My secret life with boats

It’s time to come clean. I’ve never really liked boats, ships, yachts, dinghies, canoes, kayaks or any other seafaring vessel. I find this aversion peculiar, as I adore swimming, and the sea, and rivers, and dams – I just don’t like boats. My dislike could be a combination of not growing up with boats, or the immense trust I put in my feet to walk away when things are not good anymore – something that you cannot do when you’re on a boat. Continue reading

Barangaroo: My kind of girl

It all starts with the names. Taking the train from Sydney International Airport, station names like Allawa, Bullaburra, Turramurra and Wollongong sit comfortably side by side with Aberdeen, Kings Cross and Liverpool on sign boards.

Then you see a striking red, black and yellow flag often flown with the all-too-familiar Australian flag across the city. Next, a serious young man at the Sydney Opera House starts a show by saying: “Sydney Opera House is built upon Tubowgulle, Gadigal country, so I would like to acknowledge the Gadigal People, the traditional custodians of this land.”  For an outsider uncovering the history of the first people of Australia is like peeling an onion – layer by layer and sometimes shedding a little tear in the process.

The indigenous name that has really resonated with me is Barangaroo. It has a lovely ring to it and you can repeat it over and over again as your running shoes pound the pavements of Sydney. Barangaroo, Barangaroo …. And then I can also see the Barangaroo Reserve from the window of our flat in Sydney, way across the bay.

A visit to the Sydney Museum sheds some light on Barangaroo. When Governor Phillip arrived in Australia with his fleet of convict ships, he kidnapped a senior Wangal man, Woollarawarre Bennelong who lived on the banks of the Parramatta River with his community. Phillip cleaned him up nicely, gave him a suit and a tie to wear and taught him English. Bennelong later escaped and after some payback – spearing Phillip in the shoulder – he renewed ties with the governor. Good friends again, Benelong asked that the governor build him a hut on a rocky outcrop, jutting into the sea, right there where the Sydney Opera House stands today.

Benelong had a wife called Barangaroo who was not such a push-over. She declined to join her husband to live in Government House but visited him often. A write-up on her in the Sydney Museum says that she was not keen on wearing the Western clothes she was given to make her a respectable visitor. Because of her reluctance she was flogged by a soldier but promptly grabbed the stick and gave him a good thrashing. Barangaroo – my kind of girl.

But it was not all spunk and action. A more wretched account of her visit to Government House was relayed by Watkin Tench, a British marine officer in his book on the early settlers, titled A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson. He describes how Barangaroo visited her husband wearing a petticoat.  “But this was the prudery of the wilderness, which her husband (Bennelong) joined us to ridicule, and we soon laughed her out of it. The petticoat was dropped with hesitation, and Barangaroo stood ‘armed cap-a-pee in nakedness’.” Tench also recounts that Bennelong  requested that “we combed and cut her hair, and she seemed pleased with the operation”. It is hard to imagine what Barangaroo felt, but I would suspect bewilderment, embarrassment, shame and anger?

A year after the British arrived, around 80% of the first people living in and around what is now Sydney was wiped out due to disease, hunger and persecution. During my time here I have not seen many indigenous people, beside the sad little group in front of the Opera House playing digeridoos and selling CDs to tourists streaming from cruise ships. Documentaries on television show reduced lives of poverty, domestic violence and a massive tendency towards suicide amongst Aboriginal youths.

Bringing up the issues facing the first people while socialising with locals is often met with an embarrassed silence or a call to talk about more cheerful stuff. So, all in all, it’s quite difficult to know what Australians really feel about Aboriginal people. I suppose if I had more time to dig myself into this culture I would be able to peel more layers off the onion. But for now, all I can do is to sometimes whisper the name ‘Barangaroo’ as I walk the streets of Sydney.

Of red roosters and white rabbits: Notes from an outsider looking in

At this time of year red lanterns of all shapes and sizes dot the streets and malls of Sydney, Australia. There are large installations of roosters, dragons and the Chinese character Fú, meaning ‘fortune’ or ‘good luck’ is seen on posters and painted on shop fronts.  It’s Chinese New Year – a time to honour deities and ancestors, to wish each other well and for families to come together.

The Chinese New Year celebrations span roughly two weeks and will end on 12 February. This year is the Year of the Rooster, the only bird in the Chinese Zodiac, consisting of a 12-year cycle of animals. The new year celebrations in Sydney have been huge, with lion dancing, street food markets, Chinese opera, red roosters in shop windows and a much anticipated dragon boat race this coming weekend.

With almost 20 per cent of Sydney’s population of roughly five million people being of Asian descent means that Chinese New Year celebrations are not taken lightly and I have been lucky to be part of this spectacle.  In a world that is increasingly focussed on dividing people, rather than reconciling them, I find spending time in a culturally diverse hotpot like Sydney refreshing and intriguing. I should add that I can only comment on what I see from my vantage point as a semi-tourist. I call myself that because I will soon be returning to my home country, South Africa, after spending months in Australia as a very privileged voyeur of Australian life.

Food features prominently in New Year celebrations. Traditionally, this is a time to eat dumplings and steamed buns, symbolising the birth of a new year. Few things make me happier than ordering a bamboo basket of dim sum at the Dainty Dumpling in China Town. These lovelies arrive at the table steaming and from this point on, timing is everything. Fill a little dipping pot with vinegar and a few drops of chilli oil. Wait until the right moment to pick up a dumpling with your chopsticks, dip it in the vinegar and pop it in your mouth. You are rewarded with a soupy treat and a small knob of filling, be it pork, prawn or vegetarian. Time is of the essence – pop the dim sum in your mouth too soon, and burn the skin off your mouth and tongue. Wait too long and the little dumplings turn rubbery and flaccid. Needless to say, I have tried my fair share of dumplings to celebrate New Year in Chinese style.

Another exposure to Chinese life in Sydney has been visiting the White Rabbit Gallery of Contemporary Chinese Art in Chippendale in Sydney’s CBD. Started by one of Australia’s wealthiest women and patron of the arts, Judith Neilson, this gallery has been an eye-opener and a delight. Judith was born in Zimbabwe, studied at the Natal Technikon and has been living in Australia with her property tycoon husband for several decades. She spends more than a month every year in China, sourcing work for her gallery and shows contemporary Chinese art that is rarely seen by outsiders. The show that has just ended, Vile Bodies, had me enthralled with installations, 3-D printing and multimedia displays. It is truly amazing what is happening on the art scene in China at the moment.

I am privileged to have be exposed to people from so many different cultures here in Sydney. And, it seems that everyone is getting along swimmingly. It might be that the lack of racial tension apparent to me, as semi-tourist in this cosmopolitan city, is only due to the fact that I have not burrowed deeply enough into the Australian psyche or that the Australian abhorrence of making a scene has added to my perception of racial harmony. Whatever it may be, it’s a relief to observe people of so many nationalities living and working together in seemingly perfect harmony.

I am, however, deeply aware that Australian life did not start in 1788 when Governor Phillips arrived here with his convict ships in tow. The spectres of the First People of Australia move silently through the streets of Sydney, and if you don’t look closely, you will not see their shadows over this urban sprawl. But more about them when I write again.