Friday, August 22, 2008

Farewell to a Sunburnt Country

Today I'm leaving Australia for Hong Kong and Hawai'i. Many of my batch have left already. The halls are quiet and strange.

About a month ago an Australian Jesuit read me this poem, which many Australians learn as schoolchildren. It captures well a lot of what I've seen.

My Country
A poem about Australia

The love of field and coppice,
Of green and shaded lanes,
Of ordered woods and gardens
Is running in your veins.
Strong love of grey-blue distance,
Brown streams and soft, dim skies -
I know but cannot share it,
My love is otherwise.

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of rugged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror –
The wide brown land for me!

The stark white ring-barked forests,
All tragic to the moon,
The sapphire-misted mountains,
The hot gold hush of noon,
Green tangle of the brushes
Where lithe lianas coil,
And orchids deck the tree-tops,
And ferns the warm dark soil.

Core of my heart, my country!
Her pitiless blue sky,
When, sick at heart, around us
We see the cattle die –
But then the grey clouds gather,
And we can bless again
The drumming of an army,
The steady soaking rain.

Core of my heart, my country!
Land of the rainbow gold,
For flood and fire and famine
She pays us back threefold.
Over the thirsty paddocks,
Watch, after many days,
The filmy veil of greenness
That thickens as we gaze.

An opal-hearted country,
A wilful, lavish land –
All you who have not loved her,
You will not understand –
Though earth holds many splendours,
Wherever I may die,
I know to what brown country
My homing thoughts will fly.

Dorothea McKellar

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Whales Again

My mom asked in a comment whether we had actually seen any whales. We did, in fact, see a number of tails and tips of edges that looked like sea serpents.

A bit underwhelming really. The whales we were following would generally "come up" for about a minute and then descend for 8-10. So you spend a lot of time frantically looking around for something, anything to reassure you that you did not just pay $60 to vomit for three hours. Anything seen for more than a second, particularly a tail, is met with a rush of bodies, group sighs and a thousand shutters clicking. At least at the beginning. By the end of the trip there were about five of us at the front of the boat (and two of them were lying on a bench clearly praying for a merciful God to end their suffering, even if it meant being attacked and devoured by the whales). The back of the boat really was a triage unit, filled with sick, sick blokes.

People wonder why anyone would hunt poor whales. Some say blubber. I say unmet expectations.

I had hoped to write a lot of "final thoughts" about Australia these days, as I leave on Saturday. But, as you might imagine, it's been pretty busy. The time will come.

Monday, August 18, 2008

There She Blows

Today the tertians went whale watching out in the ocean off Sydney Harbor. Beautiful day, we actually spotted a couple whale tails, at one time very very close, everyone in good spirits. "Mission Accomplished."

However, should you ever have the opportunity to go whale watching, there's a couple things they won't tell you that you probably should know.

1) On the ocean you go up and down. Like a rollercoaster.

2) It doesn't matter whether it's a nice day or not, a calm day or not in the harbor. On the ocean, you go up and down.

3) You also go side to side. For those of us raised in the 70s, think of the Weebles. They wobble, but they don't fall down. But they can REALLY WOBBLE.

4) Many people get really sick when they go up and down and side to side. I'm told it has something to do with being out of control of one's own movement. Similar to the reason why you won't get carsick when you drive, but you can when others are driving.

5) Consequently, a whale watching boat should more properly be called a spew-watching boat. Because you see a lot more spew than you do spouts.

A lot more.

A lot more.

6) Lastly: once it's out on the ocean, the boat is not going to turn back. So, enjoy either that apparently inexhaustible feeling that you are going to die from the non-stop dry-heaving that you will do for the next 2-3 hours, or if by some trick of fate you don't get sick, that sense of being trapped in a heaving, rocking, speeding plague ward.

One of our guys got sick an hour out, and I would say if we had any doubts that he would remember us when we all depart they are now null and void, because based on what we witnessed it is safe to say that the poor man will always remember this day, or at least those terrible, terrible two hours. If you take a moment to recall your own experiences of being violently ill -- not from drinking, as those pass once you get the poison out, usually, but stomach flu, say -- you know what I mean. Except you were in your bathroom. He was 3 miles out to sea surrounded by others who are also vomiting -- which really does not help soothe the stomach.

So, if you have to go see whales, might I suggest bring lots and lots of dramamine. And when they say "eat a light lunch", what they mean is, "If you want to feed the whales, be sure to eat a light lunch."

Monday, August 11, 2008

The View from the End of the World

The View from Lorne, on the Great Ocean Road

As I write this, we've just begun a 4 day end-of-tertianship retreat. Yes, you read that right, we're just about at the end of the line here. Less than two weeks. I've been crossing my fingers of late that I might fail for the course and be asked to repeat. However, the director (and my provincial) assure me that's not how this process works. I'm taking that as a personal challenge.

So, anyway, I probably won't be writing much this week. I'm hoping next week I can share just a few more really cool things about Australia, things I've grown to love.

But I did want to give one more little glance at the Great Ocean Road. Not far from all the green I put up yesterday is a little road that leads down to the Cape Otway Lighthouse. It's about 30kms out of the way of the main road, and I have to say I was really debating whether or not to make the trip. I was already about an hour over schedule, with less than a quarter tank of petrol in a car that had suddenly found its appetite for the fuel. Visions of being stranded in a friend's car with no gas on a road with few visitors on a rainy day suggested I should move on.

Plus, it's a lighthouse. I've seen lighthouses. I was at one just seven years ago with my parents and my Aunt Pat and Uncle Al in Maine. It was Ok, I guess. Had they changed in the intervening years? Was an Australian lighthouse going to be that different?

But in the back of my head, I could hear one of the other tertians, Michael Gilson, who had taken this road in the summer and told me repeatedly, I can't wait until you see that lighthouse.

I thought he had some lighthouse fetish, but Ok, forget my schedule, I took the turnoff and off we went.

Turns out, lighthouses are very cool. Or this one is, anyway. Here's the general view:

I know -- pretty typical. But then, here's the view to the left from the catwalk near the top of the lighthouse:

And to the right:

And, just to really mess with my head, the view down (100-105m/325-345 ft down):

Pretty fantastic, yeah? But it's the view straight out that really got me:

Maybe it's not all that impressive in a photo, but standing up there in the silence looking out on the ocean, it hits you, this is it. I'm standing at pretty much the end of the world. Drive just a little bit east on the Ocean Road and you might see nothing but ocean before you, but down past the horizon lies Tasmania and its whirling hordes of Tasmanian devils.
But go south from here, from the Cape Otway Lighthouse, and there's nothing ahead but the icebergs of Antarctica.

Quite a place to pause and have a little think.

Just a Little Bit East of Tipperarie

Still on the Great Ocean Road. I tell you, if you come to Australia, you have to spend a couple days driving this baby. It's just one spectacular view after another. And what you're seeing shifts radically as you drive on.

The most radical example of this: After driving along the cliffs and limestone toward the western end of the road, I turned back east toward the longer expanse of the road. Almost immediately the road pulled away from the ocean into the mountains that abut to the north.

We wound up and around through what looked like farm country. And then suddenly I found myself in County Clare.

(Click on any of these or the ones below for a much broader view.)

Isn't it amazing? Frankly, I wasn't ready for it. After six months in Australia I had seen outstanding beaches, great urban landscapes and that strange, scary, oh so alluring world of the outback. But hills? Farmland? Never, not once. And then, all of a sudden, here it was, hidden on a road supposedly dedicated to the ocean. For kilometers and kilometers it spun on and away, Australian pastoral.

And like most great things I've seen these last eight months, it was impossible to adequately capture. The views you see here are just small cuttings of what you see when you're standing there. Time and again, I would come up on a turn and hit the brakes, I was so blown away.

Soon after I began on this part of the road, but before the amazing views, I saw a sign that struck me as funny:

When some Australians really like something, they'll say "Beauty!" (For example, if I admire your shirt, or the fact that you brought some beer along, or the sausages you made, I might say, "Beauty!") It can be sort of another way of saying "Good on ya!" That is, well done!

Looking at those rolling hills, boy that phrase made new sense. Hey God -- Beauty Spot!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow

An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow

The word goes round Repins,
the murmur goes round Lorenzinis,
at Tattersalls, men look up from sheets of numbers,
the Stock Exchange scribblers forget the chalk in their hands
and men with bread in their pockets leave the Greek Club:
There's a fellow crying in Martin Place. They can't stop him.

The traffic in George Street is banked up for half a mile
and drained of motion. The crowds are edgy with talk
and more crowds come hurrying. Many run in the back streets
which minutes ago were busy main streets, pointing:
There's a fellow weeping down there. No one can stop him.

The man we surround, the man no one approaches
simply weeps, and does not cover it, weeps
not like a child, not like the wind, like a man
and does not declaim it, nor beat his breast, nor even
sob very loudly - yet the dignity of his weeping

holds us back from his space, the hollow he makes about him
in the midday light, in his pentagram of sorrow,
and uniforms back in the crowd who tried to seize him
stare out at him, and feel, with amazement, their minds
longing for tears as children for a rainbow.

Some will say, in the years to come, a halo
or force stood around him. There is no such thing.
Some will say they were shocked and would have stopped him
but they will not have been there. The fiercest manhood,
the toughest reserve, the slickest wit amongst us

trembles with silence, and burns with unexpected
judgements of peace. Some in the concourse scream
who thought themselves happy. Only the smallest children
and such as look out of Paradise come near him
and sit at his feet, with dogs and dusty pigeons.

Ridiculous, says a man near me, and stops
his mouth with his hands, as if it uttered vomit -
and I see a woman, shining, stretch her hand
and shake as she receives the gift of weeping;
as many as follow her also receive it

and many weep for sheer acceptance, and more
refuse to weep for fear of all acceptance,
but the weeping man, like the earth, requires nothing,
the man who weeps ignores us, and cries out
of his writhen face and ordinary body

not words, but grief, not messages, but sorrow,
hard as the earth, sheer, present as the sea -
and when he stops, he simply walks between us
mopping his face with the dignity of one
man who has wept, and now has finished weeping.

Evading believers, he hurries off down Pitt Street.

Les Murray
(Australian Catholic poet)

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

London Bridge

Another shot from the Great Ocean Road: the London Bridge. Yeah, that's right -- it fell down. (Question: why does the first verse of that song end with "my fair lady?" You know?)

So, the collapse: January 1990, at sunset, while two people were on the far side, the middle collapsed. That limestone really can be unpredictable. (Note to self: say no to limestone houses.) Somehow, word was gotten to authorities, and the two were heli'd to safety. (One of the great things about the Great Ocean Road, I guess -- tourists.) Now you can see but not touch.

And this little nook not far from the Bridge and the Apostles is called "the Grotto". Fancy that. From above it doesn't seem like there's much here to see at all. And I had just one day to drive along the road -- it really needs 3, I'd say, and a partner -- so I was pretty pressed for time. But once I got down into this quiet little spot, I had to drag myself out away. Serene.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Jen Pontow, Meet Catherine Tate

One of the great things about being on strike is you have time to eat bad food, watch TV and surf the web. Today I have a hard time climbing stairs and am dazzled by the brilliant purple shades of my new vericose veins, but boy have I found some hysterical new online material, including especially the wonderful Catherine Tate, a comedianne from Great Britian, who has some incredibly funny characters. Check some of this out.

Catherine Tate plays a Translator

"Angie Barker, Working Mother"

Lauren Talking With Friends
French Class
The Periodic Table
At the Burger Bar
Lauren with Tony Blair
Lauren with the Queen

In that last set of skits Tate plays a nasty adolescent girl called Lauren, who combines fearless attitude with amazing slang. Her repeated phrase, "Am I bovvered?" (i.e Do I care?) became such a huge hit in Britian that the makers of the Oxford English Dictionary named "bovvered" the Word of the Year.

August 1st was the birthday of my sister, Jen Pontow. And every time I've watched these skits, I've thought of how funny she would find them. So, Jen, I post all these especially for you. I love you! Happy Birthday!

We Won

Sorry I haven't been writing much the last couple weeks. The bloggers union called for a strike over memory space, so I've been out on the lines. "What do we want? A TETRABYTE. When do we want it? NOW." I'll tell you, it gave me a real taste of what it must have been to like to be part of the civil rights movement. Anyway, we compromised at 500 Gigs with the corporate skeeves who run the web, so now I'm back at it.

Since last we spoke, I've returned to Sydney, where I and my companions will spend the last three weeks of our tertianship. We're sharing stories and doing a few final seminars this week, before having one last 5 day retreat next week (or as they say here, week next).

Before I left Melbourne, I spent a day driving along the ocean on what is known as the Great Ocean Road. The views of the land and the ocean are really spectacular. I'll be posting some photos in the next few days. Here's a great one to start:

One of the most famous spots on the Great Ocean Road is this one, called "The Twelve Apostles." The name comes from the fact that there are these 12 sandstone formations that loom up out of the ocean near the shore. The look of the stone changes greatly with the light. So here the stones are later in the day:

These formations were all originally part of the cliff behind them. Over centuries the cliffs receded from the combination of the ocean waves and rain eroding them. But while everything fell around them, these enormous pieces remained standing.

You'll note that in neither picture can you see 12 apostles. A couple are to be found behind me as I'm taking these pictures. And a couple others have collapsed. You can see the rubble in fact in that second shot from 2 or 3.