Tuesday, February 01, 2005

How I Spent January

February 1
I can’t seem to sum up the last three weeks. What’s happened is I’ve discovered in large part what it is my trip will be. It is not the trip I prepared for. The trip I planned was hard and heavy and strange. My trip is none of those things. I knew traveling alone would involve “many highs and lows,” but I think I imagined I would only feel the highs. You feel both. In fact, it’s the lows that allow you to feel the highs so powerfully.

Lows are the product of loneliness and inactivity and the highs by their inverse. Being active can still feel lousy (my first trip to Bondi became a low when I realized there was no one to put sunscreen on my back) and so can having friends (some days I languish at the hostel because I don’t want to do anything alone and no one else is motivated to go out). But perfect days aren’t hard to come by and twice a week or so you’ll sit down at dusk, tan and tired, and realize you’ve had a truly great day.

The first act of my trip is complete. It begins and ends in lonliness made more stark by how wonderfully un-alone I felt all the days in between.

I’ve done something I don’t plan to do too often and made a sketch of each day. First though a “Who’s Who in the Cast.”

Jens – German, 27. Left job to travel for a while, mainly in Australia. When he left home his sister gave him a t-shirt she made with a phrase that has become a favorite of mine: “You can choose the color of your life.”

Sabrina – German, 23. Recently had very rough break-up with very long-term boyfriend. Has graphic design company back near Munich, which is still making her money while she travels Australia for eight months.

Johann – English, 19. Spending month in Australia before six months in South America.

Hitch – Swiss, 36. Recently divorced and traveling in Australia for several months. Into skydiving and S&M. Has taken a girlfriend recently but asked me one night, seriously and drunkenly, if I’d like to go back to the hostel “and have gay sex.”

Bea – German, 27?. Traveling in Australia for half a year or so.

The Philipps, 26 & 27?. Big Philipp is traveling here for several months, Little Philipp is visiting him for a month.

Day 5 – January 14
Went to famous Bondi beach by myself. Felt very alone when I needed someone to put sunscreen on my back and nearby solo girl refused. Some English guy ended up doing the honors.

That night my trip began. The hostel held a BBQ and I met a bunch of cool Germans, Swiss, and Swedes. We went out drinking most of the night and by morning I had a half dozen friends.

Day 6 – January 15
Was supposed to go to zoo with Jens but when we were finally ready he decided it was too late to make the trip. Instead I walked througho the Botanic Gardens, which are fairly similar to Central Park. It was another beautiful sunny day.
At night we went to a big Jazz concert in the park (“Wait, isn’t this Blues?”), there must have been 40,000 people there. A day after meeting each other our group of eight or so already felt like real friends.

Day 7 – January 16
A great day. Jens, Hitch, Sabrina, Marsel, Philipp and I went to the zoo. All are German except Hitch and Marsel who are Swiss and speak German. Almost everyone we hang out with speaks German so I often sit there not understanding a word. It’s nice just to have people around. When they do speak English I know it’s largely for my benefit so I feel obligated to be involved in the conversation. They all want to get better at English though so they like speaking it and constantly pepper me with vocab and grammar questions.

Our nights usually start with a couple six packs out in the back, then the hostel kicks us out at 10pm for quiet hours and we go to a bar or out onto the street. Our core group is all guys except Sabrina and everyone is making a play for her, especially Marsel and Hitch. I’m not sure if she doesn’t like me or is just uncomfortable speaking English, or both. She has the greenest eyes you’ll ever see though, so it’s too bad.

Day 8 – January 17
A successful day involves one activity (the beach, the zoo, etc) so in that respect today wasn’t successful because I didn’t really do anything. I stayed at the hostel, did some computer work, and shot a couple interviews for the documentary. It rained part of the day anyway.
If every night sounds like a weekend that’s because it is. Hitch was upset that his ex-wife had forgotten his birthday and decided he needed to get drunk. He bought a bottle of Absolut and we got hammered. After finishing the vodka on the giant staircase across from the hostel we were at the World Bar again. The lower level is half lounge and half mini-club; the upper level is half poolroom and half outdoor porch. I like the outdoor porch best and a bunch of us were out there. Then it was just me and Sabrina and I guess I was feeling lonely because I asked her for a hug. She gave me this strange sad look then held me tight against her and kissed my neck. Exactly how you go home with someone when you share a bedroom with seven other people is a story for another time.

Day 9 – January 18
The hostel was buzzing with morning after gossip but I was oblivious. I had successfully cast the first part of my pipe-dream dramatic film and spent the day shooting it. The leads for part one are Ethan, an American from LA, and Eva, who is German. The story called for them to meet at the hostel, tool around scenic Sydney, then part ways. We shot for about eight hours and got everything we needed. Not sure how it will cut together but I’m fairly pleased.

At night it was back to the World Bar. Tonight it was Sabrina who needed to get drunk. She had been dating a guy for four years when he broke up with her in October to travel to South America. Heart broken, she eventually decided to come to Australia for eight months to get away from it. Today he e-mailed her saying he wanted her back and was coming to Australia to get her. She doesn’t know what to do about it all. Anyway, everything happens so damn fast around here and Sabrina thinks she’s falling in love with me (you really can’t make this stuff up) and wants to stop hanging out before it goes too far. So I left the World Bar less than 24 hours after the hug, apparently “breaking up” with her.

Day 10 – January 19
As I left for Manley beach, Eva told me that Sabrina had left a message: She waited for me but didn’t see me around the hostel and had gone to Manley with Marsel and Philipp. I had asked Sabrina to go to Manley with me the previous night but her ‘We shouldn’t hang out anymore’ drama seemed to squash those plans.
As I transferred trains on my way to the Manley ferry someone kicked me in the butt. It was Sabrina. Her and the boys were also transferring trains and we all joined up. It was a really nice surprise. Sabrina didn’t remember much of the previous night’s drama but with a clearer head decided we should just stop talking about it and let whatever happens happen. The application of sunscreen was a considerable upgrade from the English chap five days before.
For a couple days Sabrina has been begging for us to sing karaoke and tonight it happened. I found a place bordering Hide Park with Village Karaoke-style rooms (though they’re a bit nicer here). Our group of nine was floored by the private-karaoke experience and really got into it. The two-hour session began with Phillip and I trading verses of Ice Ice Baby. If you’ve never rapped or sang with a group on non-native-English speakers you really need to make that happen. The combination of general ineptitude and passionate commitment to the performance can’t be topped.

Day 11 – January 20
I spent the day waiting to pick up my computer from the Apple store. It had some sort of problem and wasn’t booting up. I’m really very ready to leave Sydney and waiting for my computer to get fixed was the last real thing holding me here. Now it’s just a matter of figuring out how and where I’m going to go. Jens is buying a car and we may travel on together. Everyone is going to Melbourne but my plan was to go north to Byron Bay. I leave for New Zealand in a month so I need to start sorting things out.

Day 12 – January 21
Sabrina and I try to give each other space but it’s hard because we have all the same friends. Today while she went to book her skydiving trip I went to the beach with Eva and Johann. The three of us are a bit of an unlikely group but knowing each other and having a common goal for the day is plenty to hang out with someone here. We went to Bondi and then Johann and I made the popular walk to Coogee (say “Cudgy”) beach, which is a scenic hour stroll along the shore. It was “speak real English” day for the Brit and the American; it’s a bit strange speaking to a native English speaker now. I’m used to speaking slowly and simply. It’s actually an interesting challenge to communicate in simple non-colloquial language. Ironically, I have nearly as much trouble understanding Johann’s English accent as the Germans.
Sabrina and I got our own room, which might be dumb but whatever.

Day 13 – January 22
The streak of great weather has ended and the clouds and rain are here. Did little today but had a fun night. We went out for dinner, which was a first. Usually we cook or get cheap take-out (more on food and money to come). This guy who has been traveling for 20 years (20 years!) suggested a “funky local place” down the road a bit and we went there. It was well hidden, tucked up some stairs above an ice cream shop and without a sign on the street. The whole menu was scrawled on a chalkboard. The family crowd and bare chairs and tables were reminiscent of a suburban pizza joint. “It’s like a restaurant in a hospital,” Sabrina observed.
“Yes,” I said smiling, “it’s called a cafeteria”

We found a cafe on the street below and had coffee and wine. I’m a Hemingway fan and it seems his characters are always drinking wine in a cafe somewhere with a bunch of international friends who all have nothing to do in the morning. I’ve always thought that was a great way to live and tonight it felt so much like that.

Day 14 – January 23
Tomorrow we drive to Melbourne so I tied up some loose ends in Sydney today. Sabrina and I are getting coupley and went out to dinner together tonight.

Day 15 - January 24
Driving into the sunset in a sleeper van from Sydney to Melbourne. Didn’t plan to go to Melby now but everyone is headed there and the growing crowd has a kind of gravity on the rest of us. Jens is driving, Sabrina riding shotgun and Bea and I are on the “beds” in back.

Get away from the costal cities and Australia is a great empty expanse with dark green trees dotting the endless sepia grass. Just now at 7:30pm, the light is hitting the rolling hills just so and you’d get out and take a picture but there’s seven hour’s drive in front of you. It is a great, giant empty expanse.

The van has a stove and a fridge and the beds I mentioned. There are even curtains on the windows. Judging by their design and color scheme the curtains were factory installed back in ’79; the van is as old as I am.

If you want to feel like you’re traveling, hop in a 25 year old sleeper van and start driving along the coast on Highway 1, pop out the Dylan disk for some Marley and catch Hwy 31 south, look out through the wide windows into the warm evening and watch the lonely trees cast longer shadows.Day 16 - January 25
If you want to feel like you’re traveling arrive in Melbourne a little after three in the morning but refuse to shack up in a hostel. Instead drive through the empty city in search of a beach to sleep on. With frayed, exhausted nerves give up looking for the beach a kilometer too soon and end up instead in Victoria Park.

Lay out some sleeping bags on the grass and arrange the cushions in the back of the van to make a bed. Three hours later the rangers will come. “You are illegally camping in a public park, move along!”
No matter. Squeeze all four of you into the van because that’s legal. Sleep a couple more hours and drive the van into town. All the oil has drained out of the engine and 24 hours after purchase the old beast needs a mechanic.

Day 17 - January 26
Australia Day is sort of like Fourth of July. Unfortunately, like Fourth of July, most people spend it at a backyard party so the city is less of playground than we hoped. It’s still a good time. Lunch was at Hungry Jacks. Apparently someone bought the Australian copyright to “Burger King” so when they started building the fast food joints here they had to come up with a new name and so “Hungry Jacks” (complete with the red type inside the orange hamburger bun) was born.

It’s hard moving seven backpackers in one direction because we’re such an independent and laidback lot. We were eating cheap Chinese food a half hour before the fireworks were set to go off. Jens was very late and ended up eating somewhere else without telling us. Sabrina and Bea were speaking entirely in German, freezing me out of the conversation for the whole meal. Annoyed, I went back to the hostel and got my IPod. Our big group was walking to Federation Square when the fireworks started firing and we got there just in time to clap. Now more German and all of a sudden the girls are heading back towards the hostel, apparently to find a bottle shop. I don’t know what’s happening and don’t need to hear anymore plans I don’t understand and leave the rest of the group to do my own thing.
An hour later I bump into Sabrina who is equally annoyed with me for leaving the group. I explain my frustration. “I’ll translate every word,” she promises unnecessarily and emptily.

Day 18 - January 27
Got up fairly early and took the train to St. Kilda with Jens and Johann. Jens didn’t bring beach stuff so even though Johann and I were prepared Jens kept to referring to how “we” don’t have a towel so we should lay on the grass instead of the sand. On the way to the beach we found some free posters of some girl and used them as beach blankets. We were quite a sight lying on the grass just up from the sand on our glossy posters.
Jens phone rang and it was Sabrina. He got up and spoke for a while, all in German of course. “This is very hard for me,” Jens said after hanging up. “I can just say this one sentence to you: ‘She moved out of the hostel. Her feelings for you are too strong and she is very confused so she needs be alone.’ I asked her if she wanted to talk to you but she told me just to say this one sentence.”
In the evening Jens and I went to the Australian Open and it was too perfect a thing to worry about some girl. Jens had come to Melbourne just for the Open but couldn’t get tickets. I was able to get a pair (thanks Dave) but insisted jokingly that I’d take Johann unless Jens gave me good reason (read: free beer) to invite him instead.
The sun was setting on another gorgeous 80-degree day, Roger Federer and Morat Safin were playing the men’s semi-final and we were in the ninth row, just above Federer’s box. The match took four and a half hours, Safin finally winning the fifth set 8-6. Historic, memorable stuff.

Day 19 - January 28
Our big happy family of seven hopped in the repaired camper van and headed southeast for one of the best days of the trip so far. It was Jens, Johann, Bea, Sabrina, the two Phillips and I. Jens thinks I should leave fragile Sabrina alone and insisted I sit upfront, away from her. It gave me a front row seat for Jen’s “unique driving technique,” as Johann dubbed it. (Basically it involves very occasional glances at the road).
We drove for an hour or so down the coast, then turned down a side street and found a wonderful, sandy, sunny beach. We made up some crazy Frisbee game and went swimming and had an impossibly good time.

After a short rain shower we kept cruising south to Phillip Island for the famous “Penguin Parade.” No one was really aware it would cost AUS$16 but after driving three hours it seemed fairly mandatory so we laid our hard earned down with many complaints and snide remarks. Once it gets dark (at 9pm!) the world’s smallest penguins come waddling up from the shore into their nighttime homes. There are hundreds of them but still “more tourists than penguins” as Big Philipp pointed out in his Hans and Frans accent. The group never got over paying $16 to see the stupid penguins and the constant stream of complaints was the most entertaining part of the night.
On the drive back Sabrina and I drifted back together, falling asleep entwined in the back of the van.Day 20 - January 29 “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.” Our group splinters soon but first an evening to remember. We spend a ridiculous amount at the market and find a place to BBQ back in Victoria Park, just steps from where we slept unlawfully that first night. All over down here they have these big public barbeques where you can sit at a table, turn on an available grill and have a hell of a time. We watched the sun dip under the cloudy sky and shimmer on the river a few steps away. We ate chewy steak, tender chicken, and half cooked potatoes. We gave bad directions to the others trying to meet us. We drank plenty of Tooheys. It felt so good to be together and so sad to know it was ending soon.

Day 21 - January 30
“It’s a backpackers life,” Bea said as Jens, Johann, and Sabrina motored off to Sydney. It was a teary goodbye and Jens wondered aloud if any of us would find such a big, happy group during the rest of our travels. We had all met in Sydney, having started our trips within a few days of each other. Now we all had to be somewhere else.
Bea, the two Philipps and I went to Federation Square and joined the mob watching the men’s final of the Aussie Open. It was much better than being alone and much worse than the night before.

Day 22 - January 31
The Phillips were heading south down the Great Ocean Road in a rental car and Bea and I hitched a ride down a ways. We got to Anglesea just after 1pm only to learn the last bus back north came through at 3:45. That was long enough to get good and red on the hot, sunny Anglesea beach. Big Philipp has a paddleball (beachball, he calls it) set and we played until our hands were sore, ripping off good, lively rallies.
Bea and I stopped off in Geelong for a beer on the wharf there, then slid back into Melbourne. My room had an empty bed and she crashed there for a couple hours until it was time for her to go to the airport and leave me alone in Melbourne. It was much better than being alone on Day 1 in Sydney and much worse than the night before.

Day 23 – February 1
After picking up my computer from another repair, I hopped on my first flight since arriving here. The plan is to spend a day or two in Brisbane, then head down to Byron Bay for some beaching. It’s weird to be in a new place, totally alone again. I’ve spoken to some people but don’t feel motivated to make friends with them. Maybe it’s because I don’t want to have to say goodbye again in a couple days but I don’t think that’s it. I think its because each new person you meet calls for a different version of yourself. (Certainly each person you date brings about a new version of you). Right now I like being the person I’ve been these last couple weeks and adjusting to these new people with different nationalities and personalities doesn’t seem so great.
Tomorrow, you can be sure, things will be different.

{Thematic Entries Next}


At 10:18 AM, Blogger Felts said...

Hoss, lunch in the cafeteria at 12:30. It's Tuesday, Vernon's poisonous Pasta Bar is waiting for you.

At 1:08 AM, Blogger Brook said...

Marinara/pesto mix please, everything but mushrooms and just a couple onions, thanks.


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