Monday, December 22, 2008

the (other) land of the free*

You may have noticed that I’ve been falling a bit behind on my posts: they’ve been coming out a bit late, and the spaces between my posts have gotten rather lengthy. That’s because for the past few months I’ve been very busy writing other things: namely, applications, because my current job (a maternity leave cover) ends in February. Well, one of them has paid off, and I’ve been offered a very exciting professional opportunity! In Thailand. We’re moving to Bangkok!

Starting in March 2009, I will be working for twelve months with the World Vision Foundation of Thailand, the Thai branch of my current employer, supporting the coordination, implementation, monitoring, and development of their anti-human trafficking programs throughout the greater Mekong region (Note: “human trafficking” is like drug trafficking but with people, and the profit comes from exploiting people's labour rather than from illegal movement or goods: in other words, slavery). The position is based in Bangkok but involves frequent travel to Thailand’s border towns and neighbouring countries (exciting!!) because a key piece is to facilitate communication and collaboration among regional projects. I’ll be focusing particularly on two projects that protect migrant rights and discourage unsafe migration from neighbouring Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

Since human traffickers are not exactly the nicest of people, many friends and family have raised understandable concerns about my safety. Fortunately, I will not be engaged in the kind of high-profile bust-ups of billion-dollar sex-trafficking rings that get you targeted by international crime lords. I will be working with victims and potential-victims of human-trafficking, not with traffickers. I will be working largely on community education and development programs: making vulnerable people aware of the threat human trafficking poses to them and encouraging safe and lawful ways for people to make a living where they are, or migrate safely to find work. I don’t expect that anybody dangerous will even notice me, much less target me. Also, although I will be working with World Vision Thailand, the position is funded and administered through AusAID as part of the Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development program. I trust the Australian Government to watch my back.

Erika will of course be coming to Bangkok too, and we’re eagerly exploring things for her to do there. She’s signed up to get TEFL training and certification next month. Also, we’ve recently discovered that Habitat for Humanity has a significant presence in Thailand, and working with them could be exactly what she wants to do. She’s also hoping to explore more outdoor sports opportunities.

Needless to say, we’re extremely excited about this opportunity. It’s pretty much exactly what I was hoping for in my next career move, and I’m thrilled it’s happening so soon.

*Like the US, Thailand calls itself the Land of the Free. This is in reference to 1) the pride that Thai people take in having successfully resisted colonization by Western powers, and 2) a comparative difference in the political autonomy of lower class people in two rival Tai (pre-Thai) city-states in the thirteenth century (it’s a little complicated).

Arthur Winifred "Dusty" Rhodes: May 11, 1917 - December 19, 2008

My grandfather (shown above on his 91st birthday with my cousin Patty) passed away quickly this past week, having lived an incredibly long and rich life, active and mentally acute right up to the end.

I greatly admired my grandfather. Anyone who met him knew that he was considerate, polite, charming, helpful, involved in life, always present. He could put almost anyone at ease, easy with a story or joke in his soft Missourian drawl and a twinkle in his blue eyes. His charm masked a blindingly brilliant mind, with thoughts firmly grounded in practical matters, a strong and determined leader when situations demanded such a role. My grandfather was also deeply committed to his family, always looking for ways to help us, always wanting to know how we were. He seemed to believe that nothing was impossible, that with enough information, the right tools for the task, and enough helping hands we could solve any problem, from drywalling to a broken heart.

He and I shared a love of maps. As Corban noted, his encyclopaedic knowledge of the roads of New England and the east coast was incredibly helpful, and was one of the ways in which he most often shared his love and concern for us all. When my wife and I were setting off on a roadtrip from Boston to New Orleans, he made sure we had a route that took the most beautiful roads, had some picnics along the way, and avoided as many tolls as possible. He made sure we had water and a flashlight. And he was pleased to learn afterwards of the new bridge in West Virginia that not only cut down on driving time, but had a truly spectacular view west down the valley.

You see, he was always learning. Even though, at 92, he knew it wasn't likely that he'd be driving through West Virginia any time soon, he hoarded and cherished facts as much as he did other useful things, like bits of rope and scrap lumber. You never knew when it might come in handy. But our shared love of information went beyond what was merely useful: we would flip through his atlases, or later the online Google maps, revelling in the sheer amount of information represented there and the vastness and diversity of the world's geology and habitations. Through maps, we would explore Europe, retrace his family's travels there, and go off on new adventures through Russia, following the path of the Trans Siberian Railway or the coast of the Mediterranean. When I told him of my planned move to Australia, out came the maps, and together we learned of the continent's sparse population, inhabitable center, and exciting proximity to Antarctica.

His life-long learning extended beyond facts, though, and into matters of conscience. Long an ardent Republican and proud veteran, Grandpa Dusty nevertheless expressed his concern and disappointment with the Iraq War and the general state of today's military. And closer to my own heart, he made sure I always knew he loved and supported me, even after he learned that I was gay. He comforted me when, in high school, he happened to be visiting when I was heartbroken by my first love: 'Tears are tears', he said, and gave me a hug, even though I saw that he was confused. My mother tells me that he took it upon himself after that to educate himself about gay issues, reading materials from PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), and participating in a church discussion group with the aim of supporting gay people in his community. And year later he warmly welcomed my wife into our family, read from First Thessalonians while smiling proudly at our wedding. Some of my friends were surprised that such a traditional gentleman would be so loving to his lesbian granddaughter, noting that their own grandparents' values had ossified years ago. But knowing that Grandpa Dusty's deepest roots were those of love and loyalty, combined with a commitment to always learning more about the world, those around him, and himself, I wasn't surprised.

My grandfather made the most sense to me after I visited Caruthersville, Missouri, where he was born. There is rich soil there. The land is so flat that you can see the curve of the earth, inviting the observer to imagine what is beyond that edge, and to take a step to see more, and more again. And the deep Mississippi pushes fast and strong along the edge of town, coming from somewhere, going somewhere, with power and boats and people and evidences of northern storms. It is a place to cultivate just such a grounded adventurer as my grandfather was.

It's so hard to speak in the past tense, isn't it? "Admired", "was". They seem wrong, because I still see his best qualities in his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. And I still admire the way in which he lived his life, I still aspire to be as helpful and loyal and full of grace as he. Though it may sound trite, I know that my Grandpa Dusty will live on as long as we continue to learn from him and hold memories of him.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

the races

I now live in a state that has a civic holiday for a horse race. That’s right, Melbourne Cup Day (November 4th, oddly enough – yes I’m late in posting this) is a public holiday that honors the annual, much anticipated, boisterously celebrated pivitol competition of Melbourne’s season of the sport of horse racing. The races are held at historic Flemington race course in the northern suburbs. Everyone gets extremely dressed up (I wasn’t allowed to enter our picnic area with flat shoes – had to be heels), and some people (ladies especially but not exclusively) spend more time, money, energy, and attention on their race-day outfits – especially their hats – than can possibly be healthy. Done moderately, though, it can be a blast. Basically, it’s like the biggest, fanciest tailgate/barbeque party you’ve ever seen. Some people even seem to watch the horses run, but for most the sport isn’t really the point: to see, be seen, hang out with friends and family, and get drunk seem to be most people’s priorities. We couldn’t even see the racetracks from our spot. Personally, I enjoyed making my “hat,” getting dressed up, and spending the day with my cousins and family.

around the bay in a day

My uncle John drove us all the way around Port Phillip Bay last weekend. We’ve been looking forward to this “around the bay in a day” drive since we arrived, and had the perfect weather for it: it was pouring in Melbourne and its suburbs, which kept most people at home. Leaving the rainclouds behind with the city limits, we had the sunny roads and beaches to ourselves.

Three highlights of the day were vanilla slice, the ferry, and the pier: vanilla slice is a classic Australian dessert consisting of a thick layer of vanilla custard resting between pastry slices with thick white sugar frosting on top. As you can imagine, it squirts out everywhere as soon as you bite into it, making it delightfully impossible to eat politely. A small café at the furthest tip of the bay has what is consistently rated the best vanilla slice in the state of Victoria, which largely inspired our trip in the first place. I truly have never had such delicious vanilla slice. It was the best. Lucky for us, upon arriving we got the very last slice the café had, even though it was still midmorning.

From there, we took a 1-hr ferry ride across the channel that joins the bay to the sea, and enjoyed the views out to the Southern Ocean, with nothing but water between us and Antarctica. The fierce currents, stiff wind, pretty little towns, and bluegreen water made for a gorgeous ride.

On the way back home up the east coast of the bay, we stopped in the town of Rye at a pier where I had gone fishing with my Nonno (grandfather) as a child: it was just as I remembered it, with white sand and the clearest turquoise water deepening so gradually that even a toddler can wade out quite far. I still remember Nonno, an ancestral fisherman from Stromboli, taking such great pride in my catching two fish on the first line I dropped.

Thanks, John, for such a great day!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

melbourne behind-the-scenes: laneways

Growing up between New York City and Boston, where it is rightly unheard of for a woman to walk down an alley even in midday, it took me a few weeks here to realize that despite its regular street grid, Melbourne’s city center is physically a labyrinth, a honeycomb, a catacomb. There is much more surface area than the outer shell would suggest. Regular pedestrians are just as likely to walk through the blocks than around them: malls, ‘arcades’, ‘laneways’ alleys off alleys provide not only more direct walking routes, but also a host of truly tiny cafes and shops between and underneath Melbourne’s streets, largely sporting quirky fancy fashion or specialist trades like cobblers and the like. At odds with the general Melbournian friendliness, their small size, entrenched clientele, and suave servers makes these Melbournian institutions seem cliquish and uninviting, furthering my wonderment that anyone ever finds these tiny holes in the city’s wall, let alone enough customers to maintain downtown rents.

The laneways, while occasionally very shwank, usually provide a sudden and welcome gritty and odorous counterpoint to the clean sophistication of the sidewalks. Most notable in their contribution to the city’s melody is the insanely good and prevalent laneway graffiti, which has even come to be recognized by some of country’s greatest cultural institutions, and has a considerable artist and fan community (including but not limited to sites like this) despite its often-disturbing subject matter. There is even a laneway art commission, encouraging artists to further contribute to the appreciation of the hidden corners of the city, my favorite of which features gold-plated water pipes: I love not just the beauty of the paintings, but also the mesmerizing shapes of the external pipes (which they can get away with because it doesn’t freeze here) and the general decrepit and shoddy buildings: with its single-thickness dry-mortared brick and cement slab walls resting on loose dirt, most of the city would crumble in a minute if there were an earthquake, flood, or really stiff breeze, further endearing it to me in its ephemerality.

More photos to be added soon. Sorry for not having the time to weed through to just choose good pics.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

a profile of public Melbourne

Having lived here for almost a year now, here’s a rather scattered stab at how I would now describe Melbourne:

Situated on a gentle lightly-wooded hill alongside a freshwater river at the inland end of a deep-channeled bay in a warm temperate climate, this location was ideal for European-style habitation. Delightfully, the first European exploration of the Wurundjeri land along the Yarra river that would become Melbourne was by a Mr. Batman of England, in 1835: there are now many Marvel-esque Melburnian nomikers, such as Batman Avenue. Unfortunately not named Batman City or the like, Melbourne received its name from the titular surname and residence of the sitting British Prime Minister of the time. Though remaining a small pastoral colonial outpost for the 15 years of its existence, forsightful early city leaders established a city street grid as early as 1837. Even though most of the streets remained unbuilt and even impassable (due to swamps and the like) for decades, this early planning imparted a lasting orderliness to the city center that I have never seen paralleled in a city of Melbourne’s age.

This early planning was actualized more quickly than anticipated, as the gold rush of the 1850s in the fields west of the city exploded the population and money pouring through its banks and ports. Due to building on virtually unlimited undeveloped land with vast available funds and a strong colonial desire to emulate the glory of all things British and assert its own importance, many of the institutional and important buildings of the city are built on a grand scale, with elaborate Victorian architecture. For these same reasons, there’s also an extensive and generally excellent railway system. By the end of the 1800s, Melbourne was the second-largest city in the British Empire and tenth-largest city in the world, thought its precedence has since slowed to that of a densely-centered but otherwise-average-sized modern city of 20,000 (in the city center itself) and 3 million in the greater metro area.

Modern Melbourne is largely shaped by its non-British immigrants, who started arriving during the goldrush (though this wave left little lasting effect on the city’s culture), then from post-War Europe (esp. Italy and Greece, whose influence is more apparent in the suburbs) and more recently from southeast Asia (esp. Vietnam, China, Malaysia, and India). While still largely a white (British) city in most social and physical respects, Melbourne is starting to become part of the modern Australasian community: indicative of the population, the remaining Victorian edifices now sit between a considerable amount of truly excellent modern Asian-influenced architecture, with thankfully rather few 1960s and 1970s atrocities in between. The city’s alleys (“laneways”) and other nooks are beginning to be put to good use by those familiar with space-efficiency in overcrowded* areas. Within the city center, affluent people of many varied Asian descents** hurry to and from work, or stroll on holiday. Food from every conceivable Asian ethnicity (and others, too) graces the city center restaurants, and family-friendly holidays like Buddha Day and Diwali are publicly celebrated. Less evident are the religious institutions of these communities, with no temples or mosques apparent anywhere in the city, hinting at the remaining strong Anglo institutional and cultural entrenchement, though partially resulting from the remarkable secularization of the city’s general culture.

The city’s culture is very urbane, with much better fashion and arts institutions (though not necessarily art itself) than Boston and even most of New York City. The city’s sophistication unfortunately makes much of its most enjoyable aspects inaccessible to the less-than-wealthy. I quickly resigned myself to feeling like a bumpkin here, as I could appreciate but never afford the fare, threads, and lifestyles of the cool café culture and rich nightlife, making me feel as if I have been existing as a spectator at the fringes of my own home. It would be a wonderful city to be rich in: the gorgeous food alone could tempt even the most avid miser into bankruptcy. That said, it remains affordable for Petra and I to live comfortably if frugally right in the middle of the city on one salary, encouraging us to enjoy more elusive entertainments like the ever-free people-watching, beach culture, and biking.

The people of Melbourne remain very friendly despite their urbanity, which I continue to find delightful. There is a slower pace of life here than in most American and European cities, and a relaxed and personable attitude pervades most interactions, even those of officials and clerks. I suspect I have been spoiled by this year of humane conversations, and think with shame on the brusqueness of New England.

And the weather is gorgeous.

Other big aspects of the city that I have little to do with are the rabid sports culture (there are something like 7 sports arenas in the city itself, with cricket and Aussie-rules football dominating) and the lively business culture. More on some specific aspects of the city in the upcoming days, and more photos to be added to the slideshow below later.

Sorry for not having the time to weed through to just choose good pics.

*the city’s density and crowdedness is especially strange given that this is a largely unpopulated continent, and vast flat fields surround the city in close proximity. What limits growth is lack of water.

**unlike the US, many of the non-white people in Australia have themselves immigrated, rather than their parents. 25% of today's Australians were born elsewhere. It makes for a very different dynamic.