“Aw, look at all those seagulls,” I said, pointing out the dark shapes wheeling through the sky. It was a few days ago in Cairns, a seaside town in the north of Queensland whose main industries seem to be rooted in the traffic of questionable herbs (Mugwort?) and white-water rafting. My parents, who had accompanied me to Australia for a pre-orientation romp around the East Coast, cooed appreciatively. The night was warm, and our cheap plastic flip-flops made quiet shushing sounds as we ambled along the boardwalk, the hulk of the jungle-wreathed mountains looming in the distance. To our left, across the ocean, we could see a storm blowing in.
I squinted, holding my hand up to block out the soft glow of the streetlights. “Wait a minute,” I said. “Those aren’t seagulls. Those are bats.”
“What?” my mom exclaimed, throwing up both hands automatically, as if doing a fear-of-rabies-inspired impersonation of the first quarter of the YMCA dance. “But they’re huge!”
Huge they were, at least by weenie California insect-eating standards–which made sense, because as I found out from some locals later, these were no typical mosquito-chompers. These bats, the biggest of which had a wingspan of about a metre, apparently lived in the trees along the boardwalk and came out at night to scavenge fruit. I was enamored–my parents and the locals, less so. It seems that the general attitude toward the airborne pineapple-mongers is one of distaste and annoyance: it’s as if the raccoons who routinely break into my garage to eat my dog’s food have grown wings and a love for sitting in trees and shrieking at people. The analogy needs work, I admit, but I also have to admit that I’d be pretty enthusiastic about the raccoon scenario too. For the rest of the night, I couldn’t take my eyes off of them–my uptilted face and rapturous expression signs of just another tourist, too caught up in the romanticism of the picture to think about the actual consequences of what I saw.
Other things that have marked me as a tourist over the last week or so include, but are not limited to: the Chupa-Chup colored sunburn I got at the Great Barrier Reef, complete with markings for my Ray-Ban knockoffs; my father’s propensity to pair midcalf socks with a fanny pack; my willingness to pay a dollar for what basically amounts to kibble so that I can lure a comfortably lazy kangaroo into getting a scratch behind the ears; and the fact that try as I might, I can’t quite get over the novelty of two-dollar coins. I’m not saying being a tourist is necessarily a negative thing: when done in a sustainable, responsible manner, it can bring a lot of revenue into an otherwise isolated area. Plus, as the tourist herself, I have an excuse to go completely bonkers over things like the Fairy Penguin Parade (Can you blame me? They’re foot-high penguins) and the wallaby joeys’ heads I occasionally saw peeping out of their mother’s pouches on Churchill Island.
At the same time, though, I think it’s easy for tourists to get caught up in the shiny veneer of the industry, mindlessly chugging four-dollar lemonades and heedlessly disturbing the burrows of baby penguins to get the perfect shot of their (admittedly adorable) mugs. Sometimes, we get deceived into thinking that because we’ve paid for our excursions, everyone else is responsible for guaranteeing our good time. Again, reasonable to a degree, but the purchase of a Grayline bus ride and a park ticket doesn’t mean you get to clamber through delicate undergrowth or be rude to your fellow travelers. Hopefully, with the rise of the ecotourism industry, which wikipedia defines as “responsible travel…that strives to be low impact and (often) small scale…and purports to educate the traveler; provide funds for conservation; directly benefit the economic development and political empowerment of local communities; and foster respect for different cultures and for human rights,” such abusive behavior will decrease in the future.
Needless to say, although I’ve loved the opportunity to see Melbourne and Cairns, I’m looking forward to settling in at Brisbane for the long haul. I feel most secure when I’ve had the opportunity to really get to know a city, not just pop through and see its highlights, so University of Queensland orientation this week will be something of a relief.
That is no promise, however, that I will ever stop squealing at Australia’s marsupials. They’re koalas, guys, how could I?
(Title of this post comes from Melbourne-based band The Lucksmiths, with their lovely song T-Shirt Weather.)