Lessons from a Fruit Farm

Jak fruit at Cape Tribulation Farmstay

(First published on Common Grounds Online)

The air hung thick and damp on the back porch of Dawn’s exotic fruit farm on the northeast corner of Australia’s Daintree rainforest. I sat on a plastic chair, one foot crossed underneath me, the other dangling a flip flop above the concrete floor of the brightly colored bed and breakfast. I began to think about what this gracefully aging Australian woman with wayward hair had just told me.
“Americans live to work. Australians work to live.”
With just three weeks left on my 10-week sabbatical on the underside of the world, I began to wonder if these words were true, and if they should mean something to me.

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A Cultivated Life

(First published on Common Grounds Online)

In November I did what no thinking person would do in the middle of an economic crisis: I quit my job and traveled halfway around the world, to Australia.

I left behind a steady stream of income and a heap of security in the hope that I might find a little more freedom, creativity, and vision for the future. So, I jumped on a jet plane for a very long trip down south, where I would spend the next two and a half months connecting with old friends and rediscovering my Aussie side. (Quick interjection: I was born in Australia, but moved to the States when I was seven.)

Along the way, I picked up a thousand little lessons from those who have walked a few extra steps down life’s journey. Prominent among them was this concept of cultivating life.

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When I found myself dripping water into a kookaburra’s (pronounced “cook-a-burra”) beak, I knew for sure that I had arrived in Australia. Not that I had any sizable doubt about the fact before, but I was learning that there are levels of “Australia-ness.”

There’s the “Look! There’s the Sydney Opera House. I can’t believe I’m in Australia!” level. Then there’s the level where you pat yourself on the back because you called the “trash can” the “rubbish bin.” But you know you have found the deeper Australia when you, first of all, know what a kookaburra is (just picture a strange cross between an owl, a woodpecker, and something that would appear in National Geographic) and give him a nickname (in this case, “Jackie”).

It was week 8 of my trip when I met “Jackie,” after having just stumbled into one of the most breathtakingly sleepy towns on the southern edge of New South Wales: Nelligen.

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Seasick on the Reef

Jessy and I (after getting off the boat)

When I was a child, one of my favorite books was Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.  It was a delightfully relatable story about a little boy who went to sleep with gum in his mouth and woke up with gum in his hair. The rest of Alexander’s day continues in a series of unfortunate events of which he remains the victim. Throughout his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, Alexander repeatedly tells his mother that he wants to move to Australia, where, supposedly, nothing bad ever happens.

By the end of his day, Alexander’s mother tells him the unwanted truth: that some days are like that, even in Australia.

Last week, I discovered that Alexander’s mother wasn’t lying.

After three gorgeously touristy days in Sydney with my friend Jessy (who had flown all the way from Indiana to spend two weeks with me), the two of us were itching to get on the train and head north to Queensland, where we hoped to bask in sunshine, swim with Nemo on the Great Barrier Reef, and sweat in a rainforest.

The only trick was we had to catch the train first. Now for someone who has spent the past five years catching trains in a big city, I figured I had this one covered. And like any gracious friend, Jessy trusted me.

Our train was set to leave from Sydney’s Central terminal at 7:15 a.m. We did our homework and planned to catch the 6:37 local train from Epping (where I’d been staying for the past 10 days), arriving at Central at 7:05—not a lot, but just enough time to catch our coach. To our luck, we arrived at the station several minutes early, and found ourselves on the 6:33 train instead. Perfect!

 Not quite.

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Front Row on 2010

My view of Sydney Harbor before the fireworks

I’ll never forget 8 a.m. on December 31, 1999 (precisely 16 hours before the ball dropped in Times Square). It was the moment the civilized world greeted the new millennium. I remember watching on the TV as the Sydney Harbor lit up with fireworks and a single word appeared on the Harbor Bridge—eternity. The story behind that word is quite fascinating (you can read about it here).

At that moment, I determined that someday I wanted to be there—to ring in some new year at Sydney Harbor, to watch the most spectacular fireworks in the whole world, and to beat everyone else in the world (with the obvious exception of New Zealand and a bunch of islands I’ve forgotten) to a new year. Two days ago, my wish came true. Only I didn’t get to ring in a new year—I got to ring in a new decade.

[Side note: I think 2010 must be an exceptionally practical year. Think about it—“twenty ten” rolls off the tongue far more readily than “two thousand and nine.” And it’s two syllables shorter too.]

The best part was that I had a front seat view from a balcony at Balmain (not a mile from the famous Harbor Bridge). And it came with free glasses of wine, scrumptious desserts, and an unending supply of conversations with 50- to 60-year-olds whom I had never met before that day. All in all, a good combination.

Still, after 10 hours of that I was ready for the show to start.

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Christmas in My Thongs (aka, Flip Flops)

Climbing a tree on Christmas Eve

(Disclaimer: I know I already posted about Christmas, but there’s so much to say about say about the Aussie holiday season that I thought I’d indulge one more time).

I woke up on Christmas morning a blurry mess, knowing I was supposed to do something. Oh, that’s right. I’m supposed to celebrate Christmas with my family over Skype. I flipped open my screen, to my brother’s cheery face. I put a piece of paper in the corner of the screen to hide my disheveled mess staring back at me. The 16-hour time lag had struck again, and I had found myself on the short end of the stick. My mom, dad, and sister popped onto the screen. They looked fresh and ready to go to their Christmas Eve service. We exchanged Christmas greetings for about an hour, then I closed the screen. It was time to open presents with my adopted family.

The Honors are one of those families you feel like you were always supposed to be part of. They’re tremendously close and even more tremendously fun. Many families might play a board game together for fun. The Honors play pranks together.

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Meet (the Real) Australia

Crimes that could send you to Australia

Australia is a land of impressions. These impressions usually involve crocodiles, kangaroos, cool accents, and Finding Nemo.

It is generally decided that Australia is an agreeable country and fairly innocuous—minus all of the dangerous animals it claims. There are few who despise it (it is really much too far away from everything to cause much trouble) and even fewer who really take the time to get to know it (except for the occasional fascination with its cult classics like Crocodile Dundee and The Man from Snowy River). If we’re like most people we tend to think of Australia as a quiet little nook on the other side of the world that we’d all like to visit someday, but probably won’t.

This is how the hilarious travel writer Bill Bryson describes the country:

“Australia doesn’t misbehave. It is stable and peaceful and good. It doesn’t have coups, recklessly overfish, arm disagreeable despots, grow coca in provocative quantities, or throw its weight around in a brash and unseemly manner.”

In short, Australia doesn’t do much.

In reality, however, Australia is quite a brilliant country. Here are some fascinating factoids about this famously sunburnt nation.

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Christmas in Oz

Sydney Harbor (the view from my deck)

You know you’re in Australia when it’s December 17th and you’re wearing your bathing suit and eating squishy mangoes. I must admit, it doesn’t feel much like Christmas here on the other side of the world.

I arrived into Sydney on Monday (after a delightful week of chasing cows in Wellington), and immediately ripped off my sweater, wishing I was wearing shorts instead of jeans. Crossing the Pacific Ocean from New Zealand to Australia is like crossing into another season. Although it’s summer in New Zealand as well, it’s the jacket and trousers kind of summer. Not so in the Land of Oz (aka Australia). (Side note: I’m not really sure why they call it Oz. There aren’t yellow brick roads or anything).

So while everyone in the States is probably baking Christmas cookies and dusting off those first layers of snow from the windshields, I’m here lathering up the sunscreen and wishing I brought more tank tops.

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Away I Go!

In a small manilla envelope, I have two dark blue booklets. Under the front cover of one reads: citizen of the United States. In the second, similar words: an Australian citizen. The slight discrepancy in those titles makes all the difference.

Despite the glamorous connection I feel with Jason Bourne, the owning of two passports means that I belong to two nations. But sometimes I feel neither of them belong to me.

I have never felt comfortable answering the question, Where are you from? In Washington, DC, everyone asks everyone where they are from, because no one is actually from DC. Everyone is from somewhere else. It’s a simple question. It should elicit a simple response. But I stumble. Well, my family lives in Indiana, but I grew up all over the Midwest, and before that I lived in Australia. I was born there, actually.

But where am I from, really?

I don’t know.

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A Lament for a Sunburnt Country

Hans Heysen

Hans Heysen

Above my mantle hangs a replica of a South Australian pastoral scene. Like cows, kangaroos graze beneath arching white trees. Muted green, the land rests peacefully in its arid beauty, beckoning me home.

I am an Australian, though I don’t fully understand what that means. Born 26 years ago in a New South Wales hospital to two American parents, I have dual citizenship in a country I don’t really know, except for seven years of childish impressions. I know a bit of its temperate climate, its brogue-ish tongue, and its endearing people, but I have not lived with it through sorrow. (Continue reading here.)