Most Americans don't know much about Tasmania except that some sort of spinning "devil" lives there.
Until recently, I was no different. When
I got the opportunity to go on a five-week Rotary International exchange there, I had to do some quick research to find out where I was going.
I knew Tasmania was in the Southern Hemisphere, but I had to check the Internet to learn that the island isn't a country but a state of Australia.
My friends were equally as clueless. Some assumed I was planning a trip to Africa (nope, that's Tanzania) and others thought I was going to New Zealand (nope, those are some other big islands near Australia).
When I finally arrived in early March, I was thrilled to discover a stunningly beautiful place filled with gorgeous beaches and national parks, exotic animals and fun-loving people with charming accents.
About the size of West Virginia with a population of roughly 500,000, Tasmania has a British feel because of its colonial past. The people drink tea, enjoy cricket, that odd baseball-like sport, and love their pubs.
There's virtually no litter in the streets, and the crime rate is low. It's so peaceful and pleasant that
it's hard to believe that Australia was founded as a convict settlement. England shipped her criminals there because it was so remote -- look on a map and you'll find that the next major land mass south is Antarctica.
I went to Tassie, as it's called, to participate in the Rotary Group Study Exchange program, which sends businesspeople and professionals ages 25 to 40 who aren't Rotary members to other countries to learn about their cultures and see how their careers are practiced there.
Our California delegation of five was selected for the trip by Rotary District 5220, which includes 55 clubs in Stanislaus, San Joaquin, Calaveras, Mariposa, Merced and Tuolumne counties. My companions were Jim Bacon, a planner at Yosemite National Park; Sarah Crowe, a hospitality worker and manager at Yosemite; Brian Ceraban, a Sonora architect; and team leader/Rotary Club liaison Carol Kennedy, a retired Madera teacher.
After about 18 hours of bumpy air travel from Modesto through San Francisco and Sydney, we had a wonderful first impression when we stepped off the plane in Hobart to sunshine, a blue sky and fresh, clean air. With its sailboats, cute shops and fine restaurants, the coastal capital city reminded us of Tiburon or Sausalito.
Tasmania is proud of its "clean, green" image and works hard to protect its abundant natural resources of rugged coastlines, rivers and lakes and rolling hills.
The environmental movement is strong in Tasmania. Every development project is scrutinized from every angle to determine that the environment won't be harmed. People go to great efforts to conserve energy and water by heating only some of the rooms of their homes and using low-flush toilets. Most everyone hangs clothes outside to dry rather than use dryers.
Our group was taken early on to museums so we could learn something about Tassie history. We heard the story of the aborigines, who were almost wiped out through disease and persecution by the immigrating Europeans, who started arriving in the early 17th century. By 1830, most of the few remaining aborigines were rounded up and moved to Flinders Island, where they died. The vast majority of today's Tasmania is white, though some residents claim aboriginal ancestry.
Over the course of the month, we stayed with about 10 host families, who cooked us meals, drove us to the sights and explained the meaning of Australia's colorful slang words (more on this later).
I don't think I could have been treated better. On my birthday, which fell during the trip, my host family cooked me a special crepe for breakfast, gave me a necklace and earrings that the jewelry-designer wife made, then took me to a musical.
We moved to a different area and Rotary Club every three days, which meant we were given a party every three days. We also were taken to tastings of wine, cheese and chocolate and given all the Cascade and Boag's beer we could drink.
Just as we were starting to worry that we were going to double our weight, our hosts made sure we went on several "bush walks," too. As we made our way slowly up the east coast and then across the north of the island, we went on hikes at garden spots like Wineglass Bay, famous for its sparkling white sands, and serene Dove Lake around Cradle Mountain National Park.
All this walking was sometimes a challenge, as I'm not the most athletic person. While the fit locals bounded up the sometimes steep paths without breaking a sweat, I would have to stop from time to time for breathers. I told myself I had an excuse because I live in a flat area and don't have much chance to climb hills.
Inspired by all the fit people around me, I participated in my first 20K (12-mile) bike ride as part of a Rotary fund-raiser. It was humbling to see riders in their 60s and 70s easily pass me, and I made a mental note to immediately step up my fitness regimen when I got home.
No trip to Tassie would be complete without seeing the island's exotic wildlife, so we visited a couple of zoos and took a bush tour. We soon learned that the famed Tasmanian devil looks and acts nothing like the Warner Bros. cartoon version we grew up with. The real thing doesn't spin even a little bit, and it looks like a big, furry rat with sharp teeth.
We saw fat wombats, porcupinelike echidnas and squirrelly quolls, and we heard all about the Tasmanian tiger, a striped, doglike animal that was officially declared extinct in the '30s but is the subject of reported sightings from time to time.
Koalas aren't native to Tasmania, but these cute, cuddly creatures were in the zoos, too.
One chilly, rainy night, Pepper Bush Adventures took us us out to a shack in the wilderness to look at kangaroos and other nocturnal wildlife with spotlights. Owners Craig and Janine Williams cooked us a gourmet meal of fresh fish and, yes, kangaroo (obtained earlier). The Australians joked that their country is the only one that eats its national animal. As a vegetarian, I passed on sampling it, but others in my group enjoyed the taste.
I quickly fell in love with the Tassies' relaxed, "no worries, mate" lifestyle and their slower pace of life. I also enjoyed learning all their cute slang words like "footy" for football, "uni" for university, "journos" for journalists, "flat white" for coffee with milk and "stubby" for beer bottles.
It was pleasantly surprising to discover that just as Americans love listening to Aussie accents, at least some Aussies enjoy listening to our way of speaking. A few people, including some strangers, came up to me and said they loved my accent. And to think, I thought I didn't have one!
I was impressed how much the Australians knew about America from watching our TV shows and movies and monitoring the news. Everywhere we went, people were closely following the American election. Some said they wished they could vote because what happens in America directly affects what happens in their country.
When I visited Tasmania's newspapers as part the vocational part of the exchange, the editors often asked me questions about American politics. One wondered if Americans appreciated that Australians steadily have sent troops to Iraq.
Overall, I found that media operations were basically the same in Australia and America. We worry about keeping readership, using the Internet effectively and accurately reflecting our changing communities. I felt like I could easily jump in and start working for one of the Tasmanian newspapers without much trouble.
Because most of the Tasmanians' knowledge of California was limited to San Francisco and Los Angeles, we did our best to let them know about our particular part of the state. Our Group Study Exchange team gave 11 presentations to Rotary chapters throughout the island, talking about the Gold Rush, American Indians, Yosemite, our huge agricultural industry, the University of California at Merced and other colleges, the Gallo Center for the Arts and other highlights of our region. We also had an informal discussion over tea with Tasmanian Gov. Peter Underwood.
At a March Rotary fund-raising fish fry for a camp for kids with cancer, we met the very friendly Group Study Exchange team from Tasmania that was heading for the valley. That group was just here, giving its own talks to our Rotarians and touring our sights. They finished their exchange earlier this month, hopefully as happy as we we were to learn about a new culture.
Rotary District 5220's next Group Study Exchange trip: Northern Brazil (key city: Fortaleza) for four weeks in May-June 2009. Application deadline: July 31. Contact Terri Amerio-Bell (576-8520, email@example.com). Rotary International has more than 32,000 local clubs with 1.2 million members in 200 countries.
Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2313.