Rachel Down Under!


Posted in Australia, Canberra by rssmith218 on August 31, 2010

My latest Australian journey started early last Wednesday morning with a quick, 25-minute flight to Australia’s inland capital city, Canberra.

Canberra has a bit of a reputation in Australia. Mention of my trip to Canberra has solicited condolences, warnings, and even a couple of physical grimaces. My Australian traveling muse, Bill Bryson, also describes Canberra as a desolate, dull, and generally awful place. And yet Canberra is Australia’s national capital? Why not Sydney? Melbourne? Anywhere else?

When Australia was becoming a proper nation and choosing a capital in the early 1900s, squabbling cities Sydney and Melbourne could not agree on a site. Canberra was chosen as a compromise, as it lies almost exactly in between these two great cities. In the words of Bryson, “Cold in the winter, blazing hot in the summer, miles from anywhere, it was an unlikely choice of location for a national capital”.

At the time of its choosing, Canberra was little more than a farming community and the city was designed from scratch by Chicago’s own Walter Burley Griffin. The city was modeled after Washington DC; the surrounding Australian Capital Territory (ACT) was created as an equivalent to the US District of Columbia. Canberra was planned as a garden city, and circular streets enclose the main government buildings, which are placed in DC-mall-like parks. Here is an example of Canberra’s faux-mall appearance.

While these architectural ideas may work fine in DC, they do not translate well to Canberra. The streets are empty, and the buildings are separated by huge expanses of park, making it difficult to get around. The circular streets are confusing and impossible to navigate; I walked to get a coffee (I’ve recently become addicted to Australian flat whites) and I became lost for a good half hour (and embarrassingly I had a map!).

Anyway, Canberra is an eerie and strange place. It is difficult to explain what makes it so off-putting; I can’t put my finger on it. I think it has something to do with the fact that it is so expansive and yet so quiet, so obviously planned and yet so empty.

Does it surprise you that I still managed to have a great time in Canberra? The Fulbright Enrichment Program was truly a wonderful experience and I was glad to meet many of the other 2009 and 2010 US Fulbright Scholars to Australia. Upon arrival, we had a quick lunch and were introduced not only to each other, but also to the Australian Fulbright Commission program coordinators with whom we have all been in touch with for the past couple of months. It was neat to finally put names to faces, and after lunch we piled onto a bus to head to the US Ambassador’s house for tea (Little known fact: Did you know that Jackie Chan grew up in the Embassy house? His father was the head cook for the US Embassy in the 1960s).

It seemed like we were driving in circles (hello, Canberra), but I didn’t care because I saw my FIRST WILD KANGAROO! Unfortunately I was too shocked/excited to take a picture, so you will just have to take my word for it. Post-tea, we headed back to the hotel and some of us went on a walk around Canberra before dinner (and wine!!) in the “city.”

Fulbrighters on the move…is it empty here or what?

My future traveling companions! Did I also mention that Canberra was COLD?

Aww that’s better. One thing that Canberra does have is rainbows. We saw 2 separate double rainbows during this walk. AND I saw a double rainbow on my descent into Sydney on the flight back from Canberra. I think you can actually see the pot of gold in this picture. Pretty nice.

The next day was spent doing mostly administrative stuff, but in the afternoon, we went on a “behind the scenes” tour of Australian Parliament, which was particularly interesting considering the fact that Australia currently doesn’t have a government! Yes, I am in Australia during a landmark time in Australia’s history in which there is a hung Parliament; I am experiencing a true democracy at work!

For those of you that have not kept up to date with current Australian politics (not that I can really claim much knowledge on the subject), the Australian election, which took place last Saturday (August 21st) did not lead to a majority in Parliament for either of the two main parties (Labor and Liberal). The future direction of the Australian government now falls to 3 rural Independents and 1 Green Party representative who will decide the government’s future balance of power. See the Sydney Morning Herald website for more information, it’s pretty interesting.

Because of these abnormal circumstances, Parliament House, like the rest of Canberra, was empty during our visit. Parliament House is an odd, modern-looking building from the outside, but it is truly beautiful on the inside.

The outside is a bit odd- compare this to the US Capital building-

But, the inside is stunning, isn’t it?

Here are the two houses of Parliament:

The House of Representatives- the cool green color of the eucalyptus plant leaves!

And the Senate- the deep pink color of the eucalyptus plant’s buds

Fulbrighters storm Parliament (photo credit to Josh Daskin)

There we are!

And here I am!  You can see the old Parliament building in the background.

Post-Parliament we went on a “bus tour” to the top of a tall hill in Canberra from which we looked down on the city before returning to a formal dinner with many Fulbright and Embassy associates.

Great view! You can see pictures from the dinner at the US Embassy’s Flickr page, see here.

The next morning was spent at the Australian Museum of Canberra, which was also pretty cool. We went on a “highlights” guided tour of the museum. All of us had personal headsets through which the voice of our tour guide, who was standing maybe 6 feet away from us, was oddly amplified. Here are some highlights of the highlights:

The building is designed as if it is forming the outside mold of a tied knot! Whoa.

Look I’m in the Garden of Australian Dreams!

We were given a significant amount of time in this really neat exhibit about the Canning Stock Route. Aboriginal paintings  were used to tell the story of how the establishment of this cattle trail shaped the lives of local people. Overall, a very cool and well-done exhibit.

Fulbright as an Aboriginal painting!

I was pretty exhausted by the end of the program, and I happily returned to Sydney (a city for which I have a new appreciation) with new friends, future traveling companions, and plenty of ideas about what I want to get out of my Fulbright experience (a lot!).

At the risk of creating a monster blog entry, I will quickly try to document the rest of the weekend. On Saturday, I went on another solo walking excursion to explore a bit more of Sydney. I chose a neighborhood from my guidebook, Darling Harbour, and set off to the city. Here’s a quick photo tour of my trip:

From the train station, I immediately became lost, and found myself wandering through Chinatown…

…but I finally found my way to my goal- Darling Harbour- which actually turned out to be a bit more touristy and family-oriented than I had expected. However, check out this monster McDonalds (Or Mackers as they call it here. Also, Burger King is known as Hungry Jacks. And my Chilean housemates have taken to referring to KFC as Dirty Bird, claiming that it is also Australian slang; however, this is unconfirmed by a true Aussie as of yet).

Can’t really complain about these views….

From Darling Harbour I headed to Sydney’s fish market….

Lots of fish! And finally, I ended my day at a market out by the Rocks. You never know what you’ll find in these beautiful markets…

Is this why kangaroos seek refuge in Canberra?

And the next morning, we find ourselves on the way to yet another Fulbright event- Fish and Chips in gorgeous Balmoral! I meet up with a couple of Sydney Fulbrighters for the ferry ride out to Balmoral- again, great views!

Sydney’s looking fine! Though so is Balmoral…

As do the Fulbrighters! (all with flat whites, I might add. So delicious!)

Fish and chips at a local Fulbrighter’s house was a great opportunity to meet some Australian Fulbrighters, including a couple people who had either just returned from the US or who were about to make their way over. Lots of interesting conversations!

Lastly, upon our return to Sydney proper, Aisha and I took some time to explore the opera house at sunset.

You know, just chilling at the Opera House. What a life.

Anyway, this has been an epic update, but I am finally up to speed. Congrats if you made it through! It has been a FULL(bright) couple of days, and now I am looking forward to getting back into work. Talking and meeting with other Fulbrighters has further impressed upon me what an awesome opportunity this is and I can’t wait to take full advantage of it.


One Response

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  1. Lenore said, on August 31, 2010 at 12:55 pm

    Another bunch of awesome pictures and great narrative! Thanks for sharing with those of us stuck stateside. Are those the red “bowling shoes” you bought in Italy when you were in middle school? (and ya might want to tie those laces)

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