day

agesnumbers said...

Now see you just over the horizon. Happy new year.