Going Down Under
Step one of the project was to establish a pen-pal exchange between the students of our respective schools. That is already well underway. Step three is
So, what, you might ask, is step two? Well, unlike the underwear-stealing gnomes in The Simpsons, we do know the answer. Step two was to involve a visit to our sister-school by a delegation from Seishin. There were several reasons for this, but perhaps the biggest one was simple fairness. After all, the chief Japanese teacher at our sister-school used to live and work in Kashima, so she knows our area well. We, on the other hand, knew little or nothing about them and their locale, so I figured first-hand exposure was in order.
Well, we just got back from that exposure down under (No, not that kind!), and it was definitely an adventure.
Our plane left Narita Airport at 10:00 at night (beating the typhoon by only a few hours) and arrived at Brisbane Intl. Airport bright and early the next morning. From there, we caught a shuttle bus to the pleasant, little (but rapidly growing) beach town of Caloundra in the Australian Sunshine Coast region, about an hour away.
My first impression was that it was amazing how much Brisbane reminded me of Portland. The two cities are of similar size and also have a very similar look and feel. (I felt even more so when we actually stayed at a hotel in Brisbane later, but I won't jump the gun.) The highway signs there were more or less the same size, color, and font style as those in Oregon. I also saw several of the same chain businesses. However, there was no getting around the fact that we were driving on the left side of the road, as in Japan. The topography of the land, and especially the vegetation, was also very obviously different.
And then there were those roundabouts...a good idea, really, but strange to this Yank.
Anyway, we got into Caloundra and soon found out just how much you can't trust guidebooks. It's currently winter in Australia. The guide said that the average July temperature in the Sunshine Coast was 19 degrees celsius (about 66 degrees Fahrenheit) during the day and 10 degress celsius (about 50 degrees F) during the night. Considering we had come from the sauna that is summertime Japan, we had decided to wear long-sleeve shirts and jackets. When we walked the "ten minute" (in Caloundra time, apparently) distance from the bus terminal to our hotel, lugging our suitcases, we found out the hard way that wintertime temperatures of 25 degrees celsius (77 degrees F) are not only possible there, but quite common. The humidity was low, thank goodness, but our shirts and jackets were pretty much sogged through by the time we arrived.
I won't go to a whole lot of detail about the school visit that followed. Suffice to say that our new sister-school, Pacific Lutheran College, is a very interesting school with a warm atmosphere. Half the campus is still more or less under construction, and both the student body and faculty are still growing, but it's an interesting program with a great group of kids and an even better faculty. They really rolled out the red carpet for us.
We had duplicate signing ceremonies for the junior/senior high and the prep/elementary sections, each with its own distinct flavor. A large group of the junior and senior high kids were away at study camps, wiping out their planned choir/concert band performance, so the school's rock band played instead (and they were actually pretty good). The grade schoolers, on the other hand, did put on a choir performance for us, singing a Japanese song (much to the delight of our principal). Later, after the ceremony, as we were taking a grand tour of the school, the kindergarteners eagerly came running out of their classrooms to offer us their own performance. To say they were adorable would be an understatement.
Although very traditional in many ways, Pacific Lutheran has both a very modern look and a very modern curriculum. In fact, our principal was impressed with their science and technology programs, which fit in well with his hopes for Seishin to participate in the "Super Science High School" project the government is trying to promote in Japan. Even so, I was mostly impressed with the friendliness and eagerness of the students, who often came running out to try out a bit of their Japanese.
I was also impressed yet again by just how obvious it was that we were on a completely different continent. There were birds everywhere, all of which were totally unfamiliar. (Even the crows were unique!) The trees of the deep woods that bordered the school included eucalyptus, gum, and some types I'd never seen before, all totally different from Oregon or Ibaraki. And then of course there is the group of wild kangaroos that comes hopping onto the school grounds almost every afternoon to enjoy the grass and weeds. (Yes, I am absolutely serious.)
That evening the principal of PLC took us out for dinner (seafood, the local specialty, not steak) and drinks. Then, after a good night's sleep, we were given the grand tour of the Sunshine Coast area by Joanne, the chief of the Japanese department. The famous craft-fair villages of Melany and Montville were a lot of fun (though the recent corporate invasion of Melany and the ongoing dispute that it spawned put rather a dent on the fun.) The little hike we went on at Kondalilla Falls awarded us some spectacular views, some close-up looks at wholly alien plant and animal life, and a good day's exercise. Lunch at the English pub at the river-straddling shopping mall in Maloochy was great, too, and it allowed me to do some comparative tasting of Ozzie beers. We were impressed by the hospitality shown by Joanne and the PLC faculty, but I think I was particularly moved just by the neighborliness of the Ozzies in general all around us everywhere we went. Both Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast are a place where people still say please and thank you. Complete strangers on the street or in stores greet you like neighbors and don't freak out when you do the same. Help is offered when it seems to be needed, and potentially troublesome situations are often dismissed with a pleasant, "No worries."
I can really come to appreciate that.
And then there are those taxi drivers. During the one-hour drive from Caloundra to Brisbane there was the somewhat weatherbeaten-looking and husky-voiced chap who talked slowly with a really heavy drawl (which sounded unbelievably like Eric Idle's "mosquito hunter" in Monty Python's Flying Circus) who liked talking about airplanes and his family home in Ipswich. From the hotel to Mt. Coot-tha there was the soft-spoken Lebanese driver who was very curious about my life in Japan but suddenly became strangely shifty-eyed and evasive when I asked him to elaborate on the time he'd spent living in Germany. From Mt. Coot-tha to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary there was the humorous, old man who started off with, "It's a good thing you called me when you did. I was just grabbin' a kip (nap), as I always do't this time, and I just woke out of it." From Lone Pine to the Southbank Parkland there was the quiet-voiced former navy man who had lots of stories to tell. And then, the next morning, going from the hotel to the airport for our flight home, there was the massive Aborigine who informed me that he was a chief engineer on a cargo ship during most of the year and spent his winter holidays working for his relatives' taxi company there in Brisbane "to stay away from the in-laws". All of them were very different, but all of them were very social, talkative, and interesting, which really added a lot to the trip.
My three traveling companions said they were thankful I was there to sit in the front seat and enjoy the chat every time. Even the English teacher in the group, Ms. Y., despite her year or more spent studying in the U.S., could barely understand a word that any of them said.
Actually, to be tactlessly blunt, my traveling companions really made me wonder. Each of them had many times more international travel experience than me, but I'm lost on how they were able to survive. They would often suddenly bolt off without a word, on at least one occasion leaving the taxi they'd just hailed waiting (and then being at a total loss as to why the driver gave up and drove off). They would go into shops and then carefully examine and fuss over whole racks of items, often including ripping off labels and tearing open packages, before deciding on one or two items twenty minutes later (and not understanding why the clerks seemed annoyed). They would carry or leave valuable items in places that just begged to have them swiped (fortunately none were). And then there was the time that Ms. Y and the principal, in their eagerness to get back to the hotel, suddenly bolted off the main drag and into a dark alley (populated by a colony of scary-looking, cursing homeless) before coming up short at a busy, high-speed thoroughfare, which they would have tried to cross anyway if I hadn't managed to convince them to walk the extra half a block to the next signal. I wasn't sure whether they were unbelievably naive or just too self-obsessed to pay any attention to their surroundings.
In other words, they were acting like typical Japanese tourists.
Before you take that remark the wrong way, in my experience American tourists can be just as bad if not worse, but in different ways.
We never did make it to the Gold Coast, but we saw and did a lot of cool things in Brisbane. The lookout on Mt. Coot-tha offers both a spectacular view and a pretty good lunch in an open-air restaurant. The Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary is a treat for animal lovers, as it includes a broad spectrum of Australia's unique wildlife (in addition to a koala overload). The Southbank Parklands and Queens Street Mall both have wide varieties of multinational shops and restaurants and are within easy walking distance of each other. Plus, it just seems like a pleasant and attractive city with lots of green and lots of friendly and interesting people. It makes for a good visit and an even better walk...though I could've done without the shouting homeless in that one alley.
It was a very short trip, but I think it was very eventful. And when it was all done, we flew the eight-hour flight back to Narita...straight back into the sauna.
Still, it's good to be back.
P.S. Victoria Bitter goes down smooth and easy. XXXX (4-X) Bitter has a bit more of a hoppy punch, making it a better beer to drink with chips or pretzels while watching a game on the telly. Hahn Premium Lager is actually more like a Pilsner, with a light, crisp taste and slightly hoppy finish. Crown Lager, which is Foster's premium brew, has a dark amber color and an excellent, balanced taste that goes well with a meal. Foster's Lager? I never even saw it, let alone drank it. The principal and Mr. K tried the Cascade Premium Light, but didn't seem impressed (and I never tried it). None of us got a chance to try any of the Toolaney's brews. Besides, Ozzie pinot noir and riesling is pretty good, too.