Saturday, June 28, 2014

Immigration museum, running in the dark, and other tales

The darkest day of the year has come and gone, and we are still here in Melbourne. 

I had a personal goal to run once around the Tan Track -- a track that used to be used for horse racing, and encircles the Botanic Gardens, cuts past the Shrine of Remembrance, before twisting to run along the river.  I've been training a bit in the mornings, running before breakfast in the park behind our house.  Last weekend I did the run from our house, up to the Tan Track, around it once, and back.  I did it!  But I think I'm going to have to give up running -- it is too dark.


Although the grass is still green, and many of the trees are evergreen, and even on "cold" days the temperature stays well above freezing, the sun knows that it's winter in Melbourne.  The sun doesn't come up until after 8am, and it is gone again by 5:30pm.  I started running a couple of months ago at 6:30am, until it became too dark for that.  Then I went at 7am.  Then even 7:30.  But I can't push it later -- Jonathan has to go to school, and I have to get to work.  So either I stop, or I run in the dark. I am tired of running in the dark.  Perhaps I'll just walk to and from work for exercise from now on -- one hour each way -- and save on the last of my tram fares, too.

Today we visited the Immigration Museum, in an old building in the Central Business District, near the river, that used to be the Customs House.  The museum contained photographs and stories of immigrants, including many video interviews.  It was interesting to hear the stories.  One clip showed a man from Nigeria, who said that he felt so restricted when he moved to Australia.  In his country, people like to party.  And they just throw their garbage anywhere.  But in Australia, there are red lid bins, yellow bins for recycling, blue bins for common rubbish -- and so many rules!  The rules bothered him a lot when he first moved here. 

Me, I think I feel the opposite.

Here are some of the rules in Australia.

It is mandatory to vote in Australia.  If you don't vote in an election, you are fined. 

Why does that sound like such a good idea?  Oh, I know why.  In my home town in the US, last Tuesday, there was an election to determine county government.  From the news, I read that there was only a 7% voter turnout.  And the freak candidate?  The guy nobody would endorse because he ran on a platform of cluelessness and anti-federal land?  He was the winner, over the guy who actually knew what the county government position entailed.  But who am I to complain?  I didn't vote.  Not even an absentee ballot.  I wasn't eligible -- the election was for Republicans only.  Perhaps this is reason to become Republican.  And perhaps this is reason to favor mandatory voting, because I doubt that my reasonable Republican neighbors would have voted for that guy had they bothered. 

Back to Australia, and its rules and regulations, there is also mandatory retirement savings.  Everyone must contribute 9% of each paycheck to their own retirement fund.  A lot?  Perhaps.  And this on top of national health insurance.  But it means the sick and the elderly are well cared for. 

And a recent article from CNN money shows that Australians have the 2nd highest average net worth out of 20 wealthy countries (after Switzerland) and the very highest median net worth of all.  In other words, your average Australian, and your median Australian, is financially well off.  It is a wealthy land.

The gun laws in Australia are strict.  When a shooter killed dozens of people in Port Arthur, Tasmania, in the 1990s, the government immediately banned many kinds of weapons, and raised 500 million dollars to buy them back from its citizens and destroy them.  Today, there is not much violent crime in Australia, compared to similar sized populations elsewhere.  Correlation or causation?

Bicycle helmets have been mandatory since 1990.  If you don't wear a helmet, police can stop you and fine you $176.

And so on.

I think the Nigerian from the film in the Immigration Museum was right.  Vitoria, Australia is a place with a lot of rules.  It's a place where people make rules prohibiting poor choices when they get tired of paying for the poor choices that their neighbors make.  And having lived here for six months, it's a wonderful place to live.  Safe.  Clean.  Friendly. 

Our time here is coming to a close, although we still have a few weeks.  But already the friends we have made are beginning to wish us a prolonged goodbye.  At church, they're looking for a new pianist to take my place, and Tim has finished his church teaching job.  Jonathan's best friend at school left a week ago to spend the winter holidays in Russia, and Jonathan won't see him again before we leave.  "Any chance you can stay longer?" people have been asking.  At church, at school, our realtor.

It was interesting to see the Immigration Museum this morning from the perspective of one who cannot stay, who cannot make Melbourne home at this time.  It was sad, actually.  The work hours have been horrible for Tim, but even he says he could make the hours work, if we could stay longer.  The friendliness of the people, the mildness of the weather, the beauty of the country, the health and safety we feel living here have been worth the initial upheaval.  But I don't have a job in Melbourne. 

Alas, staying isn't an option. 

So you, dear reader, can enjoy a few more weeks of prolonged goodbyes, with us.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


That sport with the black and white ball?  The US is not the only country in the world to call it "soccer", rather than "football".

In Australia, soccer is soccer.  And football is footy.  Or AFL, Jonathan calls it.  He has played it in PE at school.  Australian rules football. 

Yesterday, we went to an Australian rules football game at the Melbourne Cricket Grounds stadium, with seven friends and more than 70,000 others.

So what is football in Australia?

It is a game played on a circular field, with radius approximately 150 meters (so you can fit at least two US football fields in there).

Images from Wikipedia.

There are four goal posts on either end, for three different goal regions on each side.  Kick the ball through the center posts for six points.  Kick it to the side for one point.

You can carry the ball, but not far.  You have to bounce it if you want to keep running.

You can throw the ball to your teammates.  Like ultimate frisbee, but with bouncing and kicking.

You can kick the ball anytime.

If you catch the ball after it has been kicked, the other team has to step away and give you space to complete your play.  If you kick and a teammate catches near the goal posts, the crowd goes wild!  You're going to score!

If your teammate does not catch the ball, the game does not stop, or switch teams, but everyone gets to go chasing after it.

You can tackle in legal ways.  But not all tackling is legal.  Not quite sure which is which.  And every time the game stopped with players on top of each other, the crowd went crazy with angry shouting.  I think it's better to keep the ball moving.  And notice from the photos that no one wears helmets or padding.  Better not to get tackled.

Jonathan comes home indignant from school.  At recess, some of the children play footy with tackling, which is against school rules. 

Some other interesting rules.  If you have the ball, and you run out of bounds a little, just run back in and keep playing.

If the ball gets kicked or thrown or rolled out of bounds, then the referee takes it to the edge, faces backwards, and chucks he ball backwards as high over his head as possible.

Play starts when the referee bounces the ball in the center of the field as hard as he can. 

The referee wears bright green.

The players wear black and white vertical stripes.  Or brown and yellow stripes.  Those were the teams we watched.

The fans wear scarfs in their team colors.  Because it is winter.  Just wearing a guernsey (jersey) like one of the players won't do, because you will have to put a coat over it.  The players do not put coats over their guernseys, but they are running back and forth around a giant circular field without any stopping for tackling or hiking or kickoffs.

Here, a scarf tells the world which team you support.

You do not root for a team.  That is obscene.  You support a team.  Be very careful with that one.

Finally, here are a couple of pictures that we took.  The first is our Australian friend Andrew explaining the game to Jonathan.  The second is our view of the field.  Go team!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

More Grampians pics, and Sovereign Hill

Coming back to our regularly scheduled program....

My friend from work had a much better camera than I, and I have obtained copies of his pictures.  I will not bore you with all of them (or rather, I will not bore myself uploading them all), but I will let you see a few more highlights of our trip to the Grampians from the Queen's Birthday weekend.

First, this.  The scenery was beautiful there.  This is what the view looked like from our motel.

Those little dots are kangaroos.  You can see them up closer here.

When we left off from describing our Grampians trip, two blog posts ago, we had all hiked up to the top of a high lookout, and the camera battery had suddenly died.  This is what we looked like with a dead camera battery on top of the Pinnacle.

Or, zoomed in a little:

We looked good, didn't we?  Like strong hikers. 

This is what the view looked like from up there.

There were other views, too, in other directions, that were equally stunning.  But the above view is best, because the green patch to the left is where we were staying for the weekend.

We eventually did make our way down from the Pinnacle.  From there, we took the car to Baroka Lookout, and looked out.

I know that picture shows us looking in, but we had looked out first.  That's our whole group, by the way.  If you zoom in a little you will see that we all look like we are freezing, because indeed we were freezing!  Do not forget, oh warm Reader in the Northern Hemisphere, that it is winter here.  We're coming up on the darkest day of the year, in fact, this week.

Next stop:  along an orange dirt road into the bush....

... to a place called Paddy's Castle.  A large pile of rocks for me and Jonathan to climb.

The grass and trees look nice and green, don't they?  Winter is not bad here.  The native trees are all evergreen.  But on the top of a mountain it is freezing cold.  It is.  And it is dark early.  Winter. 

That was our last day in the Grampians. 

The next morning, we left early, meaning around 8:30am -- just after sunrise -- and drove to Ballarat.  In Ballarat, we took a three hour stop at a place called Sovereign Hill. 

Sovereign Hill is a reconstructed gold mining town, made to look like Ballarat in the 1850s, when people from around the world traveled to Victoria, Australia, to try to make their fortune.

We didn't have quite enough time to see everything, but we did see most of it.  And we went panning for gold.

Tim found the tiny specks of gold in his pan easily.

See that tiny speck on his finger?  Yeah, I don't see it either.  But that, my friends, is gold.  

Jonathan was determined to stay by the chilly river until he found his own speck.  Luckily, it only took him an hour to find ... two specks!  We all left happy.  Tim and Jonathan were happy because they had eight specks together.  And I was happy because we got to see something else.  Happiness!

And then, after exploring the whole village, shown below, we went home.

The end.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Fictional interlude

We interrupt this thrilling travel log to present the following cute little story, which we have written in honor of the world cup.  

Once upon a time there was a girl who loved to play sprockball.  Near her home, there was a huge field where all the sprockball teams would line up and play for hours, every day.  She loved the colorful uniforms, the pretty flags that the sponsors flew, the smell of the grass, but especially she loved to see the players run back and forth, up and down the field, kicking and bouncing the sprockball. 

As the girl grew, she learned to play sprockball herself, and she became very good.  One beautiful day, she received an offer from Team Green to play with them, as a full teammate!  She was so excited.  Although she had kind of been hoping to play wearing yellow or purple, what difference did the uniform make? She could really play sprockball!  As she carefully dressed in the bright green uniform, she thought of how hard she would work to do the best she could as a Team Green player!

To her pleasure, when she arrived on the field, she found that the grass on Team Green's court was greener and thicker and lusher than any grass she had ever seen.  As she ran around warming up, she breathed deeply the scent of it.

"Do you like that?" asked the team captain.  "We are one of the few teams owned by a lawn care company.  Our grass is always the very greenest."

The girl smiled.  She was proud to work for a team with the greenest grass.

As the game began, the girl noticed that the lawn care company started up their mowers.

"What is happening?" she asked the captain.

"Our sponsor is a lawn care company," he replied.  "They run their machines on the side of the court while we play."

"Isn't it a little loud?" she asked. 

"A little, but you'll get used to it.  And stay within the lines of the court."

The girl looked at the brightly painted lines on the sides of the sprockball court.  Of course she would stay within the lines.  She was an excellent player!

"Why stay within the lines?" she asked casually.

"So that you don't get hurt by the lawn machines."

Shocked, the girl looked at the lines again, the mowers on the edge.  "Do people get hurt?"

The captain smiled.  "Oh, not for many many years.  Not inside the court lines, at least."

The girl was a little shaken, but she was an excellent player.  She would stay within the lines. 

Over the next few months, the girl worked hard.  She used her sprockball skills to help the Green Team.  While they had never been the best sprockball team, she could tell they were improving.  They began to score more goals.  They began to win!  And the girl herself even scored a few of the winning goals!  She was a team hero! 

Although she was mostly happy, the noise of the lawn mowers still bothered her occasionally.  Sometimes she couldn't hear her teammates over its roar. Once, while trying out a new sprockball move, she got a little dirt in her eyes as an unexpected leaf blower neared the edge of the court a few feet away.  She blinked a little, teared up a little, but the dust washed out.

"Sorry about that," said the team captain.  "You ok?"

He was kind. They were all kind, her teammates.  Dust washed out.  She could still play sprockball. 

Meanwhile, her friends from other courts looked across hers with envy.  How green the grass was!  How lush and healthy it grew.  The girl smiled.  It was true.  The grass here was the most beautiful on the whole sprockball field. 

Only one day, something terrible happened. 

The lawn care company, out with their massive mowers, slipped over the line just a little, and caught one of the players in their blades.

The other players froze, and the game ground to a halt as everyone watched in horror, blood and screams. 

The girl was petrified. She had never seen anything so terrible.  As the injured player was carried off the field, the lawn mower started up again.  The game began again.

"What?  What?" the girl cried.  "We just carry on?"

"What else can we do?  We are sprockball players."

"But that player was terribly injured!"

"He shouldn't have been playing so close to the line," said the team captain.  "It's disturbing, yes, but it won't happen to you, as long as you stay far away from the line."

"But he was inside the court!"

"No," said another player.  "I think I saw him step out, just before it happened."

"And anyway," pointed out another, "the lines used to be a little closer in.  If he had stayed within the original lines, nothing would have happened."

"Yes," agreed a third.  "It's better not to have these modern players on our team anyway.  They forget where the original court lines were drawn."

Shocked, the girl turned away.  Didn't her teammates realize that she was a modern player too?  That she played outside the original, more traditional lines, but still within the full court?  Quietly, she turned to the team captain.  "Maybe we could have the lawn mowers moved?" she whispered.  "Just a little further away?"

The captain looked at her in concern.  "Our sponsor is a lawn care company," he said.  "If we want to play on their court, we have to stay away from their mowers.  Please don't say anything else about it."

The girl tried to play again, but the blood on the side of the field was too horrifying.  Sometimes, she knew, her sprockball playing led her to the edges of the court as well.  Sometimes, to be the best player she could be, she had to follow the ball where it led, even outside the traditional lines, which had been removed many years before.

She began to look around the sprockball field, farther away, across to the other courts, where the blue, the yellow, and the purple teams played.

No one had grass as green and lush.  Some of the other teams kicked their ball through dirt, or even mud.  One player in yellow tripped on a rock, and skinned her knee.  A player in orange knocked over another, leaving him bruised.  She watched them fight.  Those teams were not as kind as hers.  She watched them scrabble over the dirt.  Their lawn was so thin and brown. 

But none of them had lawn mowers. 

And they all played sprockball.

"Come play!  The grass is so green!" called the Green Team captain. 

And it was.  It was very green. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Queen's Birthday

Last Monday was a state holiday: queen's birthday.  It isn't Queen Elizabeth's birthday in England.  It isn't Queen Victoria's birthday, for whom the state is named.  But it was a fine day for taking a holiday.  So we did.

A couple from work invited us to go with them to the Grampians National Park.  Jonathan's school was canceled on Friday, as well (because it was a fine day for using up the school's floating free day).  We left on Friday around noon and drove three hours west to the town of Hall's Gap, in the national park.

As we drove, Tim looked up requirements for Jonathan's cub scouting.  Why not cross some off while we were out in nature anyway?  One requirement, for the naturalist ... something ... was to take a week and go birdwatching.  That is, to record all the birds you see in the wild for a whole week. 

The Grampians was a perfect place to get started. 

We saw the following birds in the wild.

1.  Emu.
There were groups of emu wandering around the grassy fields, pecking in the grass.  What is a group of emu called?  A flock?  A herd?

2.  Sulphur-crested cockatoos.

These large white birds are very social, and squawk at each other in big groups.  At the visitor's center, we learned that June and July make up the season of the cockatoo, one of six seasons of the year of the indigenous people.  In June and July, the cockatoos gather in dozens and even hundreds.  We will forever feel very sad when we see these birds isolated in small homes as pets. 

3.  Crimson rosella.  Our photo is poor -- it's that red parrot in the center of the picture.  Look it up yourself on google.  

A pair of these birds were eating seeds outside the visitors center.  Another pair were digging in the dirt in grounds of the fenced off (and closed for winter) swimming pool.

4.  Kookaburra.

These birds make very loud calls that are used as sound effects in jungle movies.  It's true.  Ask google to play you a kookaburra call.  You will think it is a monkey.  They seem to call out most frequently at dawn, like an alarm clock, although this guy was hanging out in the center of Hall's Gap on a rainy afternoon. 

5.  Gang-gang cockatoo.

This guy was eating seeds just off the path as we started our first hike on Saturday.  The male has the bright, tufted red head, and the female is all gray.  The male didn't seem to care that we were standing just a few feet away taking his picture.  But his wife (the birds mate for life) decided to fly off, and they both went.  Gang-gangs are becoming more rare, so we were lucky to see this guy.

6.  Scarlet robin.

I don't have a picture of this bird, but it was the first Australian robin we've seen.  The robins here are much smaller and brighter than robins in the US.  The bird we saw was very bright red with a dark black head.

7.  Australian magpie.

We see these everywhere, but I have come to love them.  They have a beautiful song, and around 6:30 in the morning, several of the birds were singing in chorus.  Ask google what they sound like.

8.  Other birds: Red wattle bird, purple swamp hen, black swan, crested pigeon, superb fairy wren -- both the striking blue male and the little brown female, New Holland honey eater, currawong. 

All this in the wild.  I will miss the birds of Australia.  There are so many with interesting colors and calls.  It will be sad to go back to the browns and grays.

We did other things besides watch birds.  

We climbed Mount Zero.

And at an apple near the top.

We drove through the northern part, unable to stop.  Wildfires ripped through this part of the park last summer, in January, and most of the roads and hikes are closed until the forest is able to recover, and park staff have been able to determine safety of burned out trees.  But five months later, the eucalypts are beginning to recover -- by growing new leaves sideways out of their burned trunks.  Since we couldn't stop, I took the following picture out the car window.  Behind the trees is a famous waterfall -- closed.  But you can see the new growth after the burning.

After that, we hiked in the rain.

To spectacular lookouts.

When the fog cleared a bit, you could see that the view was probably impressive.

 We explored the Venus Baths.

The next day, we climbed through the Grand Canyon.  Of the Grampians.

To Bridal Veil Falls. Of the Grampians.

Through Silent Street.

To a lookout called the Pinnacle.

But alas, our camera battery died up at the top, and we had no charger.  My work friends took pictures for us from then on, but I haven't claimed them yet.  I will post more when I get them.

Until then, two final pictures for you to enjoy.

A warning sign for the hike.  Watch out for falling off cliffs, slipping on rocks, or people holding your hand.

And a very poor picture of a kangaroo near the motel playground.  A group of kangaroos is a mob, and there were many mobs of kangaroos in Halls Gap, including one that enjoyed the grass in front of our motel.  We had a very lovely time watching the bouncing wildlife over the weekend.

The Grampians was one of our favorite places we have been so far!  Highly recommended, if you ever make it to this side of the world, even in winter.  Or, as the indigenous people would say, in cockatoo season.