“There are bats living in these trees.”
“Read the sign. Bats live in these trees.”
I look up. There are indeed live bats, hanging about in the Royal Botanical Gardens, swaying from the trees in broad daylight. According to the sign, it's a colony of thousands of Grey-headed Flying Foxes. Apparently, they just live in a public space, where they could descend at any moment and attack any jogging passerby.
Australia is very strange.
For one thing, it's a country of death. The bats could turn at any minute, but they seem relatively harmless. It's the eleven kinds of deadly poisonous snakes, the seven types of deadly jellyfish, the sting of the stonefish, the venom of the blue-ringed octopus, the jaws on the Great White Shark, and the saltwater crocodile, a creature that stalks its prey and studies its eating habits until it knows it can strike out of the blue and successfully eat you.
This is all outlined in detail at the Australian Museum in Sydney. As I read over all the ways in which this country is trying to kill me, I become certain I will die here.
For another thing, you can walk through the airport and travel between Australian cities without taking off your shoes, but you are not allowed to bring silly string on the plane. There were several stern signs that told me so.
Another deviation: my sister claims they have Outback Steakhouse, but it's called Texas Steakhouse. She also insists that it's American Cowboy themed. She says she couldn't make that up if she tried.
Some things are exactly the same. There are people drinking Starbucks. Men catcall beautiful women. People go about their day, in suits and skirts, passing by some asshole playing guitar. You can walk into a McDonald's and there really is a Big Mac just waiting for you, should you be homesick for what I call “food bullshit”. My sister was homesick for such food, and after several pints of Toohey's, it suddenly made plenty of sense to eat a large fries while strolling down the streets of Sydney.
There's blatant racism, too. While riding in a cab, somehow, without warning, a common slur for Asian people is used without the context of knight's armor. I feel uncomfortable and say nothing.
Being in a foreign country – particularly one divided by an entire ocean and a hemisphere – makes you acutely aware of all the similarities and differences between you and somewhere else. This was especially true in Australia, which I like to imagine is the Fun Reckless Uncle of England: unpretentious, often drunk, and in possession of dangerous weapons. It had so many American crossovers I was surprised at how...well, American the whole place felt. English helped a lot, as did basic cultural touchstones, like hearing Michael Jackson in a gay club. I'd walk by a church or subway station or Greenpeace panhandler and feel like I was in any metropolis in the States. Like any culture, they also have a version of meat and vegetables inside of a dough or a pie. Down Under, they call them Meat Pies. They're terrific.
Then I'd be out and realize, this side of the Pacific Ocean is totally unfamiliar. The stars in the sky are in the wrong place. I bought a duffel bag from a store called Country Road, which felt suspiciously like J. Crew, but it wasn't J. Crew. It was Country Road. What the hell is that? Why are the newspapers splashed with rugby scandals and not basketball players? This place is a constitutional monarchy? You live in a monarchy? In this day and age? And what's up with your zoos? You can just walk up and pet the kangaroos and no one yells at you? The birds in the aviary can just fly up next to you? What?!
It's this listless wandering that makes you really think. What's really the difference between me and everyone else here? Is it simply that your beaches are cleaner and malls are Victorian? Or is it that I'll never understand the appeal of Kylie Minogue?
Off the coast of the Whitsunday Islands, in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef, I dove into the ocean and snorkeled. When I looked down, I gasped through my mask: the ocean is teeming with life. Vibrant fish, darting every which way. The brightest coral imaginable. Even though the water was cloudy due to rainstorms the prior week, it was still obvious there was an entire world down below this other world, and this ocean world was more foreign to me than anything I'd ever seen before or since.
Sometimes you have to go to the other side of the world to truly feel like an outsider, only to realize you're not on the outside at all.
Out there, in nature and space, are the real frontiers. They exist in the crevices of a worn city building, on the train speeding towards the next stop, in the handshake of the next person you meet. They live in the depths of your heart and soul. The real differences aren't in the language or the culture, or the fact that you don't have to tip because they have a legitimate health care and education system and everyone earns a living wage. They're in the way you view the world around you, and how open you are to the challenge of being outside of your comfort zone.
The next time I visit Australia, it won't be so strange. I'll still be an outsider, but I can't wait. There's still so much more to discover, like how many other ways that place will kill me.