Soliloquy in an International Cloister

Watch your step as Brother Lawrence takes you inside the monastery walls of a five hundred year-old international order. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll wish you had ignored your hormones and joined the monastery.

My Photo
Location: Rome, Italy

25 December 2008

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas to all.

I recently returned from accompanying my boss on a 23-day whirlwind visit to our brothers in the Asia-Pacific region: Australia, East Timor, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and Guam. By my calculations, we accumulated over 37,000 miles (almost 60,000 km) of air travel. I'm exhausted.

Still, I should not complain. I like seeing new areas of the world, and I was able to add three new countries to my list—East Timor, New Zealand and Guam. Each country we visited had some small surprise in store for us, some little discovery.

This was my third visit to Australia. In many ways, it is similar to the United States or Europe. Like them, it is a wealthy, secularized country. Unlike our jurisdictions in those continents, however, the brothers in Australia are enjoying a small boom in vocations. For the past several years, they have averaged three new recruits each year, which does not seem like much, but for a province with a total size of about 35 brothers it is very good. It may be the only province in the developed world that is actually growing. No one can quite explain their success so it isn't clear whether it can be exported to other provinces.

To get from Sydney, Australia, to Dili, East Timor, we had to fly to Darwin and spend the night there. Darwin is an interesting place—Australia's frontier town. Not long ago, someone showed me a scrapbook with articles and photographs of Darwin in the aftermath of Cyclone Tracy in 1974. The people in those pictures reminded me of a 60's or 70's commune, which is perhaps unsurprising since it was the 1970's. In some ways, however, the place still retains a bit of an anti-establishment, counter-cultural feel to it.

We spent all of 24 hours in East Timor, but what do you expect for just three brothers? This is one of our Order's newest missions, having begun only in 2002. There is construction going on all around the capital city of Dili, but almost all the new buildings are embassies, government offices or international aid agencies. The amount of international aid being poured into the country is impressive, but I wondered what kind of future the country will have. Most of the locals are subsistence farmers or fishermen, but the country's soil is poor and fish stocks have been depleted by overfishing. It has the potential to become an alternative to Bali as a tourist location, but it would need massive development before that could happen

Our next stop was Papua New Guinea, a country where many of its inhabitants were literally living in the stone age until about 50 years ago, but which is trying to catch up with the rest of the world. It is not uniformly successful with its efforts. After spending the first night in Port Moresby, we were scheduled to fly to Mendi, in the Southern Highlands, the next morning at 10 o'clock. We arrived at the airport, a rather newish structure, almost two hours ahead of our flight. There was absolute chaos at the check-in counters because the computer system was down... again. Once we were checked in, we discovered that the flight actually left at noon. Flying time to Mendi was only about 90 minutes. The skies were mostly overcast, but otherwise the weather was good. During our descent into Mendi, our Canada Dash 8 had to pass through the cloud cover. It was a bit disconcerting to look out the window once we had passed through the clouds and see a tree-covered mountain at eye level not far to our right. There is not much room for pilot error when you fly to Mendi.

Next stop, New Zealand. We visited both Auckland and Wellington. Of the two, I preferred Wellington, even though it was rather chilly, even during the middle of their summer. My judgment may be a bit clouded, however, by an incident that occurred while we were there. We were taken to a seaside restaurant for lunch one day. From my seat, I could look out over the restaurant's balcony to Wellington's harbour. Two young women were having lunch at a table on the balcony, more or less directly in my line of sight. During our meal, one of the young women, who had evidently been jogging before lunch, casually removed her shirt and sports bra, then donned a sweatshirt. I must have momentarily looked like one of those cartoon characters whose eyes pop out of their heads. Merry Christmas to me! By the way, the photo at the top of this post was snapped in Wellington. It is a flower of the Pohutukawa tree, nicknamed the New Zealand Christmas Tree.

Lastly, we visited Guam. The island is so small that we drove around its entire circumference in a few hours. It's a beautiful island, very popular with Japanese tourists. The people were warm and welcoming. I thought to myself that I would like to spend a few months there, but I would probably become claustrophobic if I were there too long.

We had a 5:00 a.m. flight out of Guam to Osaka, connected to a flight to Paris, and finally landed in Rome about 28 hours after arising that morning. Here is a travellers tip for you. Avoid the Osaka-Kansai airport if you can. The signage is dreadfully inadequate, as is the English spoken by the staff (if you can actually find any staff).