My heart has been breaking for Australia this past week, as news of the worsening fires has taken over my feed. There are hundreds of bushfires going on throughout the country, killing so much stock and wildlife, killing people, destroying homes and communities. I saw a video last night of some firemen on the front lines as the wind shifted and brought the fire roaring towards them at a ferocious intensity, overtaking their truck, and I started bawling.
I lived in Australia for 5 months during my sophomore year in college, attending Monash University outside Melbourne. The whole experience was so life-changing for me that I got my one-and-only tattoo to commemorate it. I met people who became lifelong friends, I got to see much of the country and experience some of the unique beauty it has to offer, and I got to know the culture and the people in a way that endeared them to my heart forever.
I will never forget some of my first experiences within weeks of landing in Oz. I had traveled from Chicago via LAX, and commiserated with a fellow traveler while going through the intensely jerky security staff at LAX International. He ended up being an Australian on my flight, heading home after a gap year in America. The feeling of traveling as far across the planet as I possibly could have without starting back, knowing absolutely no one, and then landing and hearing my name called out at the baggage carousel in an Australian accent from a new friend was the most comforting, lovely feeling I’d ever had. He ended up being so nice, inviting me to visit to his family’s home, check out his suburb, and genuinely wanting to show me the Australian way of life.
In my first week on campus, I befriended the other study abroad students, as classes hadn’t started and the local Australians weren’t yet on campus. I ended up taking the train to downtown Melbourne with four new friends, all of us in Oz for the first time, and myself the only native English speaker. We had a great day exploring an outdoor art market and eating the most delicious Vietnamese food I’d ever tasted (maybe the first Vietnamese food I’d ever tasted?). When the time came to head back to campus, none of us could remember which train to take to get back. Unprompted, a local noticed us looking lost and offered to help us find our way. I found the Australians to be extremely hospitable and kind.
I was fortunate enough to travel during my semester there (blowing through my entire life savings from babysitting money and high school jobs…worth it!). I got to see the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, to go canoeing down the Murray River (for school! “Experiencing the Australian Landscapes” class! ha!), to go bushwalking and camping in the Grampians National Park, to learn how to surf in Byron Bay, to go on a sailing trip in the Whitsunday Islands, to snorkel and SCUBA the Great Barrier Reef, to walk over the Sydney Harbour Bridge and to see a show in the Sydney Opera house.
My bushwalking trip was a tad foolish, or I could say recklessly naive, looking back, as my new friend Monique and I (a fellow exchange student from Germany) had joined the campus hiking club which operated like a loosely organized message board. Two Australian guys wanted to go camping one weekend, and we wrote them to join. We got in the back of a car with two total strangers, let them drive us for hours out to the middle of nowhere to a spot along the Howqa River, and hiked out to camp overnight at a remote location far from anyone or anything. But they were total gentleman who probably thought we were nuts but treated us with nothing but respect and privacy.
I befriended a lot of the local Australians from my dorm throughout the semester, and got to visit the home of one friend whose family was super kind and hospitable. Another friend invited me to join his family to watch some of the Commonwealth Games (like the Olympics for the British Commonwealth) as they had an extra ticket, and I was treated like a member of the family. Overall, I found the Australians to be extremely friendly, easygoing and likable, and always down for a good time. They take having fun and partying to an almost religious level. While I didn’t get quite as close on a soul-level with my Australian friends, as they were slower to really open up and kept things a bit more superficial, I sure had a lot of fun with them. The camaraderie and group dynamics made our dorm feel like a huge, raucous family.
I took an anthropology class over there on Australian culture, and learned a lot about their checkered past. They were no saintly nation (originally a penal colony and settled by convicts from the UK), taking land from the native inhabitants much like we did in America. The Stolen Generations describes the horrific time when the Australian government, acting as legal guardians for all aboriginal people, ripped children away from their families for decades, from 1905-1970 or so. The Prime Minister finally apologized in 2008, an example we could benefit from in our own country where we did something very similar to our native children, sending them to boarding schools far from their families and forbidding them to practice their culture or speak their language.
Australia is a big, beautiful, unique, nearly empty, dangerous, imperfect, glorious country. It is on fire right now, and it looks like that’s the new norm. With climate change and the rising temps, droughts and dry landscape, these current fires are expected to last for months more. Who knows what the damage will be, and if recovery is even possible. The ecologists estimate that over half a BILLION of the wild animals in one state (NSW) alone, the tourist-loved kangaroos and koalas among the others, have died. I wish I had a positive note to end this on, but I don’t know if there is one. We can pray for Australia, pray for rain, send money for supplies and rebuilding, but it appears that these tragedies are going to continue. Humans are resilient fighters, and will hopefully adapt to climate change with the least amount of causalities possible as it continues to affect our planet.