What's Up Down Under?

© 2008 by Laurie McAndish King

Do you know that in Australia the globes are just like American ones, with Australia on the bottom? It boggles my imagination to think about all those people Down Under knowing they live on the bottom of the world, knowing they’re walking around upside down all the time. This would not be the case, of course, if they simply re-drew all the globes to show the southern hemisphere at the top.  Why not do this?

What does it feel like to live Down Under? Is it just another aspect of living in a world filled with exported American culture: McDonalds and Coca Cola in every country? What does it take for an American to begin to understand the rest of the world?

What’s Up Down Under, a collection of travel stories, began as a series of letters sent home to friends during the year that I lived and worked in Melbourne. I loved it that our two countries were so similar on the surface, yet Australia presented me with a never-ending series of surprising cultural and linguistic differences. There was an Alice-in-Wonderland-like quality to living in a place where English was spoken, yet often not having a clue what people were talking about:

You’re flying to cans?

He’s wearing a bag of fruit?

I should pass you a tinny?

Between the accents, country-specific peculiarities, and incomprehensible rhyming slang, I was often befuddled. And I enjoyed trying to figure things out. During that year in Australia I caught the travel bug. Soon afterward, I found myself visiting other countries – mostly in the southern hemisphere, many “developing”.

Things do look different when you are not on top. Things look different when yours is not the dominant culture, when you are not white and well fed, or when you have only one set of clothing, which is ragged and dirty and displays the logo of a foreign country’s football team. They look very different when you don’t have access to clean water or electricity, when members of your family suffer from malaria, or when your city has been reduced to rubble by an occupying army.

I met families living at subsistence level in Madagascar. They had to compete with foreign scientists – and their precious endangered species – for the right to live as local families have for generations, eking a living from the small parcel of forest in which they gather firewood, harvest plants, and trap small animals to eat. Same location, but the scientists and the locals may as well be living in parallel universes.

Similarly, I may as well be in a parallel universe when I travel to a place where I don’t speak the language or understand the customs, don’t know how to get around, and don’t enjoy the security and support of a network of extended family and friends.

What’s Up Down Under is an exploration of ways in which to experience the world. The best way I know to do that is to put myself into new situations, new worlds. Worlds where I don’t know what’s going on or who is safe to travel with, where my legs are covered with leeches and I’m slipping down a mountain, where I am confused or frightened or simply have very little sense of context.

Not every story in this book took place south of the equator, but each was entered into with a spirit of adventure and exploration, and with the hope of learning about the world in a new way. I travel in order to have those experiences, and I write in an attempt to understand them. Because in the same way that traveling dislocates, travel writing locates. As a portrait of place, or person in place, travel writing provides a structure for examining and making sense of the unfamiliar, for becoming familiar with the foreign.

Travel has introduced me to what had been foreign. I don’t know what it’s like to live in a city pockmarked by shrapnel, reminded every day of occupation, hunger, and death, but being lost in Sarajevo certainly evoked a different kind of fear than I have ever experienced before. And I have never had to wear other people’s clothing because everything I owned was destroyed, but I now have a sense of what it must be like, and a deep admiration for the courage and resourcefulness of those who live through a direct experience of war.

What has impressed me most is the kindness of people around the world, their generosity, hospitality and eagerness to communicate. In one case it was dramatic: strangers rescuing me from a kidnapper! In others it was more subtle: a rainforest guide quietly slicing lianas to make my hike easier, a museum curator providing special access to ancient goddess figures hidden away in a closet, or a restaurateur whispering a secret recipe for Irish brown soda bread.

I have enjoyed and been inspired by people around the world, and hope you’ll feel some of that inspiration as you read these stories.

Laurie McAndish King’s collection of travel stories, What’s Up Down Under, is a work in progress.  Her essays have been published by Lonely Planet, Travelers’ Tales, and the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine. Laurie is the publisher of Travel Writers News and co-editor, with Linda Watanabe McFerrin, of two volumes of Left Coast Writers’ Hot Flashes: Sexy Little Stories and Poems.