Upon hearing of my first intentions to study in Australia, my friends and family would inevitably reply with one of two responses: either “Australia’s beautiful–if you don’t get killed by the ocean or the dirt!” or “No one in Australia worries about anything! They’re all so laid-back, it’s great.”
Well, having lived here for almost a month and only sustaining one near-death experience so far (from Australia’s most deadly predator–a car speeding through a red light), I must agree with both the first and the second statements. Australia is beautiful, and Brisbane in particular. Perhaps I’m romanticizing it because it’s still the tail end of the summer and the air smells like ripe fruit and honeysuckle, but every day I walk outside, glance around, and just feel incredibly content. The city of Brisbane lies comfortably tucked along the meandering Brisbane River, with neighborhoods nestled in its lush curves and ferries meandering from one district to the next. Even the central business district at its most hustle and bustle still seems constantly in a state of half-lidded pleasure. The whole place gives you space to breathe.
That said, sometimes the Australian mentality of “she’ll be right, mate” seems a little disconcerting. Chatting to my classmates, I’m often startled by how many people casually mention that they’ve failed multiple classes. “Yeah, well, you know,” a boy named Scott told me. “I was taking advanced genetics, and it’s not like they curve it.” Half-turning away from me, he added over his shoulder, “But this class seems a little easier.” After Cornell’s constant tension, it’s a different kind of stress. It seems like the sort of thing that can really sneak up on you.
Nothing reinforced this casual attitude toward unfortunate events better, however, than a few weeks ago at Byron Bay. I had gone down to Byron, famous for its great surfing, hippie sensibilities, and Fern Gully-inspiring rainforests, with my German flatmate Lena and a few of our friends.
Despite the intermittent rain, we had a lovely, relaxed weekend–until, on Saturday night, our shuttle driver turned to us and asked, “Did you hear about the earthquake in Chile?”
“No,” we said, shocked. With no public access to Internet, news of things like this traveled to us purely by word of mouth. “Oh my God, that’s awful.”
“Yeah,” the driver said. “It was almost a 9 on the magnitude scale.”
“God,” I said again, for lack of anything better. “That’s–that’s really tragic.”
“Yeah,” the driver said. Waving us goodbye, he added, “Oh, and apparently there’s a tsunami heading this way.”
“Wait, what?” we exclaimed. “How–how big is it? Are we–is everything okay?”
He shrugged. “Well, there’s nothing we can do about it now. Might as well go have a good Saturday night.”
“Because it could be our last!” someone else in the group chirped. Everyone chuckled, but I couldn’t help but feel a knot of anxiety twist itself into my stomach. I tried to go out with the others, but a loop kept playing in my mind: the recent destruction in Haiti, my relatives in Chile, and the tsunami that occurred off the coast of South Asia in 2004. Byron Bay, as it happens, is the most easterly point in Australia. If a big wave hit anywhere, it was going to hit us first.
I couldn’t concentrate on what the group was doing, so I begged off early and meandered back to the hostel. On the way, I asked a friendly purveyor of vegan hot dogs what he thought was going to happen. He laughed at me, handing me back my change. “Doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “My house is high up on a hill.”
Our hostel, meanwhile, was two hundred metres from the beach. I was struck anew by the vision of a solid wave of water. Trying to assure myself, I said, “But the locals–they aren’t worried, right? No one seems that worried.”
He laughed again, patting me on the back. “S’all right, sweetheart,” he said. “Even if something were going to happen, nobody ’round these parts would move an inch.”
As you can imagine, this did not have the calming effect he was perhaps intending.
In the end, the so-called “tsunami” only increased the water level by about two metres. Lena, Jan, Nicole and I watched the swell come in with the rest of the Byron-ers, feeling the sun on our faces and eating a picnic lunch. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if disaster had struck. The residents of Santiago hadn’t been prepared for their tragedy, and even if the Byron tsunami actually had been life-threatening, all the worrying I had done wouldn’t have made a difference either way. In the end, I guess all the cliches ring true: you really don’t know which moment will be your last.
Easier said than done. When it comes down to it, I’m a paradoxically optimistic worrier. I like to evaluate all the possible options for what could go wrong, but then imagine that the best of all possible worst-case scenarios will happen to me. Maybe, with time, I’ll learn to just deal with impending crises the Australian way: with a shrug, a laugh, and a vegan hot dog.
(Today’s blog post title from the very appropriate Motion City Soundtrack song, Everything is Alright.)