Tuesday, February 12, 2008

they say it gets hot in Australia

Months before I came here I was informed by friends with experience that Australian summer heat was impossible to explain - beyond words. One of the first Aussies I met told me about the upcoming summer: ‘if you leave the bread out it can melt frozen butter on contact’ and ‘shampoo comes out of the bottle hot’.

But people do live here right? Twenty million Aussies do handle it don’t they? That is a standard thought process for me. The same thing works for sprint training with a soccer team. If everyone else can do it – Kate and I can certainly suck it up. So how is the heat? Well I drink a lot water, I put sunscreen on my face in the morning, and I spend my working day and my sleeping hours under the magical spell of air conditioning. Shade is precious here, as is a breeze (we lucked out with a nice indoor breeze when all our windows are open). Plus this has been a very cool and wet summer compared to most. I will write another post about the ridiculous rain and flooding real soon.

Still the hot days are hotter than I’ve ever known. Every Australian respects the danger. It is hard for a Canuck to comprehend how easily and quickly a healthy, fit person can die of dehydration. No Aussie would ever leave a broken down car to walk for help outside of a city – it would be considered suicidal. A one or two hour walk without one or two liters of water would be stupid here. Generally speaking: if I am outside then I am sweating. Having a washing machine at home is great.

Where in Canada could I possibly die of thirst? If my car breaks down somewhere remote and I don’t freeze or starve to death I am more likely to die of ‘loneliness’ than I am of thirst. Here… only fresh water matters to survival. Every other consideration is a distant second.

We have snakes, spiders, ants, sharks, rip tides, and now deadly heat. You might ask: how do parents keep children safe in a country like this? The answer might surprise you. The secret to keeping a child safe is ‘not to be too safe’. An effective strategy seems to be to purchase good medical insurance and then to break a few bones, get bitten by ants, get hot and thirsty, and swallow some salt water... before you turn ten. Children here are far less sheltered than back home. Four year olds surf and fall and play on sharp rocks. This might be sound frightening to many of us - I can’t imagine Sandy even continuing to read this :) - but Australia IS a dangerous place and ‘mild supervised danger’ is an effective strategy for raising competent ‘safe’ adults. Knowledge and experience works. What doesn’t kill you…. you know the rest.

We met a New Yorker who said that his home beaches are ‘immediately closed’ whenever there is a hint of a rip tide or large swell. Teenaged lifeguards (that have never seen a big wave) enforce these closures by yelling at adults twice their age through megaphones. Even a quick shallow swim is not permitted. I can be arrested or fined even if I am certain of my own safety because the decision is not mine to make. In contrast, Aussies are expected to recognize danger on their own. Adults are not treated like children here. Only VERY dangerous conditions will close a beach – and it's only really necessary for the safety of naive tourists. There are no fines for ignoring 'NO SWIMMING' signs. But Aussie lifeguards are not required to risk their own lives to save someone who does. I can ask any Australian about how to be safe and I get reasonable answers: don’t surf alone, don’t surf at night, or ‘not today mate’. But a comfortable little ‘rip’ or a few six foot waves are not frightening… they are perfect conditions for teaching your child how to surf or swim.

Every one of us wants our children to be as safe as possible... but in Australia 'sheltered' is considered 'unsafe'.

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