Australia: dreamtime down under

11 12 2009

It’s been three years since I lived and studied for a year in Melbourne, Australia. I fell in love with the good weather, friendly people and sense of space that seemed magical to a Londoner used to close proximity with about eight million other people (usually all at the same time, on the same bus at rush hour).

But, like most Brits who head out there, I had absolutely no idea about the struggle of the indigenous Australian peoples for autonomy. I had never heard of the ‘Stolen generation’ of ‘aborigine’ and mixed-race children who were taken by the Australian government and placed in white homes as servants or boarding houses, often never seeing their families again. (Amazingly, this policy of enforced removal only stopped in 1997.)

It’s incredibly difficult for me to encapsulate the full and complicated situation of how race is entwined in the fabric of Australian society. As an outsider, I often found myself shocked by a comment from a white Australian about how “Aborigines love to get drunk” or “they don’t like to work, just get benefits”. Equally, I met white Australians who didn’t want to talk about it at all, finding it too trivial or too complex a topic to discuss. There were those who actively spoke out about the then Howard Government’s refusal to even say the word ‘sorry’ (whatever that’s worth) to indigenous Australians.

One day, near the end of my stay in the country, my friends and I travelled north to Cairns. It’s a small, muddy town with three bars and probably more backpacker hostels than the whole of continental Europe (almost all of them run by Brits who went for a week and ended up staying). The town thrives on the back of the thousands of people who travel there to visit the Great Barrier Reef and spot sealife, snorkle, scuba or just break bits off to take home (illegally).

While there, I met the first indigenous Australian I had ever seen in Australia. Lying outside a shop, stinking of booze, occasionally shouting something. Several people stopped and laughed, others took photos, and a few shook their heads in disgust. After walking around him and entering the shop, I saw ‘traditional’ didgeridoos, ‘authentic’ boomerangs, dreamtime stories and a whole batch of other ‘Aborigine’ paraphenalia for sale.

It’s only now, years later, that I sometimes think about this incident and struggle to work out its significance. Perhaps there’s none. Perhaps I’m uncomfortable with the appropriation of  ‘aboriginal’ culture while indigenous Australians are still on the margins of society. Perhaps I’m embarrassed that I travelled to a country without understanding a single thing about its history, including 200-odd years of colonisation by European invaders/settlers.

I’ve since found out about some current activism going on in Australia and Europe, and thought I’d post the links. If you’re heading Down Under, they’re worth a look.

Aboriginal Tent Embassy:

European Network for Indigenous Australians’ rights:


Egypt: who are the Nubians?

18 11 2009

Deborah D, 27, UK

I came across a Nubian settlement only once in my fifteen days in Egypt. Traveling along the Nile, south to north, meant that i came to Aswan, a prominent tourist spot where the effects of the rising waters of the Nile were obvious. Objects of archeological value like the statues at the Temple of Rameses II had been broken up and re-assembled further inland. As with most cyclical weather phenomena the seasonal flooding of the banks along Aswan meant that the settlers along it (the Nubians) had to learn to adapt to it. That is until the effects of overpopulation began to take hold. With more people and less available fertile land the Egyptian government decided to build a dam to control the rising waters. The dam caused the permanent flooding of lower Nubia and meant Nubians had to find a home elsewhere.
In the market places I was referred to as Nubian (because of my dark skin), my mate Alex took to calling me Nubian princess which i think he did to get a rise out of me, they were after all the most impoverished members of Egyptian society.

While visiting the settlement (which could only be accessed by boat) it became glaring obvious that there was a disparity between the average Egyptian and the average Nubian. Even though in ancient times they were of the ruling houses and Egypt had had black Pharaohs, it appeared to be that they now resided at the lower end of the societal spectrum and made a living farming and making items of touristic value. They are black while the average Egyptian is brown, they have a separate non-Arabic language, they are essentially a community of people much like the Kurds in Iraq. With no real land to call theirs and not being totally accepted by the mainstream populace, i found that they were almost entirely self sufficient. With their own schools, food supplies from farming, it seemed like only the most ambitious of them set foot outside the poverty bullpen that had been created for them by the government (inadvertently) and sought a life in the larger cities like Cairo. At least as a tourist, that’s how it seemed to me. In any country, in any society there is a class or caste system that favours one group of people but is disadvantageous to another. Most times these systems are built on the premise of race or ethnicity. Nubia exists now only in theory, the settlements and sense of community amongst the inhabitants are all that remain of a race that once had a kingdom so large, it spread from Northern Egypt into Sudan.

Berlin: tourism and human tragedy

26 09 2009

Esther G, 27, Mexico/London

Hello fellow travellers. I recently visited Berlin and being there prompted some thoughts that I would like to share with you. Many of my friends had told me Berlin was uber cool, and once I’ve been there, I would never want to leave. Yet I found visiting Berlin made me feel sad, mainly because you can’t escape constant reminders of the tragedy that was the Second World War and the East/West division of the city.
Germans must feel tired of being associated to these particular events, and want us to visit their country to see that they are much more than the world wars. So, I went to Berlin not knowing what I would find, or how I would feel, and keeping in mind the challenge of not stereotyping Germany.

My plan failed, Berlin did not allow me to forget the dark past of the city. Every few blocks I would come across a memorial plaque, or an information post, a part of the wall, a building that had been used to captivate the handicapped, a holocaust memorial, or an old checkpoint to cross from East to West.
So yes, I found Berlin to be very cool, trendy, young, alternative, cheap and full of party goers. But I also found Berlin to be challenging and it made me think about the tourist industry based around the history of human tragedy.
To give an example: Check Point Charlie, one of the check points between East and West Berlin. A few years ago that was a place of control, fear, hope, and oppression. Today, you can pay a euro and take a photo of yourself with two very handsome actors disguised as soldiers who smiley pose in front of the “theatrical” point. For a few Euros more you can even get your passport stamped with a fake visa.

Or, the Holocaust Memorial. Visiting the memorial felt similar, dozens of people wondering in between the sculptures, playfully shouting, taking photos, smiling, climbing, playing hide an sick, etc. in a place that is there to remind us of one, if not the most horrific, human rights abuse: genocide.
I felt strange at these places. I understood that there had been great grief associated with both events: the holocaust and the east/west division of Berlin, but going there and being a tourist, taking photos and playing produced mixed feelings in me. On one side I resented the fact that I was enjoying those sites as if they were part of a Disneyland amusement park. On the other, I was happy that humanity has moved on and we don’t continue to dwell in the same grief, we can look the past and accept it, moving into what is next.

Anyway, I just wanted to share this feeling with you.  Any thoughts are welcome.