Bill Bryson, 2000
I don’t read a lot of travel writing, but when I do read it I find myself telling myself that this is what I should be doing with myself. I totally missed my calling. Why am I trying to “heal” the ill, the destitute who can hardly care for themselves? Why do I invest so much time, energy and valuable human sympathy towards an under-appreciated investment in the ideals of caring for others. Who am I kidding? I love the crazy mixed up shit I have to contend with in my job. It may be tough work, but it does truly satisfy my soul.
Anyhow, if I wasn’t a nurse, in an alternate timeline I probably would be a great travel writer. Or at least I would want to be. Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country is exactly the type of fun explorative essay-like musing on culture, geography, and history that inspires me to appreciate the unknown and unfamiliar in my travels. And Bryson manages to communicate all that with tongue-in-cheek self-deprecating humor and whit.
In other words: I had a great time reading this book.
Handed to me by a close friend after learning about my very soon-to-be trip Down Under over this Christmas and New Year’s holiday, I didn’t expect much of the book that was billed as a must read and very funny. Well the bill was accurate, this is great stuff.
My two-week trip will hardly achieve the level of exploration that Bryson enjoyed over several visits to Australia wherein he managed to see nearly all the eastern, southern, northern, and western coasts in addition to the vast interior of the desert outback. I’ll only be traveling to Sydney and the tropical coastal area near Cairns whereas Bryson really had an opportunity to explore the vastness of this continental-island-country that is nearly the size of the United States with a total population of only 60% that of California.
Bryson’s writing is enjoyable and informative. In his catalog of his travels, he takes many tangential moments to laugh with wonder about the peculiar behaviors and interests of the Australian people. He mostly gives them a forgiving credit for their odd self-defeating pride, as they are a country of international size and economic power with a strangely backwater and hillbilly-ish nature. This is the country founded as a prison after all! Australia is part of the commonwealth but not part of the UK. Since Australia has only been a country for just over a century its capital, Canberra is less than 75 years old. The same pre-teen mix of pride and finding one’s identity shines throughout the country’s odd behaviors such as its bullish politics and quirky historical facts as depicted in the passage of the choosing of the name for the young capital:
“So the young nation had a capital. The next challenge was what to call it, and yet more periods of passion and rancor where consumed with settling the matter…Suggested names were Myola, Wheatwooldgold, Emu, Eucalypta, Symeldadperbrisho (the first syllables of the state capitals), Opossum, Gladstone, Thirstyville, Kookaburra, Cromwell, and the ringingly inane Victoria Defendera Defender. In the end, “Canberra” won more or less by default.” (86)
In exploring the historical significance of the capital Bryson spends a considerable time describing how pleasantly boring Canberra is, poking fun at the promotional films with the titles such as “Canberra – It’s Got it All!!! – the ones that boast how you can water ski and shop for an evening gown and have a pizza all in the same day, because this place has … got it all!” (87). Though I won’t be visiting Canberra, my wife of whom is already in Australia has spent a few days there visiting her cousin and she has confirmed to me, that yes Canberra does have it all.
Another odd quirk about the Australian people that Bryson spends a considerable time exploring is their schizophrenic love for very diverse sports. This is a country with their own flavor of Australian rules football that is confusing, fast paced, and wild and yet the same countrymen obsess about the slow and prolonged game of cricket. As an avid baseball fan myself, the following passage about cricket’s slow methodical pace made me chuckle with appreciation for the sport:
“After years of patient study (and with cricket there can be no other kind) I have decided that there is nothing wrong with the game that the introduction of golf carts wouldn’t fix in a hurry. It is not true that the English invented cricket as a way of making all other human endeavors look interesting and lively; that was merely an unintended side effect. I don’t wish to denigrate a sport enjoyed by millions, some of them awake and facing the right way, but it is an odd game.” (105-6)
Unfortunately, I won’t be in the country during the right season for a game of Australian rules football and buying a ticket for a multi-day cricket match seems overwhelming and confusing, especially since I have no reference for who is a good team or where is a good seat. I’ll be spending most of my time near the the Queensland area visiting the Great Barrier Reef and surrounding tropical rain forests in addition to welcoming the new year in alongside the Sydney harbor. Bryson spent a good portion of the book depicting both regions, outlining how the Queensland people have a laissez faire gruffness towards the numerous ways in which nature can kill you and humorously describing himself getting lost in the parks of Sydney.
Apart from my interest in reading about the areas I’ll actually be visiting, Bryson spends a considerable time in the outback. He doesn’t just fly from city to city, he drives the 1000+ miles from city to city, taking in the vast emptiness of Australia, reminiscing on the fact that much of the country is still unexplored with both new species of plants and animals as well as extinct fossils appearing all the time through serendipitous luck. Since Australia has been isolated from the rest of the world’s continents far longer than any other it is home to a rich biodiversity unseen anywhere else. Of course everyone knows of the peculiarities of Kangaroos and Koalas, but Bryson opened up my awareness towards the existence of the giant earthworms that are up to a meter long, the small, spiny reptile-like, mammalian, egg-laying monotremes known as the echidna, and the oldest living fossils, the stromatolites, a weird rock-like organism similar to coral and was once the king of the natural world.
All of these wonders are found in very remote places that I likely won’t have a chance to visit in my short trip, but Bryson describes them with vivid excitement that entices me to make it out to these locations, somehow, anyhow. Of one of those locations that can be bucketed into the geological wonderment, Ayers Rock, or more appropriately, the Aboriginal name of Uluru, wasn’t high on my list. It seemed far out the way to go just to see a giant rock, but Bryson’s description piqued my interest:
“nowhere else on earth has a lump of rock been left standing when all else around it has worn away. Bornhardts are not uncommon – the Devils marbles are a collection of miniature Bornhardts – but no where else on earth has one lump of rock been left in such dramatic and solitary splendor or assumed such a pleasing smooth symmetry. It is a hundred million years old. Go there, man.” (257)
Unfortunately, the heat in the dead of summer (yes it is summer right now, on this the first day of winter) isn’t ideal for a trip to Uluru. Interestingly, the more recent use of the Aboriginal name for the sacred rock is the indication of a trend towards recognizing the rich Aboriginal history in a continent primarily known for the culture of its European settlers. Although continental Australia has been populated by man for nearly 40,000 years, the Aboriginal history is often under noticed. Bryson admirably visits this unique and challenging aspect of the present-day Australia’s troubled identity often finding that many white Australians prefer not to discuss the presence of their Aboriginal neighbors. This of course is the story of many places colonized by the Europeans over the past 400 years, but the Aboriginal story seems the least understood than any other place. Bryson’s acknowledgment and attention toward this aspect of Australia throughout the book was poignantly and respectfully addressed:
“As I sat now on the Todd Street Mall with my coffee and watched the mixed crowds – happy white shoppers with Saturday smiles and a spring in their step, shadowy Aborigines with their curious bandages and slow, swaying, knocked-about gait – I realized that I didn’t have the faintest idea what the solution to all this was, what was required to spread the fruits of general Australian prosperity to those who seemed so signally unable to find their way to it…So without an original or helpful thought in my head, I just sat for some minutes and watched these poor disconnected people shuffle past. The I did what most white Australians do. I read my newspaper and drank my coffee and didn’t see them anymore.” (273)
I probably would not have ever read this book were it not for my upcoming trip to Australia, but I must admit that Bryson is a damn good author and this is a well written book. I’d recommend it to any reader even if Australia isn’t on your list, because after reading it you’ll definitely fall for Bryson’s love for the country.
“You see, Australia is an interesting place. It truly is. And that really is all I’m saying.” (304)
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