Of Melbourne and meeting people…

Yarra footbridge

The Yarra River pedestrian footbridge, with the very striking Flinders Street railway station building.

The day job recently took me to Australia, for a very short sojourn: four days, in and around Melbourne – 36+ hours’ travel each way, all in! The jet lag wasn’t too bad, despite my managing only one full night’s sleep – one of the few benefits, I suppose, of getting older!

I’ve visited Melbourne before, also on a whistle-stop tour. That was twenty-two years ago, and I was surprised at how much it has since changed. I’m not referring to buildings and road systems, though those are respectively more high-rise (some truly magnificent contoured glass skyscrapers challenge the straight line)

Melbourne skyscraper

and more complicated than I remembered, but to my overall impression of the culture. On my first visit to Australia, people asked me if it was more like the UK or more like America, and I replied that it was like neither: that Australia had a style and outlook all of its own. I think that this is still true, up to a point, but the USA’s influence on the country is now very pronounced. There are examples everywhere: in the fast food restaurants, in the way people dress and in the news programmes. However, before I receive dozens of protests from irate Australians, let me add that I’m certain that there is still an indelibly and quintessentially Australian quality about Aussie life that can’t be obliterated; perhaps what I really mean is that the British influence has noticeably diminished.

As I’ve already said, I didn’t have much free time, but I made good use of what there was. My first morning in Melbourne was free, so I visited the Museum of Immigration, which provides a powerful record of changing Australian attitudes to immigrants from different countries over the years. My two main meetings were at the Balgownie Estate winery in the Blue Hills, about an hour’s drive from Melbourne, so I was able to see some of the surrounding countryside.

Balgownie Estate winery

I was able to go into the Yarra Ranges National Park, to the east of Melbourne, and to the Mount Donna Buang summit, with its tall observation tower.

Lookout tower

From here I could see a splendid panorama, over Melbourne and the bays, the Yarra valley and the Dandenong and Cathedral ranges.

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I was fascinated by the different species of trees in the woods, none of which I could recognise.

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In the early dawn, I saw a wombat scurrying for cover and, on a drive into the hills, was lucky enough both to see and photograph a wallaby in the wild.

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And the staff at my hotel in Melbourne kindly upgraded me to the penthouse, forty-one floors up, which gave me a panoramic view of the city.

One of the things I like about long-distance travel is the ‘ships-in-the-night’ opportunities it presents to talk to complete strangers for short periods of time and perhaps find out what makes them tick. There’s something about journeys, with their unlooked-for vicissitudes of challenging delays, alarming pockets of turbulence and indifferent cabin crews, which causes people – who would never venture to speak to each other if they were, say, waiting for a train at Watford Junction or standing in a queue at the post office – to communicate.

My Australian visit supplied me with three of these cameo encounters. The first was on my way to Melbourne Airport with a female taxi driver. (I noted that there were as many female as male taxi drivers on my first visit to Australia; it’s clearly a strong tradition which still flourishes.) This woman was Latino (which I could see for myself) and fifty years old (which she told me – she didn’t look it).  She was a single parent supporting herself and two children as a cabbie while she studied for a PhD.  The subject? Aeronautical Engineering, in which she already had a first degree and a Masters. Her reason for wanting a PhD?  “It’s a man’s world and women need to show they are better than men – especially women like me.”  (I think she was referring to her ethnicity.)  She struck me as being very brave and determined.

The day-time flight from Melbourne to Hong Kong was civilised (unlike the night-time flight from Hong Kong to Heathrow, which lasted fourteen hours and was brutal!).  I was sitting next to an Australian woman who, after a while, asked me what part of England I came from and I told her – Yorkshire.  She told me that she was flying to Barcelona for a holiday with an old flame who was a Yorkshireman (from Richmond). Her husband, who was Greek, had cheated on her with a Filipino woman – who was only twenty-one – and she’d divorced him. He wanted her back now, but she felt she couldn’t trust him, though she still helped him to run his business.  She was travelling to Barcelona to meet the old flame with her ex-husband’s blessing – he’d even given her extra money for the trip.  I wanted to tell her that she shouldn’t pin all her hopes on the Yorkshireman, but the opportunity didn’t seem to arise and in any case I didn’t know how she’d take it.

And then I was sitting in Hong Kong Airport, having got through security and found the right gate for the flight to Heathrow, enduring the interminable wait for the tardy flight crew to turn up. It was the middle of the night. The man sitting next to me offered to look after my luggage while I went in search of coffee and we had a short conversation when I returned. He said he came from Southampton and that he was a ship’s captain. He travels the world dredging the sea bed for damaged fibre optic cables and brings them up to the surface so they can be repaired. Apparently, they are then just tossed back into the sea – siting them is not an exact science. He said that he’d been doing this for more than twenty years and, although he regretted having missed so much of his children’s childhood, he couldn’t imagine doing anything else now.

Ships in the night, as I said, but providing memories as indelible as the photographs or my fortuitous encounter with a wallaby.

Sandridge bridge

The Sandridge former railway bridge, now pedestrianised, and wharves.

Eight months in Fiji: how Heather’s COVID year changed her life

I thought my readers would be interested in the post below. It tells the story of how Heather Anderson, whom I worked with during my ‘day job’ trip to Australia in 2019, was marooned in Fiji after the country was locked down because of COVID and had to stay there for almost nine months. I think it is an extraordinary story of resilience and creative thinking. Heather’s achievement while exiled from her family was immense – and, as she says herself, the experience will have changed her forever. I’m sure you will be as impressed as I am!

Heather Anderson, walking at sunset in Fiji

No one will forget last year, the ‘COVID year’. Most people worked – are in fact still working – from home, and many have found ingenious workarounds to enable them to carry on almost as normal. Few, however, can claim to have experienced new adventures in 2020, the year when monochrome surroundings and hugely reduced personal interaction became the norm. 

Heather Anderson, Cambridge Academic’s Sales Support Consultant in Australia and New Zealand, has an entirely different story to tell. Heather planned a five-day visit to Fiji in March… and ended up staying for more than eight months, trapped by the country’s lockdown as the pandemic reached Australia and the Pacific region.

Shortly after Heather arrived in Fiji, COVID infections in the region began to escalate, but Fiji itself was still clear of the disease. Its government therefore made a swift decision to close its borders, largely because the village lifestyle of the Fijian people would make social distancing, self-isolation and quarantining impossible. This decision was not taken lightly: inevitably there was a huge economic price to pay, as the country depends solely on tourism. However, the initiative worked: Fiji continued to be COVID-free for nearly the entire time Heather was there. Just a few cases arrived from overseas during June, an outbreak that was contained by quarantining those infected.

The Australian government organised one repatriation flight, in April, but Heather did not hear of it until it was fully booked. Every month for almost nine months, she booked herself on a scheduled flight home that eventually was cancelled. She finally reached home – she lives on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland – on 6th December 2020, following a repatriation flight to Brisbane and quarantine.

Heather continued to do her job for the whole time she was away. Because the visit she had planned was so short, initially she had not intended to take her laptop and other working tools with her, but changed her mind at 3 a.m. on the morning of the outward flight. Once she realised she would be marooned in Fiji, she managed to purchase a WiFi modem and set up her ‘office’ in a village on Viti Levu, the ‘Coral Coast’. 

She explained her situation to some of her librarian customers and some already knew, from discussions with her colleagues. She is grateful to them for the support she received: she says they were very empathetic; most of them checked on her each week, sending funny jokes, video snips or just supportive notes. 

Michael Cowley, the Sales Director of Cambridge Academic in Australia, contacted Heather regularly to check on her wellbeing and she continued to join weekly video calls with the Cambridge HE/Library team: “My direct academic team in Australia were wonderfully supportive and showed so much care and compassion, which was really great. That got me through the working weeks.”

Despite all the remote support she was able to channel, Heather found it extremely difficult to adjust to the knowledge that she would be detained in Fiji indefinitely, even though she was also very aware that others in the world were suffering more because of the pandemic. At first, time dragged when she wasn’t working, but then she realised she could be of huge practical help to the islanders, who had lost their jobs. Heather takes up the story.

“I got involved in raising funds for the youth in the area I was staying. Their parents had all lost their jobs, because they worked in tourism and they were really struggling to feed the children and get them back to school. The picture of me below, in the Fijian jumba (it is red), was taken at the main fundraising event. Altogether we raised $25,000FJD for the young people, which was an enormous help in taking pressure off their parents.”

Enforced exile and collapse of the local economy was not all Heather and the islanders had to contend with:

“During April we were hit by a Category 5 Cyclone, which wiped out all the plantations these families were relying on for food and money – they had hoped to sell their produce at the markets – so the fund-raiser really helped raise hopes and gave immediate relief.”  

Heather is an inveterate animal lover – she particularly likes penguins! – and spent the rest of her spare time on animal welfare:

“I fed all the dogs in the village every day for over eight months. In partnership with Animals Fiji, I also ran an

Some of the dogs Heather fed and cared for

animal de-sexing clinic to help the many stray and starving dogs on the island. I also ran mini-education sessions for the kids and adults in the village, to give them basic tips on how to care for their animals and how to carry on feeding them after I left. I am now sending monthly payments to those families to purchase extra food for the animals they own and pay for basic medicine to cope with fleas, ticks and worms.”

Dog walking in the dunes

Heather says that one of her main ‘positives’ was that she lost weight rapidly while she was in Fiji – almost sixteen kilos altogether. She thinks it was mainly the result of eating ‘clean’, simple foods and walking on rough terrain, especially sand dunes. Taking up fishing also entailed a lot of walking. 

“The Government imposed military curfews for the entire time I was there, which was unnerving at first but seemed to work well. Most people obeyed them. For several months, the curfew lasted from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. every night, then the restrictions were gradually eased, so it was running from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. by the time I left. 

“I really tried to keep positive and busy, but deep down I was struggling every day. I knew my husband, at home in Australia, was unwell. Each month my hopes were raised that I would be able to fly home and every time the flight was cancelled. I felt very fragile when I was told that I might not be able to leave Fiji until mid-March 2021.

“Just after I received this shattering news, my cousin sent me a list of repatriation flights which I hadn’t been told about, even though I had registered for absolutely every aid I possibly could. I shall be forever grateful to my cousin for giving me the heads up! I phoned immediately, to learn that there were only twenty seats available on a flight arranged for November 22nd and all had been taken. I explained how long I had been away and begged to be allowed on the flight. I boarded it as passenger twenty-one! I had two days to put everything straight and get to the airport.  

“When I was finally on the plane, mask on and no one either side of me, I cried and cried: more tears than I thought possible. Finally, after months of trying and failing to go home, I was on my way. 

“As soon as I the plane landed in Australia everyone on the flight was sent to a quarantine centre, so I had made it home only to find myself in ‘prison’ for fourteen long days. It wasn’t a major setback in the scheme of things, but I found those fourteen days the hardest of all. “2020 has taught me so much. I am stronger than I ever gave myself credit for and I appreciate all the little things in life. I know now that kindness and open hearts will get you through almost anything. Material things truly are overrated. I was in a place where people barely had enough to eat, but the love and support of the families I knew and the smiles on the beautiful kids’ faces were riches of a much more worthwhile kind.”

Heather, 2021

[I wrote this post for the Cambridge University Press blog and it is with permission from CUP that I am also publishing it here.]

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