Sunday, April 6, 2008

Ozzie tales

I reached the Australian capital (nah, not Sydney, though I dare say, it should’ve been…) hours ago and I haven’t seen a living soul yet. Just manicured gardens, wide roads, parked cars, a white hot afternoon sun… and me. The city square sits in the middle of a million square miles of fields and forests – the Australian ‘bush’. Walking around, I’m struck by the uncanny similarity with the opening images of the Will Smith thriller, I am Legend.

Ah! There’s someone…! A tall figure standing on an empty street. I wave. ‘Hello! Which way is…’. The figure turns around, and then… boing, boing, boing… disappears into the woods across the street. A kangaroo! A kangaroo?! Definitely exciting, but what on earth is a wild kangaroo doing in the middle of the ACT (Australian Capital Territory - and no it isn’t Melbourne, if that’s your next best guess). Gosh! This was beginning to look just like the film (remember the deer hunt in Manhattan?). An hour later… another figure. Shorter, and since it was pushing a perambulator, was unlikely to be a kangaroo (they have pouches, remember?) Perhaps a young mother and her child, out for a walk and a tan… I approached in hope. Tough luck! Our angel-to-be had wrinkles on her wrinkles, and in her pram, a pair of toy poodles instead of a baby, and worse, walked right past my smile and my questions. Now if that isn’t a zombie, pray what is...? Or maybe she’d just lived for far too long in Canberra (There, I’ve let it slip…).

Incidentally, Australia’s founding fathers couldn’t decide between Melbourne and Sydney, and plumped for Canberra as a ‘capital compromise’ instead. Named after the Aboriginal name Kamberra, which apparently means ‘meeting-place’, more thorough etymological groundwork might’ve revealed that the name actually means ‘meeting-place of the dead’. I mean, it’s been hundreds of years since, and the place hasn’t gotten any livelier. (Some reckon the word kamberra in the Aboriginal dialect actually refers to a part of the female anatomy, but I doubt that a place as dull as this could’ve ever meant anything remotely interesting). It took me a while but I eventually did find someone who remembered, I suspect, with a mild sense of relief, what a ‘conversation’ used to be, and thus I finally reached the hotel. Next day, I realised I wasn’t the only one new to the city.

Practically everybody else in the city, relatively speaking, was new too (except for some of the cab drivers and perhaps the old crone and her poodles), including the government. During tail-end of 2007, Australians elected a new Labour government to office. Kevin Rudd became the new Prime Minister. Now Ruddy’s a colourful character who’s spent his years in all kinds of unlikely places, from schools in Taipei to strip clubs in New York, which explains why he, unlike his predecessor John Howard (who in 1996, petulantly insisted that he’d rather live in Sydney and commute to Canberra than live there), looks happy in the ACT.

Rudd, incidentally is the only vibrant thing about Canberra, and quite a draw in Parliament. Watching Rudd go red and see red as he debates is perhaps all that can keep you awake in this city. But the Australian Parliament is a tame affair compared to the Great Indian Democracy. Heads, chairs and mikes are screwed on to their foundations, and therefore not much gets thrown around, so after watching Prime Minister Rudd strut his stuff from the viewing gallery for a while, I stepped out for a bite on the terrace café. With plans of burying myself in Alan Nixon’s Aussie tales through the afternoon, I picked up a sandwich and strolled over to a table. The view took my breath away. Leafy avenues and pretty bungalows; venerable memorials and the untamed bush; and through it all runs a river as blue… as blue as… well, Nicole Kidman’s eyes aren’t blue enough and Mel Gibson’s wouldn’t sound straight enough but I’m sure you’ve got the general idea. Standing by the ledge, I realised that although Canberra might not have the cultural riches of Rome or the vibe and vigour of New York, this surely was the most sensitive, the most conscientious and definitely the most naturally beautiful metropolis in the world. It’s just that I was so busy looking for apples that I didn’t realise I’d climbed an orange tree… not the same, but delicious nonetheless.

The terrace was now full. School kids, Caucasians, Indians, Chinese and Arabs, all in the same uniform, had taken up all the empty chairs. And that’s when I realised that this country was in a chrysalis – a rainbow nation nurturing its future. I headed for my seat, but hey, there was someone in it – a big white man in a hat. He had pushed my stuff to the table’s edge and put in two more chairs… Visibly irritated, I walked up to the table. The man looked up, smiled warmly and said, “There were no tables free and I’m getting on a bit. Thought you wouldn’t mind if my partner and I joined you, son.” Aww… This country would take some figuring… I smiled back.

Capital connections

While Canberra may have derived its name from things to do with the dead, the etymologies of some other country capitals are certainly a lot more livelier.

One wonders if some kind of British humour was at work that their capital came to acquire such a ticklish symmetric-syllabic name like that? Actually, one of the earliest founders and developers of London – King Lud – who reigned in 73 BC had named it Caer Ludd, or Ludd’s Town. The royal nomenclature soon twisted to become CaerLudein, which the Romans further disfigured to Londinium. A few more lingual assaults later, it was ‘London’.

To be home to some of the most beautiful people on earth may have something to do with the name of the capital of Ethiopia. Addis Ababa, translating to a delicate ‘new flower’, was proposed by the wife of Emperor Menilek II in the early 20th century. And Havana, many say, is after the name of a Taino chieftain Habaguanex, while others speculate it is a Spanish take on the English ‘haven’. Fidel Castro would know.


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