Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Rude Ravens, Giant Rats, and Incontinent Seagulls

Though previously unpublished, this blog was written in 1999 about my initial impressions of Australia circa 1997. Though accurate at the time, some of the content may no longer reflect current conditions.


Animals with accents? I didn't believe it. That was something I expected to find in Looney Tunes (a la Pepe Le Pew) and Disney cartoons, not during my travels. There I was in Perth, Western Australia, however, and there they were, crows with Australian accents.

I was exhausted for the first two weeks after my arrival in Australia. This was partly due to my not being able to sleep, too excited at being in a new and exotic land. To a lesser degree it was the natural result of my having just completed a thirty hour journey (from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Perth, including short stopovers to refuel/change planes in Frankfurt, Germany and Singapore); I was still jet-lagged, and I was trying to adjust to a 13-hour time difference. The blame, however, primarily fell on the Australian crow.

There are actually several types of crow that live in Western Australia. However, only two species can be found in the south-western region, and of these two only the Australian Raven (Corvus coronoides) is common in Perth.

I didn't notice the raven at first. I arrived in the early evening and was so grateful for a bed in which to sleep that I collapsed almost immediately, confident that I would not awaken until mid-day. At 5:02 in the morning, however, I sat bolt upright, my heart thumping. I was confused. Dreams still clouded my thoughts as a wet sleep-film did my eyes. I had no idea why I was awake. Then I heard the sound—awful, pitiful. The noise reminded me of a crying infant. Some people have likened it to the call of lamb at the slaughterhouse, but that thought is too gruesome for my liking.

I cautiously crept over to the window and peered out from behind the blinds toward the trees across the way. Two shadowy bodies, even darker than the slate sky and black bark framing them, perched on the branches, singing their terrible duet. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, the specters solidified and their figures took form. They were ravens, plain and simple. Yet what was this sound they made? Where was the soft "caw" that wouldn't disrupt my slumber?

In a subsequent conversation with a group of Australians I was amused to learn that they were just as bewildered as I upon encountering foreign crow calls. One Australian related her long-held theory that the 1994 Brandon Lee film, The Crow, was flawed and contained a sound byte of a seagull rather than an actual crow.  

Two weeks passed. Everything was starting to feel a bit more familiar. After all, on the surface Australia very closely resembles the United States—fast food restaurants such as McDonald's and KFC are plentiful, American movies fill the screens of the cinemas, and everyone speaks English, albeit slightly different than the one that I grew up speaking. Finally I was able to sleep past five A.M. I was just getting accustomed to the idea of animals with accents when I was introduced to a new concept: ravens with different regional dialects.

Just off the coast, twenty minutes by ferry, lies Rottnest Island. Besides its quaint coves, pristine beaches, and turquoise waters, the island is best known for its cutest inhabitants, quokkas (kwok-uhs).

These small, docile marsupials lent the island its name. The first Europeans to explore the region mistook the quokkas for giant rats, thus naming the island Rat's Nest. Later the name evolved into "Rottnest." It was here that I took a short camping trip, and here that I first heard the Rottnest ravens.

These birds, though the same species I had encountered on the mainland, had a slight variation to their call. Instead of sounding like crying babies, these crows made a noise more reminiscent of a four-letter expletive. "FAWK! FAWK!" I walked around with an amused grin on my face for the next two days.

While I viewed the Rottnest ravens to be a cruder variety than the crows to which I was accustomed in southeastern Pennsylvania, I found the people of Western Australia to be pleasant, friendly, and extremely relaxed. At one point I was reading a book on the beach when I heard a crash. A few meters behind me, on a paved walkway, someone had lost his grip and dropped a bottle of Emu Bitter, a popular local beer. Moments later a blonde-haired, barefoot "surfie" (Australian for surfer) started walking on the pathway, completely oblivious to the shards of broken glass. He walked right through the glittering pile before he could be stopped or warned.

"Sorry," said the clumsy beer drinker.

"She'll be right," the surfie said, which is the equivalent of saying "it's okay; no harm done." The surfie then glanced down at the broken glass and added good humoredly, "You can't hold your beer, mate," referring to both the drinker's apparent low tolerance and to his having literally dropped the bottle. With that they each smiled and the surfie continued down the path.

I was astonished. I couldn't imagine such a scene in Philadelphia. Putting aside the fact for the time being that no individuals in American cities would ever brave our concrete jungles without the protection of footwear, if they did happen to step on broken glass in Philly, they'd be distraught, in pain, and angry. They most likely would lash out, at least verbally, at the person responsible for the broken glass. But not here in Australia. Both parties remained friendly and, mostly, unconcerned. In fact, the surfie hardly seemed to be uncomfortable, let alone in pain. Indeed, there was no blood or any other evidence of cuts, and as the surfie walked away I saw why this was the case; the soles of his feet were thickly calloused. This is not unusual. Neither, I learned, was the surfie's reaction.

I was told that his calm, relaxed attitude was fostered, at least in part, by the country's beach culture mentality. The majority of Australians live along the coasts since the continent's interior is an unforgiving desert thought by many modern-day Australians to be too harsh to support large communities. This coastal living has contributed to Australia's "no worries" motto, as well as to a more casual mode of dress (at least in Western Australia).  Excluding restaurants and night clubs, there is not a "no shirt, no shoes, no service" policy in effect here. On the contrary, lack of footwear is an accepted norm (hence the surfie's callouses). While it is true that most people still elect to wear shoes in public, it is not uncommon to find some, usually adolescents and young adults between the ages of 14-24, walking on sidewalks, entering supermarkets, and even attending lectures at universities completely shoeless.

This less formal approach to life extends to all areas of social behavior. When I returned to the Australian mainland from Rottnest, I had the opportunity to attend a party thrown by university students and young professionals in their early to mid-twenties. I was excited at the prospect of participating in an authentic Aussie bash, but shortly after my arrival, my  eagerness turned to confusion. I was sitting on the couch talking with two female friends, the only people at the party with whom I was acquainted, when I noticed that there were no other men in the room. I looked around and spotted them all standing outside on the patio. Why weren't the genders mingling? The scene reminded me of those dreadful Junior High School dances with the boys leaning awkwardly against the wall on one side of the gymnasium, and the girls on the other side, neither daring to dance with the other. I asked my friends to explain. 

Apparently this isn't too unusual at parties where nearly everyone knows one another. Though it is not always the case, I was told that it's still fairly common at Australian parties for boyfriends and girlfriends to separate and break off into groups of men and women—their same gender friends. They stay segregated like this for most of the night, meeting only in the kitchen when each gets a drink. 

I couldn't help but wonder how well I'd fare dating if I was single when most of my friends were already paired up and, therefore, these were the type of parties I attended. I am not confident that I'd have too positive of a love life if my only opportunity to socialize with women at parties consisted of five minute chats in kitchens, but the Australians are surprisingly successful. Once again, it comes back to their approach in life—casual and upfront. They don't seem to bother with those mind games that are so prevalent in the United States. There is far less consideration as to the rules governing how long one should wait before calling a guy or a girl whose number has just been requested. Australians usually tell you what's on their minds. If they like you it is seldom left up to conjecture or speculation.

Perhaps the best example I saw of this straightforward attitude was found on a sign outside a popular fish 'n chips shop in the port city of Fremantle, Western Australia. The sign read: Please don't feed the seagulls, or they will S.O.Y. (i.e., S**t On You).

It was that sign that gave me the idea to write this post. I found it hilarious and mentioned it around my Australian friends. Their universal response surprised me. To paraphrase, I was told in a no nonsense fashion that that was good advice. Seagulls are dirty; they carry disease. Possibly true, but didn't my friends appreciate why that sign was funny? They did, but that was a secondary reaction. Once again I was reminded that Australians and Americans are not the same. I was reminded of another observation too; something that hadn't been articulated or taught to me, but a truth that I had nonetheless picked up from an ethnography course at Johns Hopkins: the native may see the forest, while the visitor sees the trees, but only together can they possibly hope to see the leaves.

All of us have blind spots. When it comes to aspects of our culture that are ingrained and second nature to us, we often lack the capacity to even recognize them as significant. A savvy visitor can often learn more from what a local tour guide doesn't say than what the guide deems worthy of mention. It's the equivalent of observing the local side-step a patch of quicksand without thought or a passing comment. The visitor could then ask about it, making the local pause to reflect on something that he or she had until that moment done by rote and taken completely for granted as just the way things are. In this way, both parties are enriched by the experience, seeing the land through the eyes of the other. I have experienced this firsthand. I most clearly see my home when I host friends visiting from overseas, answering questions of theirs that never would have occurred to me to ask.

For a long while now I have wanted to gather personal accounts from my friends, family, and acquaintances around the world about a day in their lives. Any random or interesting anecdote would do. To me it would be like a multitude of tour guides showing me around  their homes. I would be watching for those guides to sidestep the quicksand.

It is my hope that some of you reading this now may be brave enough to share a few of your own stories in the comments section, regardless of whether you're contributing the native forest or visitor trees to the discussion; perhaps together we can see some leaves.