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The Passionate Lot

Doing so much travelling around lately, I have found it a great pleasure to go to unique little places where people’s passions are on display for any wayward visitor to share in. Lots of these places may be small, under-recognized, and out of the way of the main tourist haunts. Sometimes you just happen to stumble upon them, like a nugget of treasure. But wherever you have passionate, dedicated people, you’ll find the special places they have created to share. In addition to the individuality of the sights to see, it is the enthusiasm given by the creators of such places that makes visiting truly a momentous occasion.

Traveling between Sydney and Melbourne, I stopped at a few places off the beaten path and was pleasantly surprised at what I found. The places I visited stuck in my mind mainly because of the passionate and dedicated people that stood behind the projects. It was a joy to get to see the talents of others on display. Here is a sampling of some of these places I went:

  • Rusconi’s Masterpiece, on display in Gundagai, New South Wales. Frank Rusconi was an Australian-born and European-trained sculptor, who dedicated his life to marble craft. Rusconi carved many magnificent sculptures and monuments throughout Australia, but perhaps he is most well-known for his marble masterpiece. Not just a sculptor by trade, Rusconi was a sculptor by hobby as well. Every day for 28 years, Rusconi would spend three hours at night working on his masterpiece castle of 20,948 individual pieces of Australian marble, meant to showcase the fine quality of marble on the Australian continent. Rusconi’s masterpiece was later donated to the public for all to see his craft.

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  • The Ned Kelly Animatronic Show in Glenrowan, Victoria. In Glenrowan, the location of infamous Australian bushranger Ned Kelly’s last stand, there is an animatronic re-enactment museum of the Kelly gang’s famous gun battle with colonial police. With a kind of dark Disneyland-ish aura, the experience takes visitors through a half-dozen rooms all depicting various stages of the Ned Kelly siege. In each room scenes were set up using mannequins and animatronics that tell the story; so involved is the realism that smoke will pour out of the burning hotel and Ned Kelly will make a surprise drop from the ceiling as he is hung by the police. With how well the show is put together, it might very well seem that the animatronic museum is new and uses advanced technology. But no, the 80-year old purveyor explained, he’s been working on the display over the last forty years. Though the old purveyor himself was slowing down due to age, he eagerly explained how his 20-year old grandson was keen on taking over the operation in the future.

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  • Cactus Country gardens in Strathmerton, Victoria. The cactus is not native to Australia, but it thrives very well in the arid climate nonetheless. Australia’s largest cacti garden, Cactus Country, is a testament to that fact, as well as a testament to owners Jim and Julie’s dedication. The seeds of Cactus Country were started in 1979, when Jim purchased his father’s cacti collection shortly before marrying Julie. Together they set upon creating the largest cacti display Australia has ever seen, and Jim and Julie continue to expand their 10-acre garden to this very day. I was very pleased to have run into Jim in the garden. After all, it’s not every day you can have a long conversation about cacti with a stranger.

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Marble sculptures, animatronic bushrangers, and cacti gardens may not have a lot to do with each other intrinsically, but in this case they are all interests undertaken by passionate people. Some very talented people hide their talents and skills from the world. However, there is a passionate lot who put their skills on display for all to see, thus creating these places worth visiting. It isn’t always intentional either—passions pursued for their own ends will often become compelling enough to attract visitors. Meeting the people behind the work and experiencing their contributions is a real treat for the tourist-trap weary traveller. It makes travelling the backroads even more special.

The Cultural Exchange

I’m in Australia on what’s called a ‘Working Holiday’ visa. The working holiday visa program is a special arrangement between two countries that allows young residents (under 30) of one country to easily obtain a visa with working privileges to the other country. One of the goals of this visa program is to promote cultural exchange between the two participating nations by allowing up-and-coming youth to stay and work in a partner country for an extended period of time. I’m taking it as my homework to promote this cultural exchange between the United States and Australia. Though our cultures are very similar at first glance, I’ve come up with a list of things each country can learn from each other.

What the United States can learn from Australia:

  • The advertised price is the price you pay. Taxes (i.e. the sales tax, or what’s called the GST General Service Tax in Australia) are included in the advertised price. No more hidden taxes or surprise charges at checkout time. It seems to be most fair that the price you see is the price you pay. As an American used to forking over just a little bit more cash when buying something, I still feel a little guilty at checkout, like I got away without paying for something.
  • Get rid of the penny. I love the penny, but it’s time has come. Nowadays the penny is worth more in nostalgia than practicality. Whereas Americans enjoy advertising things for $X.99 and calculating taxes and transactions precisely down to the last penny, Australians are fine with rounding things to the nearest nickel. It’s easier that way, especially when taxes are already included in the advertised price.

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Australian coinage, showcasing it’s unique fauna on the reverse sides of the coins

  • Breakfast Cereal: America may be the envy of breakfast cereal variety, but the Australian cereal aisle was built for the health lover. No Froot Loops or Lucky Charms to be found in this country. Instead, Australia is famous for its health cereals, the more wheat and bran you can pack in the better. Most notable of all is Weet-Bix: the driest, most sawdust like breakfast biscuit ever engineered, but oh so tasty! Plus, in a feat of near-magic, a few Weet-Bix can absorb an entire bowl of milk.

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Weet-Bix: “Every Aussie is raised a Weet-Bix Kid”

  • Little cars and trucks can get the job done. You don’t need to make up for anything by driving a big truck. A compact van or flatbed sedan will work just fine to get the job done. Plus, compacts will help you maneuver into those tight Australian travel lanes. I’ve really been pleasantly surprised here in the city at how compact and efficient the vehicles are. No semi-trucks (at least in Sydney), and the biggest vehicle around is the size of an American mini-van.

What Australia can learn from the United States:

  • Smoking is not healthy. So many people in Australia smoke compared to the States, and it’s not stigmatized as a lower-class activity either—in fact, most smokers seem to be wearing business casual. Whereas America has kicked its smokers to the curb, in Australia smokers have free range to roam—but as of recent they have to now be outside. Ashtrays aren’t really a thing here either. Throw your butts straight to the ground, and don’t worry because it’s someone’s job to sweep those butts up later. I would have thought that the cigarette cartons with lovely pictures of gangrenous limbs and mouth cancer would have been a deterrent to light up, but I guess not…
  • Bike Culture: With terrain as flat as a Midwestern cornfield and weather as lovely as southern California, Sydney could be a biker’s paradise. Except that the bike culture is nearly non-existent here. As a biker, I’d be absolutely terrified to ride in the narrow, congested lanes of traffic—especially seeing how Sydney-ians drive. Though Sydney has converted some traffic lanes into really nice and safe bike lanes, no one seems to be using them. I’m thinking a big dose of Portland-style Bike Culture would provide the needed fix. It’s a two-way street though: the United States should take a cue from Australia and make bicycle helmet use mandatory.

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Bike infrastructure in Sydney: Great when it’s there—it’s just not there in many places.

  • Raincoats: With a week of Seattle winter-like weather recently behind Sydney, I’m beginning to think that people in Australia don’t know what a raincoat is. Sure Australia may be the driest inhabited continent, but it still rains here. However, the preferred choice of rain-protection seems to be massive umbrellas instead of rain jackets. A rainy day in Sydney is a hazardous place for a tall person forced to navigate the sidewalks of bobbing umbrellas bustling at perfect head-height.
  • Yellow Centerline Road Stripes: All road markings in Australia are done with white lines, as opposed to America’s system of using yellow lines to separate oncoming traffic and white lines to separate traffic travelling in the same direction. Although it seems like a small detail, this is probably the most important factor in why traffic on the left-hand side of the road hasn’t seemed odd to me. With only white markings, every street in the city looks like a one-way street. I suspect this might cause some troubles when I start driving in Australia later…

I’m still ambivalent about…

  • The Walk Signals: Green Walking Man and Red Stopped Man. It makes somewhat more intuitive sense than other signals—unless you’re color blind. The jury is still out on which signal is optimal. But one thing for certain is that Australian walk signals seem to favor the flow of traffic. A walk down the street results in a fair amount of time stopped at the crosswalk waiting for the signal to change, even when cross-traffic is stopped as well.

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Walk. Don’t Walk.

  • Australian Urinals: They are a floor-trough style with a waterfall flush. Fun to use, because it feels like I’m peeing on a wall of cascading water, but it definitely offers less privacy than single-user urinals. Also, although many urinals are flushed with reclaimed gray-water, the constant waterfall flushing still seems wasteful.
  • Male and Female Toilets: The proper name of the room to relieve yourself here is the toilet—straightfoward, but less tactful than the American usage of ‘restroom’. Also, the gendered toilets are labeled by the biological sex of ‘male’ and ‘female’ instead of by the gender identities of ‘men’ and ‘women’. Biologically correct, but it seems out of sync with contemporary conversations about gender identity and restroom use.