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I Went To The Other Side Of The World And Found Bush Fires Burning


Even when we first touched down on this flat, salty, ancient continent, we knew we were on the other side of the world. The moon was half-full, but just the bottom half was visible, a porcelain tea-cup. We were in the far north, it was winter, and a warm breeze swayed the palms: we’d moved, with no particular plans, to the antipodean tropics fringing the Great Barrier Reef, in northern Australia. Flying foxes, fruit bats, hung from the trees. The time, the weather, the driving, and the creatures all appeared upside down.

My kids played at the park, a parched patch of brown grass littered with dessicated kangaroo poop. A gaggle of smiley, barefoot children politely ushered them into their group. The neighborhood kids came from gigantic families, of ten or more children, led by a sole earner in a humble job, yet they appeared well-fed, happy, adjusted, if a little ragged. So this is life in a rich welfare state, I thought. A couple of them followed us home and invited themselves to dinner. Upon their return, their mom’s sole comment to me, a perfect stranger, was ‘so they weren’t too much of a pain in the bum, then?’ It was a rhetorical question.

At first, I kept myself busy mapping out exclusively left-hand-turning routes around the city, having nicked the side-view mirror and crashed into our front gate (twice) in my failing attempts to drive on the left side of the road. The kids made boats out of fallen palm fronds and terrorized the geckos.

A neighbor advised me to enroll them at the local school, but I didn’t feel brave enough for the bureaucratic procedure I knew would follow, all in that slow Aussie drawl full of indecipherable cute-isms. Kindergarten is “kindy,” the university is the “uni,” christmas is “chrissy,” football is “footy,” saltwater crocodiles are “salties” (we figured that one out fast) and I could go on. But finally, defeated by the kids’ latest game– throwing rocks at the mango tree–I unearthed their birth certificates and vaccination records and passports and visas and steeled myself for public-school administrators. The teacher chatted with me pleasantly, asked me to write down the kids’ names, glanced at their birth certificates. Handing them back to me she said, smiling, that I might bring them the following Monday if I liked. So this is life in a sparsely populated country, I thought.

Untethered, I hit the library. But the books I wanted weren’t on the shelves. They were out for “mending.” I suggested they might be at a neighboring town’s library and the reference librarian chirped back, happily, “I haven’t the foggiest.” What about inter-library loan, I demanded, trying to hide my East Coast impatience. To my horror, she pulled out a series of 1970s-era forms, in triplicate, and handed me a pen. But I don’t remember how to write by hand, I almost said, tears welling up, but slowly it came back to me. Shaken, I pulled myself together in what I hoped was an adult manner. “When will you know if I can get the books?” I ventured. “Oh, no time soon!” she giggled. So this is life in a “refreshingly laid back” culture untouched by the demands of the fast-paced globalized economy, I thought miserably, as I skulked away.

Winter gave way to spring. Flocks of lorikeets shrieked as the nights got hotter and the crocs started thinking about lunch. (The 70-degree winter weather is too cold for them to digest.) We could feel the sun burning our skins. The kids’ eyes went red, the heat igniting the dry eucalyptus leaves strewn about the scrublands.

Then the papers in this far-away place started arriving with pictures of charred bodies emerging from rubble. It appears that Australians considered Bali their own personal playground, descending by the hundreds of thousands every year. After the bombing of October 12, they feel personally affronted. Many are saying Australians were targeted because they love freedom and a “fair go.” About local antipathies, of causes more complex and less flattering–the distortions visited upon Indonesia from Western tourism, the precarious position of Hindu Bali in majority Muslim Indonesia, the simmering hatred for an Australian leadership that defended, at a reprehensibly late date, East Timor’s secession from Indonesia–we hear little.

“October 12 is our September 11,” the radio broadcasters intone. Indeed, government officials hand out NYPD forms printed up after September 11 to grieving relatives of the missing in Bali. Did the missing person work in the World Trade Center, and if so, on which floor, the forms query, senselessly. The government should have known about this!critics shout on talk-back radio shows, as Muslim school-children run home with tales of taunts. Indonesia must crack down!columnists opine. And how will the relatives of thousands of Acehnese villagers “disappeared” by the Indonesian military–for “interfering” with Exxon-Mobil’s gas plant and fighting for independence–feel about that? Nobody says. And if Indonesia can’t crack down, send in the Australian forces, others insist.

We must remember, the editorialists say, that this is a Balinesian tragedy too. Oh yeah, we think, the bomb happened in Bali. One could be forgiven for forgetting. They say all hell will break loose if Hindu Balinese find out the perpetrators were Javanese. And then their tourist-based economy, already shattered, will be permanently maimed. It might get hard, then, to sell the “lovely” “gentle” “loving” Balinese hospitality. This is apparently of little note to Australian leaders, who today are urging their disbelieving citizenry to consider Bali and help Bush aim his fire at Iraq.

My homesickness abruptly wanes. As I crunch across a scorched field, the sun piercing my skin, I see the smoke rising in plumes in the distance. It is bush-fire season in Australia, just like at home.

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