The homes, schools and offices l~ throughout Australia the world atlas is upside down, with Australia in the centre, acting as a watershed between Africa, Asia and the Americas. This is how the Australians like looking at the world map, with Sydney, Melbourne and Ayers Rock in a cetral position, which symbolises a country no longer isolated from the rest of the world in the era of air travel.
Built by convicts and immigrants, for over a century Australia has been synonymous with interminable travel for those in search of a land of plenty, of golden opportunities, with room for everyone: the "lucky country", where it was easy to build a fortune. Even today, with its 18 million inhabitants over a surface area only slightly smaller than Europe, Australia has one of the lowest population densities in the world: about two inhabitants per square mile. However, this is a misleading figure which fails to reflect the reality of the country. Leaving aside the legendary pioneering aspect that no longer exists, 80 per cent of Australians live in the cities along the eastern coast.
The rest of the continent is barely inhabited. Yet it is its outback that evokes images of great adventures and is home to cultures mysterious to us. The outback, with landscapes, animals, a lifestyle and unique Aborigine traditions, is the part that most characterises the Australian identity that does not conform to Western standards. Bruce Chatwin's book The Songlines and the fascinating colour mutations of the rocks, that have become a dominating feature in movies such as Where the Green Ants Dream by Werner Herzog and Until the End of the World by Wim Wenders, have made the Ayers Rock monolith dominating the continent's red rock centre (and no longer the Opera House in Sydney) the symbol of Australia.
Books and films such as these have helped transform Australia into the most popular destination for Europeans, for holidays as well as for starting a new life. Because its incredible collection of forests, deserts and marshes buzzing with life, coral seabed, wildlife and jungles, such as those in Tasmania, border with glaciers, Australia manages to satisfy best those from the industrialised world who long for nature at its purest. Combined with the naruralist image of Australia in the mind's eye are the impenetrable Aborigine ceremonies, such as the "walkabout". At no specially set times, even today, men of different tribes in central and northern Australia leave their land for days, weeks, months or even years to follow a route taken by their ancestors, often with the sole purpose of meeting someone unknown.
This inexplicable yet irresistible desire to take off is today one of the obstacles to full employment of the Aborigines. Faced with the calling for this nomadic existence, they give up work for long periods without prior notice, throwing their precise AngloSaxon employers into a state of panic. This presents a contrast between two totally different attitudes to lifestyle. For thousands of years the "walkabout" was also the means by which different ethnic tribes taught each other their different chants on creation and traded their goods which were as symbolic as they were purposeless.
In Australia, people change their home, town and job far more frequently than in Europe. When faced with a crisis personal or economic - true to their pioneering tradition, the Australians tow a small caravan behind their car, fill it with as many belongings as possible, and up sticks in search of a future and a new frontier. On the roads those who take their actual house with them can often be spotted, hauling a great prefabricated block into the back of an articulated lorry. Leaving aside the nomadic tendencies common to both black and white Australians, a cultural and economic abyss separates the two. This gulf has in part been narrowed over the last few years by the return of ancestral lands to many tribes and by the success enjoyed by some Aborigine painters in the international art world.
Paintings by black artists bring the ancestral "songlines" and the colours of the outback to the art galleries of today's east coast cities, juxtaposing their Dream Time alongside the steel and cement environments and stockexchange negotiations. They forge a link between the myth-age Australia and today's high-tech country, where the richness of the subsoil provides almost half the national income.
Education and services are on a par with European standards, but red tape is cut to a minimum, and taxes, though unavoidable, are not extortionately high. Crime rates at-e at110ng the lowest in the world, to the extent that houses without locks are still to be found in the countryside and islands. The ratio between wages and essentials is definitely better than in Europe. Four out of five people own the house in which they live, which always has a garden and is far more spacious than in Europe.
ustralia's primary source of wealth is its spaciousness and its nature. In the country with the largest variety of beaches in the world at1d the longest stretches of coastline, 95 per cent of its inhabitants live less than an hour's drive from the seaside. And in less than an hom from big cities such as Sydney and Melbourne it is also possible to be strolling through virgin forests. The Aussies' affluence is not just measured by their bank balances. In 1995, research by the World Bank placed Australia first in the world for its wealth per capita, taking into consideration its natural resources, environment and quality of life.
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