A study conducted by the Royal Life Saving Institute in 2010 found that 3.3% of adult Australians reported being unable to swim. For those of you who did the math, that means a staggering 96.7% of the population in the land of the koala, the kangaroo and the duck-billed platypus can swim, which is a pretty amazing statistic. Back in the days when I was thicker on top and thinner in the middle, I visited Cairns, home to the Aboriginal settlement, Tjapukai, where tourists gape in wide-eyed wonder as friendly natives put on boomerang and spear throwing shows or display their prowess in the noble art of lighting a fire without matchsticks.
Cairns is located next to the largest living thing on Earth: the endangered Great Barrier Reef. Visible from outer space, this magnificent 2,300km-long ecosystem comprises thousands of reefs and islands made up of over 600 types of hard and soft coral. Occupying an area of roughly 348,700 sq km, it is home to countless species of fish and molluscs as well as turtles, dolphins and sharks. Climate-change deniers should be sent on foot via Ayers Rock to visit the Reef in order to see and believe the damage wrought on this incredible natural beauty by global warming. Who knows, maybe a dingo will make a meal of them en route?
Given the vast numbers of snakes, spiders and other lethal creepy-crawlies that abound in this neck of the woods, one would imagine the locals live in a permanent state of terror. Perish the thought: the average Aussie has a totally chilled-out, laidback approach to physical danger which I have to admit is contagious. Otherwise, how on earth I could have found the courage to don scuba gear and delve into the mysteries of the deep blue sea is an abiding mystery. “There’s nothing to it, mate. S’long as you know to breathe, you’ll be fine,” was the reassuring advice from my instructor on the “Sea Spirit”, a grizzled veteran of 5000 dives. To my lasting embarrassment, I chickened out at 9 m when my mask filled with briny water, whereupon I shot to the surface with the alacrity of a torpedo making cartoonish glub-glub-glub noises.
The feeling of being an ignorant landlubber is intensified when one is surrounded by sunburnt jocks happiest when in a catamaran, the wind in their sails and the breeze in their hair. Their advice to the seasick is peppered with ancient wisdom, ‘No worries, mite (mate). Just fill up that paper bag there and chuck it overboard, it’s biodegradable and you’ll wonder why your fish at dinnertime tastes so good.’ They offered helpful tips on self- preservation in the event of an emergency on the deep seas: ‘Just leave everything behind except your credit card and make your way as quickly as possible to the fore-deck where we’ll be auctioning off seats on our one and only lifeboat.’
Most Aussies are comedians; which basically means professional comics have to be great in order to survive. I first watched Jim Jeffries perform at the Melbourne Comedy Club and he was on fire, “Man, I don’t understand Americans, I mean like what is the big deal about this anthrax powder, I don’t get it. Anyone sends me white powder in the mail, it’s gonna be up my nose so fast they’ll have to analyse my boogers. I read today that our Honourable Prime Minister, John Howard, has a zero tolerance towards drugs. So I called him up and said, ‘Johnny Boy, spend the weekend with me, mate, I’ll increase your frickin’ tolerance.’
Any local Johnny Lever displaying the courage to mildly criticize the ruling dispensation in this country is subject to savage and disproportionate retribution. Why oh why do we take ourselves so seriously? A sense of humour coupled with the courage and ability to ridicule and lampoon our elders, betters and our political leaders is precisely what this country needs. Unfortunately, from the cradle upwards, we are taught to revere those in power which is probably why we are such sycophantic hypocrites.
I think it’s because we’re terrified of the water: according to Quora, the best guestimate of Indians who know to swim is less than 0.5% of the population. This means just about 7 million out of 1.4 billion know how to swim adequately, which is why our sentiments are so easily offended and we spend so much time spluttering with outrage at real or imaginary grievances. Forget Aadhar, what we need is to make swimming mandatory.