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When all of the ships come back to the shore

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Sydney, Australia
Thursday, 21 February 2019

About halfway through the eight-hour flight from Singapore to Sydney on Singapore Airlines Flight SQ 211, I saw a coastline hove into view. It was a desolate, messy sort of coastline between Derby and Broome, a spilled trifle-bowl of mangroves, desert scrub, sand dunes, beaches, serpentine estuaries and mudflats where the border between land and sea wasn't entirely clear.

I still smiled though because although it was an unattractive coastline, it is my coastline. On my mother's side I descend from Aboriginals of the Birpai tribe on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales. On my father's side I descend from a female English convict and a Royal Marine private who were sent out on the First Fleet, that armada of Royal Navy vessels carrying prisoners and soldiers from England which founded Sydney, Australia's first European settlement, in 1788.

I'm as Australian as you can get and however much I might occasionally wish it were otherwise, there is no changing it. I might criticise my country - and only the most blinkered jingoist or Liberal Party member could deny that Australia has its serious flaws, flaws that a country so wealthy and fortunate should not have; I might even laugh at it, I might whinge about Australia's crappy weather and dream about rolling around naked in a snowbank in Finland during yet another heatwave, but this country thirty-eight thousand feet below me is my home.

The past two times I went overseas, I visited Europe. Both times I returned in a jealous rage. Why can't Australia be as civilised and educated and cultivated and efficient and orderly and egalitarian and environmentally sustainable as Northern Europe? Not fair!

What a terrible lack of perspective. Yes, I still believe that Northern Europeans enjoy, on average, better conditions of living than Australians and the people there in general entertain far more progressive political attitudes that are more in line with my own. But, as I said in the prologue to this blog, there are some two hundred countries in the world. And how many are truly more pleasant to live in Australia? Maybe ten or twenty, if that? That's a pretty good innings.

So what I lacked was perspective. Going to Sri Lanka helped sharpen my focus. This was the first time I have ever visited an underdeveloped country. (Middle-income Malaysia and six hours in Bali don't count.)

I come back with a greatly enhanced appreciation for the benefits of Western civilisation. If you have never been to a Third World country - Sri Lanka has a gross domestic product per capita of around US$4,000 per capita; Australia about US$50,000 - you simply cannot appreciate how lucky we are to live in the West. You might be aware of our relative good fortune in the abstract, you might even be able to recite GDP per capita figures by heart, but you cannot have the full emotional awareness that makes you think to yourself, "gee, what did I ever do to deserve to be born into such a fortunate country?"

Australia, and all Western countries, enjoy not only a high average standard of living. We enjoy something a bit more important, the thing without which that standard of living would be impossible - good government. Ignore individual buffoon politicians like Donald Trump or Scott Morrison. You can trust our government officials to perform their duties with integrity and relative efficiency. Our police services enforce laws fairly, rigorously and competently, including the highway codes and food safety regulations. Few bureaucrats will ever solicit a bribe. Railway employees won't lie through their teeth and tell you that the train will be moving in fifteen minutes when they know it will be stuck for six hours. (Yes, I am still cut up over that frustrating night at Bandarawela. Just thinking about it elevates my blood pressure.)

This integrity extends to the greater citizenry. Foreign visitors to Western cities will rarely encounter touts or con artists. Taxi drivers will charge you the metered price and not a cent more. Restaurant owners won't knowingly put unsafe tap water on guest's tables just to save money.

So I come back to Australia more grateful for the benefits of Western civilisation. I can also see more sharply the detriments of Western civilisation. Life in the West can be lonely. So many of us live atomised, unhappy, lonely lives isolated from everyone else, even isolated from our true selves. With nearly every Sri Lankan I met, the first thing they would talk about was their family. They would recite their children's names and ages like some monastic chant. In many houses, multiple generations live under one roof. Sri Lankans might be much poorer than us, but they do seem happier. I don't even remember seeing a mentally ill person, certainly not one whose affliction was obvious. On the streets of Sydney the mentally ill are sixpence a dozen.

We Westerners have loose-knit extended families we only occasionally see that we can't really rely on in times of crisis. But during the twentieth century thanks to the uniquely Western innovations of socialism and trade unionism, we built comprehensive welfare states that would catch us if things went awry in our lives - a chronic illness, a family breakdown, a factory that went bankrupt throwing thousands out of work. Conservative parties are currently very busily and happily destroying our welfare systems.

On the train from Anuradhapura to Negombo, I was reading Australian news on my phone. I read a news story about how there were hundreds of excess deaths among vicitims of the robo-debt scandal. (For my non-Australian readers, the robo-debt scandal consisted of Australia's social security department sending thousands of debt collection notices to welfare recipients for entirely fictitious computer-generated debts of thousands of dollars with demands to pay immediately or face criminal sanctions. The onus was placed on the recipients to prove that they didn't owe these fake debts. Of course, few people keep pay slips and tax assessment notices from seven years ago and can't prove they don't owe the government money.) The stress and anxiety caused by robo-debt likely tipped some of Australia's most vulnerable people over the edge.

So Westerners can't really rely on their distant, loose-knit families. Increasingly we cannot rely on the welfare state, in the English-speaking countries at least where the free-market neoliberal cancer has metastasised the most. In the West, we are on our own. Is it any wonder that half the population in Western countries are doped up to their eyeballs on anti-depressants, that the suicide rate is so high? Next time you are on a bus or a train in a Western metropolis like Sydney, look at the passengers around you and take note of how many are unhappy. It's a lot. I don't mean merely bored or indifferent or blank-faced, but actively, oppressively unhappy.

In Sri Lanka I saw few truly unhappy people. Poor people, people doing it tough, people who work harder than they should just to get enough food for the day, people desperate enough to lie and cheat and beg, certainly. But very little unhappiness.

Western civilisation has given us many blessings. This epidemic of loneliness, anxiety and depression, this growing sense of helplessness and that there's nobody we can rely on, is not among them.

It will be a very long time before Sri Lanka joins the ranks of the developed countries. Things are progressing. The country is having a massive tourism boom, the government is going on an infrastructure spending spree with new motorways and ports appearing everywhere, I have never seen so many cranes in my life as I did in Colombo. But it will take a lot of effort and discipline to bring the bloated bureaucracy under control, bring the education system into the twenty-first century and improve the efficiency and skill base and accuracy of its workforce so that it produces high-value, high-quality goods and services that can bring in export revenue and raise the standard of living.

But I have no doubt that Sri Lanka is capable of joining the First World. There is so much untapped potential in that beautiful country. If Sri Lankans can marry the very best that Western civilisation has to offer - rationalism, liberalism, democracy, equality before the law, respect for human rights - with the very best of their own imperishable traditions - compassion, hospitality, politeness, supportive close-knit families, respect for animals and nature - then their future is assured. Japan and the other East Asian democracies have pulled off something similar. I believe Sri Lanka and other countries like it can do the same. I have faith in Sri Lanka, that marvellous, magical island of which I shall have intense memories both good and bad for the rest of my life, and I wish her all the best on her journey and will watch her with interest from afar.

As for my journey, it was almost over. I got no sleep on the flight from Singapore. I was just about to fall asleep a few minutes after Singapore Airlines Flight SQ 211 took off from Changi, but right at the moment I was starting to sleep a baby started screaming. And that set the other babies off. There must have been about four infants in my section of the cabin alone. They didn't stop until we reached Sydney. I got my free earphones, plugged them into the Krisworld in-flight entertainment system, played ABBA at maximum volume and I could still hear them screaming. What angered me was that there was no effort on the part of the parents to soothe and quieten their howling brats. Surely airlines can slip a small dose of Valium into the infants' meals just to give the rest of us a chance to sleep? I was meant to return to work the next day. Needless to say, I didn't. Thankfully my boss is understanding.

We flew over the Simpson Desert, the ruler-straight red sand dunes stretching to the horizon. It looked like a vast Martian ocean. The shadows cast by the dunes became thicker as the sun sank in the sky.

The sun set as the plane was over the Central West of New South Wales and we began our approach to Sydney from somewhere near Goulburn. We landed a bit early at nine o'clock and I set foot in my native land for the first time in three weeks.

Baggage claim took forever as it usually does at Sydney Airport. The chute would spit out maybe one or two bags onto the carousel every minute. I declared souvenirs and the fact that I went to wilderness areas at quarantine, was cleared, and at ten to ten I finally emerged into the arrivals hall and met my friend Alan.

Alan is a good friend of mine, we are both transport and urban planning enthusiasts, and we meet for dinner every Wednesday to engage in long, nerdy yet mutually satisfying conversations. I flew into Sydney on a Wednesday night so it should have been no exception. After all that I had been through in Sri Lanka it was so awesome to see a friendly face.

Both of us being cheapskates, we caught the bus to Mascot station and the train from there to Central. It was my birthday so Alan shouted me dinner - McDonald's at Railway Square. It was the only thing still open. I shared some of my travel stories, Alan asked me lots of questions about Sri Lanka, I gave him some souvenirs.

At midnight we farewelled each other, I had to go to the bathroom. The one in McDonald's was locked so I went to a pub across the road. I ended up buying a beer to soothe my nerves and relax and unwind after an unpleasant flight. But the pub was so full of boorish, drunken loudmouths that it did exactly the reverse. That's one thing I did not miss about Australia - how loud and uncouth the people here can be.

I could have caught a bus home down Parramatta Road but I couldn't have been bothered. I splashed out twenty-two dollars on a taxi. The driver was a polite young student from Pakistan. I described some of the things I saw in Sri Lanka and he said it was similar to his homeland.

I stepped over my threshold, turned the hot water system back on, and sank into a deep sleep until four in the afternoon, interrupted only by a phone call from my manager to ask me where I was.

This adventure is at an end. But not the adventure called life. Tomorrow I return to my work, the soul-crushing routine of a white-collar government job in a stuffy little office with stuffy little people which I only put up with because of the salary that enables me to save up enough money to travel overseas, the job security and the fact that I actually get a thrill out of knowing that my work isn't about making some rich posh bastard even richer but benefits all the people of New South Wales. My job also enables me to pursue my new life goal - to save up a million dollars in superannuation, savings and investments by the time I am sixty. If all goes to plan, I will have enough money then to quit my job, cash out my superannuation and unused long service leave, put all my stuff in storage, and spend the rest of my life travelling the world exploring everything this amazing planet has to offer until the day I drop dead because I am only ever happy when I travel.

And I know with certainty that, starting from tomorrow as I sit at my desk in that stuffy little office, I will start dreaming about my next overseas adventure.

Simpson Desert sand dunes

Simpson Desert sand dunes

Bali Strait separating Bali on the left and Java on the right

Bali Strait separating Bali on the left and Java on the right

Sunset over Central West New South Wales

Sunset over Central West New South Wales

The journey ends

The journey ends

Posted by urbanreverie 05:43 Archived in Australia Tagged sydney australia sri_lanka homecoming

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