Impossibly Beautiful

March 15, 2018

IMG_8231.JPGWe left New England on Monday with the threat of a mid-March (late!) snowstorm on the way; we arrived in Sydney Wednesday morning (local time) with palm trees and air conditioning.

We tumbled into our hotel bed, and slept solidly until 5:00 p.m., when we woke with a start and hurriedly dressed — we had opera that evening!

I got over my La Traviata fix years ago, but still, it was wonderful to listen to an opera that we know so well and really didn’t have to think about. The singers were great (but not Met quality, I must admit); the staging traditional, the setting spectacular. We had made reservations for dinner in the Brasserie Restaurant, which turned out to be the foyer of the Joan Sutherland theatre within the Sydney Opera House, with an impossibly beautiful view out over the harbor and the bridge which we enjoyed as the sun set.

It made me realize that the Kennedy Center in Washington — built the same decade as the Sydney Opera House and also in a remarkable location — is built to be looked at — once inside there are no views. Sidneysiders did a whole lot better.

Then to bed, and did we ever crash! But woke up early of course.

Yesterday morning I explored a bit and ended up at the Aquarium. It’s not the thing I’m usually into, but this one was great. Including: a “living fossils” tank (including a fish that spends 90% of its time on land. We all studied in school that life began in the oceans and then the little guys crawled onto land; well, I’ve seen it!). There’s a dugong tank — dugongs being related to manatees and proof that sailors have vivid imaginations to turn them into mermaids. And the ubiquitous shark tank with monsters quietly soaring past over our heads. One tank held nothing but moon jellies, the jellyfish with a sting that’s a killer.  Beautiful creatures, but lethal.

I came back to the hotel and Frank and I had lunch in a cafe in the Queen Victoria Building, an 1880s ediface that fills an entire block and has been turned into an extremely modern shopping space. Then we dressed, and took a taxi to Kirribilli, which turns out to be the near suburb immediately on the other side of the bridge. Definitely the high-rent district, and we were the guests of the Reserve Bank, Australia’s central bank and the counterpart of our Federal Reserve. Here we joined 30 other Rotarians for an update on the Peace Centers and an evening devoted to the intersection of economic development and peace.

Joseph is a Rotary Peace Fellow who grew up in a small village in Kenya, was orphaned at age seven, and attended a village school where he learned to write in the sand. No books or writing materials. Somehow, his extended family saw that he got a decent education, and he ended up getting his master’s in peace and conflict resolution at the University of Queensland. He’s still here — when he isn’t back in East Africa, working to ensure that multinationals investing in these countries are doing right by the countries as well as by their shareholders. He has his Ph.D. now, and he said that by definition he is an “elder” in his village, even though he’s younger than the other elders. And that when he returns, he remembers that if Rotary hadn’t intervened, he would still be back in the village, a subsistence farmer like the other young men of his generation.

I should add that our dining room was on the top floor of a five-story building, across the street from Government House (the home of the Prime Minister when he is in Sydney); and the view back to the opera house and the skyline as the sun set was impossibly beautiful.IMG_8238.JPG


Across a Continent

March 31, 2018


It’s been several days and a continent since I’ve had the bandwidth to update this blog. We’ve been busy! We left Brisbane on a “train” which turned out to be a bus that connected with the sleeper car once we left Queensland and reentered New South Wales. Turns out that each of the various Aussie states developed their own train system and their own gauge, and some of them have yet to be made universal.

Once we were on it, the overnight train to Sydney was not much to write home about, but it was fun to be back in Sydney and to see a few of the things we hadn’t had a chance to see the previous week. We went to the fish market — like NYC’s fish market but crowded with Asian restaurant suppliers and buyers. And I spent a few minutes at the Australian museum to see their Aboriginal collection.

The people of Australia have been here 60,000 years. Just think about it! The great cultures of the Fertile Crescent go back at most one third of that time. Australians claim that their Aboriginals are the longest continuous culture in the world. That claim requires some definition of culture and continuous that are beyond me, but it’s certainly an impressive statement, nonetheless. The Aboriginal art we have seen takes pointilism to a fine degree- Georges Seurat would be proud. Over 200 languages and several language groups have been mapped, defining a highly organized society. And the ability to live in the Outback proves that the Aborigines were highly versatile. All pretty impressive.

Then we boarded the Indian-Pacific Railroad, named for the two oceans we will be crossing between. This train trip is a fairly recent one; it required changing out those pesky gauges, and the trip is designed for tourists, with sightseeing along the way. I had expected more outlanders, like ourselves, but many of our fellow passengers are Aussie, here to see more of their own country. Good for them. From the train I saw an emu and several roos.

On Wednesday afternoon we climbed out of Sydney into the Blue Mountains, which are really hills, but which, like the Appalachians in our own country, kept the first white settlers penned to the seacoast until things got fairly crowded. We woke Thursday morning in mining country, and watched sunrise from Broken Hill, center of the mining industry and a place where a significant labor movement won the right of a 35 hour week. That may seem excessive, but not when you remember that commuting time didn’t count; the men were only paid for the time they were actually digging. We visited a memorial outside of town with the names/ages of the 800 men/boys who died in the mines over the past 150 years. I was reminded of BBH’s own fisherman’s memorial, but of course ours has nothing like that number of names. BBH is a much smaller place, it must be said.

Back on board for breakfast, and a nap, and the next thing you know it’s time for lunch! By now we were in South Australia; our destination was Adelaide. Here, there was a crew change, and a mix of opportunities to get off and stretch out legs. WHile the Aussies mostly opted for the beer tour or chocolate tour, we joined other outlanders and went to the South Australia museum, which has a world-class collection of fossils and also a meteorite collected from the desert we would be traveling through the next day. Then the air chilled a bit as we had dinner in the Pacific Hall with a scientist on-staff whose area of expertise is the Antarctic. He told the story of Mawson, an Antarctic explorer whose goal wasn’t the Pole itself — move over, Amundson, Scott and Shackleton — but, you know, science. Mawson also had a remarkable (remarkable!) survival story, but apparently he brought back incredible research which separates him from the others.

Then back on board, and we were told to set our watches forward 90 minutes.

We woke up in the desert, and remained in desert all day. The actual Nullabor is a specific area without trees, but the whole day was spent crossing land that is basically uninhabitable – by mammals, I mean. I saw birds, including eagles, and of course their are plenty of reptiles out there, but that’s about it. By lunchtime we were in Cook, where the train took on water and petrol — no, I have no idea how either commodity get to Cook! and it was a chance to stretch out legs and see an old station that was born with the railroad and now is staffed by only four people as the railroad needs change.

Then on, on, on the longest straight stretch of track in the world — 297 miles of absolutely straight track — without a tree or waterhood or anything. Dinner was at an old sheep station – we ate a Good Friday dinner of barbecued lamb out under the stars — the (almost) full moon didn’t keep us from admiring the Southern Cross.

We woke up Friday morning with a few bushes out there, and I’ve even seen a puddle of water or two. Bush is turning into agricultural land. But we were still a hilly section and  a half-day’s journey from the ocean.

Finally, our destination! Perth,  in Western Australia, and probably the furthest you can be from the rest of the world and still be in a first world city.  We were met by Jodie Sparks, who piled all our luggage into the car and set out to give us the abbreviated tour of Perth.  This included the incredible view of the city from Kings Park — which also includes a lovely ANZAC monument — then a drive up the coast to dip our feet in the Indian Ocean, enjoy the sunset and eat a seafood supper.  Then to her house, where we met her orange tom and repacked, and off to the airport.

We are 12 time zones and half a world away from Maine.  Tomorrow is Sunday, and we will watch the Easter Sunrise over Sidney,  then fly to LA in time for a second Easter Sunrise.  And then transcon and home.






March 25, 2018


We arrived in Bris on Friday, were met by Rotarian friends John and Janet Lawrence, who have been treating us royally ever since.  Saturday was the annual Peace Symposium at the University of Queensland, where the second-year Rotary Peace Fellows presented work from their independent studies. One of the most interesting was a Fellow who had traveled to New Zealand to understand how a river, sacred to the Maori people, had actually earned legal “personhood.”  He described similarities between the New Zealand situation and the Black Hills in South Dakota, and left us with the question whether the Black Hills might also gain legal standing.

As always, the personal stories of the Fellows could be as remarkable as their work.  One fellow, from South Sudan, spent time in refugee camps in two different countries before he finally made it to Canada and safety.  The Symposium was also a chance to meet local Rotarians, including some who we had seen a week earlier in Sydney.

Then home, and to bed!

Today is Palm Sunday.  We went to mass at St John’s Cathedral in downtown Brisbane.  It’s a higher service than I’ve been to in some time, and the building itself is on lovely sandstone.  It was all quite fun, and then home for breakfast. (And the opportunity for this picture:  Frank enjoys vegemite which, for a change, is not imported!)  Later in the morning we headed off to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary.  I was determined to find a marsupial in its mother’s pouch, and that wasn’t to be, but we did see a koala with one joey on its back and another nursing.  No wonder marsupial mothers are so patient!

We also met numerous birds and a platypus and various snakes,  and took a lot of photos of koalas, and then the ferry which goes down the river to central Bris and back.  A great way to see the city and enjoy the river bank and get a bit of fresh air.  And then home to tea.



Ultimate Koala Photo

March 25, 2018


Emus and Cassawaries and Ibis, Oh My!

March 25, 2018


Tassie Scallops

March 22, 2018


Indentured Servants

March 22, 2018


Since we’ve been in Australia, several people have told me (not asked, told me) that the US was also settled by convicts from England, only that we’ve white-washed our history by calling them indentured servants.

Of course, we have white-washed our history in that only a token of people came to the colonies in search of religious freedom.  So many more came for economic reasons or because they had a reason to leave home (everything, I expect, from fancying the mayor’s daughter to getting the worst of a barroom fight).  But we don’t talk much about our indentured servants.  So I looked it up.

It turns out that between 1607 and 1776, approximately 500,000 people emigrated from England to the colonies.    Many were indentured servants who voluntarily signed papers to work for seven years or 11 years in exchange for passage; most of those contracts were signed with the ship owner who then resold the contract once the New World was reached.  Many of those who came that way faced tough, tough situations, but most signed voluntarily – an uncertain future in the New World with a chance of land ownership was better than the realities of the Old World.

About 10% — 50,000 people — came involuntarily, however —  they were debtors or minor criminals who were sentenced to deportation and whose contract was owned by someone else.

And that brings us to the other major difference –who owned the contract.  In the 19th century, it was the government, not a ship owner or other private citizen.  As a result, the convicts in Australia were moved around and put to work on building projects – their own penitentiaries, public buildings, bridges.  Lots of buildings in town — including the state parliament, shown here — are built of stone and date from that period. None of that organization was going on in 18th century American colonies.

Not that it matters.  But now we know.

Tasman Island Cruise

March 21, 2018