Program Semester and Year
The 2014 Australia program is over. We returned to Brisbane last Wednesday from Fraser Island, had our farewell dinner on Thursday evening, and on Friday morning we went our separate ways. Our final meal together on Thursday was a wonderful event. We gathered at an Indian restaurant in the West End just around the corner from where we had our classes during our month in Brisbane. After weeks of grungy camping clothes, muddy hiking boots, wet bathing suits (“bathers” in Australia), and flip-flops, it was fun to dress up for a night out on the town. The highlight of the evening was the excellent slideshow Emma put together from all of our photos this semester. It was great to relive all the incredible experiences we have had and to reflect on how much we have learned and how close we have become as a group since our first days in Sydney back in January. Our travels these last fourteen weeks have taken us through the urban center of Sydney, the caverns and canyons of the Blue Mountains, the scorched eucalypt forests of North Stradbroke Island, the suburbs of Brisbane, the state parliament of Queensland, the rain forests of Lamington, the hidden crevices and streams of Carnarvon Gorge, cattle stations and coal towns, and the coral cays of the Great Barrier Reef. Many of the people we encountered on our journey remarked that we were seeing more of their country than most Australians ever would.
Like many of the students I spoke to, I can hardly believe that the program is over and I am just now beginning to process the whole experience. In a sense, I still don’t know what to make of Australia. When I compare it to the other places in which I have spent a lot of time—India, East Africa, China, and Europe—it seems much more like America. Driving along a highway past Costco, Target, McDonalds or other familiar chain outlets, listening to the radio, or attending barbecues and beach parties often made me feel like I was merely in a new part of a familiar world. The differences seemed minor: vehicles drive on the left side of the road, state governors are called “premiers,” when the Broncos play the Cowboys in football they don’t wear padding and rarely stop the clock, and people say “no worries” instead of “no problem” or “don’t worry about it.” More significantly, my students and I never had to struggle with a foreign language or a radically different culture. In fact, the biggest cultural difference may have been the ubiquitous Vegemite, an inedible paste that the locals regard like manna from heaven.
Yet at other times, this country/continent could not have been more different. It was astonishing to stand in front of Aboriginal rock paintings so old that they could not accurately be dated, to ponder the timeline of the world’s oldest continuous human society (40,000 years at minimum) and then consider this longevity against their struggle to survive through the most recent two centuries. Modern Australia’s stability, peace and prosperity also belie the convict origins of the first white settlement. It is hard to believe that the thought of transportation to this land, often for the most minor offenses, once filled the underclass of Britain and Ireland with dread. The penal colonies of Sydney, Moreton Bay, Tasmania, and Norfolk Island were the gulags of their day and those condemned to be sent there often saw the last vestiges of their humanity stripped from them—an experience they would share with the original inhabitants, though little sympathy would grow between the two groups. From these dismal origins, the fragmented prison outposts of the continent would one day merge into a single large colony, transportation would end, and waves of hopeful immigrants would take the place of those shackled men and women forced to plant the first seeds of the nation. As an historian of the British Empire, I have developed a deep and abiding fascination for this country, its dark and unlikely beginnings, and its many transformations.
The natural beauty and peculiarity of Australia will also be hard to leave behind. I still have not gotten used to the squawk of the cockatoo or the laugh of the kookaburra even as these became a regular part of our soundscape these last few months. I think back on the half-burnt eucalypt trees sprouting new leaves within days of fire, the night skies of Australia’s densest metropolis filled with giant bats, the kangaroos and wallabies that bounded past our tents, and sandy-bottomed lagoons carpeted with stingrays. These sights never ceased to amaze me; I loved their strangeness and I know that I will feel their absence once I am back in Portland.
For many of us, the end of the program signals the beginning of our own travels. By now, the students in our group have scattered to Western Australia, Northern Queensland, Tasmania, and New Zealand as our antipodean adventures continue. I am writing this final entry in our blog from the veranda of a guesthouse on the island of Efate in Vanuatu, a Melanesian archipelago 1200 miles east of Australia, where I am looking forward to a bit of island hopping, diving, and beach time on my own. Yet I know that I will not enjoy these as much without the students to share the experience with me. As faculty leader I was doubly blessed with a wonderful group of students and our able and enthusiastic assistant program leader Emily. Indeed, I could not have been happier with the people who were part of this year’s Australia program. We were likewise fortunate to have been so well looked after by Nat, Marta, and Mira at GED, our outstanding cook Ulla, our fearless driver Steve, and the dozens of scholars, scientists, elders, and teachers who formed our academic staff and accompanied us on our travels. It was a genuine pleasure to have their companionship, to get to know Australia from their perspectives, and to see this country in a way that few outsiders ever will. “Thank you” is an insufficient acknowledgement for all they did.