Last updated on October 18th, 2017 at 05:33 pm

Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia - Going down under and coming back up

Sydney Harbour Bridge, also known as the Coathanger, with the Opera House on the right, as seen from the Manly Beach ferry

Sometimes a guy needs a break

I sort of limped across the finish line of this past school year in my teaching job, feeling I really needed the two-month summer break. I anticipated relaxing and working on a book of poems during the first month. Also, planning and making reservations for the second month, which I’d spend travelling in the Fiji Islands and Australia.

Some of our school’s teachers aren’t able to take summers off. I need to, and since I began receiving a deeply appreciated monthly stipend from a trust fund my parents left behind, I’m able to. I’ve also become more conscious as I age, of a deep desire to see more of God’s world. Thus far, my summer travels have been both adventures and pilgrimages, invariably bringing me back to California feeling refreshed.

I‘ve also wondered, upon each return, how to resume a life with repetitive daily and weekly patterns that include a job. One tool has been to go within through meditation and devotional practice, as much as possible. But this time, I wasn’t sure even that would be enough.

I left San Francisco on July 31, 2017. After four days in Fiji (see HOMAGE TO FIJI: A vibrant island nation full of surprises), I flew on to Melbourne, Australia, then visited Sydney, Brisbane and Avatar’s Abode, a 100-acre (or 0.4 square km) retreat facility in Queensland. The Abode is dedicated to Meher Baba, who visited there in 1958. My visit to Sydney actually coincided with the anniversary of Baba’s visit to that city in ’56, and I participated in music and poetry events in both places.

Melbourne: Adventures and a minimalist hotel

In Melbourne, I lunched and dined with cyber-friends with whom I’d contacted over the years because of our common connection with Baba. As usual, in such cases, the face-to-face meeting became a confirmation that a real friendship existed.

I also did a lot of “urban walkabout” and visited the city’s great art museums. Melbourne reminded me a lot of San Francisco, with each city having grown up because of a nearby gold rush in the mid-19th century.

Outside of Melbourne's Ibis Budget Hotel - Going down under and coming back up

Ibis Budget Hotel

My arrival at the Ibis Budget Hotel, which a friend had recommended because of its central location, was like walking into an extended joke!

As I approached the handsome yellow Victorian building and strode in its main door, I became disconcerted. Why was everyone in the lobby sitting around eating hamburgers? It took a moment to realize that the central area where you’d expect a hotel lobby was actually occupied by a hamburger restaurant!

The entrance to the actual hotel turned out to be a smaller, nondescript service doorway way off to the right, from which a drably-carpeted corridor eventually led to an elevator. A sign saying “Hotel Reception, First Floor” got you up to a glassed-in booth that looked like a convenience store after midnight.

Shower curtain with washbasin behind it - Going down under and coming back up

The shower curtain in question

Little by little, however, I discovered that this “minimalist hotel,” which I later described to my wife as “impersonating a dump,” had actually anticipated a traveller’s every need and provided for it in a convenient, but totally unobtrusive and sometimes even hidden way! For example, there was a shower curtain in an alcove of my room. I pulled it back to find only a washbasin! I stormed down to the office, demanding, “How can I take a shower in a washbasin?”

Calmly, the receptionist counselled, “The back wall of that alcove is the shower door.” It was, and I immediately had a great shower.

August is the height of Australia’s winter. Melbourne was cold. I noticed a window air conditioner and assumed it had a heater, too. But as I perused it to discern how to use the controls, I saw that the machine was ancient. Furthermore, the wires and panels on the whole right side had been ripped out! Concerned once more that I’d soon be lugging my heavy bag down the street in search of other lodging, I turned the heat dial on and up all the way. In a little while, the room was toasty!

I was learning that the Ibis Budget was not quite what it appeared! I gradually came to think of it as Japanese in its use of space.

That night, after dinner with friends, I had yet another apparent disappointment. I wanted to read in bed, and there didn’t seem to be a reading lamp. I wouldn’t leave because of that, but still, it was inconvenient. Then my eye noticed a tiny silver knob sticking out from the top left part of the headboard itself. I took a closer look. It was a miniscule reading light with a strong beam and a rotating neck that could be adjusted to cast illumination wherever I wanted. There was nothing these people hadn’t thought of.

Australian modern art

I spent a lot of time at Melbourne’s huge, wonderful National Gallery of Victoria. In the morning I explored the 20th-century European art collection, enjoying paintings by Picasso, Miro and many others that were different from the ones America sees.

Painting by Australian artist John Brack - Going down under and coming back up

Collins St., 5 pm (1955) by John Brack, an iconic work in Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria. Collins Street is one of the main thoroughfares of downtown Melbourne. I actually experienced the exact same thing at that spot, in essence, 70 years later! The museum card accompanying the painting points out that although the crowd members in the background are faceless and anonymous, those in the foreground retain their individuality, even during the high-pressure rush hour.

In the afternoon I visited another museum building called the Ian Potter Centre, where the 20th-century Australian collection is housed. I had a special interest in this collection. For one thing, we just don’t see much of it where I live. For another, my favorite poet, Francis Brabazon, had been a painter in Melbourne in the 1930s and ‘40s before deciding to stick to poetry. I wanted to see the work of his contemporaries and old sidekicks, some of whom had been members of a movement called the “Angry Penguins.”

I discovered that Australia had had a very strong modernist tradition. At a time when the population of the entire country was less than 15 million, its art appeared to rival Europe’s or America’s. I also got a feel for the Aboriginal paintings and painted objects, of which there were prominent museum galleries in all the large cities.

Sydney, Brisbane and Avatar’s Abode

Photo composite including Welcome to Avatar's Abode sign and trees at the Abode - Going down under and coming back up

A “Welcome to Avatar’s Abode” message from Francis Brabazon (left), along with a view of the forest and Pacific Ocean from the Abode’s farmhouse cabin (right). Brabazon’s message can be read in full here.  

The highlights of my time in Sydney, aside from the delightful two-day Meher Baba anniversary celebration and joyful “reunions” with many more cyber-friends, were the Art Gallery of New South Wales, more walkabouts, and the ferry to Manly Beach, a most charming seaside resort that’s actually the North Shore of Sydney’s bay.

Brisbane, which was my next stop, is a delightful subtropical city. Two nights here framed my train journey to and from Avatar’s Abode, the peaceful Baba retreat near the Pacific.

I found a true spiritual community of residents who live nearby and volunteer at, as well as engage in, activities at the Abode.

The Abode, a former pineapple plantation, is in an area of Queensland consisting of pleasant small towns, farms, hills and forest. I found a true spiritual community of residents who live nearby and take part in activities on the property, as well as volunteering to help maintain it.

The retreat breathes a peace not of this world, one that I’d felt before in other places where our Master’s feet had trod. There were music, poetry, potlucks, discussion groups, conversation and precious time alone in my cabin on this sacred land, as well as in the cabin where Baba had stayed during his four-day visit. One of the residents even cooked a gourmet sit-down dinner and invited the whole community, in honour of my visit!

I completely forgot myself during those three weeks, lived in the eternal present, and gave little thought to re-entry. Finally, though, my trip was coming to a close. I had to begin preparing, psychologically, for my return.

Plus, there was a problem I’ve not yet mentioned.

READ PART 2, GOING DOWN UNDER AND COMING BACK UP: The paradox of an ordeal in the midst of great joy»

Stay tuned for Part 3, which will be published this month. 

images: Max Reif