On a recent morning in Sydney, Australia, I stepped out the front door of our Airbnb row house and breathed in the comforting scent of a winter hearth. It was late November, my mental season of harsh cold outdoors and cozy warmth inside. It only took me a few minutes to find a coffee shop ready to take my order of two flat whites. In my very limited, not-an-expert experience in Australia, I know for a fact that it’s hard to get a bad cup of coffee on this continent. An excellent flat white is standard. We had an inkling of this reality before we went to Australia, which is primarily why we had no reservations about visiting. Yes, we are fickle. But if you can’t access acceptable coffee, can it really be a vacation? Without coffee it can be an adventurous experience, a growing opportunity or perhaps even a military deployment. But it can’t be a vacation.
Three strides down the sidewalk in the cool morning air, my November holiday-leaning mindset remembered the grim reality. It was unlikely anyone was stoking a morning fireplace as summer approached in this southern hemisphere locale. The scent wasn’t from cedar logs in a neighbor’s fireplace.
The eucalyptus forests were burning.
Miles away to the north, fires were burning out of control. (Can anyone really control fire? Can flames be handled and directed hither and yonder?)
Down the road, I breathed deeply. Here, on this day (but not every day), the smoke was thin and breathable. As a vacationer, I didn’t have to worry about the smoke. Would it be worse tomorrow? Would it be worse next week? Will I need to purchase breathing masks? Will my friends who live near the fire be okay? Will their house burn? It didn’t matter to me. I would be gone tomorrow. I didn’t know anyone affected by the fires. This is the luxury of being a vacationer. My greatest concern at that moment was getting my morning coffee, maintaining my comforting ritual.
Wildfires aren’t foreign me. I know people in my own country who have suffered losses from wildfires. So I left the haze and media coverage of the blazes and returned to my home, which is currently untouched from any natural disasters. But my mind travels back to New South Wales, Australia. This is what travel does. Having now been to Sydney, I have context for the disaster that the city is experiencing today – the worst air quality in recent history, with residents choking on ash and home fire alarms going off spontaneously. I feel concern. I want to be informed.
Sydney is more than a beautiful harbor, wonderful coffee and glorious beaches. It’s home to people. People who, unlike me, do have to worry if they need to wear breathing masks or relocate until the air quality clears up. I’m all too aware that, being a resident of Southern California, in the next dry season it could be us choking on ash.
We had the privilege of spending a very clear day in Sydney.