When I woke up this morning, I didn’t want to be around people. It just wasn’t a socialising day. Within minutes, I decided to get lost in the Australian National Botanical Gardens.
The first time I went there, I was a traveller. A high-energy trekker, equipped with a backpack full stuffed with a jacket, cap, water, and snacks. And I tried to cover the whole area in one day—because that’s what I do when visiting a new city. I crave to see everything, experience everything in one visit. As a result of that over ambition, I lost my way in the gardens, strayed from the main path every time I saw a flower or a streak of sunlight glinting through a puddle, and ended up missing a few parts of the garden.
This time, I knew better. I had a plan, a purpose. I chose a trail—the eucalyptus walk—and decided to stick to it.
Except, I got lost again. It took me longer than it should’ve, but I went around in circles before finding my way back on to the trail.
And you know what? It’s ok. It’s ok that I got distracted by plants, that I gravitated towards weird shaped-branches and odd-named bushes. It’s ok that I didn’t follow the trail exactly as it was mapped. Because at the end of the day, it’s not about seeing them all. It’s about appreciating what you did see.
“Alright, your reminder is set for 5 this afternoon.”
That’s a sentence I never thought I’d hear in my life. Five pm has always been evening for me. In India, it’s tea time. It’s that wonderful part of the day everyone waits for all day, shuffling in their seats, under the sweltering pressure of workload in an air-conditioned office. It’s the time to crack those knuckles, stretch those calves, and walk up to the canteen for some piping chai and samosas. And gossip. Or in my case, people watching.
Soon after that break, some would go straight home at 5:30 while some others would go back to their seats, to Facebook or YouTube before heading out.
Five o’clock was a magical time.
When I arrived in Canberra just before winter, it was almost the same. Except, as we stepped deeper into the icy dryness or the cold, five became something of a warning time—for me, in particular. It was still magical, but instead of it signalling the end of the work day, it felt more like the end of the day itself. Darkness would arrive not long after and I didn’t want to wander the still-unfamiliar streets. By seven, although not tired, I was drained of all mental energy. Lethargy wrapped itself round my shoulders, an extra layer over my blanket, comforting, cocooning me in its warm embrace. It wouldn’t leave until 10 the next morning.
Productivity stooped. It didn’t help that I was working from home. Two hours of continuous work felt like an achievement.
Then came spring.
Today, I’ve done more things in a day than I thought was possible. And it’s still afternoon. It’s my first experience with the season, and even though I whined to a friend how hot it is during the day, I’m still pleased that I have enough time to do things I’ve always meant to do.
I’m enjoying the daylight and all up for making the most of it—although, on the first day of Daylight Savings, I caught the massive clock in the city (like Big Ben, but smaller and in Canberra) an hour behind my automatic smartphone’s time, and had a small panic attack.
All that aside, it’s warm and beautiful now. Super hot during the late-morning or early-afternoon hours, but as the day wanes, light shines through spaces between trees, refracting through the window panes, and ricocheting off my specs.
Just before summer last year, I pottered about the streets—fresh out of a shower with nothing more than a light-scented talcum powder mildly-layering my brown surface. Temperatures didn’t exceed 42 degrees Celsius, and the talc was more than enough to prevent me from turning into a body of walking stink.How to spring in Australia. Just before summer last year, I pottered about the streets—fresh out of a shower with nothing more than a light-scented talcum powder mildly-layering my brown surface. Temperatures didn’t exceed 42 degrees Celsius, and the talc was more than enough to prevent me from turning into a body of walking stink.
I was in Chennai, a south Indian city of over 6 million people.
This time, I’m in Canberra. It’s springtime, and people smile at the sun, women gliding about in beautiful spring skirts, men waddling in khaki shorts trying to balance two beers in one hand, and more people in singlets of every colour and pattern. I’ve seen all kinds of ankles, knees, and arms. Temperature can reach up to 25 degrees now, and 42 degrees in summer.
I don’t have talcum powder anymore.
I have sunscreen.
Petroleum jelly, because I’m still recovering from winter dryness.
I have lip balm.
And I’m nursing chapped, cracked, and chipped skin.
Welcome to Australia—the sun loves us so much that it ripped the ozone, earth’s face mask, away so it can kiss us more fully, purely, with love as mother showers upon her 18-month baby, except more harshly.
18 degrees, an idealistic dream in Chennai, burns in Canberra.
The sun has a way to hurt you, and you have a way to deal with it. What else are conglomerates for? They churn out cream after cream, all-purpose ones for efficiency and portability, and more specialised, individually focussed line of products for a more complete skin care. Variantly priced to suit your comfort.
And yet, it’s not just about lining rows and rows of supermarket shelves with liquids and creams people may or may not want. It’s not the unrestrained dance of the capitalist banshee, wasteful.
Australia has one of the world’s highest skin cancer rates. Although tanning has been huge crazy (why, I’ll never understand), our unnatural behaviour has led to natural exposure to excessive UV rays, and that keeps this country a hot bed.
No one goes out without synthetic protection hugging their skins. The more clothes you shed to cope with the rising heat, the more you need to layer up on creams.
I’m glad I got my transition glasses just in time—my eyelids would fry otherwise.
And that, my friends, is how you spring in Australia. Wonderful time for picnics and lounging on the grass with a book—just as long as you’ve got your layers on.
I was attending Poetry on the Move, an annual festival in Canberra that celebrates poetry and poets of the world. A recognised poet asked me that inevitable question. I’d told her how much I’d enjoyed her performance the previous night, and she seemed pleased. Either that, or she was so articulate and polite to acknowledge, without betraying any of the weariness that comes with being a popular poet, with the hundreds of people telling them how great their work is. Oh well, just another day.
Then she popped the question. I was stumped.
I don’t call myself a poet. When I share a piece with my writers group, I say dub it a “poem” or a free-style-poetry-thing. I’ve never felt enough to call myself a poet. Or a writer.
When people ask what I do for a living, I say I’m a copywriter.
Even though it triggers conversations I’d rather swivel away from, it’s also a digestible way to avoid admitting the twelve hours I spend in a day on a computer… writing. Copy for websites, blogs, articles, ads, and whatnot, gleaning whatever time I can get to write the snappier, shorter stuff that pleases me: self-declared haiku, short stories, and the occasional “poetry”.
“I just—write stuff.”
The poet smiled, letting it reach her slender eyes, perched elegantly on the edge of her blemish-free face. So unlike my own sunken ones.
She respected my insecurity.
However, she did mention later that we’re all poets, regardless of where or how or how much work we’ve published, introducing me to another as a poet, shooting a thrill down my spine. I smiled and let the statement wash over me, unregistering its impact.
Later, mulling it over, as I do everything these days, I straightened, my gut clenching, the tiniest sense of pride creeping up my face. And I fought to contain the idea lapping my heart: me a poet.
I went for a movie last night. Not the fast-past, steamy, nail-biting, popcorn-munching kind of movie. Nope—it was the first time I’d been to a cinema theatre in Canberra and it was for a movie about Aboriginals. It was Another Country.
To put it the words of the narrator, “This film is about what happened my culture when it was interrupted by your culture.”
And as soon as the echoes of that resounding statement died down, the screen flared up with young Aboriginal men, dancing to rock and roll music, shaking their hips, faces contorted in concentration, and enjoying, apparently, the westernisation that had crept into their veins, pulsating through their feet.
With gut wrenching grace, the film touched upon many issues that Australian natives endured during the initial stages of colonisation.
“Then the white men came. With their cattle. If we didn’t do exactly what they told us to do in our own land, they would shoot us or poison us.”
As I heard the unwavering voice of the narrator, gliding over emotional scars and scabs oozing with fresh blood and pain, I shuddered. It was normal. And that was scary. As the audience, every moment of revelation was a gasp of shock, while it was everyday reality for the voice that told the story.
The more I watched, the more I understood how Aboriginals have been isolated in their own land. The documentary revolves around one small town in Northern Territory, emphasising the lack of everything there. When the government built a school, a store, and basic medical facilities, Aboriginal people from neighbouring lands had to move into a single town, where they were given periodic pension money to spend on supermarket-grade food that were ferried across or flowing into from other parts of the country. Since the town was devoid of everything else, including amiable weather, adults had no jobs to earn from. They were given money to buy things that the government intended them to—and as I watched kids and adults gulp down bottles of teeth-rotting Coca Cola and other carbonated, sugary drinks as if it were water, I cringed.
Alcohol is banned in the town. But soda that’s just as disastrous to health is abundant, encouraged, and in a sense, shoved upon these people. With nothing to do other than sit around, play cards, and participate in traditional celebrations, young men with a mischievous spark are punished. Possession of alcohol and kava are enough to land them in jail. About it the narrator says, “They get sent to jail, to Darwin, for doing things that other Australians are allowed to do.”
As if these youngsters aren’t Australian at all, just because they’re Aboriginal.
It was abominable to think of it that way. But it was more shuddering to realise that that’s how the rest of the world’s treated Aboriginals all along.
What a load of rubbish we are for looking down on fellow humans that way. Rubbish—the film covered that too.
When you think of it, the native people use nature’s elements to make baskets, tools, and almost everything else they need for living. When these things die, they return to the earth and people make new ones. However, the outskirts of the town are lined with garbage, broken appliances, and products used no longer. As the camera panned over piles and piles of old stuff now replaced by newer, shinier stuff, you can’t help but feel claustrophobic. And to imagine people living with all of that in their backyard—shame on us.
“We never had rubbish. Everything comes from the bush; everything goes back to the bush. […] We’re choking on rubbish. That means we’re choking on your culture.”
This documentary was eye-opening. It’s an assertive stance against the unfairness that’s become so internalised and normal in today’s Australia. And even though millions of people try and consciously avoid harming the essence of Aboriginal culture, or be patronising, it feels as if rules that require least 3 Aboriginal students in the opera club is also a way of enforcing the western culture in them.
This movie’s made me think—what’s happened between these two cultures isn’t a simple matter of right or wrong. And as we try to solve it, we will run into polarising problems. Finding the right balance will take time and and open minds. Question is, do we have that luxury?