Apr 26, 2008

The End is Near

There's more than a month to go before school lets out for the summer but it feels like our time is already up. There's much going on in the next month and with all this activity the time is sure to fly. A look at our itinerary:

The craziness begins tomorrow--after a dive in the morning, I'll be meeting with the directors of REAL from 1 to 3 P.M. and then rehearsing for three hours with the drama team. The rest of the week will be production week for our play so we will meet every night to rehearse for at least two hours.

Next Saturday night and Sunday night we'll perform "A Song from the Heart" an original play written by our student director "CK Girl." It's a fantastic play and it's going to as much fun to perform it as it will be to watch it.

Three days later on Wednesday, May 7, the drama team (and also Babs) will fly to Palau for our annual off island tour of performances. We'll dive and rehearse Thursday, perform and rehearse Friday, worship and perform Sabbath, see the Rock Islands on Sunday and fly home at 1:00 A.M. Monday morning (except for Babs who will stay in Palau until Wednesday when she'll fly back with our Chinese students who have to travel through Manila--that's the soonest return flight available to them).

Wednesday evening, May 14, is when we're tenatively scheduled to have our next book club, Thursday night, May 15, is our REAL Christian Theater end-of-year party, Friday night May 16 is our final Bible study, and Sabbath May 17 is Bev's last day in Saipan. The goodbyes begin. We'll see her off at the airport on Sunday morning May 18--the first of this year's Long Walks.

By that time we'll only have two weeks of regular classes left, then the graduations, school ends, and the tearful goodbyes will commence in earnest. I'm not looking forward to it.

This summer will be different. It will be our first summer since 1999 that we've spent in Saipan. It will be our last summer, just Babs and me (with the third member of the Maycock family becoming a literally larger and larger part of our lives with each passing week). I anticapte that I'll go through some melancholy seasons. Everyone who knows me well, knows I don't like change--even good change, and it always takes me a bit of time to adjust. And both fortunately and unfortuantely, the goodbyes will once again be particularly painful this year. I'm steeling myself for it as best I can.

There's lots of "last things" to do in the waning part of this season of life. Run Suicide Cliff. Do the tank swim. Run the beach pathway and cool off in the sea like we used to do back in the day. Make sure Jessica hears "Some Days Are Better Than Others"--that was "our" song this year, and she's never even heard it! Watch the Tom Petty concert on DVD with Judith. Meet for two more book clubs. Squeeze in a few more dives. Watch Into the Wild and Serendipity. Get sundaes at McDonalds one more time (or maybe two or three more times!)

And once our friends and colleagues have flown away there will be much for Barbara and I to do. One last trip together--hopefully to Hong Kong, lots of organizing in the house, lots of baby preparations. Lots of dates--they'll be hard to come by soon enough. Lots of lazy afternoons and movie watching. There are dinner guests we need to have over, Marriage Encounter steps to complete, and I've got a novel I really really need to finish before the baby comes.

The days will be full for sure. We dare not put anything off; time's too short for that. We've got to make these moments count because we will not pass this way again.

Apr 25, 2008

Brokedown Paradise

Candles and a book: The power went out in the middle of our last book club on Saturday night, April 12. We lit the candles and kept going. That's life in Saipan for you.

This profusion of beauty is just outside our living room window. This too, is life in Saipan.

It's been a pretty good week here in Saipan. We haven't experienced a single power outage in our neighborhood (though I believe there have been blackouts in other villages on the island) and things are humming along smoothly--so far. Last week was a different story, however with daily two hour plus rolling blackouts and the newspaper headlines screaming impending doom: "CUC Has No Money for Fuel!" "Fuel to Run Out on Friday!" The island was rife rumors of the entire island being plunged into permanant blackout on Friday. Add to that the sudden shock of the closing last Thursday of our one and only multiplex here in the CNMI. The word was that power rates were two exorbitant and the Stateside owners were closing to "reevaluate the Saipan market." I heard the theater was packed Thursday night as people crowded in for the "last picture show." For some reason losing the movies really hurt. Look, we can live with an economy in the toilet, shuttered buisnesses, rolling blackouts, but when you take away our movies? That's serious!

The rumor is that the movie theater will reopen next month with higher prices. We'll see.

Saipan. I refer to it affectionately as our "Brokedown Paradise", and I think the name fits because it captures the contradictions of living here. It's a paradise, yes, but one where things don't always work--where life is sometimes less than convenient and sometimes downright uncomfortable.

With our baby on the way, it appears as if at long last, we'll finally be having visitors from the States. Also, there may be new teachers planning to trying to get a feel for what life will be like in their new home. And finally, there are readers who may be wondering why on earth we continue to live out here. This post is designed to provide a primer of what to expect for those coming out here and to give all my readers a sense of the pros and cons we've weighed out over the years of living here. In keeping with the dual nature of life in Saipan I'm going to list ten things about life in Saipan that are difficult--listed under the heading of "Brokedwon" and ten things about living here that are wonderful, listed under the heading "Paradise."

Brokedown: Power Outtages--CUC (the Commonwealth Utilities Corporation) is poorly managed, perpetually short on cash, and has antiquated power generators that are constantly breaking down. My understanding is that there are something like 8 generators at the main power plant here in Saipan and none of the 8 generators are ever all working at the same time. I heard that one generator has't functioned in two years! Our broken down old generators also use one of the most expenisve means of generating electricty in the world--fuel oil. And I'm sure we all know where the price of oil is at these days. As as a result we pay the highest power rates in the United States--and we should probably be paying even more! For awhile a surcharge was added to our power bills to just to help cover fuel costs, but last year was an election year and so it was summarily revoked in a shortsighted and uncourageous attempt to curry favor with voters--leaving us with lower power bills (and less power, as CUC is once again having trouble paying it's fuel bills to petroleum companies). Put all this together and the result is rolling blackouts that will crop up every now and again. For a week or so we'll have at least two hours without electricity every day. CUC usually posts the load shedding schedule in the paper so you know when your village will be without power. But they don't always follow that schedule. In fact, it seems that every time we gear up for a power outtage, it doesn't happen. And just when we think we're safe, the air conditioner sighs, the lights go out, and the battery backup on the computer starts beeping urgently.

Oh, and while we're on the topic of utilities. Forget about using an electric clock here. Even when the power is working there is so much variance in the electrical currents that electric clocks cannot keep the correct time. They generally speed up over time so that about two weeks after it's been plugged in, the clock gives the time as two hours later than it really is.

And you can't drink the tap water here.

Paradise : The Natural Views. Saipan is full of gorgeous natural vistas. Yes, there are fantastic photo-op locations--Bird Island, Forbidden Island, the top of Mt. Tapochau, Banzai at sunrise, Managaha Island, but in Saipan you don't have to go to one of the tourist spots to experience spectacular beauty. The most ordinary daily errands are full of unexpected, richly rewarding beauty--the flame trees the blaze along the roadsides, the brilliant bougainvillea and elegant plumeria that blossom just outside our doors, the cocounut palms, the white sand beaches everywhere. And the sunsets! Driving along Beach Road at sunset alone is reason enough to live here.

Brokedown: The man-made views. What God has made in Saipan is gorgeous--what man has made on Saipan is, well. . . less so. There are no zoning laws in Saipan so residential structures, mom-and-pop stores, and even hotels and factories abut each other in haphazard fashion. It appears many of the builders here in CNMI gave little thought to architectural beauty. Or to long-term upkeep. Many of the buildings, especially the smaller ones have a ramshackle appearance, and almost all of the buildings even the large ones seem to be plagued by a general dinginess of appearance due to the ubiquitous black mold that slowly creeps up the walls of any building more than a few years old. The entire island looks like it could use a paint job.

Paradise: The Commute. I've almost forgotten what it's like to be stuck in traffic. Our version of rush hour gridlock is when traffic slows up a bit around Marianas High School at 3 o clock. You might end up sitting in bumper to bumper traffic for oh, about 30 seconds. Not only do we lack traffic jams, but the commute is always short, no matter where you're going. For those of us who have lived here on the island for awhile our sense of distance has changed. A half hour drive is considered a long haul out here. And of course, the drive is often a tour of beauty--especially if you take Beach Road.

Brokedown: Empty Buildings. We have quite a few brand-new, freshly painted, modern buildings. . .that are absolutely empty. We don't know why they are built, or who is expected to inhabit them, especially since the horrible state of our economy is well known to all. But there they are--empty--with their newly minted parking lots, big glass windows, and pleading "For Rent" signs. It's kind of sad.

Paradise: The Kids. There are lots of things to love about working in a little mission school on a tropical island, but the most rewarding thing for me has been the kids themselves. Our students are big part of what has kept us out here these many years. Of course, there are kids everywhere but the relationships we build with our students are unique particularly in comparison to my experience in the U.S. Kids here seem to have a certain openness of heart that contrasts sharply with the cyncism and jadedness I often find among their peers in the Mainland. We interact with our students a lot outside of the classroom. They come to our homes on Friday nights, we take them on weekend hikes and outings. It's also been deeply rewarding to watch our students grow up, graduate, go to college and make their way in the world. And because our school is small, I feel like I've had the opportunity to know and care for each one of my students as individuals.

Brokedown: Our Government. A lot of the Saipan's recent economic misfortunes are due to plain old bad luck. The Asian Economic Crisis of the late 90's, 9-11, and the changes in World Trade Organization policy are not our fault. But at least some of the blame for our problems can rightly be placed directly on our government. Our government is bloated, inefficient, incompetent, and wasteful. The vast majority of our leaders do little more than perpetuate the status quo. There are voices of change (Tina Sablan, the upstart community activist and legislator comes to mind) but they are still few and far between. For Saipan's sake, I hope that changes.

Paradise: Interracial Relationships are the Norm. When Babs and I decided to get married we got some well-intentioned solemn warnings about how hard things would be especially for our children. These people (like most people) had obviously never heard of Saipan. There are so many people like us here that we hardly stand out at all. There are no baleful stares, no whisperings, no concerned looks--none of the things we might have experienced on occasion on the Mainland. Furthermore, as a black man I feel completely removed from the particular baggage of racism in America. It's not to say that there isn't racial prejudice here--there is, of course, just as there is everywhere--but somehow I don't feel so much that I am the target of it here. It's nice to be just another couple, rather than the funny-looking "mixed" couple.

Brokedown: The transitory nature of Saipan. Nothing lasts forever, especially here in Saipan. In general, people don't stay here very long. The contract workers go back to the Philippines or China, the missionaries go home, even the local people decamp to Hawaii or the mainland to go to school or work. There's only a handful of people left in our church who were there ten years ago when Babs and I first arrived here. We say goodbye a lot here and that can be very difficult.

Paradise: Travel. Saipan givews us relatively cheap and easy access to Asia and the rest of the Pacific. It's not uncommon to jet off to Bali, Japan, the Philippines, Palau, Australia, and mainland Asia during vacations. The rest of the world is just outside our door and visiting it is easy.

Brokedown: You Can't Always Get What You Want. In Saipan there is no Wal Mart, no Target, no Barnes & Nobles, no Whole Foods. Sometimes you plan to make lasagna and there is no ricotta cheese anywhere on the island. So you use tofu. We do have the internet and Amazon and Netflix are invaluable, but even there you can't always get what you want. Itunes will let you browse the store, but they won't let you buy. The TV networks won't let CNMI viewers watch their programs online. You learn to make do a lot here, and most of the time, as the Rolling Stones sang, "you get what you need."

Paradise: The Pace of Life. It's slower. It's as simple as that. We have cell phones and wi-fi everywhere, yes. But somehow these things just don't dominate life in the CNMI. We are very busy--all the time--and yet the kind of stress I hear about in the States just doesn't seem to be a part of life in Saipan. Ties are only worn by politicians and lawyers going to court. Even the bankers dress in muted Aloha shirts. We drive slower. People barbecue a lot.

Brokedown: No movies or concerts. Even when we had the multiplex, forget about seeing a decent independent film or documentary. The theater specialized in blockbusters, action pics, comedies, and horror. Thank goodness for Blockbuster and Netflix. Also, live music--beyond our local artists (who are quite talented I must hasten to say)--is nonexistent. The whole idea of going to see Michael Buble or Caedmon's Call or even to hear a symphony is completely foreign to us. That's one thing I really miss about the States.

Paradise: The Food. I wrote a whole blog about this already so I won't say any more other than to remind you that four of the best eateries In The World are here on Saipan: Shelley's Pizza, Ebisuya, Spicy Thai, and Coffee Care.

Brokedown: It's Expensive. There are many things that cost more here in Saipan than they do back in the Mainland. There's electricity of course, but also gas (We're at $4.21 for a gallon of regular), food, automobiles, pens, electronics and appliances (generally double what they'd cost in the states), furniture, and the price of a flight to Dayton or Orlando. I should also mention that dishwashers are very hard to come by here. Even if we had one, the water is so harsh, I imagine it'd be ruined in short order.

Paradise: It's Cheap. While some things are exorbitantly priced here, others are a steal. $15 for a day at the Mandi Spa and $3.00 for a haircut come immediately to mind. Here in Saipan, it's common for regular middle class folk to have a housekeeper or a nanny. While getting to Dayton or Orlando might take a chunk of change, getting to Japan can cost around $400 and sometimes less.

Brokedown: Living in a glass house. Sometimes the expectations that come with being a missionary can grow tiresome. You're always expected to lead, always volunteered by others to go up front. You can't miss church without people wondering "what's wrong." Especially with Babs being an administrator, it always seems there is some crisis that needs resolving, some need to attend to, some people we feel responsible not to disappoint.

Paradise: "Where everybody knows your name. . ." The flipside of this glass house existence is that you really do feel part of a close knit community. Everywhere we go on this island we run into familiar, friendly faces. It's a small-town feel with out the small-town insularity. We'll be going over to the annual Flame Tree festival tonight and the feeling of community there will be strong as it always is. Amidst the aroma of barbecue, the stalls stocked with beautiful art by local artists, the rhythm of the dancers and the island music on the mainstage, we'll see people from every part of our rich lives here--students, church members, friends from Marriage Encounter, colleagues from other schools, dive buddies, and many faces that are familiar even if we don't know them personally.

On a side note, I'll add that Saipan feels much safer than many parts of the U.S. do. There is the occasional burglary and there are police blotter reports of violence (usually domestic) or purse-snatchings of tourists, but in general there seems to be less crime here.

Brokedown: We don't own much. Our peers in the States have bought houses, own one or two cars, maybe even a boat. We have very little that is truly ours. Our house belongs to the mission, our car is lent to us by the school. I truly can no longer remember what it feels like to own my own car. Even the bed we sleep on is not ours. Sometimes I feel like we're not living "real" life because we don't have all these adult things like mortgages and car payments, but on the other hand. . .

Paradise: We don't own much. It's really freeing not to own a whole lot. The more stuff you own the more your stuff owns you. The trade off to not owning much is not having to pay for much. We don't make a whole lot of money here but I suspect that we may actually end up ahead financially here because there are no car payments (not even car insurance--school pays for that too), no mortgage--none of the usual expenses that can suck up so much of the ordinary American paycheck. Even with our educational loan and credit card debts we're able to make ends meet and have a little left over to sock into savings, and I would imagine for someone coming out here debt free, it would be even easier.

So there you have it? Is Saipan "brokedown" or a "paradise"? I dont' know. But I do know that California had rolling blackouts a few years ago, and that a major American city was eviscerated by a hurricane and flooding not so long ago. Clearly, a Statesider who thinks they are somehow immune from the vagaries of life by virtue of living on the mainland isn't thinking very hard. We don't worry too much about terrorist attacks or tornados out here. Sure we have other things to worry about. But that's life. And at least for right now, I'd rather live in a Brokedown Paradise than an Unbroken Limbo (that rather bland place that isn't paradise but isn't exactly hell either).
Of course, with a baby on the way, all bets are off. Our perspective will likely change in radical ways once he/she arrives. And that's okay too.

Apr 19, 2008

Running in Australia

It's been exactly one month now since Barbara and I, seven students, and three other teachers boarded a plane for Australia. I didn't expect it would take this long to recap the adventure here but I didn't account for busy weekends and an unexpected computer meltdown.

As the time events in Australia have already begun to fade into the warm, golden, luster of memory. One of the best of those memories is that of running in Australia. For four out of the seven days we were in Australia, Mai and I got up a little earlier than everyone else and went running. We ususally run in Saipan about three days a week, with Jessica and/or Judith joining us. We tend to think that going on vacation means taking a brake from the usual routine. You don't watch what you eat, you stay up late, you spend more than you normally would, and you certainly don't exercise. But I discovered that adapting a discipline like running to your vacation can add a rewarding and memorable element to a trip. You may recall that one of the things I like about traveling to other countries are exploring the ordinary byways to get a sense of "other people's normal." Well, that was just one of the rewards of our morning runs. Each run was an adventure into the unknown, with magical discoveries waiting around every corner.

The offical schedule for the students usually began with wake-up around 7:30 A.M. so we'd usually start our run at 6:30. It was a great time to be alive, awake and running. The sun was just coming up, the temperature was still cool, the mist was rising off the mountains in the distance, the streets were quiet. I know it's cliche, but I added a dozen of Midnight Oil's (an Australian band) best songs to my ipod and that was the playlist I listend to everyday when we ran. Those songs will now always remind me of those early mornings with the sun flashing gold through the trees and the verdure of tropical North Queensland all about. We'd run for half an hour and then return to our lodging and cool off in the pool for another 30 minutes.

The runs themselves were truly an adventure. We'd basically just choose a direction and run and see where the road took us. Each of the four days we found something special. Our first run, on Sunday was probably the most scenic, as our hotel was located further from the city center. We pounded through quiet suburban neighborhoods, leafy with tropical foliage with the mountains, a constant gorgeous backdrop. We even saw a rainbow! On Monday, we had moved to the Bohemia Resort which was closer to the city. We ran right on that day and ran until we reached Target, one of the stores we were eagerly anticipating shopping at. It was closed of course, but at least we knew where it was. On Tuesday, we ran left and found a beautiful little botanical park. We took the shortest route through that day but resolved to take a little extra time to explore the park on our Thursday run. We did exactly that, and this time I brought my camera to capture the pictures you see below.

The run begins!

You can see the hills in the distance

Approaching the botanical park

I caught this tranquil image from a small wooden bridge in the park

Here I am at the beginning of the boardwalk part of the botanical park. There was a sign that instructed "no running on the boardwalk" and we meekly complied. Besides, if we'd run we'd have missed a lot of the cool stuff we saw along the way!

Some cool-looking flora:

Not sure what's going on with this plant but it sure looks cool! (Perhaps The Beachcomber with his wide knowledge of lore will be able to tell us in a comment ;)
A giant tree covered in vines.

These plants are all tied up in knots!

Check out the size of this tree we encountered on the boardwalk. Not only was it wide, but incredibly tall! (See below)

Having leff the botanical garden, we head back towards our hostel where we'll refresh ourselves with a dip in the pool!

One final benefit of running in Australia, was that it restored the joy of running for me. I'd lost that for awhile. Back in Saipan, we'd gone back to running in the early morning--around 5:15 A.M. and I was finding running in pre-dawn darkness to be a bit disheartening. Furthermore I'd let the sin of pride and competitiveness creep into my runs. I started wanting to "keep up" and worse, "be first." I was running harder than I really wanted to, ending the runs in agony. I know that for some this is what running is all about, and that's fine, but I realized during those joyous runs in Australia that that's not what it's about for me. Most of my life is about pushing myself, gritting my teeth, doing what I don't feel like doing--getting it done. I don't need my running to be that way too. A comfortable steady pace that ends with me feeling good is what I need. I rediscovered that in Australia and have brought that emotional souvenir home with me and put it into practice. Running is fun again.

Australia was a fantastic experience, and part of what made it fantastic was starting the day right--with a good run with a good friend. I think I'll run on vacation more often! (Mai and I are already planning to run at least once in Palau during our REAL drama tour which is coming up in about two and half weeks!).

Apr 18, 2008

Rafting: Literary Snapshots of A Perfect Day

The Official Rafting Photo taken by the staff of the river rafting company. That's me in the front looking very intense!

I apologize for the recent absence of blogs. My computer was laid low by some viruses and I had to send it in to the computer shop this past week. But I'm back in business and I can finally post the next entry in our Australian Saga.

We left the cameras locked in the bottom of the tour bus so the only photos we had of our day of rafting on the Tully River on Wednesday, March 26, were the expensive professional photos sold to us for $15 bucks apiece by the Raging Thunder Company merchants and a few hurried snaps Mai managed to grab at the end of the trip when the bus met us down stream. So in addition to those few photos, some literary snapshots:

The River Guides
“Are you people ready for some RAHFTING?” the burly river guide bellows into the mic at the front of the bus. He looks like a cross between Russell Crowe & Mel Gibson. As we begin our journey he is bursting with swagger and barking instructions, off-color jokes, and promises, come the end of the day, of lots of BEER! He is one of the river guides and Marty is his name. When we arrive at the Raging Thunder Café (where we are welcome to have a “RAHFTER’s breakfast of a MEAT pie and a Red BULL”) we will meet more of these guides. They are a rakish lot of international adventurers who cleverly disguise their consummate professionalism with lots of jocularity and devil-may-care spirit. They are fun and funny and they keep us safe without us even knowing it.

The Rafters
A very different crowd from the retirees that typified our tour the day before to Tjapukai, the rainforest and Kuranda village. These are college kids, twenty-somethings, backpackers traipsing around the world. There are American, Canadian, and various European accents in addition to the standard Australian brogue. There are tattoos and piercings; lithe bodies in barely-there bikinis and buff bodies rippling with muscles. In some strange way our kids appear even younger around them than they did around the senior citizens the day before.

The Water
It’s fresh which is a real novelty to us island kids. You get in and get out and you actually feel kind of clean rather than encrusted with salt or stinking of chlorine, which are the options we have at home. It’s bracingly cold but it feels good in a way I can’t describe—it’s refreshing, invigorating, crisply clean. It’s easy to dive into this cold bath for some reason and once I’m in, the water is cold, but I am not. And when I clamber back on to the raft, I warm up quickly with the sun’s rays mellow on my back. Throughout a full day of rafting I’m never chilled.

The Riverbanks
Towering, jungle-covered rock walls rise on either side of us, occasional traced by magical waterfalls. The rainforest around us is majestically silent and at peace with itself, and that peace seems to rub off on me. There is something dreamy about these crags, these massive old trees, and hidden jungles teeming with silent and invisible creatures. The waters edge is flanked by smooth boulders and rounded freshwater stones.

The Rapids
Deceptively tame-looking, they are thrilling when we go through. In all the pictures the professionals took, my mouth is gaping in goofy surprise at the wildness and wonder of those breathtaking waves.

The Ride
Clarky, our English guide, is a master. He does more than just steer us down the river, he provides us with fun and memorable experiences from the rush of “surfing” the rapids, plowing headfirst into a wash of on coming whitewater; to the prankster fun of the “Guides Revenge” to the almost scary experience of floating directly underneath a pounding waterfall. The kids are a little apprehensive at first, especially the boys, but soon relax and enjoy the exhilarating adventure. Even falling out of the raft in the midst of the rapids becomes “fun” for them, and “Ko” actually starts trying to fall out on purpose. We put a stop to that, knowing that the fun is only fun because they aren’t getting hurt. We raft for about two hours in the morning, then stopped for a delicious barbeque lunch at a rough riverside kitchen, and then continue on the river for another couple hours in the afternoon.

At the end of the day after ice cream at the Raging Thunder Café, there was the long bus ride back to the Bohemia Resort, a hearty barbeque and a birthday cake for one of our students celebrating her 14th birthday. It was the perfect end to a perfect day.

At the end of our adventure we pose for a photo with our river guide, Clarky.

Apr 11, 2008

Humans, Nature, & Human Nature: The Aboriginal Experience

One of the Tjapukai plays the didgeridoo.

Aboriginal art on display at the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park.

Aborigines. They are the original, indigenous people of Australia. Like the natives of the Americas, they lived a simple life close to the land and close to nature until their encounter with the Western world brought a brutal end to their way of life. Now, they exist, much as their counterparts do, on the margins of the new order, strangers in their own land, struggling to preserve their cultural heritage from the relentless assualt of modern, Western culture.

On Tuesday, March 25, we began our day by visiting the Tjapukai Cultural Park, a place devoted to teaching visitors about the traditional customs and culture of the Tjapukai people. (As there are no generic "Indians" among Native Americans, there are no generic "Aborigines." There are many different cultures and languages among the indigenous people of Australia. We learned about the ones who historically lived in tropical North Queensland, Australia, the Tjapukai). There are two theaters featuring short multimedia productions. One theater tell the ancient stories of the history of the indigenous people of the area and the other focuses on the recent history of the Aborigines with the coming of European settlers. In addition there is a small museum with gorgeous Aboriginal art and artifacts from their past, a traditional village, an outdoor stage where the traditional dances are performed and the didgeridoo is played, a gift shop, a restaurant, and fields where visitors can learn to throw a spear or hurl a returning boomerrang. It was fun to try our hand with the spear and boomerrang, the dances were fascinating, and the art beautiful, but what really stuck with me was the story of these people--a story that has been told a hundred times over in as many places around the globe: Innocent people rudely cast off their land, their language and culture destroyed, their religion replaced by invaders who saw the resources of the land as more important than the land, the land as more important than the people who lived on it, and their own culture as more important and of greater worth than that of the heathens they encountered.

As a Christian I couldn't help being disturbed by the image of the cross of Christ forced onto the confused and unwilling shoulders of people who didn't ask for it. It made me ashamed of our eagerness to convert others, because so often that eagerness has been confused with an eagerness to convert others to our culture, our way of life more than to our Christ. (Or maybe that's the problem--that He is "our" Christ, made synomous with who we are rather than the other way around). It's sad when you find yourself thinking, "I hope they keep their religion, I hope they don't convert" when you really do believe that Jesus is the hope of the world. But then maybe that really is the thing to hope for when the conversion would be to a false Christ made in our own image--a white, English-speaking man who blesses the Queen and America. I think a rejection of such a Jesus is preferable to conversion.

I thought about the blessings and curses of our modern age. For a small percentage of us on this planet, our lives our extraordinarily comfortable and convenient. We've mastered the illusion of control over our world (an illusion the indigenous cultures were less inclined to have--sure, they tried in their own way to stave off various disasters by working with and placating the spirits around them, but they knew actually having complete control over one's own life was never certain). But that comfort we've come to expect comes at the cost of our planet's viability. I've become convinced that, at least right now, the modern way of life is not sustainable. The earth can barely hold up under our excesses now; how will it ever survive as the developing world, with it's teeming millions, races to embrace our lifestyle as well. The Aborigines may not have had air conditioning, the latest medical advances, and large spacious homes (all of which I'm grateful for and don't seriously intend to give up), but they had a way of life that could survive milleniums. I seriously doubt our way of life would be able to make it beyond the first thousand years. Our world is smaller, yes; globalization is breaking down the barriers between us--but we are working together more and more to build the Babel of our own destruction. I finally understand that story in Genesis now--God confuses the languages of humanity because "nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible to them." To me it seemed a rather small and petty thing for God to do: "Oooh, they're getting two powerful, providing Us some 'competition'; We better put a stop to that." But now I see that the emphasis was not on the "nothing will be impossible", as I'd always thought, but on the "which they purpose to do." I think God recognized that while selfishness and shortsightedness (basic elements of that dirty word sin) reigned in human nature, a globalized world bent on ever greater heights would only be one working towards its own destruction. In Revelation, God warns He will destroy those who destroy the earth. It appears He won't have to because those who destroy the earth, destroy themselves. Maybe that's what He meant.

I wondered too, why the white folks were always the bad guys and the browns always the noble innocents? As Mai observed in her blog, it was easy to conclude that the white skin was a sign that goodness had been bleached away. But I agree with her, that this isn't true. There are no good or bad races. There are only human beings. And history has shown that human beings, regardless of ethnicity tend to use their power for their own enrichment and at the expense of others less powerful. This is a problem elemental to humanity, not unique to any particular culture. If situations were reversed and it was a multitude of brown-skinned invaders armed with high powered weapons, steel & gunpowder, and a muscular religion of the Dreaming who landed on European shores, I don't think the story would be any different. Skin color and culture do not mute or magnify sinful human nature. Even the stories of the Tjapukai reveal this--stories, like all of ours, full of violence, jealousy, and pain--as well as love, life, and laughter.

I know it sounds terribly dark and dismal but much of this is why I believe in God; not because we are good and moral beings, but because inexplicably and against our own self-interest, we are not good or moral. We don't need God to tell us how to be good. Any thinking person can do that. My faith, instead, explains why we are not good, and provides a way for us to become what we know we should be. And this is why I love Jesus--someone who didn't come in anger or jealousy, someone who didn't want to put an ax in anyone's head (reference to a Tjapukai legend we heard--I guess you had to be there), someone who didn't arrive demanding worship and honor before handing out goodies to those who got the ceremonies right, but instead someone who came to love and to give His life in love, as a ransom for many.

Maybe if the bearers of His name had shown up quietly to love rather than to convert and conqueor, learned to live among the people, embraced and honored their simple and sustainable (though perhaps shorter) way of life, and then simply shared. Well maybe then I'd feel a little better about Christianity's arrival in Australia. But for now, I wish the Tjapukai and the rest of the Aboriginal people of Australia well. I hope their culture survives and thrives, and if they do embrace Jesus, may it only be the Jesus who speaks their language, knows their world (because He created it), and who comes to give them life abundantly.

We carry in our hearts the true country
And that cannot be stolen
We follow in the steps of our ancestry
And that cannot be broken

--Midnight Oil, "The Dead Heart"

This passage from the gospel of John was painted on a bench outside the Cairns SDA Church. The design relected the unique artistic style of the Australian Aboriginals.

The bench

A detail from the bench at the Cairns SDA Church

A Tjapukai dance depicting a kangaroo hunt.

The kids explore the mock Aboriginal village.

Babs throws a returning boomerrang.

Here I am throwing a traditional Aboriginal spear.

This was amazing! These two guys were able to start a fire with just two "fire sticks". Check out the second video to see how one of the men was able to pick up the smoking beginnings of fire with his hands and coax into flame.

Apr 4, 2008

Good On Ya: The Australian Experience

Caution: Kangaroo Crossing!

Only in Australia: Warning! Do not swim in crocodile infested waters. This picture was taken near a small river on during Mai and I's morning run on our last day in Australia, March 27.

Initial Impressions
This trip to Australia was my second journey to the land "Down Under." The first time was 8 years ago, in the spring of 2000, also chaperoning an 8th grade class trip. I don't recall the country having made quite such an impression on me as it did this time.

The short version is that I love it; Babs and I both feel it would be nice to live there someday. Granted, Australia is a big country and we've only been to one part--tropical North Queensland. But what we've seen, we've loved.

I suppose it seems a no-brainer: Nice weather, great people, first world amenities in an exotic location, everyone speaks English. In many ways one would imagine that Australia would feel very similar to the United States--but it doesn't. I know this will sound really obvious and silly (especially to Australians) but while in Australia I was really struck by the reality that this really was a foreign country--a country with a different culture and customs from my own, the language not withstanding. (And really, the language is pretty different too). The result was that, at least at first, I felt a little apprehensive and uncertain (though not as downright scared as I was last time when we rented a van and I had to drive on the right side! I found the roundabouts especially challenging. More on them momentarily)). The following is an excerpt from my pen and paper journal, written on Sabbath, March 22, our second day in Cairns:

"I have the familiar sense of vulnerability that comes with traveling in another country--that sense that makes one extremely grateful for the kindess of hosts, hotel workers, drivers, and tour guides and more deeply wounded by their brusqueness or irritation. Strangely these feelings are heightened by being in an English-speaking country, perhaps because rudeness feels more personal when you don't have the excuse of the language barrier and kindness feels more genuine.

It's unfair to make broad judgements about 'the Australian people', especially after only one day here (though such judgements truthfully can never be made), but I can say that most the people I've met have been either extraordinarily friendly or unusually crotchety.

The accent is charming of course and the Australians--white ones and the dark-all seem to have a distinct appearance. Redder faces, paler skin, somewhat "British" features among white Australians and of course the distinct look of the Aborigines."

Despite that initial nervousness, overall, I felt welcome and safe while in Australia. I quickly came to feel at home.

Other People's Normal

One of my favorite things about traveling to other countries is getting a sense of how other people live; getting a feel for "other people's normal". I mean the usual tourist sights and experiences--the monuments, the museums, the must-see landmarks--they're great too. But I'm quite happy just wandering down a side street, meandering through a neighborhood, fascinated by the differences between their "normal" and mine, trying to imagine what it would be like to live in this place, in this culture, and have it be ordinary. I suppose I do understand those Japanese tourists who come to Saipan and gather around the most innocuous and mundane things to take enthusiastic pictures. I feel the same way when I visit another country and I felt that way in Australia.

So: A few things that will seem very boring and mundane to the Australian reader but that I found myself thoroughly fascinated and tickled by:

There's the obvious right-hand driving and driving on the left side of the road, but what really struck me was the roundabouts. These efficient versions of the intersection were everywhere in Australia, while on the other hand, I can't recall having seen even one 4-way stop sign (though I'm sure they were there). Let me further embarass myself by confessing that apparently I'm more ethnocentric and in the thrall of American exceptionalism than I thought, because I was genuinely surprised to find in Australia a system that was--gasp--better than what we have in America! The roundabout is just so sensible once you get the hang of it. Traffic in all directions basically keeps moving; there's a kind of elegance to the design of thing. Why don't we have this in the States, I wondered. And then, I remembered, Oh, yes, that's right. We Americans think we have the best way of doing of everything already. Most of us would probably rebel it having to change our accustomed manner of driving, even if the change might be an improvement. It's like the metric system--we like doing it our way, even though the change would actually be easier for us in the long run.

A typical roundabout. I got this picture off the web and I believe it was taken in Great Britain.

A right hand drive car.

I'm not sure if this is my imagination, but Australia just seemed a bit more health conscious than the United States. The stores were stocked with all kinds of whole-grain type products, but it was more than that. After all healthy eating is all the rage in the States right now, so shelves stocked with organic this and all-natural that isn't so unsual. No, I came to this conclusion through observation of more subtle differences. For example, on Friday evening, March 21, we took the kids to eat at a fast food joint across the street from our hotel, a place called Red Rooster. It had the usual fast food fare with an emphasis on chicken, but you could also by a piece of pumpkin. Not sugared-up pumpkin pie; a plain chunk of pumpkin still in it's skin. I was amazed that a greasy chicken outlet would carry such an item and equally amazed that people were likely to order it. (Pumpkin seems to be pretty popular in Australia too--while there I had a pumpkin and spinach lasagna, a savory [as opposed to a sweet] pumpkin pie, and a pumpkin and steak pie--pies little mini-pastries filled with meat and other ingredients are also very common in Australia).

The Red Rooster across the street from the Palm Royale Cairns.

Another example of this kind of comfort level with healthy eating was the cereal given to us every morning as part of our compliementary breakfast at our second lodging of the trip, the Bohemia Resort. Every day we got a bowl with a package of sturdy, whole grain, fiber-filled (and some might argue utterly tasteless) Weet-Bix. It's a literally a brick of solid health dropped into your bowl that you break apart with your spoon and in some cases, sweeten with a little sugar just to take the edge off all that healthiness. What struck me is that this was the default ceral--given to every patron of the hostel, and apparently the assumption was that everyone would eat it. Does anyone in the States buy Shredded Wheat (the closest thing we have to Weetbix in U.S)?

Weet Bix. Not the tastiest stuff in the world but packed with health. And made by Sanitarium, a company owned by the Seventh-day Adventist Church!

One final observation of the "normal" in Australia--the language of course. Everybody loves an Aussie accent but I love the Aussie words just as much. From my pen and paper journal, Tuesday, March 25:

"And along the way there have been lots of impressions of Australia--a lot of new words or rather familiar words with unfamiliar meanings: "sunnies" [sunglasses], "swimmers"[swimsuit], "chemist" [pharmacy], "chips" [french fries], "crisps" [potato chips], "tomato sauce" [ketchup] and "How ya' goin'" [What's up] and "Good on ya, mate!" [Well done!] and many others."

Overall, I think it wouldn't be hard for the Australian "normal" to become my normal too.

Recognize this cereal? That's right, it's Kelloggs Raisan Bran! Apparently raisans are known as "sultanas" in Australia. I brought back two boxes of these from our trip.

Where We Stayed: A Tale of Two Pools

We stayed in two different places during our time in Australia and both had good-sized free form pools in a luxe tropical setting. Beyond that, the similarities ended and I think you'll be surprised by which place I'd recommend. Consider this my offical review of the places we stayed in Australia.

The pool at the Palm Royale Cairns. It was nice but they had a pool at Bohemia too and you could actually play pool there too!

The first place we stayed was the Palm Royale Cairns, which was conveniently located just two blocks from the Cairns SDA Church. Three nights at this hotel was included with our airfare package. It appeared to be rather nice mid-level hotel. The key word is "appeared." This hotel was all about appearance. It looks nice in glamorous photos on the web with it's massive pool, exotic landscaping, and vaguely Mediterranean architectural vibe. But if you looked closely, you'd see the mold creeping up the walls. If you went into the rooms you'd find them to be just average. The maid service was spotty at best. On at least one occasion we came back and it was clear that they really hadn't cleaned the room or the bathroom--just straigthened things up and replaced a few towels. I wasn't impressed. The staff was polite and basically friendly, but did little to assist us in our trip. One person at the main desk said she would look into some tour prices for us. She never got back to us. The staff rarely went out of their way for us. There was no complimentary breakfast, but they had a buffet every morning for the exorbitant price of $21AUD per person. But the worst part was the somewhat shady manner in which they changed money for us. In addition to making it clear that they could only change "a little" for us, they were unclear about how their exchange rate worked. And money changing was pretty vital for us. It was Easter weekend and Monday and Friday were both public holidays--Australians take their holidays seriously; nothing was open. From my paper and pen journal, Sabbath, March 22:

"I'm not particularly impressed with this hotel. Everything is brutally expensive and also I'm convinced that they either purposefully or unintentionally ripped me off on the money I exchanged at the front desk. They divided the exchange rate instead of multiplying so that we got slightly less than the $100 USD I exchanged rather than multiplying it so that we got slightly more. I checked rates and tried to show the ladies at the front desk, but they insisted that it had been done correctly and that their raters were 'higher.' at the hotel than elsewhere. I understand higher rates (it would have been a worse rate anyway had they done it corrctly) but purposefully misapplying the calculation rate seems a little sketchy to me."

The Palm Royale Cairns remained the only place in Australia where I actually ended up with less Australian money than U.S. money after an exchange.

The kids liked the pool and all, but my recommendation is to seek out somewhere other than the Palm Royale Cairns. In fact you might consider saving yourself a bundle and staying at the Bohemia Resort. Don't let the name fool you--it is a youth hostel complete with dorm-style rooms and a youthful clientele. But don't let the hostel designation fool you either. Bohemia is a fantastic place to stay.

Pool at the Bohemia Resort. That's Mai in the bottom right, cooling off after our morning run.

Another shot of the pool. You can just make out the rooms hidden behind the foliage.

How the boys spent every spare moment and every spare dollar, once we moved to the Bohemia.

Amy and the girls have breakfast on our last day in Australia, Thursday, March 27.

We moved over to the Bohemia on Sunday after laser tag and spent the rest of our week there. Granted the rooms were more spartan than the Palm Royale, but to be honest, not by much. We had to share bathrooms and showers with other guests, but they weren't quite community showers either. The shower rooms usually had only one shower head in them so you could go in and lock the door and have the shower all to yourself. For between $23 and $25 a night you got a clean and comfortable room to stay in, a complimentary light breakfast every morning (two slices of toast with butter and jam, the aforementioned Weetbix, and your choice of hot coffee or tea), a fully equipped kitchen to make food of your own if you desired, a good-sized free form pool to relax in, plenty of computers with high speed internet access for only $2 for 30 minutes, and free transportation into the heart of the tourist district all day long. The little Bohemia bus would make it's rounds every hour ferrying people between the Bohemia Resort and Bohemia Central, their property in the heart of Cairns. We found it easy to plan our shopping trips around the bus's hourly schedule and never had to bother with the hassle and expense of taxis. They also had a self-barbecue restaurant where you could get a slab of your favorite meat, a salad, and roll for only $9 and grill it up on their bank of gas grills. They also show a movie every night at poolside and have a couple of pool tables (on which our boys spent countless hours and countless dollar coins). Talk about bang for your buck!

But the best part of the Bohemia Resort was the people. You'd think a dirt-cheap place would have dirt-poor service, but the staff was wonderful! They were friendly, helpful, patient, and enthusiastic. I have to mention in particular a young Chinese woman who worked the front desk in the afternoons and evenings and who had the most charming Chinese-accented Australian accent. She was always patient with my many questions (even when I forgot what my questions were when I arrived at the front desk and had to stand there trying to remember what I wanted to ask while she waited for me)and she arranged all our tours efficiently and quickly. Thanks to her I was able to plan our Kuranda skyrail tour, the horseback riding, and the ATVs. I did not catch her name--I had planned to take a picture of her and get her name on our last day in Cairns but it so happend that it was her day off. This girl along with all the other staff were fantastic. I suggest, that unless you're getting a hotel stay as part of your ticket package, you forgoe the so-called three star hotel and stay at the Bohemia Resort youth hostel. You'll get a lot more, have a lot more fun, all for a fraction of the cost.

Apr 2, 2008

"We had General Lee, They Had General Grant": Lessons in Leadership Learned from Laser Tag

Our group after our laser tag session. David, our "General Lee", is in the picture. See the guy in blue with the baseball cap directly behind me? David is directly behind him.

Sunday, March 23, 2008, we headed out--with a little help from our friends--to play laser tag.

Perhaps it wasn't the most appropriate activity for Easter but it sure was fun.

It's a little odd the extent to which we enjoy the pretense of an activity that, were it real, would be terrifying and damaging even if one came away without any physical wounds. Nonetheless, there's something about sneaking in the forest playing at war that is undeniably fun. I'm sure someone could write a pyschological analysis of why this is--but I'll leave that to experts. I learned other lessons from our day of pretend warfare.

I've played laser tag once before, but never like this. The last time I played was indoors at a facility located in a nondescript Ohio strip mall. The laser guns were small and plastic, there were mazelike barriers to hide behind, and the occasional wisp of dry ice vapor in an attmept to create some atmosphere. Cairns Laser Tag, on the other hand, was a far more exciting experience. We had a sprawling outdoor course--they didn't need more than the occasional trench or camoflauge netting to create atmosphere; the unspoiled woods replete with muddy trails and an occasional misty rain were more than enough to set the martial mood. The guns were hefty metal weapons with a digital readout that reminded us of how much "ammo" we had left and how many "lives" we had. They made a satisfying gunshot-like report when we fired them. When an opponent's invisible laser beam hit the sensor on the front or back of the caps we were issued, the gun emitted a howl of pain and the digital read out spelled out the words "Ouch." When you ran out of "lives," the gun let out an agonized scream and you were out of the game. Which was okay because the 6 games we paid for ran about 15 minutes each, so it wasn't a long wait until you could get back in the action.

After an orientation, we chose up teams. The boys in our group eagerly clumped together, so it ended up being the adults and girls against the boys. We headed out into the forest for our first game. I hate to admitt it but I probably wouldn't last long in a real war. When the pressure is on, you find out what you've got--and what I had was a kind of slow motion paralaysis. I wasn't sure what to do or where to go and I ended up standing still too long, like a deer in headlights. Shots came from I knew not where. My gun howled with each incessant hit, until I was "dead" and trudged back to the orientation area to await the next game. The rest of my team didn't do much better. The boys wiped us out quickly. One of the few people we did manage to take out was the only person who could have helped us--a young man named David who was on our own team. He was out in front of the rest of us and he was quickly finished by confused "friendly fire."

David was a professional of sorts. He was there to play the same as us, but he really wasn't the same as us at all. He was an aficionado of laser tag, a regular at Cairns Laser Tag, and so familiar to the people who ran the joint that he was made a kind of unofficial assistant for the day--recharging our guns for us and giving advice. Advice, we didn't really listen to--at first.

I think David hoped to keep it low key, sit back and let us have fun. But after our pathetic showing in the first round, he spoke up a little more. He gathered us around--tried to give us some pointers. He spoke softly, reasonably, hoped we'd "get it." We didn't. The second game was another slaughter.

The third game, David was done fooling around. He stepped up, gave orders, roared commands once the game began--in short, he led. And we followed. And that made all the difference. We cleaned those boys out to the last man. They had no idea what hit them. David was our General Lee.

General Robert E. Lee

A little background for those of you who may not be U.S. History buffs: General Robert E. Lee was the key general for the Confederacy during the Civil War. He was perhaps one of the best generals in the entire conflict, and certainly one of the best in military history. He was a brilliant tactitian, an aggressive, bold strategist. He inspired and motivated his troops--they were willing to go anywhere, do anything for the man they affectionaly referred to as "Marse Lee." Under his leadership the South won battle after battle in the early years of the Civil War. In contrast, the North went through a string of slow-witted, overcautious, uninspired, and uninspiring generals. President Abraham Lincoln found himself constantly frustrated by the incompetence of his generals who were losing the war for him.

And this was the position the boys found themselves in during our third and fourth games. They played with all the aggressive energy typical of adolescent boys, but no amount of wanton shooting and masculine courage could compete with an organized army led by a confident leader. Under David's tutelage we learned to move quickly, to cover the gaps in our lines, to methodically hunt down our enemies and send them packing from the game.

And I imagine that game 5 might have been gone much the same way. . .

Except they finally got their General Grant.

General Ulysses S. Grant

Let's return to the history book for a moment. There was a certain Union general that was building a reputation in the Western theater of the Civil War. After several key victories, President Lincoln moved this general, Ulysses S. Grant, to the eastern front and placed him in charge of the Northern armies. A lot of folks looked down on General Grant. He didn't dress particularly well, he had failed at virtually everything he'd tried in civilian life, and he was rumored to be overly fond of the liquor bottle. But Lincoln didn't care about any of that--"I like this man. He fights", he said. He did. He fought and he led. Under his leadership, the North would eventually push on to victory and Lee would surrender to Grant in April of 1865, spelling the end of the Confederacy and the system of slavery that had caused the Civil War in the first place.

For game five, our instructor, an employee of Cairns Laser Tag joined the boys side. Even David knew we were in trouble. Like General Grant, this man could fight--and lead. David had finally met his match. Lee had met his Grant.

Needless to say we lost the fifth game. But it was fun and the lessons I learned from all our games stuck with me. So often in life I see people in leadership shirk from their responsibilities as leaders. They don't want to come on too strong, they don't want to be perceived as "bossy" or arrogant. They want to be "cool" and chilled out, not the one who calls the shots and shoulders the responsibility. Likewise, many of us think we don't need leaders. We don't like having someone telling us what to do, giving orders. We want to do things our own way.

But in laser tag, and in life, leadership matters. Some of us have the gift and/or the responsiblity of leadership. We need to exercise that leadership. As a teacher, I can't sit around hoping my students will learn--I need to be an example, set the tone and the pace. I need to lead.

That Sunday in the woods I was reminded that for great things to happen, leadership makes all the difference.

P.S. You might be wondering about game 6? That was a different type of game where we grouped into teams of four and the goal was to eliminate as many of the other four-person squads as possible. I was on a team with Pastor Anthony, one of the boys of the Cairns youth group, and. . .David. We did pretty well, and were one of the final teams to be knocked out. I was the last one on our squad to go down--taken out by Amy--someone who had learned the lessons David taught and applied them with devastating effectiveness.

Mai and Riki, armed to the teeth and ready for battle. Thanks to Mai for the pictures. She brought her camera out to the playing area and was able to get these photos.

Mai with our three girls and one of the girls from the Cairns SDA Youth group pose with their weapons after the game.