Monday, April 30, 2007

The Toilet Doesn't Flush The Way You Think It Does

So, there's that old myth about the toilets flushing counter-clockwise in the southern hemisphere. The Aussies don't call it counter-clockwise though, they refer to things that move opposite the way a clock does as "anti-clockwise", and regardless, it's not true anyhow. I thought of this myth one day after I'd been there for about a week. I'd noticed plenty of things in the land Down Under, but I hadn't paid attention to the way the water moved down the pipes. What I did notice was that everywhere I went, all over Australia-- from big cities to small towns of 30 people, from rest areas with no doors to public toilets in city centres, from big fancy hotels to the hostels I stayed in, every single toilet I encountered (save one, in Hobart) had two buttons to flush. One flushed with full water; the other was a half-flush. Suction, in general, also seemed much better. I was stunned though. Such a simple thing to conserve water-- something Aussies are very passionate about-- and it was everywhere, wholesale, proving to me how easy to is to enact change. And for the record, when I did my duty the next time and did watch how the toilet flushed, it looked exactly the same as it does at home in the States (except of course, I used the half-flush button).

Australia seems the earth-mother hippie cool kid that everyone respects enough to obey its taunts, and actually be shamed if they don't conform. And it will taunt you for many things which the average American never even flinches at, nonetheless thinks about with any real sense of environmental responsibility. For one, Most stores will not give you a plastic carrier bag. Larger chains might even charge you if you ask for one to hold your groceries. The majority of people buy green (literally, they're colored green) canvas bags for between $1-2AU and use them for everything. The totes were so stylish and used for so many things, I was actually quite sad I didn't get one while I was there (I usually used my backpack for purchases, much as I had done when I used to live in the UK).

Australia has been suffering a severe draught-- not just in the Outback and more remote regions, but in big cities to the South as well. In Melbourne, you could only water certain types of plants, and only certain days of the week for certain hours (though there was some grace time allowed the elderly, which seemed oddly sweet, despite it putting them out in terrible heat). I know many places enact watering restrictions (my parents used to live in the desert), but I have never known of an American city that had special units driving around to fine people they found watering when they were not supposed to.

There were commercials on TV about taking shorter showers and recycling products. Public transportation and bikes were everywhere. Without being obnoxious, signs or facts about the environment were everywhere. In Tasmania, where I spent a considerable amount of time, locals were most concerned about sustainable agriculture and keeping habitats intact for native species. Everywhere the message is the same: conserve, choose wisely, think about the consequences of your actions. And these messages are so engrained in Aussie culture that I was astounded. Simple things.

Simple things, and yet we never seem to do them. It just made me think how possible change is, and how easily we can become a city that cares about the environment and emonstrates that without being holier-than-thou and shoving granola down others' throats (although incidentally, the Tasmanian yoghurt and granola I had was very good)...

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Down Under Odyssey, Part I

When one travels for three weeks,it's easy to forget things, and coming home this past week has been a long series of remembering. I returned to some changes at work, a slightly dirty house, not being able to find where I had stashed files when I "cleaned" before I left, and consistently losing my keys. I had three huge stacks of mail, over 1200 emails, and a pile of messages on my phones. There was a large stack of magazines waiting for me to love them, and then over easter, my dad brought me about thirty more.

Reading US News and World Reports from last week, "Making America Better"-- which, by the way, was a great issue to read coming off of travels where I did nothing but compare America to other nations-- I read an article about campaign financing, and the remembered again... I had completely forgot. Gone was the American election and the early cowardice and the mud-slinging and the eight thousand candidates vying for press and acknowledgement. Poof. I did think about local STL elections, but not that. There were other things too. I read and read and was amazed at what I had completely forgotten. I felt lighter and it was great. Like that desire I get sometimes to move because it seems the only way my house will get organized or the only way I will ever finish things enough or not feel too guilty to just move on.

And yet, all I did, the whole time I was gone was think about America... and about my place within it. It's funny the conversations you have and where they take place. The most enlightening discussion I had was when I shared a taxi with an Australian in Melbourne. We discussed taxes, development of the arts, and voting. We discussed lessons in school, civics, and how we are socialized into government. There were questions flying about civic duty.

Or perhaps more telling, when someone heard me speak, and it seemed to be usually a quiet old gentleman wearing a sun hat and leaning on his walking stick, I would be asked where I was from. Funny thing, most assumed I was Canadian. Ten or twelve people, which made me laugh. When I lived in England in the late nineties and 2000, I often told people I was Canadian because it was easier than dealing with the political embarassment my country was thrusting upon me during Clinton's impeachment hearings and then later during the 2000 election. But this time, the Australians thought me to be Canadian for two overwhelming reasons: men thought so because I was undemanding, quiet, and polite. Apparently they deal with brash Americans who feel entitlement a bit too often. Women and people my age thought I was Canadian because very few Americans travel alone, especially women as it turns out.

One way or the other, there's nothing like getting lost in another country to find yourself and figure out a thing or two about where you live. There will be more postings on my great Down Under Odyssey, but for now, I have three things to say:

1.) If you ever get the chance to go to Tasmania, do so. I don't care who you are or how much you've traveled or what you like, you will feel at home there, and you will love it.

2.) The outback, specifically Coober Pedy, an opal mining town, is both crazy and wonderful. Being there was like living in a sci-fi movie, and yet the town is ingenius and provocative, and in many ways a model for better quality of life.

3.) I took over 700 pictures,so it's taking a while to post them. They're not going up chronologically, but my four days in the Outback (around 100 photos) are posted on my flickr account. More to follow within the next week or so.

And lastly, if you haven't traveled in a while, do it. Just go. Stop making excuses. Even if you just get in yolur car\for the afternoon or take the bus somewhere without a destination. In my favorite poem, there's a line I had always neglected until this year, "Your adventures are like safe houses." I got tired of being so safe. Maybe you are too.